The road to NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is fast approaching.  I haven’t gotten into NaNoWriMo in the past, not least because I always seem to forget about it until mid-November, but this year I have not been caught off guard.

It’s not the most artistically-inclined event, since the goal is to produce a 50,000-word novel in 30 days or less, but focusing on the art and refinement isn’t my issue right now.  I can refine and replot and quibble and reshape things to more accurately present the story I want – what I’m missing is the joy I used to take in actually putting a ridiculous number of words on a page.  It’s high time that I reclaimed it.  I need to force myself to hammer something out, and this is the perfect time.  This is the time to invoke the badger.

The rules of NaNoWriMo are very clear that you can’t write so much as one word of the story prior to 12:00 AM November 1, but you are free to plot and plan and research as much as you want in advance.  In my case, this means sorting through the ideas in my head that have bounced around and percolated for so long and deciding on one that will get my sole attention for thirty days.  Let’s meet some candidates.

Book #1 working title: Daybreak

Premise: A medieval fantasy deconstruction/reconstruction.  Immediately after the defeat of a magically-superpowered tyrant, the much-lauded heroes set about rebuilding and restoring the country he ruined in his last days.  Unfortunately, the new king has no social or diplomatic skills, the knights in shining armor are coping with trauma and PTSD, the surviving general has good reason to kill all her new allies, two wizards are playing chess with whole continents, and there’s a serial killer loose in the capital calling themself the Enemy of Death.

Pros: A rich cast that I am deeply familiar with and fond of (and fond of making suffer), and a plot that I’ve tried writing in a different form in the past, so I have a sense of what worked before and where I want to make the most changes.  Potentially short enough that a good rough draft might fit in 50,000 words.

Cons: The grief and cynicism substantially outnumbers the cheer in this story – most of the happy people are faking it most of the time.  That could be a bit of a slog.  Also contains some complicated and volatile events in the backstory that I would hate to write in a hurtful or offensive way.  (Optionally, I could cut it down in the NaNoWriMo edition to both shorten and simplify.)

Book #2 working title: Three Days of Magic

Premise: A trio of friends attend a mage convention in a city that is, for three days, sealed off from the outside world in a dome (for everyone’s protection).  On the first morning, a famed wizard is found dead, and their attempts to solve the murder lead them to a time-travel device which should allow them to prevent it.  All hell breaks loose, leading to the nightmarish prospect of being trapped in a three-day loop that always goes horribly wrong regardless of all attempts to save it, but must not be allowed to end lest the world is devoured.

Pros: Again, I love these protagonists.  In particular the lead has this wonderful live-for-today dynamic because she’s a rare kind of mage that can essentially invoke a miracle at any time if she’s willing to die in the process.  For her whole life she’s been thinking about what it means to be the textbook-perfect custom-built Heroic Sacrifice waiting to happen.  It helps fill her story with these rollercoaster heights of joy back-to-back with sorrow, and the rest of the worldbuilding follows that theme as much as possible.  (The degree to which the ending is a downer will probably vary enormously by reader perspective.)

Cons: I am all to aware that it’s easy to love a character too much, and I’m wary about having her become an insufferable Author’s Darling.  She doesn’t know everything or get all the best lines, and one of the recurring plot points is that her sheer power isn’t so useful as legends would have one believe, but it’s a risk.  The whole time-travel thing also has the potential to sprawl out of control, which would be unfortunate mid-November.

Book #3 working title: Spark

Premise: Two siblings set out to chase their rather divergent dreams – one is looking to get really, really rich; the other is trying to figure out how you go about becoming a mythic world-saving hero when no mysterious old mentor appears with a ready-made quest.  They politely abduct a snarky, mind-reading priestess, can’t seem to get rid of a friendly sailor, and their search for a fantastic treasure hits a snag when they end up penniless and ditched in a unknown land without their magic universal translator.

Pros: A plot that does not cleave to the more clichéd fantasy lines – just being broke is a legitimate problem (and getting rich is a legitimate dream), religions are varied and complex and unfalsifiable, and the one person who wants to ‘save the world’ is considered eccentric at best.  I have only a rough collection of ideas for how the actual plot unfolds (which I could expand over the coming weeks), which might give some much-needed flexibility in an intense process like NaNoWriMo.

