Writing a Novel 400 Words at a Time
One of my favorite English professors once asked me if I was a reader or a writer. “If you could only do one, for the rest of your life, what would you pick?” A decade later I still can’t imagine a worse Would You Rather situation. I love reading, I have since the days of Bernstein Bears and Babysitter Club. My heart would break if I could never read again, but I knew the moment she asked me that question that I had to pick writing. My life would be very bleak without the worlds created by reading, but I’m sure I would implode if I was forbidden to write. Answering that question is when I truly started to identify as a writer.
Since then, the item at the top of my life’s to-do list has been to “write a book.” If I do nothing else with my life, I’d tell my friends, I have to write a book. Before I had my son, I set a goal to write and publish a poetry book. I felt like it was necessary to cross “write a book” off my list before I had a baby. For some reason I was convinced I might not ever do anything of creative importance after I became a mom. My first chapbook was released when I was seven months pregnant. I met my goal, and a year later my second chapbook, all about motherhood (imagine that, I felt more creative after the baby) was published. I tried to convince myself that this was enough to cross “write a book” off my list, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I had bent the rules. What I really meant when I said I wanted to write a book was that I wanted to a write a novel. I wanted to write fiction.
I’ve avoided fiction thus far, outside of a few flash fiction exercises and a little workshop dabbling, I haven’t truly attempted anything of length. I’m drawn to projects with metrics and deadlines, and I’ve attempted and lost NaNoWriMo in the past. My excuses have been both lousy—I have no ideas; my characters don’t want to do anything but hang out in my head and bother me—and credible—I have a toddler, a full time job, a marriage and a house.
This January I decided 2016 would be my year. This will be the year that I complete a shitty first draft of something novel-length. After some thought and some backwards math, I decided to create the following regimen: at least 400 words a day, five days a week, until I hit 50,000 words –the NaNoWriMo word count goal. They don’t have to be good words; they just need to be words that drive the story forward. Much like NaNoWriMo, my goal is purely to show up, to do the work, and to finish something. I can edit or trash it all, when I finish.
I’m just about a month into the project, and I think I’ve finally found something I can stick with. I usually write my 400 words during my lunch break or before I leave the office for the day. A few times I’ve been too busy to fit my writing in at work, so I’ll write before bed or on the weekend during my son’s nap time. I know that the key to success for me right now is flexibility and ease. Four hundred words doesn’t suck the life out of me when I can’t seem to find my groove, and it flies by when I do. A few times I’ve been so into my writing that I’ve almost doubled my daily quota. I don’t allow myself to write 800 words in order to only write four days a week; any extra words are purely a bonus. Right now, I’m already over 2,000 words ahead of schedule. If this project continues to go well, I should hit my goal in June, which will correspond with my thirtieth birthday. I can’t think of a better gift to give to myself than finally writing the words “The End” on my first draft of something that hopefully resembles a novel.
I’ll be updating you all on my progress in a few weeks, let me know if you feel inspired to join me!
Columnist: Shannon Curtin is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two collections of poetry, Motherland (Anchor and Plume Press), and File Cabinet Heart (ELJ Publications). She is the newly named Poetry Editor of The Quotable, and her writing has been featured in variety of literary magazines including Mothers Always Write, The Muddy River Review, The Mom Egg Review, and The Elephant Journal. She holds an MBA, competitive shooting records, and her liquor. You can find her at www.shannonmazur.com and @Shannon_Mazur.