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Do you have a novel in you?

Christopher Hitchens once acknowledged that everyone does. But, he went on to say, “that’s exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.”

Not true, maintain the folks behind the annual writers’ challenge known as National Novel Writing Month. In fact, its slogan is “The World Needs Your Novel.” Every November for 13 years, NaNoWriMo has been exhorting would-be-writers all over the world to simply sit down and write a novel of at least 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30.

This is doable! “In 2012,” its website notes, “341,375 participants started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”

World MapA world of writers: The 596 NaNoWriMo regions in 2013. (Image courtesy of National Novel Writers Month)

Since I turned 7, I’ve had no yearning to write a novel. Not, that is, until, umpteen years later—in 2013—I attended a two-hour workshop at the Seattle Public Library that promised me I could write a novel in a month.

The workshop leader made it sound easy. If we did not get hung up on plotting, characters, setting, or, most of all, editing, a novel would flow, she said.  Our desire for perfection inhibits writing. We rethink. Save all that for editing after the fact. Edit later, write now.

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Echoing the title of the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, our writing teacher charged us to just start putting words on the page. Set a daily word goal. Thirty days, aiming for 50,000 words means producing 1,666.67 words a day. Sit at the computer three times a day, typing like mad, producing 600 words in 10 minutes. The book will evolve by itself.

This would not be my first novel. At age 6 I decided to write a book.  I had a favorite subject, one in which I had a certain expertise—a good omen for novelists looking for ideas. I looked no further than the rag bin in the alcove under the basement stairs. This is where I discovered asorcies (my own spelling, and easier to pronounce than accessories). The rag bin was full of tattered cloths with which I loved to drape myself. I folded paper to form 8 or 10 pages. The only sentence I recall is “Asorcies are good.”  I had a touch of the Little Match Girl in me, which was a spur to creativity. My little book disappeared, surely into the clutches of my older sister, who seemed to think it a comic masterpiece. She’s my prime suspect, of which my new novel has many.

It’s true, what published writers say: Start to write, and characters will invent themselves, without your conscious effort. My book turned out to be an international thriller. I started with a main character, Granny, killed her off at once, then invented her two young-adult grandchildren, who circled the globe in search of her killer/s. A title soon appeared: Granny’s Gone!

I met a woman at the workshop and we became writing partners, checking in with each other online. My supporters were friends and family members, to whom I emailed a weekly progress report.  Some demurred, concerned they’d have to read excerpts and, God forbid, critique them.  Oh, no, no! I wanted no critiques. I wanted to write and write without inhibitions.

And I did. Indeed, I wrote twice the daily word-minimum, and was finished in 18 days. But then, I had a secret weapon. It’s a prescription drug I need and take. I do not care to disclose any more than that it has a documented side effect: compulsive behavior. I didn’t learn this reading the fine print in the package. It has shown up in the Health section of my local Sunday paper on two occasions. Compulsive behavior is a great attribute when you want to write 50,000 words in a short time, not so wonderful when you would like to eat just one cookie, not the entire box at a sitting. Like most miracle cures, it has its downside.

Except for the damage to my back after all those hours sitting at the computer, it was fun. I mean really fun! You know how writing can be stressful? You want to be clever or learned. You have a specific audience in mind. But this was uncensored pleasure, inventing a tale as I went along, not worrying about outcomes. I did have in mind that coming up with who-done-it was going to be important. This resulted in lots of suspects and perhaps too many venues: Seattle, New York City, Madrid, Paris, Juba in South Sudan, Sevilla, Houston, a spa in southern California, the desert Southwest . . . I intended to have the grandchildren-detectives drop in on Dubai, Peru, Hong Kong, and Washington, D.C., but was proud of my self-control in not doing so. I did have to review character names after I realized I was changing them at will. MSW’s “find” command was my best friend.

Here’s an excerpt from the weekly diary I sent to my cheerleaders:

“I have written 22,000 words, almost halfway. I can’t believe it. I don’t remember most of the words, as I never look back, but I do keep some track of characters, since I found I was changing their names regularly. The book is now boring me, so someone will die tomorrow. It can’t just be Granny. She’s been gone a while. Angela, I am sorry, but it’s your character, and she’s an admirable one. They are now in Paris, so it’s at least a fun venue in which to die.”

Nothing but the story mattered for those 18 days. One cinematic image imprinted on my mind as I typed like a madwoman: Jack Nicholson in The Shining—an author in distress, typing in a frenzy as the camera pans in. He’s written the same (dare I say, obsessive?) sentence over and over. (Someone on the website asked, “Can you write the same words over and over?”)

NaNoWriMo has you upload the novel when you are done. I clocked in on November 18, 2013, at 50,718 words. I’m a winner!  You win by completing 50,000 words—so simple! Fourteen percent of 2013’s 310,095 participants were winners.

Fifty thousand words is novella size, the same length as The Great Gatsby— a helpful thing to know.  Like Water for Elephants was a NaNoWriMo book—one of more than 250 “traditionally published” NaNoWriMo novels, the website says. And now, Granny’s Gone!  It was cyanide, concealed in analgesic capsules (in case you are interested).

Chris Baty talks about authors’ having far too great expectations of first drafts, quoting Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is s**t.” I intend to do an edit or two, filling out what is now a one-dimensional story. But it’s a real story, and not a boring one.  I loved the quote my email circle sister Carol sent, from Somerset Maugham:

“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”

I will begin editing soon, sending excerpts to two friends who asked for them. My greatest pleasure was the pure joy of putting words on paper and in finding that a story did indeed emerge and flower. I admit that my focus was on quantity rather than quality.  Still, I strived to incorporate some humor and fun. The refining will happen when I edit.

I learned that giving myself to a story for a few weeks was not only fun, but enlightening.  Who needs to try memoir when a novel can serve the same purpose? Mine was all about me, in a way. I killed myself off and soon was resurrected in the twenty-something characters of my grandchildren. I loved traveling and escaping the forces of evil. I had some PG sex (which an edit can improve) and lived high on the hog, thanks to Granny’s money. I was kidnapped, but did not suffer much. Alas, some died.  Still, it was was all good and quite loving.

I invite everyone on Women’s Voices for Change to participate next year. We will be our own subgroup.  It will be more fun than you can imagine. We can reinvent our lives in our stories, which is what writing is all about.

If finding an agent is frustrating, self-publish and get it on Amazon.com. Life is short, and according to founder Chris Baty, “There’s a book in you that only you can write.”