Writing sessions encourage aspiring novelists

A rough calculation in the Peninsula Clarion newsroom estimated that local reporters publish around 30,000 words per month. Other local writers are attempting to complete 50,000 word stories before the end of November in a literary challenge called National Novel Writing Month — given the bulky abbreviation NaNoWriMo. A few are coming close.

National Novel Writing Month was started in 1999 by San Francisco freelance writer Chris Batys, who gave the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel — roughly the length of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk — in a month. It has since grown into a worldwide event, with 325,142 people taking the challenge in 2014, according to the official website. One of those writers is Kenai resident Ryan Marquis, who has spent this November writing The Century, a science fiction novel set during a generation-spanning spaceship journey.

“I chose science fiction because it’s the genre I’m most familiar with,” Marquis wrote in an email. “I’m an avid space enthusiast and therefore have a decent amount of knowledge about how to create a space-based setting… Humans are at the very beginning edge of being a space-faring species, so there’s a lot of stories that can be imagined about our future beyond Earth.”

With the research required for scientifically-accurate science fiction, the genre may seem like a self-defeating choice in a challenge focused on putting words to the page, but Marquis said in his case this isn’t so.

“If I didn’t have a lot of knowledge already about space science I would have probably spent way too much time researching to successfully complete such a novel in a single month, but my story takes place in a setting that I’m comfortable enough in so that I don’t need to spend time figuring out how to make it believable and accurate,” Marquis wrote.

According to the challenge’s official forum, there are at least four participating writers in the Kenai-Soldotna area. Some of them have met for writing sessions at the Soldotna Public Library, organized by Youth Librarian KJ Hillgren, who is writing her own novel this month — a historical fiction set in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.

In Seward, Tim Morrow organizes weekly group writing sessions for his community of six to eight novel writers, who are working on memoirs, fantasy, adventure, romance, a coming-of-age-novel, and a steampunk story.

“We don’t get a lot of writing done at the write-ins, mostly because we’ve been writing hard all week,” Morrow said. “It’s more just being like ‘I’ve run into a problem, what would you do here?’ And people throw in their two cents, and I see a lot of things worked out that way. I see a lot of people clear their hurdles with collaboration. That’s what I enjoy most about these write-ins.”

Morrow also organizes a mid-month lock-in for the group at the Seward Sealife Center and a concluding party at the end of the month. After taking a break in December, the group meets monthly the rest of the year to revise their novels.

Morrow’s novel this year, The Lightning Brothers, is a mostly realistic coming-of-age novel with some ambiguous magical realism.

“The kids may or may not have superpowers, the way I’m trying to write it,” Morrow said of his characters. “I want the reader to be unaware: is this about superpowers, or is this about people who just think they have superpowers?”

With four days left in the month, writers are in the final stretch of their projects.

“I’d say 30 percent are on track to finish,” Morrow said of the Seward group.

If Marquis makes the goal, it will be his first completed draft since he began taking the challenge in 2011. As of Wednesday morning, Marquis’ The Century had 42,010 words, according its page on the NaNoWriMo website. Marquis wrote that he typically works on it for an hour each day, in two half-hour blocks, with a little bit more on the weekend. With this schedule, he’s averaged 1,680 words per day.

The writers participating have varied aspirations for their work after the month is over. For Morrow, who wants to publish his fiction, the event is a chance to wrench out a draft that can be polished later.

“I think the most powerful aspect of NaNoWriMo, what helps me the most, is that the crazy goal inspires you to leave your judgement, your own self-judgement, behind,” Morrow said. “So for a month, you get it out no matter what, no matter how stupid you tell yourself it might be, and at the end you have something you could shape into something that’s not bad. It’s usually not the greatest when it comes out, but just the fact that you can get a beginning, middle, and an end down without abandoning the project — I think that’s the most powerful aspect of the event.”

Marquis is less definite about whether he will prepare his draft for eventual publication.

“All of my previous NaNoWriMo drafts have thus remained unfinished,” Marquis wrote. “… I’ve never submitted any of my novels to publishers because I have yet to finish a first draft, let alone the many re-writes it would take for me to feel comfortable sending it out.”

For him, the event’s value has little to do with publication.

“Whether or not I completed the minimum 50,000 words or if no one other than myself reads what I wrote, it doesn’t matter,” Marquis wrote. “All that matters is that I have proven to myself that I can create something that never existed before. The world will never have enough novels. Everyone has at least one story to tell, even if they never tell it to anyone other than themselves.”


Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com

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