The first time Rodney hears about National Novel Writing Month is when the director contacts him to ask him to write one of the pep talks. He takes one look at the premise of the challenge and then flat out refuses, citing the reason that NaNoWriMo is the epitome of everything that is wrong with literature today; shoddy writing, outrageous plots, shoddy writing, amateurs, and shoddy writing.
“Didn’t you start out as an amateur?” John asks, reading the website over Rodney’s shoulder. He thinks it seems pretty cool. Not that he wants to do it himself, but he feels a certain amount of respect for anyone who’d volunteer to take on a beast like that.
“That’s not the point!” Rodney shouts, red in the face, and then goes on to rant for another ten minutes about how good old craftsmanship just isn’t appreciated anymore.
It’s all forgotten until a few months later, around October twenty-seventh, when Rodney comes home, drops his briefcase to the floor, falls back against the door, and starts to hyperventilate, chanting, “What have I done, what have I done,” under his breath.
John manages to coax the story out of him. It turns out a group of his students have signed up to do NaNo. They started discussing it in class, asking for Rodney’s take on the challenge. A similar rant to the one John has already been treated to ensued.
Then, one of the students apparently uttered the fateful words, “You’re just saying that because you couldn’t do it.”
To which Rodney apparently responded that he could too do it, thank you very much, he just has much more important things to occupy his time with, like, for example, real literature.
The student countered with, ”Prove it.”
And now, Rodney has signed up to write a 50 000 word novel in 30 days.
* * *
“Seriously, how hard can it be?” Rodney says some time later, standing in front of the whiteboard in his study, marker in a tense grip. “I mean, fifty thousand, that’s not even a real novel anyway, it’s more like a novella. I’ll have this done in no time!”
John leans against the door frame and watches the circus unfold. In about five minutes, he’s planning to call Laura and let her in on the hilarity. For now, he just wants to engage in some quality Rodney-baiting.
“Yeah, you have four whole days to plan this thing and all,” he says.
Rodney gets a wild-eyed look and turns back to the board, on which he has written the words quantum immortality, and Shroedinger, and lots and lots of cats. His hair is standing up a little bit where he’s been running his hands through it. He’s still in his work clothes but his shirt tails have escaped the waistband of his pants, the two top buttons are open, and there’s a smudge of red marker on his shirt cuff.
John decides to put off his phone call to Laura and go over there and kiss his boyfriend silly instead.
* * *
When Laura finds out, she laughs for several minutes. When she’s caught her breath and wiped her eyes, she looks at Rodney with an expression of exasperated fondness and gently pats his knee.
“I’ll just clear your schedule,” she says.
Rodney protests that it will not be necessary. All he has to do is write 1667 words every day. He’s a professional, with years of writing discipline under his belt.
Then, November begins.
They’ve been together for almost five years now and John has grown used to Rodney’s writing habits. He knows that the research phase will result in books everywhere and dinner conversations about particle physics. He knows that the plotting phase means that Rodney will suddenly drift off right in the middle of things, like doing the dishes, or driving to work, or, on a few memorable occasions, in the middle of sex, to start scribbling down notes on the nearest available scrap of paper. The actual writing phase is pure misery for everyone involved, most of all Rodney. He’s a perfectionist, and John sometimes gets the feeling that he doesn’t write the words as much as he bleeds them out, every single letter an agonizing decision that needs to be made.
The sudden onset of NaNoWriMo means that all three phases arrive at once. ‘Complete chaos’ is a kind description.
In his novel, Rodney is planning to ‘explore the inherent uncertainty of life while taking a firm stand against animal cruelty’. John and Laura both listen politely and nod in the appropriate places. When John asks him on November third how many words he’s written, Rodney suddenly turns very quiet, and then says defensively that he has plenty of time to catch up.
John vows to be a supportive boyfriend about the whole thing, so he decides to check out the website a little closer and ends up getting stuck in the forum. He finds it hard to understand how people can find the time to simultaneously write a novel and spend that much time online. The research threads are especially fascinating. Not only do people ask questions about the inner workings of the mind of a serial killer, and the most effective ways of torturing someone, and what kind of diseases a hedgehog might contract; there are people who actually know the answers. (He bookmarks the instructions for how to build a flamethrower, just in case. It might come in handy to clear weeds. Or something.)
He also comes across some writing tips that he finds very useful and decides to help Rodney out by sharing them. When Rodney’s not looking, John sneaks into his study and adds the wise old adage When in doubt, add ninjas to the notes on the whiteboard.
When Rodney sees it, he stares at it for a long time and then gives John one of his best scowls.
“You’re hilarious,” he says. “Really, I think I’m going to die from laughter.”
He doesn’t erase the words though. John takes that as a win.
* * *
Rodney starts writing for real after five days, and immediately gets stuck. He’s let John read through the synopsis and it’s good the way Rodney’s stories are always good. It might need a little polishing, but John isn’t going to mention it at the moment.
The problem is that Rodney can’t leave a paragraph alone and move on until it’s completely without fault, and every time he reads through what he’s written the day before, he starts editing the old text instead of working on his daily quota.
