The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Building a Mystery … with NaNoWriMo

A last month, I was toying with the idea of taking part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

To build without tearing down. I like that idea. That is, I still like that idea.

I liked it then.

2005 Participant med

I took the plunge in 2005, having stumbled across the NaNoWriMo website, and the result was a finished first draft of a novel that had been an idea in my head for more than 10 years. (You can see the stats and even read an excerpt here.)

It was a wonderful experience. Overwhelming, yes, but rewarding. I ended up shelving that first novel, because I realized that in order to revise it I’d have to write about places I’ve never been to, and that’s not something I think I can do believably. (And if I tried, I’d almost certainly get called out for it.) But while I was writing it. I felt something I hadn’t felt in years before then. I felt like a writer.

I was so proud of it, I went to Kinko’s and had it printed and bound. It’s sitting on the shelf above my desk now, and I took it down to take a look at it before writing this post. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll have an opportunity to go to some of locales I imagined when I wrote that first draft. Maybe I’ll be able to revise it. Maybe it will actually see the light of day. But even if it doesn’t, it will always be special, and it will always be my first novel, because it gave me back a part of myself I’d lost track of for years.

After NaNoWriMo, I actually started calling myself a writer more often. Now, when someone asks me that typical D.C. question, “What do you do?”, that’s my first answer. I tell them I’m a writer.

I remember being a writer. I remember feeling like a writer. I remember, sharing excerpts from that novella at a writer’s group in college, and getting positive feedback and interest from the other writers. I remember publishing poems in the literary magazine in my college town, and in an independent literary journal a friend of mine started. I remember publishing a poem in a national literary journal. I remember publishing poems and a short story in the university’s literary journal. I remember a friend of mine telling me that my short story had been the subject of discussion in another class. I remember the literary journal hosting a poetry reading, featuring me.

I remember imagining a writing a “final chapter” of my own to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and turning it in as the final paper for my comparative literature class. (Not mention the sheer nerve and chutzpah to even think of expand upon Baldwin’s work.) And I remember reading my comparative lit. professor’s comment on the paper (right under the “A” grade it earned). It began with, “You’ve got it, kid! The gift of gab, the kiss of the blarney stone, a way with words,” and ended with an admonition to feed it, nurture it, and “never lose it.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a writer. My first attempt at writing a novel was the sixth grade. I had been blogging for more than two years by November 2005, and had even parlayed it into a blog-centric job. But all of my writing related to politics. My “roots” as a writer are in the fiction and poetry I wrote in high school and college. The shelf above my desk also holds a never-finished novella from my college days — really more a collection of “scenes” than a story with a plot — so old that it was done on a typewriter, and would need to be scanned in if I were to attempt to finish it.

That the other thing I liked about NaNoWriMo then. It helped me finish a novel, or at least finish a first draft of a novel. Something I’d never managed to do on my own. That’s because it gave me permission to do what I was unable to give myself permission to do — write without doing research, without being critical, without rewriting or editing, write without even correcting spelling. It gave me permission to be a writer and be imperfect. (How often to we get permission to be imperfect in this world, and without consequences?)

So I like it now, too.

Nanowrimo Participant 01 120x 90

I need to feel like a writer again. I need to touch that part of myself that I was so in touch with in high school and college. And I’m in place right now where I have the time, even if it’s late at night, to churn out 1,667 words-per-day. (Just in this post, I’ve managed to write 1,102 words.) In my house, everyone but me is in bed by 11:00 p.m. at the latest. The kids are both in bed no later than 9, which it Parker’s bedtime, and the hubby usually turns in somewhere between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Once the kids are down, it’s pretty much safe to assume I won’t hear from them until morning. That leaves me, the family night-owl, with a good 2-to-3 hours of writing time, if I turn in by 2:00 a.m. at the latest. (Which isn’t “late” for me.)

And I’ve got an idea, again. It was my yearning to scratch my literary itch that caused me to remember the freelance project I worked on a few years ago, outlining a murder mystery. I never finished the outline, because a failed adoption that held us in limbo for months, and then because Dylan was born shortly after that. In the middle of it all, I started a full-time job and dropped my freelance work due to lack of time.

I still remembered that outline, and searched my files until I came across it last month. Reading it, I realized how much I had gotten done before. This unfinished outline laid out the basics of my plot, sketched out most of my characters, and even some bits that can be turned into dialog with a little bit of work. It’s more than I started with last time, and as I’ve read over it several times since then, new ideas have popped into my head that I’ve jotted down in notes on the outline.

The only thing that might be a little intimidating is that I’ve never written anything remotely resembling a murder mystery which seems to require paying more attention to plot and pacing, as well as adherence to the “fair play” rules of mystery writing designed to give readers a fair chance to solve the case. But after reading a couple of short “how-to” books about mystery writing, I think I’ve got enough to get me started.

So, the bottom line is that I’m “building a mystery” with NaNoWriMo next month. If I’m successful, this one might even see the light of day. I’ve registered at Smashwords, which is running a NaNoWRiMo promotion in which participants can upload, promote and share their works-in-progress as well as their finished works — where they can be downloaded in ebook format. I’m not sure I’ll post it unfinished, but if I finish it, I’ll definitely post it there, where it may be down loaded for free.

One week from today, it begins.

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