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A NaNo-Tech Cure for Writer’s Block

Interviews with successful NaNoWriMo authors S.A. Bodeen, Simon Haynes, Kathleen Kaufman, James R. Strickland, and David Niall Wilson.

I’m not likely to get much sleep this month. Today, November 1, marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo, the month in which thousands of those who call themselves writers commit themselves to somehow fit enough extra time into each of the next thirty straight days to crank out a novel. (The “official” goal is 50,000 new words written, whether or not that winds up being a completed novel.) I’ve participated for the past two years, and I “won” both years in the sense that I produced my target word-count (though I’ve still got nothing near a finished novel).

For those who don’t know much about it, NaNoWriMo was created in 1999 by twenty-one would-be novelists in the Bay Area as a way to force themselves to set aside time to write for the main purpose of getting dates (which they expected to occur after they became successful novelists, of course). The next year a website was added, and the project expanded to 140 participants. The third year there were a whopping five thousand. This past year there were more than 165,000 participants all over the globe who together logged nearly two and a half billion words during November! Over thirty thousand of last year’s participants “won” by penning at least the required 50,000 words. (I will, however, admit to “cheating” myself last year– at least in spirit; though I technically met my 50k goal last November, quite a few of those words were not fiction but the result of other writing obligations which got in the way of my novel.)

This year I debated whether or not to bother this year. I expect that this year, like last, more mundane tasks will encroach upon my Muse. Indeed, even were I to manage to finish a novel (especially a scifi novel), would it ever have a chance of being published? I decided I needed to find some success stories to inspire me, to convince me that it is, in fact, possible to turn a NaNoWriMo novel into a published book.

So I did a little digging. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to find successful science fiction writers who were willing to comment on their NaNoWriMo experiences. I would like to thank the five who did for taking the time to interview with me.

Each of these authors has managed to turn a NaNoWriMo product into a published novel. They range in publishing experience from seasoned horror, scifi, and fantasy writer David Niall Wilson, the Bram Stoker-winning author of more than a dozen published books and 150 short stories, who completed The Mote in Andrea’s Eye during his very first NaNoWriMo year, to Kathleen Kaufman, an English teacher in a Los Angeles inner-city school whose very first attempt at writing a book became her debut novel, The Tree Museum. In between those two extremes can be found S.A. Bodeen, award-winning author of children’s picture books whose first novel-length story, The Compound came out of NaNoWriMo. Since it was published last year The Compound has already been nominated for YA reading awards in seven states and is listed as an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. For NaNoWriMo James R. Strickland wrote Looking Glass, whose wheelchair-confined protagonist might appeal to readers who followed Redstone’s recent “Future Imperfect” contest (though the post-cyberpunk world in which she rolls is not exactly a poster-child for universal access). Aurealis-winning Simon Haynes turned his NaNoWriMo effort into No Free Lunch, the fourth book in his humorous Hal Spacejock series (the first of which is available as a free ebook on his website), which won the Western Australia Science Fiction Foundation’s ‘Tin Duck’ award and was a Ditmar finalist last year.

So after hearing from this Fabulous Five, I’m back on the NaNoWriMo wagon again. Knowing that many of Redstone’s readers are writers as well, I hope these authors’ stories also inspire you to devote the month of November to doing some of your own NaNoWriMo-ing. And let me know if you wind up with a published novel— then maybe I can interview you next year…

How would you describe your NaNoWriMo novel to potential readers who are trying to decide if they would be interested in reading it?

S.A. BODEEN (The Compound): The premise of The Compound: For the past five years, 15-year-old Eli has been living in an underground compound with his family after a nuclear attack. His identical twin was left on the outside, for which he blames itself. But all is not as it seems in their utopian fallout shelter…

SIMON HAYNES (Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch): Hal Spacejock the character is a friendly, well-meaning bloke with bad luck and even worse judgement. He doesn’t know how to fly his ship, he’s no good at business, he’s anti-establishment yet mostly honest and law abiding. (I’ve had people email me complaints when Hal breaks the law or does something underhanded.) Hal Spacejock the novel? It’s a digging contest. See how far Hal can get over his head before the sides cave in.

