NaNoWriMo '06 - Lessons Learned

The blog went quiet in November because I decided to once again compete in the National Novel Writing Month competition. I blogged a bit about the comp last year when I dropped out then dropped back in. By then, though, it was too late and I only had about 30-some-thousand words by month’s end. I’ve since learned that this is called the “sophomore slump.”

This year, I stopped work on the short story that’s taken my attention off and on throughout this year and plunged into nanowrimo ‘06. I got my friend Sue in California to do it with me for our first comp, in 2004, and we’ve done the comp together ever since. I should add, she has won every year.

She had difficulty with her book this year, but finished just in time. I, by contrast, had it pretty easy, apart from dealing with effluvia of the moment like family obligations, job, and school work. I thought about what made my freshman effort a success, and what could I do this year to be successful again.

I decided to go back to the source: Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! book. I read it in 2004, didn’t read it in 2005, and decided that I probably should read it/skim it for 2006. I rediscovered Baty’s checklists and reminders that helped me to reconnect with what made nanowrimo fun:

  • Get a magic totem that you always have with you when you write. For me, this is my black fedora-type hat that I wear. When Liz sees me wear the hat, she knows I’m writing.
  • Get the music going. I have a Baroque playlist on Rhapsody that helps put my brain in the right mood.
  • Make the writing a priority. I’m astonished at how many low-value activities I discard during nanowrimo.
  • Have fun. This should not be work (though there’s effort).
  • Go for quantity, not quality. I think I took my story way too seriously last year. I was also trying to figure out a plot, what would happen next, which was not good for me. I worried too much about it. The main thing is to meet the daily word quota. It gave me great freedom to bring boring scenes to an end and start up something fresh.
  • This year, I read in and out of Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing, and it really turned my thinking around on plot. His contention is that plot is what you remember in retrospect. But for the writer writing, the process is more about structure: I just finished a slow passage with two people, I now need a fast passage with lots of people. Or: The last chapter took place in the past, the next chapter needs to take place in the present. The structures a writer uses to help him or her write a novel don’t have to be as elaborate as Henry James, and they don’t need to be obvious to the reader (solving that puzzle is part of the reader’s fun) but I think they’re like a rhyme scheme for a poet: they provide spaces that the writer’s imagination is challenged to fill, and that challenge is part of the excitement of writing and imagining a world and characters. They also help to pull the writer along and keep the discovery process fresh.
  • Delaney is also pretty strict about writers starting at the beginning (no funky playing around with time, few flashbacks) and, even more importantly, setting the scene. Describe the setting. I found this to be incredibly valuable in getting my character into a physical space that would often come back to play a part later in the scene. I’m a believer in this now.
The Sunday prior to Nov. 1 I was strapped for an idea. I looked through my notebook and other loose pages for novel-length ideas, and was about to do my long-unapproached ghost story, but that’s always struck me as maybe novella length, working toward a single effect, and not suitable for the grab bag that is the novel.

I was about ready to grab Sue’s idea, till I thought for some reason about all the self-help books I’ve collected on my shelves. I thought, “Hm, what if someone goes to see lots of self-help gurus? Then, I could just spew all this self-help gunk I’ve been reading for years in the character of a guru, and that would up my word counts effortlessly!”

Well, not effortlessly, maybe, but I found the experience of writing about memory improvement, tarot, meditation, and journaling all helpful in the sense of putting down what I think I know into a narrative stream. And too, it was always a pleasure to do a core dump of these subjects and see my word count go up and up without having to worry about plot, character, or emotion.

My idea for the book’s structure was that my character could go to a guru then spend a chapter consolidating his gains or losses, then off to the next guru and consolidation. A very simple two-part structure, with an introduction and an ending. Any development, if it happened, would happen on its own along the way.

The structure worked quite well (though I never followed it strictly, it did help get me started), as I was never really strapped for stuff to write, though I did often wonder “what can I put him through next?” The tarot and meditation sections both kept me busy for 3 or 4 days apiece, which I thought was pretty cool. This structure also had the very helpful gambit of bringing in someone new every couple of days. I was always surprised by who showed up to take the stage for the next bit of guru-dom, and even I chuckled to myself now and then and shook my head at what what these strange people were doing and saying.

Another thing that helped me out this year was my decision to go for 2000 words/day when I wrote. I missed about 3 days early on in the month, and the “2000K every-day” mantra eventually got me back on track. I finished two days early with an incredible (for me) 5000-word burst that finally put me over the top. (I knew I had to work late the next two nights, so I had to make the heroic effort or work even harder on those two nights to do both my work and the novel.) I find it very easy to generate about 1000-1200 words in a sitting, but that last 500-800 words were a struggle. When I could, I broke the writing up into two daily sessions about 1000 words each, and that worked very well.

Nanowrimo always teaches me something about my writing process and I learned a lot that I hope I’ll take back to my short-story writing. Someone in my writing group asked me why I did it, why not just write the novel normally. A couple of reasons would be:
  • It’s more fun this way.
  • I like doing it with Sue.
  • I need the practice. I get hours and hours of writing practice in November that I don’t get throughout the year.
  • I’m often surprised in a way that I’m not when writing normally. I didn’t know I had this idea in me, and I didn’t know that what came out would be pretty good (I’d say I got about a third or more of really good material that can be shaped later.)
  • It helps me remember that writing can be fun, that sometimes I don’t need great ideas to get started. All I need to do is sit down and write.
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