NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is in November every year. I’ve done it twice now. Both years, I’ve been grateful to follow the madness with the holidays, a month notorious for not getting a lot of writing done. I need December to recover.
Partly, it’s the intensity of the work. 50 thousand words is the goal. I’ve averaged about 30k.
Partly, it’s being forced to learn something new. Writing is a habit of mind and my habits are fairly ingrained.
To increase the number of words I write in a given period, I have to change how I write. Don’t stop and mull. Don’t go back and revise. Keep moving toward the conclusion.
I thought I understood the rules. Then, I participated in my first write-in. Write-Ins are the writer version of boot camp. Nano peeps gather in libraries, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, under the street light on the corner …and they throw down. Give it all you’ve got, and then a little more.
At my local coffee shop, we cram into the back area near the outlets. Some clever woman brings a power strip to increase our options. Every seat is taken. Laptops up-light a wicked blue glare onto faces intent on screens, arranged back-to-back and side-to-side. Picture an impromptu storytelling factory.
Write-Ins last a few hours. They offer the chance to focus on your work, surrounded by people who support your goal. There’s a buddist word for this: Tsonga--a group with like intension. Tsonga is good to have when you are doing something as crazy as attempting to write 50k words in 30 days.
Write-Ins feature lots of fun exercises including “word wars.” These are timed writing exercises. The object is to write as many words as possible. Everyone competes. The winner gets bragging rights.
Now, I’ll admit right here, I hate competing. Sports, Top Chef, class rank—you name it, I hate that kind of stuff. Count me out, if there’s gonna be a fight. I’m Ferdinand, sitting under a cork tree, smelling flowers.
But I entered the NaNo universe with an open mind and a plan to try new techniques. I was curious. How fast do I write? How many words could I write in 15 minutes?
“Word War?” Okay. I’ll play along.
This is how I met my nemesis: Alternate Universe Julie.
I took the last seat available at the Write-In, and pulled out my battered, ancient PC. This machine takes a good 10 minutes to power up, run its start program, open Word, open a file. My husband has been known to ask, “Light the coal under the PC?” in the morning, meaning: Shall I start your computer for you now, so it’s ready to go by the time you finish your coffee?
Hey. Don’t hate on my old girl. She gets the job done. I started her up & set up my name tag.
The young woman across from me watches, curious. Her eyebrows squeeze a little frown, as if she’s wondering what exactly I’m doing over there with the coal. Her name tag hangs on her computer: Julie.
“Hey,” I say. “I’m Julie, too.”
She nods but I’m not sure she can hear me. She’s wearing candy red Dr Dre headphones. Dark haired with perfect China doll bangs, she’s working on the thinnest, sleekest Mac I’ve ever seen outside the Apple store. Maybe 20 years old, she’s a tiny thing. I can hardly see her when she ducks behind her screen.
Six feet tall, light haired, well over 40 and working with a technological dinosaur, I am suddenly aware we two Julies are operating in alternate universes.
I dig around for the grey, ratty earbuds I saved from a recent plane flight and jack into my Glee soundtrack.
Somehow, I’m betting Alternate Universe Julie is an Indie Music Girl.
We all get down to work and after an hour or so the Write-In Host calls for the first word war.
“Make a note of your current word count. 15 minutes! Go!”
Hmmm, okay. I can do this. No…don’t correct! Keep going. Hmmm, what’s the word I want? No! Just throw in any word. Ok, how about rutabaga? Very funny. No! Don’t erase!...
“Time’s up! How many words?” Host points at me.
Uh oh. I know I’m not great at this yet. “648?”
Host gives me a Special Olympics smile, then points to AU Julie. “How about you?”
“1726.” AU Julie looks as if this was a bit of a disappointment. She’s done better.
I blink a few times. I can’t even type that fast, much less string together sentences that have both subjects and predicates.
Paradigm shift. People can write that fast? Splutter, splutter. My brain tries to absorb this.
If I wrote that fast, I could write 5, 10, 15 thousand words in a day….I could write a book a month. I could write George R.R. Martin style and still produce multiple books before I die….
“Great! Next word war in 30 minutes.”
What would it take to write that fast?
Well, I’d have to take a typing class for one thing. I’m a self-taught, hunt-and-peck girl. More importantly, I’d have to have a plan. Not just write my way into the scene. I’d have to know who, what and where I was going.
This is the greatest lesson that NaNo offers: there are other ways. There are alternate universes. And you can go there.
By our final Word War of the night, I was ready. I picked a clear destination for the scene and committed to getting to that resolution as fast as I could.
“This will be a 5 minute war. Go!”
I wrote like a fiend. I wrote with a focus and intensity I’d only blundered into before on those great writing days every writer lives for—the days you find your flow, your groove, your bliss.
“Stop!” The Host turned to AU Julie first this time. “Total?”
I check my word count and report, “282.”
That’s almost 300 words in only 5 minutes. Not that much less than AU Julie, percentage wise. Holy cow, I’m in the ballpark! The Host gives me a thumbs up.
“But—” AU Julie pulls off her headphones to clarify, “I was on ebay during that one.”
“During the Word War?” the host asks.
“Yeah. I bought a snake. And a cage. And some other snake stuff, you know.”
“You bought a snake?” Our host sounds confused.
“Yeah. I like snakes. A lot.”
Cue the awkward silence.
Until I jump in with, “Cool.”
She smiles at me, a little shy. I smile back.
That’s when it hits me.
This is the reason I NaNo.
For the stories.