Cons: The rough collection of ideas may not yet be sufficiently fertile ground to produce a sustained story, and then we’d just have 50,000 words of the engineer and the priestess arguing over spirituality, extraordinary claims, and falsifiability, while the would-be-champion and the sailor make out in the corner.

These are not the only ideas I’m weighing, but they are probably the best candidates for my purposes.  I could go on and on about each of them in greater detail, but that’s risky for all sorts of mysterious reasons.  Which would y’all like to see most?  What sorts of writing considerations are you making with a month and a bit to go before November 1?  NaNoWriMo veterans, any advice on what helped you get through in the past (or led to your unjust stumbling before the finish line)?


9 comments on “The road to NaNoWriMo

  1. wickedday says:

    I like the sound of Daybreak, but then I’m a sucker for subversive fantasy. Actually, all three sound like they could fall into that bracket, and I’m sure that any one (or all of them!) could become something, well, magical.

    The single most important thing for me, at least, in being able to drag myself past the finish line has been writing in company. The one year I tried to go it alone (’07) I crashed and burned at 12,000 words when I just couldn’t see the point any more. Every year I’ve done it with friends, by contrast, the question “Why am I doing this again?” (which you will be asking yourself, probably somewhere around the proverbial Week Two Crash) was easily answered by taking a look around my living room full of frazzled novelists and going “Oh, yeah, right.” But then I met some of my best friends and my partner through NaNo, so I’m biased.

  2. Will Wildman says:

    Yes, the majority of my ideas tend to be subversive fantasy, although idea #2 up there is the least so – despite some horrific circumstances, it’s really meant to be explosively audaciously joyful, defiant joy in the face of horrors. One of the things fantasy does best is take reality and turn it up to eleven.

    My limited experience suggests to me that writing in a group is a brilliant motivational force, so that’s a great suggestion – unfortunately, I’m rather lacking in potential group members in my physical vicinity (I’ve lived in this city for a year and I make friends very slowly). One of my new goals has to been to find communities (real-world or online) to be a part of, but the going has been slow. I suppose if I search around I may find some online groups that are specifically forming in prep for NaNoWriMo, eh?

  3. chris the cynic says:

    You have ideas you can actually use? What is this magic?

    For me it tends to be along the lines of, “Well I could do the thing I thought of where the vampire from biology class is abducted/run off by vampire hunters and the depressed girl whose only healthy emotional connection was to said vampire runs off to save him action movie style… wait. No I can’t. The only reason I ever had that idea in the first place was that I already wrote a scene from that story. Crap.”

    Just about everything I’ve had in my head is something I already wrote at least somewhat, and thus disqualified.

    Or, I found myself thinking, “What about the thing with the cracks in reality and- That’s what I tried to do last year. I didn’t write much, but I did write some. That can’t be used.”

    And finally trying to dredge my mind for random ideas that have yet to be recorded. “What about the brain in a jar story where a bunch of aliens who don’t know they’re aliens are hooked into a matrix like simulation of Earth (because their species transfers memories by touch so by touching the aliens who have been living simulated human lives the other aliens can learn what it is like to be human and thus better understand humanity in preparation for their upcoming invasion) and one of the aliens from the simulation wakes up? Did I ever write any of that down?” Probably not, because it isn’t a story so much a premise. A silly premise.

    Anyway, the point of this (if there is a point. Is there a point?) is that you’re way out ahead of me if you have a story in mind, much less three stories. I’ll probably start with first person narration and end up up with a Mary Sue and hope like hell a plot comes knocking. It’s not a good plan, but that’s what I’ll likely be doing.

    So, you know, whatever you choose expect to be better prepared than I will be.

  4. Will Wildman says:

    chris, man, not so much with the self-flagellation. There are weeks to go before November 1st, plenty of time to think up something totally fresh. Additionally, I’ve reviewed the NaNo guidelines again and while it’s VERBOTEN to bring in previously-written material, I don’t see anything that prevents you from writing an entirely fresh story from page one just because you once wrote a test scene from it earlier.

    I certainly hope the rules aren’t that rigid, because then I’d be stuck in some kind of hellish grey area – Daybreak, for example, is the result of a massive overhaul of a much older half-written story with a similar shape but rather different worldbuilding/magic/villains/heroes. Except each of those differences are grey areas as well – the PTSD-afflicted knights I mention above did exist in the original and had similar personalities, but they had very different backstories and were overall much less traumatised.

