The Highway of Wind: My NaNoWriMo Novel

Three years ago, I did NaNoWriMo on a whim. With my trusty vim I wrote, or tried to write, 1667 words a day for 30 days. The result was The Highway of Wind, a completely unrevised stream-of-consciousness sci-fi/adventure novel. Forced to write on a deadline, I accidentally created a world heavily based on some of my favorite works, including but not limited to Dune, Ender’s Game, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. On a complete whim, I also included one of my coworkers, whose company I was glad for during my writing journey.

I learned two main things while writing my novel. First, I learned that my unconscious mind was whimsical, creative, organic, and candid in a way my conscious brain could never be. I strongly believe that the world I created is infinitely richer and more fascinating than any world of mine built from months of meticulous planning. My sleeping mind was not afraid to make reckless plot decisions for the sake of the story or create new rules and ideas without justifying their existence. These leaps of faith help tell a purer and more artistic story, in the same way that Miyazaki rarely precisely specified the rules of his worlds. The magic in Howl’s Moving Castle, the spirits in Spirited Away — explaining how they work would rob them of their wonder and joy.

There should be a balance, of course. My story doesn’t have to explain all the rules, but it should adhere to every rule it does reveal, lest it throw the reader for a loop and break immersion. In fact, TVTropes has a trope for this. Looking back, I think The Highway of Wind adhered to every rule it revealed, but did a poor job tying them into a consistent narrative. I’m OK with this; after all, while writing this novel, I never deleted a sentence after typing its period.

The second thing I learned from writing my novel is that written dialogue is completely different from real speech and is therefore difficult to write. Written dialogue boils normal dialogue down to its densest form by eliminating common fillers like stuttering and ums and forcing every sentence to advance the plot. In a way, every character is actually talking past every other character for the benefit of the reader. An example from Dune:

“Jessica, have you ever stopped hating me?” the old woman asked.
“I both love and hate you,” Jessica said. “The hate — that’s from pains I must never forget. The love — that’s…”

— Frank Herbert, Dune

And another:

“It’s — “ said Harry, who was finding this more awkward than he had anticipated, “it’s just — you’re dead. But you’re still here, aren’t you?”
Nick sighed and continued to gaze out at the grounds.
“That’s right, isn’t it?” Harry urged him. “You died, but I’m talking to you — you can walk around Hogwarts and everything, can’t you?”
“Yes,” said Nearly Headless Nick quietly, “I walk and talk, yes.”
“So, you came back, didn’t you?” said Harry urgently. “People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely. Well?” he added impatiently, when Nick continued to say nothing.
Nearly Headless Nick hesitated, then said, “Not everyone can come back as a ghost.”
“What d’you mean?” said Harry quickly.
“Only — only wizards.”

— JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

When I imagine real people talking this way, I realize just how different written dialogue is from normal diction. In written dialogue, oblique answers are the norm rather than the exception; see how rarely characters respond to questions with a direct “yes” or “no.” Instead, they ask and answer questions incisively to provide positive pressure on the dialogue, rather than defusing the pressure with a lone “yeah” or “nope” that leaves the conversation with nowhere to go.

When I first started writing dialogue, I produced conversations with real diction, which sounded silly and created no momentum. Because the conversation had no driving force, I struggled greatly to find something for the dialogue to do, so it took hours to write just a few lines. Subsequent dialogue improved greatly after I forbade my characters from ever directly answering a question.

Here’s an example of how direct answers create insipid and awkward conversations:

“You’ve met her?” says Royden incredulously.
“Yes,” the Might says.
“What are you two planning?” asks Royden.
“We have come to an agreement,” the Might says. “We are entering into a cessation of attacks on either of our sides, and shall cooperate to handle the threat of the outside world.”

When structured this way, the dialogue feels like an interview, rather than a tense and dramatic confrontation between good and evil. Also, the Might’s “yes” answer to the first question sounds stilted because we expect its answer to include an explanation of how they met. But adding such an explanation distracts from the drama and forces the author to come up with a plausible and consistent explanation.

Here’s a more dramatic and powerful version:

“You’ve met her?” says Royden incredulously.
“We have come to an agreement,” the Might says. “We are entering into a cessation of attacks on either of our sides, and shall cooperate to handle the threat of the outside world.”

— Me, The Highway of Wind

Things are so much more exciting that way!

The Highway of Wind

Well, here’s the final product. I’m glad I wrote it, but one NaNoWriMo is enough for me ;)

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