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Posted at 08:29 PM ET, 11/30/2012

NaNoWriMo: A novel experience


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It's Nov. 30 already, and I can't even get her off the planet.

"Writing is easy," Red Smith said. "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

So much for that. Here I am at the end of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), with the wreckage of a third of a novel cooling on my lap, clotting.

November is the month when everyone from all walks of life (more than 5,100 people in the DC area alone) announces to all and sundry, "I'm finally going to write that novel." The goal is to complete 50,000 words by the end of the month, reporting your word count on the official Web site. There are "write-ins" at coffee shops and libraries. You get boosting e-mails from writers who have vanquished their own novels. There is even an encouraging list of writers whose NaNoWriMo projects have gone on to see publication. It all starts to sound downright possible. November, for that matter, is also Movember, the month when people grow mustaches for good causes. But I lacked the equipment for that.

Why not a novel? How hard could it be. 5,100 people in the DC area were doing it! I decided to try.

It is not that I have not tried writing one of these things before. Every 14-year-old girl worth her LiveJournal salt has deep-rooted ambitions to spew Ground-Breaking Works Of Literature. I was no exception. Every summer for years, I would come dragging out of Kinko's with 200 pages of what I proclaimed was The Novel of the Century to inflict on my mother. Some of them, I regret to admit, had historical settings about which I knew almost nothing. My first Big Project, which I pitched in my mind as a fusion of "Gone With The Wind" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray," was exactly as bad as that sounds.

But this time was going to be different.

So I sat down at the beginning of the month quite optimistic. I signed up for the Web site. I registered my science fiction novel and its plucky protagonist, doing her darnedest to get off the planet. I toted my laptop to work so I could dart off to write-ins the moment my day ended. I was DOING this.

Then I had to write something.

The trouble with Big Projects is the wind-up. I don't know what the 5,000 others did about it. I did exactly the opposite of what you should do when starting a novel: I read the New York Times Book Review cover to cover, memorizing the praise. You know the praise I mean. "Her lambent, plangent sentences limn a delicately constructed, yet majestic vision of life that rings subtly true." You read the quoted sentences from this delicate yet majestic book, and they go something like, "Lucille's hope prickled out all over like the fine hairs in Angela's nostril." I could do that, you think. I could do much better than that. If that's lambent and plangent, I can't wait to see what adjectives are coming my way.

You start imagining the adjectives that are coming your way. You get very excited. "Reading this book," the reviewer will type, "I wanted to dash down to where Faulkner is buried and shake him awake. William, there is something you must read! It's so lambent and deftly limned!' "

Then you open a blank document and begin to type. You type two sentences. At this point, one of two things happen. Ideally, you realize quickly that the sentences are no good at all, and then you get down to writing and sweat over it for a few hours and produce something that vaguely resembles the start of a draft. If you are not so lucky, you glance quickly over the sentences. "That's pretty good stuff," you tell yourself. "Let's get the author some coffee and think about poses for the book jacket." By the time you get coffee, you are several stops along on your book tour, gazing into the eyes of Michael Chabon as he effusively praises the construction of Chapter Four.

And now it's four hours before the deadline, and the novel is bleating faintly in your lap, no closer to completion than it was six minutes ago, when you checked YouTube "for inspiration."

How did this happen? Those other 5,000 people are probably putting the finishing touches on their delicate piles of deftly limned words, and here you are unable to figure out what happens next. In a fit of panic, you try to start another novel with an entirely different setting where you think you might be able to figure out how things end. You no longer require the Great American Novel. You would settle, now, for the Mediocre Unamerican Novelette. As long as there are 50,000 words somewhere with your name on them.

But the writing is on the wall. You glare at it. Of course it's on the wall. It would be anywhere but in your tortured Word document.

You stare down at the poor twitching thing. What does it all amount to? You started on a lark and now you have a project. Now you have a responsibility. You want to know what happens to these people. It seems cruel to leave them trapped there forever. Books are like babies. People frown if you abandon them in coffee shops.

There was something strange about this whole NaNoWriMo business. It was all the encouraging shouting. Writing a novel, like running 26 miles to announce that the Greeks are victorious, was once a solitary pursuit. It was the sort of thing eccentrics did in garrets. Now you can do it, and strangers will cheer you on. It's oddly egalitarian.

But the lesson of this is that -- like marathons -- just because thousands of people do a thing doesn't make it any easier. That's why we need all those encouraging e-mails. That's why it's impressive.

Write A Novel, after all, is one of those things that appears on every list of Things You Absolutely Must Do Before You Die, along with skydiving and visiting particularly impressive rock formations and having adventurous sex in moving vehicles. Everyone should do it once. Ernest Hemingway did it, and he spent all his time drinking and tramping around with an elephant gun hunting stray adjectives. F. Scott Fitzgerald did it, and he had a drinking problem. You should, too. This is America, where we can all do everything. And the Internet exists, so we can tell everyone about it.

Congratulations to everyone who dragged 50,000 words over the finish line. It's harder than it looks. And congratulations to everyone with a mustache. Maybe I'll try that next year instead. Once I get these fools off the planet, that is.

By  |  08:29 PM ET, 11/30/2012

Tags:  writing

 
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