Why NaNoWriMo Doesn’t Work (and Why it Does)

I dunno what the Viking helmet is about.

I dunno what the Viking helmet is about.

Yesterday I wrote 7k words, in one sitting, because I’ve been thinking about a scene for nearly eight months. It as a huge milestone for me. I was GOING to write about how much I loved Writer’s Block. But instead, I’m going to write about something much more relevant (and maybe a follow-up about Writer’s Block).

Na No Wri Mo.

NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month is coming (say it like Game of Thrones‘ Winter is Coming). It sneaks up on little cat feet, born from the creativity of Hallowe’en (if you believe in celebrating it) or All Saints’ Day, spurned forward by extended vacations for Thanksgiving and too much cooked food, and perpetuated by a niche industry asking for donations in emails sent daily. It’s become known nearly everywhere in the writing community, and it’s only fifteen years old.

I like it, but have reservations about it. Here’s why:

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ChriDecWriMo

Yeah. I said it.

I had a red bull for the first time in, oh, three months, so bear with the thought process. I may be way too excited for something that simply doesn’t come across as interesting to the rest of the (writing, artistic, Liberal Arts) community.

I “failed” NaNoWriMo, mostly because of (insert excuse here), and partially because I had a kind-of awakening. A writing friend of mine (I have so few. Like, two? I need more…) and I talked about it, along with a post here and there concerning the sheer weight of what I found (re-found, really).

Write your story and STFU. I entered the project to see if I can write 50k on a novel I had no “inspiration” about. I can’t. I had many inspirational dreams (for instance, all-night tattoo session with a mystery woman: wtf?), many inspirational moments, but in the end, I learned so much more than what I expected. I must unlearn all I’ve picked up in the past three years. I must remove all the “education” I received (and by “remove,” I’m not removing what I learned about  horrendous passive verb usage. Not happening). I must learn to infodump. I must learn to immerse. I must learn to invent and reinvent. I must make the story real, and keep the pace. Always with the pace.

So, I’m giving this another go. I want to write 50k in December. I want to do this because I feel I hiccuped on a particularly juicy appetizer, then lost interest in the main course. So I’ve vomited it all back up again, and am preparing to re-ingest. Nasty metaphor, I know. Yum.

The story I will be self e-publishing is a foray into something incredible. I love the story more (and have worked on it less) than any other piece I’ve finished, so I’m excited about that. I’ll pursue that once I get stabilized with a new job, after I get some cats, a new computer, and some money saved up for such a shindig.

I feel so backward, but not. Hope everyone’s Thanksgiving was awesome. Hope your December is just as awesome.

Also, I wrote a second short story. I don’t think it’s worth a damn thing. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

NaNoWriMo: Infodumping, lies, and Spam. The Smeat.

Alrighty. So I won’t make it to the magical 50k number. That’s the bad news (I guess). The good news is I’ve found something far more helpful to me in this November process. It’s forced me to rethink everything I know about writing, about what people say is “infodump,” and why so much of my time following well-meaning advice from unpublisheds (yeah. I just made that up) and agents has put me back three years.

“Three years? Surely you jest!” Well, British-accented Everyman, in one area, at least, I’ve been forced to return to my roots, before I went on a pilgrimage into the world of online writing sites, blogs, etc.

I realized something separates me from my favorite writers, from the classics like Poe and Dickens and all those superbeasts of writing. And what, pray tell? The terrible, horrible, incorrigible Infodump Syndrome. For three years now I’ve dedicated a healthy effort toward erasing everything that didn’t pertain to the story, distilling the words down to basic action, invention, and a resounding grasp of the “now” of the story. Characters’ history showed up when needed and ONLY when needed, I describe scenery only when scenery became important to the story (and ONLY when it became important), and essentially created a Haiku-style writing I thought was my ticket to publication.

Well. I’ve done some studying, both of “historical fiction” for my NaNo novel, my old works (specifically, an infoheavy novel I wrote 3 years ago, almost to the month, complete with so much worldbuilding there’s more addendums and appendixes than actual novel), and out-of-the-box modern writers. What did I find? That novel I wrote three years ago walked down the right path. It was complex, violent, compelling, and saturated with info. The storyline, unlike most of my work, was excruciatingly simple while the characters’ thoughts, history and background, and religious context overwhelmed the page. Infodumping? Hell yes. Boring infodumping? Hell no.

