My Novel-Writing Month
- August 2, 2012
by Nora Zelevansky
I have never been particularly impressed with my own imagination. In fact, at 8 years old, I marched into my father’s vast studio (he’s a visual artist) and confessed that I had none at all. My friends concocted stories about dragons and unicorns, while I drew pictures of girls my own age whose only fantastical attribute was polka-dot high heels.
Ultimately, I became a journalist, sometimes writing creative nonfiction essays, but mostly reported pieces about style, design, beauty, food and travel. Then, about three years ago, a bit weary of the constraints of being on assignment, I caught myself wondering if I should, or could, write a novel.
I had no clue where to begin. Writing an entire book — let alone fiction — seemed daunting at best. So it felt like kismet when, while scanning UCLA Extension’s course catalog, I discovered something called National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo.”
Before you get suspicious, this is not some in-name-only designation like Bacon or Pilates Month. NaNoWriMo’s founder, Chris Baty — author of the goofily titled corresponding book No Plot? No Problem! — posits that most of us never get around to writing a novel because we edit ourselves before we begin, get bogged down with research, and later blame our inactivity on distractions from kids to day jobs to backlogged “Bachelorette” episodes (that’s me).
Like so many other people, I’d toyed with ideas for (mostly nonfiction) books, only to pronounce them days later as too weak or unoriginal to pursue. Baty’s strategy promised to lessen the pressure. NaNoWriMo participants are discouraged from outlining, are given only a week to research and then, for the month of November, are challenged to write just under 1,700 words a day with no editing. At the end, by following the rules, writers should have a 50,000-word novel, albeit an incredibly sloppy—50,000 word novel. (That’s about the length of The Great Gatsby.)
I could do anything for a month, I reasoned. After all, I once gave up carbs. Plus, it was free, so what did I have to lose?
I filled out my profile page on NaNoWriMo’s Website, feeling too cool to add a picture. A graph would track my word count as I entered text, which appealed to the nerd in me. It also made me accountable: If I didn’t finish, the Internet gods would know.
For added structure, I enrolled in a UCLA course, which started a couple weeks beforehand in mid-October and claimed to offer guidance throughout the experience.
I showed up for the first class nervous and excited, and then realized two things almost immediately: First, although I’d had great UCLA writing-class experiences before, this would be a waste of time. The professor’s helpful tips on everything from character development to blocking out writing time were simply reiterated from Baty’s book. Besides that, the teacher wasn’t my cup of tea. When all was said and done, I’d asked him exactly one important question during the entire class:
“As a nonfiction writer, I’m worried about transitioning into fiction. Do you think it’s smarter to write in third person than first because it’s the farthest removed from the personal essays I’m used to? In general, is there any benefit to writing in one person over the other?”
He narrowed his eyes and shook his bald head. I don’t know if he misunderstood or just hated me on sight, but he snapped, “That’s a ridiculous question. Do whichever. It doesn’t matter.”
Thank you for your wisdom, Yoda.
The second thing I realized is that not all elements of the program were going to work for me. NaNoWriMo organizes nationwide “Write Ins,” for which strangers immersed in the process meet at designated locations for moral support and write side by side. That’s a lot of cheerleading and togetherness. In class, even before the process officially started, the teacher gave us prompts during exercises (“Take a clause from the newspaper’s front page and use it in your story.”) and random CDs as rewards for writing the most words in an allotted time period. I’m sure others found these tools helpful, but to me they felt like interruptions.
After much hemming and hawing, I decided to rebuff any ideas that had long been percolating in my mind and pick something at random. That way, I was free to execute the story badly. I was craving the freedom of the experience; it had to be okay to fail.
While in the Virgin Islands earlier that year, I’d dreamt about an ethereal young starlet named Veruca Pfeffernoose, who lived in an amazing magical loft apartment-cum-carnival with carts spewing black cotton candy, jugglers performing and, oddly, Jerry Garcia spinning records in a corner. That was it — the basis for the novel! Thinking about concept, I did end up drawing on a real-life experience: I’d almost been a ghost blogger for a socialite earlier that year and the whole notion fascinated me. My main character would write a blog in someone else’s voice, I decided.
