Friday, December 2, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016: What I've Learned

For years, as far as I was concerned, NaNoWriMo wasn't for me. It was for people who couldn't get books written. Who didn't know how to budget their time. Who had ideas that they just didn't have an outlet for.

Well, that wasn't me, obviously. I do webcomics. I wrote my first full-length original novel when I was 13 (it was really bad, but by God, I wrote it). I write books now. I've been published... well, a respectable amount. That's not who NaNoWriMo is for. It's for people who need to know what it feels like to be a writer.

So here's the thing. After Inktober, when I discovered I was wrong about its purpose, I started to think maybe I'd been wrong about what NaNoWriMo was for, too. Besides which, I'd seen a fair number of published authors -- people who clearly have no trouble churning out a book a year or so -- talking about taking part. So clearly I had the wrong end of the stick again. And maybe I'd give it a go.

I did. And I won. A day early, largely because on my last day I finally saw what I wanted for the very end and went on a 3,000 word writing spree. It wasn't easy doing it every day. I'd just moved house and was still clearing out my old place. My sister who currently lives in Oregon was coming to visit for a week. I'd recently started a new part-time writing job. So I was fighting this one uphill all teh way.

But... I did it. And I was right. Er, right about being wrong, I mean. It's not just for people who've never finished a book or never been published. There's a lot to learn as a writer -- novelist or otherwise, published or otherwise.

First, to set the stage. Remember that not-great book I said I wrote when I was 13? It was one of a series of five fantasy books I wrote. None of them was that great, but by God, I was on board with some hardcore world-building. The core story was your typical kid-in-a-fantasy-world story -- girl goes to magical land, turns out to be its saviour, yadda yadda yadda. My prose was dry, my exposition was stilted, my characters... weren't bad but lacked motivation.

So my NaNoWriMo book was going to branch off from that. Specifically, a beta timeline. It's 20+ years since I wrote those characters, and those books were never published. A few scraps of chapters still remain on disks here and there, but nothing full, except for what I remember on my own. The book is much the same: what if Wendy, my protagonist, had never gone into that other world? What if she'd never discovered her True Destiny or whatever I was going for? And what if, in her 30s, she and the people she knew still retained scraps of those memories in the Beta Line?

What I came up with was... pretty nifty. I think so, at least. My goal is to self-publish it via Kindle and CreateSpace once I've given it a good edit or two. But all those things in mind... here's what I learned:

1. You can't just give up for the day when you run out of ideas. My system for getting things written has always been 'Write until you're done for the day.' Sometimes that meant an inspired rush of 2-3,000 words. Sometimes it meant 100 words, a grumble, and a move on to something else. No such luck with NaNoWriMo. At least 1,667 words per day, ma'am. And if you've gotten to 500 and don't know what happens next, you have to keep going even so. Being required to develop the discipline to bend to the word goal rather than the ebb and flow of inspiration means I'm left with a lot of rough patches to smooth out. It also meant I finished, and that as time went on, those road blocks became easier to get over. On that point...

2. Killing a character really does get you past writer's block. I was stuck for ideas one day and lurked on the NaNoWriMo forums. I learned about the Traveling Shovel of Death, an in-joke/tool that's literally just... a shovel you kill someone with. Not shying from gore, I went ahead and smashed in the face of an affable one-off I'd created to deliver a piece of information, but who stuck around. To off him, I had to create a character to off him -- which, indirectly, led me to both create a valuable character and create an in-road for the pre-existing antagonist to make his entrance into the Beta Line. Ended up being one of the most powerful decisions of the story.

3. Take the story one chunk at a time. I'll admit, I had no idea how to end this book until the last day. Usually I plan hard, with every step and twist and turn choreographed. But here, I was taking something I'd created as a child and rebuilding it from the ground up. I had to age up characters and give them motivation (something I'd sucked at as a kid), and sort of let the plot happen as it went. What I ended up doing was plotting out what I would write that day as I showered. Just in the short term. What had just happened when I stopped writing yesterday? Where could I go from there? Shower time ended up being planning time.

4. Sometimes it's easier to backtrack than it is to plan. By the end of the book, I realised that I needed something to happen that required some foreshadowing -- or at least early mentions -- so it didn't pop up like some ridiculous Deus ex machina macguffin. Solution? Go back and find places to mention it. My lack of planning for it didn't prevent me from going back and quietly seeding it in. This obviously doesn't work for, say, series that are published a page or a book at a time. If the reader is getting your story on a slow drip, you need that level of planning. But if it's in one book, you're the only one who'll know. Hell, I nearly changed my mind and excluded the thing in question because of lack of foreshadowing, then remembered I was the only one who'd read the bloody book yet.

5. Let the characters do their thing. I mean, okay. I'm no stranger to characters doing what they want. It happens to me at least once per project. But here I had characters changing motivation on me mid-book -- as though they saw the path I'd set for them, went 'Nah,' and just jumped the tracks. The previous point comes into play here: it's okay to go back and fix things to suit what happens. A hard thing for me to remember as a creator of largely serialized content.

6. The more you write, the more you can write. Over the month, I noticed that forcing myself to write through blocks and speedbumps made all my writing easier. My news, my blog entries, my short stories, even my business emails. Stuff just flows better with less of a need for breaks. But I get the feeling that that's something I'll need to keep up to make it stick.

7. It still feels good to finish writing a book. Even if you write all the time, even if you've written books and short stories, man it still feels good to type that last word. Before, you know, you remember you're going to have to edit and re-edit and fix and probably rewrite a bunch.

Will I do NaNoWriMo next year? Hell yes, provided there's not something bigger hanging over me, because I recognise what an investment of time it is. But I love what I learned, I love what I accomplished, and I want to keep that up.