Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My NaNoWriMo 2011 Experience

Michael Salsbury
For the last three years, I've participated in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge run by The Office of Letters and Light.  And for the third time, I've managed to win by creating 50,000 words of original fiction between November 1 and November 30.

In 2009, the story I chose to tell was one that I found myself initially excited about.  I sat down in September and October and began working out the characters in the story, the major conflicts the characters faced, some information about their world, and a very vague story line.  When November 1 rolled around, I began writing furiously.  Well before November 30, I had over 50,000 words written.  When I looked back over what I had written, I realized that what I didn't have was a coherent story.  I had plot ideas I dropped in as I wrote, then later forgot about or abandoned.  I had situations I had set up to happen that, when I got them, didn't feel right anymore and went in a completely different direction.  It was a mess.

In 2010, I started a different story based on the same character as 2009's story.  This time, I started out with Dramatica Pro, and did a better job fleshing out the characters, their interactions, the conflicts, etc.  Before I sat down on November 1, I had created in Scrivener for Mac OS X a file containing every major scene I could envision for the story.  Each time I sat down to write, I filled in one of those scenes.  Before I'd completed all of them, I had hit my 50,000 words.  Exhausted from the effort, I stopped before finishing it.  I'm hoping to gather the strength to go back and revise it in the future.

This year, I was having a lot of trouble coming up with a story to tell.  A co-worker suggested creating an unusual situation and tossing some characters based on people I knew into it.  About 600 words into that tale, I realized I had no desire to continue.  I spent another few days trying to decide what I would write instead.  Then, I settled on an idea I'd thought about doing ages ago, based on reincarnation.  That idea had enough traction with me that I could plot out a story line and drop it into Scrivener for Windows.  An interesting thing began to happen, though.  The word count chart below shows it:

Early in the month, I had trouble motivating myself.  It took a couple of weeks to understand the reason why.  The stories I had done in 2009 and 2010 were stories I started out caring about, and then lost interest in.  Somehow, that lack of interest translated into the ability to crank out a story anyway.  My output those years was a lot more consistent, and I was finished a few days early on each one.

This year's story was different.  This was a story I cared about.  It's one I'd wanted to write for years, but didn't think I had the craft or the skills to do it.  It was a story I might actually want to publish.  That paralyzed me for a couple of weeks until I realized it.  Part of me knew that the 2009 and 2010 stories weren't good, but that didn't matter because I didn't really care that much about them.  This year's story, though, I wanted to do well.  And that desire to do it right caused me not to want to do it at all.  I began listening to that little voice in the back of my head telling me that I wasn't ready yet, that my writing wasn't good enough.  Once I realized that was the problem, it took some time and effort to tell myself "Hey, Hemingway himself always said the first draft of a story is crap.  If he felt that way about his work, it's OK if I feel that way about mine.  Even if this story turns out to be bad, no one has to read it but me and I can take as long as I need to revise it."  That helped.  It also helped to recall the words of Michael A. Stackpole, the New York Times bestselling novelist:  "You're the author, suck it up and write!"  (I actually had that put onto a t-shirt to wear when I write, back in August.)  Once I got past that block, I began to crank out a lot more words.  I managed as many as 6,000-7,000 in a single day in some cases.  I ended up writing over 35,000 words in two weeks.

The professional novelists I've had the opportunity to learn from (Aaron Allston, Timothy Zahn, and Michael Stackpole) tell a similar story.  The author plans for a character to do a specific thing in a specific scene.  When they write the story up to that point, sometimes a character will (metaphorically) turn to the author and say "No.  I wouldn't do that, not in a million years.  Here's what I'd do instead..."  The author usually ends up listening to the character and writing the scene that way.  Twice during this story, I had that happen.  At one point, the main character has been acting very strangely.  It's worrying him and his girlfriend.  I had planned for the girlfriend to hear about a trip he was planning to take and say something like "That's the last straw.  You've totally lost it.  I'm leaving you."  When I got to that point, she turned to the main character and said, "I'm worried about, and I'm going with you to help you settle this thing. You might need me."  I was surprised.

A bit later in the story, the main character is confronted with a group of people who are doing something pretty nasty.  It runs counter to everything he believes in.  In my original outline, he was going to take the opportunity to kill them, so that it would destroy their evil little organization.  As I was writing that scene, I could see it in my head like a movie.  When we got to the "now I'm going to kill you all" part, the character turns to me and says "Are you nuts? I don't kill people.  There's a whole other way out of this mess."  I watched the new scene unfold in my head and thought, "Wow... you're right.  Not only is this more in character with you, but it actually sets things up so we can do some really cool stuff later."  That one little detour made the story become more interesting to me, and the next 20,000 or so words flew by.

After the new year, I plan to pull this story out of mothballs and have a look at it.  I figure it will take several passes over it to turn it into a story I would actually show someone, but that's my ultimate goal with this one.  That's something new from last year.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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