50,000 words in 30 days

Ten SN&R writers signed up for National Novel Writing Month; five crossed the finish line

SN&R’s budding novelists prove that they are better writers than actors as they cheer on author Kel Munger at the keyboard. From left, Sarah Sol, Nicholas Miller, Jonathan Kiefer, Becca Costello, Chrisanne Beckner and Matthew Craggs. Not pictured: Kate Washington, Jim Lane and Justin Allen.

SN&R’s budding novelists prove that they are better writers than actors as they cheer on author Kel Munger at the keyboard. From left, Sarah Sol, Nicholas Miller, Jonathan Kiefer, Becca Costello, Chrisanne Beckner and Matthew Craggs. Not pictured: Kate Washington, Jim Lane and Justin Allen.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Click here to read excerpts from NaNoWriMo novels by SN&R staffers.

As the Byrds’ famous song—and the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes—says, there is “a time to every purpose under heaven.” Some intrepid SN&R staffers and contributors know this with certainty because we’ve just participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

The brainchild of a Bay Area fellow named Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo is celebrated in November by an ever-increasing number of wannabe-novelists—and more than a handful of professional writers. Baty’s idea was simple enough: He knew a bunch of people, including himself, who wanted to write a novel, and he thought it would be easier if they were all in it together. In November 1999, 21 people kicked off the inaugural NaNoWriMo. Thirty days later, about half of them had finished 50,000-word drafts of their novels.

It was such fun that they tried it again the next year, inviting others to join them via the Web site www.nanowrimo.org. The site has grown exponentially and includes forums for writers to share tips and encouragement, a word-counting program that helps writers keep track of their progress via a little “thermometer” that turns purple when the 50,000-word target is reached, and a space for posting an excerpt of the work-in-progress.

I stumbled across the site through a blog I check regularly and thought the concept interesting enough to consider giving it a go. I have started—and abandoned—a half-dozen novels in the past 25 years, always beginning with gusto before fizzling out at about 25,000 words. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley once told a class I was in that inspiration and talent will get a writer through about one-third of a novel; after that, she informed us, we’d better have some discipline and a working knowledge of the tools of the writer’s trade. NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect opportunity to try.

However, I’m not one to suffer either in silence or alone. Not only did I turn it into a challenge for my colleagues, but we also ran an item in SN&R telling our readers about NaNoWriMo (“National Novel Writing Month,” SN&R In the mix, October 27) and inviting them to join.

In from the beginning were Arts Editor Becca Costello, Copy Editor Sarah Sol, Staff Writer Chrisanne Beckner, Assistant Copy Editor Nicholas Miller, film critic Jim Lane, restaurant and food critic Kate Washington, and arts contributors Justin Allen and Matthew Craggs. Associate Arts Editor Jonathan Kiefer demurred for almost two weeks before finally climbing aboard—not only is he a gifted writer, but also he really hates to miss a party.

Only one of us had written a novel before; a number of years ago, Lane had taken almost three years to write a 60,000-word book. Beckner, Costello, Kiefer and I have some experience with writing fiction, but that’s all been in the arena of the short story. What we all had going for us, though, was experience at writing for publication, under deadline and with word count in mind. How hard could it be?

We found out.

On December 1, we gathered over Thai food to debrief our month of intense writing. Costello, who helped instigate the endeavor, dropped out after the first day. Kiefer made it to roughly 35,000 words, but he didn’t start until the end of the second week of November. Allen, Craggs and Miller all burned out in the area between 10,000 and 15,000 words. Beckner, Lane, Sol, Washington and yours truly all hit the 50,000 mark, though only Beckner and I were actually done with our novels. The others still had more writing to do, post-50,000 words, to wrap up the story.

Two of us regularly got up early in the morning and wrote before we went to work. Beckner, who joined me in the early birds’ club, was loath to finish her novel. “I dragged out the last part as long as I could because I was really loving it,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that much fun to write in the morning before I went to work.”

Washington, who became a mother last summer, was pleased to discover she could make time to write around caring for her infant daughter. “With the baby, my schedule was based on an ‘I have until she wakes up’ approach,” she said. NaNoWriMo “was very good timing, because around the end of October, the baby started napping very regularly in the morning and afternoon.” While the baby slept, Washington could often write as much as 1,000 words an hour.

Lane was impressed by his hardworking colleagues’ ability to juggle their schedules. “I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t been retired,” he said.

