This article originally appeared in The Express Tribune’s T-Magazine in print and on their web edition.
A sense of jubilation permeated the Desi Writers’ Lounge (DWL) online forum as writers in Pakistan announced their victories during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November. The euphoria was well-deserved as each participant in the global competition had to write 50,000 words during the course of the month.
“I think it’s still not sunk in that I have won!” exclaims Farheen Zehra, one of the winners, who is also the DWL city representative for Karachi.
Her post shows her obvious delight at writing “a full-fledged story with characters who have their own distinct personality and voice”. The most illuminating part of her post was perhaps her statement, “after all these years I finally sat down and wrote”. A common affliction among aspiring writers is that they do not even try, and overcoming that obstacle day after day is understandably a cause for celebration.
Other participants chime in about crashing at the end of their endeavours, the rewards they presented themselves and the daunting task of editing that awaits them.
Twenty-one writers from Pakistan achieved the target, with the group of 113 active registrants from the country writing 1.6 million words during the month, a significant increase from the year before.
The support system
In 2015, the official NaNoWrimo Municipal Liaison for Pakistan, who goes by Slay Belle, collaborated with DWL to form a support group for local writers. The group stayed active on multiple online forums, sharing ideas and tips while encouraging each other to achieve the goal. Belle and DWL also organised weekly write-in sessions at T2F in Karachi, giving participants an additional boost.
“The aim of the weekly write-in sessions was to provide writers a quiet and suitable place where they could work on their manuscripts undisturbed for two hours. Writing together always helps generate a sense of community, which in this case was crucial for a high-pressure activity like NaNoWriMo,” says Zehra.
“Participants who were lagging on their daily word counts would get motivated by seeing their peers working on their novels. Also, the write-ins gave our participants the opportunity to interact with the municipal liaison and discuss their stories with her and other participants,” she adds.
“I know about seven people who completed the 50,000-word challenge and several others who were in the 40,000 region. It was all made possible because we had an official liaison officer this year, who is an excellent guide, and [because of] the DWL writing sessions,” says Wasio Abbasi, a first-time winner, who only managed 5,000 words in 2014.
The sentiment is shared by Saulat Qadri, who began to rework a novel that he had shelved after penning down 30,000-40,000 words a long time ago. Through the support of DWL members, he rediscovered the urge to resume working on his narrative.
Of murders in Karachi and rogue characters
The impetus to write comes from many sources but for many of the NaNo cohorts who frequented T2F, their inspiration — unsurprisingly — stemmed from Karachi. Qadri says, “Karachi is the biggest motivation” for his story, which is strongly connected to the experience of growing up in the city.
“The city, despite uncountable acts of violence, still survives and thrives, and that is what I want to capture in my story,” says Abbasi, who is writing a sci-fi/mystery thriller set in Karachi.
“There is a mysterious chain of murders that put the whole city on edge, resulting in gang warfare the likes of which Karachi had never seen before. The city, by virtue of the multitude of criminal and militaristic outfits, is an ideal setting simply waiting to explode on the slightest spark,” he says, elaborating on the concept of his book.
One of the recurring themes in conversations among the aspiring novelists at the T2F write-in sessions was the attachment they feel with their characters, which are not merely the product of words on paper but almost sentient beings who in some cases act of their own volition.
“Your characters don’t always evolve as you imagine, one character all of a sudden goes rogue (doing all the things he/she wasn’t supposed to do) and that changes the entire storyline. My main character suddenly turned into a Sindhi nationalist and started arguing against Allama Iqbal and I had to let it continue despite completely messing up the entire storyline in the process,” says Abbasi.
For others, the urge to write comes from a more visceral source.
As Ayesha Abdul Razzak says, “Writing is a way of exploring myself; I get more in touch with feelings I have about people as most of my characters are based on people I know in real life or have dreamt about.”
It’s these frustrating aspects to novel writing — whether it’s the development of a new plotline or the pain of dealing with fictitious humans who frolic to their own beats — that perhaps necessitates the existence of a strong support network.
“I think writing in a group, occasionally, makes you realise that you’re not the only crazy one out there who is so passionate about the written word. Sometimes you need feedback from others about your work. At other times you need words of encouragement and motivation. Sometimes, you just need a person to talk to you who will completely understand how an imaginary person (your novel’s character) is giving you sleepless nights!” says Zehra.
The struggle begins anew
Although November was a resounding success for many, the new year presents a different set of challenges — mainly rewriting and editing. Since the aim of NaNoWriMo is producing in bulk while silencing one’s inner critic, writers are wary about plucking out the vestiges and fine-tuning their body of work.
To help the local community with its post-NaNo journey, Belle and DWL plan to continue organising workshops in Karachi. Meanwhile, the online workshops on the DWL forum continue to function for those seeking help with the various aspects of writing and editing.