NaNoWriMo: it’s not a foot race, but it is definitely a marathon. Ever heard of it? It’s National Novel Writing Month. Every year, tens of thousands of fools commit to writing a 50,000 word first draft in the month of November.
This year, I’m one of them.
There’s this theory in the field of behavioral economics called Present Focus Bias. The theory postulates that we say a resounding “YES” today for plans tomorrow because we’re sure we can accomplish them… down the road. Our future selves are remarkable creatures: we’ll lose those 20 pounds in January, or start running after winter, or write a novel when we retire.
In other words, the further away we are from a challenge, the easier it seems. Sign up in February to run a marathon in November? Sure! No sweat! That’s plenty of time to prepare—and it is—but when the alarm goes off every morning for a 5 a.m. run, a whole lotta people choose to stay under those heavenly covers.
So, as I put my foot on the proverbial starting line for this marathon, I realize that I don’t actually want to do this — I want to have done this. I want it in my rearview mirror, and I haven’t written word one of the manuscript yet.
According to NaNoWriMo pros, there are two types of people who take up this challenge: “pantsers” and “plotters.” Pantsers, of course, fly by the seat of their, you know, pants. They’re at their keyboards at midnight, November 1st, and they just start typing, come what may. As my friends will tell you, “pantsing” does not describe me in any way, shape, or form. In fact, I’ve put in so many hours plotting, planning, and researching this baby that it should be able to write itself.
If only wishing made it so.
I write songs, and blog posts, and the occasional technical piece for work; I have no idea how to write a novel. But man, oh man, I sure have prepared these past 8 months. I’ve taken creative writing courses and read a ton of books on plot structure and character development (only one of which, btw, struck me as spot-on). I bought Scrivener software and watched excruciatingly boring videos on how to use this really remarkable authoring tool.
I’ve researched the shit out of place and time: New York City, January 1991 – March 1992. I lived there during that period, the height of the crack epidemic (central to a story line), but it was a long time ago, so I visited in September to immerse myself in some settings just to soak up the sense of it all—sights, sounds, tastes—you get the picture.
While I was there, I watched an attempted murder trial for an afternoon just to remember how bloody hard those benches are and how procedurally slow a trial is (think: paint drying). Since I’m planning a short scene that will take place at the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy, I scheduled the trip to make sure I could experience that street fair again. I sat in on a fantastic acting class and was reminded of why theater was my first love. I ate Ray’s pizza and Mamoun’s falafels and a pretzel from a truly insane corner vendor outside of Penn Station. I reacquainted myself with the subway system. And I stayed in a fifth floor walk up in the East Village so I could remember how my thighs feel when I climb 62 steps a few times a day.
I can tell you what the weather was like on a specific date (man, there was a helluva heat wave that August). I can talk about the germane critical events that happened in that time frame (the Crown Heights riots, Anita Hill’s testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings). I’ve even learned how to win at 3 Card Monte, that once-ubiquitous Times Square con game.
I’ve mapped out my characters with backstories that explain their motivations and, of course, their tragic flaws. My protagonist even has a superpower—invisibility!—which, naturally, will prove to be a blessing and a curse. For the main characters, I’ve even completed Proust’s dreaded list of questions.
I’ve got outlines on my laptop, but since staring at this 13” screen doesn’t serve me when I feel like pacing the room (I pace a great deal), I threw the essence of the novel onto the wall, like this:
In other words, I’m IN, baby. I’m committed. I’ve trained, the running shoes are on, and I’m at the starting line.
But the actual writing? The putting-of-the-fingers-onto-the-keyboard? Kids, this is going to suck. HARD. I think it’s going to be uncomfortable in every possible way.
Somewhere along the line, my characters will revolt and want to do their own thing (they’ll win, but I’ll be pissy about it). Plot twists will interrupt my sleep (but they’ll wake me up at 5:30 a.m. so I can exorcise them). My right wrist will ache incessantly by the third week (old injury). I will find every excuse I can to avoid writing, and then I’ll wrestle myself back to my desk. I’ll set up some reward system—a new pair of shoes after the first 25,000 words!—except I’ll constantly find myself negotiating those boundaries. I’ll realize I’m checking my phone waaaaay too often, so I’ll put it in a drawer until it calls to me again, damned siren.
Essentially, I expect to be both a spoiled child and a frustrated parent. But I expect that I’ll get it done. I expect I’ll cross the finish line with a stunningly bad first draft.
There are a gazillion motivational quotes out there about rising to a challenge. There’s only one that works for me, and I’ve slapped it up as my desktop image for the coming month:
I’ll be back. For now, I’ve got a race to run.
P.S. — This is just the first 30 days of what I expect will be a 3-year project: the novel, the novel’s soundtrack (cause why not?!), and the extensive artwork. Look for the interactive iBook in, oh… 2019…?