Reflections on My Novel-Writing November

I tried to write a novel during the month of November.  I had heard students of mine mention this concept.  I did not realize that this was actually a sponsored thing, and that “Novel Writing November” was an idea of a larger organization, or that some best-sellers, like Water for Elephants had their origins in this idea.  I didn’t interact with that organization’s site, and just worked on my own.  I also tried to proceed serially, publishing each chapter on its own.  I didn’t want to clutter this blog, so I posted it elsewhere.  I just wanted to write here a little about the experience I had.

First of all – “publish” is a bit of a misnomer.  That verb implies something more than what I did.  So far as I can tell, what I wrote got about 80 hits.  And those aren’t unique hits.  Now granted, I did zero promotion other than sharing links on my Facebook page, but there you have it.

I gave myself 45 minutes each morning, while on the train, with my Chromebook.  Each day when I arrived at work I made a few brief spell-checker corrections (the Chromebook doesn’t have spell check in offline mode) and then I put it up there.  Generally I ended up with about 1500 words per “chapter.”  Even if no one was reading it, it still provided a natural limit to my work, to be forced to submit it every morning.

I ended up writing one chapter for each work day of November, which meant 15 – I missed 2 days being sick with the flu, 1 day for Veteran’s Day, and 2 more for Thanksgiving, and then took the weekends off as well.  I decided early on that, rain or shine, whether I had writer’s block or not, I would write every time I was on the train going to work.  I held to this commitment.

Some overall reflections:

(1) It was fun.  It got my mind going.  The time went really quickly while writing.  When I got off the train, I’d end up spending the whole walk to work thinking about what would happen next in a way I didn’t really remember doing since I was much younger, and imagination was a more regular part of my life.

(2) It was a different kind of fun that what I’m used to.  I take lots of enjoyment in various intellectual pursuits: reading books, listening to music of all different kinds, watching movies, writing academic papers, teaching, or writing blogs like this one.  Writing fiction used a different part of my brain than all of that.  I’ve seen those commercials about neuroplasticity – the ones that say you should use their website to exercise your brain in “a way that just feels like games.”  Those commercials confuse me: why not just ACTUALLY find a new experience and pursue it, instead of tricking yourself into keeping your brain sharp?  Writing fiction forced me to be imaginative in a way I’d really never tried to, at least not in more than fleeting fashion.  Hopefully it staved off dementia a few years.

(3) Character, setting and dialogue came very naturally to me.  By which I don’t mean I did a brilliant job – I’m sure I didn’t – but just that it was easy to get the words flowing in the service of those things.  I could imagine a person, in all their particulars, what they were saying, and where they were, without trying that hard to do so.  I also really enjoyed that.  I could let my mind fasten onto a characteristic, whether mental or physical, and use it to get me going.  This made me appreciate something I’ve read about oral-poetic composition: set-pieces are very valuable for poets who are freestyling.  When you don’t know where you’re going with something, but you know you have a certain amount of time to keep writing, you end up filling it in with stuff that’s already somewhat rehearsed, because that’s easy to do.  So at certain points, I could write as much as I wanted about, say, Chicago sports talk, or annoying suburbanites who don’t know how public transit works, or the daily rituals of commuting.  Again, I’m not bragging about the results, just saying I could write more freely about these topics and it didn’t feel like a struggle.

(4) Plot is hard.  When I told my classes about this project, one of my students said “did you do pre-writing?”  He then pointed to a sign on my wall that says “Pre-Writing is Always Graded.”  It was one of those touche moments that comes in teaching intelligent and perceptive students.  Because OF COURSE I DIDN’T  PRE-WRITE.  Had I, I imagine I could have made better plans for a plot.  Instead I just tried to let the thing organically evolve over the course of the chapters.  That meant adding in things that felt like foreshadowing even if I didn’t know what precisely they were foreshadowing.  I just threw in suggestive details to give myself outs later.  As the chapters went along, I got more of a sense about where things were going, but it was still a very imperfect sense.

(5) Genre was weird too.  When I started writing, I was just creating character sketches of people that I see on the train.  I saw people who do the same things every morning – tell the same joke, make the same gestures, stand the same way – and I tried to imagine what was behind them.  But I didn’t know what kind of a story I’d make out of that.  I had recently read a Chicago Crime novel (The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey), and so ended up trying to do some things that happen in crime novels – but, like I already said, plot is hard, especially when you’re trying to emulate a very plot-heavy genre.  I have also spent an inordinate amount of time lately reading about James Joyce and also reading his work, so I ended up exploring very quotidian aspects of life, but without his characteristic wit.  The worst of both worlds I suppose.

