I think I’m planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year. It’ll be a fun way to mark how much more writing time I’m getting now that the kids are in school, and it’ll be a good way to focus. Writing that much that quickly is always exhilarating. Plus I previously did it in 2006 and 2010, so I suppose by doing it again this year I can establish a motif.
Lately I’ve been working on the Shanghai novel I used to talk about here, and I’m happy with how that’s going. But NaNoWriMo requires something new, so both Shanghai and revisions on Zero Hour are out. (Honestly, I’ve recently had a couple of ideas for the Shanghai book that I’m kind of happy to give a month or so to gel.) I’m going to go with writing some alternate history and give myself a chance to flex my worldbuilding muscles in a way that writing historical novels about interwar Shanghai or Allied-occupied Berlin doesn’t.
That decided, I’ve got basically two possibilities of what to write: either I could sit down and write a manuscript for my South-wins-the-American-Civil-War novel, or I could give in to this kick I’ve been on lately about the Federalist Period and do something with a point of departure in 1787 (which is to say, a POD where the United States never ratifies the Constitution). The South-wins novel is actually in a pretty advanced stage of planning, with a cast of characters, a solidly developed setting and most of a plot; its one big problem is that I’m simply unable to find a way that my protagonist fits into the rest of the book. Plus (and this is a pretty big consideration) I’m very confident the book is saleable; at least, as saleable as alternate history gets.
The no-Constitution idea, on the other hand, is really just in its infancy. I have some idea of how the world looks, but no idea of the setting, characters or plot, beyond an opening line that fascinates me. But it’s what’s been catching at my imagination for the last couple of months, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the period and am really immersed in it right now. Yesterday I checked a biography of James Wilkinson out the library, who’s a fascinating character who really should be better known from this period of American history. After just forty pages it’s already prompted a number of thoughts that are almost certainly going to end up as posts here in the coming days.
I really wish NaNoWriMo were December rather than November, is what I’m saying, because then I’d jump on the idea of doing something with the no-Constitution POD. But it ain’t; it’s November. So I’ve got a decision to make.
Another November come and gone; another successful NaNoWriMo. So what did we learn?
Actually, I think the big lesson I learnt came from October, not November: outlining. I always like to outline as much of the story as possible before I start writing. What that usually ends up looking like is an outline that is very detailed for a page or two (Lennon feels furious at this insult but cannot produce an adequate retort.), followed by an outline that becomes progressively sketchier for a page or two (Valerian is still weak from the events of a few nights ago, and when he encounters Corinne while crossing the bridge, he must flee from her to survive.), to a last few paragraph or two in which tens of thousands of words are being summed up in a single sentence (Quinn must now evade both British and German agents hunting him as he races desperately from Berlin to Linz in hopes of stopping the announcement).
Perhaps the outline reaches the end of the story; perhaps it doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter if it does or not, since we’ve reached the third, sketchiest phase by halfway through the story at the most–and once we get that far, anything I say is pretty much meaningless and subject to constant evolution as I type the earlier chapters.
And when I move from the outline to the writing, the pattern is pretty well set: the writing of those early, best-outlined sections sails by, and my words sing. It becomes tougher once we move to the second phase; then, the mechanics of the plot need more fleshing out, and there’s always doubt that creeps in. Once we reach the end of that second section, it’s time for me to stop working on the draft. With A Traitor’s Loyalty, with Masks and Shadows, with Inheritance, with Shanghai, that’s always been the time to step away, because I just don’t know what comes next.
Now, this could well be how I have to write–it could well be that I need to get down that first half, and once it’s there, in all its forty-to-fifty thousand words of glory, I can let it breathe for a month or six, then come back and put together the second half. That’s what happened with A Traitor’s Loyalty, Masks and Shadows (whose conclusion I’ve had in my head for four years, though I haven’t written it) and Inheritance.
But there’s something else in play, too. By the time I’ve got the early part of the book so strongly in my head that I can sit down and outline it properly, that also means I have enough of a handle on the early part of the book that I’m looking forward to writing. Prep work isn’t writing, and it’s inherently less exciting than writing. So I’m always looking forward to the writing, always wanting to get the monotony of prep work out of the way so I can move on to the exciting bit. As soon as that outline peters out, I think to myself, Oh, well, looks like this is all I can do right now. Let’s go write!
