Matt McHugh
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I Wrote a Novel in a Month
November 30, 2005

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.

-- mm

My profile page, with novel excerpt: on NaNoWriMo.

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