Writer's Clock

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Until they pricked her with the anesthesia, Rise Peters planned to be writing.

The Bowie resident -- facing inflammatory breast cancer -- entered surgery Wednesday to have a growth removed from her liver. She is also approaching the halfway point of her novel, a mystery titled "Raised by Wolves." She must finish it by Nov. 30, averaging 1,667 words a day, cancer or no cancer.

"If you can't come up with a better excuse than me, forget it," Peters, 45, told attendees at the Oct. 29 kickoff party for the D.C. contingent of National Novel Writing Month. "We're all going to win this year."

Winning means simply writing 50,000 words (or 175 pages) in 30 days. Today participants should be hitting 20,000.1 If they were running a marathon, they'd be nearly halfway through mile 10.

"They," of course, are the WriMos, those reckless and ambitious souls who signed up for the undertaking, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, which started in 1999 with 21 participants and last year boasted 59,000. By the end of the month, an estimated 93,000 will have registered, a little over half of whom are from the United States.

Now, some fuzzy math: If this growth rate is constant and participation is cumulative, then every American will be writing a novel in November 2027. We'll be a country made entirely of boozing, tortured authors.

"Mr. Secretary, North Korea finally has a viable nuclear warhead."

"Hold on, I'm almost done with this sex scene."

Time and Punishment

The output needn't be as textured as Faulkner or as impeccable as Nabokov. It can be drivel. Swill. Dreck. Dross.

(A thesaurus2 can be helpful for word count.)

Chris Baty, program director for NaNo, has one piece of advice for the 2,500 or so WriMos in the District, Maryland and Virginia: "Get out of the 20,000s as fast as you can. If you can do it in three days, great. The 20s are like a swamp of the soul. Charge through them. The 30s start to feel wonderful."

But who has time for this? There are 40-hour workweeks, romantic relationships, episodes of "Deal or No Deal," transient and chronic illnesses and life's little duties and distractions.

Dan Fowlkes, 28, of Stafford has three children younger than 5, and his wife is pregnant with a fourth. So this year he's writing during the commute on Interstate 95 to his Defense Department job by using voice-recognition software.3

"I'm dictating 2,000 words a morning," Fowlkes says. "Although, in the evening, I'll have to go over those 2,000 words and look for the places where the computer misheard me."

For those without a dead commute hour to devote, sacrificing that last ounce of free time can often open up a whole new perspective on your day-to-day routine.

"A lot of people discover the month they're writing their novel that they have more time for everything else in their life than they did

before," Baty says. "Once you decide to really prioritize something, whether that's novel writing or learning a foreign language, you tend to cut out the superfluous bits."

Even though making outlines and slaving over structure can be helpful, WriMos agree that an amateur novelist's best bet is to write fast and free, whether or not it's during November.

"Some sentences are really good, some are stinkers," says Peters, who is NaNo's municipal liaison for the District and does her fair share of 9-to-5 writing as a lawyer. "But none of them have that overworked, labored characteristic you get when you're second-guessing yourself."

Now, a Word From Our Bestsellers

Discipline. You need it in November, and you need it to create any work of art, novel or otherwise.

George Pelecanos,4 the prolific crime author and Silver Spring resident, never wrote a lick of fiction before he was 31, then wrote his first eight books while holding down a full-time job.

For him, the secret to balancing was sacrifice. No free time wasted. No weekends off.

"In those days I would get up early and work late at night," Pelecanos says. "You miss out on some things -- things I couldn't do with my kids, things I had to miss socially. I was very committed to making it work."

It paid off. He does it for a living now.

Laura Lippman,5 author of the Tess Monaghan mystery novels, wrote her first seven books while reporting for the Baltimore Sun. She likens the duty of writing to going to the gym. Sometimes you get enough sleep and eat well, but you still feel terrible when you hop on the treadmill. Even if writing starts to hurt despite adequate preparation, it must be done, she says.

"But perfectionism is the enemy," Lippman says. "You need to keep going forward. You're better off going as quickly as you can through that initial draft and then going back and revising."

Set up a writing schedule that is non-negotiable, says Marita Golden,6 writer in residence at the University of the District of Columbia.

"People often are afraid that if they stand up for their writing life, they'll lose friends," Golden says. "But I found it inspires and impresses the hell out of people."

But that non-negotiable schedule should be conceived with regard to the demands of your life, says Tammy Greenwood,7 an instructor at the Writer's Center8 in Bethesda.

"It's about pacing," Greenwood says. "I look at my calendar and assign daily word counts based on what I know my schedule is going to be like."

Busting Writer's Block

It's easy to run out of gas when flooring the creative pedal. But there are ways to jump-start your writing engine.

"When you get stuck, ask yourself, 'What's the worst that could happen?' " Rise Peters says. "Of course, the worst thing is nuclear Armageddon, and then you'd have yourself a very short book."

Or, you can cheat. Last year D.C. resident Christopher Kush, who has published three nonfiction books on grass-roots organizing, stretched his novel to 50,000 by making all of his characters slightly hard of hearing. Sample dialogue:

"I think I am going to go to lunch now."

