The complicated turnpike just outside NaNoWriMo

November is imminent.  I’m having to keep myself from starting to write, which is good, although I’m trying not to raise any personal expectations that I’ll sit down at the November 1 write-in and hammer out the first five thousand words at once.  I do, at least, have a good sense of many early scenes, and I can slap them together however seems most appropriate.  What else am I feeling good about?

  • I know and adore my characters and cannot wait to rain hideous torments on them.  It’s looking like no one will die after all, which is a load off my mind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grind them to within an inch of their lives!  Also, I’m finding that while I’m normally all about the romance, it’s the friendships that are charming me most in this plot, particularly between traumatised soldier Connor and differently-traumatised noblewoman Eliane.
  • I’ve got far more worldbuilding done than I had realised, which should provide plenty of little touches I can throw in here and there for better immersion.  (I even developed some profanities that, I think, feel natural without actually being English profanity.  Somewhere along the way I learned that ‘gadzooks’ is a blending of ‘god’s hooks’, referring to the nails used in crucifixion.  Riffing off that, I’ve got Connor protesting that he can’t be expected to know his hooking way to the library when he can’t even read the hooking foreign street signs.  It may end up sounding ridiculous.  I am unperturbed.)
  • All sorts of things are coming together for the ending, which will be a lovely lure to convince me to keep pushing toward it.  I love endings, and there’s no better motivation for me than knowing what I’ll get to write later if I can just make the stuff up to that point interesting.
  • Fellow NaNovelists!  I’ve met people here in the city and I know folks online who are doing this with me and everyone involved is really cool.  (And occasionally deeply disturbing.)  I am not forging a path alone; I will have plenty of people to commiserate with me.

That leaves, of course, the stuff that I’m still anxious about, which I will now try to enumerate in the hopes that it turns out to be a smaller pile that can be swept under a nearby throw-rug metaphor.

  • The third quarter or thereabouts of the story is still very vague in my mind, and I don’t think I can plot it clearly in advance because it’s hard enough to guess where everyone will be at the halfway point, let alone how they’ll try to tackle it when things get really bad.  So the timeline kind of goes ‘immersion, premise, characters, more plot launching, immersion, backstory, catastrophe, ERROR: STORY NOT FOUND, climax, resolution’.
  • It has retroactively occurred to me that there’s a certain amount of bait-and-switch, in that the first half of the story is pretty character-intensive and all about intrigue and investigations, and then it all kind of gets hijacked by wizards.  (On the other hand, the original threads start getting picked back up at the end, and I think that fits well with the novel’s theme of there being no shortcut to perfection, just the next step and the stuff that gets in your way.)
  • I’m still kind of worried that I’ll screw things up and make either the general or the medic less fully-realised characters than they should be.  (That would be the one major PoC and the most prominent QUILTBAG guy, respectively.)  ARROWS ARE EVERYWHERE.

To counter the anxiety pile, I have the following universal solution:

  • It’s NaNoWriMo; I have permission to be terrible and fix it later.

This is a powerful thing!  This is a thing I have not allowed myself in some time.  Because back when I was writing constantly, whether original or fanfiction, part of me was always kind of aware that the stuff I was writing didn’t ‘count’ – it wasn’t being made with anyone in mind except me (and my dear friend and muse), so if I didn’t get exactly the right word every time, there was no penalty.  And at some point I decided that I needed to be Serious About Writing and choose Le Mot Juste every single frakking time.  I don’t think it’s coincidental that this was around the same time that my writing screeched to a halt.  Some authors say you have to know your audience all the time.  Personally, I find that paralysing – I just end up staring at a sentence trying to imagine people reading it for the first time and trying to give them exactly the right experience from reading it.  Sweet Yog-Sothoth, that’s some heavy lifting.

Segues are way too full of themselves and the only way we’re going to cut them back down to size is by proving that they’re optional.

I wrote before about the concepts of originality in ‘genre SFF’, where having something totally new is often uniquely prized regardless of the writer’s approach, such that ‘I’ve seen this before’ is often considered a unilaterally damning statement.  It’s one thing that people on the forums who have not had enough time to develop really broad reading pools are all worried that they are ripping off Harry Potter (because they have a teenage wizard), Twilight (because they have both supernatural creatures and romance) or Lord of the Rings (because… their story takes place on a single continent – someone was actually concerned about that).

