RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Mary Grace, on task, wrote 50,000 good words in a month

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

FISHTRAP HOLLOW – Mary Grace, whose name fits, has been coming to this old house since she had baby teeth and wore clothes her mother chose.
She’s headed to Ole Miss in the fall, with her blond good looks, lithe and long legs and academic scholarship. I find it hard to believe.
Just yesterday this kid used to play in my branch, or eat hot dogs on the porch while the grownups solved the world’s problems. She has slept on quilts on the floor here, or fallen asleep in her father’s lap as Christmas carols evolved into late-night rock and roll.
She turned out exceedingly well, despite my occasional influence.
Last fall Mary Grace told me about a high-school senior project she wanted to tackle. She was to participate in National Novel Writing Month, something devised to promote literacy among teens. Sounded good so far.
The goal was to write 50,000 words in one month, roughly 1,667 words per day. If you don’t think that’s a lot of words, try it one day. Then try it again the next day.
This wasn’t to be written in that pidgin Latin that teens use to text, either, but correct language and complete sentences.
I assumed this typing frenzy was to demonstrate that if you sit down and put your mind to it, you’ll eventually have a book-length manuscript, if not a book.
I struggle with my few hundred words per week, so initially I had my doubts. But Mary Grace’s email explaining her project had a postscript: “I already have over 16,000 words written.”
At first I thought this was unrealistic, writing anything that long and so quickly that made any kind of sense. Then I remembered Ernest Hemingway wrote the first draft of “The Sun Also Rises” in eight weeks, and it was 60,000 well-chosen words.
Mary Grace already had her idea, too, which for anyone – Hemingway to Harlequin – is the hard part. Three adult women who haven’t seen one another in the 30 years since high school have a reunion. The tension necessary for a good plot is built into that situation, trust me.
So I agreed to be her “mentor,” using the term loosely. This girl did not need my help. She had an idea, lots of jumping-off words and the discipline of a Carthusian monk.
She finished. Of course she did. I have seen a small part of it. The fictional dialogue was better than anything I could have done. I know, because I’ve tried to write dialogue. It’s difficult.
I think the main lesson here was that if you sit down to task every day, eventually your work will be done. If your routine is constant, it might be done more quickly than you’d expect. In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It’s one lesson I learned from this young woman’s effort. Another: Young people don’t know some things are nigh impossible, so they succeed.
We finished up our mentor-student relationship on the same porch where Mary Grace and her brother Patrick used to romp with my big yellow dog. Mary Grace had to interview me.
What’s the hardest part of writing for you, she asked in an official voice. Getting started, I said.
Second hardest thing? Finishing.

Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.

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