Essay by Hadley Langosy
In July 1999, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicked off with 21 participants in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was founded by Chris Baty, who is now a board member emeritus of NaNoWriMo’s parent nonprofit.
That first year, "our July noveling binge" wasn't about literary ambition, Baty writes. "No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise.”
A decade later, there were 167,150 NaNoWriMo participants. Hadley Langosy, TW's production editor, was one of those 2009 speed novel writers, and she's participated most years since.
The objective is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. Those registered must submit proof of completion by midnight of November 30—and guess what? There’s still time to make the 2013 deadline.
— Updated by the TW editors in October 2013
Her body lay where he knew it would. A smudge in the night. He watched her from a distance before he finally mustered the courage to approach her, trying to distinguish her shape from the darkness she seemed to float in.
—Hadley Langosy, Ewlyn: Book One
For the past 20 years, since the age of 15, I’ve been preoccupied by an epic adventure that I badly wanted to write about. What began as an idea for a stand-alone fantasy novel influenced by an obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien has since ballooned into a planned series of five novels, set in our world, that span every genre from fantasy to crime to romance.
At first my protagonist Ewlyn was only a supporting character. Now he’s so well known in our family that my daughter’s middle name is his last. My sister Zoe, my best friend Liz, and I all draw him with the same face shape, shoulder-length dark hair, and lanky frame.
I have a detailed and carefully researched plot. I have twelve spiral-bound notebooks filled with ideas and partially written chapters. But first high school got in the way of my writing, then college, then work, then motherhood, then three days a week as a freelance web designer, then…everything.
The decision to sign up for the 2009 round of NaNoWriMo seemed logical. I did the math: 50,000 words in 30 days = 1,666 words a day. Cake, right? Anyone can bang out 1,666 words. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be Shakespeare. It doesn’t even need to be coherent. As the NaNoWriMo website helpfully points out:
Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.
By November 3, I had written close to 5,000 words. I was confident. I would bomb past my goal before the end of November, probably before Thanksgiving. Ha-ha! Nothing, not the complex law firm website, not the insurance company site with its endless tables of information, could stop me.
Ewlyn acted as a seasoned guide, calmly revealing his actions to me while I recorded them. I felt his boots sink into the newly fallen snow as he made the slow journey to retrieve his sister’s body. I felt the weight of her in his arms as he carried her home.
Those first glorious days of November, my novel was like a brightly lit landscape, each path clearly set before me. I was a trigger-happy tourist with an 8GB memory card in my camera.
Meanwhile, by the end of the second week, I had saved my three-year-old son from what can only be described as the plague, completed one website, begun another. I’d spent an entire day at a fundraiser for his preschool and started volunteering at my daughter’s school library every Wednesday morning.
My word count? 7,226. This included the writing I’d done during the fundraiser, antisocially bent over my laptop at lunch or casually adding a line here or there while I was supposed to be burning discs of digital photos. I was now looking at 2,673 words a day to meet my goal, assuming I could find time to write on Thanksgiving. If I did not, it would be 3,290 a day.
I talked about NaNoWriMo with everyone. I cornered the school librarian to discuss plot issues. I kept a running word count in the corner of the blog I was using to track my progress. My laptop accompanied me as I cooked dinner. More than once, I had to clean food out of the keyboard with a toothpick.
Ewlyn paced in my mind, urged me to find time for him, smacking me in the back of my gritty eyeballs to get my attention. I was failing him. I’d been promising to tell his story for years, and now that I was, I was half-assing it.
As the deadline loomed, a number of people offered reassurance or platitudes: “Even if you don’t finish, at least you’ll have more done than you began with.” “It’s a win-win situation either way.”
The members of my household were the only ones who fully understood how important this had become to me. Despite his own heavy workload, my husband left work each evening in time to put the kids to bed, allowing me a precious hour or two more to write. My parents let my kids to rampage through their home throughout the day.
When the final week of November dawned, I had 20,000 words to go. I woke up in the middle of the night to scribble barely legible notes of half-remembered dreams. My son began crying every time he saw me reach for my laptop.
I even brought the laptop to Thanksgiving dinner at my sister-in-law’s, pounding out 3,000 words before yet another family member had threatened to disown me. My novel, once so carefully visualized, now contained entire sections like this:
They spent the remainder of the summer in training and then, as Fall began to blow in, they got word of a man who was wanted North of them. He’d killed an entire family and fled. They planned to find him and bring him to justice. So, they packed up everything they needed and set out.
I wrote one comment in pink that simply says “Damn you NaNoWriMo and the stress you put me under!”
The agitation Ewlyn felt—“Bloody hell, woman! Get your words out proper like!”—was nothing compared to my own wretchedness at the time crunch I’d landed in.
In the final 48 hours, I still had 8,000 words left to write. I stayed up until 3 a.m. on November 29. I wrote whole sections out of character simply because I needed to get the ideas out. I had chapters with absolutely no dialogue in them.
I submitted on the evening of November 30 with a final count of 50,222 words. To be fair, that count included the above note about “everything they needed” and ended with “Woo-hoo!”—but I still met my goal.
My NaNoWriMo draft was not well written, but at least it was written.
Almost a year later, I haven’t finished editing it, but at least I know where my characters have been and where they’re going. My novel is no longer a vague outline tied to a bookshelf full of notebooks, but a living, breathing entity sitting on my MacBook.
And it’s waiting for me. If I’m honest with myself, most of my frustration comes from the limited amount of free time I have as a mother of two young children. If I’m even more honest, a nearly suicidal deadline seems to be what I need to achieve anything.
There were unexpected benefits, too. Forcing myself to write at that pace made me more aware of my plot elements and how each scene was strung together. I added twice as many scenes as I originally had in my outline, rearranged my timeline, changed when characters were introduced. By not lavishing so much loving attention on each individual chapter or paragraph or sentence, I became more aware of what was missing from my story as a whole.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I’m already signed up for 2010, planning to launch the second book in my series.
Hadley Langosy is the production editor at Talking Writing. She is also the product of an artist and a writer. She spends her days disguised as a freelance web designer. By night, she embraces her true identity as a Renaissance woman—writing, drawing, painting, sewing, knitting, and plotting. See more of her photographs at Unfinished Work.
A close friend has suggested she sort her marbles by color as it might help her to determine which are still missing. To date, she has not found time to do this.