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Posts Tagged ‘NaNoWriMo’

In one sense, writing 50,000 words is quite easy. You write a word. Then you write another word. And then you do the same again and again, another forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight times. Nothing could be simpler.

So why, then, did I so signally fail to complete NaNoWriMo in 2012 and 2013? For the underinitiated: this is the challenge where one undertakes to write 50,000 words of sequential fiction in a thirty-day period (technical it’s supposed to be a novel, but I think this is veering dangerously close to delusions of grandeur). I’m not sure, but I think clues may be found in the manner in which I managed to actually finish the damn thing this year, for the first time since 2010.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

Perhaps the nature of that 2010 win was also significant. As I was (ahem) resting from paid employment at the time, I was able to devote all my time to the project and ended up with a 115,000 word manuscript, which – when run past a professional author for comment – transpired to be irredeemable tripe with no discernable structure. This was a blow to my confidence as a writer of long fiction which it took me a long time to get over.

I blame Stephen King, and especially his book On Writing. This is an inspirational tome and no mistake, but it also promotes Mr King’s potentially lethal strategy for novel-writing, which is basically ‘have an idea, start writing about it, do 3,000 words a day until you reach the end and then stop’. In other words, don’t bother planning what you’re doing. Just trust to the creative winds.

It took me a long while to figure out that what may work for an intuitively gifted storyteller like Mr King is not necessarily going to work for the average garret-dwelling spod. I have come to the conclusion that this sort of behaviour is not going to end well for most of us. It’s like going on a 300 mile drive without bothering to check the atlas, and no real sense of where you’re actually heading to in the first place. You may cover some ground, but you’re unlikely to end up anywhere it’s worth being.

Reluctantly parting company with the King Doctrine was probably the first step towards having a chance of concluding a NaNo with a story that actually has some kind of narrative merit. Realising the importance of structure, I invested in a number of other pieces of advice which I must confess I found to be of varying usefulness.

Near the bottom of the heap, although this may be a user-friendliness issue, is the near-mythical Plotto, by William Wallace Cook. This is not so much a writer’s guide as a plot generation tool, but not one I actually found any use. Perhaps it’s just that the Kindle edition is somewhat clunky to navigate through.

More interesting than genuinely useful was 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, which is strong on general information but weak on actual mechanics and detail. A step up from this, despite being somewhat disingenuously titled, was Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, which has some useful stuff on many archetypal characters and the two main types of character arc. It’s one of the few writing handbooks I’ve read which comes close to being actually generative (i.e. giving you proper ideas).

Lani Diane Rich (aka Lucy March), professional author and writing tutor, weighs in with what she considers to be the seven crucial anchor points of essential narrative. I was rather dubious about this when I first heard about it – it seemed rather too formulaic at the time, and also that many great stories didn’t seem to stick to the scheme – but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is largely because of the single biggest factor in getting me across the NaNo finishing line with something I’m reasonably pleased with: to wit, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a meticulous guide to the core competencies of storytelling in general, and structure in particular. Brooks breaks the story down into four chunks, assigns key plot moments and responsibilities to all of them, and then goes through what the essential plot beats are, where they need to fall and how they inter-relate. His book is perhaps a bit too strongly aimed at the aspiring professional – I have no real ambitions in that direction, as I already have a job I love and which I suspect is better for me than full-time writing would be, even if I had the talent and perseverance to think about taking it more seriously – but sitting down on November 1st with the first 37 scenes of a 50-scene novel already planned out was an enormous advantage, and without Brooks I would not have had this map to start with.

What I wrote is, in all likelihood, not very good. Ray Bradbury said that the first 500,000 words you write are inevitably going to be rubbish, and as far as long-form fiction goes I suspect I still have several hundred thousand to go before I hit the good stuff. But, whatever the problems with the characterisation, exposition, theme, description, and – yes – the structure, it does at least hang together on one level.

