Originally published in the London Times
December 13, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Helena Echlin
All rights reserved

Speed Writing
Just bash it out

Beget a book in four weeks? That's the challenge of National Novel-Writing Month. Helena Echlin discovers the angst of high-speed authorship

With a handful of exceptions (Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, Nabokov dashed off Invitation to a Beheading in a mere fortnight), writing a novel takes a long time. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard opines that it takes at least two years. In late October this year, I decided to prove her wrong. I signed up for National Novel-Writing Month. I had finished my second novel in May and was getting nervous about my third. Many novelists report a sense of panic on completing a book: what if they never write one again? Rather than let my fear of the blank page develop, I thought it best to tackle it head-on. Thousands had successfully completed National Novel-Writing Month in years past, and I had an advantage: I'd already written two. The worst thing that could happen was a touch of carpal tunnel syndrome. Or so I thought.

NaNoWriMo (as it is affectionately known) was dreamt up by an aspiring novelist, Chris Baty, in California in 1999, as a way of motivating himself. It was a time when the shakiest dot-com proposal could garner millions from investors. As Baty recalls, "The motto of the time was: ‘Sure, why not?'" While others strove to make fortunes overnight, Baty roped in 20 of his friends. For the purposes of the event, a novel was defined as 50,000 words, to be started on November 1 and finished by midnight on November 30.

Only six of Baty's friends succeeded, but news of NaNoWriMo spread over the internet. When the dot-com bubble burst, putting thousands out of work, suddenly lots of people had time for NaNoWriMo. By 2002, the event had exploded, with just over 14,000 participants, some as far away as Iceland and Taiwan.

As in the Caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland, everyone who completes is declared a winner. (You validate your wordcount by submitting your manuscript electronically.) The only prize in NaNoWriMo is the manuscript itself. Forced to prioritise quantity over quality, you don't worry about whether your work is good or not, only about your daily wordcount. In theory, this releases your imagination so that somehow you end up with quality amid the quantity -- the first draft of that novel you've always dreamt of. Baty emphasises that no one is expected to produce a masterpiece: "It is not National Write Classy and Elegant Novels Month." The slogan is "No plot! No problem!" and the event is resolutely amateur, more like running a marathon than competing in the Tour de France.

NaNoWriMo spurs the writer by offering a community as well as a deadline. Entrants work in coffee houses to encourage each other. Those who can't make it to a write-in can find virtual camaraderie on the website (http://nanowrimo.org). There they can moan, gloat, read excerpts from works-in-progress, and find solace in inspirational quotes.

I prepared carefully, cancelling my social plans and laying in a supply of Diet Coke. At the kick-off party in late October, my fellow NaNovelists were eager to offer advice. Matthew Nelson, the San Francisco liaison, recommended: "Write 2,000 words a day, no matter what." Ben Jones, a pale young man in a fedora, counselled: "On no account read back over what you have written." At home, I also gathered tips from Isaac Asimov's autobiography, I. Asimov.

One of the most productive writers in history, Asimov wrote more than 470 books (the equivalent of NaNoWriMo every month for 39 years). According to Asimov, there are two secrets to being prolific. One is style: "I have deliberately cultivated a very plain style, which can be turned out rapidly and with which very little can go wrong." The other is self-confidence: "A prolific writer has to have self-assurance. He can't sit around doubting the quality of his own writing. Rather, he has to love his own writing. I do."

I resolved to abandon literary flourishes and never to question what I had written -- or even read it. My book, The Erotic Justice League, was to be the story of a love triangle between an ageing female poet and two of her writing students, a tale of middle age, sexual confusion, and California in the Seventies. Interspersed with the present would be flashbacks to the poet's youth in a sexual commune in San Francisco in which everyone slept with everyone else on a rotating basis (based on a real experiment). There was a lot happening in the book, but then I had to generate a lot of words. On the first night, I dashed off 537. I felt inspired by the 22,000 other hopefuls who were starting novels too (with 550 registered back home in the UK). Paraphrasing Whitman, I thought: I hear America typing.

The first week went well. I wrote for a couple of hours every day, usually in the evening after dinner. But by Friday I was a little short of my week's target (12,500) and was starting to flag. Opposing impulses paralysed me. I couldn't decide whether to digress (to up the wordcount) or proceed onward (to finish the book). And writing badly was harder than I thought. I'd trained myself to pare and polish. Instead, I had to court cliché (more words) and never hit the delete button. On Saturday, I tried a write-in, held at a local coffee house. When I got there, people were already typing furiously, their laptops adorned with stickers saying "Ask me about my novel." I asked people about their novels. Then I stared at the rain. By the end of two hours, I'd barely typed a page. I was suffering from writer's block.

