I Won NaNoWriMo!

Winner!I posted this on my book blog, but I don’t necessarily have the same readers on each site. I am so excited because yesterday I validated my novel, and I wrote over 50,000 words during the month of November. The story is not finished yet, and in case you care, I tried a new genre (chick lit). I usually stick to historical fiction of some kind.

I learned some interesting things about myself as a writer as a result of participating in NaNoWriMo.

First, even though I have “won” NaNoWriMo before, it doesn’t feel any less fantastic to win again. In fact, it might feel even better to win again because I feel reassured that the first time wasn’t a fluke. I really am a writer. I really could write novels if I keep at it. After I wrote my first book, I didn’t try to write another one for years. I was a little worried all I had in me was one. I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2006, and I didn’t come close to winning. My story never truly gelled, but I did create a character for that novel who sort of sits in a corner of my mind, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for me to do something with her. The first time I won was in 2009. I still haven’t edited that novel. I didn’t win last year. I fell behind at NCTE, and I never did catch up again after that. I had over 30,000 words, and it was frustrating to lose, particularly because I thought (and still think) the idea behind that novel was pretty good.

It’s weird that when you create characters they become like real people in your mind. For my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, I created a protagonist named Imogen Medley, a girl who lived in the mountains of Breathitt County, Kentucky during the Great Depression. She is completely real to me in many ways. I had the rest of her life planned out, even though there was no occasion to show it in the novel. I know, for instance, that she grew up to become one of the first woman judges in her neck of the woods, a calling prompted by an injustice she witnesses during the course of my novel.

A second thing I learned about myself is that the large amount of writing I’ve been doing this year, mostly on my reading blog, has made me a faster, more fluent writer. I know that we writing teachers tell students that they will become faster, better, and more fluent writers if they just practice it more, but I’m not sure I ever noticed a measurable difference in my own practice until this year. I rarely had a problem reaching the daily word count of 1,667 words (except some days I skipped while at NCTE). Many days, I was able to write over 2,000 words. That last day, I wrote over 2,800 words. I was stuck one day, so I just started writing about being stuck, and eventually, I was writing my story again.

When I wrote my first book, I had this massive notebook with all my research. For my 2009 NaNo novel, I put a bunch of research into a program called Curio, but it was clunky to flip back and forth between my research and my writing. This year, I used Scrivener, and I found that having all my research and my writing in one place made me more productive. We should teach our students to try out a variety of tools until they find the ones that work for them. I think we all have trouble with finding the right tools sometimes, and the right tools can make a huge difference in our ability to succeed. I think I won NaNo this year partly because I found a tool that helped me work better and smarter than any other tools I’ve used in the past.

Another interesting thing that I noticed (not so much learned, I guess) is that I seem to like to write dialogue. I worry that my stories have too much dialogue and not enough description, but I like to hear my characters talk. I know dialogue can be tough for some people to write, but I think if you listen a lot, your dialogue will sound more natural. It goes without saying that reading other writers will also help you shore up weaknesses in your own writing. You have models for good dialogue, good description, tight plotting, characterization, and beautiful language if you read a lot. I have also been doing a lot of reading. This year, I’ve read 45 books. I am trying to make it an even 50 before the year is out. I know writing was easier for me this time because of all the reading I’ve done.

I know some writers look down on NaNoWriMo because they feel it encourages sloppy, quick, poor writing. I think some people need the pressure of a deadline to get their words down the paper, and NaNoWriMo is becoming my favorite way to start a novel. I think most people who participate realize their novels aren’t publishable on December 1. In fact, they’re likely not even finished. There may be some misguided individuals who don’t understand that revision is where the real work happens, but they’ll probably eventually be disabused of their confusion (one way or another). Another criticism I hear is that it’s unnecessary: true writers will write whether there is an event scheduled around drafting 50,000 words or not. Perhaps. But I do know that writing along with a community and receiving the moral support of NaNoWriMo has encouraged me. Maybe others don’t need that encouragement, but writing can be solitary. It helps to know you’re not alone.

The most important thing was how much fun I had this time. It was hard work—no doubt about that—but I enjoyed it the whole time, even on days when I had to make myself write because I didn’t think I wanted to.

Good luck to those NaNo participants heading into the home stretch tonight.

Related posts:

Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

the infernoI’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper).  Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.

While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?

Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.

Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.

P.S. Unrelated, but speaking of Education Week, Katie Ash interviewed me for her article “Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills.” Key word: balance. Check it out!

Creative Commons License photo credit: church mouth

Related posts: