The dozen roads to NaNoWriMo

(TW: non-graphic discussion of rape in fiction)

I keep thinking I’ve made up my mind about what to write for NaNoWriMo – the idea titled ‘Daybreak’ in a previous post.  Unfortunately, I remain plagued by other concepts, because once I started trying to actually list all the comprehensive ideas I’ve had for books, the gates opened and I realised I had way more sitting around than I thought I did.  Daybreak itself is a worthy opponent, since I’ve tried writing versions of it before and they have ultimately overwhelmed me.  The characters have changed since then, as has the plot, so I’m kind of going for A-ha, we meet again my old friend, but this time I have the upper hand, but the story just kind of smirks at me and asks how I intend to introduce its convoluted backstory in a manner that neither interrupts the flow of current events nor leaves people wondering who the hell Ignatio is and why he hasn’t had any lines until halfway through the book.

(And then I think – why not give up on this one and go for something else, like Lunedun, the story of Earth’s first interstellar city-ship?  It could be such a sweeping, inspirational tale, couldn’t it?  The grand adventure that goes horribly wrong minutes after it begins, ambushed by a mysterious enemy and infiltrated by a familiar one, leading to a grand discovery that sets hope and pragmatism against each other in a meta-ode to science fiction itself?)

The thing about Daybreak is that it’s been in my head for so long that it’s gotten twisty and dirty in ways that make it a better story but so messy to actually put down on the page.  The part I stress over most is the backstory of one of the knights (call him C) – his brother went off to join the defence against the invasion of a neighbouring country, and they stopped hearing from him, so off goes C to find out what happened.  C was never all that excited about fighting, but he always looked up to his brother, everyone’s assertive friend, the natural leader.  And eventually he finds out that what happened was that his brother was a rapist, and got killed for it.  C’s got to deal with the shattered hero image, the helplessness of not being able to right his brother’s crime(s), and the question of what to tell his family when (if) he goes back home.  It adds to the ways in which his own ‘romantic’ relationship is screwed up when the story begins, as well.  I think it’s solid stuff.  It does, however, need to be treated with caution.

(Lunedun is much simpler – the crimes and threats are less real and gruesome, being more on the scale of ‘we shall steal your Critical Refraction Drive and use it to build a power source that defies the laws of thermodynamics, then blow up a solar system so no one else can learn the secret’.  The characters are still flawed, but the flaws are less ‘I think I really enjoy murder’ and more ‘I am philosophically in favour of progress to the point where I devalue history and the natural world’, or maybe ‘I am sometimes obnoxious on the radio’.)

Any time rape shows up in fiction there seems to be a high chance of it being handled in a terrible way, which I am eager to avoid.  The main character’s angst must not overshadow any victim’s suffering.  There can be no victim-blaming to any degree.  Rape is a crime of power, not a compliment gone wrong.  Those seem like simple things to remember, but it’s amazing what can slip past when I’m not paying close enough attention.  The first point seems like the easiest to slip on, and is also frustrating, because I don’t want the story to get soaked in angst at all.  Did ‘angst’ always have dismissive connotations?  It sounds insubstantial to me, like the product of teenage emotional disproportion.  And on a purely technical level, I just don’t write angst all that well.  I can do dour, maybe, and I can do melodrama, because I think there’s an art in going completely over the top, but simple, real sorrow is harder to maintain.  People who have read my past work oft compared it to Pratchett’s style, which is basically the greatest thing I have ever been told, and that’s where I’m happiest in writing – manic narrative, serious and absurd at the same time.

(The Radio Lunedun thing is especially compelling – one of the main characters is the city-ship’s Liaison, a role sort of like Press Secretary for the crew, delivering information to the civilian population via his personal communications channel, which in practice is rather like a radio broadcast.  That’s the sort of thing that can be meaningless or incredibly powerful depending on the person who’s in charge of it, and justifies the occasional frenetic monologue in addition to his basically suspicious and nosy behaviour.  I like writing pushy journalists, and this story would be full of it.  Angst levels in general are low; the only person with any is Yufeng, whose girlfriend decided to stay behind on Earth, and she’s not really the sort to stop and write poetry about her feelings.)

NaNo isn’t generally about creating your best works, of course, otherwise there would be rules other than Make Words Go On Pages.  So maybe the best thing to do is: cut it.  Let C be tormented by other things – dude did just play a pivotal role in a brief war and has decided that he’s a murderer, that’s surely enough to be traumatised over.  If I finish and I think it can still work, I can always go back and weave in the story of his brother’s crimes.  I think it’s a better story that way, but the reason I’m doing NaNo is to push myself back into writing like I used to, and the firs goal is to write something before I get too wrapped up in making it the ideal something.  Insisting on things being ideal is what got me stuck in the first place.

(Mind you, with Lunedun – ach, ta hell wi’ it.)

That’s the other reason that Daybreak is ideal – because it intimidates me.  I’m getting into this because  I need to stick with a story to the sweet’n’sour end, instead of letting another shiny object catch my attention and divert me into thinking that if I just try this other idea, the story will flow effortlessly from my fingertips.  Of course it isn’t going to do that; if it were that easy everyone would be the greatest author in the world and we really would have to worry about our ideas being stolen.*

I have now a list of twelve or thirteen partial story ideas, although their completeness varies wildly.  (There was one that I thought of as being quite substantial until I tried to write a timeline of events, at which point I realised that I had only plotted two or three chapters at most.)  Some of them feel like they would be much easier to write, but I’m telling myself that this is just a greener-grass delusion and I’m sticking with this one.  If I can do this, I’ll have the big one beat, and then obviously the rest of them will be easy and the story will flow effortlessly from my fingertips.  Yeah.  That’s a much more productive fantasy.

*Favourite anecdote (although I will get all the details wrong): A published author agrees to talk to a novice about his new work.  The newbie is unwilling to describe it in any detail on the basis that he is worried the more experienced author will then steal his ideas.  Experienced author says “Well, okay, I’ll let you steal one of my ideas in exchange.  A son returns to his small hometown due to an unexpected circumstance that forces him to meet up again with his father, whom he still blames for the death of his brother in a sailing accident fifteen years earlier.  Now, write that from the perspective of a 45-year-old agnostic Polish immigrant with two daughters.”  The newbie caught on, and mellowed.

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6 comments on “The dozen roads to NaNoWriMo

  1. Laiima says:

    I’ll be doing Nanowrimo for the first time this year. I have a very general idea of who my characters will be, and some of the “big ideas” I want to grapple with, but as of yet I have no plot.

    I’m gathering information and ideas for things organically. I’ve committed to writing 1700 words every day of October, to get me used to the pace.

    I have just now registered. Since you seem to be the only one of my cyber friends who is doing it this year, do you have any interest in being my writing buddy?

  2. Will Wildman says:

    I most certainly would, although I’m somewhat apprehensive about how much use I will be in my associated duties. I’ve also had excellent luck so far using the NaNo regional forums to connect with good local folks, although they thus far appear to be a fairly specific demographic (varyingly shy twentysomething geeks, rather like myself), so I don’t know if that’s necessarily the kind of group you’d find most conducive to your own works.

  3. I’m not convinced you’re right. I say this with trepidation because if you are right then I’m basically giving voice to all of the things that you currently need to shut up.

    I keep on writing long explanations and deleting them. Part of the reason is that I am not you and do not know how you think. If I were in your position, trying to tackle a story that I’ve been wrestling with for a while, one that’s “gotten twisty and dirty in ways that make it a better story”, I’d get hung up on wanting it to be good. I know it’s a good story, so it ought to be good on the page.

    Everything I’ve seen about the event suggests that that’s the kind of thinking you want to stay far, far away from. Everything I’ve seen about the event suggests that to make it work you have to be ok with the idea that what you’re creating is utter crap. What I’ve read indicates that the only thing that makes it work is that by giving yourself permission to write utter crap you silence the internal censor and become able to write stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise write.

