Start Your Novel

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Writers can be insecure creatures. For many, the thought of beginning a novel, a project requiring the production of from 60,000 to 100,000 words, can be overwhelming. For the writer who tends to linger over every sentence, the prospect can be especially daunting.

This year’s NaNoWriMo has already begun, but it’s not too late for a writer who has been flirting with beginning a novel to register. Not everyone who participates in the online event completes the challenge, but taking part for just one or two weeks is an enlightening writing exercise.

If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, you may be the only writer who hasn’t. The acronym is for National Novel Writing Month. Don’t let the name fool you. The online event has become a worldwide phenomenon. The name will no doubt remain the same because it’s so much fun to say “naa-no-wry-mo.”

The value of this worldwide writing exercise is that it encourages writers to recognize the duality of the writing process.

Every writer wears two hats: the Creator’s hat and the Editor’s hat. (Nowadays most writers must don the Marketer’s hat as well, but that’s a subject for another post.)

NaNoWriMo forces the writer to leave the Editor’s hat in the closet for 30 days. It’s a great discipline. Not everyone who signs up stays the course, but the experience of doing this kind of focused writing for even a week can teach a writer a lot.

Go ahead. Jump in. Register for the 2013 NaNoWriMo and watch those words accumulate on your daily progress tracker. Even with a late start, you can expect to crank out 30,000 words or more by November 30. Your writing will be far from perfect, but you’ll have a draft, or at least the beginnings of one.

A draft to a novelist is what a lump of clay is to the sculptor. Every novel begins with an imperfect draft. Once the draft is in hand, the writing can begin.

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15 thoughts on “Start Your Novel”

  1. I just don’t get the whole NaNoWriMo thing. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. Why get wrapped up in some silly exercise that is going to result in nothing more than a bunch of gibberish? Take your time and try to write a good book, one that is not the result of absurd daily word counts.

    Writing should get more respect than that.

  2. It’s National NOVEL Writing Month, not National November Writing Month.

    Chuck, there is a huge excitement and community around it. Writing fast doesn’t have to be writing bad, and we all know first drafts are just gibberish anyway. It’s a great way to connect with other writers, to build encouragement. Some people just work better with a deadline. It’s fun and it’s a challenge. For someone who is competitive, it’s the best kind of competition–the one where you win no matter what because you’re writing everyday.

  3. I agree with everything Chuck says … However …

    NaNoWriMo gives me, personally, the extra incentive I need to get my arse in a chair and write. It also connects you to a community of writers with whom you can share tips, motivation, and, yes, with whom you can compete.

    Silly? Yes. Absurd? Absolutely.

    Fun? Irreverent? Insane? TOTALLY!

  4. chuck, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. most people go in with highly developed outlines and take advantage of the community spirit to boost their productivity. it starts a mass conversation that runs from october into december, and that alone is worth participation, even if you don’t write a word.

    and actually, it’s national NOVEL writing month.

  5. I’ve written several published books, fiction and nonfiction, and sold several screenplays. That’s just not how professionals work. It might be a fun exercise, though.

  6. Yeah, I don’t agree with being overly precious about the writing ritual or motivation. Next, Chuck’ll be issuing decrees over who’s allowed to write anything at all, and then who’s allowed to read.

    No classically respected author would, if we could go back in time and ask them, suggest that only the right kind of people with the right kind of intention should be permitted to undertake a writing exercise. Most of them would be very enthusiastic that everyone take a stab at it, and they would acknowledge there is no one correct way to write. With a little research, Chuck would be horrified to learn which authors had the ability to write a novel, fully formed, in the first draft.

    Sure, one can start writing a novel at any time. One need not wait for November to undertake it. By the same token, we should do away with birthdays and Christmas and just express that appreciation for other people every day throughout the year. Right, Chuck? Stupid wedding anniversaries, who needs ’em.

    No. The point of NaNoWriMo is that it’s a springboard for people who have been putting this off. It’s a community that supports other writers. It’s a ceremony for writers who need a little extra push, who haven’t otherwise been able to eke out the hour each night to sit down and focus. It helps to definitively state, “This month, just for one month, I am going to clear out time and commit to this and see it through.” And if that lasts beyond November, if this experience shows a beginning writer that the creative process can fit into their life between running errands and cooking dinner, all the better.

