No no, write slow!
Twitter is abuzz with talk of NaNoWriMo, the (now) international novel writing marathon held yearly for the month of November. Any writer worth her ink gives it at least a thought, come October. There is nothing like a deadline for a writer, and there’s nothing like competitive writing. It’s a way to talk and feel and obsess about your craft and process for 30 whole days – with thousands and thousands of writers all over the world. And let’s face it – what other kind of marathon am I ever going to run?
In October, I did find my hand poised over the register button at the NaNoWriMo site. But, reader, I did not press. I took a deep breath and scurried back to my paperwork. Because I knew it wouldn’t work for me. It has, however, worked for other writers. Not thousands or even hundreds. The site cites a handful of writers who moved from NaNoWriMo to publishing success, including Sara Gruen’s charming Water for Elephants and the three-book-deal secured by Julia Crouch.
I’m not raining on anybody’s parade here, and I’m not the only one to cast this little shadow of non-participation. After all, I’m not the only unpublished writer in the world not taking part. When I started writing my first novel, after many many years of only writing plays, the idea of 50K words terrified me. Who could possibly say that much? And could I? The first draft took me a solid year of writing, mostly grappling with the mechanics of moving characters in and out of scenes. In drama, the lights go up and people start talking, often in the middle of an argument or at the moment of a decision. In fiction, that kind of thing is frowned upon. Contemporary fiction asks a writer to “enter late and leave early” in a scene, meaning that not too much white space is filled with black words about wallpaper, but in drama there isn’t even any wallpaper unless someone is talking about it. My first novel rather relies on dialogue to tell its story, which isn’t surprising. But it took me a long time to get characters to look around – look up, look down, turn around, breathe in, touch things, smell. My training in drama meant that they were always looking for a fight, always standing their corner, always reasoning things out. Most of my plays stood slim at 70 – 85 pages. That’s too short to even be a novella.
The sheer act of committing 50,000 words to paper or screen is nothing to be sniffed at. But I suppose I know I can do that now. I do have enough words in me. Each draft of my first novel was an entirely different book, changing point of view, changing plot, changing characters. I know I can sit down and churn the words out. But now, poised to begin writing my second novel, I know I don’t want to rush it. The first draft is fun. It’s exciting. It’s like an epic, secret romance where anything is possible. Until it is formed, the first draft can be anything, and it’s thrilling. So, I don’t want to rush it. I want to have long suppers and sweet dreams and hours spent staring into the distance over my first draft. I don’t want to chivvy it along to love me in only 30 days. Because I don’t want it to be fickle. I want it to stay. That doesn’t mean, however, that I hope my second novel will take as long as my first. At least I don’t have to learn to write fiction all over again.
In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I will use November to plan my second novel beyond the broad strokes I’ve made while researching. I did not plan my first novel only because I didn’t know how and I didn’t know why. But I hope, in planning, that subsequent drafts won’t be as wild or as laboured, that perhaps I can just tell the story I want to tell better and more simply if I actually do know the story I want to tell in advance. I won’t know everything, of course. That’s what those long dinners with the story are for, to let it surprise me, to get it to let down its hair. But I will know more than I knew last time. And that’s progress enough for me.
So, here’s a toast to all writers, now 2 days into a 30 day journey! I wish them all luck, success, and good fortune. As for me, I will be planning and making lots of drawings and lists and calendars. I won’t be writing much of anything at all. I plan to start writing my first draft on 29 November – or maybe the 30th – certainly by 1 December. And if I can finish a draft by April, I will consider that a real achievement. But I suspect that will even be too fast for me. Who knows? I guess it all depends on how the planning goes, what the continuing research kicks up, and how all the things that I don’t yet know will affect me and the story. Still, there’s nothing like a deadline.