My month of NaNoWriMo

Around mid-October, I decided to partake in NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — in November. The challenge: Write a novel (or 50,000 words of a novel, anyway) in 30 days.

Literally since I learned how to print, I’ve wanted to be a novelist. My grand plan in college was to get my bachelor’s degree in psychology so I could learn what makes people tick, then a graduate degree in journalism so I could get a job where I meet a lot of people and come across many interesting situations. I thought that would be tremendous preparation for the life of a novelist. As a teen, I wrote several short stories and started a couple of novels — sci fi and fantasy stuff, mostly. I never finished a novel, but I submitted several of the stories. I never got any fiction published, though, and the last time I looked back at what I wrote, it wasn’t hard to see why.

I did follow through on my grand plan. I got the degrees I planned and a job as a journalist. Twenty years later, though, still no novel. I worked on a detective novel that a friend and I were going to co-write. We made quite a bit of progress, but the novel finally collapsed under the weight of plot changes we decided to make in late-night phone calls but never got around to writing into the manuscript. I continued dabbling in fiction off and on for years, but never had the discipline to sit down and see a novel all the way through.

This seemed like a great way to force the discipline. The NaNoWriMo approach involves telling everyone you know what you’re doing, and keeping them up on your progress. Facebook served that purpose well.

I had an idea that I’d been kicking around since college, but had never written more than a couple of pages about, and only had really the vaguest idea beyond the concept. But it was one of those things I’d think about when I was driving or out on a solo hike. And one day I had a brainstorm about how to make the ending I had visualized clear to the reader. Something was missing, though. I needed a clearer motivation and a little more emotional oomph. Then I read the biography of Steve Jobs that came out a few months after his death. I had been thinking all along that my character would be someone like Jobs, a driven perfectionist with vast personal wealth to pursue the project I had in mind. But reading that book, it struck me that my protagonist should be the son of such a man, and that his father should die young, like Jobs, to give him the motivation to pursue the project. It started to really gel in my mind, but I still couldn’t get any words out.

Which brings us back to NaNoWriMo. When I made that commitment, the thinking about the novel clicked into overdrive. I thought up plot points and scenes. It was still a very vague framework, but by Nov. 1, I had a pretty clear idea of how the novel would start, the general arc of the plot, and the ending.

I easily met my goal the first day. Fell behind the second. Caught up the third. Then it was the week of the election. I’m a political junky. My focus for much of the week preceding the election was the campaign. On election night, I was up until 3 am, watching the returns, waiting for the concession, watching the victory speech. I was wiped out for several days after, and went nearly a week without writing a word. But I picked it up that weekend and made some progress. Then other things got in the way that slowed me down. A weekend work event that kept me from writing for three days, for instance. It was fits and starts, and, I really didn’t think I would hit 50,000. I told myself that didn’t matter. What mattered was to keep the words coming. If I didn’t hit 50k, it wouldn’t matter, as long as I had made significant progress in the month.

At some point, I discovered the NaNoWriMo Facebook group for the Shenandoah Valley and Winchester regions. That turned out to be my savior. I found out, much to my surprise, that writing doesn’t have to be solitary activity. The group had Facebook events they called write-ins. People would meet at designated times, and write together. With NaNoWriMo, the emphasis is all on word count. The mandate is to lock your inner editor in the closet for the month, and just worry about getting the rough draft written. To facilitate that, the write-ins featured word sprints and word wars. With word sprints, the first person to reach a certain word count — 150 or 200 words, usually — “won.” Word wars involve a set amount of time — 20 minutes was my favorite, especially toward the end, but they tended to be shorter. When the time was out, people would post their word counts and whoever had the highest “won.” Prizes were usually photos handed out by one of the team leaders, usually centering on some sort of theme. The world’s highest peaks, for instance, or cuddly pets.

I found the sprints and the wars to be incredibly focusing. When those were going on, I was writing. I wasn’t tempted to switch over to my Facebook news feed, or call up a favorite blog or go get another beer. I just wrote. It wasn’t about the winning, but if I didn’t have a good count, I wanted to be able to explain it. In between the sprints and the wars, participants chatted, or kept writing, or both. The nights I got in 3,000, 4,000 or — once — 5,000 words were all nights I was taking part in one of these events.

I would not have made it to 50,000 if not for them, and the other people who took part.

But I did, and it felt good. The novel’s not done. I’ve probably got about a third of the story to get through, and there’s a lot of meat I want to flesh out when I go back through what I wrote in such a rush. I figure I have maybe a month or two of non-driven writing to finish it and then another couple months of editing before I’ll have it ready to start shopping around to agents.

In the meantime, I’m hoping the Facebook group keeps getting together (perhaps a bit less often) for write-ins and encouragement.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a preview of the first chapter — which I called the Prologue, but that isn’t quite right since the event it describes takes place about midway through the novel:

Prologue

The stage was large, but simple. His company’s logo hung high above, against a black velvet backdrop. A simple stool was the stage’s only ornamentation. Dylan Booker stood off to one side, alone, waiting to go on. The crowd noise in the full auditorium was loud and anticipatory.

Booker’s heart thumped in his chest and his breathing was shallow. His father lived for this kind of product announcement. Booker didn’t have to wonder if his father got as nervous as he felt right now. When he was younger, his father would disappear for days before a big announcement. When Booker got a little older, he used to go with him to the rehearsals the night before. He knew the preparation that went into every little detail.

