A Novel in Ten Days: Bragging Rights & Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2013


In October Access Copyright invited its members to “Showcase Your Creative Space,” and it has been posting the submissions on Twitter.

“The world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection.” – Chris Baty

Earlier this year, it must have been July, I was visiting my daughter. I can’t remember whether I was the one who was first attracted to a book on her bookshelf because of its title on the spine, or whether she drew my attention to it. However it came my way, the title of Chris Baty’s book, No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days,  spoke to me in ways some of my daughter’s other recommendations haven’t. (She recently presented me with The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud, a 2010 Giller Prize winner that stumped me. Why did it win a Giller? I was put off immediately by the inaccuracies in the drawing of the soldier’s uniform on the cover, and later when one of the characters addresses a sergeant as sir. Turning the last page I was still wondering if the novel had a plot. You’re probably wondering how, being as put off as I was, I made it to the last page. Stupid, I quess. You may remember that only 800 copies of The Sentimentalists were published by Gasperau Press in Nova Scotia, and the week that the Gillers were announced, the book was unavailable in the bookstores. Sales of the ebook soared, and the The Sentimentalists became a Kobo best-seller. Seems to me there was more of a story about the book, than in the book. By the way, if you disagree with my assessment of Skibsrud’s novel, I’d be happy to read your polite replies. There is a comment box below.) Sorry. I’m getting off track, but a detour such as this serves to increase my word count, an essential goal of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, the topic of this posting.

Chris Baty’s book attracted me for two reasons. First No Plot, No Problem, speaks to my way of writing. A character or two will nudge me towards the writing of a few notes. When I can no longer overcome their insistence, I begin to write their stories. I have no idea where the narrative will lead and trust that the characters will tell me where to go. I was attracted to the title of Baty’s book because when I write, I don’t have a plot, and I dearly want to be assured that that is “No Problem.”

The second reason for reading No Plot, No Problem was the idea of completing something. Those of you who have been reading my posts know of my “unfinished novel” and how its characters have influenced me. As a matter of fact my first posting was titled “The Dreaded ‘D’ word: Or How the Internet is Not to Blame for my Unfinished Novel.” And dear, oh, dear, look at the date. August 2012. Regrettably I’ve moved that novel forward by only a few chapters, and the characters are “sleeping” in the same drawer where three other wannabe novels languish.

Baty offers strategies for hammering out 50,000 words in 30 days, one of which is to leave the internal editor outside the door and to ignore his whimpering. Elizabeth Bartlett writes: “Your inner critic may run, but it can’t hide from Chris Baty. Baty is the founder and main cheerleader of National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, the annual brain-splintering, caffeine-fueled challenge to start and finish a 50,000-word novel within 30 days each November. Claiming that “aiming low is the best way to succeed,” Baty’s dedication to free-range creativity takes the pressure off thousands of would-be novelists each year as they rush to finish their manuscripts. “Everybody has that critic, and I have it too,” said Baty. “It’s more a matter of successfully managing that creature. In that first flush of writing, you need to have that thing gone, off, completely locked up somewhere. Basically, you need to accept that things will be bad. You will write awkward sentences, your characters may seem flat or stolen entirely from family members or television; that’s not going to stop you.” Fear of bad writing certainly didn’t stop Baty when he came up with the idea of NaNoWriMo in 1999, after he had just finished creating a newsletter, and wanted a bigger challenge to tackle.” (“Chris Baty: NaNos and No-Nos,”  http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/chris_baty.htm)

“The first draft of anything is shit.”~ Ernest Hemmingway

I realize that some of my earlier posts have embraced the virtues of the Slow Movement. Over a year ago I posted “You Can’t Hurry Love: A Justification for Slow Writing”– but slow can be an excuse for procrastination. Slow writing hasn’t done justice to my chapters scattered in the nooks of my hard drive that rarely see light where my characters failed to find life support.

So, having been inspired by Baty’s book, I logged on to the NaNoWriMo web site (http://nanowrimo.org) in July and created an account, and in creating the account I failed to realize that I was signing up to write a novel in November. That was in July. I ignored NaNoWriMo until October. I revisited the web site and began to read postings to its forums, and what I read was not what I had expected. Writers were talking about preparing for November. They were detailing their methods for outlining and character mapping. The essence of what they were preaching was that the impossibility of NaNoWriMo is a hell of a lot more possible when one prepares. One writer suggested listing bullet descriptions of 60 scenes, because, apparently, if you can visualize 60 scenes, you can knock out the novel. You see, the rules of NaNoWriMo allow for preparation as long as the actual writing of the novel doesn’t begin until the 1st of November. I found the NaNo postings intimidating, and that may be the reason why I had a few restless nights. I had no idea of what I was going to write. I had no characters and no hint of where to begin. On November 1st I would not be allowed to pick up one of my wannabe novels or any other work-in-progress because another of the NaNoWriMo rules is to start fresh.

While driving through Maine on way back to Prince Edward Island from Connecticut where my wife Alanna and I had been visiting my mother, I saw a path leading off from the two-lane blacktop into the woods. A rough trail, it may have been a logging road. Decommissioned, access to it was blocked by four large boulders. “What a perfect place to hide a corpse. There’s the seed of a novel,” I thought. Immediately the internal editor chimed in, “But you’re a serious writer. You don’t write that kind of crap.” I recalled how Baty had written, “The world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection.”  Write for the fun of it and allow the imperfections to flow. The idea, however imperfect, was stronger than the editor. It germinated. Stopping an hour later in Calais, Alanna went into a Wal-Mart while I sat in the car and jotted down notes. Imperfect characters arrived on the scene and started dictating imperfect dialog. I had something fresh to work with.

