My forthcoming novel Ripening the Times began as a 2012 NaNoWriMo project. For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is celebrated by the personal challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month—the approximately length of a novel. I had started writing a novel in 2001—a manuscript that languished throughout the significant changes and upheaval in my life in the intervening years. The NaNoWriMo organizers suggest that rather than picking up an old project, writers should begin a new manuscript with a fresh idea. Start at zero words and write something new.
My original writing idea was to have a set of three novels in which a group of characters overlapped. Each novel would focus primarily on one or two characters while the others made cameos or provided plot support in minor but significant ways. I have since abandoned that notion, but in 2012, it was still alive and well, and I chose from my cast of characters the protagonist I would use for this new project.
I completed the challenge that year, logging 50,000 words in the story by the time the clock struck midnight on November 30. I was pretty excited, and in looking over my work, I was happy with much of it. A plot was forming, and I had made a great start in fleshing out my characters and deciding where the story should go and what was left to tell.
Fast forward to Monday, March 28, 2016—three and a quarter years later—when I finally typed “the end” on the first draft of this novel. Those have been some agonizing years, and the truth is that much work remains before the manuscript will even be ready for an editor or a word-level revision. But I am celebrating the completion of the story, the fact that I began at point A and ended up at point B—the only plot points I really had when I sat down to begin the challenge in 2012—and have a complete story arc in hand to mold, shape, and I hope, perfect into the work I ultimately want to share.
The writing process is and has been difficult, of course. As the months rolled by with what seemed like little progress, I frequently became discouraged, losing hope that I’d ever finish. I was reading books on craft, the fiction of other writers (some of them prizewinners), and general advice on plotting, character development, pace, voice. Though interesting and helpful, this input also bewildered me as a first-time novelist. To often I compared my writing to the writing of others, read reviews of other writers’ fiction on Goodreads (why?!), lost faith in my story and my writing, regained faith in both, and fantasized about just killing every character in the book. Then I settled on acceptance of this manuscript for what it was: a first draft. A chance to get the raw materials of my story together in one place so they could be used together to build something solid.
At some point, the estimated number of remaining chapters dwindled to a figure countable on two hands. Then, as I neared what I thought would be the last of those chapters, I had to keep adding one more, and one after that. And another! This delay only added to my impatience to finish, yet I knew I had to let the story come out in whatever first draft form it was going to take. I agonized over the ending for months. I second-guessed the epilogue for weeks. I made furious notes in previous chapters—in my writer’s notebook, in Evernote, in Scrivener—about needed changes and improvements that revealed themselves as the story wrapped up. Someone is going to have to locate and collate all those ideas now and make sense of them. (Hmm…)
Some of the scenes and chapters are already destined for the chopping block, reformulation, or folding into others chapter where they’ll fit better. But that’s second draft territory, revision. (Getting a better system for my keeping track of global revisions, ideas, and suggestions on the fly is also on my to-do list.)
On the positive side, I became excited as twists and turns emerged both in the story itself and the writing process. Although some parts of the synopsis originally conceived for the book remain accurate, the true focus of the story evolved from a larger-than-life romp through extralegal activities aimed at liberating animals to a more personal story of relationships, ideas, loyalties, and family. Characters devised for supporting roles emerged as voices that needed to be heard more frequently, and several of the scenes in the story and ultimately some of the turning points were complete surprises to me.
The best feeling was reaching a place in the story that necessitated a change to the first chapter, the book’s “hook,” because I realized that the novel was starting to come full circle. To “begin at the end,” as they say, you need to know the end, and when my beginning suddenly clicked into place, I knew I was almost done.
Just for fun, here’s the original synopsis I used for the NaNoWriMo challenge in 2012:
Born on Earth Day in 1975 and raised by radical environmentalist parents on a small farm in south central Pennsylvania, Tortie Kennedy is no stranger to animal and environmental justice. After her first act of economic sabotage goes horribly awry at the tender age of 12, Tortie’s parents offer her a deal: stay out of trouble until you’re 18, and we’ll teach you everything we know. With an expunged record and a bulletproof fake identity compliments of her well-connected father, Tortie reaches adulthood free to follow her conscience and her heart, which she’s given to a fellow activist and friend. She finds her niche in the dusk-to-dawn world of direct action accompanied by acquaintances old and new until a shocking loss and a government informant threaten to unravel everything.
The next part of the journey will begin soon. But this week, I’m going to bask in the completion, despite its rough form, despite not knowing whether the story works, despite all the doubts and misgivings still floating around in the background and waiting to pounce the minute I return to those words on the page.
For now, it just feels good to reach the end. For the longest time, I thought I never would.