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Secret Life of an Expat: NaNoWriMo (2009) Changed My Life

In reaction to Tall Drink of Nerd’s post, I’m going to write about the fact that I’m NOT doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. I did it last year, and I was the only person I knew doing it. This year, I feel like everyone I know is doing it. Not entirely true, but I can name at least four people all wrapped up in their daily word counts and getting to that magical 50,000 mark.

The thing is, NaNoWriMo changed my life. A year ago I was settling in for my first winter in France. M and I got married on October 31, and I knew I would be authorized to work shortly thereafter. I looked for work, but didn’t have much luck, and when I realized that I wouldn’t actually have a job the day I got my working papers in early November, I decided it was safe to commit to the big challenge. In October, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and built my little profile page. But what with wedding preparations, I couldn’t do much more than read the inspirational emails coming from San Francisco, and try to keep up with the France chapter’s message board. No outlines, no research, all I had was the figment of an idea from something I’d heard on a French radio show. I didn’t come up with the story until November 3, and I didn’t start writing until M and I got back from our mini-honeymoon on November 5.

If you do the math, 50,000 words is about 200 pages, which is pretty short for a novel, and it was really important for me to write the ending in November, or else I knew I would never finish it. This is why I decided to write for kids. That and the fact that most of my favorite books are written for kids. It worked out really well, because not only did I finish the story in around 60,000 words, about halfway through November I discovered that the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a wonderful little organization out of Los Angeles, has a France chapter. Because I was in the middle of a middle grade novel I joined SCBWI just in time for their winter conference. Since then, going to their events and meetings has had a huge influence on my life in terms of staying focused as a writer, and making some very supportive friends here in France.

A year later and I still feel like a winner

The funny thing is, even though it was such a rush last year, and even though I spent the 11 months since then looking forward to doing it again, and even though I know so many people that are doing it this year while last year I was alone (in my jammies with greasy hair, as Tall Drink of Nerd so aptly described), I can’t do NaNoWriMo 2010 because I’m still working on my NaNoWriMo 2009 novel. I’m just over halfway through the third rewrite, and hoping to finish it before December, or at the very, very latest before Christmas.

So I wait. The characters for my next novel bounce around my head, smoking cigarettes and waiting for their cues. Un-researched questions plague me while cooking dinner or taking a shower: Where do I have to go to find the real dirt about the South Seas shipping industry? Is there a South Seas shipping industry? And what kind of fuel do their ships burn? Questions of style pop up when I’m watching TV: Should I use the New York City that I remember, which has changed a lot since the 1990s, or should I invent my own private Gotham? But I put these questions aside. Answering them will be the reward for finishing NaNoWriMo 2009.

Given the thousands if not millions of people doing NaNoWriMo these days, I wonder how many of them actually finish their novels. And by finish I mean rewrite and refine, edit and copyedit, and try to sell their books. But even so, I suppose it’s two different things. There is finishing your tome, which is a long and somewhat painful process, but long before that there is the fun (and not necessarily painless) experience of writing the first draft, which is what NaNoWriMo helps you to do. I can’t wait to go back to that wonderful, liberated writing, where you’re not sure where to start and the end doesn’t appear until you get there (with a loose outline of course).

The other day, a friend told me, “I’m at 25,000 words and I’m never going to show this to anybody.” I hope she changes her mind because the beauty of NaNoWriMo is that you learn there is no shame in writing the worst ever first draft in the history of the world. As long as you write it. The beauty is letting yourself not care and just putting words to paper, knowing there are holes in your plot, knowing there are problems with your characters. It doesn’t matter, writing something down is the most basic element of writing. If you don’t get your idea onto paper or screen, you’ll never be able to move forward with it.

Thank You to the founders of NaNoWriMo. Even though I’m not involved this year, you’re still keeping me busy. I have a project that I love, and because of your blessed 50,000 word goal, that project isn’t unmanageably long (my very first first  draft is a daunting 700 pages and I haven’t found the courage to tackle the rewrite, so I’m very happy to be working with 250 pages now), and because of you I joined SCBWI and found a writing-oriented support network here in France.

To all of you doing NaNoWriMo 2010—I salute you! And I’m jealous. I hope I can join you next year. But not before my NaNoWriMo 2009 book is in the can.