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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Alternate Universes, or Why I NaNo

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. 


Anonymous said...

What a remarkable experience and a great story to boot. And I so love that you referenced Ferdinand under the tree...a favored book of my childhood. Marvelouser and marvelouser!

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL - and so true that we all write in our own ways, our own pace. It's been a source of frustration as I see fellow authors releasing 3 (or more) books a year. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm happy in MY universe. :)

Blythe Gifford said...

You can up your speed. Trust me. I've done it. But it all depends on your process. After I write those words, I revisit ten times and write totally new ones. But those first ones? They showed me what the story was...

Jean Harrington said...

Up to now, I've been too intimidated to join a marathon writing sit-in. But your fun posting inspired me to think maybe I should give it a try the next time around. November, huh? That means no turkey dinner around here for Thanksgiving. Oh well, I can live with that. Thanks for the fun story.

J Wachowski said...

@rlsherman I'll leave room under the tree & we can sit together. :)

@Anne Marie I'm with you girl. How do they do it? But you are right to come back to your own happiness. That's why we write in the first place!

@Blythe That's exactly what I found! The bones of the story revealed themselves in those fast spurts. Really useful learning experience. I'm gonna have to take your word about upping my speed though. At least, until I finish my typing class. :)

@Jean You should try it! (Lots of people take off a couple days around Thanksgiving.) And think of the $ you'll save being in the library on Black Friday, instead of the mall! :)

Cathy Perkins said...

Oh, I can relate!
This was the first year I participated in NaNo and like you, struggled with the different process. But I did meet some great women through the Savvy/Entangled Smack Down, which made it hugely worthwhile

Marcelle Dubé said...

Oh, that's too funny! Great post, Julie. I'm not a sprint writer -- I'm the tortoise, slow and steady. But I get there!

J Wachowski said...

@cathy Wow! What's a savvy smack down? (Sounds pretty awesome.)

@Marcelle With all your books--I can't believe you think of yourself as a tortoise. Some of it has to do with what we expect of ourselves, doesn't it?

Shelley Munro said...

I've never done NANO since I alway seem to have something else on in November. I'm actually looking to up my word count this year. Check out Rachel Aaron's blog or her book 2000 to 10000. How to write faster. It's eye opening!!

Fun post, Julie. She really bought a snake???

J Wachowski said...

@Shelley Thanks for the book tip! I will check it out. And yes. Totally true. Said she bid on and bought a snake. There were a couple other details I left out that almost made the whole thing unbelievable....nothing like real life for story material.

Toni Anderson said...

I have meant to do NaNo for a while but always seem to get edits around then. I'm a hunt and peck girl too. I'd love to speed type although I still think my brain is too slow for megawords. But I am getting faster. I guess self-improvement is what we aim for :)

Shirley Wells said...

Too funny. I love that she bought a snake. :)

I can type pretty fast so if anyone needs a copy typist, I'm good to go. The problems lie with my brain. It falls way, way behind. I can sit staring out the window for an hour or more trying to think of the exact right word. And then another hour trying to think what that exact right word needs changing to, LOL.

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