NaNoWriMo and Related Exercises in Wheel-Spinning

November 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

If you are reading this blog, the likelihood that you are already aware of what NaNoWriMo is is quite high.

On the off-chance that you aren’t, here’s what this strange acronym stands for:

National No-Good (Times Trying to) Write (Anything Halfway Decent) Month.

No, no, OK, it’s really National Novel Writing Month, and it’s a real deal. It has a website and urvythang. And I’m doing it for the first time this year. A NaNo-Novice! Or at least I am signed up on said website, and have a decent (though far from formidable) word count going already.

NaNoWriMo writers have one goal: to write 50,000 words in one month. This means that you have to aim (aim, I said), for 2,000 words a day and hope that what comes out has the makings of a novel (or memoir or short story collection or what-have-you), which you then edit like the dickens because your fast typing and no time for deleting has left it almost illegible. The point is not to create perfectly crafted prose, each word le mot juste. No, the point is just to get out of your rut (because you’re in one, and you know it) and GET SHIT ON THE PAGE.

Everyone picks a project, and then on November 1st, if you’re a good little NaNo-er, you go! Go! Yes, now! Write! PUT THE WORDS DOWN! Don’t stop and think, just DO IT!

As you may know, I’ve just finished my MFA, which I earned by churning out nine stories that weren’t deemed total bull by my committee. But there was one among the several that I deemed total bull and didn’t allow to see the light of the copy machine which has been nagging at me, mostly because I loved the spooky weird beginning, but didn’t know where it could possibly go.

So rather than, say, using NaNoWriMo to write a brilliant YA coming-of-age novel in which girls turn into cat-wolf-things, which would have been easier (I said easier, not easy) because I’ve had it outlined since I was 18 ( when I didn’t yet realize that said material was YA: younger me just thought it was brilliant), I’ve gone off my rocker and decided to turn the atmospheric, spooky short story that has a beginning but no clear direction…into a novel. I figured, if I couldn’t turn it into a short story before the thesis had to be turned in, I might as well go for broke, throw as much shit at it as possible, like a determined, literary monkey, and see if anything sticks and somehow turns my 3,000 words into 53,000.


I won’t discuss the specifics of my story, because

1. As a writer, I have been guilty, in the past, of talking my stories to death.

2. I know you’re all a bunch of stinking thieves. Don’t deny it.

I will just say this: my aunt Marianne told me about something really creepy that really happens in really old house in really cold climates and it’s awesomely spooky, and so I started a story with it, but now it’s hit page 3 and the spooky thing is over. What now?

I had been reading a ton of Kelly Link when I started this story, and if you haven’t read any Kelly Link, go find yourself a library copy of Stranger Things Happen, because she is excellent and mystifying and doesn’t care if you like to categorize your reading into neat little boxes called genres. Screw your boxes.

Her stories are always very atmospheric, and they tend to evolve into an anti-logic that is so satisfying to read, if you give yourself over to it. You might ask yourself, why is the boy who’s just had his finger bitten off walking through the woods searching for a girl who doesn’t love him, and why is her mother there, and what happened to her wooden leg? Doesn’t matter. That’s where we’ve come to. The character’s confusion is your confusion too, but because the character believes, through his haze, that he’s doing what he ought to be doing (instead of going to the freaking hospital), then you just hold on and hope for the best (even if you know the best is not what’s coming as the white space approaches).

Because I, too, am a stinking thief, this general mood and bizarre ending is what I was aiming for with my spooky-things-in-old-houses story. Not too difficult, if you’re skilled, to achieve in a short story. But a novel? What was I thinking? In a novel, you expect something to, oh, I don’t know, happen to your character after she finds something terrible in the attic and begins to go slowly nuts. You can’t just write 50,000 words about your lonely nutcase wandering a strange small town thinking weird thoughts to herself. She has to (gasp) interact with people. The ending has to (gasp) make sense, otherwise folks will wonder why they just spend 300 pages with you. If you don’t like Kelly Link’s endings, pssh, whatever, you only spent half an hour getting there.

I’m screwed. Especially because the spirit of NaNoWriMo isn’t exactly one of careful planning. Rather, at the weekly NaNoWriMo writing groups I’ve started attending it’s more like “Ok, we’re going to see who can write the most words in 10 minutes. Previous record is 615(!!!)! GO!” No pressure.

It can get a little crazy. And then you feel even crazier when you go back and look at what you just wrote.

Here’s an excerpt from the part of the story I’d written whilst completing my thesis:

After arriving in Maine, Mona had found quickly that cell phone service was a finicky beast, coming and going at its own leisure. She’d resisted the notion of getting a land line for years—so passé! No one uses home phones anymore—but here, she thought, she might have to cycle back her thinking a decade or two. Internet service wouldn’t be installed for another two days. So too bad, Nathaniel! she thought. Maybe a little isolation wouldn’t be so unwelcome, as long as she could stop picturing in her mind’s eye the clawed skeletal hands and decayed eye sockets of a motherless baby wrapped in a moth-chewed blanket, and as long as the cat showed up very soon.

Aaaaand, here’s a little ditty I cooked up during one of these 10-minute “sprints”:

But she knew that in a weeks time she’d be here, standing in fomt of this girl againa iwht a name badge that said, in certain  letters, that she was not a crazy person,a dn she didn’t’ want this girl, this romantic, idiotic girl. To think differently. Musnt show her cards so soon, mona thought, then chided herself for it. she wasn’t crzy, she wasn’t, she wasn’t. jer house existed and her lived there and she hasd ajob. Yes. Nathaniel knew she wanst crazy too.

And that’s not the only time Mona wonders if she’s coming off as nuts. No, everything I’ve written since Nov. 1st has had the same ring to it. Mona doesn’t actually do anything, she just wonders whether people think she’s crazy (which she’s not, because she hasd ajob, amiright?). 4,096 words so far of her wondering this. No plot, and badly spelled internalization. Good job Cate! Way to throw that shit like a pro!

But in the end, I know that plot development and and blindingly gorgeous (or even slightly correct) prose is not the point. I’m getting out and meeting new writers in a new town, and no matter what happens in the throes of this ridiculous challenge, I know Kelly Link will never read it anyway. So I’m safe. I take comfort in the heavily facebook-circulated words of Ira Glass:

And hey, if you also happen to be NaNo-ing yourself into an early grave, let’s be buddies! My profile on the site is CateRachelGrace, and I am a member of the Poughkeepsie region. If you’re close to Beacon, NY, you can come meet me at Bank Sq. Coffeehouse on most Wednesdays this month, spinning my wheels.


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§ One Response to NaNoWriMo and Related Exercises in Wheel-Spinning

  • Kaitlin says:

    Nanowrimo is usually lightly plotted for me, so I usually know where I’m going. Your excerpts show me my editing nightmare when I get done >.> I’m in the midst of editing one book from a Nanowrimo. Ugha.

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