I took a leave of absence from my teaching gig to write my first novel. At the time I was burnt out on teaching, but at least when I was teaching I knew what I was doing. I didn’t know how to write a novel, but I started writing anyway. It took about five months to write the first draft. It was over seven hundred pages long and it was a mess!
I’m not sure I’ll ever feel that first novel is finished enough to publish, but it was good practice for what was to follow. In the intervening years, I’ve written four more novels. For this progress, I have to thank Nanowrimo.
Nanowrimo is the cutesy acronym for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. It started years ago when a group of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area challenged each other to write 50,000-word novels in a month. Well, actually, not a finished novel, but as Anne LaMotte would say “a sh***y first draft.” By the way—I know you’re wondering—50,000 words is approximately 180 pages.
Within a few years, this group of friends had taken their challenge to the internet, and before too long tens of thousands of people were joining in.
Before I heard about Nanowrimo I had an idea for a second novel, but I couldn’t seem to get it on the page. I was teaching again, and most nights I’d come home exhausted. I’d wolf down dinner then start writing. Suddenly I’d stop in mid-sentence and think: this is boring, I don’t like this, I don’t know where it’s going. Then I’d eat an unhealthy snack, watch something stupid on TV, go to bed, get up the next day and do it all over again.
But Nanowrimo is about quantity not quality. Your goal is to write 50,000 words. You hope at the end that you will have something resembling a story but that’s not required. Just keep writing.
This emphasis on quantity allowed me to turn off my internal critic. What happened next? My imagination took over. Ideas popped up and a plot formed. That was the most astounding thing to me: my imagination leaned toward story. I didn’t have to force it. It led me there.
Sure, some nights, Samantha (my main character) was given a pie, and I pasted in a pie recipe I’d found on the internet. That upped the word count! Other nights Samantha had had a day just like my day. Did I forget to mention that Samantha was a special education teacher just like I was? Well, if I’d had a really rough day at school, coincidentally Samantha wanted to complain about her day too. Funny how that happened.
But when I hit 50,000 words, I had a real story. In later drafts I edited out the recipes and the venting, but that stuff got me where I needed to go.
I wrote Yellow-Billed Magpie during my first National Novel Writing Month. For me this book will always represent a leap of faith, an exhilarating thirty days when I let my imaginary friends, Samantha, Charlie and Craig run wild on the page, when I let them have their way with me. I’ll be forever grateful to them because they’re the ones who taught me how to write a novel.
I hope you enjoy reading Yellow-Billed Magpie as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you’re interested in writing a novel of your own, I recommend giving Nanowrimo a try. Here’s a link: there are lots of folks there ready to support you!
Check out more about Nancy's book and her giveaway here!