Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Writing is writing."

Last night I became a NaNoWriMo winner for the first time. For those of you not in the know, to accomplish this feat I had to write a fifty thousand word novel in thirty days.

At first glance, such a task might seem intimidating at the very least, and quite likely impossible, but only if you take the challenge too seriously. The focus is the fifty thousand words much more than the novel. The exercise is not about editing and quality. Those things can be dealt with on December first. November is all about writing.

It was definitely a challenge, but also definitely worth it. I highly recommend the experience, even and especially to people who think that they cannot possibly write a novel. If you have or ever have had a story to tell, you can write a novel. Lock up your internal editor and whatever naysaying little voices might be in your head and write. Scribble madly. Type with two fingers. You could probably even dictate it into some sort of recording device and then transcribe it later. Whatever method works best for you is the one you should use.

For me, the word count part wasn't too difficult -- five hundred or a thousand words at a time weren't difficult to come by, and I think that I might have my journaling habit to thank for that ability -- but the writing every day was definitely a challenge. My little progress chart shows big spikes on the weekends and pretty much flatlines during the week.

Now that I have passed the magical fifty thousand word mark, I would say that as a whole, the project is about half written, as in I am about halfway to a true rough draft. You see, another beautiful feature of NaNoWriMo is that goal is not necessarily to write a complete novel.

I have interesting characters, engaging conversation, lots of back story and what might be called extensive exposition -- I need to learn how to say just enough that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions without me spelling everything out on the page -- strung together in a not terribly coherent manner. The plot part of the project is decidedly lacking. Also, about halfway through, as I was struggling to get the plot to really take off and go somewhere, I realized that I had committed what is arguably one of the cardinal sins of fiction writing -- I didn't start in the middle of the action -- so the first big chunk of writing really needs to go all together. It's not a bad beginning. It's just boring and not very active. The material can even be used later in the story as a sort of flashback or memory, but it doesn't belong at the very beginning.

I like the first sentence, but it doesn't, to paraphrase a quotation which I cannot remember verbatim and which I cannot readily find online, grab the reader by the throat, sink its thumbs into the jugular and refuse to let go. (Somebody famous said something like that, but I cannot remember who.)

Lots of scenes are sketched out as ideas. There are lists of questions and options. There are notes about things to research for accuracy. I don't think that I have left any huge plot holes yet, but there will be plenty of time for such things I am sure.

Motivation for some of the characters is proving to be a bit tricky as well. I know what I want to have happen, but I need a reason for the characters to do what they are doing.

I think that I have an ending, but the climax needs development.

Some events and ideas are the products of unintentional influences (read: stolen from all of the books I have read in my lifetime) for sure, but I have at least one idea that I think is completely my own.

I'm going to try to get a few more scenes and ideas written down before the official deadline of midnight tomorrow, and then I need to figure out how to take it apart and revise it. In looking forward to that revision process, I am investigating some of the references to "novel writing software"I have seen on the NaNoWriMo forums. Silly me, I always thought that novel writing software was a word processing program.

It turns out that there are plenty of novel writing software packages out there, but I think that they might be more complicated than what I want. They seem to be more about breaking down a big document into smaller pieces so that you don't have to work on the whole thing at once. Some of them almost seem to inspire laziness or complacency (as so much of technology does -- I think I might know all of two or three phone numbers anymore thanks to the contact list in my mobile phone) by keeping track of characters and plotlines for you. Almost seems to defeat the purpose if you ask me, but I haven't really tried it yet.

Some of them are even recommended based on the sort of book you plan on writing. If you want to write a fantasy novel, try this package. If you want to write a mystery, then this one is the way to go. Call me crazy (and plenty of people do), but the way to learn how to write a mystery novel is to read lots and lots of mystery novels. Read good ones and bad ones. Read the classics and contemporary offerings. Decide which ones you like. Decide which ones work and which ones do not. Don't let a software program determine the structure of your book.  You've got a brain that is perfectly capable of performing that function, I promise.  I would even go so far as to say that it was designed to do your thinking for you.

All I really want is the feature of the truly antique versions of WordPerfect which used to ask every time if you wanted to save over the previous version of the document. I would like an easy way to preserve multiple drafts so that if I chop out big pieces that I decide might be useful or do extensive rearranging that I decide I don't like, I can go back to the previous version and start again.

I'll have to experiment and find a system that works.

In the meantime, more writing because, "Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing." (E.L. Doctorow)

P.S. Reading books about plot devices and character development (not to mention all of the guides to finding an agent and getting published) is also not writing, so put them down and keep writing.