But with The Scholar and the Concubine last month, that wasn’t possible. The outline started off strongly then thinned out like always, but I couldn’t move on to the proper writing, because I still had two weeks to go until 1 November. So I kept outlining.
The outlining became, essentially, my daily writing. No longer was it something I had to get out of the way before I could move on to the Point of It All; it now was the Point of It All. And what I found was that as I sat there, without the option of closing the document, that the outline kept coming. First, the thin parts filled themselves out; and then I was able to continue on–coming up with new scenes in just as much detail as the earlier parts of the story.
With Shanghai, the first nine hundred words of outline got me fifteen thousand words into the first draft; the remaining six hundred words got me another twenty thousands words in. Then, at 35,000 words, less than halfway into the book, I found I had to walk away.
With The Scholar and the Concubine, by the time November arrived, I had 4600 words of outline–and that got me 42,000 words into the first draft. And I found it really liberating. I wasn’t feeling my way like I normally am with the middle part of a book, groping in the dark, trying to figure out where I should be going. Instead, I had a clearly visible path–and that gave me the freedom to leave the path. I could look off to one side, see something that attracted me, and say to myself, “I’ll take a detour over that way.” So I could mosey on over there, and then after examining it, I could head back to the main path–and because I knew where that path was going, I didn’t have to backtrack to where I’d left it, but rather, I could rejoin it further on.
(I’ve probably protracted that metaphor as far as it’ll go, since as I was writing it, I kept pointing out to myself, But of course, you shouldn’t end up on the same path at the end a book as you were at the beginning–if the goal your characters achieve in the final chapter is the goal they decided to achieve in the first chapter, you’ve probably written a pretty poor book.)
Of course, now the question becomes whether or not I can reproduce that without the constraints of NaNoWriMo hanging over my head. I’d like to get back to working on thrillers now, and since we hit December I’ve been rereading Shanghai. It definitely gets more aimless as the outline thins out, more so I’d say than any of my other first drafts, and I think it could really benefit from a rigorous outline like I produced for The Scholar and the Concubine. So that’s what’s on the docket next.
NaNoWriMo is designed to force you to write, regardless of how unprepared for that you might be. But what I’m taking from it this year is that forcing me to delay the writing could be the best thing.
So I’ve decided to go ahead and give National Novel Writing Month another go-round this year. It’s been four years since I last wrote fifty thousand words in the month of November, and with the solid chunk of me-time I’m getting three times a week now, I figured another whirl would be fun.
I’m writing the second book of the Corinne cycle, tentatively titled The Scholar and the Concubine. That does have the virtue of neatly paralleling the title of chapter one, “The Monk and the Emperor”, but I’m not crazy about it. I did consider The Golden Cage, from a common name for the Ottoman Sultan’s harem, but that would too much emphasise the concubine plotline at the expense of the scholar plotline.
I can be found over at my NaNo page. With a mind to the fact that my family will be arriving for Thanksgiving, I’m aiming for two thousand words a day. So far I’ve managed a thousand words while the kids are napping/the Boy’s in school, then Lisa takes the kids for an hour or two while I do the other thousand in the evening. She has wonderfully agreed to shoulder an extra portion of the parenting during the hours she’s not at work in November.
I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s NaNoing this year (the oi of which I’m totes pronouncing as a single syllable). How’s it going for you?
The Scholar and the Concubine
Words today: 2129
Words total: 4686
Time spent writing: 12.30-2.30; 7pm-9pm
Reason for stopping: Quota
Darling: “A foolish thing to say. A mortal thing to say.”
Words that boggled Word: dalmatic, logothete
New words today: silvery, undergraduate, rector
I would like very much to hear your ramblings on what it is like to see all us NaNos running around now that you are on the other side. Because this is my first time and I’d like to know that I won’t have gone mad by the end or totally failed.
That was from the responses to my solicitation for post ideas (the call for ideas is still open, by the way), from Sabrina. I’m answering now because we’re early in the second week of NaNoWriMo. Right around this point, pretty much everybody (or at least, pretty much all the first-timers) will have dropped out. Many will find a reason to return, of which most will finish their half-novel successfully; but most will just give up.
