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Freshman finishes first novel in 29 days

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, November 30, 2007

It may not be the next great American novel, but at least it’s done.

Starting at midnight on Nov. 1, Notre Dame freshman Kaitlyn Conway set out to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As a participant in the National Novel Writing Month competition, Conway joined thousands around the world in a feverish attempt to create a work of fiction by midnight on Nov. 30.

Conway has been writing “The Name Game,” a futuristic crime story, in between classes and homework. At 5 p.m. Thursday, more than 24 hours before the deadline, Conway surpassed the necessary word count by 113 words, bringing her page total to more than 90 pages on Microsoft Word – the equivalent of a 175-page published book. She said finishing felt “fantastic” but that it feels “really weird” to be a novelist.

“I haven’t started calling myself that yet,” she said.

This is her first completed novel, but the third time Conway has entered the contest, held by the National Novel Writing Month organization, nicknamed NaNoWriMo. She tried it in eighth grade and again during her senior year of high school.

Last year, she wrote 17,000 words by the deadline. This year, she said, she was determined to finish. She remembered times, though, when 50,000 words seemed like an insurmountable objective in just 30 days.

But Conway said she never lost sight of her goal.

“I was determined,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m doing this.’ I didn’t think I was going to make it for a while this past weekend because I was so behind. I didn’t have any time to work, but then I started cranking stuff out, and I was like, ‘I’m golden.'”

Conway only had about 38,000 words written Tuesday evening. But she was confident – and rightly so – that she would finish by the deadline.

“I’ve had 5,000-word days for the past two days,” she said Tuesday. “So I’m going to make it.”

Writing at a consistent pace, a NaNoWriMo contestant should produce 1,667 words a day. Sitting down and writing each day to meet the word count goal was the biggest challenge, Conway said.

“There would be some days, when I was like, ‘Yeah, I have time to write from here to here,’ and then something would come up and I wouldn’t sit down and do it,” she said.

Writing the novel didn’t get in the way of her school work or her social life, Conway said. She speculated that could be the reason she was so far behind in the word count at the beginning of the week.

Freshman Emily Craven, a friend of Conway’s, also set out to write a novel for the NaNoWriMo contest. Craven’s story, about two men just out of college who go on a drug run across the U.S., was 18,000 words long by Thursday evening.

She said her new goal for tonight was to reach the halfway point, 25,000 words. She plans to finish the entire novel before Christmas.

Craven said she was a little disappointed she could not finish by the deadline. She said other commitments got in the way of her writing.

“But I have hope for next year,” she said. “And I am going to continue writing this story. I’m still really excited about it.”

Craven said the hardest part of writing was coming up with new material, as her characters attempt to make it to California, ticking off drug dealers along the way.

Conway and Craven estimated about 20 people at Notre Dame, both graduate and undergraduate students, participated in the NaNoWriMo contest. During October, the freshmen put up signs around campus to encourage people to join them in their novel-writing expedition. Seven or eight people responded, they said.

During November, Conway and Craven occasionally met with five of the respondents to write their novels together.

They also went to a writing session held by the South Bend chapter of NaNoWriMo writers at the Barnes and Noble in Mishawaka. Mostly older adults, but also some graduate students, were at the event.

Conway said she thought the writing sessions helped her brainstorm the direction of her story.

“It’s nice to be able to be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about here,’ and then someone else may know,” she said.

Conway sent her story to NaNoWriMo’s Web site Thursday for a final word count validation. The site announced her a winner and displayed a certificate with her word count for her to print.

Conway and Craven said their friends have asked to read their novels after they are done. Conway said she will put her novel aside until January, when she then plans to edit it.

“I think it has moments where it’s pretty good and then moments where it’s pretty horrible,” she said. “It’s a first draft.”

Will Conway and Craven be writing another novel next November?

“Definitely,” Conway said.

“Absolutely,” said Craven.