The Evolution of Story

Twelve days into NaNoWriMo and I’m on track to finish before Thanksgiving. But what I’m finishing is anybody’s guess.

The first problem, of course is, that 50,000 words isn’t a complete novel for me. I’ll be lucky if my first draft comes in under 180,000. My first drafts involve creating the general shape; it’s in revisions that I carve away what doesn’t fit.

The second problem is that I don’t outline. I generally have a beginning and a few major milestones and an end, but everything else is up in the air until I’m actually sitting down and writing. Generally, that means a lot of November is me wandering blindly through the weeds, feeling for the path.

I’ve written 29,000 words, and last night I finally stumbled upon the start of the story. And today, I believe I happened upon my subplot. Traditionally, my subplots end up taking over and becoming the main plot, but that doesn’t happen until I’ve been working for a while and all the pieces have tangled together. Details evolve based on what I need to happen to get the story to its predetermined ending. Often my characters end up growing and changing in ways that I didn’t intend when I started.

In short: it’s all terribly disorganized, and I’m often mystified by people who plan ahead and somehow make that work. I’m sure they’re equally mystified by me. (I also suspect most of them write a lot faster than I do.)

I think it’s something to do with the way my mind works. My imagination kicks in when I’m out of other options and I must think of what to do because there’s no more space for dithering. There’s something about necessity that spurs my creativity.

NaNoWriMo is absolutely an indulgence for me. I know the book won’t be finished in a month, so I get to play. I get to write all those navel-gazing character bits, the fights and the discussions and the joyous reunions and the sad farewells. I get to work out backgrounds and histories and childhood memories, and I can count those words even though they won’t be in the finished manuscript. It’s all important stuff, but it’s research, not story.

And yet it’s story as well. Backgrounds and histories and childhood memories all affect the plot. One little throwaway something can hook a thread of my larger plot and pull the whole thing into a completely different pattern. (Ellis Systems–the Big Bad of the first three books–started life as a meaningless organization added to a list so I wouldn’t give away the end of the story.) It fascinates me how the whole thing can twist and turn in ways I didn’t anticipate.

This is why I never know what to tell people when they ask me what writing advice I’d give. It’s such an individual process. What works for me isn’t going to work for anybody else. (I had a friend in college who actually started her research papers the day they were assigned, and worked on them consistently until the date they were due. Who’d have thought that could work for anyone?)

But I’ve thought about it, and I think the main bit of writing advice I could give is this: Finish something. Doesn’t matter if it’s good, or if you like it enough to revise it, or if you share it with anyone (much less try to sell it). But finish something. Finishing is a different skill than writing, and it takes practice. The more things you finish, the more confidence you’ll have that you can finish the next thing, and eventually you’ll find yourself finishing every thing you start.

I’m still mildly astonished every time I get to the end of a first draft. I’m also at the point where I suffer the same set of frustrations and anxieties throughout the drafting process (at least according to Spouse, who has had to witness it over and over again). There’s a lot of self-talk that goes into drafting, because it’s impossible for me to believe, if I stand back and look at the magnitude what needs to be done, that I’ll actually be able to do it.

That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo: it’s about small chunks, and persistence. You don’t look back–you just focus on the sliver you need to write today. And at the end of it all you’ve got a massive chunk of story. Even if you don’t have a finished novel, you have a large percentage of one.

I’m hoping to finish the draft of this book by the end of January, but there are a few things I suspect will rear their ugly heads and slow me down. I’ve also got a few short stories I’ve been noodling with, and I may let them be Distract-o-Vision for a while. A lot of this is therapy, really; I’m not yet at the point where I have to think about battering this particular manuscript into proper shape, and all my deadlines are self-imposed.

The important thing right now is to keep writing, and keep working toward that final product. What happens once I’ve got it is a question for another day.





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