If you could tell any story, what would it be? And how much of your life would you give up to tell it?
These are the questions thousands of people the world over are asking themselves this month as another round of NaNoWriMo - or National Novel Writers Month - kicks off.
During the 30 days of November we NaNoers will try to write a novel - flat out, no editing, no angst; just us and our lap tops, blatting down almost 2000 words a day.
We'll write in our lunch breaks, on the train home, after the kids have gone to bed or the flatmate's turned off the telly.
We'll write anywhere, anyway; squeezing those words out of ourselves like blood from the proverbial.
The goal is to win. And you win by writing 50,000 words in 30 days.
At least, that's the plan.
I'm almost nine thousand words into my novel - a period romance set in a place I've been only once, with characters I don't really know yet, doing things I have no actual experience of (not the least of which is capturing the attention of a potential life mate). And nothing has actually happened yet. That 50k seems very far away right now.
The period I've picked is the American Wild West, naturally, because until I started this project I knew absolutely balls all about it, apart from what I'd gleaned from an early fascination with John Wayne (thanks Dad), and an ex who was obsessed by Ennio Morricone.
I knew there were Native American cultures that got the short end of the White Imperialist-Expansionist stick on a number of occasions, and there were horses, and often there was gold in them thar hills. Also, long johns were sometimes worn while in the bath.
With what was clearly encyclopedic knowledge of this period of US history I set myself the task of telling a love story between a small town sheriff's wilful only child and an itinerant, mixed race gun-slinger mute called Bear (whose swarthy good looks I may or may not be basing on Baseball player, undies model and "actor" Tyler Hoechlin, on account of how his face proves the existence of God).
On an index card tacked to the wall above my desk I have sharpied the words "Blazing Saddles meets Brokeback/Cold Mountain". If I could ask past me what the hell I meant when I wrote that, I would.
Apparently index cards are important for writing novels. I don't know what for, but all the writers I've started following on twitter since I hatched this crazy plan mention them a lot. I suspect it's for writing yourself reminders never to do something is as stupid as signing up to write a bleeding novel in a month.
Writing fiction is stressful. It's stressful because no matter how hard you try to sink down into the story and forget the real world, at some point your traitor brain will supply you with the idea that someone who is not you (or your mum) is going to read this eventually.
They are going to read it and they are going to judge you.
Try writing anything after that. It's impossible, you'll think to yourself. The minutes keep ticking by and Bear hasn't said anything because you decided to make him mute. Why would you do that? Why would you write a mute character? And why did you call him Bear? God, this story is stupid. Hey, how come there's only 20 days left to do this in? I hate everything starting with me.
Apparently, this kind of thinking is called being 'blocked'. Another term for it is crippling self doubt based on a fear of failure/success compounded by latent narcissism and chronic self absorption. But I digress.
Along with the index cards, lollipops and one of those squishy stress balls for pummelling, the way to avoid getting blocked like that is, according to Twitter, to do a lot of research.
I spent the month leading up to November's starts date doing research. I wore cowboy boots around the house and sat on chairs backwards. I watched The Good, The Bad and Ugly and tried not to fixate on how the Man With No Name is a way better gun slinger than public speaker. I watched Once Upon A Time In The West and failed not to be creeped out by Charles Bronsan. I listened to a lot of Palace Brothers and Songs:Ohia. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford was in my DVD player almost constantly. Mostly because I love it, but also because there's something mellow and romantic and eerie about the way it was shot that I would dearly love to be able to capture in words. I chewed stalks of grass. I remembered the Alamo while wearing a stetson. I said "y'all" at every opportunity.
In short, I went Daniel Day Lewis on the Wild West's be-hind (Yeah, I watched There Will Be Blood too, but I'm writing a romance and it really didn't help).
What I learned was that the wild west was surly, unwashed, and most of all creepy. And not really a safe place for ladies or people of colour. Sadly, none of these things make for a good romantic setting. And yet a brief nose round the books shelves at my local Whitcoulls assured me me that romance novel readers still really, really like Cowboys. And Indians. And Wolves, bizarrely, but whatever, I can stick wolves in my story. I have 50,000 words to make up. I'm going to need wolves at some point.
They also like their characters to fall into accepted, gender defined roles: He must be brusque, a little cruel, and dark of eye and mien. Bear had that in spades, because he was mute. Mute and mean and bearing more than a passing resembalance to an undies model.
She must be wilful, clever and prone - despite all this - to capitulate to her broody lover's whim at a moment's notice. Didn't the Queen of Romance Barbara Cartland (whose picture is up next to the index card above my desk) once describe the ideal romance heroine as being able to speak 15 languages and not say 'no' in any of them? Good to know, Babs! I can write a hussy! Sure I can!
So, I am sitting at my computer staring at a blank screen watching the little clock on my desktop tick through the minutes. There's no squeeze left in my stress ball and the lollipops have run out. But even though Bear has not yet met the object of his manly, stoic and possibly brutal affections, and the wilful offspring of the best darn sheriff a gold rush town in 1800's California could ever hope for doesn't even have a name yet, I'm not worried. I have a stack of index cards ready to go, and almost nine thousand words about wolves and snow and sitting on chairs backwards already down. It's a start.
I'm sure my heroine's name will come to me eventually. Maybe I just need to watch another Sergio Leone film and put my stetson back on? Why not? I've got heaps of time yet, after all.
It's not too late to sign up for NaNoWriMo or just give some support to local NaNoers. Check it all out at their pretty little website and then tell me below what you'd write in 30 days?
- Kapi-Mana News