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One Way Out of Gym, the mystery of a murdered gym teacher, is not a timeless classic. It’s a novel that spent zero weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List. There’s only one copy—I published it myself. Few care about Detective Charley or the gym teacher’s demise. But that doesn’t matter. These are my characters, in my novel—I care.
They exist thanks to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Every November, people worldwide struggle to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I was 15 then, and had written maybe 50,000 words in my entire life. Writing so much in a single month seemed impossible.
Yet I was attracted to the challenge. So, in late October, I toted a notebook wherever I went, making flowcharts of events and lists of characters, planning my assault on NaNoWriMo. This was when I met my main character, Detective Charley, who chased down cheating husbands and the occasional murderer. Charley was fictional, but that didn’t affect our friendship.
When November finally arrived, we really got to know each other. I came home from school each day eager to develop our relationship. I wrote quickly, wondering how he’d solve his case.
After the second week, I began to tire. On some days the words flowed naturally, but on others a measly page took forever. Not meeting my self-imposed word quota on one day meant more to write the next. The November 30th deadline was stalking me. Detective Charley was struggling, too, interviewing suspects to no avail. It was grueling, but we both soldiered on.
Somehow, I reached the 50,000-word finish line a day early. Happily, Charley found his murderer at the same time. I celebrated our mutual successes with a cupcake and a whole night of sleep. Charley rested in his Word document.
I remember describing my novel to a classmate, accidentally referring to Charley as “my friend.” I laughed, but there was truth to my slip. During NaNoWriMo, my characters were my friends. They were with me every day, whispering ideas in my ears as I sat in class, sharing their deepest secrets. I wrote on the train home so I wouldn’t forget their stories. I even kept a notebook at my bedside in case they appeared in my dreams.
The following year, NaNoWriMo again seduced me, and I wrote yet another novel. Imagine: me, author of two books! NaNoWriMo pushed me to write incredible amounts. It put me on a deadline and showed me the value of cranking out a first draft without worrying about perfection. Save that for the rewrite.
Writing novels is like having your own universe. At my computer screen, I am all-powerful. I tell my characters what to do and how to live. I can make them fall in love, get filthy rich, or die painfully.
Granted, when I step away from my keyboard, I am once again mortal. All authors are, but that’s the point: it gives me perspective. After all, too much power corrupts.
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