Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo, Middle Grade, and You

I woke up last Saturday morning to the dire buzz of alarms sounding.

I’m not kidding. It was, literally, like, 6:30 AM on the morning after Halloween, and I had two kids to get to a soccer game in 35 degree weather. Even worse, no matter how much I begged, Siri wouldn’t let me go back to sleep and take the edge off the Snickers hangover I’d shamefully backed my way into after a few hours of trudging behind four Trick-Or-Treaters the night before.

It’s safe to say that Siri and I haven’t been on the best of terms this week.

The morning alarm wasn’t the only one going off, though. In my head, I could almost feel the thunderous peal of bells clanging, warning that, at the tone, the date will be November 1st.

To novelist types like me, it’s a date that looms large every year in the subconscious, demanding focus on one thing and one thing only: the firing of the Starter’s pistol on another NaNoWriMo.

You might remember that I mentioned NaNo before. If you didn’t, and aren’t familiar with it, you could be thinking to yourself, “Nana? NeNe? Nanoo? Is this someone’s delightfully spunky grandmother? No, wait, it’s a dance routine, right? Or some kind of alien greeting?”

If you’re thinking any of the above, let me help you out a little here.

NaNoWriMo is a word-whammed abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s this wonderful exercise in masochism where someone (say, like me…or you) gets an idea for a novel and pushes aside all the nagging, gnawing voices of uncertainty and self-doubt in an effort to coax 50,000 words of that book into actually existence over the span of one (1) 30-day month. The month of November, to be precise.

Lots of people swear by NaNoWriMo. For others, the pressure and stress of having a mere 30 days to usher forth a story takes too much of a toll, hampering their creativity.  Especially with a major US holiday standing in the way like a 10-foot hurdle in front of an Olympic runner.

If you’re a MG writer, though, and a little extra pressure tends to brighten the fire under your backside as if Bugs Bunny himself was manning the bellows of your dinner cauldron, NaNo can be a great way to go from ‘aspiring to write a MG novel’ to ‘actually being a MG author’.

The most obvious aspect of the whole crazy endeavor that makes it perfect for MG-ers is, of course, word count.  No matter what lies you might tell yourself in the dark hours spent huddled over your manuscript, or how much flattery you might attempt in that candle-lit bathroom mirror, 50,000 words does not a novel make. At least, not for adult works of either the standard or “Young”  variants.

For a Middle Grade draft, though, 50,000 words is more often than not right at the sweet and tender center of the total word count bulls eye.

But word count is far from the only thing that makes NaNo helpful for producing a MG draft.  The compressed timeframe, too, can be quite an asset. Sure, it might make you feel a little bit like Alice’s White Rabbit—always late, always late for a very important, um, daily goal—but it also lends itself to the right “feel” for a Middle Grade story.  As the life and circumstances of the MG set are, very often, largely out of their control, channeling a sense of “rushing headlong towards adventure in a big, unexplored world with nothing but the soles of one’s Keds to use for brakes” into a story can be vital.

When it comes time for letters to hit the page, few things can help an author with deliver that tone as much as bearing the press of the steady march towards November 30th, knowing there’s nothing anyone can do to stall the month out for day or three, just to catch one’s breath.

And then, there are the revisions. NaNo has even more benefit for the MG writer there. Since the initial process is a chaoticc 30-day sprint to get something down on paper, the steaming pile of word leavings you’re stuck with at the end…well, let’s just say it’s not always quite ready for immediate release to the Newbery Committee. But learning how to accomplish things though trial and error is something that most Middle Grade readers are very, very familiar with.  For instance, while you’d think I would remember that while writing based on the number of times in my childhood I had to remake my bed due to the large, suspicious lump under the comforter, or the multitude of second-tries necessary to get my room clean to my mother’s Exacting Standards, it’s still a lesson that bears repeating even for me.

The point is, your NaNo novel is going to be a long way from perfect on November 30th, and you’re going to have to work at making it just right. Your characters, just like real kids, are likewise not going to be perfect. They’re going to make all kinds of mistakes, sometimes for reasons they don’t even understand (aka, the highly acclaimed “I don’t know why I did it” defense). The more often you’re reminded of that, the better the chance your MG characters stand to maybe become real to the kids you hope will one day experience you work.

Is NaNo easy? Having survived it twice now, I can say with certainty that it’s not. Is NaNo for everyone? Definitely not. Not anymore than purple socks and lime green shoes are for everyone.

But for some Middle Grade authors, purple and green go together just like peanut butter and chocolate.

And that just might make NaNoWriMo 2014 a good bet for you.


1 comment:

Mirka Breen said...

I hope you won't find me too much a contrarian, but 50,000 words is a short adult novel. The Great Gatsby is shorter, and it is arguably one of the greats.
But you are right that it is a good length for a (albeit long) MG. If it works as a motivator, and if you need an outside motivator, (most of us do) it's all fine. Thumbs up for all the brave!
I'm looking from the sidelines, but I LOVE the notion that a whole nation is writing novels all at once. Is this a great country, or what?