This was a big November for me. As well as being ill, having a birthday and attending a flurry of family gatherings, I also achieved something I’d aspired to for quite some time.
I ‘won’ my first NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month), established in 1999 and a charity registered in the US, is an international creative writing event which takes place every November. Participants sign up to write at least fifty thousand words between November 1st and 30th, and they can avail of a host of online resources including hints and tips, pep-talks from established authors, and encouragement from their ‘Writing Buddies.’ Moneys raised from donations go towards funding creative writing endeavours for young people and keeping the enterprise going year on year. I’d been vaguely aware of it for several years, but I’d always shied away from actually giving it a go. For some reason, I’d always expected it to be beyond my capabilities. Writing fifty thousand words wouldn’t, in itself, be a problem – but doing it in thirty days? I wasn’t so sure.
However, in late October, I found myself inexorably drawn to the NaNoWriMo website. Perhaps it was the cute graphics, or the ‘you can do it!’ spirit, but before I knew it my details had somehow been entered. Now, my excuses had to be put aside – I’d committed myself, and that was that.
The first thing I did once I’d signed up was enjoy the excited buzz that enveloped me. I was going to write another first draft! It would be my third this year, and I was enthusiastic to get stuck in. The rules of NaNoWriMo state that you may not begin your project before midnight on November 1st, but – thankfully – planning and notes are permitted. To give myself the best chance of success, I figured the sooner I started my preparations, the better, and so I took a large blank sheet of paper and my favourite felt-tip pen and began to sketch out an idea I’d had for a while, but which I’d never tackled. I devised a setting and character names and a horrible, terrible Antagonist; I created whole new characters, and suggested a vague, but complete, story arc. Pleased with myself, I sat back to admire my handiwork.
Then, an entirely new – and utterly thrilling – character dropped straight into my head from stars unknown, and I found myself taking up the pen again. On a fresh piece of paper, I started to write the words this new character was dictating, in a slightly superior tone, about her home and family and her place in the world, and I realised I was telling myself an entirely different story to the one I’d just been working on.
By the end of the first sentence, I was in love.
I managed to write three pages, longhand, before turning to my Ideas Notebook. Once there, I started making the rather strange, quite giddy-sounding notes that a lot of people who write will be familiar with, things like: ‘E. abducted by a ne’er-do-well en route to Paris: gives her wonderful opportunity to show her mettle,’ and ‘Do they then go and find Madame, or is that silly? No – they run. Much better!’ I managed to create a very general plot outline which, I felt, would bring me up to about ten thousand words or thereabouts – and after that, I would have to go it alone. Time was running out, you see. Very soon, November 1st would be upon me, and I would have to begin.
So, I left aside my perfectly good, and fully fleshed out, first idea and began to write the story that had just begun to take shape inside my head. I didn’t know where it was going, or what would happen to my little character, but that made it all more exciting. Because the character herself (or, as it has turned out, a narrative voice telling her story in the third person, another new departure for me) was so compelling, she began to drive the engine of the book from the first. Her decisions, her reactions, her ideas and schemes and ever-so-clever ruses started to shape the plot. Normally, I write from a detailed outline, but this story was different. This story wasn’t mine, in any real sense – it belonged to the characters. I was just the secretary, taking dictation.
November was a busy month with non-writing life events, as I’ve said. I had several weekends where I didn’t get a chance to put a pen to paper, let alone set foot anywhere near a computer. At the beginning of the month, when I was trying to work out how I was possibly going to achieve this writing goal in conjunction with everything else I had to do, I began to panic a little at the thought of failure. It wouldn’t have mattered at all to anyone but me, of course – but that didn’t mean it was an option. I had to ‘win’, or complete the challenge successfully; it just meant that on those days when I could write, I had to write with a vengeance – and I did.
There were days when I wrote upwards of five thousand words, going to bed that night feeling like I’d spent all day boiling my eyeballs. There were days when I could barely manage to write a paragraph, and I had to respect those days too. It was difficult to write ‘in the dark,’ not knowing where the plot was going to go, but I had faith in my little protagonist and her stubborn, brave way of looking at the world. She never let me down.
My NaNoWriMo challenge ended earlier than some, because I had a family wedding to attend on November 29th. In order to ‘win’, I had to submit my novel by November 27th, my last day at a computer before the end of the month. It was a tight squeeze, and for a while it didn’t look like I was going to make it (November 25th was a writing disaster, brought on by panic); Wednesday, November 27th, however, saw me reach the giddy heights of fifty thousand five hundred and sixty words, and I uploaded my work to the website.
The Winners Page that greeted me was the best thing I’d seen in a long time.
Despite the fact that I ‘won’, though, my story isn’t finished yet. In fact, it doesn’t even have a proper title. I have a lot of work still to do in order to bring it to a proper conclusion, and then the real work – the editing, the polishing, the tidying, the tweaking – can begin. However, I am hopeful that, once it’s ready, I will be able to use the novel which emerges from this battered and rushed first draft as my next querying project, and that other eyes will love my characters as much as I do.
My NaNoWriMo ‘noveling’ experience taught me that it is possible to write fifty thousand words in a month. It’s even possible to do it from a standing start, with little or no preparation. It’s a challenge which, even if you ‘fail’, you’re still a winner – for if you only manage to write five or ten or twenty thousand words, that’s still far more words than you had when you started. There are no losers with NaNoWriMo. It gives you all the benefits of a deadline, all the impetus and encouragement that a limited time frame brings, without any of the harsh consequences should you fall short.
The most important thing it did for me, though, wasn’t giving me my next first draft, or proving to me that I can write a lot of words in not a lot of days. Far more vital to me was the fact that it gave me back the sense of fun, excitement and exhilaration in my writing which pressure and fear and stress was beginning to erode. It made me realise, once again, how much I love to write and how deeply it fulfils me.
I can’t recommend it more highly. See you all next year at the NaNoWriMo start line, and we can all be winners together.
(c) Sinéád O’Hart
Sinéád (S.J.) O’Hart likes medieval stuff, reading, tea, and custard, and blogs about reading and writing at http://sjohart.wordpress.com. A longlisted author in the 2013 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair competition with her Young Adult novel ‘Tider’, she’s currently at work on a trilogy of children’s books. Her work can be found in ‘The Bohemyth’, ‘Number Eleven Magazine’, ‘Synaesthesia Magazine,’ ‘wordlegs’, and ‘The Looking Glass Magazine’. Follow Sinéád on Twitter @SJO’Hart.
Read Sinead’s moving A Poet’s Passing: Rembering Seamus Heaney here