Sunday, December 2, 2012

Nanowrimo 2012: Lessons Learned

Michael Salsbury
I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month every year now since 2009.  I’ve found that each year I learned something new.  This year was no exception.  This year also taught me that there is a HUGE lesson that I still need to learn if I’m ever going to write something worth publishing.
Past NaNoWriMo events have taught me several things:
  • 2009:  I can sit down and organically write 50,000 words of fiction if I want to.  Before that I didn’t think I could.  Unfortunately, writing this way results in a meandering, boring bit of prose.
  • 2010:  If I brainstorm in advance, and have a decent picture of where I want the story and characters to go, I can hit the 50,000 word goal more easily and produce something with a bit of a story to it.
  • 2011:  Brainstorming down to the individual scene level makes writing a breeze for me, but if I go into too much detail I risk feeling like I’ve already written the story before I start.  That can be very de-motivating. 
  • 2009-2011:  I have an extreme tendency to avoid putting my characters into conflict, which results in fiction that isn’t interesting.  Even my characters tend to side-step conflict that I do include, because it’s out of character for them or they’re too smart to have gotten involved in the first place.
This year’s experience taught me a lot.  I learned that if I don’t have a very clear idea when I start, writer’s block will hit frequently.  Not only that, but my confidence gets very shaken, and this makes it even harder to write.  You can see this in my stats for Nanowrimo 2012:

As the chart shows, I wrote nothing on days 1 and 2.  I only had the vaguest notion of what I wanted the story to be.  On the third, I still had no idea but pushed myself to write something, anything.  This worked well enough until about the 13th, where at 24,000 words I felt out of ideas.  For several days, I wrote absolutely nothing.  After a chat with a co-worker and friend near the 18th, I gained a few ideas and got to around 38,000 words over the next few days.  Finally, I hit what felt like the steel-reinforced brick-and-mortar lead-lined wall of writer’s block.  I pushed myself to write one more scene, hoping it would trigger something.  And it did, but not what I expected.

I’ve heard of writers having written dialogues with their characters during brainstorming sessions. At this point in my story, the characters broke down that imaginary “fourth wall” between us.  They started complaining about the book they were in, about me, and cursing at me for writing them into it.  One of them even shot himself.  (This all happening in a trance-like writing state I experienced.)  The remaining character in the scene turned to me and began interviewing ME.  He asked questions like:
  • “So, we’ve been in my office about a dozen times since this book started.  What does it look like?”
  • “How is the office decorated?”
  • “Why don’t I have any family photos, or any photos, in my office?”
  • “Why did I have this particular desk lamp?”
  • “What does the artwork on the wall mean to me?”
  • “You mentioned there’s a safe on the wall behind that painting.  What do I keep in it, and why"?”
This conversation went on for about 7,000 words.  Then the character who shot himself returned as a clone of his former self, and went through something similar with me.  Suddenly, I found myself at 50,000 words of what was most assuredly fiction.  I had completed the challenge! 

I learned from this experience that I do much better fleshing out a character by having one of these stream of consciousness interviews than I do from any other technique I’ve tried.  I will definitely have to do this again for the next novel I write.  I’ve also learned that conflict is my biggest problem.  If I’m ever going to write a book anyone will enjoy reading, I’ve got to get that issue fixed.  Fortunately, I have some good resources on the bookshelf that should help.

I’ve also learned that writing flows most easily for me when I get into a meditative trance-like state and let things flow organically.  I can see and hear the characters speak, and need only transcribe what they’re saying and doing.  But this trance-like state only works to a certain point.  If I don’t know the characters well, and don’t know what kinds of challenges I’m planning to throw at them, writer’s block will quickly ensue.

Before I make my next attempt to write a novel, I’m going to try the following:
  • Enter that trance-like state and interview my potential characters to learn more about them before I put them in any situations.
  • Using good resources like Story Engineering and Plotting: A Novelist’s Workout Guide, brainstorm at least the major events of the story, getting down to the scene level if I can.
  • Take the time to examine those scenes to see where I can squeeze in additional, relevant conflict for the characters to deal with before they’re written.
I think if I can manage to do those three things, my next NaNoWriMo novel (or any work I write) will be much better and get me much closer to publishable.

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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