Debut novelist Shelly King is a Silicon Valley social media strategist and information architect by day, but still found time to write The Moment of Everything, which Grand Central Publishing will release September 2. Tracy Guzeman calls this debut novel “a gift for those who believe in the magic of bookstores … and in the power of books.” Shelly’s stories have been published in the GW Review, Epiphany, Slow Trains, the Dos Passos Review, and the Coe Review. And if you’ve ever participated in NANOWRIMO–or even if you haven’t–I think you’ll enjoy her post. – Meg
About ten years ago, I woke up and thought, “I want to write a novel!” So I tried. Then I thought, “Crap! This is hard!” You’d think that a lifetime of voracious reading would be all I needed. Well, that’s a big NOPE.
I signed up for a writing class with the amazing Ellen Sussman. I wrote some short stories that were OK, but the idea of the novel grew as big as Jupiter in my mind. I just couldn’t see any way of getting there. Just a 20-page short story was killing me.
Then one night in class, Ellen told us about a new thing called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Yeah, it was still a pretty new thing back then. 50,000 words in 30 days. No plot, no problem. Turn off that inner editor and just write. It sounded insanely nerdy. I was all over that.
During that NaNoWriMo, I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Moment of Everything. I kept a journal along the way, which I’m sharing with you here. I must warn you—beyond this point, there be ninja clowns.
October 31 (0 words) A few minutes before midnight, I sit in the back room at a Denny’s with forty other would-be novelists, our fingers poised over laptops plugged into a six-foot power strip called Gandalf the Great Stick of Power. Ten seconds to midnight, the countdown begins followed by an explosive cheer as the clock strikes twelve. NaNoWriMo begins! Ninety seconds later, the guy sitting next to me throws his hands in the air and shouts, “82 words! Woo-hoo!” Wild applause rips through the room. Another novelist yells, “That’s nothing! I’ve already killed twelve people!” Much wilder applause. Two hours and a Grand Slam later, I’m at 1999 words. I add “now” to my last sentence for a cool 2000 and stumble home, filled with beaming optimism that the next 30 days are going to be a piece of cake.
November 1 (2000 words) Sitting among several seasoned NaNos at a coffee shop, my optimism is now a puddle of sweat and tears. Less than 24 hours in, I’ve forgotten the cardinal rules of NaNoWriMo: Don’t stop. Don’t rewrite. Never look back. After several hours, I only manage to pound out an additional 500 words after rewriting most of what I wrote the night before. I bang my head on my keyboard in frustration. 50k is a million miles away.
November 8 (6867 words) I start nerding out on the numbers. 50,000 words in 30 days averages to 1667 words a day (about seven pages). A 50,000-word novel, double-spaced, is roughly 175 pages long. The veterans posting to the NaNoWriMo forums advise a goal of 2000 words a day to give yourself some breathing room. I create a spreadsheet to track my progress. According to the formula, I’ll finish around Valetine’s Day.
November 11 (8,201 words) My plot has completely stalled. A fellow writer suggests turning to the Idea Jar, a Costco-sized jar filled with slips of paper that hold ideas to help faltering plots. Basically, it’s a story defibrillator. Clear! My main character is now in love with a squirrel named Fenster.
November 15, (10,192 words) I can’t do it. I’m supposed to be at the halfway mark and the spreadsheet is telling me at my current pace, I’ll finish around the start of baseball season. I hate my story. My characters suck. I’m practically in tears. My fellow writers tell me I’ll catch up next week. I say many curse words.
November 16, (12,056 words) One of my fellow writers put another Nano writer in her novel and killed him off! There’s a forum started with posts detailing how other people have killed this guy off in their novels. So far, he’s been a Roman centurion, WWII soldier, a drug dealer, mail prostitute, frog in the road….
November 18, (15,325 words) Things are looking brighter. I’m still miles behind, but when I post my word count on nanowrimo.org I start feeling a little cocky. “Oh, puh-lease,” I say to myself, reading a post in a forum, “this guy only has 1700 words written and we’re supposed to listen to him? Hah! Come back when you’ve hit the 15,000 mark, buddy!” I read postings from people’s novels. My crappy writing is just as crappy as theirs! All is not lost. I’ll catch up next week.
November 19, (15,473 words) My laptop, Gladys, dies! Nothing but the blue screen of death! Thank goodness for backups. From my work computer, I post notice of her death on the forums and receive tender expressions of sympathy from other NaNos. I haven’t met people this nice since the last time someone tried to get me to join a religious cult…hey, wait a minute….
November 20, (16,124 words) Gladys lives! I owe the IT guy at work a six-pack. I plug in my numbers and it’s not pretty. But Gladys’ rebirth gives me new hope! I’m getting playful with my horrendously implausible plot. I use the word “pizzle” in a sentence which makes me ludicrously happy. If I write 3255 words a day between now and the end of the month, I’ll finish on time. No problem! I have the whole Thanksgiving weekend.
November 22, (16,498 words) I can’t think of anything to write today. I spell out all the contractions and give all my characters middle names, scraping up 374 words. I call it a win.
November 27, (18,071 words) I’m beginning to loathe people with a higher word count. I haven’t written for days. I bring a bagful of Tupperware to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner and load up like I’m preparing for Everest.
November 28 (25,071 words) Around 2 a.m., my cat starts talking to me in the voice of one of my characters. I sit down to write a short sex scene before calling it a night. That short scene turns out to be 4000 words. The female NaNos online at this hour tell me this is perfectly normal.
November 29 (34,482 words) Between scenes, I dash to the kitchen to dunk my arms up to my elbows in a cooler filled with ice to sooth my aching hands and wrists. I have a brief moment of panic when, honest to God, I can’t think of one other thing to write. “Use the plot ninja!” cry the NaNos in the forums and it’s my “Run, Luke. Run.” moment. The plot ninja is a pre-determined, out-of-left-field entity to restart a stalled plot. This year’s plot ninja is clowns. I cover my bases and make them ninja clowns.
November 30 (42, 672 words) A 9:00 a.m. phone call from my mother wakes me up.
“Have you finished your contest yet?” she asks.
“Nope, 8,000 words to write today.”
“What happens if you don’t make it?”
“What happens if you do?”
“Um, well, nothing really.”
“Why are you doing this again?”
Around 5:00 p.m., I check my word count. Only 3500 words to go! Time to wrap up this puppy! Then the panic comes. I have no idea how all of this will end! As despair overwhelms me, I feel my characters taking me by the hand and beckoning me to follow them. They know the way out of this. At 8:47, our journey is at last over at 50,199 words. My fellow NaNos give an online cheer as I enter my final word count and post to the winners forum. I’m overcome. I’m a novelist. I think I’ll celebrate with a Ben and Jerry’s. And a shower. Possibly at the same time.
So that was my crazy journey to the first draft of the novel that became The Moment of Everything. How much of that first draft did I end up keeping? Mmm…about 2%. But more important, I learned I had the words in me to write a novel. So go find your writing tribe. They will get you through the tough times. Give yourself permission to write badly. Good writing comes with editing. Whenever you get stuck, write a sex scene. And if that doesn’t get the words going, there are always the ninja clowns. – Shelly