Bold text is by me, Tim Anderson. The regular text is from novelist Zach Bigalke, author of Cosmonaut Kapalev and the Atomic Exiles.
Just remind me of what you do – your job, etc. (Aren’t you taking classes, too?)
Let’s say I have quite a full plate — perhaps the most overloaded tray I’ve ever had while simultaneously trying another year of National Novel Writing Month. I am currently working 3-5 shifts a week, cooking at a brew pub in the evenings in northeast Portland. I am also taking a full course load at Portland State University, finally restarting my journey toward a Bachelor’s degree a decade after completing my freshman year. As a student, that also affords me the opportunity to write for the campus newspaper, the Vanguard — I am writing one opinion column and one article reporting on the school’s sports teams each week, with an expanding influence in the sports department at the newspaper. And that goes without mentioning the regular college football coverage I write weekly at various sites online, both in collaboration with other writers and my own individual BCS Buster Power Rankings. This could be the first year I don’t succeed at reaching 50K during NaNoWriMo…
What year did you first take on the challenge of NaNoWriMo and why? Did you do any novel writing prior to that? Have you successfully completed NaNoWriMo in every attempt?
I first attempted NaNoWriMo in 2010. Why? Well… it was something of a challenge from my wife, who had heard about NaNoWriMo randomly while surfing online and forwarded the address to me. That first year was essentially her way of gently prodding me toward expanding my writer’s repertoire. I had previously been exclusively a non-fiction writer, rarely read fiction, and never envisioned myself ever succeeding at trying to write fiction. Yet here I am, three years later, having successfully completed NaNoWriMo in both 2010 and 2011. The first story to emerge from the challenge was, I have no problem admitting, absolute garbage. Yet the second year, I not only managed to successfully pen 50,000 words — I also created something cohesive enough that, with a little editing, I was able to self-publish my first book. (Had you told me even after my first successful NaNoWriMo in 2010 that my first book would be a sci-fi, I would have laughed you right out of the room. Who’s laughing now? Probably my wife…)
Do you find it easier or more stressful to write a novel within a 30 day window?
Well, to be fair I had never tried writing a novel before my first NaNoWriMo. So I couldn’t well say what stresses play on an author when he or she sits down to write a work of fiction without a giant clock ticking inside your head. The stress isn’t even necessarily from the writing itself — you’d be amazed how fast the words fly when a story starts playing out through your head via your fingertips — but rather from juggling the myriad strains on one’s time. I’d assume it is more stressful to pen a novel in the 30 days of November, but that might just be the stress of what I know projecting greener pastures on the other extreme of novel-writing.
Can anyone just dive right into the challenge, or do you believe you need some prior experience?
Anyone can — and should — dive right into the challenge. I found that having prior writing experience helped mainly from the standpoint of being able to get the thoughts more quickly into the computer, since time is of the essence and typing at a faster words-per-minute rate can make the difference between meeting each day’s quota and falling short of words. But all it really takes is a bit of creativity on the part of the writer, and the motivation and dedication to stick with the story.
NaNoWriMo was moved to November about a decade ago because of the month’s weather; November can be dreary but also beautiful. Does the weather have any effect on your writing? Or do you believe that you could produce the same quality work in July as you can in November?
That is a spectacular question. It has been raining the past week here in Portland… and today, naturally, the sun emerged through the cloud cover to grace the first day of November with its balminess. I kept taking glances out the window as I tried to get past the 1667-word barrier for the day. But I’ve found that I am fairly adept at meeting deadlines in all seasons in my other writing experiences, and there are always going to be things tugging at your time and motivation no matter what time of year it might be outside.
Is the first step to writing a novel in 30 days choosing a topic? If so, how did you go about doing that? When do you suggest someone who wants to tackle NaNoWriMo should start to find a topic?
Having some semblance of a plot in your head is incredibly helpful. The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I essentially decided just to write about what I knew — the world of restaurants — and let the story flow naturally from there. Needless to say, that story still languishes unpublished two years later. Last year, the idea for my 2011 attempt at NaNoWriMo started formulating in April. An epiphany of sorts gave me the basic direction I wanted to take the story, and I spent the summer researching facets of the story that would add depth to the plot once November rolled around. By the time November rolled around and I started my second NaNoWriMo, the story flowed more coherently and I was able to work in technical details that enriched the text.
For anybody who is thinking of tackling the NaNoWriMo challenge, I would suggest finding subject matter that has previously interested them and suggest reading more about that subject in the months before the challenge begins. If it is a topic that keeps you engaged, you’re more likely to stick with the story to completion. And when you can add more information to your knowledge base, it provides that level of detail that makes a story more believable to readers.