I did NaNoWriMo once, in 2006. I’m really glad I did it. It was an interesting little exercise, which gave me the first half of Masks and Shadows; and I did, indeed, flag for a day or two around the beginning of the second week. I toyed last year with the idea of doing it again, but in the end I don’t really think I found enough challenge in it the first time that I’d get much benefit from a second go-round.
I think you can divide NaNos into two groups. There’s the people who want to be proper, published novelists, who are Serious About Their Craft (or think they are), and there’s the people who don’t, who just do it for a lark. And I think both groups can take something different from the experience.
For the casual writers? Well, I love anything that gets people writing. Anyone who doesn’t write regularly, who can bang out seventeen hundred words a day for an entire month? That’s awesome. That’s really something to be proud of. And maybe they’ll find they have a real love it, or a real talent (hopefully both, but you know how it is. There are plenty of people who have only one.), and our community will gain a new member.
For the ones who want to be novelists, it’s a bit more complicated. If you write for publication, or if you write to have an actual novel that you have written (which NaNo won’t give you–fifty thousand words? Not a novel.), NaNoWriMo can be a useful tool. But it’s important to remember that just like any other tool, it’s just a tool, something to help you get to your real goal–a novel. Like pre-writing research, or a crit group, or fifty pages of character bios, it’s not an end in itself.
It’s great proving to yourself that you can finish, and it’s a wonderful creative exercise. But I think it’s counterproductive to lose sight of the fact that fifty thousand words is only slightly greater a milestone than forty thousand, and slightly less a milestone than sixty thousand.
As long as we can keep sight of that? I think it’s a great thing to do, and I’m so happy to see you doing it, Sabrina. I wish you, and the Olivers, happy words.
(so don’t say I didn’t warn you)
I’ve talked before about my fantasy cycle that takes place over two thousand years. Since I wrote that post, I’ve revised that cycle somewhat: I realised that the story I was angsting over at that time simply isn’t strong enough to stand on its own as a starting point, and that it works much better as backstory. So I nixed it. This leaves four stories. I’ll call them A, B, C and D, with story A taking place first chronologically, and story D taking place last.
Like I said in my original post, my vision would be that the stories would get written and published in order B-C-D-A. To that end I’ve been working intently on story B, Inheritance (formerly called The Outposts of Empire), whose progress I’ve been marking in the reports at the end of my posts.
I feel a lot better about Inheritance than I did the story that I got rid of. It has a much more compelling protagonist and a stronger, original plot–the other story’s plotline was essentially “Antony and Cleopatra versus Octavian with secret societies and black magic thrown in”.
So there is, of course, one problem.
For NaNoWriMo last year, I wrote the first fifty thousand words (about 46,000 after revisions) of Masks and Shadows, which is story D. It’s been read by a handful of people–my little NaNoWriMo circle from last year, and my wife Lisa.
And of the ones I’ve heard back from–they have, without exception, loved it. I mean, really loved it. I mean, harrassed me about how I wasn’t posting quick enough when I was posting seventeen hundred words a day last November and have spent the year since harrassing me about finishing it. It was certainly a reaction I would not have expected.
Lisa has now started reading Inheritance–and she tells me it’s not as good as Masks and Shadows. It’s good, I’m assured. There’s nothing wrong with it. (There are some pacing problems in the first two chapters, but I have a couple of remedies for them.)
It’s just not Masks and Shadows.
Common sense would seem to indicate, therefore, that I work on finishing Masks and Shadows. If it really has this quality of forcing people to keep turning the page, then as an unpublished author I can’t afford not to be pursuing it.
But I really do feel like I’m playing dangerously with the story I want to tell if I start with the cycle’s conclusion–like narratively, I might make it impossible to tell Inheritance or story C, which are both stories I really do want to tell. I worry about destroying their dramatic tension; I worry about the resolution to the cycle’s whole storyline in Masks and Shadows fall flat because it hasn’t had the buildup it was conceived as having.
And yet–while it definitely surprises me how passionate the feedback has been on Masks and Shadows–I can also see the elements of the story that people seem to find so compelling.
