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NaNoWriMo diary part 4: trust the process

So the usual thing has happened to me in NaNoWriMo. I made it to 50,000 words—which is always a great feeling—but I didn’t make it to the end of the story. My first couple of years, it took me six extra days to reach “The End.” After that, I don’t really remember but I know I’ve never finished a novel by November 30th. But that’s ok. Every year I have a great time doing it and I learn a lot about novel-craft.

Nothing teaches you how to do something better than actually doing it.

This year, I’ve learned enough to figure that I probably have another 20 to 25 thousand words left before reaching the end. Part of what the past five NaNoWriMos have taught me is a sense for that sort of thing. My first year, I had absolutely no clue how much story I could fit into 50,000 words. That was quite an eye opener. This year, I’m about two-thirds done, and I know it. That’s progress.

So what did I learn in the last week of speed novelling?

Trust the process

Ok, so if that isn’t the most hackneyed cliche in all of the arts, I don’t know what is. But it wouldn’t be a cliche if it weren’t true. For example, this past week my story moved on to a new part of the plot where I got to start writing for a new minor character. In my notes, I’d never picked a name for him, only referring to him as “Sidekick.” Yeah, yeah, I know. But hey, if Neal Stephenson can get away with naming a character Hiro Protagonist in his actual novel, I should be able to call a guy “sidekick” in my notes, right?

Anyway, the point here is that while I had some sketchy notes about Sidekick ahead of time, I didn’t really know who he was. As I’ve confessed in prior diary entries, I didn’t put as much work into planning this novel as I’d have liked. But I’ve been thinking about him all month, so when he showed up he was at least vaguely familiar to me. His voice was there.

The other thing about Sidekick is that later (I’ll probably get to this part today), he has to do a Bad Thing to Anna. It’s necessary for the plot, but I hadn’t ever put much thought into why he did it. But in listening to his dialogue, he has revealed to me his own goals and ambitions. Those, then, made it obvious not only why he would do this Bad Thing, but further, why he had even volunteered for Sidekick duty in the first place. The two dovetail together. When he discovers that sidekicking isn’t in fact going to advance his ultimate goals, he turns from ally to enemy.

Sidekick’s voice, his goals, his motivations, it’s all hanging together nicely now. I could have fussed and fretted over it while planning the novel, and come up with something that works. No doubt. But this works too, I didn’t have to stress over it, and best of all it has an organic feel to it. It just feels right.

That’s the process. That’s what it means to discover your story as you write it. The part of the process you have to trust in is your own storytelling instincts. Follow them where they lead, especially when you’re not sure where the story is going to go, because usually it’s someplace pretty good.

Anna

My main character continues to reveal herself, page by page. Earlier on, I said I wasn’t sure if her tough exterior reflects a similarly tough interior, or whether it’s mostly a facade. This new part of the plot I’m in involves her traveling from the United States—from her home town—to Moscow, Russia. It’s very fish-out-of-water. And it turns out that she’s much nicer, much more deferential and careful about how she approaches people and conversation than she was back home.

On one level, it’s nice simply to resolve that question about her tough exterior. I’m glad to know that. But more importantly, that knowledge becomes another tool I can use. As she finishes out the Russia segment of the plot, I can show her gaining confidence and growing comfortable with being in a foreign land by letting elements of her exterior toughness creep back in.

Of course, that means she’s going to have to learn to swear in Russian. But that’ll be fun, too.

Motivation

The last thing I want to talk about is the psychological part of novel writing for the novelist. It’s all about motivation. Writing a novel is hard work. To keep yourself going, I highly encourage you to grab hold of every possible source of motivation you can find.

Almost nothing beats having a specific, measurable goal to work towards. In NaNoWriMo’s case, it’s word count, and the reward is Winner status and the attendant bragging rights that come with it. The lucky writers among us get to work towards real deadlines, with money—and bragging rights—attached. Those objectively-measurable goals are great, because every day you see the tangible results of your efforts. If you stay on pace with NaNoWriMo’s stated goals, every day equals 3.33% of a novel. That ain’t bad. The lucky writers can cross off days on a calendar to mark their progress.

Numeric goals can be tough in the beginning, because three percent isn’t much different than zero, but after a week when you see that you’re 20% of the way there, you perk up. As those milestones pass, your motivation level rises because you can see the end in sight. You can feel it coming, and you want the reward that waits for you at the end. This year, getting to 40,000 words felt unusually hard. But once I hit that milestone, the last 10,000 just flew right by. It was great.

If numeric goals aren’t available, or aren’t enough, reach out for additional sources of motivation. For example, I used to post my daily writing during NaNoWriMo to my LiveJournal page. That first year, I had one friend who was avidly reading each day’s installment, and knowing that she’ d e-mail me with “Where’s today’s installment! I want to know what happens next!” if I didn’t have it posted for her was hugely motivational. Just knowing that somebody besides me cared what happened made an enormous difference.

Wherever you are in your life or in your writing career, I guarantee you can find something to motivate you to keep cranking out those pages. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, find it and grab hold.

November 30, 2009 19:36 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, motivation, process

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