OLL Interns @ Tue, 2009-10-27 15:20
Q: Sam, you were the creator, producer, and host of the NaNoWriMo podcast WrimoRadio from its inception until 2006. During your tenure as producer, you managed to get such august personages as George Saunders and This American Life's Ira Glass to read NaNoWriMo participants' novel excerpts on the air. Your oversight of the podcast was sadly cut short when you were kidnapped by pirates and eventually traded to a family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for three apples and a jug of grog*. What have you been doing since your escape?
A: This might be the Stockholm syndrome talking, but I'm happy to report that my (regretful) time away from NaNoWriMo has been happy, fulfilling and productive. (Thanks, Pirates!) In a nice parallel to NaNoWriMo's literary success stories, it was my work on the NaNoWriMo podcast (and a podcast/radio show I co-hosted for a couple of years, Filmspotting) that helped me get a for-real job at a for-real radio station. Before my family's recent move to the Charlotte, NC, area, I spent three years as producer and, more recently, program director at listener-supported 88Nine RadioMilwaukee (think the world's best Pandora channel + This American Life). Also in that time I got hitched, bought a house and (with a good deal of help from my wife) had a son, David. And I learned to juggle apples while drunk on grog. And built up an immunity to iocane powder.
Q: You've taken a five-year hiatus from novel writing, but you're back and vying for your fifth NaNoWriMo win this year. What inspired your return to the field of high-velocity noveling?
A: By the time I finished my fourth novel in 2004, I honestly felt like I'd learned a thing or two about how to write a novel. (That is, how to write a novel ... in a month. Is there a difference?) And as I looked to the future, I imagined that every November would be spent writing a terribly plotted novel with lousy dialogue and the occasional, awkward sex scene. In fact, I looked forward to it. Despite plans to return to NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, life always managed to intervene. Skip ahead to Fall, 2009. I'm a stay-at-home dad with a part-time radio gig in beautiful Davidson, NC. My wife, who has never lived through a novel writing month, is naively supporting my return to competitive noveling. I never meant to give it up for so long. And now as November becomes visible on the horizon, I find myself as nervous as I was the first time.
Q: What tips do you have for first-time NaNoWriMo participants?
A: Everything I learned about novel-writing I learned from Chris Baty. So I apologize in advance if any of this sounds familiar.
1) It's worth it. It's really, really worth it. Especially for first-timers. Don't tell my wife, but there really isn't anything in my life that I can compare to writing my first NaNoWriMo novel. Because once you cross that 50k line, all the anguish (and tedium and doubt and sleep deprivation and nerves rattled from caffeine ingestion and lonely lonely hours away from family and friends and missing out on at least 4 episodes of 30 Rock), immediately turns to exaltation. There may have been times in your life that were Hell to go through and once they were over you wondered, "Was it worth it?" Well finishing your first novel won't feel like that. I promise. You'll just feel ... bliss. And awe. You'll feel like your heart is too big for your chest. Like you just fell in love for the first time. And the size of all that bliss and awe will be in direct proportion to the number of people you told in October and November that you were writing a novel. Which brings us to:
2) (which you have already learned from Chris) Tell everyone that you're writing a novel. It will shame you into actually writing a novel and the # of people that you tell that you're writing a novel is = to the # of people you get to tell that you WROTE a novel. Make it a big-ass number.
3) 26.2. Before I ever ran a marathon, I compared novel writing month to running a marathon. Turns out, I was mostly right. Except running a marathon disrupts far more of your life than a month. Is at least as exhausting. Is, yes, exhilarating. Makes you vomit. But here's the lesson: my goal when I ran my first (and only) marathon was to finish. If I had decided that my goal was to finish my marathon in, say, under four hours, and I finished in 4 hours 10 minutes ... I would have felt like a failure. After training for months and months and punishing my body for 26.2 miles. The only thing you gotta do is write 50k words. Let everything else go. If you do that, there's no failing.
4) You're Cecil B. DeMille. Cast thousands. This isn't going to work for everyone, but I learned by novel number four that the more characters I had the better. My instinct the first couple times out was to have a single protagonist. Boy did I hate those characters at the end of my first two Novembers. My next two novels had at least a half dozen characters. Get bored with one, move on to the next. Keep juggling. I kept track of characters and other story details in the footnotes.
5) When it doubt, take a road trip. I think every one of my novels contains a road trip (or two.) You won't beLIEVE the freaks you'll run into on the road.
6) When you stop writing for the day, don't stop at the end of a chapter; it'll just mean looking at a blank page the next day. Give yourself a couple sentences or a paragraph or two to get you going every day.
7) Arrange with a novel-writing friend to have your characters meet each other somewhere. (This is a lot easier if your characters share the millennium and/or galaxy.) In 2004, a friend and I agreed to have our characters meet each other in Paris. Between getting to Paris, hanging out and seeing the sights, getting back home, I probably had about a third of my novel written. I've already arranged with a couple of first-timer NaNo participant friends to do something similar this year. However long an episode it turns out to be, it can be a nice pick-me-up, especially in the creative wasteland that Week 2 can be.
8) Celebrate celebrate dance to the music. If you don't take part in any of your region's meet-ups during November, make a point of going to the post-November celebration at the end. Even if you don't finish. You will rarely in your life have so much in common with a room full of people. If only every bar was filled with NaNoWriMo participants, the world would be a better place.
Q: Do you know what you'll be writing about this year?
A: I was finishing up Don DeLillo's Underworld not long ago and I thought, I should do something like THIS for NaNowriMo (yeah, right). And then I picked up George Saunders' most recent collection of stories, In Persuasion Nation, and I thought, Or, you know, maybe I could try something that THIS (not a chance). And then for some reason I started reading Catcher In The Rye and I was like, Damn, I forgot just how good this is, I should really try and write something like THIS (many have tried ... and failed). I've never started a November with a plan. I just start writing. I admire the writers who have a vision and see it through. In fact, I think of them as "actual writers." But at this point I think it would make me nervous to have a plan. To chaos! To chance! To inspiration! All hail, NaNoWriMo!
*Sam was later discovered to have made much of this up.