In no time, Nov. 1, 2009, arrived — Day 1! I was nervous. In all fairness, the chips were stacked against me: I was returning from a best friend’s wedding in Mexico with a group of pals, royally hung over from the previous night’s tequila binge and in need of an ER visit for a rapidly swelling bee sting. It was also my first wedding anniversary. I would have to write my 1,667 words on the airplane. I did what I could, but eventually my laptop battery died (someone had forgotten to charge it! I wonder who?). I was only able to write about 850 words. It was an ominous start. If I couldn’t successfully complete the first day, the forecast was bleak.
I needn’t have worried. The next morning, I hit my stride. That month, I didn’t always feel like sitting down to write, which I usually did at the beginning of the day unless a journalism deadline took precedence. But the act of completing a day’s word count — more or less — raised my spirits, as if I’d accomplished something akin to exercising (which I was NOT doing). It made my life richer. I knew that sometimes I was writing really bad material, but sometimes I wasn’t. And I was amazed by the way the plot unfolded without a plan, just as Baty had said it would. A mystery and a romance had emerged amid the pop-culture references and snark. Maybe I had an imagination after all?
November is tricky because of Thanksgiving, and it’s also my birthday month, over which I shamelessly make a big deal. But I ended up appreciating writing even more on those days. I got to tell family that I needed to work, which meant some meditative alone time during the usual Turkey Day insanity. I got to spend my birthday feeling invigorated by this new project and proud of myself for muddling through despite the temptation to flake
The novel’s setting ended up being the Upper West Side of New York, where I grew up, and the family is quirky, intellectual and of the art world, which describes my actual childhood household. So I didn’t make everything up from scratch. The family characters are not, in fact, my parents or my sister, but they do have similar jobs and a love of sardonic banter. The protagonist, Beatrice Bernstein, is not me either. She may be similarly clumsy and grumpy and afraid of cockroaches, but that’s where the similarities end.
The book came out in a quirky, stylized tone, so the characters are more like parodies, an amalgamation of many individuals I’ve met along the way. (My publisher compared the book to “The Royal Tenenbaums” when he first read it. I don’t want to set unreasonable expectations about quality, but it does illustrate the slightly cartoonish, saturated nature of the telling.)
I finished the book near the end of November that year. I don’t want to sound like teacher’s pet, but I finished early. Yeah. No big deal. I hit the 50,000 word mark and a message came up on my screen: “Congratulations! You won!” Before you ask, I didn’t really “win” anything. But I got to feel like a winner because I’d committed to something, challenged myself and followed through. I wondered briefly if the message says, if you don’t finish, “You lose!” Probably not.
There were many many drafts after that first one, which, of course, needed work. I revised the story and sent it to friends in January, enlisting generous readers with different perspectives, genders and backgrounds. They gave me notes; when a few of those thoughts overlapped, I listened closely. I went through this process several more times before searching out literary agents who my friends knew or who had reached out to me during my personal-essay writing days. Luckily, I eventually landed with Anne Bohner of Pen & Ink Literary, who I chose because she was lovely, enthusiastic, smart and had previously been on the other side as an editor. I figured she knew the landscape and I guess I was right; by December 2010 I had a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. And that day may have been the happiest yet in my life. (My wedding day wasn’t bad either, Sweetie!)
Of course, I’m making this all sound smoother than it actually was. Insert countless rejection letters, frustrating story issues and stressful days into this timeline wherever you see fit. Even once I sold the book, I still had revisions ahead of me and some plot problems to resolve, not to mention all the other hoopla that goes into getting a book ready. I’m only now starting to think seriously about the second book, and I’m sure writing it will be a very different experience.
But now, on July 3, 2012, my book, Semi-Charmed Life, will finally hit the shelves, and I am so incredibly grateful to everything that led me here.
And it only took one month. One month, plus two and a half years.
Nora Zelevansky’s debut novel, Semi-Charmed Life (St. Martin’s Press), is a quirky social satire and comic coming-of-age story about a college senior named Beatrice Bernstein, who hails from an intellectual family in New York’s art world but has an appetite for pop culture. In her quest to find a life path, Beatrice becomes a “ghost blogger” for a mysterious and famous stranger, and her trajectory is changed for good.
For more on National Novel Writing Month, visit the Website at: www.nanowrimo.org