Not far from where I live, on the South Fork of Long Island, 107 eighth graders at the East Hampton Middle School are racing to complete first novels by the end of November. And these fledglings represent but a fraction of the 45,000 youngsters who are taking part in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which commenced just after midnight on November 1st.
In a communication addressed to parents, (“Have you heard the great news? Your child has decided to write a novel….”) The Office of Light and Letters, the non-profit that runs the event, offered practical advice for the care of the young artist, who will be in friendly competition with students ages five to seventeen from twenty-eight countries around the world, including a cohort of diminutive scribblers from Kazhakstan. (Prose coming from all quarters – stand back!) The note closed with a run-down of the essentials, explaining that while the adult contenders must grind out 50,000 words to be declared “winners,” the children may choose the length of their work. All any of them have to do is finish.
Since 2005, when NaNoWriMo inaugurated its Young Writers Program, the East Hampton school’s entire eighth grade class has participated in this creative endeavor, which will ordinarily produce 50 to 250 page manuscripts on deadline. (The new novelists’ combined output – 485 titles by one teacher’s estimate – occupied a corner of the library until the space was remodeled two years ago, when an administrative decision was made to pulp the lot.)
Last year, having reached an impasse with my own first novel, I dropped in on the eighth graders during the last days of NaNoWriMo to see if I might learn something. Everyone was typing away, including the math teacher, who, I discovered to my alarm, was also writing a novel. Meanwhile, fuelled by secret supplies of leftover Halloween candy, the kids were sneaking up on denouements and endings. At lunchtime, a knot of refugees from the cafeteria retreated to an empty classroom plastered with helpful notices (“Hook the reader!” “Say something catchy!”), to discuss their books before cramming last cookies into their mouths and returning to imaginary lands.
“I’ve been so caught up in finishing, I totally forgot about a title,” confided the auspiciously named Sedona Hoppe-Brosse, a pretty thing with masses of curls, dressed from head-to-toe in lavender. The imminent author of a 140-page Word War II drama had conceived a plot involving an Alsatian great-granny who marries a German soldier in Vichy France at the expense of her reputation.
Ms. Hoppe-Brosse, who spends her summers in Alsace and cites the comic book Astérix et Obélix as a great influence, learned of her relative’s travails from her dad. “But the book isn’t true true, because I changed tons of stuff,” she emphasized, as she pondered how to wrap up a story which in real life did not end well.
Meanwhile, her friend, Sarah-Jane Lynn, way ahead of the game, had just finished the second volume of “The Criminal Hunters Agency”, a projected trilogy about a female detective “from a poor city in Belgium” whose services are retained by a lady seeking “good and solid proof!” that her husband is having an affair.
“What makes you think that?” said [the detective], opening a fresh page in her notebook.
Ms. Lynn, now thirteen, was born and reared in France. Like a modern-day Colette, this young writer composed much of her oeuvre in bed while listening to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” “I’d really like to see the series made into a feature film, with the cast of NCIS playing the roles,” she enunciated in the careful lilting English she had learned from watching “Barney” videos.
Then there were the romantics, the creators of Odysseus-like adventurers who long for their wives and their homelands, triumphing over road accidents and shark attacks and plane crashes that leave them far from the known world. “Augie and Sophia were arguing in a sense of love and passion,” wrote a thirteen-year-old boy of letters whose novel of ideas opens with a grabber: “The snow is covering the hills of Montauk and the ocean is frigid. Life is slow and dreadful. A baby is about to be born and Augie is summoned to Australia to help cure a disease. Who knows what will happen next.” (As it happens, that unborn child has a daunting problem: he is nine months pregnant.)
There were small surprises, too: A plot summary — “The monkey got caught and put in the zoo.” — lovely in its brevity, which brought to mind Hemingway’s famous six word story about the baby shoes; and random insights born of misspelled words, as when the teenage heroine of a political thriller stumbles upon a copy of “Jane Air” in a Dubrovnik bookshop. (Dubrovnik? “Travel is a huge part of my life and writing is a form of travel,” observed Cosima Scheflout, a long-limbed beauty chewing a wad of blue bubble gum, who solved the problem of getting her characters in and out of three foreign countries by giving them a yacht).
But the boldest vision of all, alas, was perhaps a failure. Daisy Kelly, a British expat, essayed a personal diary of a Yeti but abandoned the project after her parents scuttled her plans to mount a research expedition. Realizing the inherent challenge of narrating an entire novel in the voice of a “shy yet determined” creature that she had little hope of ever glimpsing, she contemplated turning her lament for a vanished and possibly mythological beast into the story of a village felled by plague. However, a schoolmate pointed out that the latter tale was too similar to the plot of a well-known… ”Book?” I interrupted. “Movie,” said Ms. Kelly firmly. And so, with the ruthlessness of a true pro, she refashioned the material into a murder mystery, and brought the story back home.
(Image: Brainstorming supplies, image from mpclemens’s photostream)