A Reflection on Winning #NaNoWriMo

Remember, remember the First of December — hangovers, and burned by your plot.
I see no reason why this writing season, should ever be forgot.

The stroke of midnight on this, the glorious first day of December, A.D. 2014, ended my fourth straight year of participating in the orgy of nerdtastic masochism known formally as National Novel Writing Month. It also marks my second, and consecutive, win; I clocked in mid-day Sunday with 50,004 words — a whopping four more than I needed to thwart the validation algorithm’s “you must be this tall to win” rule. And all that, with the entire third act left to write.

NaNoWriMo is a hobby for some and a kick in the pants for others. Despite bold proclamations that participants can write a 50k-word novel in a month, the truth is, NaNoWriMo is intended to get the bulk of a “zero draft” written by aspiring writers who may not otherwise have the time or the focus to do it on their own. The promise of the November wordslinger scramble is that if you get a bunch of work done in one massive flurry of drunken and/or caffeinated activity, you can augment and edit later, instead of eyeballing a blank paper with zero words and thereupon becoming the literary equivalent of a cheese-eating surrender monkey.

My first attempt, and my second, ended in Boris-and-Natasha levels of failure. Neither broke 10k and neither was organized in a logical way. Last year’s was better, and although I got the story to about 56k, there was one problem — that damned fourth chapter — that I couldn’t quite work around. One of the hardest lessons for this former journalist to internalize was the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. Give me a word count and a deadline within the newsroom, and I’ll deliver page-ready copy every time, on time. I became quite adept, when I ran the opinion desk at a small community newspaper, at writing 800-word staff editorials in 20 minutes or so. But fiction? I thought I’d breeze into it. How hard could it be to make shit up? Karma spied my arrogance and rewarded me with humiliatingly low word counts until, having caught that good, old-time fiction religion, I repented of my sins and treated my novels like the precious works of art they truly are.

Writing is like sexual metaphors: The less you practice, the more you’ll embarrass yourself when you finally pull out and fumble sheepishly for your pants. Over the last few years of doing NaNoWriMo as well as branching into short stories, I’ve learned a few things about my style and my craft:

  1. I do better when I detail my plot and main characters before I write. This year, like last year, I used Scrivener for Windows. That program brilliantly organizes prose and supporting information into one clean interface. I detailed every chapter and every scene, setting 50-word scene summaries for each and even specifying target word counts, points to make, quotes to include and whatnot. Some folks forego planning and just write. I don’t know why they’re not alcoholics.
  2. I start at the beginning and finish at the end; I rarely jump around the story.
  3. I self-edit as I write. During word wars at our write-ins — i.e., when we writers peek out from the shadows and count how many words we can write during a specific period of time — I average about 360 words in 15 minutes, with a standard deviation of 103 words. At the write-in I hosted on every Saturday in November, I logged the results of every war, covering 17 different writers. I had the narrowest SD of anyone as well as the lowest mean; I also had the second-lowest maximum. But my prose is clean, so there’s that. (Point of pride: My write-in incurred a whopping 221,481 logged words in 2014, with a max spurt of 1,317 words over 20 minutes, a grand per-writer mean of 522 words in 15.25 minutes and an average standard deviation of 169 words.)
  4. I tend to write dialogue-heavy, with episodic short scene descriptions. When I relate a series of actions, I tend to use a lot of “after” and “then” — a stylistic affliction I can only really fix on a later cold read. Initial character descriptions focus on physical attributes and wardrobes; mannerisms only get pulled in to break up long passages of dialogue.

This year’s effort was … precious. Having been waylaid by sundry crises in the first half of the month, I arrived at Day 25 (of 30!) with a whopping 17,195 words complete. But, mirable dictu, I had a five-day vacation for the last five days of the month. You want to know what that kind of progress looks like?

All the words.
All the words.

It basically looks like 6,562 words per day. Remember how I said I write at about 360 words per quarter-hour? That tally doesn’t include frequent breaks for peeing, getting more wine, waiting until the cat re-positions himself on my lap, re-reading and editing what I just wrote, checking email, peeing again, looking up bondage equipment on Wikipedia and eating candy. I wrote for eight to ten hours per day, each of those last few days, to eke out the narrowest of wins.

And I’m good with that workflow, because I learned that it’s easier to keep your story straight when you’re plowing through it, instead of dabbling with a disconnected scene here and there every couple of weeks. I got inside my characters’ heads, and actually changed a core part of the story based in large part to how I wrapped up one important, but sad, scene. That scene, by the way, marked the first time I’ve ever teared up over what happened to my characters.

All of the above notwithstanding, let me share with you the gist of Aiden’s Wager. I’ll begin by asserting my surprise at discovering that this was really the novel I intended to write last year. My 2013 effort — a detective story — followed a fairly typical, plot-heavy structure with a few one-off scenes added for color. In the end, though, the plot got in the way of the characters. That incongruity between story and structure was my ultimate problem with the fourth chapter: It tried to fix the plot holes through careful foreshadowing, but the real story by the end wasn’t the mystery, it was the way the main character evolved over a particularly challenging case.

Aiden’s Wager is different. I billed it, on the NaNoWriMo site, as “literary fiction.” Which it is, insofar as the real story eschews an event-driven paradigm in favor of a narrative showing how the main characters progress or regress over three weeks in late autumn. In a nutshell, the protagonist — a 22-year-old named Aiden, first-class-prick scion of an exceptionally wealthy family — gets disowned and disinherited after a brief jail stint, by his reputation-conscious father. Aiden hails from a “Rich Kids of Instagram” kind of social circle of cut-throat young people vying for power and dominance within their tribe of fellow hundredth-of-one-percenters. Aiden maintains his swagger and assumes he’ll come out of his newly diminished circumstances like a boss, but one of his rivals sets him up, blackmails him and treats him like a trophy to solidify his own status within the tribe. Aiden must therefore think about the purpose of his life, the source of moral authority and the way that power dynamics corrupts people and relationships.

It’s not a light-hearted story. The entire middle third of the book deals with the blackmail — its origination, and how the main antagonist deliberately isolates, dehumanizes and subjugates Aiden. That middle third is, in places, vividly pornographic. I try to show how a cocky rich kid gets the rug pulled out from underneath him, and in the emotional chaos that ensues, he becomes a victim who succumbs to Stockholm syndrome and becomes willfully subservient to, even worshipful of, his abuser. The final third covers Aiden’s attempt to repair the damage he caused to himself and his family after forcible intervention by his disgusted older brother. A big chunk of that recovery entails an exploration of moral authority, aided in part by a visiting Catholic priest.

I’m happy with this story. I think it has legs. At the outset, I wanted to write about moral authority in general in the guise of a questioning young man crossing paths with different people. In this story, I accomplished that goal — but concepts like power, coercion, consent, faith, control and teleology also recur. I tried to mainstream bisexuality, present the clergy favorably, touch on the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder among the elite and emphasize the emptiness of a life devoid of meaning beyond one’s own ego. I may have to edit out some content in the middle third; some audiences may not want to read extended and explicit passages of gay torture porn with a strong D&S overtone.

But then again, in a Fifty Shades of Gray world, maybe they might.

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