Do you suggest fiction or non-fiction, or is it just personal preference?
Personally, I know that I am the type of person that leans more toward non-fiction. It really is a matter of preference, though. Fiction writing for me allows for a completely different type of release than penning articles or non-fiction manuscripts. (Now as far as reading goes, I’ve always leaned toward non-fiction. Again, these are all personal preferences. The important part to me, as a writer, is that a person is reading what you write and getting something of value out of that writing.)
How often, do you suggest, that a person should write in order to complete their novel by the end of the month?
NaNoWriMo has a great baseline tracking system. Essentially, breaking down November into 30 days, a person needs to write 1667 words each day to pass the goal by November 30. I have found, in the past, that there are simply days when you cannot find the time to write, though… the more often one can write on his or her story, the fresher it stays in the memory and the cleaner it flows when you go back to edit in December. I try to make sure I get something down at least six of the seven days in a week; if you can make sure that you get 2000 or so words on 25 days of November, taking breaks can also allow a writer to recharge and find a sense of clarity that can get lost when you’re merely barreling ahead.
Do you have a process for ensuring that you complete your novel in 30 days?
There is nothing specific or unique to my novel-writing process. I essentially try to write one chapter toward the story each day I sit down to write. It certainly helps to think of the plot in chunks, having some idea of where you might be headed with the action two or three moves down the road. But it also helps to have some flexibility; the story I wrote last year took at least three major plot twists that I had never anticipated when I was researching the topic during the summertime, but that fit naturally into the flow of the story. I have also found that it can be fun to stay in contact with other writers and even engaging them in word-count challenges, where everyone will have 15 minutes to write and then compare their word-count progress. Finding ways to break up both the story itself and to make the writing process more fun are the most important things I do to stay sane and productive in the 30-day window of NaNoWriMo.
What is the most important thing you would tell someone hoping to finish a novel in 30 days?
You will get tired of your story. You will think that what you’re producing is absolute crap at times. The key to succeeding at NaNoWriMo, in my opinion, is twofold. First, writing without reading back every few paragraphs is important; if you try to edit everything you write, and try to produce the perfect sentence with each sentence, you will never get anywhere. Save your editing for December. Second, make sure that you find a consistent time to write. It doesn’t even have to be the same time every day… merely making sure that you carve time out to write every day (or almost every day) is perhaps the most crucial factor toward succeeding. As long as you’re producing something, it can be cleaned up later. And the goal is getting a first draft, not a publisher-ready manuscript. Keeping that in mind is probably the most important thing to remember as you embark on NaNoWriMo.
Any tips on what to do next once a writer finishes their novel?
Take a few days off. Don’t write ANYTHING for a few days. Completely separate yourself from the manuscript for at least a week. Once you’re ready to tackle the editorial process, print out the entire manuscript and start going at it with red ink. You’ll find passages that blow your mind (“Did I really write that?!”) and others that merely blow (“I wrote THAT?!“); once you’ve tweaked everything to your satisfaction, there are so many publishing avenues out there. I personally love the control that is afforded by self-publishing my work; others might prefer to take the more traditional route of submitting to publishing houses and trying to break through that way. The most important part, though, is the pride of knowing you have succeeded at creating something tangible that others could potentially read. However you get it to the public, and whatever time frame you take to get it to the public, TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENT!
Feel free to add any other comments that you would like.
Don’t take your writing too seriously, at least not in your first attempts. Perfectionism is the enemy of good writing. And, most importantly for all those souls embarking on NaNoWriMo — whether for a first time or a fifteenth time — remember to have FUN with what you’re writing. If you hate doing it, or you hate what you’re creating, why create it?
Of course I’ll link to your other work. I have the Amazon link to Kapalev, but do you have any website or other piece of work that you want me to throw in there? More than happy to add all of it.
I appreciate that, Tim. I write my novels using a free WordPress account; people can follow along with my daily progress at http://bigalkenovel.wordpress.com if they are interested. I personally use WP instead of Microsoft Word or another word processor for two reasons:
- I can save my work and write from anywhere. What I write on my laptop can be added to on my iPad or my BlackBerry. I have found that getting to type even a few sentences when they strike, even if I’m waiting for class or on a bus commuting around town, really adds up when you’re competing against a word count and a deadline. And doing it in WordPress, instead of jotting notes on a piece of paper or a separate document, allows me to stay organized and keep the story flowing along.
- WordPress has the most stringent concept of word count of any system I’ve ever found. Today’s chapter, for instance, was 1699 words according to WordPress… and 1701 words when I pasted it into a Word document. When I know I’ve hit my day’s quota according to WP, there’s no doubt about it being at least that many words.