It has taken months and pages and ink and hope, but I think I’m closing in on the story that will be my second novel.
Elizabeth Gilbert reported that Tom Waits, in an interview for GQ, said every song has a distinct way of entering into the world: “He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw.” I think stories are the same. We can’t expect them all to arrive in the same way, with the same grace and ease. We can’t expect the story or the muse to do all the work.
I’d love to think I’m sneaking up on this new story, stealthy in a stylish trench coat, but I think I’m looking more like a clumsy stalker at this point. It started about a year ago. I’d been playing with a thread, batting it around, seeing where it might lead. But unlike the idea for my first novel, ROOK, this thread was quite thin. I had a character and a setting. No plot. Not yet. So, I gave myself the task of getting to know that character. I did this by writing one page (600 words) every day for a month. By the end of January, I had a lovely stack of paper. I also knew more about my protagonist and secondary characters, as well as some juicy details about setting, and a few plot lines and themes. Not a bad start.
Then I put it away. For months. When November, 2018 approached, I decided I’d try my own, unofficial novel writing month. One page a day had been easy to achieve. But the goal for NoNoWriMo (Noelle’s Novel Writing Month) would be 50,000 words. If I hand-wrote three of those unlined pages, front and back, every day, at 600 words per sheet, I’d have 1800 words, which after 30 days, would get me to 54,000—well over my goal.
Regarding my choice to hand-write and type later, I figured it would give me freedom. I wouldn’t be constantly checking my word count, interrupting the flow of writing. Besides, certain ideas never bloom for me without the time that writing by hand affords. (Although some ideas, I’m sure, which could have been captured in a typing context, might slip the slow net of writing by hand.) I also decided that I would not look back and revise, or try to keep up with typing pages. I would just focus on the writing, which meant I had a big job ahead of me after November.
I’d read advice from NaNoWriMo veterans, who suggested completing an outline first—brilliant guidance for writers who start with plot. That was not my situation, but I still needed a map of some kind, even if it didn’t take me on a straight line. So, I compiled a list. Instead of plot points, I made a list of possible scenes, situations, questions, happenings, and images that could lead me into new territory. I came up with 80 of these and they sustained me for the entire month. One of the hardest things about writing 1800 words a day is—obviously—time. I didn’t suspend my life during the month of November, so I had no time to waste. It was incredibly valuable to have an evocative list to lean on—80 ways back in to the story.
How did it all turn out? Well. There were moments of enchantment, disenchantment, and uncertainty. Since I’d done no re-reading or revision, I really didn’t know if the whole business had been a bust or a coup. I still don’t.
I achieved some clarity along the way, though, and learned some good lessons:
- November is a crazy time to try to write 50,000 words. Thanksgiving. Cooking. Cleaning. Planning. Family time. Travel time. Mind-fuzzing pie. After an extremely faithful start, I let a whole week of writing slide in the middle of the month. (Thanksgiving came early last year, if you remember.) I didn’t even try to write again until the pecan pie was gone.
- It’s true what they say: nature abhors a vacuum. For fourteen days or so, I had fiercely protected my writing time, but once my vigilance slackened, so many obligations and pressures crept in, eroding the time, luring me away.
- Resources are important. I’d planned ahead on the paper I needed, but by day 12, I’d run out of ink in all of my good pens. I fell back on borrowed/purloined BICs, which I also demolished. After the luxury of my Navigator G7 Gel Pen Deluxe, this little downgrade made the process much less enjoyable. In Harry Potter speak, it’s like going back to the Cleansweep after you’ve busted up your Firebolt. At least I had something to put on my Christmas wish list: ink refills.
- Finally, November taught me just exactly how little time I had been carving out in my life for an actual writing process. Nothing feels as good as writing every day. Even after I got exhausted with the project, the daily writing practice felt essential and necessary. Why is it so hard to make space for this?
I’m revisiting those pages now, hoping to find a shape to this thing, to discover the edges and center. After all the distractions, I managed a strong finish, but while I had intended to write 90 pages, I ended up with 52. Ouch. I guess it’s not all about the word count. On the other side of NoNoWriMo, I have a few things to celebrate. I have material to work with. I haven’t lost my will to write. And, after typing a few of those November pages, I realized that on those crazy, unlined sheets of paper, I was averaging significantly more than 600 words per page…
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.