And, more importantly, I feel like I have fiction writing back. After the great disaster of 2010, apart from the abortive NaNos of 2012 and 2013, I’ve barely written a word of fiction. Plenty of reviews and other nonsense, as you can see, but nothing else. And I always missed it. I couldn’t figure out what my blind spot was in terms of long-form fiction, but now perhaps I have. It feels good to have this option back – the process of writing the NaNo 14 project has been a very satisfying one and I suspect it will be well before November 2015 that I have a go at something else. But not yet. Now is the time all-consuming and wholly unjustified smugness, which is something else I’ve always had a talent for.

 

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Once again November has come and gone and I find myself not having written a novel in any real sense of the expression. So what, you may say, this is no different to the previous ten months of 2013 in which novel-writing did not really feature on the list of things I did. This is a fair point, and yet…

navelgazer

As you may or may not know, November is the time of NaNoWriMo, the popular – if, it must be said, very badly named – international creative writing event. National Novel Writing Month is an annual event where people from all over the world sit down and undertake to produce 50,000 words of continuous fiction over a thirty day period. This is the fourth year in which I have set my sights on the NaNo prize, and the second in a row in which I haven’t actually come anywhere close to achieving it.

I say ‘fourth’, but the first year I sort of did NaNo without even being aware of it, sitting down to write a novel in the space of about a month and only later becoming aware of the fact that thousands of other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Nevertheless I knocked out 116,000 words of a story which had been kicking about my head for over sixteen years.

Finding myself at a loose end I did NaNo properly in 2010, this time turning up 115,000 words (needless to say I had no other real commitments). It seems rather incredible to me now, but I had genuine hopes that one or other of these productions had enough merit to potentially be publishable in some form, given a bit of rewriting and polishing. My experience of a ‘re-edit your MS’ course from a pro author showed me otherwise, mainly because the first one would have been unmarketable and didn’t have a proper ending, while the second was essentially the beginning and end of two different genre novels (both favourites of mine) inelegantly welded together: the structure was irretrievably busted in both cases.

I was doing a Diploma course in 2011 and so skipped doing NaNo, but decided to have another crack last year: getting the structure right was my main concern. After getting 5,000 words into a post-apocalyptic quest story which I never felt completely happy writing, I made the elementary NaNo aspirant’s mistake and switched to new story: a fantastical sex-comedy-satire with a contemporary setting – I got 12,000 words into that, but then illness and a real-life emotional situation got in the way of my finishing it (or so I told myself, anyway).

17,000 words is only about a third of the way there. At least, I’m telling myself, this year I got to 23,000, which is a slightly better showing: and given I dropped out after less than three weeks it’s fairly respectable. Why, you may be wondering, did I stop so early? Well, to be honest, once again I wasn’t exactly feeling the story, and it had also become apparent than even if by some miracle I hit 50,000 before the month’s end I still wouldn’t be anywhere close to the end of the story – at 23,000 I was still some way from the point I had pegged as the end of the first act of the story. (See? Thinking about the structure.) Without the pressure of the NaNo deadline I knew the thing was never going to get properly finished.

(Just to put this in perspective: an acquaintance who was also doing NaNo suffered a close family bereavement, gave birth, and still managed to hit the 50,000 words mark. Given my own main distractions were conquering ancient France in lengthy games of Rome: Total War and enjoying the golden anniversary celebrations of my favourite TV show, I really have no excuse.)

A fairly sad chronicle of failure, I think you’ll agree (I haven’t even mentioned this year’s Camp NaNo fiasco, or ScriptFrenzy in 2011). Why am I going on about it? Why not just forget about the idea and spare everyone the stress and the breast-beating?

A fair question. While I have one (very, very minor) published credit to my name, with a couple more hopefully on the way, I have no serious ambitions to become a professional writer. I have a career which I find very fulfilling – and which, truth be told, is probably healthier when it comes to my mental state than just beating my head against a blank page for hours every day. Yet the compulsion remains, at NaNo time, during similar events, whenever: unless I’m much mistaken ‘write more fiction’ was on my New Year list last January. Has it happened? Nope.

