NaNoWriMo: A novel approach

Each year, aspiring writers are challenged to produce a 50,000-word work in a month. Anne Penketh embarked on a fictional journey with her murder mystery, The Marsh

I'd been mulling the idea of a novel set in the marshes of Blakeney Point ever since finding out that an independent publisher was interested in Norfolk Gothic fiction.

So when a friend told me that November was National November Writing Month, I decided to sign up to the challenge to write 50,000 words between 1 and 30 November.

Yes, it's daunting. The first thing I had to do was learn how to pronounce NaNoWriMo. I was now a Wrimo among almost half a million from all over the world. But encouraged by the fact that 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, including Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen, I registered my novel, The Marsh. My idea went something as follows: a mother and child catch sight of something in the mists. The next day the mother, who had supernatural powers, is murdered. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Sam Newby. And with that minimal framework in mind, I set off on my 30-day fictional journey. I am amazed at where it led me.

How do you write a novel in 30 days? NaNoWriMo, a US-based charity set up by Chris Baty 14 years ago, is there to help. The site provides online coaching sessions via Twitter, and I received invitations from the French branch (I live in France) to collective writing sessions around Paris.

Here's what bestselling novelist Lev Grossman told me and the other Wrimos in a pep-talk email on 19 November, when we were past the half-way mark : "Being a novelist is a matter of keeping at it, day after day, just putting words after other words. It's a war of inches where the hardest part is keeping your nerve."

But can a novel written under such a tight deadline be any good? I found there was one big advantage: the continuity meant that I was able to keep the whole project in my head, which made it easier to approach than my still-unpublished first novel.

Early on, I'd decided that the only way I would finish would be to reach my target figure of 2,000 words daily. Sometimes I would hit a dead end and not know where the story was going next. But a phone call to my Auntie Betty in Norfolk invariably overcame my plot panic.

Then there was the temptation to procrastinate. But again NaNoWriMo had good advice: don't get bogged down doing online research, they would say. Just write!

The conditions for joining the NaNoWriMo community are few. If you want to donate, you can, but it's not compulsory. The novel, or memoir, has to be a new project, so there's no point in pasting onto the site a previously written book just to obtain a winner's certificate. And "bringing a half-finished manuscript into NaNoWriMo all but guarantees a miserable month", says the NaNoWriMo oracle.

One of the frequently asked questions on the site is: "Can I write one word 50,000 times?" The answer: "No. Well. No." It's up to everyone to be honest, as each completed novel is counted by a computer script before being deleted.

Of course, many Wrimos fall by the wayside every year. My Twitter feed was full of anguished writers whose hand-wringing only fed my own self-doubt. Last year, out of 341,375 participants, only 38,438 people reached the magic 50,000-word figure by the deadline.

This year, on my first attempt, I'm a winner and have a certificate to prove it. I completed 50,098 words of The Marsh on 29 November. It may only be a first draft, but without NaNoWriMo, I wouldn't have achieved even that. µ

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