Writing Hacks: The Jack Kerouac NaNoWriMo Hack

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

You’ve heard of NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month, when folks all around the world write a novel in a month. Sound ridiculous? It is.

It’s also hackable.

The basic hack is easy: you’re not writing a novel, you’re writing a first draft. A first draft can — and probably should — be a big, ghastly, throw-everything-at-the-wall mess of inspiration, courage, drudgery, and bad grammar.

But we know that. The real hack is far sneakier.

Here’s a story you know: Jack Kerouac, father of the Beat Generation, taped together 120 feet of tracing paper cut to fit into his typewriter, and wrote the American classic On the Road over three weeks of fiery inspiration. An amazing feat for the style Kerouac dubbed “spontaneous prose.”

Except that’s not the whole story.

Here’s Sarah Stodola’s from her Mental Floss article The Fact and Fiction of On the Road:

In 1947, while still working on his first novel, The Town and the City, Kerouac decided to next write a novel about the American road. In the following years, he would traverse America several times in service of that project. The first explicit reference to On the Road came in August 1948, when Kerouac referred to the novel by name in his journal: “I have another novel in mind—‘On the Road’—which I keep thinking about: two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, coming all the way back hopeful of something else.”

Over the next few years Kerouac would write outlines and sketches for the book, rearranging characters, swapping this story out for that one, taking trips on roads all over North America, and developing a prose style to match the spirit of the road he loved.

When Kerouac finally started the draft, he had all that preparation with him:

When he sat down in April 1951 to type the scroll manuscript, Kerouac had on the table beside the typewriter a list of reference points for himself—events, descriptions, and themes that served as writing prompts over the following weeks.

Kerouac wrote more than 120,000 words in three weeks — a heroic feat of discipline and inspiration to be sure, but one that wouldn’t have been possible without years of preparation.

Which is how you hack NaNoWriMo.

It takes work, but it’s totally doable. Buy Fast Fiction from Denise Jaden and do everything she says about preparing for November: gather characters, get clear on background and setting, choose a POV — all of it. Just do everything she says. Ten minutes a day over a couple months will do it.

Then, in November, free write the entire first draft. 2000 words a day and you’re not allowed to stop for anything.

And if you think all of this will make you work lack inspiration or energy, just think of old Jack Kerouac and his 120 foot scroll.

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1 Comment

  1. Zachary Saile

    Don’t forget the Benzedrine and bop records!

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