On completing NaNoWriMo

nano_09_winner_120x240National Novel Writing Month is over, and I’ve won for the third year in a row. That is such a fantastic feeling! Even if you’re not a writer, I highly recommend doing NaNoWriMo at least once. Being given a deadline might be the thing that makes you actually do it.

And if you are a writer, I can’t think of a better exercise. I learn so much every year, and this year was the best yet.

I learned about focus, only reading or watching things that had to do with my story, mostly research about all the different risks to human civilization since this year’s novel was apocalyptic (of course). And therefore I learned a lot about climate change, hurricanes (especially Katrina), epidemics, and what will happen to the earth when all or most of the humans are dead. I’ll review some of the documentaries and books I’ve been going through, it’s fascinating stuff. Anyway, by keeping my head in the story, something was germinating all the time, and I never ran out of ideas.

This is totally obvious, but believe it or not it’s always been hard for me. I’m interested in a lot of different things, and my attention is easily diverted. Now I’ve seen how well it works, it’s easy to be disciplined about it.

I learned that plotting is fun. Conflict and plot have always held me up before, in fiction. In my third year of forcing myself to write a novel anyway, I’ve found that it comes easier and easier. And the interplay between character and event – this is what it’s all about.

There’s a feeling I get in my mind when I’m writing, like I’m turning over the most fascinating puzzle in the universe in my hands. I love that feeling. And it’s gotten clearer every year.

I’ve also learned that these stories I have in my head, built up over a lifetime of not writing as much as I wanted to (mainly because of depression), are discrete entities. A character that lives in one story most likely has no place in another. And certain characters are essential to the story they’re in. In week 3, I discovered a “new” character, a tall, gangly man, not conventionally attractive yet my main character was attracted to him, and I wrote his back story and their principle interactions. And then in week 4, going through some notes from earlier this year, I discovered that I’d made rough notes on just such a character, minus the back story, without knowing quite why I needed him, nor why he needs to look like that. In so many ways, this story already exists, I’m just letting it out.

This is the kind of thing that makes me feel like a writer. The magic happens mostly deep underground; my job is to shape what grows, and to keep mulching.

Here’s another example. Last year as I was writing, I kept getting images that really belonged to the apocalypse novel. I did my best to incorporate them into last year’s story, but it became clearer and clearer that these were two separate stories, with different themes and a different mood and all of that. For the next year, I’ll be performing surgery on that novel, separating them like conjoined twins. And working to complete the apocalypse novel as well. And I already have an idea for what I’m doing to write next November. I’m so excited!

I’ll publish some excerpts here once they’re in any kind of shape to be seen. The draft produced by writing at top speed for 30 days is what Stephen King calls a “closed door draft,” one that’s not meant to be seen by anyone but the author. You absolutely need to give yourself permission to suck, in order to take the risks necessary to achieve greatness. This method works for me. And I don’t know about you, but I need to clear some of this stuff out of my head, so I can see what’s underneath.

I’m so grateful to Chris Baty and everyone involved in National Novel Writing Month, for providing this opportunity for me and roughly 160,000 other people all over the world. I’m grateful to the folks who read the Character and Plot Realism forum, asking and answering such wildly divergent questions. I’m grateful for the encouragement of my friends.

And I’m so very grateful that I can do this.

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