January 24-30, 2007

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Victoriana: The novel was simply to be an erotic Victorian thriller featuring faeries, elves and Jack the Ripper.

Write of Passage

It's a plot: Do 3,000 words a day over 30 days equal a novel?

By Hannah Strom-Martin

For most people, spending 30 days hunched over a computer trying to churn out 50,000 words to earn a measly little e-plaque seems about as feasible as trying to orbit Saturn without an air tank. No one, however, has ever accused me of being like "most people."

This last November, I--along with 79,812 other high-functioning lunatics--embarked on an odyssey that has become a kind of cause célèbre for anyone who has ever had aspirations of writing a novel: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). An annual writing contest favoring "quantity over quality," NaNoWriMo is a delightful exercise in madness that dares participants the world over to write 50,000 words over the course of 30 days. Started in 1999 by a group of 21 Bay Area-based writers, the phenomenon has ballooned over the years to encompass tens of thousands of participants and, in 2006 alone, 982,564,701 words.

For no money down (though donations are gratefully accepted), participants can register online at www.nanowrimo.org, the contest's punchy, interactive website. You get your own page, a host of interactive features including information about past NaNoWriMo goings-on, a weekly letter of encouragement from organization guru Chris Baty--often telling you to hold on for one more week before hanging yourself--and a chance to chat, via message boards, with a host of perpetually frustrated writers who ought to have known better. At the end, if you manage the 50,000-word feat, you get the virtual equivalent of a gold star and a euphoric sense of accomplishment.

I was so thrilled to have churned out my quota that I immediately came down with the flu.

Why the hell would anyone want to do this? The answers vary. Many see it as a proverbial kick in the pants, an opportunity to see if you're made of the same stuff as John Grisham or Danielle Steel. Others, struggling to find writing time year-round, do it for the community. (They need help.) As for me, I simply wanted to see if I could jump-start a project that had been languishing in the dusty back corner of my mental shed for a year. And since NaNoWriMo has been gaining more and more publicity of late, I figured November was as good a time as any to drop my life and kick out the jams.

I didn't want to do anything too fancy. Just a full-on erotic historical novel set in London's Victorian era juxtaposing the pre-Raphaelite culture of high art and society with that of an urban population terrorized by the murders of Jack the Ripper (characters to include a sprawling cast of artists, killers, faeries, prostitutes and the Elephant Man). This is nothing. I was lucky: many people start NaNoWriMo with absolutely no premeditated plot.

On your NaNoWriMo page, you can upload excerpts of your work. It soon became clear to me that plots need not exist nor sentences be structured in any rational system known to man. Never mind that my previous research on the Victorian era consisted of watching From Hell and reading three chapters of a book on British plumbing. As Chris Baty says in his book of the same name: No plot? No problem! With my trusty laptop at my side and a cup of industrial strength mocha sloshing in my trembling hand, I set out to write the great quasi-European sex novel.

Following are some of the lovingly recorded highlights of what we shall laughingly call "the process."

Day 1 Here's a lesson for all NaNoWriMo participants: Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! That's right, kids--I've been planning this novel for over a month. I have an outline! I know where I'm going and what I'm doing--and I have read extensively about the British plumbing system! This'll be cake!

Day 6 Have run out of plot twists far earlier than expected. Have actually had to stop and do research owing to fact that I don't have a clue about Victorian London. At all.

Day 15 Research going better. Have introduced self to horrors of life on London streets: beggars and dung collectors and rag-men, oh my! Still, God, I hate writing. This Thing I've created is so [expletive deleted] pathetic and hideously boring! I thought I'd read a few books on Victoriana and write myself an opus. Puckey! And could I have picked a more morbid or depressing topic as a Jack the Ripper faerie tale? No one would believe me if I told them! Arrggh! I have about 20,000 words of this [expletive deleted] bad writing and a burning desire to get drunk, drunk, drunk. Not too shabby!

Day 18 Holding good at 20,987 words. Received the weekly e-mail from Chris Baty urging me on to 35,000. Oy. In concentrated rush to make my word quota, I have skimped on exercise and gained five pounds. Too many inspirational peppermint mochas.

(Somewhere between the whining and complaining, however, an amazing thing happened: I actually started churning out 3,000 words a day. An incredible feat for someone who usually throws in the towel at 1,000 words. And, as I suspect was the case with many of the intrepid souls who ended up crossing the finish line, as the word count mounted, I actually started to believe in myself. Could this be me, churning out 3,000 words a night? Skipping reruns of Friends in the pursuit of art? My God! Was I actually becoming a writer? Well, sort of.)

Day 25 42,098 words. No longer have faintest idea where I am or what I'm doing.

Day 27 Am up to 45,000 words for NaNoWriMo. Some of the most God-awful prose I have ever written. I sit here, struggling with it, wearing my pajamas in the middle of the day like some sort of outpatient, trying to make this book interesting and forcing the poor souls I call my "characters" to do the most clichéd sexual crap. This is supposed to be an erotic horror story! It's more like a woefully inept history lesson told by a blind and perverted mime who keeps inserting random X-ratings where they refuse to occur naturally.

Also: I hate my characters.

Well, two of them anyway.

As they are the main two, I think I have a considerable problem.

Mimes and hated characters aside, I ended up crossing the finish line two days early and nine words ahead (my word count said 234 words ahead but never mind) for a total of 50,009. I was a winner! The coveted e-plaque was mine!

I have to say, it felt good. If pressed, I would have to cast my lot in with the people who routinely subject themselves to such an experiment. Because, agonizing as it is, this baby gets results.

When I started the month, I anticipated that life would interfere with the needed momentum to such an extent that I would be lucky to make 30,000 words--a mere 1,000 words a day. But as time went on, I realized this wasn't just an exercise in futility; it was a test to find out whether my inner child was the forgiving Oprah type or the domineering Joan Rivers kind. Much to my astonishment and horror, mine turned out to be the latter. After the initial struggle of the first few days came and went, I found myself in a frightful groove, unable to sleep unless I'd hammered out the self-inflicted 3,000 sum. I tried to take sick days, I tried to invent excuses to bail, but something kept me invested. Could it have been just pure will?

Whatever the case, more things now seem possible after the marathon I just ran. I've never been one for self-help workshops or spiritual healing, but there's something about cranking out those words that smacks of empowerment. I might actually, God help me, finish that novel and embark upon rewrites. I might actually go to the gym and work off the Starbucks habit that rendered me one step above a crack fiend over the duration of the endless month. Chris Baty and company keep a remarkable table of statistics for their project: 12,948 authors reached the finish line this year. I think they know what I know:

Weight gained over NaNoWrimo: Five pounds.
Number of hissy fits engaged in: 12.
Value of NaNoWriMo bragging rights and chance to get down with our bad selves again next year: Priceless.
Next year, I'm upping my word count to 50,018!

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