One discussion involved favourite non-overused magical species, including examples like fauns and selkies and, from me, orcs who aren’t ACE* compulsive pillagers.  Someone said that they felt like every creature which had ever been written before was some degree of ‘overused’ and encouraged everyone to just make up their own because that was the only way to really be original.

So now I will talk about cake.  This is not a different subject!  I feel I should point that out, because of the segue-rejection precedent I set earlier.  This is the same subject in a different hat.  Those readers who are not a fan of cake may substitute the food of their choice as long as is a thing that can be created in a variety of ways.  Because: good lord, is cake overdone or what?  It’s everywhere.  And there’s so little variation, you know?  Chocolate cake in particular is like the universal go-to dessert.  And why?  Because it is delicious.  If prepared well.  And sometimes there are black cherries involved and sometimes there is chili pepper and sometimes there’s no flour at all but there are huge chunks of orange embedded in the surface.

Now, imagine that Lord of the Rings is the original chocolate cake.  And huge numbers of people tasted it and then wanted to bake their own, and suddenly there’s a surge of chocolate cake availability.  Some of these are good cakes, and some are cardboard painted to resemble cake, and because a quality chocolate cake can be tricky to make, the cardboard is outnumbering the cake, to the point where people not only start assuming that all apparent cakes are cardboard, but additionally argue that it is bad to in any way resemble chocolate cake because it just proves you weren’t good enough to invent a totally new dessert, and all you can do with your pale facsimile is remind people of how good that very first chocolate cake was.

I have a related metaphor in which Isaac Asimov Robert Heinlein invents the blueberry-and-sexism scone, but I bet everyone gets the point.

On rare occasion, perhaps someone can create a dessert or write a book that is entirely unlike anything anyone has ever seen before.  And it might even be good.  But I don’t think that is automatically more praiseworthy than creating your own version of the chocolate cake or the elf-infested epic as long as it’s made with artful care and twists that put your metaphorical fingerprints in the icing.***  (Actual fingerprints in the icing, of course, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.)

(Final note: including this sentence, this post is 1723 words long, or 56 longer than the average number of words written per day necessary to win NaNoWriMo.)

*ACE of course stands for Always Chaotic Evil, using D&D parlance.  While we’re down in this footnote, I want to complain for a moment about the complete inefficiency with which certain people approach acronyms on the internet.  Take an example sentence: “Most authors write orcs as ACE (if you don’t know what that stands for, it means Always Chaotic Evil).”  First, if I wanted to save time, I’ve already written out the whole form of the acronym at the end of my sentence so I could have just cut out everything from ‘ACE’ to ‘means’.  But perhaps the acronym will be used again, so it makes sense to write it in full once and directly associate the two.  But then there’s the ‘if you don’t know’ parenthetical, which bothers me out of all reasonable proportion.  If the reader does know, should they take this opportunity to skip to the end of the sentence?  Is the writer concerned that their reader will feel patronised and so it is necessary to explain that this parenthetical is only for people who don’t know?  My personal hypothesis is that the ‘if you don’t know’ bit serves the writer to tag themselves as a member of the jargon-slinging in-group separate from the bewildered outsiders.  The less cynical option is that they’re basically typing their thoughts in a harmless stream of consciousness, but given a choice between cynical and not, I think we all know where I can be found.**

**Thus concludes the most unnecessary and self-indulgent thing I have yet written on this blog.

***I have seen books that are really blatant rip-offs of LOTR, and I’m not saying that these are inferior but worthy cakes, because the metaphor isn’t perfect and a book be consumed more than once.  (Well, okay, you can eat a book the same number of times you can eat a cake, but that would just be unhelpful.)  The cake thing would work even better if we were in a culture that relied on verbal storytelling, because then someone who could almost but not quite remember how to retell LOTR would probably be better than nothing at all.