    Basically I’m saying that it’s like I wrote some of the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, was dissatisfied, and now for NaNoWriMo I’m thinking about writing the 2003-2009 BSG series. Strictly speaking I’ve covered some of this ground before, but it was so vastly different (and no actual words are jumping from one edition to the other) that I think it’s legit.

  5. chris the cynic says:

    I’ve heard it said that novel in a month stuff tends to work better for looser ideas with room to grow in ways you don’t expect. (The guidebook to the event is called, “No Plot? No Problem!” after all.)

    Given that it seems like the third one would be the wisest decision even though my intuition would be to go with something you have more of a plan on.

  6. wickedday says:

    From the NaNo website’s About page:

    Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
    Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people’s works).

    I’ve always interpreted this as meaning only that you can’t include anything you’ve written before November 1 (“previously written prose”) in the 50,000 words you submit (“your NaNoWriMo draft”). No padding the word-count with old stuff, basically. Which is reasonable enough: the point of the challenge is not “compile a draft in November” but “write 50,000 new, shiny words”. And perhaps more relevantly, NaNo operates on an honour system, and generally trusts its participants to submit in good faith. If you want to carry on with something of which bits already exist, and you in your own personal conscience reckon that falls within the rules, nothing can stop you.

    As far as groups go, do look at the Regional Lounges – most big cities have at the very least an introductory party, from which smaller meetups then tend to germinate.

  7. chris the cynic says:

    Me feeling is this, if you write something twice, the second time goes faster, thrice and the third time is even faster than the second, there isn’t a word that comes after thrice, but presumably the fourth time is faster than that.

    If the goal is to write something from scratch, it should be first time writing. Certainly if you were to scale up, “I’ve written this scene before,” it would be obvious cheating because if you’d written the entire novel before then it wouldn’t meet the rules at all. Even if you never looked back at your first draft while writing it.

    And the thing is, when I say that most of the ideas I have are connected to things I’ve already written, I mean closely connected, the prose already written would have to be rewritten for the the new thing, and rewriting is a different experience than writing for the first time. It tends to be rather faster in my experience.

    It wouldn’t be breaking the rules on the level of cutting and pasting prewritten text, but it also wouldn’t be the same as writing something new. So I think it’s out unless you can argue (to yourself since the rules are enforced by no one else) that it really is different enough to qualify as being new.

    Random thought:

    A new novel writing thing. Everyone reads a book, preferably something in the public domain. Everyone waits a certain amount of time. (At least a month, but whatever seems right as arbitrarily decided ahead of time by the shady planning committee.) Then, after not having touched the book for the set amount of time, Everyone rewrites the book. (In a fixed amount of time.)

    No peeking at the original.

  8. Alynda says:

    They all sound wonderful, especially Daybreak and Three Days of Magic. But my votes continues to go for the banshee in the bathtub. I need to read THAT novel so I can put the images in my brain to rest already!

  9. Oz says:

    While Spark intrigues me mainly because of the would-be epic hero, Daybreak sounds like the thing I would most prefer to read, and so I am unashamedly asking you to write it. I think it’s entirely possible to avoid Debbie Downer Syndrome with a premise like that, though. Dark humor is your friend.

    My best suggestion would be to have your characters make fun of themselves (and, to a lesser extent, of each other) when the Trauma Llama really ramps up, especially the knights. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent around people with PTSD, but it’s been my experience that those of us so afflicted tend to use a lot of such humor as a coping method, except during those really harsh, suicide-watch episodes… and sometimes even then, too. It’s still horrifying to observe, but those cynical injections of humanity make it seem less hopeless, and almost uplifting or inspiring in a way.

    If I were writing this story, I’d also have all the characters frequently resort to hyperbole and sarcasm in their dialogue when discussing the major problems of the day.

    The point of using characters as punching bags is to increase the intensity of their triumph. If they’re going to get beaten down as much as it sounds like they will, then small triumphs along the way help keep readers’ hope strong enough that it doesn’t feel pointless rooting for them. Dark, self-deprecating humor doesn’t detract from the direness of the situation — the characters are acknowledging it, after all — but it does represent a stubborn refusal to succumb to despair, like a big ol’ middle finger.

    As for offensiveness: Let your beta readers be the judge of that.

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