A Reflection on #NaNoWriMo

The end of the month draws nigh, with tens of thousands of scribblers furiously adding to their daily tallies in anticipation of validating their 50,000 words before 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30.

This year marks my sixth consecutive foray into National Novel Writing Month. My first two attempts were not successful. My next three, were. This one won’t be. And let me tell you why, by means of a brief history lesson.

The Road So Far

Easy Way Out (2011; mystery; words = 7,725)

My first foray into November’s literary machinations, and my first real attempt at long-form fiction, started two days before the season commenced. As I recall, on Oct. 30, 2011, my friend Duane asked me if I had ever heard of NaNoWriMo. I said, “Na who?” — but he convinced me to sign up and to go with him to a write-in (a group of authors who write together and socialize and sometimes eat) at the food court at Woodland Mall. So I did. I discovered that pantsing (the act of sitting down and writing with no planning whatsoever) is not my cup of tea. I started writing a murder mystery before I even knew who the killer was or why the corpse met his demise. I had a rough idea that I’d try to play off some sort of theatrical assisted suicide motif into it, but … didn’t work out so well. Without a roadmap, all I could do was stare at a blank screen that I was sure was taunting me somehow. Very humbling experience. But, I did go to a lot of write-ins, and being social got me invited into a private writers’ group. That group became my tribe; I still write with, and because of, them.

Magellan Ascendant (2012; sci-fi; words = 14,504)

“Aha,” I thought, one October evening in 2012. “My problem last year was that I didn’t plan my novel!” So I planned Magellan in detail. In fact, it was developed as a trilogy. I still think the story has legs, although I can’t use much of anything that’s already been written. Two core learnings: First, that editing-as-you-go isn’t helpful (e.g., do not waste one full week working through the physics of interstellar travel just to feed a handful of lines of dialogue — although I can authoritatively tell you that you do not want to be hit by a single grain of sand traveling at 40 percent of the speed of light). And second, that a detailed plot really isn’t as helpful as it seems if your characters all act and speak as if they’re cardboard cutouts of the stereotypes they were modeled upon.

Sanctuary (2013; mystery; words = 50,736)

My first win. It’s not a bad story, I don’t think — a murder mystery set in Grand Rapids. I finally developed a cohesive planning approach for developing scene-by-scene synopses and plot/character goals. In this novel, I managed to work through a primary plot (the murder investigation) that included a few minor subplots revolving around interpersonal disputes for several character pairings. A few chapters introduced other point-of-view characters, but my POV strategy was more of an accident than anything. The novel clocked in complete at roughly 51k words. Too short. And the characters, although a bit more fleshed out, weren’t quite complete. Yet it’s done and self-contained. I suspect that if I ever had to go back and rewrite a story for publication, this is the manuscript I’d reach for first.

Aiden’s Wager (2014; literary; words = 52,098)

This is probably my best work, but it’s the last one I’d show to people, because there’s a section in the middle that derailed into torture porn. However, that challenge aside, the rest of the work retains a lot of promise. It’s basically the tale of an arrogant, rich young man who earns his comeuppance by his peer group, but has to claw his way out from a perfectly set trap through (in part) figuring out how he’s going to center his life. The novel was planned to be more didactic than it turned out to be — the “wager” in question is actually Pascal’s Wager, a theme that underlies many of the softer scenes within the plot arc. And, significantly, it’s not complete. It was targeted for 90k words. I know what the end looks like, but I’m not there yet.

Six Lost Souls (2015; literary; words = 50,049)

I crossed the “win” mark, although the work wasn’t complete. Still had probably another 40k to go, to pull it off as planned. The story is an improvement, technique-wise, relative to its predecessors: I deployed several POV characters, more internal dialogue, some extended action scenes (much of my writing is basically people going somewhere to talk), additional conflicts, more fully rounded characters. That said, I was overly ambitious with this effort and I think, ultimately, a few of my characters just weren’t plausible. The overarching theme of family transcending blood and time was dashed on the fact that I made the characters dissimilar enough that the intended third act just didn’t firm up appropriately.

The Catfish in the Shallows (2016; literary; words = 32,517)

So. We arrive at my current work effort. I knew going into Halloween that this one wasn’t really a novel, per se, as much as it was an experiment in designing literary fiction in a less tidy way. My previous novels basically had One Main Plot and One Main Character who advanced linearly through time, without flashbacks or foreshadowing or substantial internal dialogue. Although I introduced a few subplots and even allowed for other POV characters, my prior works were, overwhelmingly, first-person stories told through the artifice of Third Person Limited that shared one big idea from the perspective of one good-but-flawed hero.

With Catfish, however, my goal was to divide POV relatively equally among four main characters, each of whom had imperfect knowledge of the opening scene’s murder, but each of whom has his-or-her own motives and observations about the universe they inhabit and the dramas in their lives unrelated to the murder. None of the characters would re-tell the same scene, but several MCs were in the same scene together at various times, with differing opinions of that scene that the reader experienced as POV shifted.

The goal, then, was to advance a series of intertwined shorter stories, culminating at the end of the third act with the reader — but not necessarily all the characters — understanding the “who and why” of the murder. The problem? I didn’t plot it well enough to tie this together with any hope of success. I’m at 30k words and I realize that I don’t have a plausible go-forward plan; my only real pathway to conclusion requires much of the opening to be completely rewritten. So instead of trying to hit 50k just for the sake of it, I’m acknowledging that I have learned a lot from this experiment but that there’s no intrinsic value in keeping it alive just for the “win.” I’ve already won, in the only sense that matters.

Some Writing Thoughts

The real benefit of National Novel Writing Month, for me, isn’t so much the “win” but rather the chance to hone my long-form writing craft in the social context of friends who are also hell-bent on putting their story to paper.

Writing isn’t easy. Lots of folks — I see them all the time through the Caffeinated Press query system — seem to think that anyone can generate a novel on the first go-around that’s ready for the open market. These one-hit wonders might generate a corpus of words, but such early-career authors are unlikely to find commercial success until they’ve stumbled through a half-dozen or so failed “training” manuscripts. Just like trying to advance from a Fisher-Price trike to a lean Ducati motorcycle in one day is a recipe for disaster, so also is trying to move from your first 50k-word manuscript into a contract with the Big Five.

People approach NaNoWriMo with several different goals. For some, it’s fun — a chance to hang out with fellow writing nerds. For others, it’s an accountability tool. For a few, it’s an opportunity to explore new techniques in a safe way.

As I look back on my earlier works, I can see the evolution. The growth. The challenge of NaNoWriMo, though, is to keep growing in months other than November.

Good luck.