I wrote this article in December 2004 for Happy Camp News. It is about how I got started writing novels.
December 2004 – Happy Camp News
Writing a Novel
by Linda Jo Martin
For the last month I’ve been writing a novel. Every November since 2001, the year after I moved to Happy Camp, I’ve written a novel. Before then I only dreamed of writing novels. I desired to write them, as if it were to be the apogee of my existence.
Since around 1980 I attempted to write novels. I know now that nearly every novelist goes through this. I’d start a novel and write a first chapter, maybe an outline, maybe a little more. Then I’d quit.
How could anyone get through such a gargantuan project, I wondered. Library shelves taunted me for they are full of novels, both long and short. There are hundreds, no, many thousands of novels, and nearly as many novelists. How did they get their start? How did they manage to write two hundred consecutive pages in one story line?
Novel writing seemed mysterious to me, but I wanted to do it.
My first novel writing attempt came when I was about thirty, right after I read the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like so many others, I loved those books and it occurred to me that she’d just told the mundane details of her impoverished, prairie life.
I can do that, I told myself.
I decided to write about a girl named Jenny, growing up. Each chapter would be about a year of her life. I knew about children, I was sure, because I had three of them by that time.
Well, let me tell you, I may have known about children, but I didn’t know much about writing. By the time I got through about ten pages I renamed the story Jenny’s Boring Life and abandoned the manuscript.
I still have it. I dutifully filed the writing in a manila file folder with the appropriate title. And I vowed to someday try again once I developed a less boring story. Perhaps something with a little plot.
The next novel attempt was about a girl living in Mesa Verde – a member of the mysterious Anasazi Native American tribe which nobody seems to know the fate of, other than that they mysteriously disappeared. I figured I could write about this culture and its demise, making up my own theory for its disappearance, and nobody would be able to disprove my revisionist plot. It would feature adventure, romance, and a spiritual relationship with wolves involved.
I wrote several chapters and decided I was on a roll. Then I let Gilbert, my ex-husband, read what I’d written. Being as he was normally a critical person it was natural that he would point out the flaws in my writing. He guffawed a bit as he explained, via his superior knowledge, that Native Americans didn’t have horses prior to the Spanish invasion. Since he was a descendant of Yaquis – a tribe that lived south of the region I was trying to write about – I decided he must know what he was talking about. I was convinced my writing was trash and I never wrote another word on that manuscript. I went back to my normally scheduled housekeeping, cooking, and baby raising, and vowed to try again someday.
Years later I read about ancient horse-like fossils found all over the North American continent – in places like Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas. I couldn’t help but feel sad that I’d allowed my ex-husband’s criticism to devastate the enthusiasm I’d felt over writing those novel chapters, especially since it turned out he was wrong. Maybe early North American horses finally disappeared at the same time the Anasazis did. I may finish that story still, with or without horses. I liked the plot at the time and carefully filed it in my thickening stash of early writing attempts, where it remains to haunt me to this day.
A few years later I attempted a novel called Groveland – set in the locality of that town, a diminutive village south of Sonora, California. I’d been there. I figured I could write about it just fine. I got a couple of chapters out of that idea. And a few years later, I started one called Escape. That was my first mystery novel attempt based on the idea that since I’d read dozens of mysteries I could possibly write a decent one. After four chapters it too was abandoned.
When I arrived in Happy Camp in January 2000 I was still just a wannabe novelist. I’d started several other novels. Most recently my attempts were all aimed at the middle-grade children’s market because at the time I was reading those kinds of novels to my children by the dozens for their homeschooling literature studies. I fell in love with the genre.
After about six months in Happy Camp I felt that yearning return. I just had to write a novel. This time it would be about a girl living in Happy Camp during the early years of this town. I love local history and the historical novel genre. I’d lost confidence in my ability to write, but figured if I tried just one chapter at a time, possibly it could happen this time. Hope springs eternal. I wanted to memorialize this beautiful town in writing to give future Happy Camp children something fun to read about how the town got its start.
