It’s not as if she didn’t have anything else going on this month. Minneapolis student N. Jeanne Burns is juggling four classes scattered across three campuses, never mind the usual work and life demands. But she’s added one more task to her to-do list this month: Write a novel. And so she is.
Burns, along with an estimated 90,000 other writers around the world, is participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a grand experiment in which would-be novelists vow to crank out a 50,000-word book in one month. “NaNoWriMo gives me an opportunity and excuse to just write without any expectation of a specific outcome. The end product is, hopefully, a decent first draft,” Burns says. She organizes a weekly NaNoWriMo “write-in” in the Open Book space, also home to the Loft Literary Center, and finds the presence of a dozen other writers tapping away on their laptops a highly productive form of peer pressure.
Pep talks from the published
Now in its ninth year, NaNoWriMo has grown from a group of 21 San Francisco writers to a well-organized constellation of ambitious scribes who sign up through a central website, which gives planning help, as well as cheerleading from fellow writers through local write-ins and online forums. Participants also get emailed pep talks from famous writers such as Sue Grafton and Tom Robbins, the latter of whom confided in one such note: “I nearly burned my first novel a dozen times, and it’s still in print after 35 years.”
To meet the word goal, writers must commit to 1,667 words a day, and most people won’t make it. I’ll be one of them, as I only got 5,789 words out before other things got in the way. Even though there are a couple weeks left, I’ve lost my momentum. And that’s typical. Last year, 80,000 people registered for NaNoWriMo, but only 13,000 finished. Lack of stick-to-it-iveness is the greatest hurdle writers face, says Edgar Award-winning writer David Housewright, who’s teaching a luxuriously long 12-week novel-writing class at the Loft this fall. By the end of it, he expects a third of his students will disappear.
Every excuse in the book heard
“The difference between me and most of my students is that come hell or high water, I will actually finish the book,” says Housewright, who has published seven mysteries, including “Tin City” and “Penance.” “But they will find ways not to finish the book. ‘The job’s a hassle, the kid is sick, we’re moving to a new house, there’s no time.’ Time: That’s the big one.”
“I’ve been told that Mickey Spillane wrote the original draft of ‘I, The Jury’ in [19 days], and Charles R. Jackson wrote ‘The Lost Weekend’ in a weekend while he was on a train,” he says, adding his own books have been cooked up in as few as four months or as many as 13. “In fact, I finished my 2009 book yesterday, many months in advance of the deadline, so I could clear my plate for some other work.”
Well! Take that, procrastinators and excuse-makers. Now sit down and write.