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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Dingwell

How to (kind of) write a novel in 30 days

Design by Jackie Williams/Attawell Summer Creative

National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a NaNoWriMo) is a bit of a misnomer, as it has become an international phenomenon since its inception in 1999. Participants challenge themselves to write 50,000 words of a novel (or short story collection, or memoir, or whatever) during the month of November. All the while, writers are bolstered by online community and newsletter “pep talks” from published authors. Many people go through the motions every year, even while maintaining nine-to-fives and taking care of children. I’d heard of the concept before but had never taken the plunge. In my undergrad, I’d even had a creative writing professor voice her distaste for the idea. Writing a manuscript is serious business, after all.

My incomplete memoir manuscript has haunted me since I finished my MFA in 2020. The project needed things I was not prepared to give—at least, not yet. As I contemplated NaNoWriMo 2022, I wondered if I could pair the themes of my memoir with fictional elements to write a novel. Despite my formal training in nonfiction writing, poetry and fiction were my first loves. Fiction is more difficult for me to share, as I think fiction can, in some ways, be more revealing than nonfiction.

By mid-October, I had a very rough idea of how I would do that. I only had a vague outline of who my characters were and where my story would go when I finally sat down to write.

The story goes like this: Abby Parsons recently lost her father to ALS. As a result of his illness, the family had to sell their three beloved horses. Abby, who dropped out of university following her father’s diagnosis, is still reeling from his death and stuck in limbo. She responds to a job ad for a housekeeper and stable hand posted by a young man whose aunt is currently living with ALS. What begins as Abby’s selfish attempt at redemption turns into something more as she becomes close with the man and his aunt. This is by no means an autobiographical novel. However, there is truth even in the things I’ve “made up.”

When I began to write, my only hope was my little idea and my own stubbornness.

For the first time in my life, I have a dedicated office space in which to write. Up until this year, my desk was in my bedroom or living room, or I shared an office with my husband. Not exactly Virginia Woolf’s idea of “a room of one’s own.” In my current home, I could no longer fall back on previous excuses. I was determined. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Years of journalism training had instilled certain instincts that, to some degree, quashed my creativity. In order to reach 50,000 words, I needed to push back against those instincts. I had to silence my inner editor. I had to muse and exaggerate, and I even threw in some cliches when I couldn’t figure out how else to explain something. On days when I felt uninspired, I had to prioritize quantity over quality to meet my daily quota. Any writer will tell you a bad draft is better than a blank page. However, writing that bad (or less-than-perfect) draft takes courage. I had to be at peace with the thought that I might hate every word that came out of me. Once I embraced the idea, there was no doubt in my mind I could do it. I could find the words. The goodness or greatness of the words could always come later. This was my refrain for 28 days until I made it to the final goal with two days to spare.

Although I met my word count, the novel is still incomplete. I have more to do to bring the story to a close, but if the hard part is sitting down to start, then the hard part is over. I fantasize about publishing (even self-publishing) the novel upon completion, of course, but I keep telling myself that isn’t the point. I’ve proven that I can write every single day, even if only for an audience of one.

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