Are You Writing a Novel in November? Really?!

There are so many ways to write a novel, or jump-start yourself from a state of inertia on your novel. The one of choice this month is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where some 300,000 writers have signed up to keep their word count honest, to keep their butts in the chair, to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I have signed up before. I have tried NaNoWriMo. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really make me write a first draft. For one thing, I’m not compulsive enough to report my word count each day. (I am too busy actually writing for that!) Also, 50k words isn’t really a novel in my book, so a whole lot of editing, adding, subtracting, plumping, and excising would be required down the line. At the end of a frenzied flurry of work (if you wrote every single day of 30 (including Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the day you get that dreaded cold) you “only” need to get down 1667 words each day, about six or seven pages double-spaced, you are left with what? Months of organization. And frustration.

FullSizeRender-3Of course if you planned your November Attack ahead of time it wouldn’t end up such a pile of dreck. Maybe that’s how you’re doing it; if so, kudos to you for forethought. I confess to being a former pantser, that is, someone who writes from the seat of their pants, who doesn’t know where their novel’s plot is going, someone who wrote her first mystery not knowing who the killer was. [Note: this didn’t go well. Cue another 12 months of rewriting the book from scratch.]

I wonder how many of the NaNoWriMo crowd have outlined their novel ahead of time. This would make sense, if they did. Then you could actually write 50,000 words (if not a novel) in four weeks, by following your step by step breakdown.
Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMI have written out elaborate outlines, pages and pages of where I thought the story might go, sort of a short story or what they call in film, a treatment. “Might go” being the operative term, as these outlines rarely held up past the midpoint. Back in those days I knew where the novel started, the inciting incident, and how it would end, more or less. Definitely who the villain was after that first mess of a first draft. I almost always had to knock off a character at midpoint to get past that dreaded quagmire.

Now I use Scrivener, an outlining program with visual bulletin boards with note cards (you can do it yourself with real objects) and a template overlay that tells me basically where my plot points should be, where the midpoint is, keeps all my setting and character info and research in one place, and keeps me looking at the big picture of where my story is going. (I blogged about Scrivener and my love for it here.)

It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to get tunnel vision about your story. You fall in love with a character, with a scene, even though you have no idea what it means in the grand scheme of your story. Outlining really helps with this. You may think it takes the magic out of writing, and you may be right. It is less right-brained than the whole “the story came to me in a dream” thing (which does sometimes happen but usually goes nowhere.) But here’s the thing. You need both sides of your brain to write a good novel, the magicky-woo-woo side where deep emotional drama lives and breathes, and the cool, organized side that evaluates what level of crap you’re throwing down.

You can write a novel with only one side of your brain. But don’t expect fireworks. Just a whole bunch of rewriting.

I’m including these words of wisdom from Michael Crichton because I just read his last, posthumously published book, Pirate Latitudes. I’ve been on a pirate kick lately for some reason, and in general I find Crichton’s books fun, inventive, and well-written. But this book was found in his files after his death. It reads well, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it. But, as Entertainment Weekly said back in 2009, “If nothing else,  Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer.”

It reads like a young adult adventure novel, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure many 14-year-old adventurers-to-be will enjoy and have loved it. Crichton fans were thrilled when a last novel was found, no doubt, despite a sea of pirate sailing jingo like ”Mizzen top blown!”

But there is a reason Crichton never released it. And it probably starts with “re” and ends with “write.”

Ulterior Motivations

In the writing life there are two kinds of motivation. One is the kind that gets you to apply your backside to a chair and get some writing done every day. The other kind is the reason why your characters do the things they do. Both motivations can be difficult at times, but let’s start with the more basic: why do you write?

Most fiction writers, it seems, like to be read. Writing for yourself is interesting but not ultimately satisfying, so if you write for publication the communication continuum is complete. Editors give you feedback, reviewers give you thumbs up. You hear from readers, they like your novel, they hate it, whatever. They read it. Fifteen years ago I would hear successful writers talk about their “brand.” You still hear this, about branding yourself. Back then they said it with a touch of regret. “I write about this character, that’s the brand.” This usually meant their publisher wanted only their series books, a known quantity, and didn’t want them to veer off into the unknown. Stick with success, baby. Don’t mess it up. Since a significant amount of money is riding on that success, for both writer and publisher, everybody’s happy if the brand is continued. These writers are motivated by their own success. They worry about doing better on this book than the last. They worry about their publisher turning sour on them. They worry about their next three-book contract.

Actually I have no idea what they worry about because I am not one of those writers. So I’m not motivated to write by the contract deadline. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a good living as a bestselling writer! But I find it a bit sad when writers refer to their books as their products and their career as their brand. Writing is so personal. (Good writing anyway.) It comes from a place you don’t even understand, the subconscious, and informs your story in ways that are surprising and sometimes even magical. If you are pre-determined to write about a specific character ad nauseum, doesn’t this take away from the joy of writing? (This is probably why I no longer have a New York publisher!)

What motivates a writer when there is no one clamoring for that next book? Your love of the process. For me writing a novel is like putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose picture is fuzzy. As some of the parts come together the picture clears up. But then other pieces don’t fit with that part so you take it apart and start over. Novel-writing is an organizational challenge, and a big challenge it is. If you like to see the big picture, work out how to make sense of characters’ actions, think hard and then re-think and re-think, then novel writing is for you. If you’re in love with words, write poetry. If you want to write about a slice of life, a moment or a day, write a short story.

It can be extremely frustrating to write a novel, especially if you’re trying to do something new. And (you knew this by now) I don’t like the old. If I’ve conquered a type of novel, at least in my own mind, I want a bigger challenge. I want to dig deeper. Every novel I write touches me in a new way, makes me see the world afresh. I don’t know why you would be a writer if you didn’t have your own ulterior motives for writing. Mine is to see life from a different angle, to explore what it means to be a human being in a certain place and time, to figure out what’s going on inside my own head and my own heart.

Which leads us to the second motivational challenge, getting characters to act in a way that appears rational. If characters have no motivation to do certain things, your story falls apart. Back to the drawing board. This is another hurdle you have to cross yourself. Good prep work can solve most of these problems. If you outline, make sure the seeds of important actions are planted early on. If you’re a pantser like myself, fill your notebooks with the wanderings of your mind, figure out what sort of person would do whatever it is they must do. (Being a pantser doesn’t mean you can just sit down and start a novel without figuring it out ahead of time. It just means every part of the novel isn’t figured out.)

It’s a great journey, writing a novel. Enjoy the trip.

Lise McClendon’s new novel, All Your Pretty Dreams, is a twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It comes out August 15.