Once again I will start National Novel Writing Month. I say start because I haven’t “won” since 2010. So it’s my tenth anniversary! I missed the last two years but I am giving it the ol’ college try again this year. It will be good to get back into a daily writing practice and if you are so inclined you can join me and be my one of my writing buddies!
If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is I’ll briefly explain. It is an annual writing challenge to “write a 50,000 word novel” in one month. The timer starts at midnight of Halloween and goes until midnight of November 30th. In order to stay on pace you have to write 1667 words a day. It can be a daunting task. I know the year I “won” it took almost every free moment I had, and my wife was not happy at me. At all. I vowed I wouldn’t do that to her again, and I didn’t. And it really is about writing every day. 50k words is not really a novel either. That would qualify as a novella. The year I “won” I felt like I had written half a novel. it could be a series of short stories. Or essays. The entire point, again, is to write every day. Nobody is coming to your house to make sure you are following the “rules.” Jut have fun with it and write what you can. If it’s only a 100 words a day, then that is still 3000 words by the end of the month. And that is 3000 words more than you had before you started.
I use it to springboard a new story usually. Sometimes I take an old story out and try to add to it. I haven’t hit the 50k mark in a decade but this might be the year. If not that’s okay, too.
Ava Jae has an interesting post on her blog Writability this morning about first novels. The question she was answering is, how do you pick the story to write for your fist novel when 95% of first novels never see the light of day? We refer to these as trunk novels (because they stay in the trunk).
Her answer is right on the money, you have to commit to whatever story you choose. We can’t possibly commit the time and energy it takes to write a novel to real completion without the belief that we are going to put it out there for sale or distribution (if that was our original goal, not everyone writes to be published). By complete I mean first draft finished and then several passes to revise and refine; this just to send it to a publisher or agent. If you are self-publishing you need to add another step. Send it to a real editor for that professional polish.
Novelists don’t do practice novels. That is not to say we don’t do writing exercises. Writers write for practice and it can be in the form of writing challenges or blogs or short stories. But even short stories require work. Challenges are easy and don’t take up a lot of time. Novels are a completely different animal altogether. They are layered with multiple plots and many characters, that done correctly, have more than two dimensions. The novel should have theme and soul and requires foreshadowing and planning. The planning can happen after the draft is done actually and may require you to move things around as the plot elements are often very malleable, but it requires time and energy.
If I really believed that my novel wouldn’t be published it would just be another abandoned orphan of a book. Any writer that has made a serious effort at writing a novel can tell you that once you start, the ideas for other stories don’t stop coming. There comes a time in the process of trying to finish the novel where you are kind of sick of it, you just want to be done with it and move on. You have been birthing it for a long time and other ideas start to look more attractive. This may sound strange, you certainly don’t want your readers to feel that way when they read it, but I think they must all pass through this phase for the author. The book is like one of our children. Sometimes you just want to get away from the screaming and the arguing and bad tempers and the constant requirement for care and feeding. But if we are to finish we have to have confidence that the novel will grow up to be something we can be proud of. I know there are a lot of writers that have dozens of unfinished novels in their trunk, but when they started they went in believing they were going to finish them.
This year alone I have read five great debut novels. Now, I have no idea if they were actually their first novel or just the first one published. One that stands out in particular for me is The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter. He published this book in 1996 to great acclaim and has never published anything since. I very much enjoyed the story. It was very well crafted and imaginative and he was heralded as the next great thing in SF at the time. I have no idea why he hasn’t published anything else. Maybe he just had a goal to write a novel and checked that off his bucket list. We all have our own motivations.
But for me, I’m committed to getting it right. I’m spending the time grooming it for show. I have aspirations of a career writing. I am already plotting four more novels, and have ideas for several others. Who knows which one will actually get published first, but my plan is for all of them to be published. Speaking of which, I need to get back to it…
I can see that NaNoWriMo is going to be interrupting my planned schedule for posting this blog. I had to fly on Thursday evening, so I tried to sneak in some writing at work, but it didn’t leave me any blog time. Posting the blog at work has been a near disaster so far. The LAN we use is hermetically sealed and I feel lucky I can even get to blogspot at all. I’ve also been fighting a cold and an abdominal muscle injury that is hampering my workouts considerably, but that really doesn’ effect the blog any, just my demeanor. But all that aside, trying to keep pace with my NaNoWriMo story is the real culprit. I could have blogged last night, but I’m doing the exact opposite of what I had planned, which is fall dreadful behind, so I hemorraged words onto the NaNo WIP.
