Writing a book as part of the annual NaNoWriMo contest is a bit like dating in college: a day feels like a week, a week feels like a month. And a month, well, that’s practically forever.
On November 1st, I started NaNoWriMo filled with excitement and curiosity. How would the book idea I’d been mulling over in my brain take shape on the page? I wondered. Is it really possible to complete a novel in 30 days?
To commit to the full experience of NaNoWriMo during this, my first time at bat, I wrote no notes, collected no photographs, fleshed out no character outlines, and did no formal research beyond having a wonderful dinner with an expert in the field I am writing about. Even then, I simply listened all evening long, writing nothing down.
I didn’t even choose names for the characters!
But there were two things I did do in advance of the NaNoWriMo start date. I picked a name for the book, Lions on the Way, and I picked a cover. Admittedly, the cover was an accidental, but joyful, find. I was spending some time in my Twitter feed, following links to blogs and articles, as usual, when I came across a site that offers pre-made book covers. Sitting there, about 2/3 of the way down the page, was my cover. I knew it was the perfect one, so I bought it even though I had yet to type a single word of the story.
Still, going into a challenging writing competition with only a book title and a cover in place has already required more endurance than I had anticipated I would need before all was said and done.
I decided to join NaNoWriMo a mere two weeks before the start date. It was a spontaneous and, as I’m learning, slightly crazy act. From the moment I officially committed my time, that place deep in my mind, where stories are born, began working on the opening scene. I knew from the moment the first image took clear shape in my consciousness that this novel would be different from anything else I have written.
The category I chose for Lions on the Way is action/adventure, and, so far, the main elements of the plot are staying true to that genre. Ultimately, though, with each new page I write, I am more firmly rooted in the understanding that this novel is really about faith.
To me, faith, when considered separately from religion, is the internal, uncompromising, unshakable belief that the path we are each meant to take will appear at the precise moment we are ready to set our feet upon it, and begin.
Or, in some cases, begin again.
What do I consider the biggest challenge of NaNoWriMo? It is this: every new character, every new idea, place, and historical interaction, needs context in order to be properly set into the story. These things take time; they can’t simply be inserted into a page at random. They need to be contemplated, studied, before the right location and positioning can be determined.
Usually, we writers map these elements, and more, out in advance. But I made the conscious choice to disconnect from my established procedures and, instead, to pull my keyboard up to the starting line with only my internal compass to guide me.
Writing a novel this way makes me feel like I’m driving with the emergency brake on. All the while, with every tap-tap-tap of my fingers on the keyboard, I’ve been hearing the tic-tic-tic of time passing me – and my story – by.
There are writing periods during which the words are flowing seamless on to the page, happily, but they are few and far between. I would describe trying to find my writing balance, my rhythm, as akin to typing while walking backwards, trying to give myself a better angle on the emerging big picture in front of me without missing any of the small, often critical, details.
It is now Day
480 11 of NaNoWriMo and I have determined that sitting down to write a story from scratch in 30 days can, in fact, be done, but not without learning to navigate a whole new set of roadblocks along the way. Writing “on the fly” opens amazing channels in one’s creative mind; constantly keeping one eye on the clock is distracting and, occasionally, panic-inducing.
Will I make the deadline and complete the mission of writing a 50,000-word story by 11:59 PM on November 30th? Yes. It won’t be a polished manuscript, ready for the book shelves, but I will have a completed first draft.
I ended up majorly re-writing my first novel, Ava, a total of four times. By the end, the manuscript had undergone real changes, and my writing style had evolved significantly from the choppy, disconnected paragraphs and pages I had so proudly proclaimed “Finished!” before reality set in and I faced the fact that it was only a first draft.
Interestingly enough, none of the main characters in Ava changed during the re-writes, nor did the plot. Instead, it was the way in which I told the story – the imagery, the settings, the opening and closing of chapters, the introduction and inclusion of minor characters – that was altogether different by the time the novel went to print.
Participating in NaNoWriMo is giving me a wonderful and unexpected opportunity to learn new things about myself. For example, how I conceive of, develop, and write a story; and how I find myself stumbling with an entire chapter if the opening sentence doesn’t feel right; and how many times I go back and forth, debating with myself, often vigorously, about the viability of changing a major element in the plot when I’ve already committed a good number of words to the existing storyline.
It’s a bit like being my own science experiment, writer-style.
My family and friends are taking this strange (but short-term) new reality in stride, and from the time I said, “Hold that thought. I’ll be back in a month!” they have been rooting for me. Nothing happens in a vacuum; certainly nothing worth having and cherishing, anyway. I’m grateful for their support and encouragement, and for their genuine excitement at the prospect of one day reading Lions on the Way.
The characters in Lions on the Way are undertaking a journey of faith, and, through them, I find I am undertaking a journey of my own – of faith, of resilience, and of the belief that all stories meant to be told will find their way onto the page.
To all the NaNoWriMo writers out there: I wish you the joy of clearing hurdles, carving out new creative channels, and banishing all doubts on your way to winning this challenge. See you at the finish line!