Writing off the top of my head is one of the hardest things for me to do. You see, I’ve been trained to always have an outline before writing; that’s what I teach my students because, well, I’m an English teacher. When I first heard of the National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo) contest back in 2009, I was immediately intimidated because I am what they call an “old school” writer; I write by hand and with an outline to guide me. But I was intrigued by this idea of sitting down at a computer sans outline and pen and just throwing it all to the wind. And, as an English teacher who was teaching formal, academic writing nearly every day of my life, I wanted to show my students my “fun side.”
And I did have an idea for a novel: a murder mystery set in an old historic black neighborhood in 1929. I told my students about it and they encouraged me to write it, and so throwing caution to the wind, I entered the NaNoWriMo challenge in November of 2009, and voila! My first book is my bestselling African American mystery/historical fiction novel, Murder on Second Street: The Jackson Ward Murders. Flash forward to 2013, and I enter the challenge again because I had this story that had been haunting me for two years. I kept saying I was going to write it, but time kept going by. But here was my chance…again. So, throwing all of my formal training to the wind, I embarked on a 30 day journey to write The Secret Life of Lucy Bosman, the story of a mulatto woman who passes for a white businesswoman in 1862 during the Civil War in Richmond, VA.
And I finished that novel too! What a profound journey it was, too! Here are five (5) things I learned about this process of writing a novel in 30 days:
1) Social Media holds your feet to the fire. Once I told my followers what I was writing for NaNoWriMo, support came in from everywhere, and I needed it because I was free-writing, basically, and I had begun to fear quitting and wondered if this story would work. And what that also did was to force me to keep my word and complete this novel come hell or high water because, well, see #2…
2) I hate to quit on a story! So, I made myself sit down nearly every night and write at least 2,000 words. I have two kids – 12 and 4 – so writing came after 10p. I was exhausted, but I had made this commitment to myself and to the story. I had to do it!
3) Fighting the urge to edit. Do you know how hard it is for an English teacher NOT to edit? What I learned from this writing process – adventure – was that if I was going to finish on time, I had to let go and just tell the story. “It’s a freaking rough draft!” I’d yell at myself when I felt myself going there with edits and revision, which then leads me to #4.
4) The art of writing is rewriting. I used to tell my students this every time they had to write an essay. The rough draft is never the final draft nor is it often very good, but it is an additional visual aid to help you get to where you want to be. This novel, like Murder on Second Street, will go through revisions. It must! All work needs fresh eyes to bring out the best in it, and to clarify transitions/storyline, character development, etc. Your writing is a reflection of you, so why not make it the best version of it/you as possible?
5) Staying connected to my muse and the story IT wished to be told. This is the hardest part for many writers: letting the story tell itself. I had to truly shut my voice down which wanted to go here, go there, with the story. But it wasn’t my story, per se. I believe very much in sitting in silence and asking my muse to guide my pen – help me to tell the story it needs to be told. I did this every time I sat down to tell Lucy’s story. They don’t teach you this in college. Storytellers are the vehicles the creative divine spirit uses to bring forth the story.
Now, I must confess that towards the end of writing The Secret Life of Lucy Bosman (both novels, in fact), I was so stumped as to how to end the work; I was at 46,000 words and mad as hell because the ending I wanted wasn’t coming. Again, I had to go ask my muse for direction. It sent me to the outline. Yes, I ended up using what I was taught as a writer and teacher to use to help usher forth this story. And that’s okay because what I learned participating in NaNoWriMo is that a writer must use all of the tools available to them: the seed of an idea, the blank screen, a pen, paper, an outline and a strong support system. Oh! And did I mention wine? No? Are you sure? Never mind.