I’m a novelist…Not!


As of right now I am 49,359 words into NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a self-regulated challenge to write a “novel” in less than thirty days. For the purposes of the challenge a novel is loosely defined as 50,000 words. This mean that in order to successfully complete the challenge you need to write approximately 1600 words each and every day. Hopefully with this entry I will complete my last 700 words one day early and be able to finish off a few other writing projects that have been back-burnered.

So why do it? Well if you visit nanowrimo.org/faq you will find lots of who’s, what’s, where’s, and why’s, but frankly it is simply a way to get people writing, stretching their brains and exerting their creative muscles.

It actually sounded pretty easy. I set up a chart that marked 1700 words a day with a target of writing 2500 words a day and then taking weekends off. Then I challenged myself to write 3000 words a day as a personal goal. Well, the first four days I easily wrote my 3000 word goal, and then only managed to do it again for four other days. Life can get in the way and creativity is apparently not an infinite resource. Who knew? Sometimes you just can’t go on in the face of your own personal doubts or sheer boredom with continuing down a path that seems to be going nowhere. And I found that I couldn’t afford to go back and edit or even proof what I had written; if I did I would get caught up in rewriting and spend two hours and only add a couple of hundred words to the count. And eh count became all important as the days slipped by.

But back to my strategies. I know from years of personal experience that home is not my productive place. After spending most of the winter in Victoria’s library watching Leslie be productive,  I decided to find a home in our local branch for the duration. Daily I showed up just before opening time at 10 am and joined the queue. Most days I got the same carrel although once or twice I missed out and had to substitute another. I wore my noise cancelling headphones and eschewed a power source. That way I was fairly isolated and knew I wouldn’t be able to play any power-hungry games. The library has internet — both EPL and Shaw — but I tried to use it only for research or an online thesaurus. Most days wrote for 3 hours as I soon discovered that I was good for around 1000 words an hour and that, after three hours, I really lost focus.

I chose to write in IA writer Classic because I had it on my phone, ipad and laptop, it was able to sync files across the cloud and offered “distraction-free” writing features. In the end a pretty good choice. They have gone on beyond the classic version so I don’t know if its available any more but  I still like it al lot.

And there you are: twenty-nine days of writing… sort of. And how did it go? Well, that depends.

First the numbers. I figure after this I will end up with around 51,000 words all said and done. As I mentioned I set a target of 20 days writing with 2500 words each day. Well I wrote on 25 days with a maximum of word count of 3281 and minimum of 224 words (actually the minimum was 8 but I’m not going to count that one). I might add the day-to-day achievements below as an afterthought.

And did I finish a novel? No. Not even close. In fact I gave up and restarted at least three times. I hadn’t decided that I was going to do this until a few days before the start of November, so my plan was so vague as to be almost nonexistent and my outline was a quick sketch based on a a few writing advice sites. It looked pretty much like this:

How can you escape when you bring it all with you? Just go…

**1st Plot Point**
*Conflict: why there is a story*
Running from death of family
*Journey of discovery*

***Pinch Point***
*apply pressure to character*
Hole in the Wall Rapids

**Mid point**
*move from reaction to action*
Arrive Broughtons. Reading log book

** 2nd Plot Point**
*obtain what is necessary to go forward*
Defining fear

***Pinch Point***
*apply pressure to character*
Windlass shot. Boat almost sinks

*What does the ending look like?*
Killer whales hunting porpoises

It wasn’t much. I even had to come up with a title to sign up for “contest” so I simply called it Go. After I started, I think I hit about 6,000 words that were written in order before I got bored and skipped ahead to another scene/chapter. And it pretty much went to hell after that. I was aiming for literary fiction since I figured that’s where the bigs bucks were (it’s a joke people) but frankly, despite the amount of literary stuff I have read, I have never really grokked it. I spent time with the a Miriam Toews novel that was on the shelf behind my carrel and started lugging around Tom Wharton’s Icefields to use as inspiration. Next I started adding in different viewpoints and trying my hand at bitter and resentful. I flipped for 1st person to  third person and back again. But eventually I just couldn’t go on. A lot of the reason I abandoned it comes from the 1500 words a day pressure. There was no room to go back and rewrite or reshape and so I found I was forced to either continue drifting or just restart.

So I took a break and did some other writing and added the word totals to the challenge. I figured fair was fair and writing was writing. Including this blog entry… so if you don’t like it, then tough.

