Or: I hold forth on a topic I know almost nothing about (but then isn’t that what I do here every day)
So I’ve talked before about how I had to rewrite my NaNoWriMo project twice due to making hilarious blunders on previous drafts. I recently came right up to the end of a third draft and…. decided I had bungled it again. At this point I was faced with two choices: go back and fix all the problems I should have fixed the previous three times but didn’t, or shelve the thing for now and write something shorter and less complicated.
Since option one would probably involve me getting completely burned out on the story, I went with option two.
Quite a few people graciously volunteered to beta read the book and have expressed excitement at the idea of reading it, so I feel bad for not actually delivering anything. However, as a consolation prize, I will now present an article in list form (a listicle, if you will) of the interesting lessons I learned during this whirlwind adventure. Keep in mind that I was writing a very specific kind of book (middle grade fantasy) so they’re not exactly universal.
1) Plan ahead
When I was on the NaNo forums I saw a lot of debate about “plotting” vs “pantsing” (everything on the NaNo forums has a twee nickname). At first I was a big proponent of the latter approach- just jump right in! The story will, like, grow organically! Don’t limit your creativity, man!
I now realize this is a profoundly stupid idea. I don’t think you have to meticulously outline every single thing that’s going to happen in every single chapter- although you certainly could do that- but for any story with even a bit of complexity to it, you want to know well in advance what each of the major story beats are going to be. They can change as you write- they probably will, in fact- but know where it is you’re going.
2) Pick an appropriate level of complexity
One of the biggest mistakes I made with this book was in allowing the complexity of the story to spiral out of control. The idea that the story can go in any direction is intoxicating early on, but don’t get carried away with it. Decide if your story is going to be a sprawling epic or a smaller, personal story at the beginning, and try to stick to that. There are stories that start off small and get exponentially more complicated in an organic manner, but it’s hard to pull off. I don’t recommend trying it for your first-time NaNoWriMo project.
3) Don’t worry about the start
One of the reasons my previous novel-writing attempts exploded on the launch pad is that I’d always get hung up on the beginning of the story. This is something NaNo actually broke me out of quite effectively.
Simply put, don’t sweat the beginning. At all. The most important thing early on is to get the creative juices flowing and get into the act of writing, and getting bogged down in your opening chapter will kill that stone dead. If you feel like you can’t just skip straight past it and you have to write something, then spit out whatever gets you into the meat of the story, no matter how sloppy or rushed it is. If you don’t know what the names of characters or locations are going to be, use placeholders (I use [square brackets] for easy find and replace later). If you need to introduce a lot of world-building and setup at the beginning and you don’t know how to do it organically, just write it all into a separate document and work out how to fit it in some other time. You can always come back and write a proper beginning later, and chances are good that once you’ve got a bit of the way into the story, whatever was giving you difficulty will be resolved much easier.
A multi-POV novel will have multiple beginnings for each viewpoint character, in which case you could justifiably do this several times, for the beginning of each plot thread, or just with whatever character is giving you trouble.
Note that this rough beginning should at most constitute a few pages. If you find that you need to skip past multiple chapters of setup before you get to something that could be considered the proper plot, then you’ve got much bigger issues.
4) It’s way easier than you think to write yourself into a corner
Starting a new story is kind of intoxicating. It’s an open, blank canvas! You can do anything you want! The story is yours to explore in any direction!
Actually, that’s not true. Writing a novel is more like constructing a tower out of Jenga blocks, and if you’re not careful you’re going to get halfway to your goal only to discover that the bottom part of the tower can’t support the rest, or you decide you need to take something from the bottom and put it nearer the top but you can’t do it without the whole thing collapsing, or half the blocks are actually sugar cubes and now your story is covered in a swarm of hungry wasps.
What was I talking about?
Right, Jenga blocks. The point is, it’s very easy to completely mess up your story, but it’s often much harder to fix the problems. It’s best to try and either avoid making them in the first place (hence why I said you should plan) or catch them early, while they can be fixed more easily. Speaking of which:
5) Trust your instincts
During my earlier drafts I repeatedly embarked on story decisions or plot directions that I felt somewhat unsure about. Because I’m a doofus, I blithely plowed ahead every time assuming I could fix any problems that came up later, and almost inevitably I came to regret it later.
Go with your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, stop and consider why.
6) If you’re not having fun, the readers probably won’t either
Writing is hard. You find writing guides sometimes that are like “writing is easy it’s just words 😀 😀 😀 ” and you should track down the authors of these articles and slap them. It can be a chore. It can especially be a chore if you’re exhausted from a job or school work or you just don’t have the energy for whatever reason.
However, there’s hard work and then there’s hard work. Whenever I find myself really struggling to get through part of a story- when it feels like I’m trying to wade through mud just to get somewhere else- then I stop and consider if maybe the story I’m writing just isn’t compelling to me. And if that is the case, it means I need to rethink where the plot is heading because if it’s not compelling to me than it’s not going to be compelling to the readers either.
Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s either desirable or realistic that you should fly through your novel propelled by high-pressure enthusiasm and the sublime joy of creation, but at the same time you should use your own reactions in writing as a barometer. Maybe you’re getting bogged down for reasons that have nothing to do with the story or because of personal circumstances or whatever, but it’s possible you’ve sailed into waters that just aren’t very interesting to either write or read. Consider turning back before you get too far.