KATHLEEN KAUFMAN (The Tree Museum): It’s the story of a disintegrating marriage and speaks to the lengths we will go to try to make things work when it comes to someone we love.  Nate and Rosemary love each other but they’re both broken, and no amount of intention can fix what they’ve lost.  The story is set in a world that has been taken over by a mysterious and dominant force known only as The Signmakers; who have instituted many of the changes that they have deemed necessary to keep our planet alive.  The story speaks to the changes that need to happen both in a global sense and a personal one that will eventually have to happen if we are to survive.

JAMES R. STRICKLAND (Looking Glass): Looking Glass is a cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk novel about a network security professional who’s forced from her quiet, virtual life into a storm of intrigue, death, and a journey into the most terrifying place – the real world.  It’s set in a world not too different from today, and not too far in the future, either, a world where people work for a living, fall in love, get screwed over by the company, and have to deal with tragedy and situations beyond anything they’re prepared for. Cyberpunk with real people, and without the detached cool.

DAVID NIALL WILSON (The Mote in Andrea’s Eye): The best description in a few words that I’ve come up with is “Forever Young meets Twister”.  In the novel a young girl, Andrea, loses her father in the aftermath of a hurricane.  She grows to become an expert in the storms, working with the US Governments Operation Stormfury in the 60s.  When they close that down, she starts her own operation.  They try to stop a huge storm, and they make it worse.  Then – suddenly – the storm, as well as her husband flying over it, disappear in the Bermuda Triangle.  Then – in 2006 – they come back.  It’s a very “clean” read – I wrote it so that my 14 year old (at the time) daughter could read it.  It’s been called very cinematic, as well.

How much of it did you already have planned out before NaNoWriMo? How much of it did you already have written?

BODEEN: The Compound was my project for NaNoWriMo 2005. I had none of it planned beforehand, and actually had started a different story on Nov 1. Then an initial brainstorm came that night while watching television, and I switched direction the next day.

HAYNES: Although I’m sometimes known as a ‘Nanowrimo author made good’, I’d like to point out that it was the fourth Hal Spacejock novel which benefitted from the intensive November writing sessions. The series was already in print, but when it came to book four I needed the extra impetus of NanoWrimo to help me get the book started.

KAUFMAN: The Tree Museum did come out of a NaNoWriMo project back in 2006.  I had hardly any of it planned before I started writing.  I had a weird dream about a boat yard that was filled in with dirt and robot like waitresses dispensing advice – after talking it out with my husband over beach drinks, I started thinking that it could be a much bigger story.  I started writing on November 1st, not a word before then.   Partially because I was terrified.  I had never written anything of any length before.  I actually only decided to attempt NaNoWriMo that year because I was considering a Masters in Creative Writing program that required you to write a novel length project.  I figured if I could churn out 50,000 words I could probably handle the MA program.  I ended up starting Law School instead of the Masters program in the end.

STRICKLAND: When I started out to write Looking Glass (then known as /dev/ice) for NaNoWriMo, all I really had planned out was the end of Chapter 1 – that now reads “I don’t work for the military. I work in a net where legitimate users have to be allowed to come in. We’re a discount store chain, for Pete’s sake. I’m the best at what I do on this site, maybe in the whole province. Me? I work for OmniMart.” I thought of the chapter, more or less as it appears, in one gust as I got out of the shower a few days before the start of NaNo, and I started the process of trying to figure out who this caustic, angry woman was. That said, when I needed a world for her to live in, I recycled one I’d written 11 years earlier, for a completely different novel that never got beyond the first 30 pages or so. My whole goal with NaNo 2004 was, unlike 2002, to play to my strengths, and preferably with a world I had already gone to great pains to build.

WILSON: It’s all supposed to be written during November.  I didn’t have anything written but a chapter outline when I started out, and that’s been my strategy each year since then.  Not fair to get a head start, though I’ve seen some relaxed guidelines that say those who’ve won in the past can bend the rules as long as they actually write 50,000 new words during November.

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