Could you write a novel in a month? Plenty of people around the world are trying to do just that right at the moment. November, you see, is National Novel Writing Month. Organised by a Californian outfit called the Office of Letters and Light (I know – please stick with me), the event has been running since 1999, and now answers to the moniker NaNoWriMo, which sounds like a toddler doing R2D2. The rules are simple: starting on November 1st, you have until November 30th to write a novel of at least 50,000 words. You upload it to the event’s website, which checks your word count, and assuming you’ve passed the 50k mark you’re given a certificate and a web badge. Your novel is never readable on the site: it’s deleted as soon as the wordcount is performed. So what, other than giving a load of geeks with Macs in branches of Starbucks something to do, is the point of this nonsense? Having spoken to someone who took part, I think there’s every point.
Vic Keegan is a former Guardian journalist. (And economics editor, and business editor, leader writer, online editor … he has not so much covered the waterfront as machine-gunned it.) He seems to be fitting more into his retirement than most people fit into their careers, not just writing about new technology and the internet but using it in his day-to-day life in all sorts of ways. He has designed apps, written blogs and even started (for his alma paper) the world’s first text-message poetry competition. Easy for things like this to sound gimmicky; ditto the idea of writing a novel in a month. But Vic tried the NaNoWriMo challenge this September (the site ran an extra event this year as an experiment). And he succeeded.
‘It was a great experience,’ he tells me. ‘For a start it just felt good to have written fifty thousand words in 30 days.’ He only wrote in the mornings – all thirty of them. ‘And I copied Hemingway’s trick of making sure I always started the first sentence of the next day’s section, so I had something to get going on.’
But were those fifty thousand words any good?
‘Yes, I think so. It’s definitely a novel I could go back to and work on, though I’ve no immediate plans to do so. Obviously it’s too short for a proper novel [the conventional industry minimum seems to be 70,000 words] – but it’s definitely a starting point.’ The idea was one Vic already had in mind: a priest deciding to abandon his faith, and a high-class prostitute doing the opposite, both of them giving up their jobs.
‘The deadline meant you had to keep the narrative moving,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t much time for characterisation. It went places I hadn’t expected it to. Literally – I was becoming very interested in Lambeth at the time, so a fifth of the way in I thought “might as well work that in”. Structure became a problem. The process made me realise the importance of structure in a novel much more than I had before. You realise that a lot of novels you thought were no good are actually very cleverly structured.’
Could Vic imagine doing a second month, this time editing what he’d written in the first? ‘Ah,’ he says, smiling. ‘That would be harder.’ But he acknowledges that only having a month might make it easier to do that hardest part of the editing process, namely killing your babies.
It is possible to write not just a full-length novel but a very good one in a month or so: Frederick Forsyth wrote The Day of the Jackal in 35 days. (One word: bastard.) But it’s very unlikely that any of the people taking part in NaNoWriMo will produce classics like that. So why bother? Because, as the event’s Program Director Lindsey Grant says: ‘You can’t revise what isn’t written yet, right?’ This is why I think the ‘stunt’ isn’t a stunt at all – it’s a fantastic way of getting yourself started. A refreshing alternative to all those ‘how to write a novel’ residential courses where you pay a couple of grand to sit in an Orkney farmhouse listening to lectures on plot and subtext, when in fact the one lecture you need is: ‘get on with it’. Save yourself the money, because you’re simply paying to have your procrastination rubber-stamped. The only way to learn how to write a novel is to write a novel.
OK, so of last year’s 256,818 participants only 36,843 completed a novel. And almost none of the 3 billion words produced will ever see the light of a laptop again. But occasionally something does come of it. 90 of the books produced for NaNoWriMo have gone on to be published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. And more importantly than anything, Peter Cook Syndrome has been challenged. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ someone once told the satirist. ‘Neither am I,’ he replied.
Somerset Maugham mentioned to a friend that he wrote every single day (like Vic, only in the mornings). ‘You mean Sundays and holidays and birthdays?’ asked the friend. ‘Espcially Sundays and holidays and birthdays,’ said Maugham. I think he would have approved of NaNoWriMo.
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