It’s pretty easy for me to ramble on about NaNoWriMo after two successful years. But what about those who aren’t filled with the zeal that comes with typing that 50,000th word? My friend and fellow blogger, Phillip McCollum, shares his insights about “losing” NaNoWriMo, what he learned, and why losing isn’t a bad thing in this crazy game of writing. If anyone is interested in writing a guest post for Literature and Libation, please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve been convinced for a while that Oliver and I were brotherly warriors in another life, swinging swords side-by-side on the medieval battlefield and sharing flagons of ale afterwards. As soon as he mentioned a guest post, I realized his mind and my mind had already started down different paths to the same destination. Having just reached the end of NaNoWriMo with Oliver crossing the finish line, we both knew the other side of the story had to be told.
The side of the losers.
Please understand that I’m not trying to be self-deprecating here. The fact is that in order to “win” NaNoWriMo, you must have written 50,000 words toward your novel by 11:59:59 PM on November 30th (according to whatever time zone you’re in, I assume). Having only completed 31,509 words by the appointed deadline, the logical conclusion is that I “lost” NaNoWriMo.
Losing doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game and anyone who tells you otherwise has a lot to learn about losing. Not only do you get to refine your game for next time, but everyone loves a comeback.
If you took part in this past NaNoWriMo, maybe you cranked out 49,999 words and just couldn’t find another that wouldn’t look like a fresh scratch across your brand new Jaguar.
Or, like me, you slammed your foot on the pedal coming out of the gate, but discovered you lacked the staying power to see things through the monotonous middle and into the finish line.
Everyone makes their own mistakes, but I’m sure we share a few generalities. I hope that sharing my lessons will resonate with you and at least get you to think about what you can do better the next time around.
Focus and Research:
I made a huge mistake here. I waited too long to think about what I was writing. I mean really think. I had a basic idea of setting, time period, historical events, and characters. I even posted a blog entry of things to research after I finished writing. I figured I could just run with the story and make up things as I went along. I had some scenes roughly drafted and ready to spit out. There would be plenty of time after the first draft to fix the small mistakes, like my ancient Egyptian priest growing frustrated with his flaky Internet service.
What I lacked was focus. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted this book to be. Historical fiction with a touch of fantasy? Fantasy loosely based in historical fact?
Without a clear cut path, I was crossing streams. As I made my way through the first set of scenes, I found myself wanting to be more accurate concerning historical events. There I was, 10,000 words in and coming to the realization that a month or two of research would have benefited me greatly.
What do you mean my antagonist wasn’t a king yet when this village was attacked? Okay, well then I guess I just need to put more focus on his father. But I don’t want to write about his father. That’s a different story than what I’m trying to tell. So now I need a new source of conflict since that battle didn’t take place. I need to research more. But I don’t have time. At a minimum, I need to get 1,667 words out tonight.
I’m sure you can imagine this situation snowballing and then realizing that while you may be writing lots of words and exercising your prose muscles (still a good thing), what you write will not be publishable because it’s a pile of scenes that mean absolutely nothing.
When scenes trump story, the whole idea of a coherent novel goes out the door.
I need to know where I want to focus before writing. Specificity is important because it helps me prepare and keeps me on track. If I ever decide to write a book by the seat of my pants again, I’ll make sure Historical Fiction is off the table. In my opinion, that’s a genre which requires a lot of upfront research and planning.
Maintain a Timeline:
The idea of a timeline fits snuggly with my previous point. Without proper research, how can you be sure your imagination is synchronized with historical record? Call it trying to juggle too much information in the little time I had to write. Call it laziness. I never put together a timeline of events and backstory. In fact, I remember spending a couple of hours scouring the Internet for decent timeline tools, when in reality, that time could have been better spent hobbling together something in a spreadsheet. The perfection bug bit me again. I didn’t need the perfect tool, I just thought I did.
This left me completely unorganized. Things were happening when they shouldn’t have and people were making speeches long after they kicked the bucket.
For example, the idea behind my novel came from some reading I did about an Egyptian city named Naucratis. The historical figures I found myself compelled to write about, well, I’ll just say that a basic timeline would have shown they weren’t even around to see Naucratis being built. They only missed it by, oh, a few centuries.
All I need is a simple spreadsheet to start. One column for scene/historical event, another column for date. Something this basic would do wonders for ensuring that I’m not making a mistake such as the one illustrated above.
My last couple of novel attempts have gone the same way. I would begin an outline and type up brief synopses of anywhere from ten to fifteen scenes. Then I found myself anxious, so I started writing, telling myself that I could pants the rest. Well, as you now know, that was a bad idea.
I find that I have a lot of fun writing the scenes I’ve already outlined and am not concerned about whether or not I’m saying what I want to say. I know they fit into the outline I drafted. If they vary a little bit, cool, no big deal. I don’t mind tweaking my outline to accommodate.
But when I reach the end of the scenes I’ve outlined and find myself facing the blank page, somehow scrubbing the shower becomes the most important thing in the world. A few more excuses later, the guilt becomes overwhelming and I’m left with one question: Now what? I can throw some more conflict at my characters and pull some new goals out of thin air. That’ll fix them, right?
But as I’ve proven to myself over and over, chances are, it won’t.
I need to know where I’m going and I need to put it down on paper. This gives me the confidence to write freely, knowing that I’m not just writing to write, but I’m writing toward the story goal.
After reading that George R. R. Martin usually drafts character biographies hitting sixty to seventy pages, I proceeded to hang my head in shame.
I didn’t spend enough time fleshing out my characters before writing. I came up with basic bios, but without nearly the amount of depth they needed. Too vague. Too much on the surface.
And that’s just for the ones I made up. For the real historical figures, I should have researched them as much as possible. If my target audience includes history buffs, I can’t be loose with the facts and prevailing opinions.
Character traits are one thing, but I also found I had another problem with them. Going back and looking at my scenes, a lot of times, my POV character of the moment was a bystander. He would sit and watch the world turn, occasionally answering a question or making some absurd speech. He was lifeless automaton and would only act when I turned the crank.
Be a lot better at fleshing out my characters. Make my characters active. People don’t want to read a novel where all the fun stuff is happening around your character.