How Chupacabras Saved My NaNoWriMo Novel

For National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been writing a novel called Ghostrunners. And yesterday, I reached 50,000 words, which means I “won” NaNoWriMo. And as a bonus, I finished the story as well! Admittedly, it’s too short to be publishable– to have a shot at publishing it, I’d probably have to stretch it out to 80,000 words. But there’d be so many changes in a second draft that adding 30,000 words is actually one of my lesser concerns.

My original idea, when I first envisioned the novel, was “Sliders meets Ocean’s Eleven with magic.” I set the story in modern day Seattle, to minimize the worldbuilding I needed to do; I developed some good characters; I came up with the outline of a magic system. But I didn’t come up with a plot that really inspired me.

So when I started NaNoWriMo, I was discovery writing. I knew my characters; I knew the setting; I knew some of the conflicts that the characters were involved in at the start. And from there, I was pretty much inventing stuff from scratch every time I sat down to write. Characters often made decisions for which I had only a marginal idea of the ramifications down the road. And they reacted to each other naturally, without regard for whether it would serve the plot. Heck, I didn’t even know what the plot was.

It was a stressful, terrifying, and occasionally exhilarating way to write. When things did come together into a genuine emotional moment, it was unplanned, and in those moments, it was almost like I was reading a good book, except I was typing as I read, wanting to see what was going to happen next. But that exhilaration was tapered by the ever-present fear that I would suddenly lock up, run out of ideas, and the words would stop coming.

When Writer’s Block did hit, I put myself in the characters’ shoes, and thought, “Okay, something has to happen next in their lives. What happens next? Write it.” And I did, without much regard as to whether it would make for a readable story or not.

I did, on occasion, resort to the old ninjas-kick-down-the-door trick: once with police, once with chupacabras, and once with rogue Secret Service agents. In every case it made the book better– especially the chupacabras, who more or less saved me at a point where the book was desperately searching for conflict and I felt like the plot wasn’t going anywhere. In a second draft, of course, they probably won’t be chupacabras: they’ll be creatures that wander between realities, for whom I will probably have to think up another name. But for this draft, and in the spirit of NaNoWriMo silliness, they did perfectly well as chupacabras. Lesson One from NaNoWriMo: Sometimes it pays off to just throw in crazy stuff and try to make it work.

My first novel was a massive, wide-ranging epic fantasy; this novel was a fast-paced action story. And my authorial role model for this type of story was Jim Butcher. In the Dresden Files, he drags his characters through serious pain and torment in every book, and doesn’t pull punches– he’s not afraid to make things worse, or pile even more problems on the characters. And if it all comes together at the end, if connections are made that you didn’t expect and the protagonists win despite everything that was thown at them, the result is often a really, really good book. And I tried to do the same thing with Ghostrunners. Lesson Two from NaNoWriMo: Don’t be afraid to throw your characters into the fire.

Ghostrunners is in very rough form right now– there are a few gems, but most of it is just plain old dirt and rock. A second draft would be like mining the diamonds from the ore; all the discovery-written ideas that didn’t work would need to be discarded, and the ones that did would need to be strengthened and polished until they shone. I’d like to do that with this book– and if it ever reaches “final draft” stage, it will probably only bear a passing resemblance to what I have now.

I haven’t decided what my next project is; I’d like to write a short story, and edit another one, and go back to my first novel and start revisions on that. I also had ideas for about five blog posts that I didn’t write in November because I didn’t want to get distracted. So I’m hoping that I can keep up the writing momentum even with the end of NaNoWriMo upon us. Because in the end, to be a professional writer, it’s not enough to write one month of the year– you’ve gotta keep at it year-round.

So it goes.

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Mid-NaNoWriMo Update… and Story Acceptance!

National Novel Writing Month has been a series of fitful stops and starts for me so far; right now I’m sitting at 28,000 words, and have about ten days left to write the rest. So I’m a few thousand words behind where I should be, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make up the deficit over Thanksgiving Break.

