Since Nov. 1, 200 writers in the Iowa City area have written nearly 1.5 million words, an average of 7,300 each. And in the next three weeks, each hopes to have written at least 50,000 words — about the length of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five — and earn the title of “winner” in the annual international National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge.
One of these frenzied writers is Marie Raven, also the region’s municipal liason for NaNoWriMo. She was raised in Alaska but moved to Iowa City, where she has some extended family and where her father graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, in 2009. Her first instinct after relocating was to join the NaNoWriMo community. Though she’s written all her life — sometimes on the backs of pages in her father’s rough drafts — Raven has been a formal NaNo participant for 13 years, crafting mostly science fiction and mystery stories that she continues to rework, polish and shop to publishers.
Even while trying to “win” the 2017 NaNoWriMo herself, Raven spends her spare time answering email questions, scheduling meetings and moderating online forums for the local NaNo community. She’s prepared to offer encouragement to discouraged writers of all forms — no small task, as many would-be authors talk themselves out of finishing a book before they even begin.
If you’ve ever felt the pull to craft a novel, Raven would urge you to follow that impulse, in the marathon-style of NaNoWriMo or otherwise. Here are her responses to some common writer doubts.
I have no experience writing a novel. Am I crazy for starting one now?
Every single person who has ever written a novel successfully at one point had to sit down and do it without ever having done it before. There has to be a first one, or there can’t ever be a second one.
You have nothing to lose by starting. Preparedness is all fine and good, but writing — unique among many endeavors — costs nothing to begin and begin again. There are no wasted materials, no squandered opportunities and no public failures. The idea doesn’t wear out if you put it together one way and then take it apart again to try something different.
I have loads of that stuff laying around, half-finished stories that fizzled and are now in cold-storage waiting for a new framework, ideas I liked but never quite had enough momentum to follow through with or characters that have never quite settled into a home. My current project contains one of the latter, actually: a character who I’ve tried in a lot of different settings and narratives and who is now, finally, coming alive as the 17-year-old sister of my protagonist. She was never a teenager before. Or, maybe I just didn’t realize she’s been a teenager all along. Of course we’d all love to get it right the first time. Who wouldn’t? But if you start, and you don’t quite hit the mark the way you wanted to, you can look back at the aborted attempt as a cringe-worthy failure, or as the world’s best set of notes for next time.
Iowa City is full of accomplished writers. I’d just be a small fish in a big pond.
I hear people from other places getting weird faces when they say “I want to write a novel.” No one looks at you weird here in Iowa City; they say, “Oh yeah, me too!” It’s like being in L.A. writing a screenplay: everyone is doing it. No one says it’s weird or not worthwhile. You’re in a city of literature, you should write a novel.
For better or worse, with the workshop here there’s a lot of literature-focus in this town and I think it can be really hard on the people who write genre, which I think is an equally valid form of art as super-mainstream, Great-American-Novel kind of literature. I think speculative fiction is just as difficult and just as worthwhile, so that’s one thing that I like about National Novel Writing Month is that it’s very open to zaniness and wild ideas and exploration. There’s not really a way to do it wrong, other than by not doing it.
I think people really just need to be told yes. I think people are told no a lot with art and that’s just crummy. So, that’s another reason why being in the community is important to me. Is to just grab people and go, “Do it, you can do it!”
Shouldn’t I have the book all planned out before I put words to paper?
It’s a lot easier to work with something that’s there rather than just in your head. It’s like doing math or doing a painting. No one tells you, “Here’s all this algebra. Alright, what’s the answer?” You have to show your work, you have to write it down. Or you have to do a sketch before you paint. No one expects you to be Michael Jordan the instant you step on a basketball court. You learn, you practice, you do it over and over again, you screw up a bunch of times, you fix those little problems and you screw up more stuff. It takes drafts, it takes studying what other people do successfully. A huge, huge part of the process is just sitting there with your pen or at your computer and just doing it.
I get self-conscious thinking of someone reading over my work.
I think that’s the thing that holds a lot of people back from doing the event: the thought “someone’s going to be reading what I’m writing and I don’t have time to edit.” We’re like, no, no — no one’s reading what you’re writing. I have a thread on our regional form for people to post little snippets of what they wrote that day … but on a general basis, it’s fairly rare for people to exchange significant pieces of manuscript.
I think [NaNoWriMo] is a good place to make writer friends, so if you get to the point where you need a beta reader or you need someone to look something over for you, you have a network, which is cool.
I’m a perfectionist. It can take forever for me to tweak one sentence, let alone hundreds.
“Oh, I don’t like that word, I can pick a better word for that” or “this is too many adverbs” or whatever — you don’t want to do that in your first draft, whether you’re writing for NaNo or not. Get all of your plot points down. That scene that you’re spending an hour fiddling with, you might turn around in your second draft and delete. So there’s no point in spending that time, in my opinion.
If you have a hard time shutting down the urge to fix that thing that you think you can do better now, it’s best to just not. I know people who have had a lot of success with sites online where you type in words and it doesn’t let you use the backspace key once you’re out of a word. You can backspace to fix a typo if you haven’t hit the spacebar yet, but otherwise you can’t change it.
The things I’ve heard from professional authors like Stephen King, 90 percent of them say don’t revise until you’re done. You’ll find a one in 10 that do get every sentence perfect before they move on. Everyone’s process is different; there’s not a right or wrong way to get it done. But if what you’re trying to do is stopping you from actually getting the work done, then you need to change what you’re trying to do. It’s never going to be a novel no matter how perfect those five sentences are if you don’t write the rest of it.
Couldn’t I just write a short story instead?
I definitely have people come and work on things that are not a novel. I’m working on material for a web serial right now. A novel is a little more conducive to just hitting the ground, going in one direction and not stopping until you get there. Especially for new writers, that’s a scary thing to do: just start going and don’t stop.
Distilling something down to a short story granule is actually kind of tough for a lot of people. It’s tough for me. It’s like living in an apartment in Manhattan that’s the size of a walk-in closet. You can’t have a coffeemaker, you can’t have 10 extra books you haven’t read in 15 years — that’s like a short story. But in a novel you really have room to stretch out and have minutia and get into details and I think there’s a lot of joy in that. Getting to the end of the story you want to tell and letting things get messy and letting there be complications.
The stories of our lives aren’t small. How much context is there in how you came to be in your job or how you met that person? We need the space to spread out and if you can get to the end of that, that’s a big confidence boost.
Once you have it there, it’s a hefty thing. You print it out and it’s the size of a binder and you get to think “Man, I did that.” There’s a lot of prestige to writing a book.