Write a Novel in a Month? Rutgers Grad Was Up for the Challenge
National competition drew a quarter-million writers from all walks of life
Sharae Allen-Martin doesn’t do marathons – not in the conventional sense, at least. But the 2008 Rutgers graduate recently completed the literary equivalent of a 26.2-mile run, writing an entire novel – 50,461 words – in 30 days.
The personal challenge was part of national movement known affectionately to its participants as NaNoWriMo.
For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month, and its rules are deceptively simple: starting from scratch, write a 50,000-word piece of fiction online between November 1 and November 30, upload it for official validation, and then pat yourself on the back.
Or, as Allen-Martin did, blast the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” on your computer really, really loud; shout “I did it!” and post “I feel like throwing glitter” as your Facebook status.
The longtime Asbury Park resident, who now lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing and drama at the City University of New York, was no stranger to the rigors of writing.
She’s the author of two other novels, as yet unpublished. One Hundred Top Hats, for young adults, features a girl who wants to be a magician; Under the Hula Moon tells the romantic tale of a woman who wins a trip to Hawaii and goes on holiday with her BFF/crush. But the demands of NaNoWriMo took the discipline to a whole other level.
“That first day, looking at the empty screen felt daunting. It was my fourth try in the competition, and I didn’t finish the first three times. It was like jumping without a safety net,” says Allen-Martin, who majored in communications with a minor in English as an undergraduate at Douglass Residential College.
“I worked out a schedule where I set out a chunk of time every day. Either I’d get up at 6 a.m., or I’d do it at night. But I was at my computer and I didn’t get up until I had 2,000 words.”
She had plenty of moral support from fellow scribes around the country.
Launched on a lark in 1999 with 21 writers, the project grew to 140 participants by 2000, and boasted 5,000 the following year. For 2012, more than 256,000 writers from all walks of life signed on.
The Oakland-based nonprofit Office of Letters and Light sponsors NaNoWriMo, encouraging fledgling writers and veterans alike with online pep talks, colorful badges to download to their personal websites and – perhaps the best incentive of all – lists of previous contestants whose entries have found favor with publishing houses large and small.
Fingers crossed, Allen-Martin says, See a Penny, Pick It Up will have similar success.
“I’m hoping it will represent a fresh new voice in the field,” she says of her creation, whose main character, Annabelle, is a classic “good girl” – a mayor’s daughter, no less – who yearns for excitement and tumbles into a love affair-cum-art heist adventure. It’s part romance novel, part thriller and all off-beat and kooky, Allen-Martin notes.
“In all my writing, my characters are curious – to learn, to discover, to find out. That’s the underlying theme that runs through all my books.”
A graduate of the master’s in creative writing program at the City College of New York, she’s known from the age of 5 that writing would be her passion; she picked up her first writing award in elementary school at the age of 8. In 2006, the Rutgers English Department honored her short story, “Long Before the Snow Fell,” with its Edna N. Herzberg Prize for Fiction. She won it again in 2008 for another short story, “Adoption.”
Allen-Martin adores the work of Virginia Hamilton, whom she describes as one of the most celebrated African-American writers of young adult fiction around, and of Sherman Alexei; and she considers as her Bible the writers’ guide Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.
Her repeated message to students? Don’t be afraid to try anything in your writing; you never know what’s going to work.
There are times when the going gets rough during NaNoWriMo, Allen-Martin will admit, days when 6 a.m. just seems too early to drag oneself out of bed and start breathing, let alone creating.
“I learned that you might invite the muse for breakfast, but she’ll show up for a late-night snack,” the author says ruefully. “That’s why I always keep pen and notepad by my bed and in my purse. When I got inspired I wrote, and when I couldn’t think of anything to write, I worked on other things, such as correcting students’ papers.
“I made sure to get those 2,000 words written, even if I had to handwrite them. “
And would she do it again?
“Definitely, without hesitation. It’s all about the joy of knowing I can take a risk,” Allen-Martin says. Much as her characters do in all her novels.