So far, writing the novel has been a process of discovery writing: I have no outline, so I’ve just been writing scenes as they occur to me. This has been both good and bad. On the good side, I’ve come up with some ideas that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise, and for the most part, they’ve been ideas which flow naturally from the story instead of being forced onto said story. But there’s also been a lot of ideas which don’t work, and I’m still sort of searching for the main conflict. I have a few threads here and there, but nothing has really leaped out at me as being the primary overarching plotline of the book. So my novel writing thus far has been: write several thousand words over a couple of days, take a few days off because I’m not sure what happens next, then realize I’m falling behind and hurriedly write several thousand more words… rinse and repeat. We shall see if I actually make it to 50K, and whether I like the result enough that I end up writing a second draft.

In other news (which you probably already know if you follow my Twitter feed), one of my short stories, The Talisman of Hatra, got accepted into the Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology! I’m really happy about this. The anthology is edited by Eric J. Guignard, and of the authors who will be represented, one is Joe R. Lansdale, who is one of the best-known horror and dark fiction writers around today. I’m honored to share a Table of Contents with him, as well as with the other authors, including a fellow member of my writing group, Folly Blaine. It comes out in March of next year– needless to say, I’ll post details when it’s available.

A Pre-NaNoWriMo Retrospective

Well, it’s almost that time of year again: November, aka National Novel Writing Month. For the third time, I’ll be endeavoring to write 50,000 words, hopefully in a manner that resembles a single coherent story. 2009 was successful; 2010 (which was actually a continuation of my 2009 story) wasn’t. However, that story (my epic fantasy, In a Land of Wind and Sky) now has a completed 177,000 word rough draft, which means this November it’s time for something new.

When I planned In a Land of Wind and Sky, I started with a basic idea for a plot, then came up with characters who could play the roles in that plot, and then came up with a setting in which that plot could play out. So essentially, I built the novel in order of plot, character, setting. In retrospect, I may have done things backward– if I had done more worldbuilding first, and let the characters be born from that setting, it might have felt more natural to me. Instead, it often felt like I was crafting a world to match what the plot needed, and for some reason that felt like cheating to me. In my head, the world felt less real because too often I was trying to finagle things to match what the plot needed.

This time, I’m not actually starting with a single idea or plot point as inspiration. Instead, I’m starting with a general concept that seems kind of cool. So far, it’s shaping up to be sort of like Sliders meets Ocean’s Eleven in an Urban Fantasy setting.

After writing a very complicated plot, with several intertwined character arcs, with In a Land of Wind and Sky, I decided I wanted to write something simpler and more straightforward. My idea was to write it in first person, and setting it in the contemporary world in order to minimize the amount of worldbuilding I needed to do. Immediately, I thought “urban fantasy.” Plus, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy in the past year (most notably the entire “Dresden Files” series), and something along those lines seemed like it might play to my strengths, as well as be fun to write.

With that thought, I began to let my mind wander, and began building a world and magic system. That in turns suggested possible character quirks and backstories to me; in addition, I found characters from a couple of stalled short stories years ago who fit nicely into this new world. I’m still looking for the plot, but I do see a lot of possibilities, and as I flesh out the magic and the characters more, I’m letting those be the guide for my muse. So in essence, I’m building this novel backwards from how I built my first one: this time I’m going setting, character, plot. It’s a little more touch-and-go, and I feel like there’s still a risk that I may tear up the whole thing in frustration, but if I can get it working, I think the novel will come together more naturally than my first one. Of course, I already have ten characters just on the good guys’ side… and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to write it in third person… so it’s probably going to end up more complicated than I originally planned… oh, well.

But even if I finish planning this novel and come up with a plot that inspires me, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be successful at NaNoWriMo. I’m on course to start a new full-time job on November 3rd, after a summer of fun-yet-increasingly-broke writing and travel. It remains to be seen how the new job’s going to affect my writing time– since I usually do my writing in two-hour evening spurts at Bauhaus Coffee, my hope is that it won’t affect my writing life too much.

It’s been a crazy past few months. I’ve done the Clarion West Write-a-thon, finished the first draft of a novel, written four short stories, and gone to three weekend conventions. In non-writing stuff, I’ve driven the North Cascades Loop, hiked in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, spent a weekend at Mt. Baker, and conducted and finished a job search. It’s been a productive four months– unfortunately, not the sort of productivity that anyone is paying me for yet. So it’s back to cubicle world for a while, starting right around the time NaNoWriMo begins.