Given I clearly feel some desire to write more fiction, and I’m not lumbered with any of those things which eat the time of most people – full-time jobs, dependent family members, especially active social lives – why this litany of failure? I’m horribly afraid I may just be lazy. Writing fiction is hard work if you want to do it properly – I believe Ray Bradbury said the first half-million words he wrote were all rubbish, but a necessary apprenticeship in the craft. Beating up the Gauls or reflecting on the positive social impact of Doctor Who are both much easier.

Writing a film review is a piece of cake compared to producing a piece of fiction of comparable length – your topic is pre-selected for you, and the structure is usually fairly standardised. You know what you’re going to say, too. Fiction is tough – I was going to say everything comes from within, but of course that’s not true. Let’s just say a much higher proportion of it does.

Okay, so it’s difficult, you may be saying. Nobody’s forcing you. Either do it or don’t, but don’t waste our time going on about how hard it is, and how useless you are. Don’t you realise that what you’re doing is displacement activity? You could actually be doing some writing now instead of bleating about how you’re not doing any writing.

You know, that hadn’t actually occurred to me until I sat down and typed it. Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps I am just attempting to name and shame myself in the hope that this may motivate me to actually produce something. I don’t know. The itch remains, but it seems that I’m not sure whether I genuinely want to scratch it. It’s a little confusing.

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Scribbling to Freedom

I love finishing a short story, especially when it’s a good one (you can always tell). The only feeling that’s actually better is when it gets its first rave review. Actually, I suppose the feeling you get when you actually sell a story for the first time is the best one of all, but I wouldn’t know how that feels, of course.

Both times I’ve finished a really long story (to reiterate, I don’t feel comfortable calling anything of mine a novel until it’s published, and nothing meets that criteria yet), though, I’ve come away with a colossal feeling of anticlimax. It was like that last November when I finished Night Republic, and it’s similar (but not so bad) at the moment, when I’ve just finished the current thing (which is currently trading as Sky, though I think I like The Waking Sky more even if it does make the story’s rip-off origins painfully obvious – Xenonephus briefly occurred to me but it doesn’t really have much to commend it beyond a spurious mystique).

Sky eventually clocked in very slightly shorter than Republic, though the word-count on the latter was far from exact. As usual I will now abandon it to settle and rise and ferment for a few weeks, and then – well, the plan was to get back to Night Republic and beat it into shape last Spring, but nothing happened as I had to go to Sri Lanka and… you get the picture. Maybe the same will happen to Sky. I hope not; I have a much better idea of what it needs doing to it in order to improve it. This is mostly to do with characterisation – not knowing who any of the people were or what they were going to do when they first appeared, some of them didn’t get the introduction they deserved or changed personalities quite drastically between stints in the story. I think the structure is mostly sound, though the very beginning needs a bit of a kick up the bottom.

At the moment, though, I just feel tired, and this (I hope) is why I’m not as exhilarated as the good people at NaNoWriMo HQ seem to think I should be. At the start of this process I described the writing as feeling like weaving a tower out of a whirlwind – well, the last few days have felt like tunnelling the last few feet out from under a giant boulder. This is natural, for me, anyway. I can’t think of how else I would’ve preferred to spend this month.

Standard advice at this point tends to be ‘go and do something else’. I tried this last year, but ended up abandoning painting the Astartes drop pod I’d been putting off for months in favour of a 16,000 word story about a zombie apocalypse (told from the zombies’ point of view). This year – well, I would like to get some painting underway again, but there’s also the short story collection to be polished. I don’t want to stop writing completely, anyway, as it’s increasingly looking like the most fulfilling part of my life. I’m not sure whether that counts as ‘sad but true’ territory or not; it may or may not be the former but it’s certainly the latter.

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Well, it’s just gone 12.30 on November the 16th and the first draft of the NaNoWriMo story is, in theory, just about two thirds of the way through. The third act will, once again, open some years after the second closes so I am taking the afternoon off and seeing a movie in order to generate the sufficient sense of narrative distance (I would have done this anyway but now I can justify doing it, I hope).

