Inside INK, Outside Nanowrimo


THIS YEAR I participated in a nation-wide event known as “National Novel Writing Month” or “nanowrimo.” Essentially, I pledged to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November, an average of 1,555 words a night, about three single-spaced pages.

I found out about the challenge from a good friend who’d done it a few times before. A combination of sophomore slump and wanting to prove to myself and to the world that I could do it, led me to try. I didn’t want to fall into the perpetually expanding category of poseurs in the industry – those who spend more time talking about writing than actually writing.

The website for Nanowrimo, where one has the option to upload a section of one’s novel and chat with other writers, provided a graph so I could track where I was in terms of word count and compare it to where I should be if I was going to finish on time. Along with the line that tracked my progress was one that condescendingly displayed where I should be. My race against that stagnant streak pushed me to write more than I ever could have imagined, more than making up for it when I had to miss a night.

At first, each night’s work would take me around two hours. Each word was carefully selected, the characters vividly painted, and dialogue was fast-paced and witty. My protagonist was, on the most basic level, an older version of myself whose flaws I mercilessly condemned the way one can only do to one’s self. I placed her into high-risk situations, scoffing at her poor decision-making and thinking to myself how much better I would have done. In school each day I thought of her, bored out of her mind, stuck behind my computer screen, waiting to see where I would take her next. Her boredom mirroring my own as I struggled to get through my second year of high school, and wished my life were as exciting as hers. Each night I opened my computer with nervous vigor, well aware of where I was starting though not entirely sure where I wanted to go. As the minutes turned to hours it pained me to Apple-save when it was finally time for the rings under my eyes to pull me into bed.

Excerpt from “Ink”:

Standing on the corner and half convinced she was about to be brutally murdered, Harper thought about the meaning of the word forever. Something about it seemed impossible for most humans to comprehend. To Harper, forever didn’t mean immortality. It wasn’t something achieved by drinking from an ancient fountain at the end of the earth. Forever came one day at a time, and lasted a different number of days for different people. To say something would last forever the way Gavin had promised was bound to be a lie. You can wish to want the same thing every day of your life but in the end it’s something beyond our control. All one can really do is let life happen and have faith that things will inevitably work themselves out.

The second week was less exhilarating. Each day I would think about writing; where to take my protagonist, who she’d meet there, and which new characters or plot points to introduce. But when it came time to write my mind was dry, every word a challenge to select. Things that seemed so simple in the play space of my mind did not come as easily on the page. Scenes that were purely visceral came off as melodramatic. The protagonist that was once a version of me exhibiting all my delicate flaws had grown further from my image. She was annoying. She made terrible choices and complained way too much about things that were ultimately her own fault in the first place. Had she not been the sole focus of my book I would have killed her off and laughed as I did so. In fact, I began to pull the focus away from her, dedicating certain chapters to lesser characters. To amuse myself, I began to write short scenes from my own life into the pages of my book, introducing a few characters based on my friends or people who happened to be getting on my nerves on a particular day.

The third week I checked out completely. My protagonist traveled on her own while I spaced out in front of the computer screen listening to my fingers tapping away at words that had probably ceased to be coherent minutes ago, but I didn’t care because I had other more important things to do and besides it didn’t matter if it was good; after all how many sixteen year olds would actually be willing to sit down and write a novel? After zoning out completely for what felt like hours at a time I was always surprised to find the situations that my characters had gotten themselves into. At the end of one night I realized a secondary character had a split personality – something I thought was clichéd and overdone and I judged myself for. Another night I realized that I’d spent almost a page writing about the goings on of my own day – which of course I tried to tie back into the novel for a good twenty minutes before giving up and deleting the page entirely. I’d stopped caring about how it sounded. It became about finishing, and only that.

Excerpt from “Ink”:

She thought back to all the forevers in her life that had already come to an end. All of the childhood best friends who had disappeared over the years, all the people who had let her down, all the times when it felt like the end of the world, all the times when she had forced herself to pushed through. Death was the only thing one could promise would last forever. There’s no going back after that, no reconciliation, no hope that things could change. In that moment Harper decided she would forgive everyone who had ever hurt her or let her down. If she was going to die, she wanted to do it with no regrets.

By the fourth week, I had become really good at listing things. To get my nightly word count where it needed to be, I would advance my story through epic lists of items present in a room or emotions traveling through a characters head – things that, if I were to come across in my own reading, would cause my eyes to rotate in a circular motion at their lack of necessity. Characters met for lunch and talked about little things that had no real importance. My protagonist took up drawing so I could use up words describing each pencil line she dared to sketch.

The transition from loving my main character, to being annoyed by her, to despising her every hope, dream, fear, thought, breath, and step, happened gradually. At the beginning I loved her quirkiness and offbeat sense of humor. By the end I was irritated that she dared to take up so much of my time and was so ungrateful for it. It was only the steadily increasing word count that kept me going.

Truth be told, however, when the last word had been written I was happy for my protagonist. I was happy she’d had such a crazy life with an ending that was more sweet than bitter. I was happy she was happy. On the final day I realized that from the beginning I had no control over what happened or what was going to happen whatsoever. My sub-conscience was the one who got to determine that, no matter how much I resisted. And like myself, my character was a stubborn girl who was going to do what she was going to do no matter what anyone else – even if that person was myself – tried to do or how they tried to control her.

Excerpt from “Ink”:

Stacy was already over an hour late to pick her up, and a figure who she hoped was homeless and not just horribly groomed was getting closer. Whoever it was had the bulky shape of one who was wearing multiple layers of clothing, though it was too dark to see any specific features. Harper clutched the mace in her purse as tightly as she could and pressed herself against the wall.

            “You lost?” the voice was deep and almost familiar.

            “Gavin? Jesus Christ, you almost gave me a heart attack.”

Once the process was over, I basked in the glory of having an hour of new time each night with nothing to do. I caught up on television shows that had been neglected, talked to friends I’d ignored, even got some fresh air. But as time passed I began to miss it. I missed having something to force me to write every night – falling behind on my own independent work without it. I learned the value of a deadline, which proved to be both a curse and a blessing.

Though the significance of my work is not that I created a modern day Catcher in the Rye or the next Lord of the Flies – in fact, the final product is hardly better than terrible – but that I managed to push through something difficult for no reason whatsoever. I’m never going to show the work to anyone, and to be honest; the idea of ever looking back at it on my own is a stretch. Though atrocious as it is, I can’t help but feel a tinge of pride when thinking of how many hours I had sunk into the project, and the story I created from nothing.


About Emma Silverman

Emma Silverman is a junior at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan. Emma is a playwright, short story writer, essayist, and novelist. She has won multiple scholastic awards and was a finalist in the Young Playwrights National Playwriting Competition.
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