National Novel Writing Month

NaNoWriMo, Novel Writing, Bookclubs, Norwegian-Americans, Dolls House, Henrik Ibsen, Great Reads, Author's Desk

A NaNoWriMo sign at the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver.

When I’m out talking about my book Searching for Nora, the question I get the most is: how long did it take you to write this? People asking me are usually holding the printed version, a hefty, 400-pager. When I tell them it was a twelve-year effort, they shake their heads sympathetically. Wow. Twelve years, locked in my office, toiling away.

The truth is, I spent some of that time on book-related projects other than writing – like finding a new agent and sending the book out to small publishers. I also spent time skiing and kayaking, traveling to China and Italy, and reorganizing my sock drawer. (I now have an awesome sock drawer.) But it is also true that I spent twelve years with the novel fermenting in my brain, twelve years feeling every day that I really needed to get back to work on the next section, and twelve years wondering if I would ever be done.

Which is why I’m both amused and intrigued by the project called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a campaign to get people to sit down during the month of November and write a 50,000-word novel. The organizers were a bunch of young creatives who decided that if they made a big push all at once, supported by coffee houses and each other, they might actually write a novel. The group (now a non-profit) suggests participants aim for 2,000 words a day, which gives you a little leeway, just enough to break for Thanksgiving dinner with your family.

Here is what they say on the NaNoWriMo website: “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” Every November, thousands of would-be novelists get with the program, and quite a few of them make the deadline. When you’re ready to sign up, just go to nanowrimo.org.

Despite the inspiration NaNoWriMo might provide, I never could have written a book the scope and length of mine in one month. I did push hard, however, to get a first draft of the main story done in the first year. It helped me see the arc of the story and begin to develop my characters, and drafting with set deadlines is key. Later I added a secondary storyline, and worked quickly again to get a draft of the entire thing. Like many writers, I suffer from FOBP: fear of the blank page. I hate it when I have to draft a new chapter or scene. But I have no fear of rewriting. In fact, I love rewriting. Drafting quickly is a way to get “clay on the table” so I have something to work with. When people ask me how many drafts I wrote (another common question), I just tell them I spent most of the twelve years rewriting. I have no idea how many drafts. Every day I changed things.

I’m not sure why, but many people imagine that writing a novel is both glamorous and fun. I can report that neither is true. I spent most of my writing time in sweatpants and unruly hair, and many days it took real determination to sit back down. But there is something in me that comes alive when I open the file and get to work down in the trenches of the story; which must be true, as well, for those valiant souls who try to write an entire novel in one month. It’s mid-November; I wonder how they are all doing.

I might just try NaNoWriMo some year; take my laptop and find a cozy coffee shop that won’t mind if I set up camp. It would be fun to commiserate with other novelists while I wait to order my next muffin. It would be a kick to see others around me laboring like I do, lost in a world of their own creation. And it would be a huge relief to be too busy to make the Thanksgiving pies.  Maybe next year.

Wendy Swallow

Nov. 20, 2019

About Wendy Swallow

Wendy Swallow writes about women’s challenges, now and in the tender past. She is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce and The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Swallow became fascinated with Henrik Ibsen’s iconic character Nora Helmer after she left her first husband. Searching for Nora is her first historical novel.

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