A close look at my stats show that I front-loaded the month of writing. This is a direct effect of having carefully reviewed only part of my outline before I started. The important thing is that I met the goal.
I’m still ahead but it’s getting a lot more difficult. It took a while but I’ve figured out why.
The last time I did NaNoWriMo I was panicking at this point (and enjoying myself hugely). We’re halfway through the month, take a day, and I’m 30K words in. I’m ahead: if I continue like this, I’ll reach 50K on November 24th. I still feel chill.
I was going to focus on writing a new project in November anyway so when a friend challenged me to do NaNoWriMo I signed up immediately.
OK. This is it. It is June and that was when I was going to start writing.
Plotting started in April and took a frantic turn in May. There’s still some research I need to do and a couple of character studies that need a bit more of a polish (What really drives Anna’s mum? I need to know!) but I’m in a position to start.
The starting line is an oddly scary place to be.
I’ve only just put fingertip to keyboard but I can already tell you something about the difference between NaNoWriMo and doing it for real. When you do it for real, the pressure is on. I can feel myself reining myself in even before I’ve started. The writing of this novel isn’t just about having fun but rather about creating something that I can share with the world. This is not high literature, that’s not where I’m going – not with this one – but at the end I want something that I’m not embarrassed to ask people to read. After all, the point is to share it, as widely as possible.
To write a story, you need a plot. The longer the story, the more detail you need. This I have learned. I’m a somewhat seat-of-my-pants writer but am beginning to like to know where I’m going. And if I’m going a long distance – say, 100,000 words, for example – I want to have a good idea of the route. I’d get lost otherwise, I’d go nowhere, or in circles, boring my readers and myself. Since I’ve worked with this set of characters before, I know how I want them to change over the course of the book. So that’s great: character arcs are in place. The plot is another issue. I don’t have one. Or rather, I don’t have much of one. (This is what I’ve got: a chap dies and is found by our heroine. She’s put out.)
I’ve started working on the plot in a very similar way to the method I used for NaNoWriMo last year. This time I’m using a bigger piece of paper and many more coloured pens. It doesn’t look very structured and that’s OK. It isn’t. At the moment I’m at the brain-dump stage. I’ve put what little I know on a piece of paper, set out a time line and started putting in the few plot elements or scenes that I have. Hopefully, holes will become apparent and patterns will emerge. Then I can do research and generate ideas where the plot is weak. Finally, I’ll have a map. Then the writing starts.
I read something the other day – a snippet of freely given internet advice – which said something like “don’t start anything until you’ve finished what you’re working on now”.
But a lot more difficult to follow than you might think.
The way I work, I have several projects on at the same time. Some are very short, some are longer and some are novel lenght. (I boast. This year is the first time I’ve got one of those on the go. I have yet to finish one outside of NaNoWriMo.) I have an idea, I take some notes, let it steep and ferment and then I write a draft. Then I leave it for a while – sometimes a very long while – before reading it and performing surgery. Once it’s in some kind of shape, it goes to my first reader for feedback. A brief hiatus follows.
After first reader, I make changes to the piece before sending it to a writers group or friendly editor (second review). Then it sits. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for months. When I finally pick it up again, it is to do a final edit. The final edit isn’t as final as it sounds. It can take several rounds to get to the final-final version. And even that isn’t really final.
I send the story out and depending on what comes back, I might make further changes before sending the story out a second time. And so it goes.
What was the advice again?
Don’t start anything before you’ve finished what you’re working on.
When you get going, coming up with ideas is a lot easier than finishing stories. Ideas take seconds; finishing a story takes hours, days and weeks.
For this year, I set myself the task of completing one story a month. I’m two months behind and I have eight stories on the go. One is on the concept stage, meaning, I’ve got notes and ideas but I haven’t written words yet. Three have some words, but not their full complement. One has been read by my first reader and the remaining three have been reviewed by my writers groups. If I sat down and finished editing those three I would catch up on my goal. Easy peasy. There are a host of reasons for why I don’t, not one of them particularly good.
