The 30-day novel

I'm typing as fast as I can!

GOD DAMN THAT word count function.

Because according to a quick calculation, today, slightly more than halfway through National Novel Writing Month, I am 19,757 words short of my daily goal of 38,103 words. I suck.

I first heard about National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as its organizers prefer) through an e-mail from a friend of mine, upon whom I am now considering all sorts of acts of revenge. Now in its third year, NaNoWriMo is the brainchild of Chris Baty, a San Francisco-area journalist who talked some of his friends into joining him for an outrageously stupid bet: Each of them had to write a 50,000-word novel in November. That first year, six of the 21 participants made it to the finish line. The second year, 29 of 89 finished. This year, there are over 5,000 participants.

The idea would be both stupid and pretentious if the people organizing the event weren't so charmingly irreverent about the whole thing. There's no prize, no payoff at the end of the month aside from your own personal satisfaction (or dissatisfaction, as is my case). The tone of their Web site is thoroughly, even rigorously, self-deprecating. In response to a FAQ regarding a group in Vancouver that writes novels in a weekend, for example, they answer: "They are fools. Everyone knows that any deep and lasting work of art takes an entire month to make."

We all know that first novels are almost inevitably junk, and the idea of writing one in such a short time is ludicrous. The best one can hope for, as the NaNoWriMo organizers make clear, is that in the midst of 50,000 words of crap there may be the occasional piece of salvageable writing. After all, no one really expects a novel that you write in a month to be any good, certainly not publishable, right?

But, of course, that's what we all secretly hope.

When I decided to do this, I knew it was a foolish idea. I've been work- ing on rewrites of two plays, have to finish the second act of another, and am contracted to do some articles this month for a handful of local publications. But perversely, I thought that the answer to my writing woes might actually be something like NaNoWriMo.

When you write for your living, it's very easy to lose the joy in what you're doing. Most people, hearing that you're a freelance writer, have a romantic image of you sitting in a cafe, pen and writing pad idle on the table, sipping pernod, and contemplating the rain. The reality is more likely to be you wearing your tattered bathrobe and slippers till 4 in the afternoon, walking despairingly from room to room and weeping because you can't get any interviews for your upcoming piece on policy changes at the Seattle Aquarium. It's hard and joyless work much of the time, all the worse because it's invisible.

So instead, for one month I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to drink too much and wander the streets contemplating plot points. I wanted to ruthlessly strip-mine my friends' lives for events and gossip to work into my fiction. I wanted to sulk and have tantrums and be gloriously self-obsessed.

My novel is improved autobiographical, which mostly means that my characters get invited to more and better parties than I do but pay for it later through personal tragedies. It's about life in Seattle back when we were all glittering, young, and hopeful—about four years ago. My one innovation is to try to write a third-person narrative with a first-person narrator, so I'm telling the story through ways that one normally doesn't use in fiction, like answering machine messages, shopping lists, school transcripts, that sort of thing. (If you can't quite picture how I'll be able to do this, that makes two of us.)

The most hellish thing about the exercise is that far too many of the jerks in the Seattle chapter insist on sending regular e-mails announcing their current word count. Some even sign off with the numbers after their names, like this: "David So-And-So, 38,168." Needless to say, I hate such people, unless of course their word counts are even more pathetic than my own. Churlishly, I wonder if other literary associates, like Dickens and Thackeray or Fitzgerald and Hemingway, boasted of their daily word counts to each other. (Actually, I wouldn't put it past Ernest. "Look at that, Scott-8,000 words since lunch, all with a broken nib! Hah!")

Near as I can figure, over half of the 100-plus participants in the Puget Sound area are ex- or current employees. I can understand the ex- employees jumping on board, though it does seem that all these months later they'd finally be broke enough to think twice about a monthlong writing exercise. But hope seemingly springs eternal in such people: If you believed in, why not believe that your 50,000-word mess may be the ticket to a book-signing tour?

As to the current employees—whatever happened to your 70-hour workweek, you slackers?

Perhaps I'm just more of a sprinter than a marathon runner. Writing to a daily deadline means that once you stumble on the treadmill, metaphorically speaking, it continues to run and your face turns from a bruise into pulped hamburger on the relentless mechanical track. Metaphorically speaking.

Despite my pathetic word count, I'm not giving up. My head is broody but unbowed, and I plan to have an entirely miserable Thanksgiving locked in a room away from the turkey, writing and making the lives of my loved ones a living hell in hopes that the turmoil I cause might give me some more personal material for the novel. After all, that's what a real novelist would do, isn't it?

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