Looking back on 50,000 words.
I have never considered myself a reader. On averaging, I typically read 2 or 3 books per year. I’ve always found it difficult to focus on a story that is not consumed passively (film) or interactively (video games). With the notion that writers must be readers, I often skirted around the idea that writing something as large as a novel was impossible. Being raised in the era saturated with computers, the Internet, and video games, I also felt that this constant interactivity put the already unfavorable odds against me.
The act of writing a novel has always seemed an impassible feat; my Everest. However, I always felt beckoned to the challenge. The desire to amass enough words to fulfill the requirement of a novel, while daunting, has plagued me for years. It has stuck our as my number one bucket list item.
In 2013, after years of hesitation, I decided to face the challenge head on. I participated in NaNoWriMo. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a challenge and charity where participants opt in to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of November. Those who complete the challenge are deemed “winners”. On December 1, 2013, I was declared a winner.
This series of entries will catalogue my experience of novel writing in three parts: writing, editing, publishing. These posts will be published once each phase has been completed.
“There are two ways to look at a blank piece of paper. One way is to see it as the most frightening thing in the world because there is nothing on it, and you have to make the first mark. The other way is to see the blank sheet as the greatest opportunity in the world . . . you can let your imagination fly in any direction.” – Martin Sklar, Disney Imagineer
Whether writing a novel, code, or symphonies, “putting pen to paper” is the most challenging part of any creative endeavor. Over the years, I have found limitation typically fosters the greatest creations. And there is nothing less limiting than staring at a blank page.
With this in mind, I decided to create my own limitations. Looking at the blank page spawned a feeling that I was in an endless and dark expanse, so I decided to drop my first character into the same void. My first paragraph opened up with an unnamed character in a pitch black room. This character began to feel around the floor and the walls, guiding my brush through the painting of this world.
As the space began to fill in, I felt a natural compulsion to create puzzles for the character to solve. I realized that my brain was subconsciously encouraging me unfold the world and character as I would in a video game. This came as no surprise as I have always been fascinated by the medium. The solutions to the puzzles lit torches or opened doors, shedding a little more light on the space around.
Committed to this challenge, I found that substituting techniques I knew well (interactive puzzle solving) for those I didn’t (descriptive storytelling) would pave the way to completion. While the finished product remains suspect, the tension and fear of writing a novel had melted away.
“What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure.” – Samuel Johnson, writer
Once fictional surroundings had been realized, real-life settings placed, and plot discovered, I found that the writing came easy. I was able to dole out words with ease. The idea of writing 50,000 words no longer seemed like the tribulation I had built it up to be. This was short-lived as I found myself encountering a new creative barrier.
Every time my characters entered in conversation, I felt myself writing informational dialogue rather than unique, personality driven exchanges. It all came off as surface level fluff. Quotes were focused around plot devices rather than building lovable (or despised) individuals. My characters were serving as blank avatars for filling plot holes or providing movement toward the big reveal. I was not invested in any of their stories (or lack thereof.)
I had become so obsessed with revealing the novel’s big mystery that I had neglected to focus on the heart of the story: the characters. Every time I attempted to double-back and flesh out these characters, I realized that I was losing time due to my now slowed writing pace. The character development I should have done during my preparation month was now a gigantic setback toward my 50,000 word goal.
I have always been quick to scoff at the idea, but it turns out characters really are what is important in storytelling. Rather than leaving it up to the editing phase, preparation for my next novel will include a large amount of time dedicated to personality research and mock dialogue between characters.
Characters are difficult to write. Do no underestimate their presence in your novel. Find their motive. Ask why they exist. Do not create them solely because you need bodies. In the TV show LOST, there were plenty of survivors from the crash of Oceanic 815 but only those critical to the plot were focused on. The character must have a motive. They must have a story to tell on their own. They must have a goal.
“Gandalf looked at him. ‘My dear Bilbo!’ he said. ‘Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.'” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
I compare completing my novel to a baseball batter finishing warm-up; dropping the extra bats used for practice swings in lieu of one, easing ones muscles for the actual exercise.
Throughout the process of writing, life’s difficulties didn’t stop. On top of speed-writing a novel, I continued my 40+ hour work week, prepared myself for the holidays, stressed over wedding plans, and took care of day-to-day chores. With the challenge complete, a large weight had been lifted. My bat felt lighter; my normal swing felt easier.
Alas, just as with batting, the weight slowly crept back. Over time, day-to-day tasks seemed to get heavier and more burdensome. I felt I had to constantly remind myself not to feel over-burdened. And when I did, I had to remind myself that just months ago, throughout all the daily-trials, I had written a novel.
Luckily the process of completion left me with much more story to tell, though it may not fall in the same novel; possibly short stories, blog posts, or music. Writing a 50,000 word novel in a single month is an enlightening and enriching process. It filled me with an enormous amount of creative confidence. With this barrier of entry tackled, I will be returning often.