A tool I sometimes use in the early stages of constructing a story is to write short, flapcover-esque blurbs for the stories. Here’s what I have for Inheritance and Masks and Shadows:
Once, Valerian was the most powerful man in the Lucan Empire, the quiet power behind the throne who had masterminded the coup that gave his brother the Imperial crown. Now, though, he has lost all that, disgraced and exiled at his brother’s order to a backwater harbor town at the edge of the known world. He spends his days dreaming of the lost wife who died under mysterious circumstances while in his brother’s custody and the young son he has never met, now being raised at the Imperial court. And waiting for the day he knows must eventually come, when his brother decides to end his exile once and for all, and Valerian wakes in the middle of the night just in time to see the knifeblade flashing toward his throat.
Then the day comes when he meets Corinne, a young noblewoman who refuses to tell him anything about her past. Corinne comes to him with a proposition just as enigmatic–and just as alluring–as she is: join with her, and see himself restored to his rightful place of honor in the Lucan Empire and his wife’s death avenged.
At first, Valerian believes Corinne has simply co-opted him into a straightforward conspiracy against his brother’s life. But as the two of them journey surreptitiously to one of the ancient cities at the heart of the Empire, he begins to realize that far greater forces are in play. Corinne possesses–and wishes to pass onto him–a legacy from his great-grandfather, the great Lucan hero Marcus Valerius. Furthermore, he suspects that this legacy, as well as Corinne’s mysterious plot–and even Corinne herself–are wrapped up in an ancient, long-dormant magic, a dark remnant from the shadowy Time of the Elder Gods more than a thousand years ago.
As Corinne draws him deeper and deeper into a plot centuries in the making, Valerian finds himself at the center of events spinning further and further out of his control. And when she uses him and his great-grandfather’s inheritance to wake an awesome power that has slept for a thousand years, he will find the fate of far more than simply the Imperial succession resting on his shoulders.
Masks and Shadows
At the heart of its protective Lagoon, its marble palaces and soaring spires appearing from a distance to float upon the placid blue waters, lies the city of Ildoa, where the inhabitants wear masks that proclaim their station in life to all the world. Elias Ziani had promised himself he would never set eyes on Ildoa again, but now he finds himself compelled to break that oath. Due to the unexpected death of Lodovic Molina, the merchant prince to whom he had been apprenticed in his youth, he must once again don the half-mask that marks him as a half-breed, son of an Ildoan father and a foreign mother, and return to the city.
Elias quickly discovers that the Ildoan aristocracy have not forgotten the scandal that drove him from the city seventeen years ago. Quickly he finds himself surrounded by friends and enemies both old and new: Maria, Lodovic’s widow and Elias’s childhood love; Marco, Lodovic’s adolescent heir, implacably hostile to Elias but unaware of the secret of his own parentage; Bonaduci, once Elias’s bitter boyhood rival and now one of the most powerful men in the city; and Matthai Falier, rumored to be the richest smuggler in all the Middle Sea but who also seems to have had some close, enigmatic connection to Lodovic Molina.
Yet as Elias attempts to navigate the viper’s nest of Ildoan politics, he soon begins to suspect the existence of darker mysteries running beneath the surface. What was the mysterious urgent business that called Lodovic hastily away on his fateful final sea voyage? Was his death at sea truly as accidental as everyone believes? And who is the redheaded woman who appears to Elias in visions, and whom he now discovers at Marco Molina’s side?
As he searches for the answers to these questions, Elias will uncover powerful secrets that have remained hidden for centuries, and will learn that, with Lodovic’s death, the task of preventing an ancient evil from being unleashed upon the world now falls to him.
Words yesterday: 1117
Words total: 39,442
Time spent writing: Two hours (1pm-3pm)
Reason for stopping: End of chapter, quota
Food: Microwave sandwich
Words that boggled Word: weatherbeaten. It’ll accept weatherworn, but not weatherbeaten?
At work the other day we got in a couple of different Sparknotes. We got in the Sparknotes for The Hobbit and for Hamlet.
In both cases, the cover had a red starburst in its upper right corner with the words “NOW Updated!” in big, friendly letters.
