NaNo WriMo? More Like NaNo Slo-Mo for Me.
November is just another month this year, but there’s hope I am on the way to a breakthrough.
November is National Novel Writing Month — NaMoWriMo. The idea is to write an entire novel (at least 50,000 words of one, at least) within the month. Whenever November rolls around, this event is front of mind for most writers, even if they don’t plan on writing a novel in 30 days.
Although all sorts of people compete against themselves and win, it’s generally agreed that most writers are either plotters, pantsers, or some combination. Plotters outline all of their novel until they know what will happen. Then they write the draft. Pantsers — so called because they write “by the seat of their pants” — write more or less without any outline at all. As you can imagine, most writer’s processes are somewhere in between these two extremes.
Because plotting tends to lead to a faster draft, a lot of NaNoWriMo participants lean toward the plotter side. And this makes sense, because those who write their stories without an outline — pantsers –usually have to write more slowly because they aren’t sure where they are going. My experience has been that writing a draft without an outline can mean much more revision is needed for subsequent drafts.
I say “my experience” because most of what I’ve written has been pantsed. Even when I have a great (OK, decent — well, adequate, anyway) outline, I tend to run the train directly off the rails. This plot point doesn’t feel right. Would my character really do this? Let’s do this instead. What if I add this idea to the plot? Soon I’m miles away from the outline, and, invariably, I am stuck. “What happens now?” I ask myself. My response, “I don’t know genius. You were the one to take us off track in the first place.”
Sadly, my experience has led me to wonder — more than once — if I was meant to be a novelist. I tried plotting. I’ve done more than my share of pantsing. Truthfully, I’m often neither plotter nor pantser.
I’m a plotzer.
That is, I get so frustrated, I throw my hands up and go plotz on the couch in a fit of pique, anxiety, and depression.
Things are starting to look a little brighter, though. I have been trying something different and, for now, it seems to be working.
The Sordid Details (or How I Got Here)
First some back story.
Every year I kick around the idea of doing NaNoWriMo. A couple years ago I even started writing, but I was mostly pantsing it, having not started outlining. I eventually gave up and started outlining the book. Somewhat. I still ended up pantsing most of it.
And that’s when I learned that I couldn’t just pants my way to a novel. The result wat pretty dismal. And short. About 60,000 words.
So I plotted out the rewrite, completely reworking the story. I added characters. Killed off characters. Changed events. Still, I got about a quarter of the way in and had no idea where to go with the thing. That, and the idea that the main character is some kind of magical cop — in 2020 — just didn’t sit right with me. So I scrapped it and went back to the novel I have always wanted to write. I always wanted to wait on this one until I had some writing chops, especially in writing a novel. It was best that the first novel draft flop was a totally different book. Now I had that out of my way.
So how to write the outline? How do I put in beats? How do I make sure it build tension etc.? How do I ensure there is no block halfway through?
While this was running through my mind, something else was happening. My wife and I are both writers. She was rereading Dorothea Brand’s For Writers (or whatever it’s called). Brand suggests writing every morning for 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter what it is: your shopping list, your hopes and fears for the day, your rough draft of a Medium story.
I had a few mornings where I wasn’t sure what to write about and just talked about the world in general. I also wrote a handful of Media stories this way.
But what began to be the morning theme was writing about my novel. That’s right — writing about it. It’s kind of like a treatment. I just start writing about the characters and what happens first. I had an opening scene and have completely rethought it. I eliminated a character and gave more backstory to another one.
Hmmm, This Might Work
As I wrote, the story — not just the plot of the novel, but the story of these characters, their families, the neighborhoods in which this takes place — all came alive.
I’m still working on it. It’s kind of like writing a treatment for a movie script: first this happens, then this happens, etc. Once I am done I can turn it into an outline. I’ve never been more confident that I will eventually actually finish a novel and the first draft won’t stink so bad I have to take it right out to the garbage can.
I Have to Learn It Will Get Messy
Someone might ask why I don’t just pants the novel and then outline and rewrite it. I’ve wondered myself, but finally realized it’s about permission. Giving myself the permission to make a mess. Often I will get to a point and not know how to get our intrepid characters out of a scrape, or what will happen next to move the story along. When that happens, I just start brainstorming. I haven’t stopped writing the story, just taken a few minutes away to figure out the next step.
I don’t know why, but when I am drafting a novel I don’t give myself permission to do that. Somehow, if it’s a draft, I feel like it has to be pristine. I can’t make it messy. As a writing teacher, I should know better — the draft is always the “sloppy copy.” Somehow, though, I can’t get my mind to go there, so I just write about all of the characters in third person, even though the draft will be written in first person from the main character’s point of view.
As I said, this is the most confident I’ve ever been about long-form fiction I am writing. I always feel like I just get so far and break down. I guess whatever gets my thoughts onto the page is what works.
November is Just Another Month This Year, but Maybe I’ll Finally See Results
So, no, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I have struggled enough just to write something, and it took me far longer than a month. I will stick to my slowpoke method for now, but can’t wait to be able to say this part is finished so I can go on and use it to build an outline. And then a somewhat coherent draft. It will probably take me until middle of next year to get that far, but it is something to look forward to.
How do you write your fiction? Are you a pantser? Plotter? Some of both? I’d love to hear your method in the comments.