Yup. Gonna be interesting.

NaNoWriMo Day 29: Wait, what?

So here I am, on Day 29 of NaNoWriMo, sitting at barely over a third of my word count. This means in order to complete NaNoWriMo I merely need to write 32,875 words tomorrow. Time to stock up on coffee!

Seriously, though, I’m not going to finish this year (duh). And to be honest, it doesn’t bother me. It’s been a crazy, hectic month, full of change and apartment-shopping and moving and exploring a new city and meeting people, and I figure moving to a new city and completely upending your entire life is as good as reason as any not to write 50,000 words in a month.

But that’s not really the reason. If I’m honest with myself, I could have made time to do the writing. No, the real issue was the story.

NaNoWriMo is supposed to be a time of carefree writing, when quality takes a back seat to word count, when you’re willing to put all sorts of crazy stuff in your story, because hey, why not? You’re writing a novel basically for the sake of writing a novel. And I was able to start strong with that mindset, but once I had written a few scenes I began to get a much better picture of how my new writing fit with the first part of the novel– the part I had done last year.

After that I didn’t want to just bang another 50,000 words in isolation. I wanted to slot the scenes in with the already-written ones, add some more scenes to the earlier part, and really try to piece together the overall form of the first draft of the novel. But that’s not really NaNoWriMo anymore. As soon as I combine the pieces, I don’t have an isolated word count, and I certainly can’t claim (even facetiously) that I’m writing a sequel.

When I went to NaNoWriMo write-ins and tried to bang out the word count, my heart wasn’t in it, and that was when I mentally quit. Since then I’ve taken a step back, and done some of the things I’ve wanted to do– combining the two pieces into an 85,000-word manuscript, revising the outline, and trying to get a grip on the overall structure of the plot. I’ve also dabbled in some short stories (one of which still needs to be revised in time to submit for the Writers of the Future contest in December), and of course moved into a new apartment. One with a much nicer writing space than the old extended-stay hotel/apartment I was staying in, where the only space for a desk was basically a two-foot extension of the kitchen counter. (If you missed it, see it here).

I never got a single word of the novel written there. Maybe I’m just too picky. But at my new place I have a desk, with elbow room, and a window, and hopefully at some point a whiteboard on which I sketch out ideas without being restricted by a computer screen. I hope I can finally finish it, or at least the first draft.

Then next year I can start from scratch on NaNoWriMo– if it seems like the right thing to do. Who knows, I may be in the midst of my second novel by then.

NaNoWriMo Day 10: Apartment-Hunter’s Block

I’m no longer ahead of where I need to be in word count– mainly because I’ve devoted almost all of my free time over the last few days to finding a Seattle apartment. I only have about two and a half weeks left in the place I’m currently staying, so needless to say, this has to get done. The good news is, I put in an application today and it was accepted, so it looks like I have a place to live for the next six months! Yay!

Trying to find a place to live in an unfamiliar city has not been exactly the most stress-free activity in the world, especially on a limited budget. Even when I was supposed to be working on other things, my mind kept drifting back to my living arrangements. This has been somewhat detrimental to accomplishing anything in NaNoWriMo.

To make matters worse, I’ve hit a case of Writer’s Block. Well, not “Writer’s Block” so much as “Story Block.” Two of the main characters in my fantasy novel are supposed to fall in love, but they’re both emotionally damaged, have stubborn personalities, and started out hating each other. Not exactly the easiest start for what’s supposed to become a romantic relationship, I suppose. And I do think it can work, but I’m having problems writing it in a way that’s convincing. I want to write their relationship in a way that feels right, and I’m having problems with that.

I suppose I could skip those parts and come back to them later– but I’m still not sure what these characters are going to look like after they fall in love. I mean, one’s an assassin, one’s a super-powerful mage, and both have serious issues. Maybe they won’t really fall in love, just develop a fondness for each other that never really turns into a romantic relationship. I won’t know until I write it, which means… I have to write it.

I suppose I’m not really adhering to the carefree writing spirit of NaNoWriMo by worrying about all this. I should really just be writing. Oh, well.

