National Novel Writing Month isn’t for everyone.
I mean, writing the equivalent of a 1700 word essay every day for 30 days is a bit daunting. Especially if you miss a day or two and suddenly your 1700 hundred goal becomes 2000 in order to catch up. It would be easier if you just wrote “whatever” every day, but the idea is to write a novel, and that quickly becomes difficult. To give you an idea of how difficult, keep in mind this essay is just over 1100 words.
Before I finished high school, even in public school, I had started many novels, each with the modest and wholly reasonable belief that each would become an average sized book that would attract moderate interest from publishers, eventually find a home and sell a decent number of copies.
I had no delusions of becoming the next Steven King, oh no. I was far too practical and level headed to expect that. I kept my expectations realistic. Publication will do for now, thank you very much. I’ll tackle being on the New York Times Bestseller list after I graduate.
None of these projects got past page 12. From what you’ve seen above you’d think I was so damned humble I didn’t even feel the need to finish the stories. But actually, it was more like I really had no idea where to go. I set up a situation, but I really didn’t have an idea of character. I knew all I’d be writing is a series of events happening, and I was still grappling with the idea of what made a story worth reading. I knew what I had written on the previous 12 pages in each of these cases wasn’t it.
In fact I didn’t finish a novel until I was closing in on the end of high school. The difference – motivation. Rumour had it that the teacher for Creative writing in OAC (Ontario’s Grade 13, phased out shortly after I left high school) gave his students 100% if they managed to get something published during the year.
Looking at my lackluster grades, I saw this as a surefire way to give my average a nice boost, and so I began to plan ahead. During Grade 12 I spent just about every spare class I had in the library, reinforcing all the typing skills I’d learned a year or two earlier, working on WordPerfect 5.1. The white-on-blue DOS text still instills nostalgic feelings in me.
I even tried writing the story in rough at home, to be transcribed onto the library’s IBM and my special 3.5 floppy disk the next day, but with limited success. My handwriting sucks, it looks like a child’s in my opinion, and it was too slow. I preferred to type directly to the computer. Typing I could keep up with my thoughts. It wasn’t until much later – like last year – that I learned maybe I didn’t want to keep up with my thoughts after all.
By the end of the year I had my magnum opus ready. It came out to about 120,000 words. It’s still the longest book I’ve written. I figured I’d polish it next year and send it out to publishers, then collect that 100% from the teacher and take it easy.
Unfortunately I had miscalculated on several fronts. First, I had misunderstood the nature of the publishing requirements. It wasn’t a novel getting published that got you 100%, it was any major publication, including a short story in a magazine, for example. But by the time I learned this I was already well underway and, hey, why not shoot for the stars, right? This was what I wanted to do, after all.
Second, the Creative Writing teacher in question left the next year, to be replaced by a tiny little woman named Dorothy Palmer. She didn’t truck with this rule, but assured me if I got published she’d take it under consideration when it came to my grade.
This came as a bit of a blow, but I rallied. The single biggest part of the Creative Writing course was the final project, which could be whatever you wanted. Well, hey, who else wrote a whole god-damned novel, right? Nobody, that’s who. People would work on short stories or poetry collections and try and impress her – I had a book so big it was the size of two ordinary books. Eat that!
Mrs Palmer was a pretty good teacher. I think my brother has a slightly different opinion on her, but I think she did a fair bit to encourage creative writing and give us the tools to do it. She never told me I couldn’t be a writer, but also didn’t blow sunshine up my ass. But I’ll be honest, I’ve never used a character web or any of the other things we learned in that class since. What I got out of it was a sense I was on the right track, and that was enough.
When I handed in my epic novel, New York City/State (or NYC/S for short) I had expected good things. I worked my ass off on it, after all. A full year’s worth of effort BEFORE the class even started, and then editing/revising it this year. How could I not ace the project?
I got 78%, 2% of which was a bonus for effort.
I tell this story a lot, by the way, and for good reason. To this day there is a part of me that howls at the injustice. The indignity of it all! B+? She couldn’t even be bothered to push it up to 80%, make it barely an A? She only considered the effort I put into it to be worth a 2% bonus?
I’d like to say that anger motivated me to get out there and become the next Hemmingway. That I went out there and showed her. But that’s not the case. The fact is my progress as a writer has been a slow boil at best. I’m probably still simmering, waiting for a pinch of salt to put me over the top.
As I mentioned before, Mrs Palmer never blew sunshine up my ass. She knew I was serious about wanting to be a writer, and treated me accordingly. She made me mad, and it was the best thing she could have done for me in th long run. I still have a single copy of NYC/S with me, and let me tell you, even 78% was generous.
Don’t believe me? Tune in tomorrow when I give you some samples of my first ever novel.