It’s nearly that time again: National Novel Writing Month. Every November I and thousands of other writers challenge ourselves to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. It’s a big goal, and it’s really hard, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also the way I draft best.
I first learned about NaNo in 2004, which I failed miserably at. In 2005 I succeeded, but I also started college where I was studying creative writing and didn’t have the bandwidth to NaNo. I tried again in 2009, and I haven’t stopped since. Every year I try, quite literally come hell or high water.
There was the year I was in a car accident and spent the month spacey on pain pills. There was the year Hurricane Sandy stranded me on vacation in the Caribbean and I couldn’t get home because home was a dystopian landscape with no power. There was the year we moved to South Africa, which was actually really productive because I didn’t have anything else to do in this new country yet.
Then there was last year, when I got my 50k spread across the starts of three different projects. This is not how I like to work. But it helped clarify how I do like to work, and that’s worth knowing.
I need to prepare. A lot.
I thought I had prepared enough last year. I thought I had enough notes and plotting done to be able to write Masque, a book inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” I rapidly discovered that I hadn’t. I had characters and a good bit of worldbuilding and a plot but I didn’t have layers. Layers are subplots, connections, and nuances–the stuff that makes the back of your book and your front of your book look like a clever mirror of one another. I had my main throughline but none of the extras that would make the book a rich experience.
So I wrote 10,000 words and stalled out.
I’m not good at pantsing
I picked up another project that I felt had quite a lot of work still be done on it, but that I also thought I could just let myself have fun with it. Silk, a story about a cat thief who takes over an empire twice, has layers. But they aren’t anchored yet. And without anchors I don’t feel like I can keep going.
Basically, there are two functions in writing and my brain is only good for one of them at a time. I can invent a story, or I can craft prose. I can’t do both. Which means I need to do lots of prep work and outlining so I know the story and can concentrate on the prose.
15,000 words on that one.
I need to trust the process
Systems work for me. So, feeling quite morose by this point, I decided to just grab a new project and outline it, counting the outline toward my word count. It would still be writing, still be storytelling. I picked a concept that I hadn’t developed very much yet, Corset Queen, a romance between a cosplayer and a swordswoman who works Ren fairs. I opened up Gwen Hayes’s ROMANCING THE BEAT and let her lead me. I wrote a rich outline, a paragraph or two per chapter.
It worked. I told the story, inventing lots of new things, and I had fun. So I started in on the prose and altogether I just topped 50k. By three words. It was enough.
Three attempts, one mishmash
I’m sad that I didn’t come out of last year with a complete draft that I could throw myself into revising. That’s been my pattern for years: I draft in a mad rush in November. It happened to be not such a bad thing, though, because it allowed me to keep focusing on IN HER OWN SKIN and the MONSTER NOVEL STRUCTURE WORKBOOK.
And I did learn a lot about my writing process. I learned that I mustn’t try to rush it. If I’m not ready for a full-on draft come November them I’m not ready. And that’s fine! The important thing is that I tried.
So what’s next?
This year I am as over-prepared as I can get. UNCHURCHED began life back when I was in high school, and I’ve been working on it on and off since then. I’m determined that whatever I draft this year is going to be The Draft that I then polish up to the best of my ability.
The outline is over 12,000 words long. Am I insane? Only a little. There’s method here.
The first reason it’s so huge is because I knew I’d be sharing it with my Author Mentor Match mentor, and she’d never seen any of this before. I needed to give enough information that a new person would understand what was going on. Context.
Secondly, I wanted to get all the layers in. Having worked on this story for SO long, there are a lot of layers I’ve built up. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any. And I pulled out Aeon Timeline’s matrix feature to track how frequently a given thread was mentioned. Basically, I did all the plot-proofing I was able to.
Then I got beta reads on the outline. This is important for my process as well, because at a certain point I’m too in the weeds to see everything. I need the external feedback to guide my next changes. I’ve already gotten comments on plot, character, motivations, logic, and weaknesses. Which I get to fix NOW instead of when I’ve written thousands of words that will have to be cut.
This is my process.
Novel going nowhere?Getting stuck in the Muddy Middle of your novel is no fun. But there's a scaffolding for how your novel should be built--that's what makes it a novel.
The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting Stuck comes with downloadable worksheets, examples, and even a Scrivener template.