“How many words did you write today?” Laura asks when a couple of days have passed.
“The number of words is not important,” Rodney says haughtily. “The quality of the words is important, and the twenty-seven words I did write today happen to form two very well-written sentences, thank you very much.
“So, how much is that in total now?” John asks, trying hard to contain his mirth.
Rodney turns his head and mumbles something inaudible.
“What’s that? I didn’t hear you, buddy.”
There is a long-suffering sigh, a deadly glare, and then Rodney says, with great dignity, “Three thousand, one hundred and ninety four.”
John picks up the schedule he printed out earlier with the intent to copy it and tack it up all over the house. “Shouldn’t you be at something like 10K about now?” he asks innocently.
Rodney glowers and returns to the study, muttering something about ‘cretins’.
* * *
John wakes up one morning and comes into the kitchen to find Rodney sitting at the table, sipping coffee, and giving Newton speculative glances. He looks like he hasn’t slept at all.
“If you put him in a box, you know he’ll never forgive you,” John says.
He’s beginning to wonder if he shouldn’t just force feed Rodney an Ambien and not let him out of the bedroom until he’s had eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. There is writer mania, and then there is this.
Rodney cocks his head and keeps giving his cat that sidelong glance that John has learned to associate with strange experiments in the name of research. The last time that happened, the kitchen was a mess, and John was the one who had to clean it all up.
“You have to wear protective gloves to get him into the pet carrier to go to the vet,” John reminds him. “There will be injuries and you’re going to spend the rest of the day panicking about blood poisoning.”
Rodney mutters something about the need of supportive family members during this ordeal, and that this should include the family members who happen to be covered in fur.
John takes Newton with him when he leaves the kitchen, just in case.
* * *
During week three, Laura agrees to let the college paper do an article about Rodney’s struggles. The reporter who comes to the house to do the interview has to be one of Rodney’s students; there’s no other explanation for the glee on her face when she sees the state of the house, the unwashed dishes, the heaps of dirty laundry everywhere, and the slightly shell-shocked expression on Rodney’s face.
Rodney spends half an hour spouting bullshit about how he’s always been eager to explore new venues of creativity. Then he cuts the interview short and retreats to his study, babbling about how every minute he spends here talking about non-essential things is a minute he can’t spend on his novel.
John, being the very kind and considerate boyfriend he is, helps out by finishing the interview for Rodney, telling the reporter about how he doesn’t dare spend any time in the house anymore for fear of being accosted with questions about feline emotions, and how poor Newton has started to spend his time in the garage, a place he usually avoids to all costs.
The reporter makes notes and giggles more and more for every anecdote John tells her.
When they’re done and she packs up and gets ready to leave, John decides to that it’s time to discuss some serious matters.
“You know, if it looks like this is going to lead to a complete mental breakdown, I will put a stop to it,” he informs her.
The reporter smiles back at him. “Of course. We really do like him, it’s just that it would feel so good to see him being taken down a peg for once. He’s a great teacher, but he can be such a jerk sometimes.”
John can’t argue with that.
When the article is printed, John carefully cuts it out of the paper, frames it, and puts it up on the living room wall. It’s partly to annoy Rodney, but mostly because of the warm feeling that blossoms in his stomach every time he reads about himself being mentioned as Rodney’s partner.
* * *
November twenty-eighth, John is having one of his sleepless nights. He spends it in front of the TV together with Lady, channel surfing and trying to tire his brain out enough to make it understand that it’s time to go to bed. Around two o’clock in the morning, Rodney comes out of the study. He’s dressed in nothing but boxers and his blue terrycloth bathrobe and stands in front of the couch for several minutes, blinking owlishly at John, as if he’s having trouble deciding what’s real and what’s not.
“Screw this,” he says finally. “I’m adding the damn ninjas.”
Then he disappears again. John wonders if it would be worth the trouble to go after him and try to drag him to bed, but considering the way Rodney has been mainlining coffee for the past week, he would probably be fighting a losing battle.
* * *
It’s a relief when the month comes to an end. Rodney has consumed countless gallons of coffee and John and Laura have shared baby-sitting duties, reminding him to eat and shower at regular intervals. Rodney swears to never do this again. John swears to never let him.
But on the first of December, there is a printed out manuscript on the kitchen table when John gets out of bed. It bears the title Meow With Added Ninjas and the under-title I Hate Everything and I Want to Sleep.
Rodney’s snoring on the couch, completely dead to the world. His laptop is sitting on the sofa table, the screen proclaiming the proud word, WINNER. John quietly turns it off, drapes a blanket over Rodney’s sleeping form, and leaves him to get some well-earned rest.
Then he sits down to read.
* * *
Halfway into December, Rodney writes an e-mail to the NaNoWriMo director, apologizing for his attitude earlier in the year. He promises to write as many pep talks they want for the coming year, on the condition that he doesn’t have to write another novel like this.
He hides Meow in the bottom of a drawer and swears to never look at it again for as long as he lives. A few months later, however, John discovers him reading through the thing, making little notes in the margin. He doesn’t say anything, but he secretly hopes that the ninjas get to stay.
Really, they were the best part.