Off the Clock: How to Write a Novel in 30 Days

Posted: January 28, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lynn Burke

Last November when most people were planning Thanksgiving menus, three George Mason women of words took time out from their very busy lives to write novels–50,000 words–in one month. Colleen Kearney Rich, Tara Laskowski, and Beth Posniak took on the challenge issued by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

According to the NaNoWriMo web site, the contest, which claims to value “enthusiasm and perseverance over talent and craft,” is “for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.” To compete in the annual contest, participants begin writing Nov. 1 and must complete a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight on Nov. 30.

Beth Posniak, Colleen Kearney Rich, and Tara Laskowski

Laskowski, writer and editor in Creative Services, first heard about the contest from a friend as a joke, so she visited the web site and found that she liked what it had to say. “Their mission seemed to be to help people who were slow writers or were always too concerned about the kinds of things they were writing,” says Laskowski. “Basically, NaNoWriMo tries to get you to just push past all your doubts and get something down on paper. That seemed really liberating to me.”

Laskowski also liked the idea of roping other people into the contest–“to share the misery, so to speak.” So she recruited her boss, Rich, and her roommate, Posniak, to join her. All three women had toyed with the idea of writing novels in the past, but each had her own reason to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Laskowski, a second-year student in Mason’s MFA program in creative writing, has been writing fiction, some of which has been published, but never more than 30 to 35 pages. She decided she wanted to challenge herself. “The thought of writing a novel was so daunting to me for such a long time,” she says.

Rich, project manager in Creative Services, who graduated from Mason’s MFA program 10 years ago and is the mother of three (two of whom are under age five), says she still hadn’t completed a novel even after a couple of attempts. Rich says the contest appealed to her because it seemed like fun and she enjoys the challenge of a deadline. “Besides, NaNoWriMo gives you permission to write a really bad novel,” she says. “That’s something I’ve never given myself permission to do before. It made all the difference.”

Posniak, career services coordinator, Association of Writers and Writing Programs and also a second-year student in the MFA program in creative writing, says she joined in because she was having trouble motivating herself to write since starting her full-time job last July. “After work and class, I was often too tired to get any work done,” she says. “I thought the 50,000-word requirement would provide some incentive.”

Finding the time to write was a creative process in itself. For Rich, it involved putting her kids to bed a half hour earlier. “Fortunately, the month coincided with the end of daylight savings time, so they never knew,” she says. “I would write every night after they went to bed.” Posniak and Laskowski would write for a certain amount of time and then treat themselves to a movie or a snack. Setting quotas and having the long Thanksgiving weekend also seemed to help them complete their novels.

Rich’s novel, The Stars We Once Were, is the story of a single mother whose son wants the only thing she can’t give him–a father. She says it is a book that she has wanted to write for a long time. While writing it, she says she learned more about herself and her writing in the first three days than she had learned in years. She plans to continue working on the novel. “I’m tempted to start the next draft without ever reading this one–just forging ahead with what I’ve learned about the story and the characters,” she says. “In April, I plan to go to novel camp (yes, there is such a thing) to work on it with professionals.”

Posniak also plans to continue work on her novel, The Gingerbread Closet, the story of a 15-year-old boy who lives on a northern Michigan Christmas tree farm. “His parents are trying to compete to make one of their larger trees the national Christmas tree while fighting to keep their farm,” says Posniak. “At the same time, his best friend is plotting to blow up their high school.” She says that the NaNoWriMo experience has changed her writing goals. “I never thought that I would write anything but a literary novel meant for adults,” she says. “I still want to do that kind of work, but thinking about this book as a young adult novel has really opened my mind to other projects.”

Laskowski based her novel, Leaving the Light On, on a character from a short story she had written several months earlier. In it, she addresses the issues that 20-something women face after graduating from college and joining the real world. Although she wasn’t happy with the resulting work, she did find the experience helpful. “I feel like I got my first one out of the way,” she says, “and I learned a lot of valuable things about plotting and pacing and how that differs from writing shorter fiction. I also realized that it is important to write consistently and on a schedule,” she says. She is already planning her next novel, which she hopes will become her thesis for her MFA. “I think for this next novel, I will have a better plan when I start, and even if I don’t stick to it, I will take my time and think carefully about where it is going.”

All three women would recommend the contest to other aspiring novelists. “You learn a lot about your work ethic and the writing process,” says Laskowski. “I think the important thing is to have fun writing and not to take it so seriously that you never write anything.”

For more information on NaNoWriMo, visit the web site; to read excerpts from the novels, go to the site and click on “Winners!”

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