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10 comments on “The complicated turnpike just outside NaNoWriMo

  1. Rebecca says:

    This is probably an unhelpful comment, but I’m always put off by Original Profanity in books. I recognize that this is partly the fault of the culture that we live in – where it’s considered acceptable to show children characters in situations where profanity is appropriate, such as extreme violence, but not to show the profanity itself – but it always feels gimmicky.

  2. Will Wildman says:

    All comments with content are helpful! It may turn out that Original Profanity doesn’t make sense (which leaves us with obscenity, which I’m generally less a fan of), but it gets me wondering why hooks would have that kind of connotation for the fantasy culture and suchlike. You may just be the first in a flood of readers saying I should take it out, which would be awesome because: flood of readers! (Gorram science fiction certainly frakking gets away with it, and it usually strikes me as charming. Star Wars being the exception in about every case.)

  3. Rebecca says:

    I think “gorram” and “frakking” work for me because they seem like linguistic corruptions of things that are swear words in our world – the first by slurred pronunciation, and the second by self-censorship.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Hm – now that I think about it, it’s possible that my issue with “hooking” is that it just isn’t the equivalent of “fucking,” as a swear word. Because “God’s hooks” are something you’d swear by as a holy object, no? Like “God’s wounds,” etc.? So I think what sounds off is that it doesn’t translate to the different context.

  5. Will Wildman says:

    Well, not for nothing did I settle on ‘hook’ – I have a book about word taboo, appropriately titled Fuck, which is all about the origins and evolution of taboo words and their multiple senses in linguistics. (It turns out that ‘bear’ means something like ‘the brown one’, which was the euphemistic way that a particular Germanic culture referred to bears, because bears themselves were so terrifying/taboo that it was impolite to refer to it by whatever their actual name for the animal was.) One of the points it notes is that the favourite expletive of many languages follows a sound pattern of [soft consonant, vowel, optional soft consonant, hard consonant]. I’ve test-driven this with nonsense syllables and found it pretty reliable, although of course nothing can mimic that impact of actual societal taboo.

  6. Will Wildman says:

    In the original context of ‘gadzooks’, the hooks are a sort-of-holy object, which makes it profanity rather than obscenity. In the case of a fantasy world, I haven’t totally decided what it refers to, but I think it’s safe to say that PIV intercourse is not off the table (-_- <– this is the face I make while not making the obvious joke). In its earliest sense, 'fuck' just meant 'touch/strike'; 'hook' is surely in the same ballpark.

    I love how I totally did not predict this line of discussion.

  7. frasersherman says:

    The standard AP for using acronyms is on the lines of Always Chaotic Evil (ACE). Though for blogging I’d reverse it. Doesn’t draw attention to much, makes it clear, doesn’t take up too much time reading if they do know it.
    As to the third quarter of your book, that’s one reason I’ve never done NaNo WriMo: My ability to plot in advance is non-existent. Which makes my first drafts oft incomprehensible messes–I frequently have to remind myself that I know from experience it will get better.

  8. frasersherman says:

    Reverse it as in ACE (Always Chaotic Evil). Seems less formal.

  9. I tend to see “if you don’t know” as a way for the writer to avoid coming off as, “Of course you don’t know this so I’ll explain it to you, and I’ll use small words just for you.”

    “If you [whatever],” is a way to say, “I’m not saying you [whatever] but if you do/are here’s some information that will be useful for you. The problem I have with things like that is that if you do know it means exactly the same thing. It’s a non-conditional conditional.

    Which is why I’ve sometimes been know to end up writing something like, “If you’re interested, it’s called Stealing Commas. If you aren’t interested … it’s still called Stealing Commas,” or end something with, “…and if you aren’t it’s exactly the same.”

  10. Ana Mardoll says:

    Will, every time I read your blog I want to laugh and cry at the same time, because sweet googly-moogly, how do you come up with lines like Segues are way too full of themselves and the only way we’re going to cut them back down to size is by proving that they’re optional.?? I would give a tooth to be this hilarious. :D

    I like in-world swearing, if it’s done well. “Hooking” cracked me up, and now I want to use it in conversation and see if I can get away with it without being called on it. I’m thinking I can pass it off as a real swear, maybe something new, hot from the interwebs.

    I very much want to read about the Asimov blueberry-and-sexism scone. :D

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