To add another complicating factor, I’m trying to wrap things up at work ahead of time this week so I can go down to Portland this week and attend Orycon, a local sci-fi convention. So, in addition to having less writing time this week, I’m going to lose out on a lot of writing time this weekend. At this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that I’m going to be way behind when I get back from Orycon, and will have to put in some serious writing time to catch up.

No worries. Yet.

NaNoWriMo Day 2: Starting from Not-Quite-Scratch

I haven’t even gotten a chance to blog about this, what with the chaos of moving to Seattle, but it’s November again, which means we’re in the midst of National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. The goal is simple: write 50,000 words during the month of November, which should hopefully form the first draft of a novel.

Of course, there’s no requirement that it be a good first draft. In fact, December has come to be known as NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month), when writers attempt to fashion something reasonable from the chicken scratch they wrote during November. When I did NaNoWriMo last year, I found it exceptionally liberating to turn off my internal editor and just write— I wrote a longer story than I ever had before. And lo and behold, when the dust had settled, I found that a good chunk of what I had written was actually not bad.

However, the novel was far from complete, even at 60,000 words. To make matters worse, after November was over, my internal editor turned back on and progress stalled. Then I got distracted by various short stories, and of course by the whole moving thing, so over the past 11 months, I’ve only added about 7,000 words to the novel. I’ve done a great deal of editing of parts I had already written, but editing will not finish your book for you… you have to actually write it first.

So this year, I had a dilemma. Did I want to start a new novel, with new characters, new concept, new plot? Or continue the old one? The “rules” of NaNoWriMo state that you have to start something new, but then again, rules are made to be broken, particularly when the real purpose of NaNoWriMo is simply to get you writing.

In the end, I compromised. I didn’t want to start a new story (the ending of the current one is still very much stuck in my head), but nor did I want to try and pick up where I had been stalled for eleven months. So I collected all the finished scenes from my novel, set them aside, and called it the first book in the series. Now, for this NaNoWriMo, I’m writing the second book. I even started from a totally blank document. In December, during NaNoEdMo, if the two books happened to get combined into one, well, heck, that’s just an editing decision, right? *wink*

It’s actually been quite liberating to do this. The main characters of the book series are two sisters, and whereas last year’s writings focused almost entirely on the first sister, this year’s writing is starting off from the perspective of the second sister, and then will lead into what happens when the two are reunited. So far things are going well: I’m at 7500 words, well ahead of schedule. In fact, I’ve written more on the book series in the past two days than in the previous eleven months.

NaNoWriMo is a benefit in other ways, too, besides just the writing: it’s also helping me settle in to Seattle. I’m attending writing groups and write-ins around the city, which not only introduces me to new people, it also helps me learn my way around the area. NaNoWriMo multitasking for the win!

Making Sense of the World, One Story at a Time

I haven’t blogged much lately, because I’ve been too busy following Neil Gaiman’s advice, particularly the first 27 seconds:

The stories that I’ve been writing over the past two weeks aren’t the kind that get edited, proofread and sold to a magazine. No, I’ve been writing the messy kind, the stories that I can’t write about on here, because they’re true, and I still like the people involved.

Instead, these are the stories that will get mixed up in my head, whirled around in the creative machinery of my imagination, and as I mull them over trying to figure out why things happened the way they did, maybe I’ll gain a little bit of insight into what makes people tick.

And maybe, in a few years, my mind will spit out a story idea, and I’ll recognize traces of the past two weeks in it. Then again, maybe not.

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In unrelated news, I’ve been feeling motivated to pick up the novel again, which has lain pretty much untouched since the end of NaNoWriMo. The ending is still firmly embedded in my head, and I desperately want to tell it, so slowly but surely, I’m learning to look past all the flaws in the rough draft, and see the important part: the story that still needs to be told.

It’s sitting there, like a diamond in the rough, waiting to be unearthed, and even if it’s a little dirty and unpolished when I first pull it out of the ground, there’s still a diamond in there. It’s time to get back to work excavating it.

Or, in other words, it’s time to follow not just the first 27 seconds of Neil Gaiman’s advice, but the rest of it too.