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NaNoWriMo diary, part 1: This is the fun part.

Ah, November. There’s a chill in the air. The leaves are dropping from the trees. And thousands of insane writers all over the world are banging out first drafts of new novels. Yes, I’m one of the NaNoWriMo faithful. This is my fifth year doing it. My “logline” this year is:

A young woman searches for her missing father through clues hidden in underground comic books from Soviet Russia.

I decided to do a NaNoWriMo diary because frankly, I’ve been blogging about novel writing and character development in the abstract for a while now, and I thought it would be a good idea to share a concrete example of how I actually put those principles into practice.

Today, what’s foremost in my mind is the truth of something that you hear writers say more often than not: no book ever turns out like you think it’s going to. You always discover new things in the process of writing that you could never have thought of ahead of time. And in my experience, these little jewels of serendipity are much better than the stuff I did think of ahead of time.

After just two days and a mere 3800 words of crappy first draft, I’ve discovered some interesting stuff about my characters. Writers say that great characters really jump off the page and take on a life of their own. They end up saying things you’d never imagine. So far, after what is probably only 5% of what the finished story will be, I’m finding that to be the case.

Anna Schoeffer

My main character is Anna, the young woman in question. She’s 20. It’s July, and she’s working a summer job to save money for college. Nothing especially uncommon there, which is basically intentional. I much prefer writing about ordinary people. But already Anna is taking on a life of her own. I’ve discovered two things about her:

First, wow does she have a potty-mouth! This girl swears a lot. I’m not sure quite what it means yet. It might mean she’s this really tough, brassy chick. But I have a feeling it might all be for show. She may swear and act all tough as a defense, whereas inside she’s not really so self-assured. We’ll see.

Second, she has a pretty short fuse. In chapter one, she ended up socking her step-brother in the jaw. Ok, he definitely had it coming, but still. She just up and did it. Not in a calculating way, but as a reaction to something he did. I’m not quite sure what to do with that. I mean, in real life I’m a total pacifist. I don’t condone violence as a solution to one’s problems. But at least in that one situation for Anna, it felt like what she’d do. Part of me wants to punish her for that, because again I don’t believe in acting that way. But for now I’m going to reserve judgment, wait a while and see how it plays out. It’s early yet and my gut feeling is that if I try to impose any particular moral viewpoint on the story that I’ll just screw it up.


Christopher is Anna’s step brother, the recipient of the punch. But again, he was way out of line and totally deserved it. I knew this about him going in—didn’t expect him to get punched, but I knew he was going to do the things he did. But what I discovered was that underneath his socially inappropriate behavior, he’s actually kind of a chicken. He shies away from confrontations, and for all his bravado, he backs down easily. He is ultimately a minor character who won’t be in most of the book, but I wonder how far he might actually push it with Anna?


Betty is Anna’s mom. She’s kind of a mess, actually. Anna’s father vanished 15 years prior, leaving her to raise Anna alone, which she didn’t do so well. She provided food and shelter, but not much in the way of emotional support. Betty is now on her fourth marriage, to Christopher’s father. This was all what I planned out.

What I didn’t plan is that she’s actually kind of crazy. All the years of coping while Anna’s father was missing, before she had him declared legally dead so she could remarry, left her in a pattern of seeing the world in ways that support her own self-pity, rather than seeing things for how they actually are. She’s not clinically crazy, not really, she’s just unreliable because she willfully ignores or misinterprets anything that doesn’t support her own narrative. I hadn’t intended this, but it works. It helps set the stage for some important stuff that happens at the end of chapter one.

I like this new discovery about Betty, but for all that, I’m still not totally happy with her as a character. She’s just as minor a character as Christopher, but her relationship to Anna is so much more important that I know she really has to “pop” as a character, and she isn’t yet. I have some work to do with Betty. Maybe she’ll come to life tomorrow and make it easy on me. Or maybe not, and I’ll just have to out-think her when I revise later.

To explore new words

Plot-wise, things are about where I expected them to be. I got the inciting incident—an identity crisis—out of the way and tomorrow, I’ll tackle revealing the story’s central mystery. That’s all good, and I know this isn’t the time to stress about Betty’s present one-dimensionality or Anna’s potential violent tendencies. That can come later.

But this, this is the time of the first draft. This is the time for discovery. This is the fun part.

If you want to follow my progress or read the first few thousand words of the book (warning: I meant it about crappy first drafts), you can do so here.

November 02, 2009 23:17 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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Posted by Iapetus999 on November 03, 2009 07:02 UTC

Had a surprise today. My MC is telling her family she’s off to seek her fortune, and I had expected her family to put up a fight, which they did. But then her sister comes to talk to her, and tells her to never return...because she really does deserve a better life. I was kind of like, “huh?” Crazy, though, my Inciting Incident hasn’t even happened yet. She’s simply running away from her problems, and she hasn’t figured out anything to run towards yet.

Posted by Jason Black on November 03, 2009 20:29 UTC

That’s great. Let her run, because it’s a perfect segue into the Five stages of grief model of character reactions. Running away from problems is a form of denial. Let her progress from there, as I described in that earlier article.

Posted by Rina Grant on November 04, 2009 20:11 UTC

Hi cloister! A fellow Wrimo here.

Your book sounds great, I just wanted to ask you something. Where did you get the information about Soviet underground comic books from? The thing is, I’m Russian and I know from Russian sources that the recent information about “Soviet comic books", underground or otherwise, is today’s April Fool fake. The covers are clever fakes, too. Some are even dated April the 1st. Just to let you know. There was no such thing in the Soviet Union as comic books, underground or otherwise. People had no idea such type of “books” existed, definitely not kids. The first comic book I held in my hands was here in Frnace where I live at the

Posted by Rina Grant on November 04, 2009 20:14 UTC

... oops, sorry! Should read: “here in France where I live at the age of 32". I’d never seen a comic book before that although I had heard of course that they existed in the West.

Just to let you know.

Good luck with your project!

Rina (Fresie at NaNo)

Posted by Jason Black on November 04, 2009 22:29 UTC

Thanks! I think the book sounds great too, and only hope I can write it to live up to its premise.

That is always the scary part of writing novels to me. Living up to what I can imagine the book being.

As for the Soviet-era comic books, they’re made up. Yes, in researching, I did come across those fake April Fools day ones (which, I have to say, were quite amusing.) I even came across a Geocities website (which, alas, is gone now that Geocities has been shut down) about a supposedly Soviet-era comic book called “Octobriana,” but as near as I could tell from online sources there was a lot of doubt as to whether it was genuine or all a big hoax too.

So for my novel, I’ve invented the existence of a series of underground comics. It is fiction, after all. However, I am doing my best to make the invented comic books fit, in terms of their content, to what they might actually have been if they had existed.

Never let pesky reality stand in the way of a good premise! :)

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