I wanted to get out the gate and get ahead. Being ahead in NaNo is the sweet spot. The stress is low, you feel good about where you are, and can just enjoy the experience. I watched in amazement as most of my Writing Buddies racked up 5k and 8k on the first day! I think I hit 600 on day one. I took today off to take my wife to the annual craft fair at the local college, but I should have some time this afternoon to try to catch up. I’m lagging enough to keep myself at least a day off pace. I just need a good 5 K day to catch up and I know I have one of those in me. I know because I’ve done it before. It’s a nice feeling to know that, it’s what’s keeping me sane at the moment. I looked back at last year and I barely made any posts during November, simply because I spent every waking moment that I had free working on my NaNo project.
There are some valuable lessons to be learned from NaNoWriMo. The first and foremost is putting your butt in the chair. Nothing surpasses that one commandment. It’s very easy to find just about anything else to do, all the while telling yourself that you are brainstorming. There is more to butt in chair though. Even that isn’t always enough, you need to eliminate as many distractions as you can. Hell, even the little word counter in the corner is distracting. I feel my cheating eyes sneaking to the bottom left corner of the page to check our progress, only to be disappointed. Why isn’t it moving faster! I spent a good part of day 1 doing research, stuff that I could have done, should have done in advance. So even though my butt was in the chair, I wasn’t grinding out words.
So my advice is: 1. Sit down, preferably in a place with no internet connection and work those little fingers till they cramp up. Scrivener even takes the word counter out of view, and they even have a PC version beta out now. I think it goes live on the 7th. 2. Don’t go back and fix things (unless you must, it’s a personality flaw) keep forward momentum. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to keep moving forward. You will have until next November to revise it and make it shine. 3. Don’t think it has to be complete by the end of the month, 50K is not really a novel, more like a novelette, which is fine if that’s what you want. 4. Try to stay ahead. Believe me on this. You don’t want to be where I was last year knowing I needed multiple 5K days to even catch up, frantic in the last week to “win”.
If you give it a serious attempt it will help you develop a writing habit. I read somewhere that it takes 30 days to develop a habit. I know from practice that more writing makes for better writing. But don’t think you know everything, don’t stop learning about how to write better. It is a craft that can be continuously honed. Now go out there and mandibulate on the keyboard!
I’ve been studying structure and reading my favorite blogs in the off time when I’m not working on my rewrite. There‘s lots of great advice out there if you look for it but there is nobody to give you the “right” answer on how your book should actually start. I’ve started this book 5 different ways, each rewritten several times … a longwinded lead up to where the story starts, a hook that had nothing to do with the story, a start with no real hook, a start with a hook that actually has something to do with the plot but not the main plot. Would my real start please stand up?
It’s very good advice to get in as late as possible and get out as soon as you can, but defining those points is easier to describe than it is to accomplish. I’ve learned that the beginning of the story needs to relate to the main problem of the book, but there is also a lot written about making the beginning of the story grab the reader. I’ve also learned that it’s a great technique to introduce all five senses to the reader in the first few pages to make it a visceral experience. That’s a lot of stuff to balance at the beginning, so how do you find that perfect moment?
I feel like I am getting conflicting advice on this so I’m actually doing two beginnings: one that doesn’t start quite as fast then has a nice hook, and one where it skips past that slower part and introduces the main plot shortly afterward. I like them both, but I think there is actually a “right” answer here. What I’m afraid of is that the right answer will be different for different people. It’s making me write the first 5 odd chapters twice. The rest of the book will flow normally from there. I think the remaining edits will be pretty straight forward.
I’m going to see what my alpha and beta readers say I guess. Is that lame?