Our Fresh Local Lit series serves up poems and prose by Philadelphians twice a week. Today’s author, Jody Brady, shares an essay about participating in National Novel Writing Month. We caught up with her fresh after a move to Arlington, Virginia where she is in the process of setting up Feeding the Muse, an organization that will offer workshops, writing classes and editorial services.
Going the Distance: Write a Novel? Who, Me?
I wrote a novel as I finished my graduate writing program in 1984 and I was thrilled when an agent offered to represent me. I was filled with hope for about a year.
When the novel failed to sell, the agent dropped me. I wrote another novel. After two years of working on it, I failed to get an agent interested. The book never found its way out of the slush pile at each of the publishing houses I sent it to. After that, I didn’t think I had it in me to try another novel, but I didn’t give up on fiction quite yet.
I turned my efforts to the short story. After limited success (small journals, anthologies, a few contest awards), the drive to write fiction faded as the demands of writing for a living took center stage. Think annual reports, journal articles, city guides, websites, newsletter copy, book reviews, marketing brochures. At some point, I accepted that I’d woken up from my dream of being a fiction writer. If I wasn’t going to publish, and publish well, I didn’t see the point. I told myself that if a story ever came to me that was so compelling it demanded to be written, I would go back to writing fiction.
It didn’t happen.
Still, over the years, the itch to write another novel grew–but I didn’t dare. First, I had nothing I felt compelled to write about and, as if that weren’t enough to stop me, I knew that writing a novel could take years. I doubted I could afford to put aside paid writing that long.
That was last October. Less than one year later, I’m finishing the first draft of a novel. What changed between last October and this October? One acronym: NaNoWriMo.
November is National Novel Writing Month, according to the intrepid cheerleaders at a small nonprofit, the Office of Letters and Light, that has sponsored a month-long write-a-thon since 1999. With “literary abandon” as its goal, NaNoWriMo encourages the writer in all of us to produce a fictional tome in 30 days. Not necessarily a good novel, or a publishable novel–just a novel or 50,000 words of a novel, to be exact.
I saw an article about NaNoWriMo a year ago. Don’t worry about writing something good, the NaNoWriMo rep said. Don’t worry about knowing what you’re going to write. Just don’t worry period.
On October 31, 2010, I was feeling a little reckless and I decided I wasn’t going to wait around any longer for inspiration. I would start a novel the next day. But what to write about? I scrawled down a few ideas in a notebook. I would set the story, whatever the story was, in West Philadelphia, where I had recently moved. Next, I knew I needed a conflict, so I borrowed one from my own past (my father picking up and leaving one day) and added a few twists to heighten the conflict. (The father character would run off with a neighbor! A neighbor who happened to be the mother of the best friend of the narrator!) I gave my protagonist a name and went to bed thinking about who she was. I woke up the next morning and started writing.
To hit the 50-K mark in one month and be declared a NaNoWriMo “winner,” a participant needs to average 1,667 words a day. For someone like me who hadn’t managed to produce more than a few words of fiction in eons, that mark seemed less than likely.
But the good folks at NaNoWriMo offer encouragement mixed with the right dose of philosophy and pragmatism. On the group’s website, you can register your novel, track your progress and get loads of support and pep talks. With the group’s help, you can even meet up with other “novellers” living nearby–and each year it’s more likely you’ll find you’re not the only one in your neighborhood writing a November novel. In 2000, 140 writers registered with NaNoWriMo; twenty-nine of them achieved the 50,000-work mark. By last year the numbers had leapt to 200,500 participants and 37,500 “winners” who met or beat the 50-K-word mark.
Alas, I was not among the 2010 winners. By the end of last November, I had written a little more than 25,000 words–only half the goal. I had promised myself that when I got the quixotic novel-writing-thing out of my system that November, I would turn back to writing for money. But the story had gotten under my skin. How could I leave my character floundering without a resolution? I decided to give myself more time; I’d keep writing through December, then stick to paying work in the New Year.
I didn’t do that.
I’m still writing the novel I started last November. If I manage to finish it, I’m realistic enough to understand it’s unlikely an agent will take on this book and sell it to a publisher. It’s just not that good–at least not at this point. Funny thing is: I find that matters less and less to me. What keeps me going at this point are the characters and their story. I want to know what happens to them.
By expecting less of my fiction, I’ve freed it up again. Years of writing-on-demand had dulled my imagination. Tell me what to write and I’ll write it, and that’s all I’ll write. Thanks to NaNoWriMo’s liberating premise — just write! — I’ve learned to relax and I’ve re-learned to explore my terrain as I write.
I’ve become a better reader this year because I was writing this novel. I’ve been a more understanding human this year because I was writing this novel. I’ve been a more sane person, too, as I worked through the death of a parent and all the complications that came before and after that event. I’ve rejuvenated some of the hope I had when I was writing blindly in my twenties. For all these reasons, I’ve remembered writing matters.
What will happen with this novel? I’d love someone to read it, but I don’t expect it to light up the literary world. If I finish it, I’ll send it out. It’s likely, though, this novel will ultimately take its place on my cyber shelf alongside the first two I wrote. I know all too well how bad rejection feels, but I also know you live through it.
In the meantime, I’ve come to care about my characters and to be surprised by them. (Characters can do the darndest things!) And because I set the novel here in West Philadelphia, I’ve paid attention to this new city I’m living in and I’ve come to appreciate what’s around me more fully than I would have if I hadn’t been writing about it. I’ve also quietly honored a few heroes of my own life and shared the new sense of peace I’ve found with some of the “characters” I keep company with off the page.
So, here’s a shout-out to NaNoWriMo. I may not count among your 2010 winners, but I’m feeling pretty darn lucky.
For more about National Novel Writing Month, see http://www.nanowrimo.org/.
For the Philly NaNoWriMo support group check out their Facebook Page.