  7. Sure, not all professional writers write like this, but a lot actually do. Just look at all of the pep talks NaNoWriMo delivers to the aspiring novelists throughout the month; a lot of them got started by participating. But if you think about it, not all 300,000+ participants are going to become professional authors. The point of the program is to get you to write. I know so many people who tell me they have a great idea for a novel, or they’ve been meaning to get it started, but they never do. They’re all talk. This program’s main goal is to get you to shut up and write (after all, there’s only so much talking you can do if you’re busy writing). It works for me. It works for people who are afraid of dedicating large amounts of time to something they aren’t sure they are going to like at the end. I love this program. But hey, if you’ve found something that works for you, by all means, continue on with it.

  8. I am going to try it again! I tried this last year and even though I didn’t finish my novel, it did help me increase my discipline of writing every day. I think it’s a fun exercise although daunting at times. I got some great characters and a good ideas last year. My plan was to jump back on the story idea from last year however some new ideas are coming into my head. If it increases my discipline, I think it’s a good idea!

  9. I am amused by an annual writing contest that is held by a college in the United States. It is a contest to produce the WORST opening for a novel that the writer and put to paper. By “opening” they mean a first paragraph or a first page.

    Just for fun, I wrote and submitted one that I thought was completely awful, but I never got any response from my stinker. My opening was in the form of a long, complicated tongue-twister.

    Then an amusing thing happened. I knew two students, twin sisters in a Dutch-speaking country, who were taking English class in school. They asked me to send me some tongue-twisters for them and their friends to practice pronunciation on. Wow, I had just the thing, “fresh off the presses”.

    They also told me about one that their teacher had given them. I had never heard of it: “Are all wrist watches Swiss wrist watches?” This one still gives me trouble.

    The classic tongue-twister in English is “She sells sea shells by the seashore.” Ouch!

  10. “A draft to a novelist is what a lump of clay is to the sculptor.”
    What a great analogy. It definitely helps put things in perspective for me. Too many years of business writing in which the first draft was the final copy. I’ve struggled to shift my thinking when I shifted to fiction. This sentence is going up on my bulletin board. Thanks!

  11. @Christian,

    Just to clarify, I didn’t say anything at all about who should write or read novels. I only suggested that NaNoWriMo is not a good way to write a salable novel. As a hobby or training exercise, I’m sure it’s fine.

    And not all first drafts are lumps of putty. I’ve sold at least two first drafts of screenplays. In fact, I sold one script after I was only halfway through with the first draft.

  12. NaNoWriMo nowhere makes the claim that it’s for “professional” writers. In fact, the annual event hopes to appeal to people who might never have thought of writing anything beyond an email or a letter describing that awful week in Brisbane or Majorca to the folks back home (along, of course, with the obligatory “Wish you were here!). The point is not to finish a “professional” book meant for publication — self- or otherwise — but to discover that there is a well of creativity, and, more often than not, fun, latent in many if not most of us, and that it’s possible to uncap that well and be astonished by what surges out of it. None the less, not a few NaNoWriMo’ers have gone on to publish, after revision, what issued from those thirty days of fun and frustration — at least one ended up on the New York Times best-seller list. So, “professional” or not, publishable material does result. But that’s not the goal.

    I finished NaNoWriMo successfully twice, and “lost” twice, but in the process I discovered I could actually enjoy writing fiction. It’s a pleasure that eluded me the first seventy years of my life. I’ve self-published two novellas and a number of short stories which at least a few people out of the two or three thousand who downloaded them have enjoyed, and that’s a source of pleasure in itself.

    NaNoWriMo is not some “learn to write fiction and be a published author” venture. It’s a “learn what surprising things lie inside you, waiting to be seen” tool. There’s a world of difference.

  13. I agree with Chuck. You can write a novel in a month if you want, and I honestly think it’s a good idea if you’re just looking for some fun and a challenge. But if you want to write something that’s actually worth reading, then you might want to spend a little longer on it. If you force yourself to do it all in a month, then you’re going to end up with a lot of gibberish. And don’t compare it to Christmas and wedding anniversaries, because that’s just silly. If you really want to write an entire novel in a month, who even cares what month it is? Why do it in November if you have more time off in August?

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