In which I alienate my fellow NaNoErs.
I signed up for National Novel Writing Month this year for a few reasons, but chief among them was that I had resisted doing it in previous years. NaNoWriMo seems set up for people who have a different set of problems with novel writing than I do, and I used that as a reason to not participate. My problem is not that I don’t add words every day or that I procrastinate or that I have “writer’s block.” My problem is that I have a bunch of animals in my house that will starve or (more likely) eat each other if I don’t stop writing for a few minutes a day. Four thousand words a day would be no problem for me if I didn’t have anything else to do, so NaNoWriMo didn’t seem like something for me.
However, I did think it would be fun and I made up my mind to stop thinking of myself as different from other writers. NaNo started on the same day that I made this decision (Halloween) and I noticed three friends announced they were signing up, so I decided to go for it. It was fun to log in every day and add to my word count, watch it add up, see the graphics and keep track of progress. I checked in with friends, and it was fun to encourage people. Since I naturally assumed I was different from all other writers, I dismissed everyone’s talk of how much it helps to have a deadline and a goal to go with that. I discovered that it was motivating, however, in a fun way rather than in the “Oh my goad” sort of way I imagined. I had already written 14,000 words of The Last Omen and so I figured I would have only a little bit further to go toward my first draft goal of 100,000 words when I finished November.
As of today, however, I am throwing in the towel. The process I used to write what I have so far (about 50,000 words) is not working, and I had to pause for a few days for some worldbuilding and rethinking about this book. I am not disappointed in this decision so don’t send me your stupid sad emojis or sympathy tweets. I know I could have done it (for all of you who say “you got this!”), but in this case, I think the best decision is to stop writing and rethink the book.
My process for this book was going to be different from my first two novels, and I resolved not to “pants” this one but to carefully plot things out to make sure I had all the bases covered before I started. I began with an idea and mulled that over for a few weeks while I built the world and wrote teasers. I drew maps, came up with a structure of society and a history and conflicting parties. The kernel of the story is a conflict between two women, one of whom is an evil sorceress. I came up with a basic three act structure that could fit into 100,000 words and outlined about thirty scenes, complete with a quest and a thrilling climax. I only wrote an overview of each scene, but as I write I come up with a sequence of rising action that occurs in each scene. I keep all of this in an Emacs Org-Mode file. This is what I did rewriting The Queen’s Night and Firesage and it worked really well to make sure each scene made sense and progressed the plot.
And for a few weeks I kept adding words way ahead of schedule. It looked like I would finish NaNoWriMo on November 24. No problem. Except there was a problem: the pacing of the book was way off. There were problems with the setup of the world that made it seem preposterous. What I had set up the characters to do just wasn’t believable. I began to see the wisdom of Orson Scott Card’s prescription against using rich powerful people as main characters (he actually uses Captain Kirk as an illustration, but the point is the same). Rich people can’t go anywhere alone or without someone noticing, so unless they kill someone and have to escape (unless people would find out anyway, that is) going on a clandestine quest is hard.
The biggest problem I found, however, was the very POV problem I found with The White Queen where it wasn’t so believable that my main character would actually be at the center of the action when her husband loses his mind. I only had one storyline, and beginning to tack on other storylines was starting to make a mess of things. Some of this came down to worldbuilding, some of it came down to just not knowing the characters or being able to think in the way that the characters believably would in that situation. The point is I know I could write a better book if I just step back for a little bit and change my approach.
I have never trusted the idea that outlining the book would “ruin it,” and I think my passion for pantsing was really rooted in laziness (and in that sense Firesage wasn’t really written by the seat of anyone’s cloak), but I did find myself in the situation where none of the scenes I outlined gave the characters time to think about what to do. It was much more like a play in that every scene had a huge dramatic impact, and the characters were just marching toward destruction instead of taking false steps, thinking about where they should go and really negotiating their world. I had let dramatic sequence take over instead of letting naturalistic sequence play any role. That left me with a narrative that was disjointed and the characters’ actions seemed unmotivated, as much as I thought the opposite would happen.
I decided to try a hybrid approach where I’m not going to strictly outline what happens in each scene, or even think of specific scenes, for the first draft, but instead (courtesy of Brandon Sanderson) I’m going to outline the key events and “discovery write” the sequences that lead there. I’m also going to pause and think about how the characters really would handle the world, which is hard to do when everything is already outlined. Although I have already written plenty of surprising events into this narrative, they seem to come up too fast. Even though surprises are supposed to be surprising, having them come too fast can be really weird.
So that’s the flaw I’ve found with NaNoWriMo, but I’m thankful that setting the deadline and participating allowed me to find this way to change how I start a new book. Writing 50,000 words of a novel is something I’ve already done 19 times so I didn’t need a special event to convince me I could do it. Nevertheless it was fun while it lasted.