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Local Novelists Find Inspiration In Numbers (And Words)


Nov. 18, 2015 By Laura A. Shepard

This is a story about people writing stories.

It’s about a group of people who gather at the Astoria Panera Bread on Tuesday nights with one mission: to write 50,000 original words of prose fiction by the end of the month.

That’s more than 1,600 words per day in November.

They’re participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, an annual creative writing event whose participants aim to write a 50,000-word novel during November.

Teresa Hussein has been at it for 13 years and serves as a municipal liaison volunteer, meaning that she coordinates with establishments for space. Unofficially, she also serves as a cheerleader, fundraiser, dictionary/thesaurus and hand massager.

Hussein started writing because the author of a web comic she loved stopped posting updates, explaining that her grades were dropping and she was forbidden from continuing. She posted a link to the NaNoWriMo website.

Hussein clicked through to see the website’s tagline: “Are you a one day novelist, as in one day you’ll write a novel?

“It occurred to me that I need to do this,” Hussein said. “If I had the time to read, then I had the time to write. I was so addicted to this thing I’d been reading, written by a child who’d just been grounded off the Internet, on my lunch hour at work.”

Hussein said she writes what she reads: mysteries, science fiction and fantasy.

Most people at Panera Bread worked on laptops or tablets, but Hussein said that there are some who still prefer paper. Others attach keyboards to iPhones and one Brooklynite even used a typewriter.

By last Tuesday’s write-in, many participants had already written about 18,000 words.

“Writing keeps you busy because the goals are intense, but it’s also a stress reliever,” Hussein said.

“Some of it’s social,” Hussein added. Many participants said they decided to write as a way to meet people and build a social circle. Some had recently moved or returned to New York City and didn’t know anyone.

“I love write-ins because you can literally sing out, ‘I need to kill someone in less than a page,’ or, ‘how do I murder someone in 500 words?’” Hussein joked. One time, she sought to kill off a pregnant character, but save the baby, so she bought drinks for the person who advised her on how to do so believably.

“I would literally kill my boss in my novel every year, until I had a really good boss,” Hussein, who works as a product manager for a software development company, said.

The Rego Park resident says that Queens lends itself as the backdrop to her stories and that landmarks such as Forest Park, Austin Street and the Queensborough Bridge pop up in her work.

The year the group agreed to all write zombie novels, Hussein set hers in a derelict Long Island City warehouse with a view of the Empire State building, which was illegally used as an “office,” but really contained a bio-lab.

In his tenth year writing, Sunnyside resident Mel Walker is writing a fictional tale called “Riverdale: The Gentrification,” about the conflicts and challenges of a community facing gentrification. He swears that his Riverdale is a fictional place, not the one in the Bronx.

“There’s an underworld element to our work here,” he joked.

He explained that there are two types of writers: plotters, who take outlining very seriously, and pantsers, who write by the seat of their pants. Walker has experimented with both and this year he is doing a combination of both.

Walker appreciates the structure of NaNoWriMo, which forces him to write from beginning to end. He’s always written to completion and even written upwards of 85,000 words. By last Tuesday, he had 18,000 words down.

“You’re not going it alone,” he said, due to the community support and online tools.

He described going to the “Desperation Libation” event — a last ditch attempt for some people to reach 50,000 words on time — at a Manhattan bar on the last night of November one year. Walker had already finished his novel, but went anyway.

He smiled remembering “all these people in a room typing away and cheering when they finished.”

Melissa Iuliano is participating for the first time, after chickening out last year.

“I never tried to tackle 50,000 words before,” she said. “I usually write in little bursts.”

Iuliano was writing a novelization of a comic series she is working on with three plots that weave together.

“It’s like ‘Love Actually,’ but with demons,” she said. “It’s plucky, but dark.”

Iuliano and her sister signed up for NaNoWriMo together and have been supporting each other through the process. They’re also inspired by the NaNoWriMo success stories.

NaNoWriMo started in a San Francisco basement in 1999 and became a nonprofit in 2005. Since its inception, 324 books have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” and Erin Morganstein’s “The Night Circus.” About 155 writers have self-published.

Iuliano works as a fashion receptionist during the day and said she wishes that there were “something like this every month for different things.” She noted that there was a 24-hour comic day on Oct. 3.

Hussein explained that the goal is to produce, not perfect.

“First drafts only have to exist to be perfect,” she said. “There’s no editing allowed, unless you’re going back to add words.”

Josh Whitman was working on a young adult fantasy story, with monsters and goblins and elves.

At 16,417 words, he only had 250 more to go to reach the day’s goal.

He reminisced about writing in school, where assignments regimented first drafts, editing and peer review. Classmates read each other’s work and there was some communal accountability.

“This is a commitment held by myself and other people who’ve made this commitment,” Whitman said. He’s currently working in tech, but his goal is to be a writer.

He said that even when he hits 50,000 words, he’s still unlikely to have a publishable book, so he plans to have NaNoWriMo make one proof-copy of his manuscript and then keep working on the story.

“The story is emerging as I go,” Whitman said. “I planned ahead, but it’s completely off the rails now.”

Jenny Slife and friends

Jenny Slife and friends at work on their novels

Astoria resident Jenny Slife is writing a fantasy story, “the empire falls apart, magic, that kind of thing,” she said. “I like fantasy because I can make things up.”

Slife began attending write-ins when she moved to New York and found them fun and motivating.

The nine-year NaNo vet had 17,826 words. The first year she did it, she was roped in by a friend who persuaded her to write about a world the pair invented when they were 10, where a coalition of aliens from our solar system strove to defeat Pluto, the mortal enemy. As 10-year-olds they decided that their teachers were all from Pluto.

Slife does not have “lofty publishing goals” and admitted that she has a tendency not to finish her stories, but one day she hopes to have enough for a proof copy.

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