Sunday, November 30, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 Lessons Learned

Michael Salsbury
I've participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for six consecutive years, and I've managed to complete the challenge every year.  It also seems that every year I have a point where I run out of steam and don't think I'm going to finish.  This year was one of the worst in that regard.  For about a week (the 18th through the 24th) I didn't write a single word on the novel - not one.  Despite that, I managed to "power through" during the last five days of the month and hit the goal on November 29.

I like to take the time each year after NaNoWriMo to think about how things went, lessons I learned, and things I can share with other writers trying to win NaNoWriMo.  Here are some things I learned this year, in no particular order:

  • Professional authors will tell you this, and I'm realizing it's true.  You have to put your butt in the chair and write.  Sitting around waiting for inspiration, browsing the Internet, or checking your email isn't going to get the words written.  
  • When it was all over, I realized that although I'd done a lot of preparation in October and plotted out a lot of the story, I didn't do nearly enough.  There were many little things that I felt were important in the story that I forgot to add to my notes.
  • I still have a "white room" problem.  It was a lot more forgivable in this year's story because a lot of it involves a human having a typed or spoken conversation with an artificial intelligence that lives in a computer.  An AI can't scowl, stomp out of the room, slam the door, or scream, so a lot of the "color" you might add in dialogue would be out of place.  Still, I need to do better here.
  • In this particular story, because so much of it happens in cyberspace, there's a very strong tendency to "tell" rather than "show".  In the rewrite, I'm going to have to think about how you can "show" something happening in cyberspace when (in reality) it would be completely invisible to a human observer.
  • Nearly all of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo this year focused on the artificial intelligence character. The humans mostly acted like cardboard cut-outs.  I need to work on that.
  • Raising the tension and action is still a problem for me.  I tend to get too close to my characters as I write, which allows them to see the obstacles I have in mind for them in the future.  This makes them start putting things in place to bypass the obstacles and dissolves the tension that might have existed.

There's one thing I learned this year that deserves a big call-out.  That's....

The Timeshift Reality Revision

More than some of the previous novels I've written for NaNoWriMo, I cared about this one.  I saw this story as a way to show a danger I see in the world, and provide a warning to readers about what could come to pass because of it.  For that reason, I kept bumping up against the limits of my writing skill.  Often, I would finish a scene or chapter and feel as though what was on the page was so much different from the vision in my head that I'd "wrecked" the story.  I wanted to trash what I'd written and start over.  Under normal circumstances, that would have been fine.  In NaNoWriMo, though, that could be disastrous.  The last thing you want to do is write 5,000 words, delete them, and write them again.  Besides, even if you didn't like the 5,000 words as a whole, there might be sentences, paragraphs, or lines of dialogue worth keeping.

What I decided to do was allow myself to rewrite those sections, but also allow the "bad" version to remain in place.  Whenever the feeling that I absolutely had to rewrite something struck me, I would insert a line break and add a sentence like "Suddenly, time rolled backward and reality shifted a bit."  I imagined that the "bad" stuff I'd just written occurred in another universe, and that time rolled back to the point where the story went off the rails.  I was now in a new universe where all that hadn't happened, and I could write it the way I wanted it to happen.  This gave me the mental permission to rewrite the text without deleting it.

Best of all, during the rewrite, if I find that there was something worth keeping in that older text, I didn't throw it away.  It's right there, right where it should be (approximately) in the story line.

This is something you might want to incorporate in your NaNoWriMo activity in the future.

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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