Everything I’ve written since then has lacked the intellectual spark I so crave in my preferred reading. Dan Simmons, my touted favorite author Ever Ever, creates an intellectual soup from which both the character and the reader share. Like some primordial mud bath with Jacuzzi jets, it is inundation between the internal and external. And on top of all this, he simply rolls with the story. I’m not talking about a ten-page stint on a character’s favorite cat. I’m talking about a ten-page stint on a character’s favorite cat breed.

I’m almost disgusted with myself. Yes, I came down with diabetes two years ago and that screwed up all sorts of brain chemistry, creative output, etc., but having to rediscover my writing is painfully arduous. I find myself taking the “easy” route of injecting fantasy elements to the story instead of fleshing the characters out, instead choosing to conflagrate the plot to force the character into action than allowing the character any self. It’s total crap, annoying, and destructive of any serious writer.

Toni Morrison does this. She develops incredible metaphors through her writing (some of her writing, I should correct. She has a new book out. I might buy it), reinforcing action and history to flesh people out–history that ISN’T NEEDED for the plot, but needed for the reader to understand a place. Infodumping for the sake of fleshing a character is perfectly acceptable. A tedious, introverted scientific type might just infodump forever if he’s allowed to, and for the sake of the story, it’s worth it. Even if it annoys you to read.

Pace pace pace. I hoped to find a simplified form of my writing by blindly following critiques and observable advice. I hoped to find insight through carpeting comments from an agent on her blog: avoid passive tense, avoid infodumping, tell the story and ignore the rest. No.

No. Pace is key. Always, pace is key.

I’m reading House of Leaves. In the first three chapters it has served to deconstruct the novel, deconstruct the purpose of reader, narrator, and plot, and turned all the writing rules on their collective heads. If a character rambles on in his head about God-knows-what, let him ramble. Ramble forever. Let him fall down mental holes and climb spiraling mental staircases. You can remove some when the novel is finished, if some is unneeded. But for the love of everything valued, let the characters talk. Let the narrator talk.

Okay. I don’t consider any advice given as “lies,” specifically. I consider them helpful advice, and beneficial as a guideline. CritiqueCircle.com, a place I used to get critiques for my work, is a great starting point. Yet the greatest critiquers I found there were those that bypassed all the, “Avoid passive verb use. Don’t start a sentence with And, Or, But, Yet. Does this introduction serve a purpose?” comments and assumed, for a moment, I knew what I wanted in the writing and that I had a purpose for four paragraphs of cat breeding.

I don’t read a novel going, “Does this chapter serve a purpose?” (well, on very rare occasions, I start to sour on a novel. Stardust by Neil Gaiman for one. I tried rereading it two weeks ago, as an example of “distilled writing,” and I couldn’t get through it. Even half of it.) I read a novel going, “Is this pace right for me? Furthermore, is it right for the characters? Is it proper for the plot? Does this movement move me?”

So my Soren novels, my Red Wing Black novel, and this NaNovel must change. I realized David and His Shade, my Modern Fantasy, actually has all the info it needs. As a YA novel, it doesn’t need that much. Yet. Book four or five, on the other hand, will be inundated and saturated. Because that’s what it needs to be great.

Finally, I ate spam for the first time. It smelled exactly how I expected: rotting ham. It tasted like heaven due to the grease. Damned grease, making everything taste better.

I will never eat it again, if I can help it.

~x

NaNoWriMo and Worldbuilding Don’t Mix

It’s like oil and water. It’s what tripped me up, smashed my face on the concrete, and left me bleeding.

I have the good fortune of nearly twenty unpublished novels under my belt, and worldbuilding for each at my disposal. Is this cheating? I sure hope not.

The Acorn King is my first finished novel. I finished it four years ago, sent it out to a couple of agents/publishers, got stock responses, and it went back to the shelf. It’s a great work, I guess, but now that I re-read it, pretty unpublishable. Why? Who cares. I don’t like it, and that’s enough for me. Passive voice, weak storytelling, all wrapped in a dual first-person narration that trips over itself and re-hashes interactions at random. I loved the theory behind it–it came from a series of violent dreams I had–coupled with a strong dose of Beksinski, violin music, and a need to create a religion.

