So, NaNoWriMo is done. And – surprising myself tremendously – I won, and won doubly over. I had planned to write a complete rubbish-summary-half-assed draft of a novel – and not only did I hit the 50k words (on about day 20, good lord!) I completed the draft (at a slightly meatier 68k words) with a couple of days to spare.
I’m basically flabberghasted. I didn’t even know I had this in me.
Looking at it as I was going, and in the immediate aftermath, my conclusion is that my chief weapons were
fear and surprise over-the-top planning, and permission to suck.
When I was at university, cranking out papers at end-of-term time, my mode used to be pretty simple: read a mothertruckload of material on the topic, and then write a one-paragraph answer to the question; then write a paragraph for each sentence; then break those sentences out and prove each one with evidence, quotes, and other material. Whammo: essay.
As I agonised my way through trying to figure out where my last novel went next, it occurred to me that maybe I could write a novel like that too. Turns out I can. And, er, pretty damn quickly.
For NaNo, I wrote a one-page summary of the story – which included two character storylines that intersect at the end of Act II. (Note: Before I got to this point, I daydreamed, brainstormed and pondered the story, the characters, and the world a lot. In fact, two years ago I wrote about 25k words of a first draft of a novel with some of the same world and characters, and I recycled a lot of that for this. So let’s not get the idea that I sat down and idly dashed off a complete concept. It was years germinating.)
I took my one-page summary, and I broke it out into significant story points, each leading into the next. This required me to get the next level down of details in the story happenings (e.g. from ” they fall into a trap and she’s captured” to two dot-points on taking the bait for a reverse-ambush, and then over-extending in battle and being captured). I tinkered with these until I had fifteen points for each storyline. I figured if I had 30 chapters, then I’d write one a day at 1700 words, and it’d all be ace-cakes. (In the end, I wrote one a day at more like 2500-3500 words.)
Then I took my chapter summary, and I broke it out into the scenes that each chapter would contain to achieve those points. This meant digging down that last layer of detail into what actually happens. So for one entry that says “An act of piracy is committed with her as the figurehead captain, sending a message”, I had to figure out what the act of piracy could be that was suitably showy to make a point, but that also left survivors to carry the tale. And then set that up in scenes. How detailed was this? The scene-summary document was fifteen pages long. I got two chapters to a page (I was listing my storylines side-by-side in a landscape table.) It was detailed. It tracked emotional journeys as well as action. And it was complete – none of the “and then stuff” bits that I’m infamous for having in my plans.
This meant that when I was writing, the most I managed to go “off track” was a paragraph or two, and usually before that I would hit a snag, think “Why didn’t I solve this when planning?”, check the plan, and realise I’d messed up. My wasted time was basically zero – I not only knew what I was writing, I knew what I would be writing next, and between those two thing, I simply flew.
I know a lot of writers view detailed planning as stifling to the creative flow. There are comments about how knowing all the details makes it boring. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t have time to be bored, but frankly, I still found writing the story as exciting as I always do. Realising my scene-outlines on the page was enough of a writing-journey-through-discovery-to-victory for me.
But also, I suspect, the success of this hinged upon the second – and most important – weapon.
Permission to suck
My NaNo draft sucks. I mean, it SUCKS. The through-line of conflict from first to second act is basically laid out with enormous flashing signs, it is riddled with cliche and repetition and sprinkled liberally with tremendously purple adverbs, I really only got into the differences between my two main characters about halfway through, and the pacing in the third act is so jerky it’s like a learner driver is in charge. But it is complete. It is a whole story, and it all links up, and I can see where all the holes and bumps and problems are. So I can fix them. I can make it suck less.
The last complete novel draft I managed – Notorious Sorcerer, finished in October – didn’t suck quite as much. But it still had holes and bumps and problems and I couldn’t see them until it was finished. And it took me two years to get a complete first draft of that.
My goal with this NaNo was, “I wonder if I could just fast-forward to the part where I have a complete view of the novel and can get to really making it work?”
The answer, clearly, is yes.
And a big part of that is just slamming it down, cheap and nasty and wonky and all. Shannon Hale said it best: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
Every time I found myself flagging because whatever I was putting down was just grievously, egregiously wrong, I said to myself – sometimes out loud: “It’s fine: I’ll fix it later.”
And it worked.
Other useful tools
- I wrote the thing on Google Docs – one document per chapter, pre-populated with the scene-list for that chapter. This gave me thirty mini-wins for the month, because every time I finished a chapter, I could put a thing aside with a sense of accomplishment.
- And then I downloaded the chapters every few days and copied them into Scrivener, so that when it came time to validate, I could just export the whole thing.
- In addition to the official NaNo wordcount tracker – and especially while it was down at the start of the month – I kept myself fixated on my progress through MyWriteClub. (If you’re on there, ping me; let’s be buddies!)
Anyway, I’m off for a week of relaxation, because I think I’ve earned in. There will be reading and playing computer games and a whole lot of messing around on the internet.
And then it’s time for some of that fixing.