These essays are strange beasts. I plan each month’s installment, convinced I know exactly what I’m going to write about. Then something else comes along and hijacks my words. I was going to write about what can happen when someone asks you to read his or her manuscript. I even started writing that article. Then, in the shower yesterday morning, my brain said, no, write about something else.

November is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, an annual challenge in which writers are encouraged to write an entire book (defined as 50,000 words) in 30 days. In the past I’ve shrugged the idea off as absurd. When I see the “word” NaNoWriMo, two things enter my head. First is Robin Williams doing his Na-noo Na-noo thing from Mork and Mindy. Second is the British Columbia city of Nanaimo.

In spite of my past disregard for the concept, this year I found myself in an interesting place as November approached. I knew I was going to deliver the third draft of a novel to my agent before Halloween, and I figured it would take him the better part of a month to get back to me with comments. So I had some time on my hands. However, I also had an idea for a novel that has been haunting me for months. Every chance I got I did piecemeal research, collecting printouts, saving web pages, etc.

For no explainable reason, I decided to regard NaNoWriMo as an opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great, I asked myself, if I could grind out a rough and dirty first draft while my agent is reviewing the other book? How fun it would be if he sent me back the file one day and I turned around the next and said, oh, and what do you think about this?

In the abstract it seemed like a good concept. My main concern was that I would run out of story. I had a general feel for the shape of the book, but hadn’t yet worked out all the details.

So, during the final week of October, I did something that crystallized the book for me. I use that word deliberately, because in my day job, I am a crystallographer. When you dissolve a solid in a liquid—for example, sugar in water—and let the solvent slowly evaporate, you eventually reach the saturation point, where the solvent holds as much of the solid as is chemically possible. (The exact amount differs for each solid/solvent pair.)

However, before the solid starts coming out of solution, it needs a seed. A spark. It can be something as simple as a speck of dust, a scratch on the beaker wall or, in one possibly apocryphal example, the acoustic shock from a scientist’s donkeylike braying laugh. Once the crystallization process is initiated, it proceeds at its own rate, turning the random assembly of molecules in solution into crystals, which are probably nature’s most orderly creations. Not everything in nature tends toward chaos.

End of science lesson!

In late October, I opened a blank document and started typing what I knew about the story. A concept similar to the the self interviews David Morrell suggests in his workshops. A lot of what I wrote was deep background, material that will never make it into the novel as narrative, but which informs everything that occurs. The other major component was a set of character studies. A quarter-to-half a page each, outlining who they are and some of his or her past. What he or she wants. I also jotted down a few signpost events that I anticipated taking place during the book, and chose the setting.

The entire document was no more than four pages long, and wouldn’t qualify as an outline in even the most generous definition of the word, but by the time I was finished, the novel crystallized for me. It was all I could do to keep from getting started right away. I forced myself to wait for November 1. The novel started forming out of the ether.

The only thing holding me back was time. Each day I wrote, filling up every minute of my available time. During the first week, I did 1500-2500 words per day. On the second week I was on vacation and had several hours-long blocks of time when I wrote 5000-7500 words per day. If I hadn’t had to eat, sleep, and be sociable, I might have written the whole thing in a single days-long sitting.

Here it is, just a smidgen past mid-month, and as of today I’ve reached the month’s goal of 50,000 words. However, the book isn’t finished. I might get it done by the end of the month, but that’s no longer important. I was determined to write 50,000 words in November, and I found out that I could—and then some. Next week I plan to take a road trip for three or four days to explore the setting to get some local color and detail. On some of those days I might get no writing done at all. On others, I might have another of those splendid 5000+ word days.

What’s my message? Damned if I know, except I have a renewed respect for being prepared to write a novel rather than just floundering around looking for a book’s direction day by day. This preparation took two forms—weeks, perhaps even months—of cogitation. I wrote nothing down, but I did research and rolled ideas around inside my head. I was dissolving those molecules in the solvent and then at some point I put the whole thing aside to reach saturation. When I was ready, I did a very brief but intensive final prep that initiated crystallization—creating the loose outline.

Writing this book has been an interesting and exhilerating experience. Without a rigid outline, each day is discovery, but with a set of guideposts established up front, I don’t feel like I’m blundering around in a blizzard trying to reach my destination.

Will I write the next book the same way? I can’t say for sure. Each one is different. The NaNoWriMo approach is working for the current project. The previous book involved a lot of blizzard blundering. The next one might be some combination of the two.

So I guess what I wanted to say is this: There is no end to the surprises this writing life throws our way. The challenge as a writer is to take advantage of each surprise, each new experience, and to ride the wave when it comes your way.

In the final analysis, how a particular book came about and what the creative process looked like doesn’t matter. What matters are all the pretty crystals that grow, the fruits of our labors.

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