Everyone, supposedly, has a story to tell.
Most people, though, never show the desire, determination and endurance required to put it onto a page. Most never subject themselves to the crushing self-doubt and plummeting standards of diet and hygiene that can be the byproducts of attempting to write a book.
National Novel Writing Month makes the barrier to entry a little less daunting. For the past 13 Novembers, people from around the world and all walks of life have taken up the challenge to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days. They write when they can and they log their progress on a website maintained by the nonprofit organization behind National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short).
More than 300,000 people created NaNoWriMo accounts this year. Some won't write a word all month long. Many will fall short of the word-count finish line but still produce a lot of copy. A decent percentage — last year, close to 37,000 people — will hit or surpass their goal.
The point of novel writing month isn't necessarily to publish. It isn't even to be good, really. It's to experience the satisfaction that comes with accomplishment. It's to have written.
Talent isn't rare, the British author Kevin Barry told the Paris Review earlier this month, speaking about writers. “What's rare is the stubborn, pragmatic thing that tells you 'I've got to do this every single (expletive) day, even when I don't want to do it, when I'd rather pluck my eyes out and feed them to the birds.' ”
You've got to sit down and do it.
With that in mind, and a few days left in this year's novel-writing month, we checked in with some local writers who are doing it. Whether they hit 50,000 words by the final second of Nov. 30 remains to be seen, but they're all taking a shot.
Their thoughts about the experience, and in all but one case, the first sentences of their novels-in-progress:
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NaNoWriMo PARTICIPANT BIOS
» Adam Gibson, 40, Bennington
“Orange and yellow Birds of Paradise flowers are blooming big and bright in the garden where I will make my promise to God, my family and myself.”
With four previous novel-writing-month experiences behind him, Adam Gibson entered this year's challenge a veteran. He completed all four novels and wrote another three outside of November.
In past years he's written right up until 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30 to hit his goal, but he expects a less dramatic finish this time.
“This year has been easier than expected,” he said.
He describes this year's project, written in a diary format, as “a book form of the 'found footage' genre.”
A senior systems technician by day, Gibson writes at night while watching television and during breaks at work.
“I have a full-time job and two kids, so I write whenever I can find the time,” he said.
» Mark Penix, 31, Papillion
“I remember hearing her sing when she washed the dishes.”
To stick to the spirit of novel writing month, all words must be composed in the month of November. But preparation is encouraged. Mark Penix drafted an outline of his novel, a thriller-ish story intended for the young adult market.
“I haven't stuck to that 100 percent, but it's given my words direction,” he said.
His biggest challenge has been staying on task and avoiding social media. He tried to listen to music while writing but found it distracting. Then he discovered a track of binaural beats intended to stimulate the brain and enhance concentration.
“It felt odd at first, but it worked,” he said. “I tend to use that every day now, and I typically write at night after my son goes to bed and our new puppy calms down.”
» Randa Zalman, 34, Omaha
“The decision for your organization to participate in social media should not be a difficult one.”
If that doesn't sound like the opening of a novel, you're right.
“I'm a bit of a renegade in this fashion,” said Randa Zalman, a marketing consultant who's decided to use the parameters of national novel writing month to write a book about her industry. “It has always been a dream of mine to write a book, and they always say you should write what you know. I know marketing and I know social media.”
Her previous attempts at the novel writing month project, in 2011 and 2012, fizzled after the first week. But Zalman pressed on this year, even after a week two crisis in confidence. She now gives herself a pep talk before each writing session. Then she types with abandon.
“I don't get hung up about spelling, grammar, sentence structure — I write to be writing,” she said. “There will be plenty of time in December to edit.”
» M.J. Francis, 54, Bellevue
“The rain had stopped by the time Sheriff Blackmun reached the crime scene.”
M.J. Francis, a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant who now works for PayPal, learned a valuable lesson last year after his first novel writing month experience: Scale your work accordingly.
Massive in scope, his novel idea quickly became unmanageable, and Francis sputtered out at around 17,000 words.
“It involved a Galactic Empire based on the old British Empire,” he said of his 2012 concept. “This year I narrowed the location to a small fictional town in Oregon and it covers a much smaller time span.”
Francis describes the new tale as “a light horror novel” with aspects of the detective genre.
He writes at his dining room table from about 7 to 10:30 p.m. on weeknights and as much as possible on weekends.
“This year is a lot less difficult because of the lessons I learned from last year,” he said.
» Stu Burns, 43, Omaha
“You have come a long way.”
Stu Burns describes his ideal writing setting as “any place I can find with unlimited Diet Pepsi refills and no Internet access.”
Burns, who is writing a semiautobiographical story loosely patterned after Jack Kerouac's “On the Road,” attempted novels the past two Novembers only to get sidetracked.
“It is more difficult than I thought it would be,” he said. “Unfortunately life gets in the way, and my natural tendencies toward sloth do not help.”
It also helps to meet others in the same boat, so Burns regularly attends local meet-ups of novel writing month participants.
“Getting together with like-minded people is very encouraging,” he said.
» Sally Ashmore, 28, Papillion
She participated in last year's NaNoWriMo and managed to hit her 50,000 words. But despite her past success, Sally Ashmore is finding this year's writing marathon more difficult, in part because of a new job and responsibilities at her church.
A laptop user, Ashmore could write from anywhere, but she prefers a desk she made out of her great-grandmother's old sewing machine. A storyboard hangs on a wall above her desk telling her where she needs her novel — intended for the young adult market — to go.
“I also enjoy the juxtaposition of using something as modern as a laptop with something as antiquated as a treadle sewing machine.”
Ashmore declined to share an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, a choice that actually jibes with the point of national novel writing month. The challenge is to complete a first draft, to get words down, not to perfect phrasing or hesitate over poor character development.
“When people ask if they can read my novel, I have to remind them that the goal is simply 50,000 words,” Ashmore said, “not 50,000 good words.”