Here’s to the Unfinished Novel!

Here’s to the Unfinished Novel!
Last month, we challenged successful UK participants of National Novel Writing Month 2012 (also known as NaNoWriMo) to write an article about their battle to write 50,000 words of a novel in just thirty days. The winner of our competition — and of a year’s subscription to Litro’s print magazine — was Linda Fawke. She gives her account here.

winner-180x180There are millions of unfinished novels in the world, the first few chapters of wonderful stories that fizzle out around page fifty-two. Now there are even more.

On October 31st, at around 10 p.m., I enrolled in my first NaNoWriMo, an annual event where brave or sufficiently deluded individuals endeavour to write 50,000 words during the month of November. As I lay in bed, at a minute past midnight on November 1st, I said to my husband, “I could start writing now.” He gave me a disbelieving stare.

I’d deliberated about taking part for some days. My creative writing course had given me a synopsis, and I knew that the rules allowed advance preparation. In addition, my husband would be out of the house for much of the month so I would be left in peace. Would I ever have such a suitable November again?

“What have you got to lose?” my husband asked. I enrolled at almost the last minute.

What had I got to lose? My confidence, pride, self-esteem: nothing of importance, really.

Tell your friends, the organisers said. Then they’ll understand why you are being antisocial. So I went to my (infrequently used) Facebook account and announced my intentions. Even more pressure on me to complete now; I needed at least 1,666 words daily.

On November 1st, I went shopping in the morning, feeling horribly guilty that I hadn’t started typing as soon as I opened my eyes. But I managed 2,000 words. Good start. Steady progress through the next couple of days, keeping pace with the required number. But I knew that wasn’t good enough. We had family coming to stay, days when I knew I wouldn’t write a word. Like a reluctant snail, I crept ahead. I discovered that if I entered my daily word count on the NaNoWriMo website, it calculated my statistics and plotted out my progress. Really encouraging and desperately depressing in turn.

My synopsis was proving to be less useful than I had expected. Chapter summaries turned out to provide little more than a paragraph of material, poor material at that. Don’t worry about quality, the organisers said. It’s the quantity that counts. Hard to stomach, perfectionist that I am. “That’s the point of it all,” my husband said. “Too many writers get stuck in write-rewrite mode and they never move on. Hence all the unfinished novels.” He was, as usual, right.

As I finished the next day’s dessert for our visitors at midnight, I told myself that something had to go. I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep writing, cooking and socialising at that pace. And it was only November 5th. I’m retired; how do people working full-time manage?

One week in and I put an update on Facebook which received a number of ridiculous but heartening suggestions as to how I should progress. Took a whole day off on the 10th feeling a mixture of relief and worry, but raring to go the following day. Panic when I realised that I hadn’t backed up my writing. Rushed home from a friend’s house to do it. Bad day on the 13th — only 1,500 words in four and a half hours. The prose wasn’t flowing although I was using up the contents of my synopsis. Was I going to finish my story and still have to find thousands more words?

Then I had a few inspirations. Halfway through November I was at 27,000 words. I was thrilled to have made it that far, but daunted that I had almost the same amount to write again. Onto Facebook again for the encouraging words I knew I’d receive. Still managing the gym three times a week. I’d made the Christmas cake, visited an elderly neighbour, been out to dinner. A semblance of normality squeezed into corners of my writing life.

Something of a plod around the 30,000 mark; dull, heavy words gumming up my keyboard. Then it changed. I started waking in the night with ideas, mind racing, on an adrenaline rush as the 40,000 mark approached. I was constantly writing in my head, ignoring the world around me; I watched a whole television programme without taking in a thing. My birthday was on the 24th. Had to have a small celebration, so I worked hard beforehand to get ahead. Yes, ahead!

“You’ll do it,” my husband said. “You’re too stubborn to fail.” I was almost beginning to believe him. Then I managed to lose 1,800 words. Somehow I saved – and backed up – a previous version over the current one. Everyone told me, too late, what I should have done. I just had to sit down and rewrite from memory. Another bad day.

But I was in reach of the dangling carrot. On the evening of the 27th, champagne glass in my hand, I sent my writing off to be validated. I was three days early! I’d written 50,880 words and was officially a ‘winner’. Soon I might even be seen wearing the silly NaNoWriMo winners’ T-shirt.

So what have I done? I’ve created an incomplete novel. I’ll need a further 30,000 words, plus plenty of editing and re-writing, before I can even think of it as finished. But what fun it’s been! I doubt I’ll ever do it again, but it has given me a real high. I can now return to the regular world, listen to what people say, take part in conversations and sleep properly. Already, though, I find myself missing, slightly, the daily writing chore.

I’m not a novelist yet, but I am five-eighths of one.

Linda is an arts person who pursued a scientific career but now has the time to write. She writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She has published in various magazines including Berkshire Life and The Oldie, and has been a winner of the Daily Telegraph 'Just Back' travel writing competition and the Litro 'NanoWriMo experience' competition. She has just completed her first novel.

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