Last night I was regretting my decision to sign up for NaNoWriMo, that’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you who aren’t familiar with the acronym. It’s an annual event where participants gather online to support each other in writing an entire 50,000 word novel during the month of November. It sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? I started to have reservations about my ability to tackle this seemingly insurmountable task. As the doubts started to creep in, I was visited by several writers far wiser than I will ever be.
Me: What was I thinking? How can I possibly write 50,000 words in thirty days? That’s 1,667 words per day, every day!
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
Me: [looks around the room for the source of the spoken words] Who said that?
A miniature Stephen King, standing less than ten inches tall, appears from behind my laptop.
Me: Okay, I’m a little freaked out now.
Stephen King: I seem to have that effect on people. It probably has something to do with the fact that I write horror novels. [Whispers and taps his temple] They don’t think I’m right in the head! Anyway, “the scariest moment is always just before you start.”
I blink several times, but tiny Stephen simply leans against my laptop screen and folds his arms across his chest.
Stephen King: [picks at his fingernails] Yeah, I’m still here.
Me: I must be hallucinating. I’ve gone mad.
Cornelia Funke: [whispers in my right ear] “So what? All writers are lunatics!”
I jump at the sound of Cornelia’s voice and turn to see her sitting on my shoulder. She grins and waves.
Me: Uh, hello there, tiny…author…on my…shoulder.
She’s right you know. “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
I glance behind me to see E.L. Doctorow sitting on the shelf.
Me: [shakes head] This is not happening. I’m not seeing this.
Franz Kafka: [pokes head out from under the lamp shade] It’s a little Kafkaesque, isn’t it? Ha! I’ve always wanted to use that word.
Me: It’s more than surreal. It’s –it’s. That’s it. I’m going insane.
Franz Kafka: Because you’re not writing. “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
Ray Bradbury: [pops up from inside my coffee cup] “You must stay drunk on writing” –not the crap you’ve got in this mug [wipes hands on shirt] —“so reality cannot destroy you.”
Ernest Hemingway: [scales the side of my desk, strains to pull himself over the edge, walks over to Bradbury, and peeks inside the cup] I’ll drink to that ol’ chap! What does she have in there?
Me: But I have been writing. Well, at least I was until I started planning for NaNoWriMo. So now I must write 50,000 words in one month. That’s almost an entire book!
George Orwell: [stands on his head on a bookshelf across the room] “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Me: I hadn’t considered demonic possession. I’m likely to suffer nightmares now. Thanks for bringing it up, George. Or shall I call you Eric? And why are you standing on your head, anyway?
George Orwell: “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up.”
Me: O-kay, but how is that going to help me write?
Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” [Sits at my laptop, pulls up the sleeve of his shirt and dramatically mimics slicing his wrist while falling across the keyboard]
Neil Gaiman: [sits on my notepad] Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Ernie.
Ernest Hemingway: Don’t call me Ernie.
Neil Gaiman: Why? Everyone knows you detest your given name.
Ernest Hemingway: Well, that was before Sesame Street. I’d much rather be “associated with the naïve, even foolish hero of Oscar Wilde’s play” than that muppet with a proclivity for rubber duckies.
Stephen King: [sings] Rubber Duckie, you’re the one. You make bath time so much fun.
Ernest Hemingway: Shut it, Stevie.
Stephen King: [giggles]
Me: Have you ever considered that people think of you when they hear the name Ernest?
Ernest Hemingway: [blushes]. Ahem, uh no.
Neil Gaiman: [turns to me] “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
Stephen King: Gaiman’s right. “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”
Me: [laughs] You’re always good for a laugh Mr. King. So how do I start a novel if I don’t have an idea of how it might end? Don’t I need to begin with the end in mind?
Anne Lamott: “E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
E.L. Doctorow: I did say that didn’t I? Wise man, I must say, wise man.
Me: Okay, well I’ve written a story, but it’s crap so it’ll probably never get published.
Ernest Hemingway: Not to worry. “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Me: But it’s still crap after several revisions. I became overly descriptive. When I edited that out, and killed my little darlings, I think I murdered the entire manuscript. My writing voice bled out all over the floor.
Stephen King: [sighs] “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Mark Twain: [walks up and slaps Stephen on the back] Stevie boy is right. Just do what I always did. “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Me: One sentence, huh? Try about five or ten thousand sentences, Mr. Hemingway.
Ernest Hemingway: Well, if you didn’t detest my writing so much, maybe you would have learned something.
Me: Actually, I respect your writing style, I just don’t care for some of your characters all that much.
Mark Twain: [Looks admiringly at Hemingway] “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English―it is the modern way and the best way. [Directs his attention to me] Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them―then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
Me: Humph. Maybe that’s why it took me so damn long to write that first book. But thirty days? It’s unsettling to have that deadline looming out there.
Douglas Adams: [runs across my desk] “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Me: [head – desk] Why am I doing this again?
