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Karen Allendoerfer

Winning NaNoWriMo

December 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM

I blogged last month that I was going to spend the month of November doing National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as "NaNoWriMo." The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which breaks down to 1667 words per day. Participants are sometimes called "Wrimos."

I had an eventful month in more ways than one. First, I'll kvell: I finished! I hit the 50K mark on the last day, which counts as "winning." I had a number of obstacles to overcome to get there, the worst of which were some health challenges: bronchitis and a bad GI reaction to the antibiotics used to treat the bronchitis. But it turns out that it isn't that bad to sit in bed and work on a laptop. In fact, if you have bronchitis, NaNoWriMo is a lot easier to do than, say, violin practice. The other way that I made my NaNoWriMo life difficult was that I wrote a future fantasy set in the year 2074. It's science fiction with utopic and dystopic elements. This is the story I wanted to write: science fiction without space aliens is my genre, I like to extrapolate from current trends and events and see where that takes me. But it meant a complicated chronology: my main character, Hallie, was born under the return of Halley's comet in 2061-2. This is where she got her name. Then I needed to know when Thanksgiving would take place in 2074. I needed to know whether the winter solstice would fall on a weekend. And one of the characters was pregnant and I wanted the timing of that to be realistic. I had windows with a calendar website and a the Baby Center pregnancy calculator open pretty much the whole time.

Writing 50K words in a month has both good and challenging consequences. On the good side, having this defined numerical goal helped me to push through and get to the end. I have been interested in writing since back in my college days, when I wrote a couple of short stories for the campus science fiction magazine. I took a handful of creative writing classes at that time, and I even participated in Clarion West, a 6-week summer workshop for aspiring SF writers, between college and graduate school. But my problem back then, which I've never really addressed, let alone solved, was my inability to finish anything. I tended to start out strong with a lot of ideas that were all over the place. I would write them all down and then have no idea where to go next. Readers would say, helpfully, "there's a lot there--this could be a novel!" I'd agree, think "well, gee, I don't have time to write a novel," and then put it away. Then I'd start something else. Or, more often as the years went by, I'd get discouraged about my lack of follow-through and not even start. Characters and situations just piled up in my brain, imprisoned there, talking to an audience of one.

This time, however, they got out. However imperfectly, they are now described, and "living" out there in pixels, in the cloud on the Google Drive. Their names are Hallie, Luke, Roberta, Flora, Daniel, Lorelei, Calvin, and Chris. Hallie plays the violin/fiddle, and Luke plays keyboards. Daniel never got a chance to learn/play music.

Between the bronchitis, the Thanksgiving holiday, and having to put aside the novel entirely for several days in order to write a proposal for a course I am teaching in January, I almost didn't make it anyway. The last 3 days of November were kind of tough. I didn't exercise, didn't play my violin, didn't do much of anything except sit with my laptop and type. When, early in the afternoon on November 30, I saw my word count hit 50,151, I teared up. I then uploaded my document to the NaNoWriMo site to have it verified. They gave me a couple hundred extra words, verified me as a winner, and then played a video of the NaNoWriMo staff cheering. I started to cry in earnest. I realized then that I'd been up writing since 5 a.m. and hadn't had anything to eat. Hypoglycemia can do that.

On the challenging side, writing that fast and trying to meet a word count goal, meant that something was sacrificed in terms of quality. I'm grappling that now. There are whole scenes that I wrote mostly for word count that probably just need to go. There is dialog that needs to be cleaned up and made into something more interesting than one character asking the other, "what's going on?" and the other character holding forth didactically in an expository lump. But most difficult, there are characters who need fleshing out and who need to find their voices. Chris, in particular, is a problem child. He's the antagonist, but I'm still sympathetic to him. But right now, in this version, his motivations simply don't make sense. He does things for the sole reason of advancing the plot to the finish line. Luke, his son, desperately wants an answer from him, and I, the author, still don't have one. Whereas I'm probably a little too close to Hallie, a 12-year-old with big dreams but a lackadaisical work ethic.

NaNoWriMo encourages you to put your inner editor away for a month. Now I have to let her out again.

From Dottie Case
Posted on December 8, 2012 at 5:22 PM
Congratulations! I started that process a couple of years ago but real life interrupted. I still get email communications from the group. Someday I shall try again.

Can you put your crew away until after the Holidays to let them sort of 'season' (ha, no pun intended) and allow your brain to walk a bit farther away before taking out your inner editor? I think you might find that really useful.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 9, 2012 at 12:59 AM
Dottie, it's funny how real life is always intruding, isn't it?

I couldn't have done this if I hadn't retired from my full-time project manager job this past summer. The teaching job is a part-time program, which I'm hoping will give me some experience towards eventually teaching full time. But I'm not in a hurry to go back to full-time work right now; I need more time with my family.

I was thinking about putting "the crew" away as you said, and I did for about a week. It's December 8 and this blog is the first real writing I did since NaNo ended on the 30th. But I think there's a risk there in losing momentum. By the time January rolls around, I might be thinking, "who were those characters again?"

From Karis Crawford
Posted on December 10, 2012 at 5:36 AM
Congratulations! I think everyone struggles during NaNoWriMo. I did it for the first time this year and really enjoyed it. I'm afraid I did end up sacrificing my violin practice a bit which wasn't a good idea since I was performing Vivaldi's Four Seasons mid month and preparing new music for the Nairobi Orchestra, and spending time practicing and doing my duties as concert-mistress were a bit neglected ... but I got my bowings in the parts and practiced what I could in the time I had!

I was kind of like you in that I was very unwell for a few days - I had malaria and strep at the same time! I slept one whole day and managed to spend the other two days writing which helped keep my word count up. Also not fun is that this is report writing season for those of us that work in schools, and I had 270 reports to write before the end of November as well! After performing the Vivaldi and typing so much, my arms were more than a bit sore ... taking a bit of a break now for the holidays!

I guess the important thing is that, like you, I managed to get in my 50,000 words before the deadline, and I also managed to meet up with fellow Kenyans who write, which was incredibly inspiring. I was writing a fantasy novel as I wanted to step outside my comfort zone (science fiction) and move to the fantastical. Now I need to let that book simmer a bit and then decide if I want to do anything with it!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 10, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Wow, Karis, you had malaria and strep, and still not only finished NaNo, but performed the Four Seasons? I'm impressed! The lab where I used to work did some research on malarial drug resistance, and we collaborated with a big malaria lab at Harvard. One of the MD's we worked with spent some time in Africa treating patients. Interesting work, but scary too.

I took a break from orchestra in November/December, after our concert on Nov. 4. It seemed like I had the bronchitis forever. In the Nov. 4 concert we were playing the Dvorak cello concerto with the Young Artists Competition winner. I was playing the concertmaster solo and I had this cough that wouldn't go away. I was worried that I would break down coughing uncontrollably during the solo. But I managed to get through that concert with a cough drop continuously in my mouth, and the solo, as well as most of the rest of the concert, went off smoothly. It was still a nice experience to play that solo, but I don't think I've ever had a cough that lasted that long and was that continuous.

So then I missed several rehearsals for the Holiday Concert, which was yesterday, and ended up sitting it out. Now that I'm better, I was sorry to miss it, and I'll be glad when rehearsals for the next concert start again in January. I also decided to do a volunteer violin II Messiah gig next Friday--just for fun, since I missed playing the holiday music.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 10, 2012 at 2:15 PM
Mazel Tov! At least, now you have something you can revise in light of your insights about what is needed to make it work better. We look forward to seeing you in DC on the book tour!

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