"Lunch? Now?"

"Yes, I think this would be a good time."

"A good time? Why do you think it is a good time?"

"Because I am hungry, and I am bored."

Who would want to read 50,000 words of this? Answer: no one. But Kush's loophole is an example of "free writing," or letting words flow without regard for coherence or form. The idea is to keep writing without inhibition, even if you have to write, "I can't think of anything to write." Sometimes a great idea (or phrase, or metaphor) can pop out in the process like an unexpected twin during birth.

It can be helpful to orchestrate a rivalry for motivation. Jennie Quick, a D.C. WriMo, challenged the team last year to out-word the entire nation of Scotland. The Scots prevailed, so this year they're going after Finland.9

"Finland was only 70,000 words ahead of us last year," says Quick, 28. "This year, our weapon is stealth. But maybe we'll make a formal declaration of war."

A writing club can also keep you on task. Nothing helps a work ethic like being beholden to a group with like-minded goals. Meet or communicate regularly, as middle school teacher Karen Quintiere of Bethesda does on Yahoo instant messenger with a group of 10 women hailing from such far-flung locales as Wisconsin and New Zealand.

"It's having someone to honestly critique your work and encourage you when you think everything you write is crap, and a way to measure yourself against the others' progress to keep disciplined," Quintiere says.

Many WriMos have challenged family members and friends. Bowie resident Angela Fields -- whose mother, Bonnie, and 9-year-old son, Spencer, are hot on her heels with their own novels -- came up with her story idea at 4 a.m. Nov. 1 on her commute to New Jersey.

"There's no way I'm going to let my mom beat me," says Fields, 32. "My son likes the rivalry from an encouragement standpoint. I don't think he knew kids could write books before this. And if a single mother who commutes two days a week can write a novel, anyone can."

Publish or Perish

Some people wake up Dec. 1 and begin the revision process on their jumbled, sprawling NaNo novel. Eventually, they might polish it into something respectable, perhaps brilliant, perhaps . . . worthy of publication.

Pelecanos, who mailed manuscripts blindly when he started out, recommends buying a copy of Writer's Market,10 a volume that lists publishing houses, what kinds of books they accept, advice from agents and editors, and guidelines for submission and format.

Burke resident Mike Long, a speechwriter with the White House Writers Group, followed this process after completing his novel "Killing" in 2001. He noted which companies were publishing his favorite authors, sent his manuscript and a cover letter to those companies and followed up with a phone call.

Twenty rejections later, Long has at least snagged an agent. While he is emboldened by each rejection, he says he is frustrated by the publishing world's fickleness.

"I'm not the greatest writer in the world, but I make a good living at it, and it shocks me that there is unmitigated crap put on the shelves every day," says Long, 43. "And either that means my stuff is even worse, or there's something I just don't understand."

If this scenario is unappetizing, the alternative is the widening world of self-publishing. During the past three years of NaNo, Mary Wise wrote a four-part series based on her experiences as a circus clown. Reluctant to approach professional publishing houses, the 54-year-old instead went to http://www.lulu.com/ , a print-on-demand publishing and distribution service based in North Carolina.11

Over the past two years, she has sold 300 books through Lulu with little or no marketing and has her own bound copies as hard evidence if she ever wants to take a step toward a publishing house. While she can't claim to be a renowned bestseller, she can still say she's a published novelist.

"I have an ISBN," Wise boasts with irony at a Wednesday evening write-in at Foster Brothers Coffee in Cleveland Park. "The book has been ranked as low as a million and as high as 16,000."

About 20 WriMos were at the write-in, one of many being hosted across the city this month.12 The backs of writers' laptops were smacked with stickers that say, "No plot? No problem!" Everyone tap-tap-tapped between quick sips of blended coffee, aspiring to simply finish the day's word quota, or to be able to say, "I write books," or to one day send a pristine manuscript to Random House.

"After all, the worst they can say is no," says Wise, sitting opposite Capitol Hill resident Chuck Hughes, 30, an engineer who is part of her writing group.

"And if you don't submit it," Hughes replies, "they can't say yes."


Rise Peters woke up in the intensive-care unit Wednesday, feeling great and with NaNo on her mind. She flagged down a nurse, asked for a pencil and wrote three pages of notes on the back of her insurance pre-approval form.

"I needed to get it all down," Peters says on the phone from the hospital room. "I think I know what happens next. There's now a stalker in my book, and I think my main character's about to get hit on the head and wind up in the hospital. I've certainly got firsthand material to work with."

The Thank God It's Over party is planned for the first week of December at a yet-to-be-announced location in the city. Veteran and newly minted novelists will arrive -- bloodied by a 30-day siege on themselves -- and pin excerpts of their books on a clothesline like fresh linens from excavated souls. (Only in November can we get away with a sentence like that.)13


1.You may be 20,000 words behind, but some WriMos whiz through that much in three days. If you want to jump in mid-race, registration is open at http://www.nanowrimo.org until, um, 11:59 p.m. Nov. 30. It's free, and you can join the D.C., Maryland and Virginia groups immediately and immerse yourself in the online forums. Or, make December your month to write -- you'll have one day more than the WriMos.

