Overcoming the Monster: National Novel Writing Month — Rising to the challenge

How do you even begin to write a novel? Senior Lecturer Jon Mackley offers a helping hand…

We’re approaching November which is National Novel Writing Month. The idea of writing a novel in those 30 days is upon us. The concept is that you may start at a minute past midnight on Tuesday 1st November, and complete 50,000 words (around 200 pages) by 23.59 on 30 November.

Where do I even begin?

For many people, this idea would fill them with dread. It’s the abandonment of any kind of social contact for a month and instead pouring your soul into a story and drinking your entire body weight in espresso on an hourly basis. Often when writers start a story, the idea of filling a mountain of blank paper with words is terrifying. However, if you are reasonably able to commit the time, then the demand to sit down and write a certain amount within a certain time is actually a demand that you stop doing all the tasks that you unconsciously do to AVOID writing that book (“I couldn’t possibly have time to write a book at the moment, not when I have to put all the coins in my penny jar in date order”!) November is the time that the nights are drawing in — no evenings to enjoy a cheeky glass of wine in the garden. The days are getting colder. Leaves have gone from being colourful wallpaper and golden snowfall to a sludgy trip-hazard. Surely this is a time that you’d rather find a small corner to hide in with a notebook or a laptop and dream your way until spring.

By signing up to the NaNoWriMo challenge you are actually publicly daring yourself to start that novel: it’s like telling people that you’re going to quit smoking or abstain from drinking for a month. If you tell people about it, it makes it more real. And there’s plenty of support on the NaNoWriMo website. The first thing you’ll find is if there is a local support groups (who organise socials and offer support — critical if you’re not associated with a local Creative Writing cohort, like we are at the University). There are also idea generators and warm up exercises, as well as encouragement to start thinking about a cover illustration and provide a short summary. I have previously written on National Novel Writing Month with some suggestions on how to approach it. But for now, as the timebomb ticks down and November is getting closer, you may want to jot down some ideas to flesh out your characters. What do they look like, the kind of things they might say.

The idea of plotting a story might also feel as pleasurable as chewing lemons infused with razor blades. You may have a general theme — some characters that you want to write about, or a particular plot, but not how to execute it or what happens along the way (and this is the most dangerous thing for an author — writing yourself into a corner and not able to see a way out). Since the dawn of literary criticism, authors have suggested that there are only a finite number of stories. Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale shows that general themes can be applied to almost any story (one of his examples is as applicable to Hamlet as it is to the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope and The Lion King). There’s a discussion an examples of Propp’s plot functions here.

You may want to think about the themes of storytelling more broadly: it’s argued that almost every story falls into one (or more, or even all) of these headings. Christopher Booker (who has one of the coolest names for someone who writes about literature) lists them as:

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; and Rebirth.

For example: “Overcoming the Monster” is as appropriate to Jaws as it is to Beowulf. But the monster does not have to be literal — it could be figurative: passing a driving test, dealing with addiction, escaping from an abusive relationship … or even writing a novel in a month. These are all monsters of some sort.

Again, there’s a really useful discussion about these basic plots and examples here.

Booker’s list is very useful, but (I feel) there are some gaps within it, or perhaps some of the terminology is just a bit TOO broad. In Secret Window, Secret Garden, Mort Rainey is a successful author (often the occupation of the protagonists in Stephen King’s novels) who expounds that there are only SIX basic plots:

Success, Failure, Love and Loss, Revenge, Mistaken Identity; and The Search for a Higher Power.

Again, there are an infinite number of stories that fall into these categories. The Search for a Higher Power, for example, could be the search for the divine, or the Holy Grail, or knowledge, or wisdom, or a lost civilisation, or a magical flute, or most importantly, in the words of one of my favourite films, the search for “twu wuv”! Or perhaps the mythical publishing contract.

Furthermore: if you add “good news” and “bad news” to these, as Kurt Vonnegut does, then it opens the narrative to rather formulistic permutations.

I have been around a few ideas for novels for some time now. Some of them have been on a slow boil — the kind of ideas where I picked out the characters, the plot, the background but didn’t have the event that kicked everything into motion; or the one where the characters seemed to be doing their own thing and not doing what I wanted them to do. In the summer, however, my muse came and sat with me for a little while. She explained that there was a story that she wanted me to tell. There were only two main characters, that the principal theme of the story tied in with my own interests, so there wasn’t too much research involved. “So,” she said sweetly. “All you have to do is go off and write it.” And then she gave me a little kiss on the forehead and flitted away. And that was the last I saw of her. She left me with all the hard work. I did dictate a couple of lines here and there, sitting in bus shelters and just before I went to sleep. (This has become a lot more socially acceptable with mobile phones — previously when people were seen talking to themselves, eyebrows were raised, questions were asked …) But when I ran what I’d recorded through Dragon Dictate, I found a stream of conscious paragraph with no punctuation which uses the wrong words such as: “the services I half-moon with his corona around is the warm breeze feeling of ground”. Nope, me neither.

So I’ve cleared out a couple of my own projects so my desk is looking slightly clearer (or more honestly, I’ve put lots of piles of papers in boxes and stacked up books on the floor). I’ve also been on the NaNoWriMo website. I’ve signed up. I’ve put in my title, put in a cover, been thinking about the kind of things I want to reveal in my story (I have medals on my profile for doing all these things). I’ve linked myself with a couple of social media groups (my location is between two groups). I’m champing at the bit, and November is upon us. And it’s both exciting and terrifying.

Readers are a fickle bunch and decide very quickly whether they want to invest time in reading a story. They may decide in the first couple of lines whether they are going to read on. If you’re struggling with the beginning of the story — and many of us do — you may find some help in an article that I wrote on beginning your novel.

Can you really write a novel in a month? I know that it’s possible, I have done it (even with a full time job, but also with a VERY patient girlfriend). The only advice I’ll give is try to get extra words into the “bank” just so you can have an evening off.

Will it be any good? Let’s be frank: you’re not going to write War and Peace. You’re not going to write One Hundred Years of Solitude or And the Mountains Echoed. But that isn’t the objective of what you’re writing. What you want is a first draft. It won’t be perfect. Most likely it will be far from perfect. But that’s the point. A first draft isn’t perfect and it might well not end the way you expected it to end. But at least you will have a complete draft. It’s something that’s uniquely yours. So once it’s done, put it in a drawer for a month. Reacquaint yourself with your family. Remind your friends that you haven’t just been backpacking in an alternate dimension. When you go back to the novel with a more critical eye you’ll find that second draft is about tightening up the story. CRAFTING your story. Edit it and get rid of flabby phrases, purple prose and all those sections where you are actually saying “look how clever I am” or when you were writing simply to meet your word count of the day. Cut out plot lines that don’t work; enhance those that do; and lay down some foreshadowing and red herrings. And then perhaps put it away for another month and another round of revision. Or get ready to introduce it to the world.

One final thought: novels don’t have to be written in order — they rarely are. If your muse gives you a ball, then run with it, and paste it into your master document with just a short summary of what happens between where you have ended your scene and where you think this next scene is going. You’ll see your word count grow, even if your story has gaps in it at times when you’re inspired. Much better than sitting for a day in front of a blank page. That’s REALLY frustrating.

If you commit yourself to writing a novel in NaNoWriMo, then you’re daring yourself to write. And the muse will likely come and find you and help you along the way. To quote Picasso: Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.

Jon Mackley is Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing and is author of the six novels including The Gawain Legacy, Cthulhu Rising and Twisting Fate’s Arm. And soon to be the author of Secrets of Albion.

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