Thursday, November 5, 2009

NaNo's Secret Purpose

I believe National Novel Writing Month has a secret purpose. Yes, there's the stated purpose of writing fifty thousand words in thirty days. That's a great purpose, and the formal NaNo process has the collateral advantage of drawing people together into the common goal. A supportive community is never a bad thing, especially for a group such as writers who tend to work in isolation most of the time. NaNo is a welcome change from the solitude, and it's great to share the adventure.

But I think there's something else, something far more profound than a number of words generated, that you can accomplish during NaNo.

You can press the reset button on your entire writing process.

Everything we've been talking about this week -- having fun, creating rituals, speed-writing, calming the critical thinking part of our minds -- really is all about examining our writing habits and making them more satisfying and productive.

This is done in the context of writing a helluva lot of words, of course, and that external goal might just make pressing the reset button a bit easier. Because if you're going to make that huge goal, you might have to take yourself out of your usual rhythm and pattern.

Today is the fifth of the month. By now, you may have written in the neighborhood of eight to nine thousand words. This might be enough writing to have soaked up a good bit of your pre-planning efforts. It might also be enough to have pulled you away from your initial plan and down a different path. Or maybe, like a true pantser, you've written a whole lot of words on the fly, and now you're to the point where you have to try to remember where the story has been and figure out where it might be going.

Regardless of your specific process, at some point over the next few days, it's very likely that the initial momentum will start to wind down. What has been happening during your writing sessions this week has probably felt wildly productive and energetic. That might start to taper.

It's okay.

Don't worry.

This is natural.

And it doesn't mean you have to stop. You can keep going even if your creative subconscious starts whining like a tired child. Even if it throws a nasty, purple-faced, foot-stomping temper tantrum.

Here's an exercise. We're going to use the timer again, but this time, we'll set it for three to five minutes. Your choice. You want this exercise to happen quickly -- no deep thinking, just a lightning fast "speed round" of idea generations.

Word count is unimportant. I find this works best when it's done with paper and pencil -- something about that little scratchy noise from the pencil lead, so reminiscent of childhood and all the natural creative energy we had back then, really catapults this exercise to a new level for me. It might not have the same effect for you. Maybe you'll do better with brightly colored markers.

I also find it works best with unlined loose sheets of copy paper or stationery. I want to be able to cast pages aside at whim and start on a new one. Note cards might work, too.

Here's how it works. At the top of the page, jot the names of your main and secondary characters. This is a cheat sheet of sorts to help jog your memory during the speed round.

Now, set the timer. For three to five minutes, however long you choose, your job is to list all the physical places these characters might bump into each other. Don't worry about whether you actually plan to have them appear at any of these places. Don't even worry about whether it's physically possible. Just take your characters in combination and figure out where they might meet. Write as fast as you can until the bell dings. If you find yourself pausing, throw out one of your characters and substitute another. If you find yourself straying from settings and into other details, don't fret, but come back to settings and just keep writing.

I'll do it right here, right now, for 3 minutes, with an assortment of people -- no book in mind, just an exercise for the blog.

Bill and Tony -- car wash, Bill's house, Tony's backyard next to the grill, the tavern on the corner, the parking lot where the streetlights are making that puddle of light, the cemetary, the graveside, the tombstone, a fresh grave gaping in the ground, inside a white car, the airport, the bathroom at the airport, the sinks that are always wet with the mirrors over them, why does this bring me back to an image of an open grave,

Bill and Mrs. Bill -- the bedroom, the kitchen, in the garage when the car breaks down, a high school dance with fancy dresses and crepe paper decorations, inside a red car, the place all the kids go parking, Mars, divorce court, inside a white pumpkin carriage with glass windows drawn by white horses, the forest, all these mice everywhere, lots of fairy tale connotations but it feels grim even if it comes out pretty

Carrie and Mary -- fast food joint next to the car wash, parking lot in daylight, parking lot at dark, suspicion, but they're a unit, wear the same uniforms, inside a car for carpool, an old car,

Carrie and Mrs. Bill -- colliding carts in the supermarket, Tony's backyard, parking lots again, lots of arguing when they meet, one of the wheels does that sideways-flippy thing so she can't get away,

Ding. Time's up.

The more you write, the more ideas you'll come up with. You don't have to worry about what might happen at each of these places. Not now. For the moment, you're just trying to speed through the process of imagining them in combination against different settings.

Do the exercise and put it away. No need to think about it. You're going to save it for later when you get stalled. Then you'll want this list. Then you can use it to spark new pages. We'll show you a few tricks later, but for now, just make the list and put it aside.



Anissa said...

Another great tip! You ladies are full of inspiration. Thanks!

green_knight said...

I'm starting to feel like the odd writer out. I think this is a great brainstorming exercise, but I'm starting to get very tired of NaNo indeed. It's only Day 5, and I've already fallen into the trap of writing too fast and shall need the rest of the week to unravel the damage.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Just addressing the first part of the post--yes, I'm finding my writing has changed completely this time around. But for some reason, all these teachings I've learned over the last few months from this blog and others have gone out the window. POV, active verbs, sentence structure, showing vs telling, limit adverbs and adjectives...phbbt!

I'm writing in some new style I don't know if I love or hate yet, but so far it seems to be working. I did a ton of plotting, and so far I'm sticking to the intent of the plot, although I've deviated on the details.

BTW I'm at 13K and counting ;)

Sarah Ahiers said...

I had this realization today that the writing i do for nano doesn't feel any different than the writing i normally do. I write over my 1667 each day and i don't feel like it takes much time, and i haven't had to change my schedule or life around at all. I guess that bodes well for me finishing and probably just shows that i'm more prolific than i had realized.
But yes, i completely agree with the reset notion.

F. D. Davis said...


I'm not doing the NaNo thing, but I wanted to comment on the three minute plotting of ideas. We did that at the last chapter meeting and came up with really great ideas. This is another tip that I'll use for the future. Thanks


Rachael Herron said...

Good god, I LOVE this idea. Thank you. And what a great post. Thanks for this.

Leona said...

I love your ideas, as always.
I have been able to get more than 2k out every day (Except the first day. I was grossly under the first day average, LOL)

Yesterday, despite being past the point I'd preplanned, I put out 3300. Plus I changed direction and my main character is going nowhere near where she was originally headed. Not even sure it will be in this book, I changed directions so drastically.

My six day official total is 15579 :) I'm not stressed because of nanowrimo, yet. It's kept me focused and writing during a time I'd probably have not written at all, or very little. Ask me again next week. I hear the second week is brutal!

PS This is my first nano and first fantasy novel. Thought this would be best time to start a novel that needs to be longer than most other genres.