08 December 2011

NaNoWriMo: Looking Back On My Experience

Well November is over, and as the moustaches fall and clean shaven faces are once more looked upon gratefully by family members and co-workers who put up with thirty days of dirty looking, unfashionably manscaped faces; I too have come to the end of a little journey of my own.

NaNoWriMo is over, and I have my novel. Though it isn’t finished exactly, I have shot past the required fifty thousand words and am happy to call myself a ‘winner’.
My novel, Fourth Rock, is something which I am pretty proud of. Having never really written anything beyond the required English pieces back in 2002, it was great to just get out there and let my imagination run riot. I have often toyed with the idea of writing in a more professional sense, but as I haven’t really had any proper exposure to it, it has forever remained a bit of a pipedream of mine.
NaNoWriMo however turned out to be just what I needed; in more ways than one.
It gave me motivation to actually get out there, start writing, and actually stick with it for once. Too often I have written a few thousand words of a tentative story, before I gave up at the hopelessness of it all, and abandoned the beginning moments of plots, burgeoning characters and promising dialogue. NaNoWriMo gave me a set time to do something; I had thirty days, and I had to write something. It was self imposed homework.
But along with the motivation of a concrete deadline, it also gave me a pretty good excuse. If my novel was crap, well what else were you to expect? After all I was seeking to write a novel in thirty days. Sure Agatha Christie may have been able to churn out bets selling novels in a month, but hey; I’m no writer, so cut me some slack. NaNoWriMo takes away some of the pressure by forcing you to just do it. You don’t have to spend ages crafting your masterpiece, and feel devastated when people critique it. Consequentially I can be happy with the fact that my novel is basically a cool story, with a hopefully interesting plot. There is no real character development, but what the hell; I can save that for a novel that I don’t have to write in thirty days, and that I can actually plan out in advance.
Apart from motivation (and an excuse for crapness), NaNoWriMo also gave me some sorely needed practise. The deadline was not only good at inspiring me, but it also makes you face up to things that generally you might want to leave aside for a while. I enjoy writing plot, and thinking of storylines, and character backgrounds; but I have never really stuck with anything long enough to have to worry about things like dialogue, or actually describing characters doing things.
It took me a few days to get used to the fact that as I was writing my story, I had to not only describe how conversations worked, but also what the characters were doing while this happened, and how to present this in a way that wasn’t terminally boring.
“Hello” John said
“Hello to you too” Ryleah said.
“How about this weather” Said John
“Yes, how about it” replied Ryleah.

It is a bit wooden if you don’t learn how to actually make it sound like the books you read. My problem in the beginning was to simply try and write dialogue as I would imagine a conversations transcript to be. No indications of who was saying it, or even in what context or tone they were saying it in. Is it a reply, was it a shout, or did they enquire? Were they saying this to anyone in particular, or in any direction? I had to think about all of this, and what’s more I had to do it over, and over again.
This repetitiveness is also useful in that you begin to notice your faults more so than you usually would when writing, as you are doing it in such a short time span. It was when I looked at a couple of paragraphs and noted that most of my sentences began with the same thing (‘He did this....,’ He did that...’), that I realised I needed to make sure that I wasn’t just describing things sentence after sentence, but rather that I was telling a story, which is more than just quotes and descriptions.
Basically I only really had experience writing broad strokes; now I had to paint in the details.
As you might also expect, NaNoWriMo sucks up a lot of your time; so much so that I neglected my blog for pretty much the whole of November. I remember when I was ten days into November, I tried to write a blog post about my experience thus far. I ended up abandoning the post upon realising that I had a cool idea of a way my main character could escape his latest predicament. So after I ditched my blog for a while, and spent the rest of the night details my detectives escape from an assassin in a dust storm, I decided it was best to just put aside blogging for the month, and keep all my writing focused in one area: my novel.
I did however write this much for the blog:
“It is getting to the point where I am really committed now. Characters are set, and plans are in motion that I don’t really have time to alter anymore. There were some things I wanted to include that I know I can’t really fit in now. Goodbye biologist love interest, and so long Martian prostitutes (I am glad to do away with these, so that I no longer have to have a couple of my mates insisting on the inclusion of a three breasted woman, ala Total Recall).”

[Note: Though looking back at this now I am somewhat happy to note that the biologist love interest did make it in to the novel, though I accidently ended up killing her off prematurely, so now she is just a flashback.]

Another great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it makes you feel ridiculously cool. When people ask you what you’ve been up to you can reply nonchalantly “Oh, this month I’m just writing a novel.”
One day I even applied for leave form work and spent half the day in Irish Murphy’s drinking pints of Guinness and typing away on my iPad. It felt great to be devoting my time to writing a novel, especially when my time was during work hours, and I was accruing leave loading. Though by the end of the sixth pint my writing was getting a bit sloppy.