    I know that I would have a hell of a lot more trouble giving myself permission to write badly if I were working on something that I knew for sure was good having seen it grow and improve over an extended period. I know that I’d probably end up looking at things and going, “Damn it! This is worse than the first three times,” which isn’t a bad reaction to have if you’re in a position to stop and revise and improve it, but is pretty damned bad if you’re trying to make quota and need to move on without fixing it. I know that by choosing something like that as my first serious attempt at this I’d probably be sabotaging myself, I’d be telling myself, “If I can do this I can do anything,” but I’d be setting myself up for, “I failed. What’s the point?”

    But maybe none of that applies to you. You are very clearly not me. For one thing, I don’t think I would ever consider writing an entire novel where C doesn’t have what would extremely important to his character back story while entertaining the possibility of weaving it back in later. Revision like that is just not something I would do, so we clearly do not write alike.

    Also, I’m less than clear on something else. You’re trying to get back to writing like you used to, but I’m getting the impression that Daybreak isn’t the kind of story you used to write. Am I missing or misinterpreting something here? Because if I’m not then I’m less than clear on how that isn’t counterproductive.

    So, in summary, “If I can do this, I’ll have the big one beat,” can sometimes be less productive than, “That one would be so much easier,” because it also means, “If I can’t do this I’ll have accomplished absolutely nothing,” which can leave you even more stuck than where you started. (Setting one’s sights too high is a very effective way of getting yourself very, very stuck.)

    You should only be trying to do it if it is a reasonable goal which it probably wouldn’t be if you were me, but you’re not so I don’t know.

    This concludes today’s performance of, “I may very well be the voice of unreason; perhaps you should ignore everything I say.”

    Actually, one last thing. As you point out, other stories would still be hard. They would not flow from your fingertips with ease and whatnot. They would be real work. I think that, whatever you decide, it’s probably important to remember that this isn’t a choice between hard and easy. It would be wrong to choose Lunedun instead of Daybreak because Lunedun would be easy. Lunedun wouldn’t be easy, it would be hard work. It would likewise be wrong to choose Daybreak instead of Lunedun because you felt like Lunedun was taking the easy way out. It wouldn’t be easy, it would be hard work.

    The choice is between differing levels of hard. Or possibly equally hard but in different ways.

    Anyway, seeing as how I’m pointing out the obvious, I figured I’d close by saying something you clearly already know. Or something like that.

    And I keep on meaning to make a post on my blog about what I’m thinking about wrt novel writing month, but at the rate I’m going I probably won’t get it up until sometime after November is over.

  4. Will Wildman says:

    Part of the greener-grass thing that I was getting at (although I wasn’t especially clear) was that I’m pretty sure all of my story ideas look intimidating from the inside. If they didn’t, I’d have made more progress on them by now – whichever story I’m looking at looks too complicated to tell properly, and there’s always another shiny idea that I’m convinced would be easier. (If I had settled on Lunedun, I’d be thinking ‘But I have so many more ideas for Daybreak and the character have much more robust backstories; I barely know who these people are!’) So I’m rejecting ‘story intimidates me’ as a criterion for deciding what to write, because it’s been so unhelpful to me so far.

    It does indeed also seem ridiculous to me to say “Eh, that huge character-shaping subplot can be cut and reviewed later”, but I’m not much of a rewriter at all – I detest second drafts or going back into my work and trying to alter anything. But one of the good things about instructively bad books like Left Behind is that they’ve shown me, Ghost-of-Christmas-Yet-to-Come-style, what consequences I face if I don’t get a grip on rewriting: four hundred pages of filler followed by Amanda White and nuclear war. So while it seems to me like a highly questionable decision, I don’t think I can trust that instinct either, and pushing myself to embrace revision as a legitimate thing is also, I think, a keystone in the bridge that will get me to ‘Just write, quality doesn’t matter right now, just Make Words Go On Pages’.

  5. anamardoll says:

    I am totally stealing that anecdote. That is *awesome*. :D

  6. Laiima says:

    I’ve now been out to FB and asked again if you wanted to be my writing buddy. I think I was afraid to come back here and check for your answer because I thought you might say No.

    My book idea has changed drastically from my original idea. And I haven’t yet written an author bio or uploaded a photo, but I do have a book title and (quite brief) synopsis. My username over there is LGarrabing.

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