Guest Post by Nancy Parsons
The local library was recruiting writers for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month Project. I had never seriously considered writing a novel, but I felt indebted to the head librarian and to The Friends of the Library for supporting several books I had written (none of them novels), so I kicked aside my doubts and prejudices and signed on.
Signing on was simple. I told the librarians I was “in” then logged onto the www.nanowrimo.org.
Once I had entered my name, I was invited to create my Author Profile by supplying was a photo and my signature. I realize now that perhaps my actual legal signature was not what they were looking for, but at the time I was horrified. Super-protective of my identity, I certainly didn’t want a facsimile of my signature out there on the web. I wasn’t crazy about having a mugshot out there either. I logged off and thought about things.
Now here is the confessional part of this essay. I have to admit that my relationship with the NaNoWriMo project was similar to the position of an unregistered runner in the Boston Marathon. I ran the race, I just didn’t wear a number. Even if an unregistered marathoner could possibly pass all those Kenyans and break the tape, she would not wear the laurel nor pocket the cash. You have to be registered to win the prize.
On the other hand, the laurels awarded in NaNoWriMo seemed pretty scanty. The prize for producing 50,000 words within the 30 days of November was a certificate in PDF form that I could print on my own printer with my very own ink. No cash. No appearance on the Today Show. Ah, but the real reward, of course, would be my very own novel.
So I decided to try this NaNoWriMo thing, but I that I’d do so as a shadow participant—an unregistered runner in the 30-day writing marathon.
The copy on the website painted the project as a huge lark—something you can talk about at cocktail parties. How many cocktail parties can a woman of mature years, living in a small New England town, expect to attend in a month? Damn few, in my case. The website also promised this was also my chance to write “laughably awful prose.”
For four decades, I’ve made my living writing, and laughably awful prose was never an aspiration. It wouldn’t have buttered any of my bread.
To be fair, the site went on to explain that the point was simply to get the words down on paper; you would naturally go back later and rewrite, editing out the “laughably awful parts” presumably.
Oh well, why not? I like a challenge.
So I’d need a plot to do this thing. Characters. A setting. Then an odd thing happened: as I swung my legs out of bed one morning, I heard myself mutter: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
I was probably referring to myself, but in fact, I had spoken the final line of my novel. Now all I had to do was start at the beginning and fill in all the stuff between the set-up and the punch line.
With that, characters began to develop. Dialog began to play in my head, and soon Harrison and Sheila were conversing in there. Eventually Alice Malone and John Dinsmore, Jeep Harrison and Agnes Oglethorpe—characters in supporting roles—opened the door, walked into the story and sat down.
The plot was simple: a corrupt hedge funds manager, convicted of bilking wealthy clients out of billions, dies in prison of a heart attack and regains consciousness in a cage in an animal shelter. He has come back as a dog—a big, old black dog who is adopted by the unsentimental Alice Malone. Alice hires Sheila Thibedeau, a down-on-her-luck animal communicator, to find out what’s the matter with the dog whom she has named Harrison after a cousin she disliked.
Okay, this might be easier than I thought. Then I counted words I’d written and they totaled 3,752, None of them were laughably awful though.
Needing to find more words, I began building the plot through a series of unrelated vignettes—bits of flash fiction about Sheila’s various animal clients, about her economic troubles and her romantic woes but the heavy action happened in her telepathic conversations with Harrison.
For 30 days, I interrupted whatever I was doing and banged out a few more words on the computer –100 words, 347 words—whatever number the Voice dictated. A page here, a paragraph there and the words began to add up. I jotted notes on grocery lists and the backs of receipts, in the margins of bank statements and in the notebook next to the alarm clock, these to be transcribed and fleshed out later.
My experience as a professional writer gave me a strong leg-up. Six people started the local NaNoWriMo project. Only two of us finished; the other person to cross the finish line on November 30th also makes her living as a writer. Both of us are accustomed to producing words to a deadline. Being a conditioned writer makes a huge difference if you happen to be laboring on a NaNoWriMo project. One very confident fellow in our group couldn’t get past 4,000 words. He was surprised. He had no idea what 50,000 words actually looked like.
The Dog That Managed Hedge Funds is a simple book—a fast read, light-hearted and witty. It was reasonably easy to finish it up before the calendar page turned. I spent December and January on edits and rewrites and in the spring, self-published my first novel.
I am back to work now editing the memoir of a Naval officer, ghostwriting a financial book, and planning future memoir projects. But I’m different somehow. I’m now a bona fide novelist, although I have no plans to accept the NaNoWriMo challenge a second time. But I would encourage other writers to try it. Take the plunge. Check out the project www.nanowrimo.org. Sign on or just run the marathon without a number.
Nancy Parsons claims to have written everything except poetry and pornography. After nearly four decades in advertising and marketing, she retired to her home office to be her own employer and has since written five books including her first novel The Dog That Managed Hedge Funds. She has also ghostwritten several books, midwifed several more for clients, and developed a curriculum for memoir writing. When not writing, she walks her dog, gardens, considers paint samples and practices internal Chinese martial arts.