October 31, 2006

NaNoSeconds, Part III

And now, at the eleventh hour, I reveal my Big Secrets. Attend:

How I Hit 50k Four Years Running and You Probably Can, Too

It occurs to me that, this being my fifth (!!) year participating in NaNoWriMo, and having four-for-four shiny Winner bars to my credit for it, I might count as something like a Veteran; and it may be useful to share such wisdom as I have for how you might do the same.

And it should be cleared up now that I didn't have any particular breaks in being able to accomplish this. I work full-time and don't take vacation in November, and one year I did this around a three-and-a-half-hour roundtrip commute. I've written around massive depressive breakdowns, packing to move, weekends out of town, and the more mundane sort of complications of just maintaining life on top of everything else. This is all to say: Stuff will come up, and you can still manage this. And I am a spectacularly lazy person, and if I can pull this off four times in a row, there's hope for you.

Also, stuff I did not do includes many of the tricks mentioned by other forumites: no search-and-replace three-word names, no avoiding contractions, no extended dream sequences or excessive porn (note I did not say "none") - so help me and against all advice, I always come to this with a desire to write a good book, or at least one that doesn't make me cringe too badly on the reread. This is not meant to discourage any of you who want to use that sort of thing to pull you through, nor to speak ill of those who do, only to make the point again that they aren't necessary to succeeding in this.

The biggest thing - the simplest and hardest idea behind getting from Word 1 to Word 50,001 - is that you need to put one word after another until it's done. The truth is that it really comes down to that. Outlining is not writing; worldbuilding is not writing; making lists of your dramatis personae is not writing. Those can all be useful things, and I don't want to downplay them as helpful devices. But only writing is writing; anything that doesn't lead you right into the business of producing prose in a story might be getting in your way. You need to give yourself, or steal, as many hours of Butt-In-Chair time as it takes to do the actual writing of story. These don't need to be all in a row every day, depending on your schedule and particular needs (though it does help a great deal if you can break yourself of as many fetishistic crutches as you can - the Writing Hats and Special Tea Mugs and all the other stuff you're convinced you just can't be creative without - so you can better allow yourself to work anywhere), but you do need a number of them, and you need to put them to use without distracting youself too badly. Get your family on board if you can (this is one area in which I'm very lucky) so you can get sufficient time to isolate yourself and work.

And here's some slightly bad news: It's very true that some days the prose will flow out of your fingertips in golden splendor, and some days will feel like bricklaying with a hangover. You will look back at your manuscript three months later and not be able to tell which was which. There's no workaround for this, except to do your best to get your inner critic to shut up so you can work, and repeat for yourself the mantra "Keep going and fix it in the rewrite." (By the way, about half the stuff you hate the first time around will look good later, just as about half the stuff that feels brilliant will feel sort of lame in the long run. So it goes.)

All that being said, here are a few things that have made the above just a bit easier and smoother. I will not claim that they have anything like universal application, but I offer them up here nonetheless, in the hopes that some other poor bastard will find a gem among the dross and be inspired to keep on going through to the 50 large.

1. I write about people who interest me. This seems like a "well, hello" data point, except that I understand there are folks who find theselves saddled with stupid, insipid, boring people in their novels. Cut that out. Find some people who are intersting enough to obsess over; you'll be spending many, many waking hours in their company, so you might as well have them be people you want to get to know better. If that means you get a Mary Sue or two, so be it; better than the alternative. Keep going, and fix it in the rewrite.

2. I like doing multi-threaded narratives. This gives me a chance to alternate storylines and POV and such every other scene, and also gives me more Cool Shit to throw in. Even if I'm doing first-person, there are ways of breaking it up so that there's more than one linear plotline to be stuck with: backstory, digressions, vision quests, nonlinear plot tricks. Build stuff into your narrative that lets you do something different from one scene to the next, and the project's more likely to hold your interest.

3. That Cool Shit I mentioned? I don't hold back on it. My stories are always about the stuff that obsesses me. I like occult imagery, mysterious immortals, dimension-hopping, cities at night, tentacled monsters, smart, tough women, and Magicians in Big Coats. My intended audience is Other People Who Think That Stuff Is Cool. I couldn't function if I allowed myself to be self-conscious about all that; as with characters, it's going to be what I'm immersed in for as long as I'm working on the novel, so I'd better be keeping my own interest in it while I'm there.

4. I do a very broad outline beforehand - enough to have certain things I'm working towards just to keep things moving, but not enough to feel restrained if new ideas present themselves. I also keep a list of bits - ideas or scenes - I'd like to include, so I have some things to fall back on if I really get stuck. A lot of these are diversions; this is in some ways easier because I'm a genre writer, and I can usually find a place where it's useful to stop and explain something about my world or cosmology that's good for an easy five hundred words. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's better to put it in when you're thinking about it - you can change, move, or delete it later as needed, and in the meantime you've distracted yourself enough that you can probably pick your storyline back up again. (Keep going, and fix it in the rewrite.)

5. I make sure there are lots of reversals going on to keep the plot itself moving. Again, this is probably easier because I'm doing pulpy adventure fantasy, where fights, captures, escapes, attacks by gruesome Things, and other derring-do are de rigeur, but I'm sure that sort of thing can be transposed or translated to whatever you're doing. If the people I'm writing about are bored, I'm not doing my job. A sticky situation to get out of is good for an awful lot of words.

6. Keep going, and fix it in the rewrite.

And, uh, that's about it. The rest is detail. I'm happy to take questions if there's anyone who wants to ask 'em.

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