Adding It Up

It’s Election Night here in the United States of America, they’re counting up the ballots, and I know the burning question on everyone’s mind is:

I wonder how Jennwith2ns’ NaNoWriMo novel is coming along?

(That is, of course, why this blog has seen fewer than 30 total hits in the last three days. But who’s counting?)

The answer to that question at the moment is, “Well, not exactly like a novel.”

First of all, I’m about 4000 words behind, but look, here I am writing a blogpost, so clearly I’m not too stressed about that bit yet. Secondly, when I was mulling over everybody’s great story prompts and deciding on Jessi and Lotte’s, there was actually kind of a lot of inner turmoil about quite how to go about writing this particular story. Originally, despite the distinct sci-fi element in Jessi’s idea, I was contemplating putting quite a bit of an autobiographical element into the tale. Although there are still some parallels (the main character, Veronica St George, lived in London for a bit and returned to New England where she grew up–and somebody might end up with cancer)–okay, yeah, they’re kind of big parallels, but it turns out that Veronica is a lot less like me than I at first envisioned, and so are her basic circumstances.

For one thing, the story opens with her in court on trial for the murder of . . . herself. You know, because at one point there were two of her. One of them has disappeared and . . . well, you get the idea.

I’m pretty happy with that opening twist, but what I’m finding as I keep working on this is that, since I spent so much time pre-November mulling over basic plot, I didn’t have any opportunity to figure out the actual plot trajectory or character history or anything like that. So what is happening is, I’m learning about Veronica and her life from her answers on the stand in court, and her conversation with a court-ordered psychiatrist. This is pretty interesting and useful for me, but I’m not sure all the information I’m discovering is really germaine to the novel itself, and that even if it is, this is the best way to tell it. The trouble with NaNoWriMo is that there’s really no time to scrap the 8,500 words you’ve already written and start over with a different approach. I suspect there’s a novel in here, and I might even be able to get 50,000 words out of this just by writing the way I’ve been going, but I’m quite certain those initial 50,000 are not going to be the novel that’s in here. Probably more like a really wordy, conversational character (and maybe story) outline.

This, I feel, is due to two other things I’m also learning.

In the first place, I don’t actually know anything about how a trial works. I went to court once because of a traffic accident, and I’ve watched plenty of crime dramas and PBS mysteries which involve court scenes, but I don’t know how to craft my own. At all. I don’t even know what standard would be, let alone what would happen if some chick goes on trial because her literal double has disappeared and people suspect her of killing her. I sent a few questions to a friend of mine who actually is a lawyer, but I realised I was about to get bogged down in fictional legal details and wouldn’t get any writing done at all in that case, so I put all my questions on hold. If I ever get this written, I can send it to my friend and she can tear it to shreds and then maybe I’ll have a better idea of the kind of novel I’m supposed to be writing.

In the second place, I’m finally coming to terms with and learning to embrace my own writing methods. People like Anne Lamott, who clearly know about these things, command wannabe writers to write every day no matter what, and to commit themselves to what she calls “shitty first drafts.” That is definitely what I’ve got going on here. And definitely not how I write. I start a draft, and then I get a brainstorm for a completely different take, throw the first thing out and start over. And then I tweak it and rewrite it to death, and then I move on to the next chapter. I’ll write about halfway through a novel, go back and reread it, decide it’s utter rubbish, and hide the file for a while. Two or so years later, I’ll rediscover it, reread it and think, “Huh. That’s not so bad. I could probably do something with that.” I enforce a writing push and finish the narrative, and then I work it over and over and over until I can’t possibly make anymore changes myself, and then I start slowly, one at a time, approaching publishers and agents with pitches for the completed book. This means that a book like Favored One has been in the making for 10 years, even though literal writing time has only been a fraction of that.

I’ve realised that even when I freelance a non-fiction article for someone’s publication, I write this way. Even when I have a deadline. I’ll do the research if I need to research. I’ll write the article. But I usually end up having written an entirely different article by the end, I rarely write a piece all in on sitting, and I pace myself within the deadline so that I have some mulling time in the middle.

This is not the way anyone is “supposed” to write, and there’s a reason for that–it’s not very efficient or “productive.” In case you hadn’t noticed, our society wants productivity. If you want to be productive, or to become a famous writer, don’t write like this. It sounds like a lazy approach, and maybe it is. But maybe some of us are born to tell stories that just don’t get famous–but we’re still supposed to tell them. This might be a cop-out excuse, but maybe some of us write stories like vintners age wine. Or, to be less poetic about it, maybe we’re like cows with four stomachs, and we have to re-chew everything a bunch of times before we can let it out.

