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Got a novel in you?

Michael Boylan's picture

How busy are you in November?

Before you start to list things like “grabbing up all the fake cobwebs your kids put on the bushes” and “that thing with the Thompsons on the 12th or is it the 13th?” ask yourself if you’re really too busy to do something awesome and something that will, no kidding, change your life.

This column is to urge you to consider NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. Aside from time, it won’t cost you a thing (not counting the additional coffee and snacks you may purchase to help you power through) and when you make it to the end, you’ll have something tangible (a first draft of a novel) and more importantly, a sense of accomplishment that you may have never found somewhere else.

Starting at midnight Nov. 1, after all of the trick or treaters are tucked comfortably in bed, the people who have signed up for NaNoWriMo 2011 will go to their computers (or typewriters or notebooks, I guess) and start their quest of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1,667 words a day. If you have never heard of NaNoWriMo or written more than a paragraph since leaving school behind, that number must look like the equivalent of scaling Stone Mountain like Tom Cruise climbed that cliff in “Mission Impossible 2.”

I promise it isn’t impossible. Writing 50,000 words (or more) in a month is very possible. I have done it four times and I am going for number five this year.

Why do I want you to join? Aside from the fact that misery loves company (kidding) I truly just want everyone who feels an inkling of excitement at this idea to feel that tremendous sense of accomplishment at the end of November. I want others out there to swell with the knowledge that obstacles that appear insurmountable are completely surmountable and that people are capable of doing things that others either can’t or won’t.

Let me now answer the excuses that are probably bubbling to the surface in your mind.

You say you don’t have any idea what you would write about. I say great. The surprise that you will feel as your story grows could be just as exciting for the reader. I started with a tiny germ of an idea in 2007 - A murder in a small town perpetrated by a time traveler. The story got a little (OK a lot) crazier from there, but it was fun and I finished. You can now buy “Time Killer” as an iBook on iTunes or at Lulu.com. That’s right, I self published and if you finish, so can you.

You say you don’t know when you will find the time. I say you can write 1,667 words in about two hours (probably less). I write tons of stuff every week at work, so I can type quickly, and I can usually hit my word goal just by writing from 8-9 a.m. and then maybe for another few minutes at home each night. Typically, I get ahead in the first few days and usually am a few days ahead of the pace (very important, I think). Honestly though, some people do a little bit every day and then find the days where they can put in a big hunk of time to catch up and pull ahead.

You say you’re a terrible writer and speller. I say that hasn’t stopped other people and you’re not going to look at anything you’ve written until Dec. 1 anyway, so who cares? The goal is just to get 50,000 words on the page by Nov. 30. Nobody says they have to all be good. If you come out of this with the structure of a good story and you want to keep more than you want to chuck, you’ll be further ahead than most of the other competitors.

And this isn’t a contest for a book deal and a million dollar prize. At the end, if you finish on time, you get a certificate, an icon you can put on your Facebook page and (usually) a free copy of your novel - with a cover and everything. The true prize is the sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as the ability to bring it up at every party and gathering you go to for the rest of your life.

Party guest: So, are you ready for the holidays?
You: Not yet, I just finished my novel. I’ve got to do my shopping this weekend.

Person at restaurant: Can I borrow the ketchup?
You: I think that could be a great opening line in my next novel. It works as an icebreaker and can really get my character opening up about himself and his desires to another person, aka the reader.
Person: Seriously. The ketchup?

So what do you have to do? Go to nanowrimo.org and sign up. You get to set up a nifty page and when you click on Atlanta as your region, you can go to the forum and find thousands of other crazy people just like you (and me). There are write-ins (gatherings of Nano writers all over the place) practically every day and the other people can be a source of encouragement and necessary distraction and procrastination.

I wouldn’t recommend this if I didn’t think you would have fun and believe me, creating a novel is fun. You can draw from your own experiences, make stuff up about people you see on the street, perfect a story that you think someone told horribly or finally start to write the great American novel that you feel has been trapped inside you for God knows how long.

Here are my tips:

1. Write every day. Don’t forget. Don’t say you’ll write tomorrow. You can fall behind and rally (I got the flu last year, scrapped what I had written up to that point - 15,000 words, I think - and ended up writing 50,000 words in 15 days) but it isn’t likely. I also suggest trying to write in the same place at the same time every day. Routine helps.

2. Don’t revise as you go. You are your harshest critic and you will skewer yourself and want to kill your novel almost immediately if you start rereading and rewriting. Save that negative stuff for the new year. It’s the holidays, for Pete’s sake.

3. Use dictionary definitions, Bible verses, song lyrics, etc. to help puff up your numbers. You can always eliminate them after your 50,000 words get counted.

4. Find a writing buddy or mentor and attend a write-in. You’ll find you’re not alone. Everyone struggles at some point and they are all breaking the rules too. In 2006, I tried to do NaNoWriMo. I hated my story, started to rewrite my story, got bogged down and failed. It was a bad feeling and I vowed I’d never fail again. In 2007, I had two co-workers as writing buddies and I knew I’d never live it down if I quit and they didn’t.

5. Have fun. You don’t have to write the new “A Tale of Two Cities.” In fact, nobody ever has to see this. If you want to write about cloning an army of zombie badgers in Texas, go ahead. Who cares? If you get stuck, take your characters to space or the future or Heaven.

6. Take your commitment seriously. When I went through boot camps at a local gym, I kept telling myself “I can do anything for an hour” and eventually the class ended and the pain went away. With NaNoWriMo, tell yourself you can write every day and you can do anything for a month. All of your creature comforts are still there when you are done for the day. You will sleep in your bed, watch your tv, etc., but your mind will stay with your novel and thinking about a fictional world, characters and problems truly is a treat.

Chances are, most of you aren’t coming with me. That’s OK. Maybe I planted the seed for you to try this next year. If you do decide to give this a shot, I promise you won’t regret it.

NaNoWriMo starts in a little over nine days. Get ready.

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