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   Writer's Desk

December 20, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 33





Teresa MalcolmThirty days, 50,000 words;
Letting the novel inside out

By Teresa Malcolm, NCR staff writer

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When I was a child, I loved telling stories. It didn't matter to me if they were good stories; it was just fun to wander in a different world. First, in grade school, the stories were mostly told in picture form -- endless boxes of drawings with no dialogue to speak of -- then eventually moving to writing.

But sometime in my early teens, I just stopped. I didn't stop thinking of stories; I just stopped writing them down. Gradually the idea took hold that whatever I would do, it wasn't going to be good anyway, so why bother? I could write school papers, and I could write news articles, but writing fiction became a monumental impossibility, something other people did, not me.

It took me nearly 25 years to overcome that notion -- and then it's still a constant battle with my internal critic, chiding me to give it up, because whatever I do is going to turn out worthless.

In November, though, I formally banished the internal critic from the house for a month. The vehicle for this exercise? An Internet-based event called National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org). The goal? To write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. This year, I registered on the site, joining over 59,000 other November novelists worldwide.

What appealed to me was the mantra at the heart of it: "Quantity over quality." For the duration of the month, if the internal critic is sniping, it has to shut up. All words are good words: Just keep writing toward that goal of 50,000 words by Nov. 30.

In October, I got my hands on No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, one of the founders of National Novel Writing Month. Baty advises as little preparation as possible: The barest of plot outlines and the sketchiest of research methods will, he says, prevent you from being so attached to getting it right that you'd be unable to embrace the spirit of "exuberant imperfection." He encourages wild, implausible ideas. "Make messes!" he cheerfully instructs. "None of this will go on your permanent record."

Inspired to make a big mess, I chose a story that I had had in my head since college, one I had built around the Irish history I had been studying back then. Those poor, neglected characters were like old friends to me, but they had been stranded, unwritten, despite my occasional vague ideas of putting them to paper. But this November, they would finally make it into the light.

Except I decided to transplant them from historical fiction to the fantasy genre. They were still in Ireland, but now half of them weren't even human. That seemed like a big enough mess to make. Exuberant imperfection! And sketchy research was an easy mandate to follow.

I also followed Baty's advice to tell family and friends what I was doing. In the end, that was the crucial factor: The thought of all my expectant supporters ready to cheer me on was the only thing that got me started. Because by Halloween I was terrified: What have I gotten myself into? How much of an idiot am I that I told all those people I was doing this?

But after spreading the word, admitting that I had not even made an attempt would be mortifying, so on Nov. 1, I started writing.

My plot outline was worse than skeletal. I knew (sort of) how the story began, and I knew (more or less) how it would end, but the middle felt like a vast chasm for which I had only a few sticks to build a bridge across. In the dreaded mid-month period, every upcoming scene was a leap of faith into the unknown. My characters had no idea where they were going, and neither did I, but we muddled through together.

If that pesky internal critic was banished from the house for a month, it still stood at the window and yelled in running commentary: The plot is ridiculous, the characters' motivations make no sense, the "rules" of the fantasy elements are confusing, and most damaging of all, no amount of future revisions will ever, ever make this story readable. In short, the internal critic said, the project is an enormous waste of time.

So I would draw the curtains, grit my teeth, and keep writing.

On Nov. 28, I did it: I reached the end of the story. But it fell short of the word count by about 1,800 words, and so the next day, I added a prologue that pushed it over to a grand total of 50,142 words. Thus, a day early, I submitted it to the National Novel Writing Month Web site, and was directed to the winners' page that offered congratulations and neat little graphics to download to advertise my achievement.

I got a little teary with happiness. My characters had been waiting for this for a long time, and so had I.

I'm not being modest when I assure everyone that the story is a huge mess, unfit for human eyes. But, ignoring the internal critic, I am determined to undertake the revisions. Step one is non-sketchy research: I've started with William Butler Yeats' compilations of Irish folklore in the hopes that it can inform the fantasy elements of the story. I'm surprised and delighted to find that so far the ideas to flesh out the story are coming quite easily.

It may come to be fit for human eyes yet. But if that never happens, even the internal critic has come to realize it wasn't a waste of time, any more than the long-lost stories I created as a child were. All words are good words, and you learn to write by writing. But there's also something to be said for rediscovering the fun of wandering in a different world for a while.


Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org.
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