¡Feliz día de los muertos! We’re now in November, which for some writerly types, means NaNoWriMo, aka Nation Novel Writing Month. If you aren’t in the know, participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of November. This translates to writing approximately 16,666 words a day. Back in the early days of writing, I participated, but I don’t anymore, since every month is Novel Writing Month, and at this point in my life, a pace of 50K a month for 12 months is not something I could ever hope to maintain. Writing at my own pace is just fine by me.
In my opinion, NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise in terms of process, in learning how to write a novel… but not one in terms of results. The novel you write in one month won’t be a particularly useful one, not without significant editing. Briefly: I think it’s a wonderful way to crank out a trunk novel. One of my trunk novels was, in fact, a NaNoWriMo.*
But exercise and process are important, especially when it comes to getting started. Getting a novel started is, for me, a very slow and deliberate process, in that the path from conception to writing actual text can take quite some time. I sometimes make the metaphor of my writing brain being like a kitchen, with various projects on front and back burners. But then there is other stuff in crockpots on back counters, slowly stewing away for years until they are really ready to work.
Phase One: Conception.
This is, more or less, the Big Idea phase of things, where the thunderstrike of a Shiny New Story smashes across your brainpan. It’s usually the broadest of brushstrokes: Steampunk Airship Flying Through Alternate Universe Texas! Secret Telepath War In Manhattan! Abducted Human Wakes from Hibernation Sleep on a Dying Ship Full of other Abducted Aliens! Cold hard truth: 75-90% of projects never get out of this phase. It’s always a bit fun and exciting, but it’s also easy to mistake that Fun and Exciting for “And now I will write the book”. That never works, at least for me. Though I suspect that many people– at least non-writers– believe that this phase is all you need to write the book.**
Phase Two: Setting.
Once I have an idea, I need to build the place where it unfolds. I’m a worldbuilder, it’s what I do. For me, this phase is all too crucial: it’s about placing the gears that will power the engine behind the story. This phase can often be the longest, because it is filled with working and reworking things out. If it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t make sense to me, then the center doesn’t hold. Case in point: when I initially conceived my Space Opera Setting, back in 2002, I created some initial star maps with colonies and alien homeworlds and such and so forth. But as I first tried to write, this signal of WRONG WRONG WRONG across my brain was jamming things up. Why? It took a while to realize, but I finally hit upon it: the stars of these colonies and alien worlds, while being in close proximity to Earth, had nothing to do with actual stars close to Earth. Back to the drawing board.
Phase Three-A: Characters.
Phase Three-B: Circumstances.
I put these two together like this because they tend to go hand in hand, but I can’t honestly say which one goes first. Both things are crucial to figuring out what the actual story is: what’s happening, and who it’s happening to. It’s a strange, intertwined process that, frankly, I haven’t quite mastered. Trying to craft circumstances without knowing character at the center can yield something soulless and mechanical. But crafting characters without really knowing the story can make an unholy mess, where you end up with numerous people standing around with very little to do. The best solution I’ve found is to, at this phase, focus on just the core characters and the ripe circumstances that initiates things, and let it flow from there.
Phase Four: Outline
Now that I’ve worked out the key elements, who, what, where, when and (to a degree) why, it’s a time for a big helping of how. Of course, I use my Twelve-Part Structure as a base, writing out about a paragraph for each part. With that finally in hand, THEN I can start Actually Writing.
*- I gave it significant editing afterwards. It’s still a trunk novel, and that’s what it deserves, frankly.
**- This is where those, “I’ve got a great idea for a book, so you write it and we’ll split the profits!” pitches come from.