This announcement would be different. The product was unlike anything his father — or anyone else — had ever introduced. Booker nodded over at the stage manager, who spoke into a headset. The auditorium lights went down, leaving a lone spotlight on the stool. Booker took a deep breath and let it out, then swallowed. He could feel the blood rushing in his ears as he limped out toward the stool, clutching his ever-present cane like a steering wheel on a stormy night. Applause rose as he came into the circle of light. He turned to face the audience and used the cane to leverage himself onto the stool. He beamed out at the audience and held up his hands to quiet the applause. It took time.

The audience was composed mostly of techies, gamers and tech journalists. Booker’s company was not his father’s, though his father’s companies had invested early — and done quite well for it. Booker’s company was most well-known for gaming and communications systems that took immersion to a level that his father’s generation would have found unbelievable. But Booker’s company was into more than games and more than communications. Much more. And the audience, and soon after the rest of the world, was about to find that out.

The applause died down finally, and Booker’s broad smile faded with it as his face took on a more somber expression. “Today’s an exciting day, but it’s also a day of reflection for me,” he said, his amplified voice soft and contemplative. “Twenty years ago today, my father died. Many of you were too young to remember him. Others knew him well, or knew the picture the press painted of him. Almost all of you continue to benefit from his vision of what technology ought to be.”

Booker stood, wincing a bit as he shifted his weight from his right leg to his cane. “He was young when he died. Too young. I’ve often wondered how much more he would have accomplished over these years.”

Booker looked down at the VIPs in the front rows: board members and top executives from both his company and his father’s, a couple of favored tech journalists, some top engineers. “Some of you knew my father personally. You know that he could be … difficult.” One corner of his mouth lifted, and there was some knowing laughter from some of the older men and women in the front row.

“Dad was a perfectionist, especially when it came to design and function. It wasn’t enough for something he made to work well. It had to be perfect, inside and out, both in how it looked and how it operated. He hated poor design more than anything else. You know, I don’t think he got upset when competitors copied his products because they copied his products, I think he got upset because they did it so poorly.” More laughter.

“I was in medical school when my father died of cancer. I didn’t finish, as most of you know. I took my father’s death hard. I did some very stupid things.” He looked down at the cane with a cloud in his face and a lump in his throat. “And I got lucky that, in doing those stupid things, I only hurt myself.”

He sat back down on the stool. “My father never looked at it this way, but after he died and after my … accident, I thought about the medical training I had and I came to see illness, injury and so many other aspects of the human condition not as inevitabilities, but as design flaws. I am my father’s son, and design flaws gnaw at me as much as they did him.”

He coughed. “I am not a religious person, so if what I’m saying comes off as sacrilegious to some of you, I apologize. But the fact is that these bodies were designed to procreate at an early age, raise children, then slowly die. Modern medicine has enabled us to extend our life expectancy by decades, but, face it, it’s all pretty much downhill from 40.” There was some laughter, but people were also starting to look at each other with bemused expressions. This wasn’t what they were expecting.

“We have to put up with aching backs because our spines and hips were originally designed for quadrupeds. Hair stops growing where it should and starts growing in the damnedest places.” More laughter. “Our eyesight goes. Nearly midway into the 21st century, and people still have to put up with bifocals or reading glasses because the body forgets how to regenerate itself.”

He stood back up, gripping the cane. “Then there is disease and illness. Cancer. Dementia. Mental illness.” He looked at his legs. “Injuries that cannot be healed or repaired, leaving chronic pain and dysfunction.”

He paced the stage, hobbling on the cane. “Can you imagine what my father would have done to an engineer who brought him a product as riddled with design flaws as the human body?” More laughter, more puzzled glances, especially in the front rows. Even his board members didn’t know what was coming today.

He stopped at the right side of the stage, looked up and grinned. “Okay. You all are starting to wonder why I’m going on at such length about this. ‘When is he going to get on with today’s announcement?’ you’re asking yourself. And you’re right. It’s time.” The grin turned into a face-splitting smile. “When he announced new products, my father was prone to a bit of hyperbole. I’ve probably been guilty of that once or twice myself. But trust me when I tell you that what I’m going to show you today will change … everything.”

He stood up straighter, putting more weight on his bad leg. “My father loved products that were at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Today, I give you … the intersection of technology and humanity!”

With that, he tossed the cane high up in a tumbling arc as he launched himself into a series of handsprings across the stage. As the cane came down, he leapt up to catch it in mid-air. He came down stretched out horizontally with the cane gripped in both hands, extending down from his stomach. The tip of the cane hit the floor, and he held the pose, perfectly balanced. The muscles in his arms flexed and, still balancing on nothing but the cane, he extended his legs up into the air like a gymnast on a pommel horse. His legs and torso twitched with the effort and a sheen of sweat was visible on his forehead. He lowered his head towards the head of the cane, his biceps bunching as his elbows spread. Then, in a quick motion, he extended his arms and pushed off from the cane. He performed a vertical flip and landed solidly on both feet, his arms up in the air, as the cane clattered to the ground.

Faces stared up at him in shock. The auditorium was silent as blood rushed in his ears. Then, even not knowing exactly what he was showing them, the audience began to understand that what he said was right: This was going to change everything. They roared. They clapped. They stomped their feet. He smiled and nodded as he looked out over them. They didn’t know the half of it yet, but they would.

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