(6) November went by quickly.  The last chapter ended up feeling arbitrary in its finality.  It’s not a cop-out in some deus ex machina way – the events are reasonable in light of what’s come before – but it left unresolved several threads of narrative.  If I were to do this again, which I might, I’d have planned things out better.  At least maybe.  But the things I plan out can feel limiting and uncreative after a point as well.

Of course I’m glad for any of your comments, either about this blog, or about the “novel” itself (novella is probably a better term – it would have come to much more than 50-75 pages, depending on the spacing).

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3 Responses to Reflections on My Novel-Writing November

  1. Nates says:

    Very interesting reflections, Josh. (I haven’t read the novel/la yet.)

    One of the many reasons I would be a lousy creative writer is that I would insist on having every aspect of the plot carefully mapped out in advance.

    Milan Kundera has an interesting collection of essays on writing–The Art of the Novel–and one thing he emphasizes is how authors must allow their writing to defy their original plans. An example he gives is how Tolstoy wanted to critique Anna Karenina’s character, but ended up doing something quite different–and more interesting. (I hope I’m remembering this correctly. The whole book was pretty interesting, as I recall.)

    Anyway, I totally see the value of this open-ended mode of writing, but I still can’t imagine doing it myself. Fortunately, being systematic works better for philosophical prose…

  2. Josh says:

    The whole “defying your original plans” thing is a feature I’ve noticed in some of my favorite books. It’s a subject that I’ve thought a lot about. Here are some examples I’ve thought about.

    I won’t say that was my plan. My plan was more just that I didn’t have one, so I didn’t have one to defy either..

    Do you think it works better for philosophical prose? I’ve read a lot of philosophy that it does work for, but have encountered some examples where the opposite works too (see below).

    Here are some examples of this phenomenon from various genres:

    Novels: Dostoevsky did this over and over again. He’d set out with a clear polemical intent and things would morph into this more sympathetic portrait, creating something almost schizophrenic in result. It’s interesting to hear it said of Tolstoy – I’ve not read very much about him, just the two big novels and some short stories. They always give me the sense of finished products, with very clear plans that were brilliantly executed upon. It’s the execution I end up respecting in Tolstoy the most.

    Back to novels – Ulysses is another good example. The opening chapters read very much like a sequel to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but with the invention of Bloom in chapters 4 and following, things take off in totally unanticipated directions. I do get the sense that Joyce had some formal whole in mind before he began (and in that sense, maybe even the final chapter was preconceived), but how he ended up getting from the end of chapter 3 to the start of chapter 18 is something that required improvisation.

    In philosophy: isn’t it fair to say of Kant that his systematic plans for the first critique, at least, kept breaking down, and so he’d re-write sections and let things sprawl in ways he hadn’t anticipated, and that that produced a lot of that book’s analytic power? You’d know much better than I would but I always got that sense from it.

    Another example is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The first three chapters deal with a very well-defined, almost 20th-century analytic project. Starting with chapter four, though, things balloon outward and leave that project behind. I always just figured it was something that had struck him while writing that ended up requiring that.

    Speaking: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. The typed manuscript from which he spoke (and which, I think, he had to give to Justice Department officials before he delivered it) ends about 10 minutes before the end of the speech, and all the most famous lines are things not written down on those notes. The whole “I have a dream” part, the “Let freedom ring” part, the recitations of Isaiah, those were all, in some sense, improvised. He had given speeches like them before, but on the spot, he delivered that section in a way he hadn’t previously anticipated.

    In music: I read an account of Radiohead’s OK Computer once that suggested a lot of the album’s power came from their success in capturing something that sounded like improvisation, but still produced it in full digital-recording splendor. I think they were talking especially about the second half of “Paranoid Android.”

  3. Nates says:

    Yeah, you’re surely right to say this open-endedness can also work in philosophical writing. Maybe we can call it the power of the softy-soft.

    What’s weird with Hegel is that the book keeps expanding in scale even as he’s rushing to finish it before Napoleon’s armies arrive. (Or so goes the legend.) It’s a shame we don’t have an early draft or outline to compare with.

    Kant’s an interesting case. Part of his problem in the first Critique is that he has ten different systems / framing devices at work, and they don’t always work well together. But, yes, he’s too great a thinker to be hemmed in by it all.

    Whereas I, being but an attendant lord, remain happily hemmed in by my outlines: politic, cautious and meticulous.

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