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November is always a tough month for me. The days get dramatically shorter. My weird leaf-mould allergies come out just as the most beautiful orange and red leaves are all over the ground in this city, just when I most want to kick through their crunchiness and inhale that scent — that scent that is probably the mould that makes me sick. There’s Remembrance Day, which is serious business and gets me thinking big serious thoughts about the costs of the wars we just keep on fighting, no matter how often we say we know better. There are also some important birthdays of people I care about. (Five of my social media friends have birthdays today alone. What is it about November? Or more accurately, what was it about February for their parents?)
In 2011 and 2012 I did NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing month, which means trying to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The first time I did it because I was starting a new life in a lot of ways and wanted to remind myself I could write, and it looked like a really tough challenge. I remember how hard I had to work to get to the 50,000 word mark, and that my apartment got messier and messier as the month went on, and I got stiff and pudgier, from hunching over the keyboard all the time and living on a diet that was mostly Hawkins Cheezies.
I opened a bottle of Champagne when I hit 50,000 words and came to the ending of my book, late one night. I might even have cried a little into my keyboard with relief and pride at finishing.
In 2011 I was a “pantser” — that is, I wrote by the seat of my pants, with no plan or outline. I just had one initial scene, and went from there. It was intense and scary and satisfying to try to write a whole book that way, and to my surprise, it didn’t come out all that badly.
In 2012 I decided to try something different. About four days into the process I started to outline some scenes I would need to get me through to some kind of ending. I made decisions about alternating characters’ points of view. And I managed to get to the end again, and once more opened Champagne and shed a few tears over the keyboard.
In 2013 I took a break. I was just tired that fall, and I didn’t have ideas. I decided I didn’t want to start something if I didn’t feel like I could finish it. I just didn’t feel like it. Okay.
This year I decided to do it again. I warned people in my life, I knew my place would get really messy. I stocked up on Cheezies. I spent most weekend days in my pyjamas hunched over my laptop.
And I didn’t outline, and I didn’t have a first scene either, when I started. This time I only had the end I wanted to get to. It was going to be a lot like the ending of NaNo 2012, but this time with some different characters and in an alternate reality, a modern-day Canada with a better political and social makeup than what we have in real life. This was my big idea after a year of worrying and feeling very discouraged about poverty and injustice, about climate change, about pipelines coming through my neighbourhood, my own deep unhappiness with different levels of government in my country, and then — light bulb! — reading the latest Lev Grossman Magicians novel, followed by Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
So here’s what I asked myself: What if the world was pretty much as it is right now but Reaganist and Thatcherist type economics had never caught on in Canada? What if the west coast First Nations people had real ownership of Vancouver Island? What if we had a few different technologies, like driverless cars? What if Wicca was just as accepted a religion as Christianity in our country? What if sea monsters really had been seen, but not lately? What would that look like?
Today is November 29th, and as I write this at 2:00 pm I have hit my 50,000 words with this new story about an area on Vancouver Island I’m calling Seadragon. The premise is that a family and some old friends are going there for a holiday, and like everyone else who visits, they hope to see the sea monster that gave the place its name. The difference is that this group: three kids, some parents and a couple of other adults, might be the ones who bring back the Seadragon that hasn’t been seen for more than fifty years.
The first draft is done, and I’ll come back and read it again in about a month and see what if anything is worthy of revising and saving.
You never know. It just might be possible to build a better world.