book life writing

Origin of an Aspiring Novelist

Dang, as often as I’m not writing here I’m writing somewhere else. So far this month I’ve written six pieces for Game Revolution (three reviews, two previews, and a news piece), worked on the manuscript, done a few press events, read through a few books (the goal for the month was two, so far I’ve gone through this one and this one and this one), and with a regular work schedule that’s just enough to monopolize my time the past few weeks. Definitely distracted, but plenty of points in the Points System notebook.

But we’re starting to approach something close to my heart, something to which I owe a lot of my drive in writing… anything. Anything and everything. Because it was nearly eleven years ago that I started a yearly tradition, and I may be re-directing some of my efforts toward something else this year, but still in the spirit of the challenge.

I am, of course, talking about NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. (Yeah, don’t care too much about Halloween, the candy does more damage to me as an adult than it used to in my youth.)

I wrote my first novel manuscript in 2004. Simply because I’d always wanted to, and I hadn’t really given it the good ol’ college try until I was actually in college in 2004.

It might well be the experience that changed my life. I was 20 at the time, fresh out of high school and starting to explore the universe on my own. And it was easy enough to do, with the commute I had in getting home after 12 units of college courses. The school was about a half-hour or so drive away, right on my mother’s route to work every morning, so I was in the school cafeteria about an hour before my first class, classes were all pretty well scrunched together, then I took the bus to the mall, took a second bus back to my hometown, and then walked about a mile or two from the stop to my house. It gave me plenty of time to read, do my homework, or anything else I wanted to do.

I heard about NaNoWriMo about five days before it started in November, so late October of that year. Before that, I had the dream of writing a story or book that everybody could (and totally would, because it was my imagination) read, but it was one of those dreams that felt to me like being a pro athlete, or rocket scientist – you put in a ton of work, get yourself educated in some way, and then you’re allowed to do it. It never really struck me as a thing people could just do. So when I heard about the challenge, I was fascinated, and jotted down a bunch of notes and ideas to use in what would be my first-ever manuscript.

And write it I did. I was spend time in the school library with my 128 MB USB stick (which was purchased in 2003, so that was maybe fifty bucks and a FRACTION of the data you can find now for a similar price), type up a page or two or three, grab the bus to the mall, walk around if I missed the connecting bus or even if I didn’t, jot down some notes on the bus on where to take my story, then walk home from the bus stop and jump on our home computer to pick up the work again. I went to school five days a week, so it easily became a structured working schedule I myself created and committed to. At the mall I even discovered these small, high-quality notebooks by Moleskine (which have since become my go-to for pocket-sized notebooks) and started a diary when I wasn’t working on the story. It became my life. And that year, I completed the challenge of 50,000 words written in 30 days. And with about four days to spare, no less!

I now have PLENTY of data for writing both good and awful material.

Boy, is that story awful. It was the story – get this – about writing a novel in a month. Original, right? Taking the concept of “write what you know” to its fullest I cobbled together a rambling piece of relationships born of my imagination mixed with my life, what I wished might happen against what obviously didn’t, thinly-veiled characterizations of people I knew and scenarios I experienced, and even mixed in some dream sequences just to pad the word count. I still have both the original file and a printed copy, one copy of which went to my “designated reader” at the time. Even SHE told me the story sucked, though she used kinder language than that.

It didn’t need to be a work of art. It didn’t even need to be that bland, mass-market, awful shlock you might pass over at the grocery store. It was a test to myself to see if I could do it. Even then I realized that “good” or anything past “utter garbage” came after “try”. And I didn’t just “try” I succeeded in writing something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that something was about 50 single-spaced, 12-point font pages in length. Not bad for an idiot new to college.

Writing it even helped me to earn college credit. Multi-taslking!

I tried again the next few years with varying results. Maybe I got something started, but life changed, picked up, dropped off, and I didn’t complete the 50K challenge again (though I did try) until 2007, when I was working at a warehouse electronics shop. My first job, in fact. When I thought about the challenge that year, again it was a few days before the start date, and I speed-wrote a few basic plot lines to explore. No real planning, the goal was the word count and not the quality of the thing. That year I was working, but I had lunch breaks, and work wasn’t too tough that I was constantly mentally engaged, so I could make little notes of ideas here and there between customers. This was largely before Thanksgiving and “Black Friday” sales, so PLENTY of time to work on my own little thing. Even DURING, since on BF I had two two-hour lunches during my marathon 18-hour work day. (Technically 21 hours in the store, 4:30am until 1:30am the next morning, but 18 hours on the clock.) You can hand-write a lot over four hours to break time.

That year, I wrote about a young man who was trying to figure out his world, which I – as the author – was actively trying to disrupt. The goal was to try and convince my protagonist that I existed, and that he was merely a plaything in the universe of my creation. Also, there was a dimensional rift centered around him, which kept mixing the “real world” with the war between ninjas and pirates. It was a weird time in my life, but at least he ended up with a cute ninja fella at the finale. Spoiler alert for a book that will never be released.

The second time was a different scenario than the first, but it confirmed something in my head: this isn’t just a possibility, this is an achievable goal. I had not only done this once – proved to myself I was CAPABLE of writing a novel – but written a second book, which proved I was capable of doing it AGAIN. In my mind, doing something once is an achievement; doing something twice becomes a skill. Maybe an undeveloped, or underdeveloped, skill, but a skill nonetheless. I had proved to myself that writing was a thing I could do, and that I enjoyed the process of. Working on NaNoWriMo after that became a sort of formality, maybe as close to a religious continuity through my life as I dared. And I’ve continued to practice it every year since.

This year, however, is slightly different. I already HAVE a story, called UZN, that I want to make a thing. I already have the drive to complete a draft of it by the end of this year. And in the spirit of writing to actually FINISH something, my NaNo novel IS UZN. I’m not deluded enough to think it will be 100% complete by the end of November, but the goal to work continuously and productively is there, and it’s not impossible. I know it’s not impossible because I’ve done it multiple times before. It’s a thing I can do if I push myself to do it instead of just a dream.

Me with my current baby

There is still a dream to help drive it however… publication. I’ve been a published video game industry critic and “reporter”, and I’ve self-published a short book about beginning stand-up comedy (which is still available on Amazon). I’ve had poetry published in a literary journal in New England (and they approached ME to publish it!). If this manuscript doesn’t find a home with an agent and a publisher, I may simply release it as an indie book. But the dream of actually being a published author of a novel of my own started as a child, and the realization that it could actually be done came in 2004, thanks to the movement and challenge of National Novel Writing Month.

Have you ever had a challenge like NaNo make an impact on your goals, or who you are as a person, in a positive light? Let me know in comments.

Stand Tall and write on, my friends. And I’ll endeavor to do the same.