Writing the Great American Novel

Before I chose the slightly more pragmatic career of being a journalist, I had dreams of being a novelist. Early in my college days I realized that since I am not independently wealthy, and because I enjoy eating, every day, I was not prepared for the difficult life of a novelist, and at the time, journalism held the promise of somewhat steady income. I still dream of writing fiction, but after years of training myself to report facts and attribute quotes, I wonder sometimes if I have the capacity to fabricate, and let my fancy take flight.

Of course, writing is writing. The ability to construct fluid prose is at the heart of both fact and fiction, and the capacity to be imaginative and original is also central to both, though in different ways. Perhaps most importantly, both genres require keen observational skills and the ability to “show, not tell” (the aspect of writing that I probably struggle with most). I know deep down that I have the potential to write fiction, so writing a novel is really a matter of having the discipline to put in the work to do so.

Several years ago, my sister told me about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a project to inspire people to write a novel in the month of November. The idea is to write between 1,500 and 2,000 words a day, every day, from November 1 to 30 – not worrying if it is good or not – so that by the end of the month, you have produced a 50,000-word novel.

When I first heard of this, I scoffed a bit, because in a month’s time, one would almost certainly have 50,000 words that were spectacularly awful to read. However, the book The Happiness Project made me think differently about this. Author Gretchen Rubin talks about the importance of having the courage to try something new and challenging. She also writes about how engaging in a creative activity inspires further creativity.

And, of course, forcing oneself to write every day, even if the initial product is not so great, helps one to refine the craft, since the only way to write better is to do it all the time. I read Rubin’s book last year and it inspired me to delve into a writing project I’d been mulling over for quite some time. I took some time to jot down some notes about the story I’ve been contemplating. And then I got distracted with other responsibilities.

I hadn’t thought about my “novel” in months, until my friend Mordechai Luchins, in a Facebook status update, reminded me about NaNoWriMo. “I should do this!” I told myself. I didn’t actually sit down to start writing until November 4, and that day I wrote about 500 words, which you will note, is far less than the daily minimum required for NaNoWriMo. All the rest of the month I kept thinking that I would get back to writing, but I never did.

A pessimist would probably say this was a failure, but we all know that writing is a process (sometimes an extremely long one!). Taking the advice I gleaned from The Happiness Project (I will probably mention the book again on this blog because it really helped “unstick” me in various ways.), the way to succeed at any massive and imposing task is simply to start and then work in small increments, ideally every day, to reach the goal.

I’m not there yet. I’m still summoning the power to be disciplined enough to truly embark on this task. However, I have started the process, ever so slightly.


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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer susanjablow@gmail.com

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