Have there been recent changes in the body of Tolkien’s or Shakespeare’s works that I’m unaware of? Did Tolkien recently rise from the dead and say, “Oh, sorry, actually that should be habit. For Bilbo, living in a hole was a habit.“? What is there to say about Shakespeare’s plays that couldn’t have been said when Sparknotes first came out five or ten years ago? Or couldn’t have been said in 1719, for that matter?
Apart from trying to attract the morons who think that anything that’s new must be good, surely the major audience the “Now Updated” blurb is trying to attract would be people who already paid money for the (apparently substandard) Sparknotes first editions. But if I was part of that audience, I’d have a very tough time reading “Now Updated” as anything other than “Now no longer contains lies!”
The Second Murderer
Words yesterday: 1061
Words total: 4674
Time spent writing: Three hours (3-4pm, 10pm-midnight)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Food: Actually I was intensely ill yesterday, so the only thing I had was toast.
Words that boggled Word: trenchcoat, which is apparently two words
NaNoWriMo: So when I decided I was ready to sit down and start writing The Second Murderer now, without waiting for NaNoWriMo, I thought that meant I just wouldn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. But now, as the end of what I already know about the book comes (very, very early) into sight, I’m not so sure. Maybe I would benefit from the enforced deadline of NaNoWriMo. Maybe I’ll have to think about pulling out the Zokutou Clause.
For the last nine months or so, I’ve been pretty firm that I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo again this year. It was a fun experience last year, but I don’t really feel like I took anything substantive from it. It’s true that I set down on paper the first half of Masks and Shadows, but that was the half of the story I’d already had in my head for ten years. Coming up with the set-up, and then being able to write it down, aren’t the areas of my writing I feel need work. I’m much more interested in actually coming up with the second half of the story, something NaNoWriMo isn’t really constructed to help with.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about the prep work I did for NaNoWriMo in October. Though I ultimately decided to disregard the outline I wrote for my world-without-an-American-Revolutionary-War story, the work I did on it was, I think, still significant. I’d had the world (the setting) for that story, and the main character, for years; I’d even had a strong idea of what the conflict would be in a book about such an individual in such a world. But I’d never been able to come up with any sort of decent story.
And yet, in five or six days, I was able to come up with 2500 words of pretty substantive outline, and given another four or five days could have quite easily finished up a 4500 word outline that would have very easily given me a ninety thousand word novel–I didn’t give up on that outline because I couldn’t figure out what came next, I switched to Masks and Shadows because I realised that that was the story I wanted to tell last November.
So now I’m thinking about doing NaNoWriMo again in eight weeks, but not for what I can get out of it in November–rather, for what I can get out of it the last week of October. There’s something about the approach of that hard deadline that gets my creative synapses firing and generating all the information that otherwise can often remain frustratingly out of reach when I sit down to create a story.
Of course–coming back to the notion of abandoning my first effort last year because I actually realised I should be working on Masks and Shadows instead–I would now have to decide what I want to write. There are two candidates–I can keep working on Inheritance (invoking the Zokutou clause), or I can buckle down and get to work on my putative, much more marketable thriller.
I’ve sat down the past couple of days with the intent of doing some serious writing, and had certainly intended to get to work on the thriller–but I find that Inheritance (albeit desperately in need of a better title) is still capturing my imagination, even if I don’t really know what comes after the next ten thousand words or so. I’m already 25,000 words in, so another fifty thousand words would give most of a first draft.
On the other hand, I really should be getting to work on that thriller.
I had a reminder last night that, like in the title of this post, the single most important word you can forget to include in a sentence is not.
I was rereading Masks and Shadows; specifically, I was rereading the section towards the end of the story (which would make it about halfway through a final draft) where the main character gets sat down and has what’s going on explained to him. This is the segment that’s probably most crucial to the story’s success with the reader, since they have to accept this explanation for the plot to have any validity for them. It’s also one of the easiest segments in which to lose the reader, since it involves explaining all the bizarre stuff that’s been happening to the hero for the last forty thousand words and how it all hangs together two thousand years of secret history in the world that the story takes place in. It involves a number of new names and concepts and needs to be both logical and easy to follow. It also, quite definitely, needs to be correct.