The last part is what I’m using in my “modern” steampunk scifantasy: a character with knowledge of an entire dead religion, where no surviving followers exist, pulled from the scattered references to Hecate. I wrote Acorn King as a way to understand the deity, and in doing so, created a series of characters that defy all modern religion, but play off it.

So the “worldbuilding” is mostly managed: I have a whole series of archaic texts I wrote for AK, a series of characters/gods/demons/etc to draw from in the construction of this faux magical study, and even get to create a little alternate history while I do so.

Now all I need to do is explain the reality of working between an 1850’s locksmith and a 2000’s survivalist, and I’ll be set. I’m thinking a retelling of AK is in order; three characters being the two brothers from the novel plus Barr’cuda (renamed Lotus).

Regardless, worldbuilding while working NaNoWriMo sucks. It’s a direct counterpoint to “sit down and write,” and it was a mistake that cost me nearly fifteen days of writing: every time I sat to write I stopped because I didn’t know where to go. “A mystic, a realist, and an anarchist sit down at a bar…” Where do I go from there? How do I flesh these guys out while pushing the story forward? I DON’T EVEN HAVE A “BAD GUY!”

Worldbuilding continues. I need a bad guy (aka, antagonist). I’m thinking some slimy someone bent on collecting arcane novella that, at the realization of the MCs hunting the book, starts to dabble and eventually obsess over the thing.

Fun. I’m really excited now. Revitalization of one of my favorite novels? And all these extra files (I wrote nearly twenty back-stories, a veritable Bible of allegorical reference material) are just what the doctor ordered. AK won’t change any. The worldbuilding will just hop over to another story.

Nanowrimo Mistake. Short Story Instead.

Haha so. Here’s what NaNoWriMo did to me. It inspired me to write on something not WriMo material.

(I know. I can write on whatever I want as long as it’s writing)

So I had this dream. I woke up, spent all day thinking about it. Percolating like an old coffee machine. It started with a few paragraphs from the main character (me, in the story, but obviously not me).

            My dad used to collect, what’d he call them? Gutter coins. Sewer pennies. One of those, you know, psychological things. Leftover from his childhood. He’d show me his collection—which, after a lifetime of collecting, was quite ridiculous. He didn’t look proud or anything like that—this wasn’t a measure of success for him. It was a curiosity, I think, the only curiosity he ever allowed himself his whole life. Holding down three jobs for so long tends to beat curiosity out of you.

            Also, being physically beaten does that.
            It’s not like he lived through the Great Depression or anything, but he might as well have. Poor as a blind goat most of his damned life. Not like he’d fought in any war overseas and didn’t like to tell anyone, and grappled onto the things as some kind of survival mechanism. The war he fought was in America, then. On the streets.
            Shit, this wasn’t supposed to be about him.
            A gutter coin is a flat chunk of metal that used to be a penny. Or a quarter. Or whatever. And because it got caught in the sewers, or some riverbed, or fell in a garbage disposal, or whatever—whatever reason—everything got gouged up and cut off, or worn down. It wasn’t a penny anymore. It wasn’t anything but a discarded “piece of history,” he’d say. Just some damn piece of metal that you recognized at first glance, I mean you knew what it was, but you couldn’t spend it on a menthol or a bottle of Dos Ex. My father sometimes talked like that.

Clearly I never had that memory. Clearly my father wasn’t so impoverished to live on the streets. And when I first woke up, this whole intro had no connection to the story. It was a creepy, new-house-falling-apart dream where I investigated a domestic complaint of “dumping water” on the road into the neighborhood. So happens after going there, the ground falls out of their basement, I find an old dug-out mine, ancient, and a body laying there. Just a mound of clothes, boots, hat, and whatever remains lay underneath.

Dreams like these are what make me write, give me experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise. It was a bleak dream, unsettling, but not frightening. The body had been there a long time. It’s the whole gutter-penny opening that throws me: as in, how my character, somehow, knew the ending–the body is the gutter-penny, directly connecting the MC to his father’s not-so-distant death–while I remained in the dark even after I woke up. All day long, I thought about it, until I wrote it down and, lo and behold, the meaning came clear.