Back home I took the idea and tried to outline. I tried to develop character sketches. I couldn’t. I sat down with a pen and notebook and what arrived were scenes with full-blooded dialogues. The characters would resurface at unexpected times and I would scribble a few lines on the pages of a memo pad, or a scrap of paper in the kitchen, or in a notebook I keep in my backpack. But as much as I tried to outline, I couldn’t.

I read more postings on the NaNoWriMo forums. I learned that there are two types of writers: the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters are the ones for whom the outlines and the sixty scenes and the character maps come easily. And pantsers are those who fly by the seat of their pants, clueless from one scene to the next as to where the narrative is going and how it will end. The first lesson that NaNoWriMo taught me was that I’m a pantser, and the second lesson was that it’s okay. There are many others like me, and because they don’t have methods for outlining and techniques for exposing characters, they’re not posting much about preparation.

Alanna knew that I wanted to do this and was more than encouraging. She gave me the time and space to sit and write without interruption. The novel was begun at 5 o’clock in the morning of November 1st with me scrambling to find all of the scraps of notes I had written the week before. I set for myself a goal of 5,000 words a day. For the first few days, the goal came relatively easily, often within 6 hours. (A great time to be unemployed, underemployed, or retired.) When I was is “in the groove” the time passed quickly. And when my daily goal had been reached, I was tired. Exercise was negligible throughout the entire novel-writing sprint, and my caffeine intake more than tripled. I guess there is a reason why there’s a coffee cup on the NaNoWriMo logo.

According to NaNoWriMo mythology the dragon arrives during week two–also known as ‘the week two terror’ or the ‘week two blues.’ For many writers there is a slowing of progress. Others hit a wall. My week two terror came at the end of day four when I had exhausted my notes. And inspiration? I think it said it was going out for a smoke. I tried killing a principle character and took the next day off—the day TWiG meets, the writers’ group to which I belong.

Lesson # 3: Writing 5,000 words a day is possible. But it pays to push away from the keyboard from time to time. Inspiration sometimes waits for you to look out a different window, or to prepare a meal, or to tend to the fire in the wood stove.

The writing became difficult when scenes played themselves out and I had little idea of what would happen next. I was tempted by my usual distractions. I was tempted to cruise the web, google nagging but superficial and irrelevant questions, and delete emails from my 2011 inbox, and I saw them for what they were–distractions. I was tempted, but I forced myself to focus. I told myself that I could attend to those things after I had met my daily goal. Overcoming the week two terror meant pushing through, meant getting the words down, however imperfect or seemingly irrelevant. It meant pushing through the untamed brush and brambles to get to the clearing and to rediscover the path. It meant silencing once again the internal editor that wanted to yell, “Where are you going? That’s got nothing to do with the story? Stop. Stop. Think it through.” But therein lies another obstacle; thinking is also a distraction and it can lead to dead ends. I had to stop thinking and write. Just write and get words down. And what I wrote had, eventually, everything to do with the story. (I may have to revise that view later when I get down to editing.)

I crossed the finish line of 50,000 words on the morning of November 11, Bahá’u’lláh’s birthday, and the day our supply of wood ran out. 50,000 words is no guarantee of a narrative arc; the attainment of 50K doesn’t hold the promise of a coherent beginning, middle, and end. And I was surprised to see the arc and the ending appearing about this time. I didn’t like the ending and wrote another. At 50,928. I was happy. I had written the draft of the novel in ten days, about thirteen single-spaced pages a day.


I now wish I had undertaken the NaNoWriMo exercise years ago. What I have learned will change my approach to my other “unfinished novels.” I will halt the editor that waits with the polishing cloth, until all the chapters are drafted. He stands by, ready to grab each word and eager to massage every sentence as it streams raw upon the page. He’ll just have to wait.

I have enjoyed the benefits of 15 minute free writing exercises and likes of morning pages, but until NaNoWriMo, I had not considered the long-haul, thirty-day free write. But doesn’t it make sense. The trouble is…

Experience tells me that for every hour of generative writing, I need to spend four in editing. Having drafted my NaNoWriMo novel in ten days, I will let it sleep awhile. And when I pick it up again, I will have to stock up on coffee beans and wood for the stove and be prepared to retreat into its wilderness for forty days.

6 thoughts on “A Novel in Ten Days: Bragging Rights & Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2013

  1. Absolutely loved your article Paul! I must say that I actually felt excited as I read it…I am definitely intrigued. Now to try it myself. I think for now, if I can just incorporate this into getting anything finished, I’ll be a happy woman! Thanks again. Diane G. (TWIG)

  2. First off I love the photograph. You capture Alanna’s decorating in a way that does it justice. And the writing method sounds right. From her descriptions it sounds like the technique Louise Penny uses. And besides being a Canadian author who actually sells books, she makes you want to savour them with characters like gifts from her heart.

  3. Pingback: 3 Lessons I Learned from Self-publishing a Debut Novel | ArtsConflicted

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