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Local writers report success with novel writing month

Posted: November 28, 2013 - 12:02am

With only a few days left in National Novel Writing Month, local writers who are participating in the challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month -- that’s 1,666 a day -- are reporting that the experiment has been productive, rewarding and even fun.

“The daily word targets have been amazing in quieting my inner critic — who happens to be a very obnoxious perfectionist,” said first time NaNoWriMo writer Aaron Ferguson in an email. “I think I would be stuck at somewhere around a total of 1,500 words if it wasn’t for the strange and wonderful thing that is NaNoWriMo.”

Ferguson, who works full time, had reached 30,000 words last week and was gearing up to make the final push to 50,000 by Saturday. He is writing a steampunk novel, part one of a planned trilogy, that takes place in an alternative history in Victorian-era Pacific Northwest. He expects it to be about 150,000 words when its finished, possibly by next spring.

Corinne Conlon, who is doing NaNoWriMo for the second year, also said keeping track of her word count has been an essential part of her productivity.

“I’m a geek and love the bar graph that shows my progress,” Conlon said in an email. “During those times when it’s not flowing very fast, I log in and record my word count at the end of every hard worked page. This graph and knowing that I’m off track with my word count, spot on or ahead helps motivate me.”

Her novel, which she said could best be described as literary fiction, explores a mother’s expectations for her child and her subsequent losses. Conlon also had 10,000 words left to write by Saturday and said she would be doing NaNoWriMo again in the future.

“It’s good that it ends in a month,” Conlon said. “To continue would lose some of the fun joy of it.”

The idea behind NaNoWriMo is that keeping track of word counts and committing to a concrete goal can help writers get past common roadblocks to productivity such as procrastination and self-doubt. This year 306,723 writers signed up to participate, including about two dozen in Juneau.

Liz Dodd, who headed up this year’s Juneau NaNoWriMo group through the University of Alaska Southeast’s Writing Center, said though she wasn’t on track to make the 50,000-word goal, she’s kept the daily commitment and found the experiment to be entirely successful.

“I’m putting down a lot of stories that have been cued up in my psyche for a long time and currently working on one I had no idea was in there,” Dodd said in an email. “I’ve just been in such a good mood since we started this.”

NaNoWriMo’s focus on quantity over quality has drawn criticism from some corners, including a writer at the Economist (www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/11/national-novel-writing-month) who seemed generally irked at the populist nature of the whole thing, and at Slate (www.salon.com/2010/11/02/nanowrimo), where “self aggrandizing” NaNos were advised to abandon their creative projects in favor of the more admirable activity of reading (this from a writer, go figure).

However, the idea of counting words instead of agonizing over scene and character may have its roots in basic psychology. According to the theory of “psychological distance,” approaching a creative problem from an abstract angle rather than head-on can lead to unexpected breakthroughs and insights. In this case, by focusing on word count — an abstract idea — writers increase their chances of bypassing their intense (read paralyzing) focus on what they are writing. (Read more here: www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=an-easy-way-to-increase-c)

That certainly seems to be true for the local writers who signed up this year. Even those who won’t get a novel out of the project said they benefitted from the chance to practice their craft in a fun and social way. After all, writing is the way to get better at writing, Ferguson said.

“I’ve been surprised at how much easier it has been to write the last few days because I have more practice under my belt,” he said. “Whereas earlier in the month I was lucky to write 1,000 in a day, I can now write much more in a day. In the words of the rapper Macklemore: ‘The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint; the greats were great because they paint a lot.’”

•••

The Douglas Library will host a “Thank God it’s Over Party” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3 to give writers a chance to get together and celebrate having made it though November (regardless of whether or not they made the word limit). Those interesting in attending should RSVP by Saturday to jonasl@juneau.org or 586-0442.

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