One Million Words… and Counting

This is my 20th year participating in National Novel Writing Month. Every November since 2002 I have challenged myself to write at least 50,000 words of a novel.

Every year so far, I’ve succeeded.

Today, I reached a significant milestone. Cumulatively, NaNoWriMo, has allowed me to write 1,000,000 words.

November 6, 2022. Author Charles James has cumulatively written over 1,000,000 words directly through participation in National Novel Writing Month.

For the record, my millionth word is somewhere this sentence:

Hey, I get it,” Raddock said. “This ain’t easy. That’s why you chief engineers make the big bucks.”

I was kind of hoping it might come out in a sentence that was more dramatic. But I’ll take it.

In the Beginning

NaNoWriMo Logo circa 2002 courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

I started National Novel Writing Month back in 2002. Back then I was working on my PhD and really didn’t have the time for something so ambitious. To hit 50,000 words in a month, someone like me needs about two hours per day to dedicate strictly to writing. That’s a huge commitment when you’ve got a candidacy to prepare for, experiments to run, code to debug, and academic papers to write. But writing is my constructive down time that allows me to be fully engaged and focused in all the other things that I do. So I gave it a go.

My first NaNo novel was an origin story about a ninja who worked for the mafia. The story fell on its face at about word 50,001, but I had fun writing it. In 2002 the NaNoWriMo website was pretty basic, but it allowed people all over the world to cluster together in regions where local “municipal liaison” (ML) volunteers would schedule meet ups. That first year I was so excited to finally start meeting some other writers, but I think we only had one event, and like my novel, it kind of fell on its face.

2003 was the year NaNo really took off in my local region. As October 2003 rolled around, I realized I was looking forward to November. And I mean… who looks forward to November?

The website had forums and on them, people were getting excited. I had an idea for a science fiction series about interplanetary marshals and bounty hunters. We had a new local ML who organized planning sessions and then, when November hit… write-ins! To anyone who hasn’t attended a write-in they must seem particularly odd. Back in 2003 we would all have been huddled around in a restaurant with clunky laptops all taking turns plugging into one available outlet, and quietly pounding out words. Then every twenty minutes or so, boisterous laughter.

Making Time

NaNoWriMo is not about producing a quality book, at least not in November. Writing that much, that fast, you can’t. (Or at least I can’t.) But what it does allow you to do is exercise your creativity as a writer. Over the years I have written science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers, action-adventure stories, steampunk, horror, and stuff that doesn’t really fit well inside a genre box. Overall I’ve learned about crafting a story, not just the knowledge of “how” to do it, but what come from all that writing (and feedback when sharing the work) is the development of the skill in applying it. Knowledge and skill are two different things. It’s important for writers to have both. You can gain knowledge from courses, from reading, from conferences, etc. but skill… skill comes from doing.

In 2005 I successfully defended my PhD, started a new job as a post-doctoral researcher, got married… and still won NaNoWriMo.

From 2007 to 2009 I completed a clinical residency in medical physics. It’s called a residency because you more-or-less reside at the hospital. I also wrote my national certification exams… and I still won NaNoWriMo.

2010… my first child was born. I was a new dad. I also commissioned a new cancer center, including setting up two new nuclear accelerators and a CT simulator… still won NaNoWriMo.

2014… fellowship examination. I was now the father of two young children and a senior medical physicist…. still won NaNoWriMo.

From about 2016 – 2019 I volunteered as the Municipal Liaison in my city. I organized prep-parties, write-ins, and TGIO parties. I was even there a few times when no one showed up… and I still won NaNoWriMo.

Could I have been doing something more productive? Yes and no. I mean sure, I could have put that time into research, starting a business, etc. But writing is my constructive down time. Other people play music, paint, draw, do computer animation, build Lego, etc. Constructive down time makes you more efficient, more engaged, and more resilient against burn out. Once you start seeing it as necessary, it’s no longer a “waste of time” but an investment.

Writer to Author

Last year, in 2021, I took a major step. I took a manuscript I had been working on for a while. It wasn’t a NaNo novel per se, though many elements of prior NaNo novels come together in it, and I scraped together some extra money and hired a professional editor… shout out to Adria Laycraft. I had been workshopping this novel with my writing group for some time, but I decided to take the plunge. With a couple rounds of critical editing, I formed my own company, Megavoltage Publishing, and in June, I released my first major science fiction novel, First Command.

First Command by Charles James

The reviews have been incredible. The book has been consistently in Amazon’s top 200 of Teen and YA Space Opera novels. And the success has allowed me to start working on a sequel, which I began writing as a NaNo novel last year. Black Hole (stay tuned for release date info) is now going through its final revisions and I plan to release it in early 2023!

A Note of Thanks

I’d like to close with a note of thanks. Thank you to the team at the (former) Office of Letters and Light, now the non-profit group National Novel Writing Month. Thank you to the sponsors and donors whose generosity keeps this craziness running year after year. Thank you to all the people who volunteer as Municipal Liaisons, and those who support them, for all of the time and hard work that they put into local events and helping writers to connect. Thank you to my own community of writers, and those communities I have had the privilege of being a part of over the past 20 years. And of course thank you to my family and friends for always supporting me.