What Happens to NaNoWriMo Novels?

A recent article in Publishers Weekly discussed why the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program is a boon not only to writers, but to publishers as well. Now in its 18th year, NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”

Writers who enter its contest each year commit to writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, from Nov 1 through 30. That is 1,667 words per day every day for 30 days. Some 350,000 writers joined the annual writing marathon this year. That means there will be a lot of first drafts of novels floating around on Dec, 1. So what happens to all of those novels?

A total of 449 traditionally published novels began as NaNoWriMo projects, wrote Jason Boog, who penned the article entitled, “NaNoWriMo is Big for Writers and It Helps Publishers, Too.” This number only includes those reported on the NaNoWriMo website, where authors can fill in a form stating their book was published. Some 80 of those books were published by Big Five publishers.

That figure is most likely conservative. And it doesn’t include self-published books that began as NaNoWriMo projects.

Publishers like the program because it encourages writing and writers’ communities, the article stated. “It’s been wonderful for the publishing industry,” said Laura Apperson, an editor at St. Martin’s Press. Three St. Martin’s novels began as NaNoWriMo projects: Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and Nora Zelevansky’s Semi-Charmed Life.”

Author Scott Reintgen, quoted in the article, obtained an agent for his NaNoWriMo novel. He had this to say: “You’re building muscles and you’re leveling up and you’re getting better with every single word you put on the page. That’s what being a writer is all about.”

Having “won” NaNoWriMo three times, my view is that it provides an intensive challenge to writers, forcing discipline and focus. It’s as much about the habits writers develop as it is about producing those 50,000 words. It’s serious business, like a boot camp for writers. And it creates and fosters writing communities. I joined the regional NaNo community in my region and it is a highly supportive and friendly group of writers.

My current work-in-progress, now at 106,000 words, started as a NaNoWriMo novel. It’s been through numerous rewrites and story changes since that time, bot NaNoWriMo was the impetus for its creation.

NaNoWriMo has its critics. Some say it encourages and re-enforces bad writing techniques in the quest for volume over quality. That may be the case, but only if writers don’t treat their work as a first draft in need of heavy revision.

I won’t be entering NaNoWriMo this year, but to all my colleagues who are, I will be thinking about you and rooting you on.

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Insights from Colson Whitehead

It isn’t often one gets to attend a presentation by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. On Oct. 6, 2017, Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, gave a presentation and a reading at Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT, as part of the college’s Roots at 40 academic conference program.

The author of six novels, Whitehead said the idea for a story that envisioned a real underground railroad to carry slaves to freedom came to him years before he started to write the book. At the time, he wasn’t ready to write it. Fast forward to 2014 and Whitehead was working on an uninspiring project and the idea took root. He told his agent, who called him back and said, “I can’t stop thinking about that idea of yours.”

In crafting Cora, the main character, Whitehead drew on slave narratives by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Also helpful to his research was Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan, a history of the underground railroad. He also read accounts of former slaves that were transcribed under a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in the 1930s.

By reimagining the underground railroad, Whitehead sought to illuminate larger truths. “If I stuck to the facts, I wouldn’t get to the larger truths about oppression,” he said.

The story takes place in the 1850s. Each state where Cora hides out on her journey to freedom is its own place with its own set of rules. South Carolina is a relatively benevolent place, but there is a hospital that conducts disturbing experiments with sterilization. When Cora gets to North Carolina, she finds a white supremacist state where lynching of blacks is so common that it is done weekly in the public square as Friday night entertainment. Cora ends up in Indiana, a “black utopia,” where an enlightened farmer provides housing and jobs to former slaves. All the while, she is pursued by a relentless bounty hunter.

As a way of story telling, the technique of creating unique “places” in the various states on Cora’s journey drew on the structure of Gulliver’s Travels, a series of allegorical tales. “The structure is really old, but it’s a natural way of story telling,” he said.

“I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience of slavery, but not necessarily the facts…I’m playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Holocaust, and the eugenics movement.”

Cora’s journey is harrowing, but Whitehead didn’t feel the need to over-dramatize events. In researching slavery, he found that the matter of fact accounts of the violence inflicted on slaves were the most powerful. “You don’t have to dramatize the violence. The facts speak for themselves.”

