I did. A 50,000-word first draft of a novel written entirely during the month of November. Me and 9,700 other people.
All this was part of a open "contest"--though perhaps "challenge" is a better word--known as National Novel Writing Month, a gimmick dreamed up a few years back by a fellow named Chris Baty. You start a novel from scratch after midnight November 1, and you have to complete it to a 50,000-word minimum before midnight November 30. According to Mr. Baty's final e-mail to me as a registered participant, 59,000 people signed up to do this; 9,700 successfully completed the task. I was one of them.
This whole thing was weirdly fortuitous for me. For any of you who paid attention, I stopped (after a year-and-a-half of religious adherence) my compulsion to write a daily blog entry. The primary reason was that I had an idea for a novel I wanted to devote my late-night typing time to. It was an expansion of my short story "Greetings from Death Row," essentially a fictionalized memoir of a drug dealer and murderer awaiting impending execution. The reason I chose this project is that I recall writing the story in an almost feverish flow. I dreamed up the character, worked out a voice and verbal style, and let him go. In some ways, it was more like theatrical improv than literary writing. It was an interesting experience, and I wanted to take a more prolonged crack at it. I'd thought about the backstory for the character for a while and had a pretty good idea of the plot points and themes I wanted to hit. Besides--and this was important to me--it struck me as not only a project I stood a fair chance of actually finishing (a big problem of mine), but also a work that might have commercial potential. Yes, I'd like actually sell something someday. So sue me.
So I rolled this around in my head for a while and decided I'd take a whack at it. To have a reasonable shot at pulling it off, something had to give. Work, kids, blog. I chose the blog. It was surprisingly painful, but I decided to give up the daily blog for a while--I figured a couple months at least--to write this novel. I started noodling around with it. Sketching out the concept in more detail. Composing some outlines. I even made a start, writing about 1,500 words or so the week after I stopped the blog.
Then a week went by when I didn't touch it. Then another. I got caught up in other things, so now I was neither doing the blog nor the novel for some three weeks. Then, I read about this National Novel Writing Month contest-thingy. It was November 10, one-third over. I thought about it and figured I had already made a decent start, and this would be the line in the sand I needed to get me to hunker down and finish. Then, I had to take a business trip to California. Coast-to-coast plane rides with a laptop (have you discovered the power outlets under the seats? Genius idea.) and three nights sans kids in a hotel room. That was the kicker. I could make a heroic effort, locked in a distractionless room. That was the exact scenario last year that allowed me to finish the sitcom script for the reality show contest So, on November 11, I officially signed up. I had the goal of returning from the business trip on November 17 with 25,000 words in the can. I came damn close. Over 21,000.
For the remaining week and a half, this thing consumed my consciousness. It was kind of unsettling. You see, one of the things that gave me the confidence I could pull it off was that, as a first-person fictionalized memoir, the voice of the character was, essentially, the same voice I'd been using for the blog over the past 18 months. It was all about a totally subjective narrative, someone telling their own story with no pretense of objectivity and the freedom to editorialize about any tangential topic at any time. That's exactly what I do in this blog. All I had to do was stay in character and let my inmate do his "blog." And that's pretty much exactly how I did it, but when you spend every night from 10:00 pm to 2:00 am inhabiting a similar-but-different consciousness, it twiddles with your psyche a bit. I've never done much acting, but this pretty close to pure method. But, I still had to work 9:00 to 5:00 and put the kids to bed 7:00-9:00, then become sympathetic sociopath from 10:00-2:00. I found myself thinking like the character during my waking and sleeping hours. It was fascinating, but I'm glad it's over. When I loaded my text file to the NaNoWriMo site and it came back with a 50,002 word count, well, I've never run a marathon, but I can imagine what it's like to cross that finish line.
So now what? Well, the novel is most definitely a first draft. It's stylistically inconsistent throughout and logically incoherent at several points, and the last 5,000 words I banged out in a desperate rush just to finish make up a laughably slapdash ending. Still, I did work out a lot of critical issues about the character and the plot events that I can polish up. I think of it as I carved a block of stone into recognizable humanoid form with arms, legs, torso, a head--even a crude face. Now, I just have to give it fingers, toes, musculature, eyebrows, and expression. I guessing I have about 20,000 more words to add to the thing, in addition to a lot of patching up along the way, before it's ready for prime time.
So what will all this come to? Again, my goal is to produce a literarily and commercially viable novel. Will it ever actually sell? Don't really care right now. Just want to finish it. And I'm more than halfway there, thanks to NaNoWriMo.
My profile page, with novel excerpt: mattmchugh.com on NaNoWriMo.