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  • November 2011
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November Novel Writing in the Middle East

Wow!  It’s a little hard to believe that I have been M.I.A. from the blogosphere since September 18th!  That’s just a little sad, and more than a bit crazy but perfectly understandable.  Why?  (You might ask.)

National Novel Writing Month!

Those of you who know me well know that this has been my November obsession for the past 6 years.  However, some of you may have no idea what National Novel Writing Month is …. so an explanation is probably in order.  Basically, it’s a crazy writing challenge for those creative types out there who have always thought about writing a novel someday.  The official challenge is simply this:  write 50,000 words in the month of November.  This will amount to a rough draft of a Farenheit 451 or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy-length novel.  At the end of the month participants can upload their novel to the NaNoWriMo (the affectionate short-hand nickname for the group) website and their word count will be electronically validated to make sure that they did in fact write 50,000 words.  The files are then promptly deleted and if they have been successful in their attempt, winners can claim their electronic winners certificate and their sense of pride in accomplishing an incredible feat of creative-writing.

That’s it.

No assurance or even hint at publication is involved.  There is  no reading of the novel in question and providing a critique or writing advice. It’s simply a gut-level challenge to churn out 50,000 words in 1-month.  That’s 1,667 words-a-day if you were trying to do the math in your head.

People Really do This?

Yup!  As a matter of fact its estimated that 1/4 of a million of us are doing it this month.  This is no small fact when you consider that in 1999 the event basically started out as a dare among friends and there were 21 participants.  They did it again in 2000 and had 140 participants.  2001?  5,000!  Apparently founder Chris Baty and his friends had struck a creative nerve.  No one expected at that time that a decade later over 200,000 people from around the globe would be participating.

This is one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo!  It is such a fantastic example of a “00’s” cultural phenomenon.  Like Facebook …. it was something that started off as a kinda funny idea among friends and it turned into something with global reach.  It should be noted that NaNoWriMo grew from 21 participants to 25,500 by the time Facebook launched in 2004.  Technology did play a huge role in NaNo’s expansion … but before the advent of social networking as we know it today, they relied on Yahoo groups and a good “old-fashioned” bulletin board system (of the electronic variety, not cork) and chat rooms.

Another key to NaNo’s success, in my opinion was the recruiting of volunteer “municipal liaisons” to organize events in major cities around the US and later on around the world.  These volunteer leaders would put a face on the event as they met with writers in person to encourage them towards their novel-writing  goals.

So What Has my Experience Been Like?

I started back in 2005 when I was still living in the Western suburbs of Chicago.  I had learned of the event a couple of years before, but was in the midst of writing my Master’s thesis.  That turned out to be a 60,000+ word challenge of its own that kind of sapped all of my writing energy.  But with that behind me in the Fall of 2005 I decided to take the plunge and finished a 51,000 word rough draft of a novel.  I loved the idea and the main character and the process of writing, but I hated my rough draft.  It was so terrible!  Drivel.  And as my wife always likes to point out … incomplete.  Oh …. and 6 years later still unpublished.  Both moot points to me … the challenge was to write 50,000 words in a month, and I did!

Of my 7-years I have won 5, one year completing two NaNo novels for a total word count of over 100,000 words.  Two years (the year before and after I moved to the Middle East) I totally tanked.  This year … we shall see.  Today I should have 30,006 words to be on track to finish on November 30th, but unfortunately I am around 10,000 words behind.  But I like this year’s story, as well, it is about a brother and sister who accidentally get drawn into an adventure that crosses over into a world filled with trolls and faeries and other magical creatures and happenings.  Actually mostly that world gets pulled into ours.  My goal is for it to be fun and whimsical and something I can read to my kids.  So far, not so bad … but not so great either … it will definitely need some revision before it gets read to the kiddos.

Over the years I have mostly written fantasy type stories that have some sort of cross-over between the “real” world and the “fantasy” world.  I suppose this is partly because I love CS Lewis’ Narnia, but also because I think we have lost a lot of our sense of wonder and amazement at life.  It almost feels to me sometimes that technology has drained some of the magic out of our daily lives.

I’ve also tried my hand at science fiction and mystery writing.  I discovered that to write well in either of these genres requires a fair amount of research, foreknowledge, and planning.  As it turns out I may just not be smart enough to write a believable mystery or sci-fi novel.  =)

Novel Writing in the Middle East

For the past few years I have been involved in what is known as the Elsewhere::Middle East region of National Novel Writing Month.  This basically includes all of the NaNoWriMo participants spread out over the Middle East that don’t have their own country specific region (like Israel or Turkey or Egypt … although we adopted Egypt this year).  There are probably around 200 participants in the Middle East.  A lot of them are ex-pats from America or Europe, but there are also a growing number of native Middle Easterners that have been getting involved.  There are around 20 writers here in Jordan and it seems like 1/3 are ex-pats, 1/3 are ex-pats married to Jordanians, and 1/3 are Jordanians.  Actually there is also a group of about 100 Jordanian high school students who take part each year through the Young Writer’s Program!

Here in Jordan we get together once a week for “Write-Ins” at a local coffee shop.  All of us WriMos (as we are affectionately, if nerdily, called) bring our laptops and spend 3 or 4 hours writing together.  Remember NaNo is a solo effort, so we are all writing independently, but it helps being in the same room with other “crazy” people going after the same audacious goal.

One thing I have noted here in Jordan is that among the locals participants tend to be women.  This is largely true around the entire Middle East region.  There are certainly male ex-pats involved, but when it comes to Arab male participation … it is very low.  Considering the great tradition of Arab novelists and poets this seems really odd to me.  Consider the likes of Khalil Ghibrain, Mustafa Al-Tall, Elias Khoury, Zakariah Tamer, Mahmoud Darwish, Naguib Mahfouz, & Nizar Qabbani to just name a few off the top of my head.  These were all literary greats with deep intellect and creative spirit … so where are the Arab male writers of today?

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that creativity is not as a highly prized cultural value as conformity.  I wonder if this plays a role in the popularity, or lack thereof, of something like NaNoWriMo here in the Middle East.  One female Arab participant related to me the litany of questions from family members at a holiday celebration.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of simply writing for personal pleasure.  “So no one is going to read it?”  “It won’t be published?”  “Why are you doing this again?”  But in the end, even if they didn’t fully understand or even approve, they all had opinions about what she should be writing and how she should be doing it! LOL!

Well, I’ve wasted some precious time and word count filling you in on why I haven’t been active on the blog in the last month or so.  Now I should go and try to catch up on my 10,000 word deficit!  Be sure to check out the NaNoWriMo website if you are interested in the challenge.  It’s never too late.  And any Arab guys that are out there reading this … c’mon shabaab!  One of you might be the next Nizar Qabbani or Zakariah Tamer!


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