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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Glutton for Punishment

by Allan Davis

Every year, a worldwide collection of people—with little in common with each other besides clear and obvious masochistic tendencies—gather for an annual event. For one month, these people will push themselves to the absolute limit, risking friendships, jobs, even marriages, with their monomaniacal devotion to a single goal. Who are these people?

No, they are not looking to appear on Oprah, or any reality show. No, they are not members of a bizarre cult or political party. Gather them all together into one big—really big—room, and you'll find they cover the entire spectrum of humanity.

These people are writers, and the event is called Nano.

Nano is short for NanoWriMo. NanoWriMo is short for "National Novel Writer's Month." And the goal of Nano is very simple: to produce a full novel, fifty thousand sparkling fresh new words of prose, in a mere thirty days—starting at one minute after midnight on November 1st, and, hopefully, finishing at some point before midnight on November 30th.

Nano was originally the brainchild of Chris Baty, who started it in San Francisco in 1999 with a mere 21 contestants. He's also the author of the book, "No Plot? No Problem!" which kind of sums up the entire theme of Nano. The number of entrants (and winners, too) has increased tremendously every year, with nearly 120,000 people on board for 2008. According to Chris, more than 1.6 trillion words were fed into the Nano server for the 2008 NanoWriMo.

Writing a book—especially writing a book in thirty days—is a solo endeavor. Chris Baty, the Nano team, and other writers all do whatever they can to help. Many cities have kickoff parties and recurring get-togethers to help writers get going and keep moving. There are forums available, and often timed challenges through those forums—as in "who can get the most words written in the next fifteen minutes."

One of the most enjoyable parts of a Nano challenge, though, is the series of inspirational emails sent to all of the contestants. Chris lines up a weekly email from "real writers." Every week, you receive a moving and heartfelt "good luck!" message from people like Piers Anthony, Philip Pullman, Johnathan Stroud, and Brian Jacques. Besides cheering you on, these emails also give a glimpse into the minds of the writers behind them.

(And if you can't consider yourself a "real writer" by the time you're two or three weeks into Nano, maybe you should look for some other, easier obsession, like finding a proof for Fermat's Theorem or working out which alien planet the mates to all of your odd socks have been mystically teleported to.)

There are no serious, hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes a novel, probably because that would require some panel of judges to actually read the novels in question rather than write their own. The Nano attitude is generally easygoing and laid back, as in, "if you think you're writing a novel, we think so too."

You can visit the web site and sign up at any time before midnight on Halloween. You upload chunks of your novel; no one reads them except the Nano word-counting program. If your upload reaches the magic number of fifty thousand words, you win, and immediately gain access to all of the rights and privileges associated with being a Nano winner—most of which are bragging rights. I think there might be a t-shirt, and some cool widgets for your blog, too.

The real reward is the completed novel, of course. And the self-esteem boost that comes from knowing that you managed to crank out fifty thousand words in only thirty days. In fact, if you're lucky, a publisher will like your Nano novel, and the strength of it will lead to three more books—which is what happened to a friend.

It's a personal challenge. When you look at your life, with the daily grind of work, projects that need doing between work and sleep, the hobbies and activities that define what little time you have left for fun and enjoyment, and the quality time spent with family and/or significant other, you have to decide which of them will get moved aside for the month to make room for an obsession. And if you don't treat it like an obsession, you will never find the obsessive-compulsive level of focus needed to squeeze out those few minutes a day that will magically convert themselves from time spent to words written.

Here at the Friday Challenge, our esteemed host has made it clear that a mere 250 words a day could theoretically produce a novel in a year. To reach the Nano goal, however, that number jumps to 1,667 words per day at a minimum. You might want to shoot for over 2,000, though, because the family might not appreciate your disappearance halfway through Thanksgiving dinner. (Actually, on second thought, some families might not mind so much.)

Nano is about quantity, not quality. Nano is about forcing yourself to sit down at that keyboard, without fail, every day, even if the 1,667 words you crank out are absolute and utter garbage that will ultimately be cut from your novel. It's about training your brain to move forward without editing—because every minute you waste going back and fixing yesterday's words is a minute lost cranking out today's words. There will be a lot of garbage flowing from your brain to the screen through your fingers and keyboard, because you're forcing your brain to produce words it probably isn't in the mood to produce. But, interestingly enough, hidden among that garbage will be the occasional gem—the insult that brings a dialog to life, the childhood event that crystallizes the personality of the lead character, even the artistic flourish of descriptive prose that you don't even remember writing the next day. Two or three weeks into a Nano, you'll be surprising yourself with how many gems are appearing in the river of sludge...or is that a river of gems surrounded by a bare trickle of crud...?

I was introduced to Nano just in time for the 2005 challenge. My wife—a writer who had first signed up for Nano three years earlier—had read some of my short stories, and suggested I try it, and, fool that I was, I thought it was a great idea. An actual challenge that demanded I actually set aside writing time each day? There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be fun. Well...fun is a relative term.

I actually managed to produce ten thousand words around the birth of our daughter that month. "Tangler: Web of Dreams" was quite possibly the longest thing I had ever written up to that point. The concept—a boy who was slated to become the next Guardian of the Dreamworld, and targeted for destruction by the Tangler, the Master of Nightmares—originally came from a bizarre dream I had written down almost twenty years earlier.

And just like that, I was hooked. I've signed up for every Nano challenge since.

I had a more ambitious story idea for 2006. More notes, more characters, more everything, for "Mystic Maelstrom," a story about four people destined to travel to a world filled with magic and vampires. And despite everything life threw at us, I actually managed to set a new personal record of over twenty thousand words—and still had not managed to move the characters TO the prophesied magical world yet!

With a new job (in a new state) that demanded oodles of overtime, 2007 ("Undying") and 2008 ("Wizard and Wing") went nowhere for me. I might have managed 2500 words for them. Combined. The plotlines of both are scribbled out, character sketches in place, tidbits of humor and horror put down for future reference, waiting for me to focus on them again. Bits of both ideas have become Friday Challenge entries.

Yes, you've read that correctly. Out of four Nanos entered so far, I have four failures. Four absolutely miserable failures, not even reaching half my 50,000 word goal on any one of them.

But...in those miserable failures...I have the outlines for four novels, plus scribbled out ideas for a dozen short stories. I have one novella of over 10,000 words that's actually made it three-fourths of the way through the plotline. I have one novel of 20,000 words that's nowhere near the midpoint of the story. I have well over thirty thousand words written that quite probably never would have made it out of the back of my brain if it weren't for Nano, and I try to put a few more words a week into them, as time allows.

Will I sign up for the 2009 Nano? Absolutely. Will I make my fifty thousand, this year, finally? Hopefully. But even if I don't, I will still have taken something away from Nano. No matter how hectic life gets, no matter what sacrifices the demons of Otogu (for the uninitiated, that's "Other Things of Greater Urgency") demand from me, I can still carve out a small chunk of my life and devote it to writing. And that's the most important lesson to be learned by anyone who considers himself (or herself) a "real writer."

Allan Davis is a programmer/photographer/writer living in Nebraska, and is currently "between jobs," as the saying goes, thanks to a layoff. Allan is a frequent competitor in the Friday Challenge, even winning on a few rare occasions, and also writes for Brighthub, while his photography is available on Redbubble and CafePress. He does admit that this article is much longer than it should be; it is wordy, goes meandering off down strange pathways and side streets, and could do with a major revision, by cutting at least several hundred words right off the top. But, leaving all that stuff in demonstrates the scale of a Nano challenge, because without that editing, the entire article works out to one day's worth of NanoWriMo: 1667 words.
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