He said he wrote The Underground Railroad in 14 months to meet a publication deadline. For the most part, he wrote chronologically, except for the chapter that introduces Ridgeway, the slave bounty hunter. Initially, Whitehead didn’t have the character developed so he went back once he had a fully drawn character.

The Underground Railroad is a powerful story that contributes to our understanding of the reprehensible institution of slavery in all its dimensions.

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Book Review: “The Leftovers,” by Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, is widely seen as a commentary on religious fanaticism. Perrotta conjures up a Rapture-like event, which results in the simultaneous disappearance of millions of people. Its randomness leaves religious fanatics flummoxed. This rapture doesn’t just take the righteous; it takes all sorts of people, from sinners to saints.

The story picks up three years later as the after shocks continue to reverberate. The people left behind are shell shocked. Perrotta’s cast of characters reflect the different reactions to the event. Wealthy businessman Kevin Garvey, who decides to run for Mayor of the small northeastern town where the novel is set, represents the optimistic spirit of human nature. Garvey simply wants to move on, even as his own life unravels. As Mayor, he plans community events that celebrate the survivors and the normal life for which they yearn. Others aren’t so willing to return to normal, including his wife, Laurie, bereft by survivor’s guilt. The Garveys were spared, but their daughter’s best friend was taken, causing her mother to join a cult called the Guilty Remnants. They see this event as a sign and they refuse to return to a normal state. The Guilty Remnants wear white clothes, stalk residents of the town, and smoke cigarettes as a reminder that the end is coming, so why worry about lung cancer. Their son, Tom, drops out of college and joins a different cult led by a charismatic charlatan called Holy Wayne. His special talent is to take away people’s pain, but it turns out he also has a fondness for under-aged girls.

Meanwhile, Nora, who lost her whole family, struggles just to make it through the day. When she finally gets her footing, she finds herself in a budding romance with Kevin, but she still can’t find happiness and closure.

While The Leftovers is about religious fanaticism, the story had a different impact on me. I saw it as a commentary on how we deal with loss and disruption, whether it’s 9-11, the financial meltdown, or a death in the family. Do we simply move on, as Kevin does? Do we let it destroy our life as we know it, as Laurie does? Do we deal with it honestly, acknowledging the pain and loss, as Nora does? I suspect the message is that loss changes our lives forever, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Perrotta doesn’t offer any easy answers to the profound questions about religion, mortality, and loss. The Leftovers is a powerful reminder that there are no easy answers to these age-old questions.

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Book Review: “Testimony,” by Scott Turow

The gruesome brutality of the Bosnian war of the 1990s is the backdrop for Scott Turow’s legal thriller, Testimony. The question of accountability and justice for the atrocities of the war is central to the story.

The Bosnian war took place between 1992 and 1995. More than 100,000 were killed during ethnic cleansing campaigns waged among the forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The plot centers on allegations of a horrible crime years later in 2004 in which 400 Roma (gypsies) were allegedly rounded up from a village and buried alive in an abandoned mine. Investigating this crime is Bill ten Boom, a former U.S. Attorney from Turow’s fictional Kindle County. Boom is in the throes of a midlife crisis. After his marriage falls apart, he decides to leave a lucrative law practice, but he has no idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life. At the urging of an old friend who is a CIA operative, Boom take a job as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

His task is to investigate the disappearance of the Roma. Suspects abound, but the lone eyewitness fingers a fugitive Serbian leader, Laza Kajevic, modeled after Radovan Karadzic. There is also speculation that U.S. forces acting as peacekeepers for NATO, may have orchestrated the crime as revenge for a failed raid on Kajevic’s hideout in which the Roma may have tipped off the fugitive leader.

Aiding Boom in his investigation is the seductive and mysterious Esma Czarni, an advocate for the Roma, who has unearthed the single witness to the crime. Moral ambiguities dominate this story, from a disgraced US General’s evasiveness under questioning by Boom, to Boom’s own lurid affair with Czarni.

Turow captures the complexities behind the multiple conflicts in the war, which triggered centuries old hatreds among ethnic and religious factions. The various layers and motivations of the players in this carnage defy easy answers. To Turow’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to foist high minded moral judgments on the reader. There are no heroes in this story, as even the American peacekeepers come under scrutiny for diverting confiscated weapons to Iraq. The whereabouts of those weapons and how they were used remains a mystery.

