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.

MyNoWriMo

Since Norwescon, I’ve been thinking a lot about my novel, which has been sitting, stalled, for over six months. In that time I’ve embarked on a few other projects (like writing a short story every quarter for Writers of the Future), and my novel has taken a back seat. Part of this is because I’ve felt like I need to redo the outline– it’s a large and complicated plot, with five viewpoint characters (four major ones), and I’ve sort of lost my way amongst the intricacies of the different character arcs, and the various setting details and plot reveals that need to be unfolded in just the right way… basically I’ve been intimidated.

However, I’m also 95,000 words into it. Even though in retrospect I think this novel was probably too complicated for my skill level, it’d be a shame to give up on it. Yet at the same time it would be a shame to let other projects and ideas stagnate because I’m possessed by a bull-headed desire to finish this one. What is an author to do?

I reached the decision a while ago that I would give myself until WorldCon (August 17-21) to finish the first draft, and if I didn’t finish it by then, it would be time to set this novel aside and work on the next. But while it’s all well and good to give myself a deadline, that still hasn’t helped me get around what’s blocking me. In addition to a deadline, I needed a new strategy.

At Norwescon, I attended a panel on novel outlining, which was sort of useful– if nothing else, it got me thinking about the novel again, about the motivations of the protagonist and the trials she endures, and perhaps most of all about why I want to write it. Add to that some words of encouragement from Mary Robinette Kowal, and when I got home I opened the outline I had been working on and moved it into Microsoft Excel. From there I was able to identify the point-of-view character for each scene and get a better grip of what order the scenes needed to go into, as well as filter the POV characters in order to get a quick glimpse of the story arc for each one. It’s been extraordinarily helpful as far as wrapping my brain around the plot, and for the time in a while, my goal of finishing by WorldCon is looking doable.

So I’ve decided to give myself a little extra motivation. Next month is May, which lays six months opposite on the calendar from November. November happens to be National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, so given that May mirrors November on the calendar I decided to hold my own personal NaNoWriMo next month. MyNoWriMo, if you will, with my own goal, of reaching 150,000 words (or the end, whichever comes first) by the end of the month. It’s a tall order, but May is looking to be less hectic than April– which was interrupted by a weeklong visit back home to North Carolina, among other things– so I think I might actually be able to pull it off. So in May, the novel is back on the front burner, and other projects (including my Q3 Writers of the Future short story) will just have to wait. Starting Sunday, it’s MyNoWriMo time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

(If you’re interested in reading part of the novel, check out the excerpt I posted for the Valentine’s Day blogfest this year.)