It therefore is not the place to forget the word not. For instance, I would very much rather not that the sentence that was supposed to read Heccaea was the last corner of the civilized world not under Phairian rule had not actually read Heccaea was the last corner of the civilized world under Phairian rule.
I also notice that for some reason, Anastasius’s name changes to Athanasius for three paragraphs at one point.
PS My sister-in-law is having an emergency induction today because of chronicly high blood pressure. It’s only about ten days till her due date, though, so both she and the little critter should turn out fine.
Last month, of course, I wrote fifty thousand words of Masks and Shadows, easily my most productive period since I finished A Traitor’s Loyalty in December 2003. It felt really good.
But I can’t help noticing that–checking the infobar down the lefthand side of the screen–November was also the most prolific month I’ve ever had on this blog, with 28 posts. I’d been a little trepidatious about committing myself to NaNoWriMo, and had rather expected that my blog posting rate would go down for the month, due to feeling drained–not to mention not having much time–from having to write almost two thousand words a day. But just the opposite happened, and in rather dramatic fashion (contrast the 28 posts from last month with the post count for pretty much every month since January 2006).
I’m pretty sure there’s a causal relationship here, but I’m much less sure what that relationship is. Did writing the novel every day energise the creative part of my mind into coming up with lots of ideas for blog posts? If so, no big deal. Or did writing every day in the blog keep the writing mechanism in my brain in good working order without all the stresses of plotting and planning that otherwise accompany the act of writing a novel, thereby making it easier to generate all that immortal (or just interminable?) prose every day? If so, then continuing regular posting in the blog becomes vital for the well-being of my fiction.
Or is it more complex than that? Is it that they fed off each other, so that each one helped increase my productivity (and, hopefully, quality of writing, but you chaps are better judges of that than I) with the other? I strongly suspect that might be closest to the truth.
At any rate, I’m curious to see what happens with my posting rate now that NaNoWriMo is over. I’ve posted every day of December so far, of course, and I know what the next two days’ posts are going to be, but that could prove just to be spillover from November. Because while I’m pretty actively working on my next project right now (which seems to have acquired for itself the working title The Outposts of Empire), it’s in a pretty embryonic state and, I should expect, won’t be reaching the actual writing stage for a month or two at least.
It occurred to me the other day that it’s only now that it’s only now that I’m a parent that I’ve actually had to become an adult. The period of adulthood before Boy’s birth was really just a time when I got to be an incredibly spoilt child.
A for instance. I don’t like green vegetables. Well, peas are all right–so long as they’re mixed with pasta, chopped onion, bits of bacon, red meat/chicken/shrimp and a creamy alfredo sauce. But other than that, I’m a no on the green veggies (and also carrots–yuck). And you know what? I haven’t had green vegetables in going on eight years now (except for the peas thing). But all that’s going to have to change very shortly, because I can’t very well be forcing Boy to eat his vegetables unless I’m eating mine too. Heck, I won’t even be able to mention how disgusting these flaccid little lumps of green next to the yummy meat, mashed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding are.
I’ve talked before about one way in which parenthood, for the first time in your life, completely removes any self-centredness from your personality and refocuses you absolutely upon another human being. Other than maybe losing a parent and being forced to raise your younger siblings, I can’t imagine another way of so effectively and immediately making your own needs or wants so laughably irrelevant. I guess this is just an extension of that. So far, becoming a father is shaping up to become the defining event in my life.
PS A big public thank you to Nikki, who I think might be unaware how immensely gratifying her interest in Masks and Shadows has been over the course of National Novel Writing Month. I think at heart all of us writers are total sluts for adulation of our work, and it would be difficult to be more, er, adulating than Nikki has been over M&S–even while she’s still managed to be analytical and provide critical feedback, including coming up with the suggestion that’s gotten me past a pretty major plot hurdle–while also finding the time to write a pretty intriguing and engrossing NaNoWriMo effort herself. Without Nikki, I’d be pretty sure there wasn’t much I could take from the text I’ve written for NaNoWriMo (as opposed to what I could take from the writing exercise of having written fifty thousand words in a month–again, something I probably wouldn’t have finished if it weren’t for Nikki); but thanks to her, now I’m thinking otherwise.