It was the presence of day jobs—and in some cases, school and second jobs—that slowed down or stopped some of our novelists. Allen, who has a day job, goes to school and writes for SN&R, simply ran out of steam. “I was writing after all the other stuff was done,” he said, “and I just exhausted my energy.” He hopes to finish his novel, Dishwasher, during an upcoming extended trip to Mexico.

Writers who didn’t hit 50,000 words in the 30-day period still learned a great deal from the experience. Costello wrote for one day “before I realized I have no time in my life for this.” But she did discover that “I have to stop beating myself up for not having the talent to write and realize that it’s a scheduling issue. If I actually make more time, I could do it. It’s just that November was not going to be the month I could do it in.”

What drew us to write about the particular subjects we chose? In my case, it was a lifelong fascination with what’s missing from that icon of American literature The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My novel, Hannah Finn, is an attempt to answer the question of who Huck’s mother is and why she disappeared from his life. About a week into NaNoWriMo, I was able to proudly announce to my colleagues, “Huck was born this morning.”

Sol also worked on a project that was close to her heart. She’d been working on a screenplay for more than a year that was “not going well at all.” So she decided to use NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to write the back story for the character that was giving her the most trouble. “It turned out the character is just not very expressive,” she said, “so there was no way to get 50,000 words from her.” Instead, Sol wrote a novel that gives another character’s viewpoints on the troublesome one. “I found out that what I’ve been struggling with as a screenplay works a lot better as a novel.”

Lane, true to his passion for film, wrote what he thought would be a meditative elegy on the too-brief career of a fictional actor from the 1930s who committed suicide. Instead, he found himself wondering, “What if he took his life because he should have had the career that went to another actor?” Lane’s proficiency with the “what if” question, what he calls “the big novel starter,” led him to some characters who just wouldn’t leave. Harriet, a young woman in his novel Glamour Boys, originally was introduced simply to reveal more about one of the other characters—a cameo appearance, if you will. She was supposed to pass out in a bedroom and disappear from the story.

“She wouldn’t do that,” Lane said. “She woke up, she had her story to tell, and she would not be denied. It was a very strange experience.”

Washington chose both a subject and a genre in which she had no investment whatsoever. The novel she wanted to write was disqualified from the NaNoWriMo competition because she’d already begun it. Instead, her novel Shooting Fish, a murder mystery set at a food magazine, “came to me because I thought the phrase ‘We need to shoot him’ rather odd. We use it in conjunction with photo shoots, but it really sounds strange to say. It was low-risk and fun, and I could do whatever I wanted to do with it.”

Beckner took a similar route. “I was afraid to attack anything too close to me, because 50,000 words in a month is challenging enough, so I tried something I’d never done before.” She also wrote a mystery, a genre she doesn’t read. “When I write fiction, it all tends to be very detailed; moody and internal.” Instead, she went for a plot-driven novel. Her goal was to exercise writing muscles that she doesn’t generally use, and in that, she succeeded. Behind the Iris contains a supernatural element, in a character who may or may not be telekinetic, and is set in San Francisco.

Beckner also came up with perhaps the most unusual character in the month’s writing—a one-eyed cab driver who won’t make left turns. “I was at The Bread Store, listening in on a conversation,” she said. “Someone said, ‘There’s a company that makes eyes for taxidermists,’ and what I heard was ‘a one-eyed taxi driver.’ My mis-hearing brought that character into existence.”

NaNoWriMo, in addition to being a reason to stop putting off that novel we all meant to write someday, provided a writing community. Several of us attended a few of the events—weekly gatherings at local coffee shops—that were posted on the forums. We also formed our own community, and at least one fellow joined us because of the notice in SN&R.

Brian Stovall sent a letter to the editor a week into NaNoWriMo, blaming me, of all people, for his obsession with writing his novel. On a happier note, he recently touched base to let us know that he’d finished at slightly over 50,000 words in time to “win” NaNoWriMo. He describes his novel as a sort of “Flowers for Algernon, if it were written by Stephen King on a really bad day.”

Stovall’s take on the whole thing reflects the consensus among SN&R participants. “I didn’t realize until I tried it how organic the whole writing process is,” he said. “Once you’ve got the discipline of writing every day, you come up with a situation, put some characters into it, and things take off from there.”

Or, as Kiefer said, “Anything goes, if you can make it work.”

For those who aren’t burned out yet, National Novel Editing Month (NaNoEdMo) starts March 1.