Monday, March 1, 2010

50,000 words in 30 days

Over the past 30 days, I wrote a 50,000-word novel. I'm not saying it's a good novel, or a finished novel. I'm not even saying that it's the sort of novel that a year of rewriting, revising, and redeeming could whip into any sort of presentable shape.

But the point is, it's a novel, it's 50,000 words, and I wrote it. In 30 days.

Writing a novel in 30 days was not, of course, an idea that originated with me. There's a guy named Chris Baty out in California who came up with it. Back in 1999, he got together with 20 friends who had each decided, for no very sane reason, that they would like to write a novel in a month. Since then, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, has spiraled out of control: in 2009, there were upwards of 200,000 participants, with about one in five actually completing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

February is not National Novel Writing Month. (It's too short, for one thing, which is why I had to borrow two days from January to get started.) The official National Novel Writing Month is November. I briefly considered signing up last fall and trying to write my novel then, but November is not a good month for me--too much pre-holiday stress, and then there's Thanksgiving to deal with at the end of the month. (Obviously, Chris Baty does not have the weighty responsibility of producing six kinds of pie to interfere with his November noveling.)

February, on the other hand, was looking pretty good. If you're not a cold-weather person, February in Maine doesn't have a lot to recommend it, and I'm usually perfectly happy to seek indoor pursuits in the winter anyway. Will was headed back to school at the end of January after five weeks at home, meaning that I would be sharing the house with only one person who might become resentful if I gave up cooking, grocery shopping, and speaking in full sentences for a month. And I had a week of vacation smack in the middle of February, and no plans for it.

So, with equal measures of excitement and trepidation, I decided to plunge in. By starting on January 30th and finishing on February 28th, I figured I would get ten weekend days, plus five vacation days, so I wouldn't be working at my real job on half of my allotted 30 days. That made the whole thing sound surprisingly doable. If I could just write 3,000 words a day on each of those 15 days, I'd barely have to write at all on work days. Piece of cake, right?

It turns out that writing 3,000 words a day can be far easier than you'd think. On the other hand, writing 3,000 words a day can be far harder than you'd think. It all depends on the day. In the beginning, I actually thought I might "put words in the bank" by writing in the evening after working all day, or by writing more than 3,000 words on some days.

I did write in the evenings, and I did write about 4,000 words on one of my early weekend days, which turned out to be a really good thing when I started to slow down toward the end of the month. (Or maybe the only reason I started to slow down toward the end of the month was that I had those extra words in the bank. Hmmm.) But one of the many things I discovered during my month of nearly non-stop noveling is that 3,000 words in a single day is just about my personal limit. After that, I start looking for excuses to take breaks. Wrote a page? Check Facebook. Wrote 100 words? Check my email for the tenth time in an hour. Wrote a paragraph? Make some hot cocoa. Wrote a sentence (or a fragment thereof)? Get a snack. You can see where this is going.

However, I did write nearly half of my 50,000 words during the nine-day period that included my vacation and its two book-end weekends. Having that vacation occur during Week 3 of the process turned out to be nearly perfect timing, since by then the story was well enough developed to allow me to (occasionally) reach my peak rate of about 900 words an hour. Most of the time, though, I slogged along at a much slower pace, more like 400-500 words per hours.

In the end, I estimate that I spent about 100 hours writing during that 30-day period, not including frequent breaks for stretching, snacking, and maintaining my sanity. One hundred hours to produce 50,000 words seems like a surprisingly tidy figure, but that's about how it worked out.

Although I didn't watch much TV, do a lot of cooking, or clean the house much during February, I did manage to catch all I wanted to see of the Olympics. I made mostly passable meals on a fairly regular basis. (I even baked a couple of times.) The Board of Health did not declare my home a health hazard, and we usually had clean clothes for work. Perhaps most amazing, besides writing a novel during February, I also found time to read two 500-page novels (The Cider House Rules and The Grapes of Wrath) during the same period.

What that tells me is that, in all of the other months, when I'm not writing a 50,000-word novel, I'm obviously somehow spending 100 hours of free time doing something else. One hundred hours is being frittered away each and every month! This is a revelation for someone like me, who constantly feels pressured, runs perpetually behind schedule, and frequently bemoans the lack of sufficient time to clean the house, read a magazine, connect with friends, and, of course, read and write as much as I would like.

I'm going to have to do some serious thinking about how to harness the wealth of free time I've obviously had all along, and put it to Really Good Use...right after I check Facebook, and email, and maybe fix a snack.