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).