Meanwhile, the others forged ahead. Ben Jones was filing for divorce, but carried on writing. Online, I learnt that someone had a collapsed lung, but carried on writing. In his weekly pep-talk, Baty urged his followers on: "Know that every book you've ever loved has traced this same struggling route across this same lonely stretch of ocean." But my NaNovel, my Novembervel (or as I was coming to think of it, my NoNoNo!vel) was floundering.

I procrastinated. I visited the Character and Plot Realism Q&A online, where debate raged over questions such as: "Can you hide Valium in herbal tea?" and "How do you stop a pack of stampeding penguins?" As I gaped at other people's rapidly mounting wordcounts, the question seemed more how to stop a pack of stampeding NaNovelists.

What appeared to be the secret of fast writing? In a word: genre. Genre fiction -- sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance -- is easier to dash off than literary fiction, because the writer has an arsenal of stock characters and plot conventions. Sure enough, the Literary Fiction Lounge online was dead, and the Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Lounge was buzzing.

I suspected another reason for the popularity of genre fiction: that it is more interesting to talk about, with its strange settings (sci-fi), colourful characters (fantasy) and grisly plot twists (horror). Some writers seemed to be going out of their way to make their books fascinatingly zany, as if aiming not for masterpieces but for conversation pieces. Many were even choosing NaNoWriMo in-jokes for titles, such as Does This Get Added to My Wordcount? or 50,000 Words about 54 Cats.

The appeal of NaNoWriMo is as much social as literary. It's a great way to meet people, especially for the bookish and shy. Whatever their motivation, the other NaNovelists were now far ahead of me. I wrote more and more slowly and finally, on Thanksgiving Day, gave up, with a shameful 19,283 words. A few days later, 3,680 novelists passed the finish line (54 in London). At the Thank God It's Over party in San Francisco, the winners sported pastel sashes. Pages from their novels fluttered from clothes lines. Some, as if refusing to admit that it was over, sat alone, scribbling in notebooks. But no one seemed to have much literary ambition. Jones thought he "might" turn his into a comic book. Baty, who has finished a novel every year, cheerfully remarked that although he rewrote his first and fourth novels, the others still languished unedited. (Of the thousands of NaNovels, only one has been published, The Destructor by Jon F. Merz).

When Nelson saw I had no winner's sash, he said: "Never mind. You made a valiant attempt and can try again next year." But I knew I wouldn't. For me, November would always be Not-Writing Month. In the upside-down world of NaNoWriMoland, novel-writing is turned on its head. People write fast, rather than slowly, and in groups, rather than alone. Those who write all year (whether well or badly) suddenly can't write at all and those who can't write all year suddenly find that words flow.

At the end, the winners had something better than a novel (probably to remain unread). They knew that they had set an impossible goal and met it. In a last thrilling pep-talk, Baty said: "The true test of NaNoWriMo's manic, imaginative potential isn't what we do in November. It's what we can pull off the rest of the year now that we know what we're capable of." The winners went home with the glow of achievement. I went home awed by their quixotic accomplishment, and eager to begin writing again.

Helena Echlin's novel Gone is published by Vintage, £6.99 (offer £5.94)

Off the top of their heads...

From Hagen, by Cliff Winnig

Coiling and uncoiling, looping and slithering, the great wyrm came into view through the mist. Its oily black body seemed impossibly long, twice as thick around as a warrior was tall. Its scales glinted by the light of red flames and the wan yellow glow of the lantern still sitting on the floor. Its horned head held teeth as long as swords, and it seemed quite capable of swallowing a man in one bite.

From Siren Song, by Matthew G. Nelson

Brin tentatively thrust his lantern into the darkness, exposing the bare and grey walls and the layers of dust that showed the years it had been since a human being had walked within. As a hunter, Brin knew what kind of rooms were more likely to have paper in them than others. Just as he had learned at a young age where and how to hunt deer, how to fish, make a fire and haul himself out of a pit, he also knew where to find books.

From Burning Up the Waves, by Amelia Linderholm (age 13)

Being the new kid on a swim team is tough. It's not like school, where everyone's either faking to be your immediate best friend or giving you the cold shoulder. No, on a swim team the problem is how you can get yourself noticed, because swim teams aren't real social places. I guess my new team was the exception.

From The Erotic Justice League, by Helena Echlin

"This is going to be your room," Caro said, showing Miranda in. She had put fresh sheets on the bed and a honeysuckle candle on the night table next to a bowl of green figs. A lavish mural adorned one wall, painted by an artist friend of Caro's: a bloated violet Buddha floating above an ivory lotus.

Originally published in the London Times
December 13, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Helena Echlin
All rights reserved