2.Some thesauri to try: Roget's Thesaurus is the peerless progenitor by Englishman Peter Mark Roget, who in 1852 published the first edition of Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. Get it online at http://thesaurus.reference.com/ .

Beiks English Thesaurus for your Pocket PC or PocketLingo Thesaurus for your BlackBerry. $10 at http://www.beiks.com/ , $9.95 at http://www.pocketlingo.com/ .

3.Don't write and drive. Voice-recognition software picks up audio and transcribes what you're saying. First, check to see whether your computer came with the software (as Microsoft's Tablet PC does). If not, try these:

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 for Windows XP. $100-$200 (depending on the edition) from http://www.nuance.com/ , $90-$170 from http://www.amazon.com/ .

MacSpeech iListen 1.7 for Mac OS X comes with headset and microphone. $179-$219 (depending on the edition) from http://www.macspeech.com/ , around $135 from http://www.amazon.com/ .

4. George Pelecanos Crime novelist based in Silver Spring

14 novels published 97,000 words in his most recent book, "The Night Gardener" (Little, Brown & Co., $24.99)

Work ethic: at least 5 pages a day

Procrastination tendencies: surfing the Internet, checking e-mail

5. Laura Lippman Mystery novelist based in Baltimore

11 novels published 107,000 words in her 12th book, "What the Dead Know" (due out in March from William Morrow, $24.95)

Work ethic: 1,000 words every morning

Procrastination tendencies: filing, making sure her library is alphabetized, cleaning woodwork with a cotton swab

6. Marita Golden Writer in residence at the University of the District of Columbia

5 novels published 256 pages in her most recent book, "After" (Doubleday, $23.95)

Work ethic: one to two hours a day, several times a week

Procrastination tendencies: watching soap operas

7.Tammy Greenwood Lecturer at George Washington University, workshop leader at the Writer's Center

3 novels published 100,139 words in her next book, "Two Rivers," which her agent is shopping around

Work ethic: a teacher and a mom, Greenwood finds the schedule has to fit the day

Procrastination tendencies: "My house is never as clean as when I'm writing."

8.The Writer's Center , a 30-year-old nonprofit literary community based in Bethesda, offers workshops in all types of genre writing for varying skill levels. The winter curriculum starts in mid-January. Visit http://www.writer.org/ for class information and to register (an eight-week workshop for a beginner and nonmember is $300). 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda, 301-654-8664. Satellite classes are offered in Glen Echo and Arlington. For those wishing to teach themselves, Jason DeYoung, manager of the center's bookstore, recommends these titles:

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, $12.95)

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler (Grove Press, $13)

Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell (W.W. Norton & Co., $17.95)

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner (W.W. Norton & Co., $13.95)

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith (St. Martin's Griffin, $13.95)

9.D.C. word count = 968,081. Finland word count = 1,479,583 (as of 4:25 p.m. Nov. 8)

10.Writer's Market 2007 is available used and new from $16.25 at http://www.amazon.com/ , or subscribe at http://www.writersmarket.com/ for $3.99 a month or $29.99 a year.

11. Vanity presses are the print-on-demand option for writers who would give anything (i.e., chunks of change) to see themselves in print. These three presses also afford writers an online venue for bookselling and discounts for ordering in bulk:

Blurb allows you to download for free its BookSmart software, with which you can design the book and send the file as is. Blurb specializes in templates for photo books and cookbooks, and plans to offer blog books, poetry books and text-only books soon. From $29.95 for each hardcover book.

iUniverse has a conglomeration of self-publishing services such as editorial evaluation, marketing advice and listing your book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web sites. Packages are $299-$1099.

LuLu offers paperback and hardcover options, plus photo books, calendars and brochures. It's 2 cents per black-and-white page, plus a binding fee of $14-$17, depending on the dimensions of the book. (So a hardcover NaNo book, at 175 pages, would be $17.50.)

12. If you're looking for some communal support, drop in on any of these free write-ins , which are hosted weekly throughout the month by D.C. WriMos. For write-ins in Maryland and Virginia, check the regional forums at http://www.nanowrimo.org/ .

* Mondays: 11 a.m. at Panera Bread in Friendship Heights. 4459 Willard Ave. 301-951-5858.

* Tuesdays: 6 p.m. at Soho Tea & Coffee near Dupont Circle. 2150 P St. NW. 202-463-7646.

* Wednesdays: 5:30-9 p.m., Foster Brothers Coffee in Cleveland Park. 3515 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-7128.

* Thursdays: 6-10:30 p.m., upstairs at a Starbucks on Capitol Hill. 237 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-544-9783.

* Saturdays: 11 a.m. at the Borders in Friendship Heights. 5333 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-686-8270.

13. If you abandoned novels in college when you were made to read Stendahl, there is another option. Script Frenzy begins in June. It's just like NaNoWriMo, but for movie screenplays. One script, 30 days. Check in at http://www.scriptfrenzy.org/ to sign up for an e-mail update when the site launches.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company