THE BLOG
11/03/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Write a Novel in Four Weeks? How About Four Years?

It's that time of year again: November, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. Why somebody somewhere decided that a work of fiction could or should be hammered out in 30 frenetic days originally mystified me.

The idea behind this month-long fiction sprint is that you pour out your creative soul in 50,000 words. As the website notes:

"National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing ... Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel."

Four years ago this month, I put aside all my skepticism. As the author of three novels (two of which are published) I am well aware of how much work goes into writing a novel. Still, I decided to respond to my writer friend Lori's challenge to try it out on my fourth book.

I was fast out of the starting gate and was thinking that it might just work -- I had already played with the plot for this novel over and over again. I thought to myself, you have the pieces, and the plot, all you need to do is weave them together in a coherent way. Somehow, it actually seemed doable.

For the first few days, I was going great guns -- you can read the first installment of Sister Mysteries on line, because I decided to try writing the novel as installments on a blog.

By the middle of November, however, when I had finished only three chapters, it was painfully apparent to me that there was no way I was going to finish. In the end, it has taken me four years to reach the last chapter of Sister Mysteries (a chapter that is coming soon!)

I make no apologies for taking four years rather than four weeks to turn out the tome. After all, it took me four (or five) years to write my first novel, Dreaming Maples. In that novel, like Sister Mysteries I had to do more than just write 50,000 words. Writing a novel forces you to create a whole and believable world for your characters to inhabit. You learn about this world -- your world since you are the author-ity -- by endlessly writing and rewriting, seeing and re-seeing.

Just to give you an idea, to produce my first novel of 425 pages, I wrote perhaps 2,000 or more PAGES that never appeared in the final product (yes, I tossed them into the recycling bin. I used to feel guilty that my book -- focused on characters who live in a Vermont sugarbush -- was eating up so many trees!)

To be a novelist you have to have many skills but perhaps the most important "skill" is patience! (Just ask my friend Lori who, until recently, was stalled for several years writing her first novel.)

I often tell my fiction-writing students that when you write a short story, it's like holding a baby. You can keep the happy little creature bouncing in your lap or riding on your shoulder for the relatively short period it takes to produce a short piece of fiction.

But when you write a novel, be prepared to wrestle with a mammoth octopus -- one that will enfold you in its all powerful tentacles and squeeze you dry. Writing a book is a little like getting married: you are through-the-roof ecstatic when you first jump in, but you may very well lose your enthusiasm after a couple (or more) years. Writing a novel takes over your mind and your life. You have to be willing to yield control to a higher writing power (some writers might go religious here, and I suppose that I am one of those.)

In any case, iNaNoWri/Mo has given thousands of writers the chance to try their hand at hammering out a novel. And clearly it is possible to do so -- I seem to recall that it took William Faulkner only six weeks to churn out As I Lay Dying.

Even though many writers might fail to meet the November deadline, they are like runners who fail to finish a marathon. The experience may very well inspire the writer to work harder next time. For November-novel writers, spending 30 days writing and writing may inspire those writer to push on writing beyond the month. After years of dreaming about writing a novel, a person may find a real momentum and commitment going forward. Indeed they may very well find a way to their own endings. And for that I say many, many thanks NaNoWri/Mo. I am deeply grateful that I am one of those writers!