I somehow came up with this idea that I’m going to maintain a blog while also working on a NaNoWriMo project, and that the two were never going to overlap. Well, maybe not never, but not in the sense that I would be counting the words I type for the blog toward the novel. At the time of writing this post, my official word count is 6,291. Nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but this is going a bit slower than normal. That, and what I’ve written so far is objectively terrible. You expect some of that with a project and deadline like this one, but yikes am I going to be cutting some things come revision time.
My original plan for this post was to share pieces of what I’d written this month just to give you some insight into what it is that I’m writing this year, but I decided—wisely, if you ask me—not to. This is one of the most first draft-y of first drafts that I’ve ever put to paper, and while I know frequent readers would recognize the difference between my NaNoWriMo prose and my more polished writing, the fact of the matter is that the piece I’m writing at the moment exists for the express purpose of being 50,000 words written in a rush during a busy month, and that less frequent readers are looking for a good impression that my NaNo won’t give them. Maybe if you beg a little I’ll share a halfway decent paragraph sometime this month: statistically, I’m bound to strike gold eventually.
In any case, I was thinking about what made this different from other novella-length pieces that I’ve also hurried my way through—namely, those that I wrote for classes. There’s the obvious focus on quality versus quantity, but even beyond that, writing done during NaNoWriMo, at least in my experience, sacrifices more in the pursuit of the end goal. In classes, even if my works ended up being shorter, there were elements I had to include and do well to get a decent grade: for NaNo, all that really matters are those words and, to a lesser extent, the rate at which they’re produced, precisely because no one is ever going to see it. In a way, it’s kind of freeing, but the sacrifices that I personally make are pretty obvious to me. And strangely enough, the absence of some things helps me see those things that not even a month-long frenzy can take from me. So here’s what I’ve noticed about my NaNo writing this year, divided into categories of things I’ve sacrificed and things I’ve retained:
This one probably goes without saying. NaNo is a challenge where avoiding acronyms, abbreviations, and contractions is encouraged in the interest of stretching the word count as far as possible. Emphasis is also placed on shutting off the infamous “inner editor,” and worrying about getting words down before getting the grammar correct.
As for my inner editor, I’m having a hard time shutting her off this year. You can pry my backspace key from my cold, dead fingers. As soon as the little red underline in Word appears, I have to fix whatever crime against spelling I’ve committed. But looking back at this and my previous NaNo pieces reveals that in my rush to get words down, I’ve done everything from writing run-on sentences to switching verb tenses in the middle of sentences to typing the wrong homophone. All cringe-worthy mistakes in any draft, and all things that can happen to anyone and in any context, but much more obvious in my NaNo pieces just because of where my focus is.
I’ve found dialogue a useful tool for padding a manuscript, which a few other writers I’ve talked to find unusual. Granted, lines of dialogue are better for spreading a manuscript out over a number of pages, but filler words (things like vocal tics, speech disfluencies, and repaired utterances) add words that you can’t get away with in paragraphs of description. It’s also good for pacing: at least for me, my dialogue use keeps me from summarizing the action. Finally, a lot of my characterization is done through dialogue: how people speak to each other says a lot about them.
One of my chapters at the moment is very dialogue-heavy, and at the moment I’m loving it. It’s giving my lead character some insight into a world that, thanks to amnesia, he forgot. Additionally, a slip of the tongue might have just kicked off the main plot. Aside from being heavy in repetition, there’s not much setting NaNo dialogue apart from my conventional dialogue, for which I’m exceedingly grateful.
SACRIFICED: Worldbuilding and physical descriptions
I’ve never put much emphasis on physical descriptions. Give me a nebulous or abstract idea to ponder and I’ll happily do so for 300 pages, but I’ve never been a big fan of describing concrete things in much detail. The one exception I can think of is when it’s relevant to the plot: if a character is feeling dysphoric, I’m going to put a lot more emphasis on descriptions of their body. If the true extent of one character’s cruelty needs to be shown, I won’t spare any details or mince words. If I need to establish that something is wrong with that very clearly haunted house, I’m going to tell you about how creepy the thing looks. But as for just describing people and things? I might throw in small clues (one character looking up at another as they speak to hint at height, for instance), but otherwise it’s on the readers. I’m even worse when it comes to geography: I’ll know everything about the political system of a world, but ask me where things are in relation to one another and I couldn’t honestly tell you. I am in awe of fantasy authors who draw up elaborate maps of their realms and stick with them.
I can’t say I’m surprised that physical descriptions suffer, but I’m a bit more surprised about the worldbuilding, especially as a speculative kind of writer. One of the contributing factors this year might be that I didn’t have the time to research to the extent that I would have liked and am making things up as I go. This might depend on the project, though. Last year, outside of the existence of things like werewolves, the world of that story was grounded enough in reality that I could fudge my way through a fictional small town in Michigan and focus on the characters, who were the important part anyway. I don’t consider my 2013 NaNo a success for a number of reasons, but I’ll give it credit for being a lot of worldbuilding as well as having pretty entertaining protagonists. It struck a balance between the two that I haven’t had the opportunity or luck in recreating since.
I’ll detail my “stock themes” in a future post, but I do have a number of them that I keep coming back to. I might be exploring them in different worlds, with different characters, or even with a different angle, but the ideas themselves don’t deviate much between pieces. I’d argue that the themes I stick to are more important to keeping my novels together than the actual plot despite the fact that they often overlap.
The fact that, even in the heat of NaNo, I don’t get distracted from the underlying themes is a major relief. The plot can change, the characters can take off in totally different directions than what I set out to do, and even the genre conventions could burst into flames and fly of the rails, but the heart of the story is still there. As long as I have that much to work with, I’m as good as can be.
SACRIFICED: Finesse and subtlety
Granted, weaving story threads together takes time, which NaNo by its very nature doesn’t give you. Even when I’m brainstorming, though, I’m trying to think of how things are tied together. I try to include subplots, even if they never end up panning out. I go in with a plan of how things are connected with some wiggle room if necessary. And once I get to the piece itself, I tend to describe and explore these ideas and plots with some measure of eloquence.
The thing is that sometimes you just get bored with what’s happening right now and move on. I’m particularly guilty of this during NaNo season because I don’t like writing exposition. Unfortunately, I need to get a few thousand words of it out of the way before I get to the middle and/or ending that I have much more clearly planned out. This year in particular, I had my protagonist wander around for ten pages until a side character said something to spark the main plot. Seriously, if I substituted his dialogue with a cry of “Hey look, the main plot!” you wouldn’t notice the change. And beautiful prose? Forget it. There’s a time and a place for delicately tying things together and making them easy on the eyes, and this is unfortunately not the time nor the place.
I’ve mentioned before how my characters are effectively autonomous beings that happen to share my brain with me, and this is no different for NaNo. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a character that ends up sparking the entire plot, as was the case with last year’s piece. The characters are also what end up driving the plot, so having a selection of good ones is important.
Again, because I didn’t prepare as much this year, I don’t know these characters nearly as well with the exception of the protagonist. But at least, in spite of everything else that went wrong in preparing for this year, I have him to fall back on. I didn’t do any “formal” kind of interview with him this year, but I had him in mind before I started writing. I’ve given up entire projects in the past because I couldn’t connect with a character properly: finding one might not be the first step in the writing process, but in terms of being able to stay with a project, it’s probably the most important one for me.
Are any of you doing NaNoWriMo? Do you see any differences between drafts written for the challenge and other drafts? Want to try convincing me to show you what I’ve been working on? Leave a comment!