It’s all about the word count

This month, I have not been blogging much at all because I’ve been writing a novel. A NOVEL! I am trying to reach 50,000 words in one month. A teacher in my building has all of her eighth grade students participate in a project called NaNoWriMo, and I decided to try it on my own at home. It is challenging, especially because I decided to commit five days late. I constantly feel behind. At this point, I’ve written something like 14,000 words, and I think I’m ‘supposed’ to have written over 20,000 words. However, it’s okay. I never thought I could do it. I never thought I had enough ideas to sustain a novel. I couldn’t think of any characters or a plot or a setting that resonated for me.

I must admit I am starstruck by this process. It feels bigger than me. I love wrestling with characters and conflicts and seeing where it goes.  It’s also really, really hard. Every night, I think, I am way too tired to write. Then I think, “But I’m still 6,000 words behind!” and then I sit down and type another random chapter. In fact, right now, while I type this, I am thinking, frantically, “Write more while the kids are watching cartoons! I shouldn’t be blogging!” The word count keeps me going.

Here is another thing that keeps me going. When I began my novel (I do love to type those words), I remembered a book I bought spontaneously years ago. It has a lime green cover, and it has helped me immensely. It’s called Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch, who taught creative writing at Columbia University for many years. He is wise, understanding, compassionate, and encouraging. He also quotes fiction masters from Philip Roth to Tolstoy to J.K. Rowling, reminding us that we can learn from everyone.

He says that you don’t need to figure out your characters or your plot before you start writing. Just write. Start with a seed, a germ, or a faint glimmer of an idea. It’s how Toni Morrison, Thomas McGuane, Henry James, and Isabel Allende begin their books.

This particular idea comforted me tremendously. These master writers, winners of Nobel prizes, usually began their novels having no idea where they were going or where they’d end up or who was living in their novels or what the theme or the tone would be. They didn’t have a plot map or an outline. They discovered it all as they wrote.

In Chapter 1, Stephen Koch writes, “But”-you may say-“I don’t even know my story yet.” My answer is, “Of course you don’t know your story yet.” You are the very first person to tell this story ever, anywhere in the whole world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it; then you know it. It is not the other way around. Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves-even to their tellers-only by being told. You may ask yourself how on earth you can tell a story before you know it. You do that by letting the emerging story tell itself through you. As you tell it, you let the story give you cues about where it is going to go next.”

Isabel Allende writes about this process, “By the time I’ve finished the first draft, I know what the book is about.  But not before.” This page made me immeasurably grateful, and it caught me at a moment where I thought I should just hang it up.

I am such an avid reader of fiction, and I keep telling myself, this is FUN! And it is, especially when I’ve given myself explicit permission to stumble around in the dark. All that matters right now is sitting down every day and doing the work.

I’ll blog more about the process later, but for now, I’ve got to keep upping my word count.