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Hark, did I hear a story idea?
Part one of a NaNoWriMo Prep series ...
‘Tis the Season
This is the time of year when whiffs of National Novel Writing Month begin to waft through the air like the smells of ripening apples and pumpkin spice lattes, and people begin to wonder whether they should write a novel, or if they can, or what they should write about, or how does one even write a novel, so I decided to dedicate this newsletter to exploring such questions in the coming weeks—to write a NaNoWriMo guide of sorts.
If you’ve never heard of National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) and can’t take part this year, I hope that these creative thoughts apply to any creative project (and a portion of life as well), so please stick with me.
A lot of people think of NaNoWriMo as a novel-writing event, but I often think of it as a self-writing event. As in, who do you want to be? If you want to be a writer, how do you go about doing that? If you have an idea for a novel, how do you commit to writing it (a question that can be asked of romantic interests, jobs, and puppies at the pound as well)?
I suppose you could create a focus group to answer those questions, but my guess is that we all have inklings of answers to the questions that tickle, nag, and haunt us, and in the end, as much as we might want to rely on a logical proof for our decisions, we just have to jump in (to romantic partners, story ideas, and dogs at the pound).
This is actually my answer to most questions in life: just dive in and try not to hurt yourself or anyone else.
I’m going to take that answer one step further, though. Instead of jumping in (which can feel dangerous or scare off the non-committal), what if you ask yourself if you simply want to make a new friend? Because every novel is a type of friendship.
Maybe you’re lonely and without novels in your life, or maybe you’re tired of your old novel friends and need something new, or maybe your novel idea is telling you such amazing stories that you want to hear more.
Some friendships are quick, fun bursts that last only a month or two. Sometimes those bursts turn into late-night discussions and weekends away. Sometimes they turn into weddings and births and deaths and funerals and trips to Paris. Sometimes you see new friends every weekend, but sometimes you only see them every other month. Sometimes you start a friendship, but then it doesn’t really take off for another year or two.
Friendships, like creative ideas, are mysterious creatures that take on a life beyond our control.
The important thing is that you have this new friend, this new possibility, your novel, and the friendship is in your soul as a source of warmth and companionship or adventure and curiosity—or just something to do instead of cleaning the house.
The thing about a novel is that when you start it, you don’t really know what type of friend it’s going to be. You just have to find out.
When Jerry Seinfeld started writing Seinfeld, he only knew that he wanted it to feel like the funny, inane conversations he had with his good friend Larry David. The show was spawned not with the idea that they were going to write a hit TV show that would make them a lot of money and change their lives, but by the spirit of their friendship.
Turning your novel into a friendship lessens the pressure of thinking that you need to have a big, new, amazing novel idea that you’re going to spend the next several years working on and publishing. It lessens the pressure of whether you have the time and energy to write a novel this November. It lessens all of the creative loads we tend to carry around.
You’re just meeting someone for coffee, and you might decide to have some adventures together in November.
If I look through the files on my computer, I’ve made so many different types of friends. I have hundreds of files on my computer, half-finished stories, stories with a first line or two, stories with scattered notes about someone named Hank that are indecipherable. I also have a few unfinished novels that tally 75,000 words or so, and someday I hope to go off on special retreats with each of them to tell stories from dawn until late into the night. But I probably won’t do that.
I don’t regret a single of these friends, and that is how I look at them when I open them up to revisit our experience together: it’s like bumping into an old friend.
So start with the question: do you want to make a new friend this November? Don’t ask if your idea is good or bad or if an agent or editor will like it. Just ask yourself if you’d like to hang out for a pumpkin spice latte or two in November.
And if you want to make a new friend, sign up to write it at NaNoWriMo.
Your story is also like a puddle
This video of a little boy encountering a puddle while on a walk with his big dog made the rounds on the Internet years ago. I watch it every once in a while because it reminds me of my own wonder—or, too often, my own lost wonder, rather.
When the boy walks through the puddle, he is essentially asking questions. What will my feet do to the water? What will the water do to my feet?
Our wonder lives in the questions we ask. We’re taken by surprise, and our surprise is an invitation to notice, to be curious. Our curiosity is the lifeblood of our spirit, nourishing it with the oxygen of attunement, enlivening our thoughts with the pursuit of answers.
It’s only when we don’t pause by the puddles of life that our thoughts stiffen, our eyes fail to see.
So … how can you find puddles to walk through in your life? Could writing your novel be a puddle to explore?
Because a quote about friendship (and novel writing)
“Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it's all over.”
—Octavia E. Butler
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
I write this newsletter for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.
Because more about me
I am the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, the co-founder of 100 Word Story, and an Executive Producer of the upcoming TV show America’s Next Great Author. I am the author of a bunch of books and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded.
My essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.