a novel in progress

sixteen days into NaNoWriMo, i have a word document that’s 92 pages and 36,000 words long. 92 PAGES! WHAAAAT?!

When i decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I knew I intended to complete the process (because, let’s face it, what else am I doing these days?). I knew I’d get the 50,000 words, one way or another.

But at the same time, I kinda didn’t. I kinda thought that maybe it’d be too hard. or my idea would suck too hard. Mostly i thought I’d run out of things to say, that there isn’t enough stuff in my head to write a book about.

but so far, amazingly, incredibly, there is.

I sit down each day, usually and preferably in the morning. I turn the wifi off on my computer and if I can I turn my phone on airplane (or silent). I put in my headphones and I put on Dom La Nena. I settle in with my ergo keyboard in my lap, and my computer sitting eye-level in front of me, balanced on a stack of books.

Often, i’ll log into twitter and see if anyone is running a “word sprint.” The NaNoWriMo peeps have a whole twitter account, manned by someone almost 24/7, devoted to running these “sprints”. Basically, someone decides that for the next 5, 10, 15, 30, whatever minutes, everyone who wants to participate will write like the wind! No stopping. No second guessing. just GO GO GO. It’s incredibly motivational to know that there are a bunch of people out there grinding out the words at that same time. That we’re all in this crazy novel-writing game together.

And when the account isn’t active and I need a little boost, I’ve reached out via twitter using the #nanowordsprints hashtag, and within seconds (!) people have responded to “sprint” with me! It’s awesome.

I’m pretty sure the most specific I’ve been about what I’m writing is that it’s about three seniors at the beginning of their high school year. Now that I feel the story is a bit more developed and stable, here’s some more info, in the form of a rough back-of-book synopsis.

Sarah & Scott were once the best of friends. Until he ditched her and marching band crowd for entrance into the “in crowd” at the start of high school.

Three years later, Scott is the star player on the soccer team, planning to go away to college with his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, Breanne in the fall.

But then it all falls apart. Breanne betrays Scott, and he finds himself  seeking out  the company of the girl he left behind. Meanwhile, without Scott there to hold her together, Breanne starts to drown — at school, at home, in love.

A story of heartbreak and forgiveness, Threads is a novel about forgiveness and redemption, about how easy it is to fall apart and come together, about how far we go for love, and how lost we feel without it.

I named the working version of the novel Threads because of the way I feel we’re all connected to each other. Everything we do has ripples, especially in the people around us, especially people who mean something to us — good or bad.The characters in this book are so invested in each other, their threads are so strong, everything they do reverberates.

The most interesting/challenging/stressful character so far is turning out to be Breanne, which should probably be expected, since she’s modeled after me and it’s both easier to layer detail on someone I ‘know so well’ and hard to know whether I’m just putting myself on her or letting her speak for herself. In most of Threads, Breanne is in a major self-hate spiral, similar to one i went through in high school. without anyone around her to catch her, the question i wonder about is: what’s going to happen to her?

when i say stuff like this to joe, he’s like…”you’re writing it, so you can decide what happens to her, silly!” And he’s kind of right. somewhere in me, the words form, the thoughts come and i type out what happens to my characters.

But when I’m writing, when I’m in the zone, it doesn’t feel like i’m deciding what they should do. it feels like they’re deciding for themselves. My favorite author, Rainbow Rowell, put it well when talking about her two characters from Eleanor & Park. At the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT: skip past the quote below if you don’t want to know details aout the ending of ELEANOR AND PARK!), there’s a note that arrives for one of the characters, but she doesn’t tell the reader what it says, just that it says three words, and how the character receiving it reacts. This infuriated people! WHAT DOES IT SAY?! they wanted to know. Her answer hints at the way she (and me and lots of other authors) view their characters: as real people.

Okay, look. I haven’t even told my mom the three words. But let’s talk about this for a few minutes . . .

I always knew, when I started Eleanor & Park, what the last line would be. I knew Eleanor was going to send Park a postcard, and that it would be “just three words long.”

And I knew that readers would assume those three words were “I love you.” I want readers to assume that. It’s the obvious answer – and it’s a happy answer. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Eleanor finally said, “I love you”?

But I can’t bring myself to confirm that interpretation. Or to say anything conclusive about the postcard – beyond that I think Eleanor wrote something hopeful. Park responds hopefully. He sits up, he smiles, he feels like something with wings take off from his chest. That sounds like hope to me.

It drives people crazy when I talk like this: as if the characters have minds of their own, and I’m just interpreting their actions based on what I’ve read. I created Eleanor and Park! I should be able to tell you, concretely, what it is says on the postcard.

But there’s something about that moment between them . . .

It’s the end of the book, and we’re getting ready to leave the characters. Their story is about to become their own again. (If you imagine that characters keep on living after you close a book; I do.) So we’re backing away from them, and they’re having an intimate moment. And it just feels wrong to read their mail.

I know! It’s crazy for me to say that! We’ve been in their heads for 300 pages, and it’s a postcard – everyone at the post office probably read it. But in that moment, as the author, it didn’t feel right to read it, or to share it…

–Rainbow Rowell, from her website.

(There’s another beautiful idea in there: the idea that characters keep on living after you close a book. I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished a book only to feel an actual heartache that it was over, that the people I’d felt so close to were gone. Thinking that their story continues on without me. That they live on, maybe in happiness, maybe in sadness, maybe just onward, it feels better.)

So, these first 16 days, I’ve been learning about my characters. They’ve been teaching me the kinds of things they say, the kinds of things they do and don’t do, what bugs them and what they love. When I first started writing, Sarah was my strongest characters. Then Scott piped up. Now Breanne has full on taken over. But I’m sure they’ll all have their say.

I’m sure they’ll let me know what happens to them in the end. And I’m sure I can edit them all to pieces later. ;)

Through this whole process, I’m working on just going with the flow. It’s hard and scary, but it’s also incredibly fun to sit down at the computer with a general (or, more often, absolutely no) idea of where things might go for the next paragraph and end up with 4 pages of words and thoughts and feelings and actions that I never planned on. Maybe they’re four bad pages, but there’s four of ’em, and that’s the point.

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I have to imagine at some point, I’ll sit down and be absolutely blank. None of my characters want to talk to me anymore. I’ll have no words and no idea where to take them.

When that happens, I hope I remember I’m just shoveling sand — the sandcastles can wait. I hope I remember that the first draft can suck so hard and the last draft can still be a masterpiece. I hope I remember that the words will come, eventually. And that if I just start typing something anyway, magic might happen.

And if I forget any of these things, I hope you’ll remind me. Thanks in advance.

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