What is clear is that Turow values the spirit behind the ICC and the ideal that the rule of law must apply, even in times of war, which force decent people to commit unspeakable crimes.

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Book Review: Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser

Did you ever wonder about the one who got away? Maybe it was a chance meeting and an instant attraction occurred. Something happened and you didn’t get her name. Then, years later, you got a second chance. It was fate, right? It was meant to be. Or, perhaps not.

Jessica Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You, poses these questions. Violet, the protagonist, meets Finn by chance on a beach on Sunny Isle, Florida. They learn they’re both from Cincinnati and both attended the same summer camp. Before she gets his name a medical emergency intervenes. That’s it. No name. No phone number.

Through the magic of the internet, they do eventually reunite, fall in love, and have a baby, but Finn is not the person he appears to be on the surface. When they return to Sunny Isle with their toddler son, Bear, Violet is enjoying the beach while Finn is putting down Bear for a nap. When Violet gets back to their hotel room, she discovers to her horror that Finn has left with their son. Finn has kidnapped their son and the FBI launches an investigation.

Strawser, who is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, skillfully portrays the desperation Violet feels as she lives a parent’s worst nightmare. Moving back and forth in time, Strawser peels off the layers of the mystery to reveal a tragedy in Finn’s past. Caught in the middle is their close friend, Caitlin Bryce-Daniels. It turns out Finn’s secrets could ruin the political ambitions of Caitlin’s husband, who hails from a powerful family. The biggest secret is the one Finn is hiding from Violet. I won’t reveal it, but it’s a whopper.

The story raises questions about how much people really know about their spouse and whether there is such a thing as fate. And, it leaves the reader wondering about how the idea of love can cloud a person’s judgment and cause her to miss warning signs.

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Word Counts in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?

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Book Review: “Commonwealth,” By Ann Patchett

In an age when the term ‘helicopter parent’ has made its way into the popular lexicon, the two sets of parents in Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, are the direct opposites. Their benign neglect of their children and step-children lead to many consequence, and one fatality. The parents’ lack of supervision and care forces the children and step-children to organize their own hierarchy, which results in the formation of bonds that last for decades.

This is just one of the contradictions of this powerful story. Patchett had me with the opening line of the novel: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” This line raises so many interesting questions. What kind of a turn did the party take? Who is Albert Cousins? Who was christened? Why does it matter? The baby as it turned out, was Franny Keating, the closest thing to a protagonist in this family saga.

Patchett expertly balances the many point-of-view characters in this blended family, recounting major events from a variety of viewpoints. She also seamlessly moves back and forward in time without harming the narrative flow.

The story begins when Albert “Bert” Cousins, a Los Angeles Deputy DA crashes the christening party after his co-worker, Dick Spencer, mentioned it at work. Cousins decided to attend so he could get away for a few hours from his pregnant wife and three young children. He didn’t have a gift so he showed up with a bottle of gin. Francis X. “Fix” Keating, Franny’s dad, is an LA cop. He lets Cousins into the house. Cousins spots Beverly, Keating’s attractive wife, and is immediately smitten. A brief kiss at the party sets into motion the destruction of both marriages.

The Keatings’ two children and the Cousins’ four children spend each summer together in Virginia, where Cousins and Beverly move. The two sets of children don’t like each other or the situation they are thrust into, but they are forced to deal with it.

During one summer the parents sleep in at a vacation in a motel. The kids, left on their own, break into the parents’ car and steal a gun and a bottle of gin from the glove compartment. Then they walk two miles to a nearby lake. When they return after having finished off the gin, their parents are none the wiser. The fragile camaraderie in this blended family will grow stronger over the years.

One of the strengths of the story is the multiple points of view. Each character possesses his or her own version of the past and the tragic death of Calvin Cousins as a teen-ager is told through the eyes of several of the characters, each with a unique recollection as to how it happened.

The event that unites the siblings is a novel called, Commonwealth, written by author Leon Posen, who has an affair with Franny. During their affair, Franny confides her family history to the author, who is struggling to come up with a new novel. Posen uses the story of the Keating-Cousins as the plot of a bestselling novel. The siblings bristle at the author’s version of their story, an insight which suggests the view that a family’s history belongs to the family alone.

This is a satisfying story from one of today’s leading authors.

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