A novel approach to fiction

Dec. 14, 2006, midnight | By Lingfeng Li | 14 years, 1 month ago

Chapter One: The contest begins

John Paterson is having a bad day. So far, he has been late to work, shot and sent to hell. But just when he is about to lose hope, an angel named Floyd appears.

"It was a clerical error. These kinds of things are very rare, mind you, but they do happen." Floyd sighed, preparing himself to say the inevitable. "You were accidentally sent to hell," he said bluntly.

But before Paterson can begin his mission to gain rightful entry into heaven, he must wait for senior John Conroy to stop pacing and start typing.

Conroy's novel started his novel, A Sublunary Being, during November's National Novel Writing Month. Called NaNoWriMo for short, it challenges authors to write 50,000-word novels between midnight on Nov. 1 and midnight on Nov. 30. Founded by freelance writer Chris Baty in 1999, nearly 100,000 budding novelists worldwide participated this year, including students in Val Josenhans's Creative Writing class. Throughout the month, Conroy was one of several students who tested their discipline, creativity and commitment, challenging themselves to write a novel at warp speed.

Chapter Two: Bring it on

English is sophomore Elizabeth Porter's middle name - literally.

NaNoWriMo gave Elizabeth English Daisy Pratt Porter a chance to dive headfirst into what she hopes will be her future career. Inspired by a story of a freak accident in which an umbrella sculpture killed a family, she delved into a realm of dark humor.

"A hamburger fell on them," I said after pushing that stinky lady away. They didn't need me to tell them that. It was sort of obvious.

In Porter's novel, a fictitious memoir entitled Greer's Luck, 15-year-old Finnegan Greer recalls the death of his parents and younger brother.

As she struggled to keep the plot moving, Porter found it difficult to meet the finish line. Baty recognizes that many writers tend to quit halfway through the month, abandoning their keyboards when the novelty of NaNoWriMo wears off.

The prizes offer little to keep them going. Winners with over 50,000 words have their names posted online and get a winner's certificate – but they have to print it out and hand-write their names on it themselves. "We have the worst prizes on the planet," Baty says.

Disappointed with the official rewards, junior Lauren Sumida and four friends planned to celebrate their own way with a private dinner. They agreed that the first person to reach 50,000 words gets treated to dinner, and the person with the lowest word count must buy dessert for everyone.

Sumida started with fervor, writing 800 words a day. In her opening scene, the main character, a mute amnesiac, feels the urge to jump off a bridge.

He hoisted himself on to the wall and stood. "Here I am," he thought, and an inexplicable feeling of relief and calm washed over him.

But after 21 days, Sumida was 13,000 words behind schedule and on the verge of quitting. But staying up until 5 a.m. writing during the Thanksgiving holiday gave her a 6,000-word boost. That weekend, she wrote a total of 15,000 words, propelling her within reach of her goals: a free dinner, her name on the web site and a winners' certificate triumphantly tacked on her wall.

Chapter Three: Cranking out the words

Porter was less concerned with word count, since she values quality over quantity in her writing. "It wouldn't feel right to turn something in that I didn't like," she says.

She almost forgot to hold her schoolwork to the same standard. On one social studies assignment, Porter's procrastination and sloppy effort resulted in a D, and she was determined not to let it happen again. Unwilling to compromise either her novel or her grades, Porter ultimately chose to ignore the deadline and write at her own pace.

But for writers hoping to win, word count often takes precedent over plot. To meet the required length in one month, NaNoWriMo participants must write an average of 1,700 words daily, or about six pages of typed, double-spaced text. "You just need to head into it with a chainsaw rather than a dental pick," says Baty.

Strapped for ideas, Sumida eventually resorted to rambling to inflate her word count. Her characters occasionally speak in Romanian, which Sumida would translate back into English and paste into her story to double the word count. At her most desperate, she resorted to inserting 200 expletives.

Although some of the finer elements of fiction are sacrificed in the rush 50,000 words, Josenhans believes that the mere experience of writing a novel will improve character development and build discipline. "[NaNoWriMo is] less about that traditional structure and more about just proving to yourself that you can crank out that many words," she says.


Of these NaNoWriMo participants, Lauren Sumida was the only winner, submitting her 50,007 words less than an hour before the deadline. Conroy and Porter gave up before the end of the month, but they still plan to finish their novels.

Regardless of the quality or quantity of their writing, Baty commends all high-school students who choose to participate. "My hat is off to you," he says. "If you're doing this in high school, you're amazing."

Novel Numbers

Total Word Count: 982,564,701

Maryland Word Count: 13,812,034

Winners: 12,948

Information compiled from: http://nanowrimo.org

Lingfeng Li. Some say that Amy, girlie-girl of the first degree, tennis extraordinaire (not really), bearer of the feared and revered pink pen, should switch to an editing color of greater intimidation and formality. She thinks these people are stupid. Whoever said that orange was the new … More »

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