Friday, 14 March 2008

National Novel Writing Month and other Endurance Contests

In a comment on my "Thousand Words Before Email" posting, Bob mentioned he participated in National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it's affectionately but rather awkwardly referred to by participants, is a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. That's about 175 pages.

Ouch! Yes, it's a lot of work, but with dedication it can be done. There are 30 days in November, so it comes out to only 1,667 words a day. That's not to hard to do, most weary midlisters like myself do that, but doing that every day is a bit brutal. You better have your novel outlined before November 1 or you'll be in trouble!

Of course, the first draft you get from this typing marathon will be pretty shoddy, but that's not a bad thing. Like many writers, I find the first draft far more difficult to produce than later edits, so a time crunch can really help. I've never tried NaNoWriMo, but I did participate in the 3-Day Novel Contest a few years ago. That's a contest where you have to write a novel over Labor Day Weekend. First prize is publication, and an automatic prize is knowing you can do it.

Did I win? No, but I finished. I wrote a 25,758 word mystery set in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Yes, that's technically a novella, but I wrote that sucker in three days so I get to call it a novel if I want to. Looking back on it now I can see why I didn't win. While it succeeded as a story, it failed as a mystery. If you caught one clue early on you automatically knew who the murderer was, and if you didn't, you were out of luck. But hey, I didn't know I had to be good, I thought I just had to be coherent!

I certainly wasn't coherent at the end of it. Almudena, who was pregnant at the time, showed herself to be a true writer's wife and moved in with her mother for the entire time so I could go crazy all by myself.

A few things helped me through. First, I got a leg up on the deadline by starting at the stroke of midnight. I had a detailed outline in my head (which is within the rules, you just can't have anything written down) and I wrote furiously for a couple of hours, pounding out the first chapter and starting the second. Then I went to bed. When I woke up, I started again. I did nothing but write until the deadline 72 hours later. I did sleep about six hours a night, because serious sleep deprivation kills my productivity, but I did nothing else. Oh, I drank a bit. OK, more than a bit.

Even though the mystery aspect of the story failed, I must say the novel held up pretty well considering the circumstances. I allowed myself three hours before deadline to edit, and managed to smooth over some of the more ragged prose. I also caught my main character's name changing about halfway through the book! Yeah, these things happen when you're rushed. It explains a lot about journalism, but that's another story.

If you haven't tried one of these contests, I highly recommend them. It proves to yourself that you can hit that word count, that you can actually finish a novel in a short amount of time. Deadlines don't seem so scary afterward. I haven't done it again, because I got what I wanted out of it the first time, but it was a weekend well spent.

And that novel? I haven't revised it yet. I got distracted writing a couple of other novels that I'm now shopping around. One day I'll dust off that mystery and rework it. It's a draft just waiting to be revised, and it's always good to have a couple of those in your files for the times when you're not sure what to write next.

1 comment:

Font Agency & Writing Centre said...

hi Sean,
Greetings from Dublin. Just came across you over at Blog Catalog.

I'm intrigued as to why a writer would so happily embrace the term "midlister". Are you not interested in getting an agent and writing a breakout book? Midlisting is, as you rightly say, purgatory -- and staying too busy on lots of different projects can be a poor career move for a writer.

Love to talk some more. You might like to join our discussion group, especially for those writing a book.

or in checking us out at

have a good St Patrick's Weekend

Orna Ross

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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