Monthly Archives: October 2013

Do NaNo Novels Get Published? A Case Study

On the eve of the National Novel Writing Month competition, the perennial critics always question the value of a novel written in just 30 days. Keep in mind, though, that any completed NaNo novel is just a first draft. Still, an impressive number of NaNo novels have eventually been published by traditional publishers.

According to the NaNoWriMo website, more than 100 NaNo novels have found their way to publication. These include such bestsellers as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Morgenstern’s book is an interesting case study.

Morgenstern began writing what would become The Night Circus during the NaNo competition in 2005. She would rewrite and resubmit it two more times for NaNo. “It was good for me,” she said of NaNo, in a published interview. “I had done a little bit of playwriting in college, but I didn’t really finish anything.

“National Novel Writing Month was a great tool for me. I’d write that page and still hate it and then had to write another,” she said.

Morgenstern eventually submitted the manuscript for publication, but there were no takers. She participated in NaNo in 2009 with a different book. She returned to The Night Circus manuscript in 2010. “I pulled it back out in January and spent the winter and spring of 2010 rewriting the entire thing. That’s when the competition between the magicians (Celia and Marco) was added,” she said. The competition between the two illusionists—spurred by a bet between their rival sponsors, of which they were not aware—provided the fuel for the story. I won’t reveal any more details because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read this wonderful story.

What lessons can we draw from Morgenstern’s experience? First, she clearly benefited from the discipline she gained from participating in NaNo. By her own admission, she had done some writing, but she had never finished anything. NaNo forced her to write in compressed time frame. Second, she honed her work by redrafting it in subsequent years. According to NaNo rules, writers can use previous work as the basis for a novel, but each new word must be original. Third, even after a third rewrite, Morgenstern came up with a key plot change that transformed and invigorated the story. This was more than four years after she began working on The Night Circus. NaNo novels, like any first draft, require revision, revision and revision, and then polishing and then more revision.

It’s a long process from idea to publication, but the writer has to start somewhere. NaNo will help writers jump-start their novels.

What about you? Are you planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month?

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Book Review: “Waiting” by Ha Jin

Last summer, I visited a wonderful bookstore—actually a series of buildings filled to the rafters with books–called The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, a shoreline community. I bought Ha Jin’s 1999 National Book Award winner, “Waiting,” for four dollars. I could have taken the book out of the library, but this one was a keeper.

“Waiting” is a poignant and skillfully crafted story about the collision between love and obligation, duty to family and society and following one’s heart. Lin Kong is a doctor in the Chinese Army forced into a loveless marriage with the faithful Shuyu, whom his family chooses to take care of his sick mother and father. Kong sees Shuyu only briefly once a year, when he returns to their farming village on leave from the Army hospital in the city of Muji. At the Army hospital where Kong is deployed, he falls in love with Manna Wu, a nurse. Every year, he asks Shuyu for a divorce and at the last minute she decides to oppose the divorce and the court refuses to grant it.

Army regulations and societal norms prevent Kong and Wu from even leaving the hospital grounds together. Looming in the background is the changing Chinese society. The story begins in 1963 and covers 20 years, including the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, led a movement toward strict Communist doctrine and repression of capitalism, which triggered widespread factionalism and abuses of power.

Kong is a decent, but flawed, man who struggles with his emotions, even around Wu, whom he loves. His love affair with Wu exists in a sort of limbo, as does his emotional state. The law allows Kong to divorce Shuyu without her consent after 18 years and he is finally able to marry Wu. The cruelest of ironies awaits Kong as he learns first-hand about the wisdom of the saying that one should be careful what he wishes for.

Ha Jin is a gifted writer who blends character descriptions, setting and dialogue to paint a vivid picture of a society many of us have never seen. The human struggle and the agonizing wait give this story its momentum and power. “Waiting” is as much about the cataclysmic changes in Chinese society as it is about the story of a single relationship, but it is also a cautionary tale that tells us the heart doesn’t always know what it wants.

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Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo

I just uploaded the description of my next novel on the National Novel Writing Month website. This will be my third NaNoWriMo try. In case you have not heard of this program, it is a competition to write a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. I entered for the first time in 2011 with a novel called Bonus Baby, a murder-mystery involving the murder of a hot major league prospect and I won with more than 51,000 words. In 2012, I won again with a story called Say a Prayer for Maura, about a dying father’s attempt to make peace with his estranged daughter.

So why would anyone in his right mind make a commitment to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days? It can’t be done, you might say. One would have to write, 1667 words per day, every day, for 30 days straight. Impossible! Believe me, it can be done. The reward is not to “win” by racking up 50,000 words in 30 days. No, the reward is the discipline NaNo instills in writers.

When you participate in NaNo, you discover you can carve out a little time each day to write. Instead of spending 20 minutes checking your Facebook page, you could write. Instead of spending 15 minutes channel surfing you could write. Instead of the luxury of a long, hot shower, you could write.

The program started in 1999 in San Francisco and has grown exponentially since that time. Here are the numbers:

1999: 21 participants/six winners.
2000: 140 participants/29 winners.
2001: 5000 participants/700 winners.
2002: 13,500 participants/2,100 winners.
2003: 25,000 participants/3,500 winners.
2004: 42,000 participants/6,000 winners.
2005: 59,000 participants/9,759 winners.
2006: 79,000 participants/13,000 winners.
2007: 101,510 participants/15,333 winners.
2008: 119,301 participants/21,683 winners.
2009: 167,150 participants/32,178 winners.
2010: 200,500 participants/37,500 winners.
2011: 256,618 participants/36,843 winners.
2012: 341,375 participants/38,438 winners.

A number of these first drafts later became top-selling novels published by traditional publishes. Among these were The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

My advice to all writers out there who don’t think they can do it: try it. You might be surprised.

Have you ever participated in National Novel Writing Month? How was your experience?

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Getting Out of Your Box

It started as an experiment about a year ago. I was tired of writing stories in my chosen genre—family sagas. I yearned to try something new. Out of that desire grew an unwieldy novella called, Life of the Party. I wrote 56,000 words and I hated it, but I really liked one of the characters. He was a fledgling rapper named Shabazz Horton—a Kanye West wannabe who was working as a club DJ to raise money for his recording ambitions. I went back to the drawing board and decided to construct a short story trilogy around him.

I began forming a new plot around Shabazz. He would be caught in the middle of a sticky situation in which his boss, the club owner, was a drug kingpin under investigation. A police detective would lean on Shabazz to cooperate with the law, but Shabazz would be loathe to turn against his boss.

It was a story with all kinds of possibilities, but I kept going down rabbit holes. I rewrote the beginning four times, the most recent about two weeks ago. Something wasn’t working. When I get stuck like this, the first question I ask is this, “What is the heart of the story?” This triggered several other questions. What is the main character’s journey? How will he be transformed? I knew the answers to these questions, but that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I was veering off into a police procedural and that wasn’t the genre I intended. I also suffered from an utter lack of knowledge of the culture of the club DJ and rap music in general. I follow rap to some degree, but not enough to write with authority about it.

My solution to these problems presented itself when I was searching for a story idea for the 2013 National Novel Writing Month competition, which begins November 1. The pressure of a 30-day deadline will force me to just write and (I hope) after I havae a 50,000-word first draft, I will have figured out some things about this story.

Am I sorry I went off-course for a year and abandoned the genre which is my strength? Not at all. It’s healthy for writers to get out of their boxes and try something completely different. Even if the story never sees the light of day, it will challenge the writer and open new vistas. I will return with new energy and purpose to the comfort of family sagas when I finish this work-in-progress.

What about you? Have you ever attempted to write in a different genre? How did it work out?

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