Okay, so I had determined I wasn’t going to write any of my own particular poison (schlocky Sci-Fi) because A) there was no money in it (not so much a joke this time), and B) it wasn’t going to teach me enough about my potential to be a famous writer,  so that left my next favourite genre which was humour. So I started again, recasting the characters and telling the same story from a completely different viewpoint. And it was fun. For a while. And then it got boring — both the exercise and the story. And while I was willing to accept the exercise being a drag, no one wants to read a humour book that isn’t funny. Seriously. Being consistently funny is hard.

My next strategy was to go for a short story. I had a pretty good idea what the conclusion of my story was going to be, so why not try and compress the whole thing into a short story. The problem with that was that I hate short stories. I have read a lot of the classics courtesy of a short story course in university, but frankly they always left me wanting. Still, you never know; nothing ventured etc.

I did it. 6800 or so words later I had a beginning, middle and end that I might, maybe, someday be willing to show someone. Which is more than I can say about the preceding 35,000 or so words. It would need a lot of editing and rewriting but it was a story. Of course it left me 8000 words short and I had just blown my big story idea.

Another idea, one which I know very little about but had been floating around for a month or so, was trying my hand at a piece of creative non-fiction. I had been toying with the idea of writing up some of my thoughts and experiences of our year away but had a lot of concerns about publishing my personal opinions about other people or experiences that could be discerned as hurtful. I also have a notoriously vague memory that likes to compress time and events into wholes that, while generally truthful are not entirely accurate. So I’d been talking to Land C about creative non-fiction and the boundaries and limitations of this “new” genre.

So I decided, well, to hell with research, why not just start swinging. I’ve done a lot of blogging over the years and am pretty comfortable with the travelogue but what was missing was my interpretation of what it was I was seeing and maybe some back story about why I see the world the way I do. So with my personal ignorance safely riding up on my shoulder, I set out to tell the story of why I (we) decided to leave everything behind and live on small boat for a year. The next 8000 words zipped by and I barely got started. I have no idea if the attempt at introspection works and I do know that it will need a lot more humour if I want to avoid insulting everyone I know but who knows if it will ever see the light of day anyway. I also have a lot of thinking to do about the wholeness of the truth and the honesty of including/excluding people in a story that can never be wholly my own. As well I have to think about the value of describing events or incidents from the perspective of emotional lows and highs; the resulting distortion is valid and real in the moment but presents a skewed perspective that can be damaging to the story and even to the ongoing relationships you have to have with reality. In short I have a lot of thinking to do.

Which brings me to the conclusion. Or conclusions I guess. Just what did I come away with? I have never been one for rewriting but I have to say this exercise has taught me that even though I generally don’t want to go back, the simple fact is that writing anything over 3000 words demands, actually demands, that you go back and rework and recast. Resisting that unsought-for imperative was probably the hardest thing to do during the month.

I also now know that 3000 words a day is still a breeze — I knew that from my essay writing days as an English major — but writing 3000 words a day, or 3000 words a week that flows from page to page and idea to idea is so hard as to border on impossible. Especially if you are trying to be creative, maintain a style or voice and still consider the readers’ reactions and engagement. Freakin’ hard. I have much, much more respect for those writers that manage to weave those stories, to balance and manage those images and ideas that make a story more art than craft. The craft is hard, the art is likely beyond me.

I also realized that the genres and the boxes that we as readers and we as publishers like to put books into are the very things that should be the enemies of all writers. Doing the expected is a trap that no one will appreciate one one-hundredth as much as they will when you are breaking the rules. And that’s hard too. Really freakin’ hard.

So there you go. 29 days. 51,036 words. And a lot of spent brain cells.


2 thoughts on “I’m a novelist…Not!

  1. However you might feel about the end result, this is a pretty amazing accomplishment! 50,000 words is a lot of juice to drain from that fuel tank of creativity, especially in such a short period of time.

    I winced a little when you wrote about censoring yourself in order to preserve things of importance to your real life. I’ve found myself in that position more than once, and it always hurts to pull back from something great for the sake of the outside world. On balance, though, I don’t think I could make another choice.

  2. Thanks Earl…

    I am fascinated with truth these days when it comes to autobiographies and other non-fiction. On a day-to-day basis I think we all think a lot of non-charitable thoughts that we generally regret; but that doesn’t make them less real… or does it?

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