As things currently stand I am on a shade more than 72,000 words and 160 pages on MS Word (this translates into about a 250-page paperback if the NaNo formula is to be believed) and feeling quite cheerful about the story itself. Somewhat to my surprise this middle section ended up being more about the characters’ personalities and relationships, and the complicated political situation the world has become entangled in (another rather obvious steal from The Kraken Wakes), than the actual main plot motor of the alien life-form. I’m worried that all this stuff is rather melodramatic and unconvincing – I thought this was going to be a story about meteorology, not the failure of couples to properly communicate with each other – but I suppose fixing it will be one of the things I do in the second draft, should I decide to do one.

At least now I can relax in the knowledge that all the characters and major locations have been introduced, all the plot seeds sown (well, a new one’s just occurred to me, but I think that’ll have to wait for Part Three, for reasons to do with plausibility and not telegraphing the ending), all the character dynamics sorted out, and so on, and I can just cruise through the scenes of collapsing civilisation and the desperate struggle to survive that are the main thing that attracted me to this story in the first place.

I’m still talking about it in terms of a three-act structure, which I suppose still just about holds water. Parts One and Two, more through luck than anything else, have clocked in at roughly the same length in both words and pages. At one point it looked like Two would be coming in rather short, and – purely for my own sense of structure – I had been contemplating splitting Part One in two. There’s an obvious junction point about six chapters in where the story skips forwards a couple of years… yes, I know this isn’t very interesting.

I may still do this, but if so I think I’ll split Part Three as well. it looks like it’ll be a lot longer than either of the other two, and there is another natural junction point some way into it – not quite sure exactly how far, but that’s the fun of it. There’ll still be a three-act structure, ish, but spread over five actual chunks of story. I think that’ll work. I’ll let you know how it pans out.

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Well, it’s just gone midday on November the 9th, and I’m about 36,200 words into the NaNoWriMo story. As the NaNoWriMo benchmark is theoretically 50,000 words for a win, it would seem I am way ahead of schedule. On the other hand, I’m only roughly a third of the way through the idea (plot seems like too strong a word for it) I came up with – possibly a bit less than that, though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the rest of the book.

I’ve reached the end of the first part, though – the three-act structure is just one of the most obvious ways in which this story is a loving rip-off of The Kraken Wakes – and I’m about to skip forward quite a few years in story-time. Therefore, I feel it’s appropriate to take a bit of a break at this point (not too long, I still have 1634 words to do today), and so I can feel like I’m working on it even while I’m not I thought I would reflect on the process so far.

Well. From my point of view I’m finding it a bit easier to knuckle down and work this year – last Autumn days would go by when I did nothing but cruise the internet playing online games and watching strange clips on YouTube and DailyMotion, but I’ve done at least 2000 words every day, normally more than 4000, and on day four (when things really seemed to be flowing well) over 6500. It’s easy to get jazzed early on when everything is still fresh and interesting, but you do reach a point after about a week when self-doubt rears its ugly head, and it’s here that you just have to start plugging away regardless in the hope that some spark of life still inhabits the story – it almost always does, if you dig deep enough.

From the story’s point of view, everything seems to be ticking over. There has been a bit more sex than I’d expected (tastefully off-screen, before you ask), no-one has died, and all the characters are behaving roughly as planned. The problem with writing without an outline, as I tend to do, is that after a while you realise you don’t really know who any of these people are. While to some degree they will show you this as you proceed, I do suspect some judicious rewrites of early chapters (when they were still deciding who they were) will become necessary if this story is to go anywhere beyond my hard-drive. One character who I wrote in just to give the main person someone to talk to decided to make a bit for power and ended up becoming much more important and likeable than I expected, to the point of marrying the main person. Somebody else turned out to be much less sympathetic than I’d anticipated, but still a key figure. The character I’d half-expected to become everyone else’s mentor vanished without a trace after chapter six. Nearly everyone went off to Alaska for four or five chapters, which was a surprise, and I had to cold-email a NaNoWriMo writer there for some local details (they were very obliging).