I don’t know. What I do know is that for years I’ve brow-beaten myself about my lack of writing “discipline.” When Trees in the Pavement came out, the Christian school I attended as a child invited me to come talk to the kids about writing. I told them I was happy to do that, but that I couldn’t really give anybody any tips because I was really undisciplined in writing and even getting published had kind of been a fluke. They didn’t withdraw the invitation after that, exactly, but they didn’t really keep extending it, if you know what I mean. No school administration wants an adult in any field to tell their charges that they’re pretty good in their field but they never work on it. Nobody wants their students to start slacking off and then say it’s okay because that writer that Mrs Librarian invited said she never writes and look, she got published.

I get it. I wouldn’t want to tell my youth group that, either. But the thing is, I’m really starting to think it’s a pattern–and not necessarily a bad one after all. I write. I write all the time, actually. I don’t write novels all the time, but I’m starting to wonder if even when I’m not writing them, I’m writing them.

If this is true, then NaNoWriMo is about as contrary to my true writing style as it’s possible to get. I still think it’s a good exercise. I think it’s good to force yourself into another pattern sometimes,  to challenge yourself, to broaden your skills. I’m certainly learning things from it. But one of those things is that I’m just not cut out to write well this way. And that that’s okay. I’ll keep on counting words long after whoever counts ballots finishes counting up the votes . . . and then, maybe ten years from now, you’ll see the novel Second Thoughts.

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8 thoughts on “Adding It Up

  1. Very interesting thoughts! I write the same way, by the way (trying to write something, reading back a thousand times, tearing it up and starting again). And I don’t have discipline in anything but brushing my teeth every evening… But this month I gave myself permission to just write. I am a writer, after all, and that is not true only when the writing is “successful” by somebody’s or even my own standards. I need to write like somebody who draws needs to scribble faces when she is in a lecture or sitting in a bus. I don’t always know about what to write, and I let my perfectionism stand in the way of writing more often than not, but this month I won’t. I will just write for the sake of writing and see what happens. Your project sounds very very interesting and I hope that you will succeed to finish the novel (or the outline, or the rough draft) or at least to reach 50.000 words. But even if not, you will have written a lot, tried out a lot of descriptions, and situations, and imagination, and maybe you can use part of that in your next novel… 🙂 Discipline is only one aspect and maybe not a very important aspect of writing! (I don’t know if it is good blogging manners to mention another blog in a note but I learned a lot from http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2012/11/nanowrimo-tips/)

    • First of all–you can always refer other blogs. I think it’s probably recommended. If it isn’t “etiquette,” I don’t really care. I’m happy to learn from other sources.

      Second, yeah, there’s a lot to be said for shutting up the inner editor, but I think what I’m finding here this time around, too, is that I’m not ENJOYING writing this way very much, because when I get an idea, if it’s going in a different direction which I realise would be better expressed in another way, I can’t actually stop and use that idea or go that direction because I’m just trying to write words.

      Last time I did NaNoWriMo, this got so bad that the “novel” ended up nosediving right into the ground to such a point that nothing was even salvageable, and I got frustrated and wanted to punch my computer a lot. (I didn’t, but I wanted to. A lot.) It’s not quite so dreadful this time (at least, not yet), but it’s similar enough that I’m starting to realise this is just not how I write best or how I most enjoy writing.

  2. Ah, good to see you’ve started. I’m glad I’m not the only one who lets stories age a little. Between the two of us, you are still the only one who got published, but I see a similar approach in your way of writing compared to mine. I can’t imagine you should finish a complete ready-for-publishing novel in November. I always thought you were writing a 50,000 pages draft, which would be made into a real novel later. Still a huge deal, if you ask me. Remind me to join in next year.

  3. I was wondering if perhaps you don’t need to know the legalese of courtroom drama, perhaps the story takes place in a different time or place and you make up how the drama would unfold? Of course I don’t know what I’m talking about so you may want to take that into consideration. 🙂

    • Heh. Yeah–in the end result, I don’t want much of the action to take place in the courtroom. It’s just that in “crunch-mode” that’s what turns out to be happening. It’ll all write up differently over the years 🙂 after November.

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