Philip Pullman: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Me: [feels rejuvenated] I needed that. Can I give you a hug?
Ursula K. Le Guin: [looks up from my pocket thesaurus] Look, you’re a writer. “A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it.”
Me: I do have an affinity for words. You could call me a logophile, I suppose.
Ursula K. Le Guin: “Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well, they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning the skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”
Me: You had me at “writers.” Please go on.
Anton Chekhov: [sits on a curtain rod, points to the window] “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Me: [smiles admiringly] Oh, I love that.
Stephen King: I hate to break up the love fest, but you’ve got work to do. “So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day—”
Me: Ahem. Actually, I’ve committed myself to one thousand six-hundred and sixty-seven words a day.
Stephen King: Well you’re screwed. Heh heh. Just kidding. Okay, so you’ve committed yourself to one thousand six-hundred sixty-seven words a day “come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
Me: Oh, I’ve got plenty of story ideas.
John Steinbeck: [leans on my copy of Grapes of Wrath] “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen,” and then an entire book like this one here.
Me: Tell me about it. Ideas invade my dreams and wake me up in the middle of the night.
Saul Bellow: That’s wonderful. “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
Me: I can’t sleep until I acknowledge the voices in my head or at least write the idea down.
Maya Angelou: [caresses the tiny bird cage on my shelf] Ain’t that the truth. That’s because “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Me: But I have so many ideas, which one should I write about for NaNo?
Meg Cabot: “Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.”
Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Sylvia Plath: “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Ray Bradbury: “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”
Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Stephen King: Or an axe. All wait and no write make Jack a dull boy. Heh heh. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”
Neil Gaiman: Well bloody good for you Friedrich. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.”
Alexandre Dumas: “I have always had more dread of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of paper than of a sword or pistol.”
Me: [shakes head and sighs deeply] You call this helping? You guys are supposed to be giving me a pep talk.
Neil Gaiman: [looks at me apologetically] Sorry. “Just make good art.”
Me: But how will I know if I’ve created good art?
Kurt Vonnegut: “If you want to really hurt you parents—”
Me: What? No! How did the subject of my parents enter into this conversation?
Kurt Vonnegut: [ignores me] “And you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”
Kurt Vonnegut: “I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Me: But how can I make good art if I don’t have any formal training in writing? Critics will crucify me.
Ernest Hemingway: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
Neil Gaiman: “I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
Stephen King: “A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
Me: Okay, I have a plethora of scars and a decent memory. Are there any rules I should follow?
W. Somerset Maugham: I’ve heard “there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Me: Well, you’re a lot of help, William.
W. Somerset Maugham: Just Dubya, please.
Me: Dubya? Really? Do you – oh never mind.
Ernest Hemingway: “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
Me: Oh fabulous. So now I need dynamite. Lovely bit of advice there, Ernest.
Ernest Hemingway: [retrieves a bottle from inside his vest and takes a swig] It can drive you to drinking.
Me: Okay, so what should I do if I get writer’s block? I’ve only got thirty, as in 3-0, days, and if I fall behind I’m toast.
Steve Martin: Ah! “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.”
Ernest Hemingway: I frequently had writer’s block. [raises his bottle in a mock toast and winks]
Stephen King: [glares at Hemingway] I get writer’s block too. It sucks. [grabs the bottle from Hemingway and turns it upside down to pour out the remaining contents, but it’s empty]
Ernest Hemingway: [shrugs his shoulders] I did you a favor ol’ chap. Don’t want to wrestle those demons again, do you?
Stephen King: [ignores Hemingway and directs his attention to me] Here’s what you need to do. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
Me: Okay, so I guess I need some privacy. How did all of you get in here, anyway?
Neil Gaiman: “Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”
Me: [glances at each of the tiny inhabitants in my room] Ah, of course. It all makes sense now. A writer inserts a little bit of himself into every book he writes. In that way, a writer becomes immortal because his words live on in the hearts and minds of the readers who relish his words for generations to come.
Neil Gaiman: Precisely.
Stephen King: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
Ernest Hemingway: [pulls another bottle from his vest pocket and passes it to me] Let’s have a drink!
Stephen King: [glares at Hemingway] I wasn’t talking about alcohol, Ernie. It’s a metaphor. I didn’t think I’d have to spell it out for you, Mr. [makes air quotes] “Iceberg Theory.”
Me: [reaches for the bottle] I think I need a drink. A little bravery tonic might help me through this ordeal.
Kurt Vonnegut: [sighs deeply] “So it goes.”
J.R.R. Tolkien: [intercepts the bottle and looks at me admonishingly] “It’s the job that’s never started that takes longest to finish.” [Smiles] Remember, “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Me: [sits down to write] Indeed.
Good luck to everyone participating in NaNoWriMo this month! If you want to be my buddy on NaNoWriMo, I’m pretty easy to find. I’m listed as Melissa Janda.
Now, ready, set, WRITE!