LEAP INTO NANOWRIMO

By Marsha Nash Sultz

I’ve always loved to write. Aimlessly, gloriously, imaginatively. But not, unfortunately, with a lot of form or purpose. I had filing cabinet drawers full of half-finished drafts of stories, essays and one precious novel. For years I was a blitzkrieg writer.  If I had an idea, I’d attack it with vigor but not a lot of style. I had the desire, but not the foundation of good practice.

And then I heard about a class at FVCC taught by Kathy Dunnehoff on writing a novel in a month. 

What? 

I signed up immediately. NanoWrimo – National Novel Writing Month – is an interesting concept for writers. The goal is to write fifty-thousand words in thirty days. For a month, no editing, no fixing, no second-guessing. 

Just write, write, write. 

When embarking on a journey of fifty-thousand words, careful planning is required. Kathy encouraged us to fill out a calendar containing our word count per day, our days off for Thanksgiving, medical appointments and mental health days. 

Above all, Kathy told us to remember what Hemingway famously said about first drafts. “All first drafts are shit.” 

I kept that in mind when my eyes roamed over the scenes I had written the day before. I had to physically restrain myself, at first, from going back and fixing mistakes. Thankfully, Kathy reinforced our ‘rules’ each week in class and I muddled through a draft, knowing I had eleven months stretching before me to edit to my heart’s content.

I have participated in NanoWrimo six times. Twice I finished drafts of novels that I had started the year before. One year I wrote a novella. One year I started a novel and did a do-over two weeks into the month, so I only wrote about thirty thousand words that year.

NanoWrimo is a great way to jumpstart a novel and I’m grateful for the structure that it gave me. Now, three drafts of novels are on the shelf and I can choose whichever one calls to me. With experience, I realize that writing a first draft is merely the beginning of novel-writing. As I learn more about the craft of writing, more about the framework of scenes, plot and characters, I have those drafts in reserve to take out and refine.

If you are a beginning writer or a writer who struggles with how to dive into a new novel, give NanoWrimo a try. It’s a little like mind vomit, but the ideas you’ll come up with, unconstrained by trying to be perfect, will surprise you and lead to good content that can be corralled into form and structure as you edit after the month is over.

Remember: write, write, write!

 

A Necessary Inspiration

By Marsha Nash Sultz

Sometimes inspiration sneaks up behind you and whispers in your ear. Sometimes it knocks you over the head with great vigor. In my case, frustration once drove me to create a solution for the unknowable.

Years ago, I was interested in family genealogy to the point of obsession. Where did I come from? Whose genetic oomph propelled me to become me? I was hip-deep in Ancestry.com when I discovered that my great-grandfather’s information ended abruptly. He was born during the Civil War in a small town in Tennessee and raised as an orphan. The courthouse records, and the courthouse, were destroyed by the townspeople to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Yankees. 

What? Who destroys their own records? 

After searching to no avail for another month I sat back, dumbfounded and upset. I wanted to know the beginning of Great-Grandpa Sam’s life. The only thing I knew from my Aunt Margie was that he was a sweet man, an orphan who was raised by neighbors. That wasn’t enough for me.

What does a writer do when confronted with a bad ending? She writes a new one.

I took the bare bones of setting, time period and characters and created my own small town, Benson’s Furnace, Tennessee. I led with a skirmish set during the Civil War in which a wounded Confederate captain is forced to remain behind, in secret. What ensues is forbidden love, betrayal and misunderstanding between certain female citizens of the town and our Captain. Twenty-five years later, he decides to return to Benson’s Furnace to atone for his past behavior.

My story becomes a saga of Southern post-war life in a small town where no one wants to talk about the past. Unfortunately, the captain’s appearance brings up memories of southern defeat and shame and the unthought-of parentage of Sam, an unintended result of the captain’s liaison with the wrong woman.

This story is wildly different from Sam’s real life. He married a local girl, fathered three children and moved to West Tennessee to become a cotton farmer. 

Do I owe Sam the truth? Did my imagination bend reality to the point of denying the existence of an authentic life? 

I can’t help but think that I’ve improved the story while paying tribute to a relative whose history remains a blank in the record book. As they say in bad detective movies, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Besides, everyone needs a satisfying ending – to a story, to a novel or to a life.