Like reading a short story for the first time from an author I don’t know. It was even a little gothic in its telling.

So call me crazy when I say I feel people speak to me in dreams. This whole thing is in a vein of writing I’ve adored, but not (until now) in my ability to write. It’s complex because I feel it isn’t mine, and I’m giddy to write it because it’s like some master writer gave me all the visuals–and even the introduction–to make this thing brilliant.

Yet I remain unpublished, so who knows. I might just spend my life walking the paths of a writer, where all my secrets are ignored by the larger audience. I think, for the chance to share these things, it is worth writing.

NaNoWriMoUpDate

17650 words. I know. I wrote David and His Shade faster than this. I guess this is the difference between when a man wakes from a particularly inspiring dream, and when a man wakes with nothing more than THIS MONTH I GOTTA WRITE. Something to think about.

I’ll only write about the project as I go, and not about my plans for said project. The biggest piece of writing advice I ever recieved came from a wonderful poet/professor (poetfessor?) who lives on the East Coast (and flies into Springfield, IL twice a month to teach). She said only talk about what you’ve written, and never what you’re going to write. In telling the story, you’ve already told it, and your inspiration has died.

I took it to heart. She knew so much about writing, I found her class one of the few true gems in a courseload of mediocrity. And to top it off, it was a critique roundtable where everyone tossed their work into the middle and everyone else talked about it. Whoda thought.

It’s steampunky, kinda. 30 pages in and I’ve still not revealed the steampunk of the thing. It’s time-travelly: a witch by the name of Lotus from the 1300’s, a “stolen goods acquierer,” Mr. Ward from the 1850’s, and some anachronistic survival tour guide, Michael, from the 2012’s come together to save the world from blowing up by a particularly devious man. The novel begins in 2014, where the man ignites Yosemite National Park’s Old Faithful, creating a two-mile-wide volcanic explosion.

Aggressive, I know. It destroys the world and the secret police of Alexandria must hastily recruit a new Jackdaw (Crow) for the job, since the other 5 blew up in the death of the world. Fun. Said earth-ender knows magic no living person understands but historically existed, and Lotus was the last practitioner of said magic. Mr. Ward was the last known owner of said book of magic practices. Which ties everything together.

Lotus’ personality is a detached loner style. She’s tied to the arcane in her own time, let alone the 1800’s, where she knows nothing and cares little for it. She’s all spines and danger and power, especially since the world she now walks is so foreign. She can kill a man with a look and the proper concentration, she’s a true multi-tasker (one hand draws a picture while the other holds a gun), and hates men. Or, their place in society. In general.

Mr. Ward is a low-key guy used to working through the underbelly of Boston. He’s a determined guy who doesn’t give a damn about much of anything, and spends most of his time hiding his scars, so to speak. He has a chivalrous heart, beneath it all, and wholly believes in his cause. Given he’s an artifact, and sometimes reliqual, collector, he’s developed a tough skin. Since they are forced to work in his time period, he is kind of the focus. He’s never relied on anyone before and isn’t about to start now. He feels more a babysitter to Michael than anything else.

Michael understands how important everything is, but knows nothing about magic. He’s a stumbling ex-surfer who prefers hiking and camping and proper diet to anything so active as saving the world. He’s adrift and is charged with learning as much as he can from the other two Jackdaws before they (the three of them) return to the present, 1 year before the slow, suffocating end of humanity. He turns out to be a scrappy guy, more interested in helping those he trusts than the Greater Good. He’s kinda MacGuyver-ish with his knowledge of basic physics, chemistry, anatomy, and mechanical engineering. He’s the everyman that doesn’t want to die as his prime motivator. He also loves ladies.

Anywho, I just finished writing a scene where Lotus tattoos Michael in a dream, all over his body, for protection. He’s tied to a torture device. I enjoy the idea that magic isn’t just an out-there idea, but a very real part of her world. Lotus is as fleshed as I can make her. It’s poor Mr. Ward I’m having trouble with.

So! I return to reading Angel of Darkness, a historian’s wet dream but casual reader’s nightmare. It is currently my Moby Dick. If he talks one more time about the sprawling cityscape of New York circa 1897, I’m going to scream. Yes, we know you knew where every church, yellow bumper, and mancover was. No, it’s not integral to the story.

Write on, friends.