I am still concerned that the dialogue is often crushingly obvious and expository, and that the balance between the relationships between the characters and the ongoing problem with the sky is not quite as it should be. But on the whole I am fairly happy with things and can’t think of a more fulfilling way to have spent the last week or so.

On to chapter twenty – and someone’s going to die! (Bwa ha ha ha.)

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So, obviously the first decision I had to make was Which one shall I write?, because I can’t believe anyone really just sits down with completely empty paper and empty head and just produces a whole long story from absolutely nowhere. (Then again I’m sure some people will refuse to believe that anyone just sits down with a vague idea for a story and a world and maybe a few characters and just starts writing and trusts that the plot will look after itself as they’re going along, but that’s what happened with Republic, the very long story (it’s not a novel until it’s printed, okay) I wrote last Autumn and that’s what I expect will happen with the very long story I just started today, which is currently called Sky (part of me suspects The Waking Sky is a better title but it’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it?).)

And I thought again about the story of the computer that gets religion, and the story about two worlds one of which is a dream of the other (but neither knows which), and I even spared a few thoughts for the very old idea about the feuding noble brothers and the mechanical man and the very odd mirror, but in the end I passed on all of them. I didn’t even bother to think about returning to the story of the solicitor who turns into a wolf, as I’ve already written so much of it it would count as a second draft, and I suspect that story has missed its chance anyway. And I ran away and hid from the idea of doing My Big Sociologically Accurate Fantasy Novel, as it’s still much too big and scary an idea (and yet it could be so wonderful if I could get it down on paper and do it justice), the research alone would take me more than a month to do properly, though I did consider sneaking into that world and looking around on the pretext of writing another story in the same setting.

So I went back to the idea I had while watching the BBC4 documentary back at the end of June. It’s a pretty simple idea (and some will no doubt say a pretty silly one) but it’s clean and straightforward (unlike Republic), and it will give me a chance to follow in the footsteps of two of my favourite authors. I don’t have to worry about the characters unexpectedly deciding to go to Norfolk or becoming so significant they demanded to be written into earlier chapters. I know how things are going to develop this time. (The mocking laughter you may be hearing is my future self, rereading this while taking time off from grappling with unexpected plot twists, probably round about next Thursday.)

And it’s weird. This time yesterday all I had was a vague idea and some maybe-characters whipping around inside my head. 4000 words and a few hours typing later, I have four characters (one of them almost certainly minor, another I’m not sure about) and a location, and a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen to them tomorrow. I’m still not sure if the main character’s love interest has shown up yet – two of the other characters have shown potential in that department, but as I’ve yet to decide upon Main Boy’s arc across all the years the story will happen in (this is one of the things I’m relying on the story presenting to me as I go along), I’m not sure who to go with.

It’s like building a tower around a whirlwind, swapping this vague but limitless chaos of potential for the solidity of words and facts. I hope that in the end the tower I build does justice to the beauty of the whirlwind, and that something of its energy remains when I’m done.

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Novel, but no novelty

Well, November is less than two hours away and with it comes the start of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). This is one of those American things which as caught on worldwide, so I keep thinking that it should really be InNaNoWriMo. Or possibly InNoWriMo. Then I keep telling myself that this is the kind of thinking that justifies the borderline-autistic result I got on a Facebook quiz the other day and I should just get a grip.

So, off I go again. This is my first ‘proper’ NaNoWriMo, though I did spend most of November (and a bit of October) last year cranking out an 106,000 word manuscript. (It’s still on my hard drive; I’ve been hiding from the beast.) Rather than the punishing 4,500 words a day I was aiming for last year, this time I think 2,500-3000 should do the trick. Interested parties will be able to read the developing manuscript through the Fiction link at the top of this page, though I would request people not to give feedback until the damn thing’s gone through at least one draft.  

You too can write a novel this November. It only takes an average of 1,667 words a day to build a pile of 50,000 by the month’s end. Everyone has a book in them, even if most people should probably leave it there. Find out if yours deserves the light of day over the next 30 days.

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