getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

  1. Kandy Crosby-Hastings says:

    I have never participated in NaNoWriMo because my fiction writing is a way I relax. However, since I do not have classes right now (waiting until January to complete my final one), I am thinking of doing it this year. I will be working on my historical fiction novel I’ve been writing for a couple of years now. I have well over 50,000 words. However, I need to fill in my gaps. Some of those gaps contain important elements of the plot.

  2. That’s great, Kandy! What’s your novel about?

    • Kandy Crosby-Hastings says:

      It is a forbidden love story that takes place in and around Liverpool, England, during the Industrial Revolution (of course) shortly after the Catholic emancipation (important to my main character’s faith and subsequent faith struggle). My main character, due to the forbidden part of the love story, finds himself working in the factories. (it is an interesting turn of events, considering he is highly educated). His work in the factories and an unlikely friendship there lead him to the tenements, where new opportunities arise.

      My main character’s wife has a rough and somewhat sordid history of her own, which eventually results in her dealing with depression and experiencing a PTSD that is misunderstood at that time. Her issues lead my main character back to his roots (while he simultaneously deals with a new temptation he never thought he would experience).

      The second novel continues from the first. My main character and his wife find themselves in London (and in much better circumstances). There they have, in some ways, run from some troubles but experience new challenges.

      The third novel will continue with their son, who finds himself in America during the Civil War. The fourth will follow the son’s daughter, who is a suffragette.

      Those are the novels, in a nutshell.

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