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What happened when I didn’t have a plan for NaNoWriMo

2017 was not a good National Novel Writing Month for me.

Gearing Up

Only a few months before November I was hit with an idea, an idea I loved and could foresee growing into something awesome. It was a YA dystopia inspired by some gruesome things but it still had a masquerade ball. (Don’t they all?)

I didn’t have a lot of time to plan, but I figured I’d go with it anyway, because the heat was there. I figured I would do as much planning as I could and then try pantsing what I didn’t yet know. I’ve always had this mild desire to do a 100% pantsed NaNo but never had the guts to go for it since that first disastrous attempt in 2004. (That project is still just ‘Untitled Mobster Story’.) Plenty of people pants their novels and come up with amazing stuff.

I am apparently not one of them.

I went through some exercises to get my plot down in broad strokes. I thought I knew my main trio of characters pretty well.

Looking back, I can see I was missing quite a lot. Like arcs for each main character and my antagonist. Like theme. Like the intricate details that make world-building feel like a world and not just a painted plank backdrop.

Week 1

It felt wrong from the start. My main character (MC), the POV character, didn’t feel like a product of her environment. I knew the circumstances of her life but I didn’t yet know who she was as a person. As a consequence the narrative felt awkward. Add to that the huge amount of world-building that goes into a distant-future dystopia. I felt like I was veering towards info dumping on every page. Trying to juggle my MC’s ‘this is normal’ attitude with the need for urgency in the plot and to paint in the world around her… it was a lot. Every sentence was a struggle.

What really killed me was that I hadn’t taken the time to detail my plot on a scene-by-scene level. I had a synopsis, and a Monster Worksheet, and… that was it. I hadn’t decided which character would narrate each scene, or which scenes went into which chapter, or any of that.

I wrote 10,000 words that I hated. We were entering the second week of November and I was behind. It was getting worse, not better.

So I switched projects.

Week 2

I had had a back-up project in mind, but it wasn’t in much better state. This epic fantasy was a much older idea, but I’d had to rip out the central conceit and start over. I hadn’t done nearly enough to rebuild its core, and again figured I would try to pants what I didn’t yet have. I tried to lean on my characters to tell the story for me.

This method works for some people, but it clearly doesn’t work for me.

Enthusiasm helped me close the gap and get back to par for nearly a week. I knew the beginning the best out of the whole story. But then it was like pulling teeth again.

I knew my main character better this time, but her world was even less developed. Once I ran out of the story I knew well I was left to make things up.

I’m not good at spinning up a complete new world on-the-fly. I can generate ideas, or I can craft pretty prose, but I can’t do both at the same time. Especially not with a massive cast of characters and a wholly new world to work in.

I hit 14,000 words on that project and stalled out.

Week 3

This time I decided to start from scratch. I’d had the idea for a series of adult romances and done some planning on the first book, but I wanted a fresh start. So I looked at Book 2, grabbed my copy of Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes, and got to work.

I decided that I would go through the beats laid out in the book and pretty much tell myself the story. I would count this lengthy synopsis/outline toward my NaNo word count, because it was screwed up anyway.

I wrote about 5000 words of planning material, mostly in the form of a detailed outline that went scene-by-scene, conversation-by-conversation. And I was actually happy with it! I started keeping pace again, no longer losing ground.

Week 4

I might as well try writing the actual book, right? I had a false start with the first chapter, trying to find the character’s voice. But then I got into the groove.

I ended up writing 17,000 words of that book, which put me over 50k for the month. And I didn’t hate every minute of it! So I count that as a victory.

Then I put all three books away and resolved to work on things I had a better hold of. I felt scalded.

What I learned

I learned a lot about how my mind works. I need granular planning, with layering of plot threads and seeds planted and characters arcing. Without those I get lost and turned around and frustrated.

I wish I hadn’t had to go through all that to figure that out, though. It was a demoralizing month, over all. I’ve never had a year quite so bad before. Even in the years when circumstances outside my control scuppered my writing I still knew what I wanted to write. I still had passion for my chosen project.

Instead I walked away feeling adrift, and like I wasn’t as competent at this as I’d thought I was. I’ve had some amazing NaNo victories, writing 80k one year, and finishing early in 2016 despite the massive international move. All that felt like the fluke for months afterward.

The reality is that this, the month of three different projects, was the fluke. And I need to remember that I can do this because I have done this in the past.

When I have a plan, I win

Sure enough, in 2018 I wrote a complete book, some 72,000 words. It was a project I’ve been toying with seriously since 2012 and I think the preparation showed in what I wrote and how I wrote it. It was work, but it was fulfilling work. Work I was happy to do. And the initial feedback has been good.

What will I write in 2019? I have a story in mind, but I haven’t had a chance to really hammer out the details yet. I know what will happen if I don’t, and that motivates me to get to work.

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