A Few Thoughts on NaNoWriMo



These are some thoughts I had on NaNoWriMo. They were originally written as part of a lengthy reply to a friend of a friend who was curious about the whole process of NaNoWriMo and who had some concerns about writing a character based on a real person.

It’s quite normal to agonize. Over your characters, your setting, your plot, your vocabulary, your grammar, whether semicolons are pure evil or useful, whether or not subtext exists, your skill as a writer, whether you should defrost the freezer before writing, how to clean the grout in your shower . . . procrastination takes on a whole level of evil when you have a deadline, or at least mine does. (Look up ‘waxing the cat.’ No, it’s not dirty.)

Writing something semi-biographical is rougher still, because of discomfort in potentially harming the person’s reputation or angering their descendants. Our society is litigious to a fault, after all. But it’s merely based on a real person. You may not want to take too many liberties, but you may not have ever met the person you’re basing the character on, especially if they lived and died before you were born. Just keep their best interests in mind (assuming you like them) and remember that no one is or ever has been a paragon of virtue. Everyone has a darkness. Everyone has flaws. If you don’t portray that, the character will come across as unbelievable. Flat. A caricature.

A lot of my very fictional characters have inside them a tiny core of someone — or a mixture of several someones — that I know. But I don’t worry about them figuring it out, because if I’ve done my job well enough, they’ll never know, even if they read it. But basing it on a real person, that might be harder to conceal, if you even want to conceal it. Let’s say it’s Frida Kahlo you’re writing about. Of course, people will know it’s her, and they’ll also know that you had to concoct stuff. But as long as you’re more or less faithful to the events and things people do know, and that’s consistent with the stuff you make up, then . . . sure, it might tick off some people, but others will read it and think, “You know, she could have thought that.”

My take on it is this: Write the story, and do the absolute best you can. NaNoWriMo is about getting the story out of your head and onto paper / electrons. It’s not about making it perfect. It will never be perfect. Rewrites are for getting it as close as you can. If what you have after November is over still strikes you as having something you like in it, you can go through it after letting it sit for a month or two without looking at it (that is key), and decide what works and what doesn’t. And if nothing works? You still learned what doesn’t work, and you probably have a better idea what will.

I have this Epic Fantasy story that has been knocking on the inside of my skull since I was around eleven. In different forms over the years, of course, but basically the same story. I must have written chapter one a hundred times. In pencil or pen. In a spiral-bound notebook. Because it had to be perfect or I wasn’t doing the story in my head any justice. So I’d write chapter one . . . and it would suck. And I’d hate it, and I’d rip the pages out and burn them. And then some time later, I’d write it again . . . and it would be slightly less sucky (at least to me), but not good enough. It wasn’t perfect. It. Had. To. Be. Perfect.

This went on for more than thirty years. Then in 2008, I finally decided, “Idiot, you’ve got to get this out of your head. Just write it.” So I took all my character notes and all my plot notes and all my other stuff and I started writing on November 1, 2008.

And by the end of that November, I had 53,515 new words that I never had before. And I got a lot of that out of my head. But I used virtually none of the copious notes I had been taking for all that time. I came up with some great new ideas. I invented new characters, thought of scenes I never realized were there, before, discovered things about my characters I never had. Because I learned something crucial:

To write the story, you have to bind and gag the editor that lives inside your head. And lock him in a small, dark room.

That editor will tell you that what you’re writing sucks. He’ll want you to go back and “fix” stuff. He’ll pester you to stop using the word ‘actually’ so much. So you have to beat him over the head with something hard, tie him up, stuff a gag in his mouth, and dump him in the basement and lock the door. Until you’re done.

You’ll find yourself around day eight or so thinking, “Gah! This blows. I’m just going to rewrite that last chapter because–” No! That’s your editor. Why didn’t you make those knots tighter? He got out! You have to club him again and make sure to tie him up tighter next time!

You don’t fix that chapter. You make notes in the margin and go on as though you had fixed it and don’t worry about it. So what if for six chapters your main character is a monk in a monastery in Tibet, but starting in chapter seven, he’s a famous Las Vegas entertainer? You assume the story has taken place along your new path up to chapter seven, and you go on.

You probably won’t encounter anything that drastic. I think my “drastic” change was that in Chapter nine, I realized one of the secondary characters needed a skill I hadn’t given her earlier, so I just assumed she’d always had it, made notes to go back and fix it, and wrote forward.

Of those 53,515 words I wrote in 2008, probably less than half of them are useful words. But what is useful is what I learned about those characters. When I go back and revisit that story and add more plot, the characters, setting, etc. will be all the better for having had to work through stuff to make it make a bit of sense for the novel. On the other hand . . . that story is no longer knocking on my head. I’ve moved on to other ideas. Better ideas. But I learned a lot in writing that epic fantasy, and I will still come back to it at some point, and by golly it’ll be better. Because I’m a better writer, now, than I was in 2008.

For 2009 I wrote a mystery novel (55,000+ words) and had no idea who the killer was until about halfway through. Same thing. I had to silence my editor, who kept saying, “Gary, what the hell are you doing? Who is the killer? Don’t you even know?” *PWANG* with a shovel right in the face. Basement. Knots.

For 2010 I wrote a science fiction novel involving time travel. Got to 78,000 words on that one, then 93,000 by February. Finished it. It needs editing big-time, but this time, my inner editor went on vacation to Aruba while I was writing. He learned. It only takes one or two shovels to the face to make an editor learn his lesson. But there’s some good stuff in that novel. Stuff I really like. And some stuff I really hate.

And yeah, no one ever has to see it but you. The only time you have to show anything is when you paste the full text into the site on the last day so it can verify your word-count. It’s not saved by their site. The count is tallied and all anyone need know is that you either did or did not make it to 50,000.

Even if you don’t get to 50,000 words, you’re 9000 words or 15,000 words or 27,000 words closer to having a book than you were when you started. Or 250 words. Any honest attempt is better than nothing.

If you’re worried about lawsuits resulting from basing a character on a real, historical figure . . . I’ll tell you what someone told me when I had some similar worries: When the publisher agrees to publish the novel, that’s when you worry about lawyers. Before then, tell the story and don’t worry about stuff like that. That’s not your job. You’re the writer. That worry is your editor talking. Remember what we do with internal editors? *grins evilly and hands you a shovel*

7 Tips on NaNoWriMo: Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Backup often. Oh, and backups? Do them often.

Do you feel pepped? Has my pep talk helped? I love NaNoWriMo. Love. It. It pushes me to do things I’ve never done before, and with each November, I feel more pumped up than the last one.

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