It was interesting seeing how my story grew during NaNoWriMo. Much differently than it would have had I not been worried about the deadline looming at the end of the month that’s for sure.
I was reluctant to write some of the scenes I knew had to take place in my novel; the complex fight scenes, the scenes where my characters drew their motivation, or the introduction scenes for my main character. So I ended up not only delaying myself, but also the characters themselves, who would suddenly have so much to do, whereas beforehand they were sitting idly by.
Around a third of the way through I began to worry. I had decided all these cools things I wanted to happen, and yet I had left most of them unwritten. Instead I moved on with the happenings that caused them, and the consequences of them.
This is in part because I didn’t think I had the ability to write them, and also because I didn’t quite know enough details yet to make it work. I had scenes of my ‘hero’ getting recruited, but no actual cause or motivation given to him. I had him on the ‘case’, but never defined what the case was.
Another thing I had been shying away from was describing the characters looks. I am notoriously bad at describing people, or even noticing that people’s looks appearances have changed. I blame in part my mum, and my sisters; the latter of which are hairdressers (and thus change their hair styles more than I do my underwear), and the former is often their client. So after years of variable hairstyles I am now immune to noticing change. Consequentially, I am the last person you would want to identify a criminal (but possibly the first person you would want to commit a crime near).
I initially dealt with this the same way I was dealing with many things I was referencing, but hadn’t yet fleshed out; by the inclusion of gibberish. Check out the first sighting of my main character for instance:
“From behind the truck a #$#$##$##$# man strode into view. He was 34234234234234”
I didn’t have a description, I didn’t have a name. But I could tell you that he had a truck, brewed scotch on Mars, would have his ring and little fingers shot off, and any other number of irrelevant points of interest.
Indeed it wasn’t until the last five days that he finally got a last name at all. I had gone with John as his first name, because it is a very common sounding name, and that’s what I wanted (sorry Johns). You’re every day Martian dude. Yet I couldn’t find a last name that actually stuck with me. In the end it was my wife who provided the answer to the problem when she suggested the surname Murphy. It struck me as having that ‘feeling’ that I was searching for for my main character, don’t ask me why.
My main character now had a full name; John Murphy.

I ended up naming pretty much all my human characters after people I knew. The young policy advisor for the Martian Secretary was Leigh Gibbs, a portmanteau of two of my mates’ names. The Secretary was Carol Weybury, again a blend of two people who happen to sit near me at work. The assassin is Ryleah, my niece. The gadget man is Jesse, my nephew. I wanted a Chinese name so I picked Molly, the guide my parents use when they are in China (Molly is her name, and she is Chinese, therefore it is a Chinese name, ok?). I used the name Ha for the flashback biologist love interest, as that was the name of my lecturer in mathematics, and I didn’t want to populate my future vision of Mars with any anglocentric bias.

I was never under the impression that I would be writing in a linear, start to finish pattern when I started NaNoWriMo. Instead I had some interesting ideas that I wrote out, and was trying to tie together into one long narrative. What’s more I was surprised to find that after a few days it was actually working! Things were tying together. Formerly unrelated ideas suddenly made more sense if I connected them.
I often found myself running back in the story, and placing some foreshadowing to a future event, or perhaps a less obvious or explicit placement of a ‘Chekov’s gun’ style implement, which would serve its purpose later on. Or I would have my character in a bind, and then remember that I had handily placed an Impact Hammer in my story earlier, though that wasn’t even a real life tool (at least the kind I used).
It is a great feeling to all of a sudden realise that you can do something really cool in your story, especially when it is utilising some mundane element you had written in earlier. If you give your characters tools in their story, and furbish them with enough smarts, they are often able of finding their way out of situations you have created for them without any real solution in mind.

In the beginning I had grand plans for my novel, very grand plans. However as the writing went on, and I practised describing things, authoring conversations, and narrating inner monologues; I soon began to notice the word count expanding, while my opportunities for new characters, setting and chapters diminishing. I would spend pages describing a computer, or a rover, and forget that I had whole character to introduce, and plot points to uncover. Not to mention the whole story resolution thing I hear you are meant to put at the end of a novel.
Some of the people I had imagined as main characters were now no longer even in the story, whereas others who had been introduced merely to make way for a plot point or another characters introduction, were now so well introduced that they suddenly had their own back story!
As I mentioned earlier, there are no real character arcs in my story. They may find themselves thrown around the solar system, losing fingers, fighting for their lives, losing their freedoms, or making friends; but the characters themselves don’t really grow. Characters arc in a way that you want them to; this story was written on the fly. Sometimes I didn’t even know how a character was going to get out of their bind until I had written up to that point.

So now I find myself now, sitting at home with my sixty-five thousand plus novel at approximately 80% completion, with a bit less motivation, and somewhat more fatigue on the writer’s front. This is why it has taken me a while to get back into blogging.
I need to churn out the last few chapters and fillers as quick as I can, and edit it as roughly as I can. It may be tempting now that the deadline is gone (and I am a winner!) to give into my slovenly nature, and slowly pull the pieces together, however I can see one big problem with this: I lose my best excuse!
I can no longer proudly point out my own attempt at novel writing, and then cover my bases with critics by standing behind the excise of having written it in 30 days. If I spend too long editing and writing, then I will have put in too much effort for it to suck legitimately. Then it would just plain suck
So the way I look at it is a bit of a technicality. Yes the NaNoWriMo rules let you win whilst only having written the first fifty thousand words of your novel. It is after all a motivational tool at its heart.
However if I look back at my NaNoWriMo log I note that I had roughly seven days of no writing at all. These were generally weekends. So I am using these surplus days as my ‘fill the gaps’ days, so that I can spread them out over the next week, and finish off my first attempt at a novel.

In closing, I must say I would definitely recommend NaNoWriMo for anyone who likes the idea of writing a story, or even those who don’t. It’s a great way to start up your writing bug, and also learn a little bit about yourself in the process. It’s also a fantastic way of reminding yourself of your own potential.
It’s like Angus Kidman from Lifehacker pointed out after taking part in NaNoWriMo for the second time; if I have managed to write a gods damned novel in one month, then what’s my excuse for being so unproductive in the other 11 months?

So with that over, and with my semi-triumphant return to blogging, I bid you adieu, and look forward to being able to apply myself back to this blog, and hopefully with a slightly improved writing ability.
[Note: This blog post in itself is over 2,700 words, so if anything I have at least learnt to enhance my quantity of writing, if not my quality.]

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