Once again, after a few chapters I got discouraged and quit writing. I noticed this time that my writing was better and the plot was worth holding onto. I even took time to drive to Yreka to spend a day researching in the Siskiyou County Museum. I noted their file on Happy Camp was thin and I learned a few things, but nothing I could use to help write the novel which had taken on the working title, River Girl.
Another abandoned novel writing attempt. I was discouraged, but like most wannabe authors, I never gave up.
NaNoWriMo – a month to write a novel
Then along came NaNoWriMo. I read about it on someone’s weblog. You could sign up to write a novel in just thirty days during the month of November. This was in 2001. The thought of writing an entire novel in thirty days appealed to me but of course I had no evidence I could do it. I noted that the site owner and some of his friends succeeded in 1999 and 2000 – and it sounded like fun to write a novel with a group of other wannabes.
I signed up.
I still remember after an October 2001 Chamber of Commerce meeting in Happy Camp, talking to the Chamber’s president, telling him I couldn’t work on the Chamber’s web design project until December because I planned to write a novel in November. Or at least try to. How cautiously optimistic I was that day!
Going into NaNoWriMo 2001 was a scary thing. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to write about. I decided it had to be totally imaginary since I would be so busy writing I couldn’t take time for research.
I tore a paper into eight slips. On four of them I wrote places. “San Francisco Bay Area.” “Here.” “San Joaquin Valley.” “Lake Tahoe.” It had to be places I’d been enough to know well and write easily about. On the other four slips of paper I wrote times. “Now.” “1800’s.” “Middle Ages.” “Ancient Times.” Then I chose one slip of paper from each category and ended up with “Here,” and “Ancient Times.”
Using that information I researched online to learn how to develop novel plots. By October 31 I had a vague idea what my novel would be like. It would be about a boy named Raoli living in the Klamath River Valley in times so ancient that they would pre-date the Karuk Tribe. Of course all traces of my imaginary civilization would by now be obliterated so there could be nobody telling me I got the facts wrong. I also had a bit of plot to guide me but no written outline.
On November 1, 2001 just after midnight I looked at the blank page of my word processor, and wrote the first word that came to my mind. “Panic.” I was so desperate to write a novel, but so afraid I might fail. I resolved to write 2500 words every day just in case there were some days that I didn’t write any. The minimum number of daily words needed to succeed at NaNoWriMo is 1667.
Seventeen days later I was a winner, meaning I crossed the 50,000-word NaNoWriMo finish line and succeeded in writing my first novel. The Scribe of Irohila is in its third revision as of this date, December 6, 2004. I like the story and plan to submit it to a publishing house soon.
That turned out to be so easy, I decided to finish one of my many abandoned novel starts. I chose to finish the mystery novel, Escape, and finished it in December 2001. After that I burned out and floundered but by the following November I was again ready for writing. Every NaNoWriMo since 2001 I’ve managed to write a novel.
Last January I decided it was time to try writing my River Girl novel again. I still wanted to write this as a gift to Happy Camp, to acknowledge the time I’ve spent here in some long-lasting way. I had a seventeen-chapter outline but stalled after fourteen chapters due to pressures from my web design business.
Working with a writers’ group online, one I joined in 2002, I signed up for a “Loose Ends Challenge” project for December 2004. The first loose end I wanted to tie up before the end of the year was River Girl. I printed out my fourteen chapters and read them out loud to a friend. Since he isn’t into reading fiction at all I was very impressed that the manuscript kept his interest for eleven chapters. Then he desired sleep and I had to read the rest to myself. But I liked the story! That felt so encouraging.
I’m happy to tell you I finished the first draft of River Girl yesterday. It has a wonderful ending that surprised even me. It is a middle-grade children’s novel, and compared to the other novels I’ve written is very short, but it’s the perfect length to submit to the middle-grade children’s novel markets. I planned it that way.
Revisions come next. I plan to do the first edit at the end of December while I’m still excited about the project.
In closing I’d like to say – whoever you are, whatever it is your heart nags at you to do – follow that call. Believe in yourself and know that your dreams can someday come true. Keep trying. When you get there you may discover, as I did, that it really wasn’t that hard after all.