THE BLOG

50,000 Words In 30 Days

12/05/2012 05:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

As you read this 750-word essay, I'll be taking a nap. Or relaxing on my sofa, eating bonbons and reading Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. I'll feel that I deserve these luxuries because, between November 1 and November 30, I will have written an entire novel. From scratch.

Every year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, an online challenge for which one commits to writing a 50,000-word novel during November. If you complete the word count, which comes to about 200 pages, you "win" the challenge. [88 words]

How can such a novel, you ask, be any good? Mine is not good. Perhaps other writers are capable of writing a good novel in 30 days, but I'm not one of them. Back in November 2007, I wrote my very first NaNoWriMo novel in a spurt of coffee-fueled industry. That book, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, will be published by William Morrow in February. Though it may sound impressive to say that I wrote it in 30 days, it's more accurate to say that I wrote a very rough draft in 30 days. I finished the novel five years and 15 drafts later. [193 words]

NaNoWriMo, then, did not shave time off of the process of writing my novel. So why bother with this hectic November ritual at all? I'll explain.

Many writers, myself included, suffer from a gnawing perfectionism that can, at its worst, torment us over the placement of a single comma. Forget completing a first draft; perfectionists have trouble completing even a paragraph. NaNoWriMo forces us to ignore our incapacitating inner critic and keep going. The genius of NaNoWriMo is that it obliges us to (temporarily) lower our standards. [280 words]

The program has other advantages as well. Every time I write a NaNoWriMo novel -- and, as of December 1, I will have written six -- I begin with a vague idea of a story and the people moving through it. As days pass, I complicate and deepen the plot, and, little by little, the characters become more real to me. By December 1, I have a draft that I can work with in the future. The prose sounds ugly, but I know I can improve it.

Back in 2007, for example, I began The Secret of the Nightingale Palace with a simple premise: a grandmother, Goldie, and her adult granddaughter, Anna, make a journey from New York to California to return a valuable collection of Japanese art to its former owner. Happily for me, Goldie emerged from my mind fully formed: 85 years old, stylish, evasive about her past, and unabashedly open with her opinions on everything from other people's fashion choices to her granddaughter's taste in men. Anna, by contrast, coalesced in my mind much more slowly. During that first NaNo­WriMo draft, I imagined her as a flustered, disaffected wife and mother. In the finished book, Anna is, instead, a 35-year-old childless widow who still wears a wedding ring because she can't figure out when to finally take it off.

In my NaNoWriMo draft of the novel, many of the most important elements of the story came into focus. Those included the Japanese art collection, an Indian-American doctor who loves haiku, and a venerable San Francisco department store, where something bloody happens behind the tie counter. NaNoWriMo's concentrated time frame, I discovered, creates a fertile realm for my imagination.

I should point out that NaNoWriMo has its drawbacks, too. The 50,000-word goal, for example, can make even the most succinct writers verbose. Why be satisfied with a prissy dog when you can have a tiny white prissy dog with a pink ribbon around her neck and add an additional nine words to your novel? In December, the first thing I do is cut. [623 words]

Also, the commitment to write an entire novel in a month means that you write when you're exhausted, when you're bored, and when you would not be able to find an ounce of inspiration even if your glorious career depended on it. At my lowest moments, I consider the whole thing a tedious slog, but I also value it as much as anything I do as a writer.

Which is why, next November 1, I'll likely start a NaNoWriMo novel once again. Please don't remind me of that now, though. Let me sit on the sofa with my bonbons and Berlin Stories, relishing the chance to immerse myself in the results of another writer's strenuous and, I imagine, often tiresome effort. [743 words, to be exact.]

[This blog post originally appeared as a "Soapbox" column in the November 30, 2012 issue of Publisher's Weekly.]

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