The Fourteen Percent by Diana Gallagher
I’ve considered running a marathon. But I still haven’t decided if the personal triumph will be worth the physical anguish. In the meantime, writing a marathon seems like a healthy alternative.
For the second year in a row, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a free, “write 50,000 words in thirty days” palooza. In exchange for signing up, the website gives you a nice little chart where you can witness your word count inch up day by day. There are daily recommended word quotas, and if you follow the suggested word count per day (1,667), you’ll finish in time. Unless life and procrastination intervene.
You begin excited, as you should be, and also a little afraid, as you should be. You’ve got this great idea, man, and it’ll probably go beyond 50,000 words. You may even finish early. You’ve just got so much to say, and sure, it’ll be unpolished and messy. But you’ll get it done. No doubt about that.
You loved last year’s NaNoWriMo. You had a great idea then and the words just seemed to fly out of you. You hit that writer’s high that you read about in inspirational quotes about how the characters take on lives of their own and start talking and you’re just writing to catch up. You become the notetaker, no longer the creator.
This year, you’ve got so many ideas that it’s difficult to decide which one you want to sustain. It could be any of them. This idea is damn lucky that you picked it for November.
The thing about NaNoWriMo is that besides a digital community of mostly people you’ve never met cheering you on, you’re on your own. There are cool perks at the end, like free print copies of your novel. During the race, however, there are no gel packets to help you refuel. No water stops. And if you don’t finish, the rescue van won’t sweep the streets and pick you up, bringing you to the finale.
Whether you finish or not is up to you.
It all started out promisingly, as it always does. I’d settled on what I thought would be a novel in short stories. With several characters, you can’t get bored.
After the first few days, that is.
It was quickly apparent that my “short stories” were really chapters from each character’s perspective. Exposition, internal monologue, brief interaction with another character, cheap attempt at a cliffhanger, and on to the next. People were disappearing into the woods. One girl straight up disappeared, period, nowhere to be seen. One man insisted on eating bagels every day for every meal.
Great. Cool. Where the heck was this going?
I’m very much a planner. I’m all about stories taking on a life of their own, but I want to have a plan beforehand so that if they jump ship, at least there had been a ship to begin with. Not just the wide open the sea. Too much space.
This novel was plunging straight to the bottom of the ocean.
But pride was at stake. Would anyone that I loved or cared about judge me if I didn’t finish? No. Would strangers? No. Would my life hinge on the outcome? Probably not.
Would that stop me? Again, no.
Because NaNoWriMo is based out of California, I used that three-hour time difference to the max. 2:50 a.m. and I spent many a night together as I tried to push through to 1,667, and when I fell behind: 2,667, 3,000, and on one fine Sunday, trying to launch myself off of the plateau, 4,500.
Tasks I used to hate, like writing cover letters and personal statements, had a new gleam. Think of the luxury: Two hundred-fifty, five hundred words, and you’re out of there. Done and going to bed whenever you want to. Old short stories and beginnings of other novels suddenly seemed like masterpieces. God, I missed them.
November 30th: Only 3,488 words to go.
I’d come to loathe this novel-hot mess-thing. But sitting down to type that night felt much like a run after the first few minutes: you start going without much thought at all. Good or bad, you make it happen. I had trained myself to go the distance, though the route wasn’t too scenic.
When I tread to 50,008 words before three a.m., I threw up my fists.
The strange part? I actually wanted to keep going. I gave each character a concluding chapter but I wanted to give them more. A proper send-off, perhaps.
Later I read that out of the 256,618 souls who signed up, 36,774 finished. A total of fourteen percent.
What did I learn as a member of the fourteen percent? I can write a whole lot of words in not much time.
What’s the good in that? It means I can let go and allow characters to run into each other, to be boring and cranky and urgent and, sometimes, wise. And buried once in a while within those two hundred-plus pages is a line that’s actually okay, or a characterization worth following up, maybe some other day or in some other project.
Or next November.