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The National Novel Writing Month Contest 2006: A New Approach To An Old Friend

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I suppose I could write about the ongoing fiasco that is Iraq. Or I could rail against the amazing hypocrisy of the Canadian government pledging 40 million dollars in the fight against world poverty and paying for it by cutting spending on programming for the poorest and most at-risk citizens of its own country. I could even idly speculate on when the Pope will issue a fatwa against Elton John for saying that organized religion condones homophobia. (I know that the Popes don’t do that sort of thing, but I bet this guy wishes he could – he's the type who looks like he regrets the revoking of the Inquisition's charter.)

But quite frankly that's far too depressing and we've all listened to everybody, including me, enlighten the masses as to our considered opinions on most of those subjects anyway. So instead of boring you to tears with stuff you hear about all the time, I'll take some of your precious reading time today to bore you about a subject dear to my heart, me and my writing.

Okay so I write about that almost as much as I write about anything else, hell I've even written a book on it (Shameless plug/link warning), NaNoWriMo Notes: An Exercise In Creative Insanity, but it's been a while since I've exercised that prerogative so I thought you might be prepared to indulge me a little. (If not, that's why "back" buttons were invented.)

For the second year in a row I've decided to participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest. For those of you who don't know, the purpose of the contest is to write 50,000 words of a novel during November. While 50,000 words don't a novel make — they are barely a novella these days — they do represent a good start on a manuscript.

The organizers wanted a word count both challenging and reasonably obtainable. For people like me who are able to devote a whole day to writing the challenge isn't quite as extreme as it is for those who have other responsibilities like employment and rearing children, but still it represents a meaningful output of creative energy.

The problem that I experienced last year was that I had become so focused on the event and producing as many words as possible in November, that even though I finished the month with two-thirds of a first draft completed, around 80,000 words, it took me to nearly February to finish the final third. I had concentrated so much energy on the November deadline that once it passed I lost a great deal of my motivation for the project.

In the end I finished the manuscript, and as we speak its merits are hopefully being debated in the offices of Penguin India. (You take a publisher where you can get one these days and with India having one of the largest English-speaking markets in the world it's as good as any other market to be published into. Penguin of course has access to pretty much the rest of the English-speaking world, so if they choose I can also find my way into the Canadian, British and American markets that way)

I had ended that book, tentatively titled The Paths Life Takes, in such a way that makes a sequel a foregone conclusion. My intent had been that with this year's NaNoWriMo I would attempt to accomplish much the same as I had last year and break the back of part two in order to have a draft ready when the publishers approved book one. (Such an optimist!)

Up until about the week before the contest was to begin, I was still sticking to that plan, but I wasn't feeling all that inspired. In retrospect I see that I was resigning myself to write that story because I didn't have any other ideas, not because I was particularly inspired by it. So I guess I shouldn't be so surprised at how easy it was for my mind to be changed.

An author friend of mine has been bugging me for a while to write a fictionalised version of the events of my childhood, my subsequent struggles to recover from the trauma of being sexually abused by a family member, and my more recent adventures in dealing with the resulting physical problems that have only now surfaced as a chronic pain condition. Although I realized that he had a point and that it had the potential for being a good story if properly written, I had serious misgivings.

My primary reason for being hesitant had nothing to do with being reticent about talking about the circumstances, but the fact that I questioned the validity of yet another "look at my hard life" story being inflicted upon readers. It just smacked too much of daytime talk show fodder, with Oprah being all sincere and her audience clapping enthusiastically right on cue, or bursting into tears at appropriate moments.

So when he suggested the idea again recently I again dismissed it out of hand, but instead of it vanishing from my brain as usual, I found myself turning the idea over in my head. How could I make this work in a way that I would like? So that it wouldn't read like a tell-all confessional and would sound like a story and not just a fictionalized retelling of events with names changed to protect the innocent, while at the same time being factually correct. My interest was piqued.

When I mentioned the conundrum to another writer friend (who else am I going to be friends with if not writers, and don't worry there are only two of them?) he said that NaNoWriMo sounded like the perfect place to try it out. See what you have at the end of 30 days and if it's got potential to be something keep working on it, if not scrap it. What have you got to lose?

The more I thought about it, the more appealing the idea sounded. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't really give you time to think once you get started on the writing; it forces you to write pretty much on instincts. Trying to write a finished novel in 30 days is almost an impossibility, so you do the next best thing, write as much as you can about your topic in as coherent a manner as possible and see what you end up with. It's the perfect venue for testing out an idea's potential without committing yourself to anything.

Last year I went into the contest with the idea that I would be able to write a novel based on the work I accomplished during the month of November. After a great deal of struggle, much more than what was involved in the initial process, I was able to accomplish just that.

This year I'm taking a different approach and am utilizing NaNoWriMo as my sounding board for an idea. The conditions under which the contest operates are ideal for that as there is no pressure on you to produce a product, only to achieve the objective of meeting a word count. Last year I hadn't appreciated what a luxury that was and got far to hung up on finishing the story.

This year I plan on taking full advantage of the opportunity to experiment and not worry about the results. So far after 12 days I've written slightly over 22,000 words and am having a great time. Who knows, I might even produce something worth reading, but that doesn't really matter. As long as I don't end up sitting on a couch with Oprah exchanging heartfelt opinions, I'm happy.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.