It’s not always possible to work on only one thing at a time. Take my word for it: I freelance. External deadlines are useful to force you to finish things. Unfortunately, some of my works in progress don’t have markets, never mind deadlines. So I make excuses, allow myself to lose insterest and move off to other projects. To some extent, I think that’s OK. Not everything I write is worth finishing. Some of it wasn’t worth starting in the first place. That’s part of what this year is about: learning where to put my efforts. Still, the things that are sitting there, twice reviewed, I clearly like well enough to finish.
So I should finish them. Because drafts can’t be published.
…and presumably there are plots that don’t.
This is the story I told in my 2010 NaNoWriMo project:
A young private detective finds a body, and, investigating the death, makes new friends, including a murder suspect. The investigation touches her own family and she learns things about her mother’s past. She also learns that she can’t always trust old friends. With help from her new friends she solves the murder and realises that her mother is in mortal danger. Meanwhile, the police, who have been doing their own investigation, also solves it and saves the mother. The ex-suspect starts digitizing the family records and life continues much as it was, except that she now has a dad.
How does this plot differ from standard gum shoe stories?
- The main issue is that nothing much has changed at the end. The ‘grows up’ part of the plot needs to be bigger. I mean, if what she learns is so unimportant that I don’t even think it warrants a mention in a micro-summary it clearly lacks impact.
- The second problem is the parallel investigations. The main character normally works with the police, for example as a consultant. This way, they get access to information and suspects. On their own, they just don’t have all the information they need to solve the problem. Or they start looking into something that isn’t a murder, get embroiled and decide to solve it themselves. That’s more like my plot. Except, traditionally, the private detective confronts the murderer (catharsis). In my version, she figures out the problem, realises that someone is in danger and completely fails to get in contact with them (anti-climax).
- Family and friendship is central the story. These are important themes but they need to be more tightly integrated. The sudden appearance of the main character’s estranged dad is too important to be a throw-away at the end. It needs proper handling and introduction.
The novel I’m starting in June uses the same characters and many of the same settings as my NaNoWriMo projects. The plot will be very different. I’m spending the next couple of months working it out but I know that I need more plot than I’ve ever worked with before.
The imaginary strand of wool that is my main character’s journey from beginning to end needs twists, turns and maybe a knot or two. For colour and texture, my other characters needs their own strands. I look forward to messing all the strands up and then, carefully, untangling them again.
What did I learn? In no particular order:
- Plotting really helps and allows you to focus on telling the story instead of wondering what’s going to happen next.
- Writing a couple of hours every day you can get a lot done.
- Notes – on plot points, locations and characters – really help you keep track of where you are.
- Microsoft Word is not the only writing tool.
My novel isn’t quite a fully formed object of beauty. There are a couple of threads that need to be tied up and a couple of leads that went nowhere. One or two of my characters are probably redundant and there’s an entire plot thread that I forgot to write. (Yes. Forgot.) That’s OK. The thing will sit in my Dropbox for the next couple of months before I look at it again and decide whether I want to edit it into shape. I might. Or I might not.
The purpose of this month was to write a lot on more or less the same topic. I did and what I produced is a lot more coherent than what I wrote last year, so it feels like positive progression. Now, I’ll glory in my achievement for a day or two and get back to editing the stories that I left on a shelf on Octber 31st.
This week I made a number of important changes. Not to the plot, as such, but to how I work.
First, I took a little time out every day to make sure I knew where I was going. A little bit of planning here and and there, a plot item or two. It gave me a list of scenes that needed to be written, making sure that I always knew had something that I could write. Waiting for ‘inspiration’ is a great way to get nothing written.
Half-way through the week I changed the tool I use to write with. I’m testing Scrivener because it now comes for Windows. (And it was recommended to me.) Previously, I’ve only ever used Microsoft Word to write and a combination of paper and Evernote to keep track of ideas and research. Even after years of working with Word I know it’s not the perfect tool for long documents. It’s not bad, it’s just not perfect. I’m hoping that Scrivener will make it a little easier to move sections around. That would save me lots of time.
I had a weekend away and learned that I still don’t have motion sickness but can write comfortably in the front seat of a car. I could only write two days out of three but managed to cover the word count for Saturday on Friday. So far, so good.
Last of all I changed the goalposts. It’s a good thing to do on a Monday morning. My target is now 65,000 words. As long as I write at least 2,100+ words a day for the next nine days, I will get there.
Tally at the end of week three: 43,751