It’s official: I’m a NaNoWriMo 2018 winner!
Four attempts at NaNoWriMo itself, and many more attempts at writing a novel in general, and this is the furthest I’ve gone. While the story itself isn’t complete, I at least have finished the challenge, written the words, won that Winner’s Badge.
The Higher Silences
Total Word Count: 50,007
Two major takeaways from this year: one, outlining is an abundantly useful exercise; two, character work is more important than anything else.
In the past, my method of writing was to start with a single idea and go from there. This “idea” was anything from a “what if?” scenario to something as small as a song title. Sometimes I didn’t even start with an “idea” but a mood I wanted to convey. I’ve had, as you can imagine, varying success with all of these. For some definition of success.
I wanted to talk a little bit about how I did it, so that I can refer back to my own thoughts later, when I start thinking “maybe I can skip all that stuff.” Also, it might help others!
How I Did It
Scrivener is a great tool. I could go on at length about all of its great features. But I won’t, at least not today. Instead I want to talk about its Binder and its Corkboard features.
These are really just two different views into the folders and documents of your project. They provide bird’s-eye views of whatever you need a bird’s-eye view of. And they’re invaluable when it comes to outlining.
First I made six folders to serve as Section headers. One for a “foreword,” because it’s a fantasy novel and of course there’s a conlang that needs some sort of introduction for pronunciation purposes. The other five were for the distinct Acts of the story.1 In the metadata on each folder, I put notes on the broadest of broad strokes for the goal of that Act.
Next I started filling in chapters. This went much the same way: add a new folder, sketch some detail in the metadata / project notes, move chapters around to adjust for pacing and flow.
This is about all you need in order to Outline in Scrivener. Later, I came back and added much more detail with custom metadata, scenes within the chapters with sketches of detail, etc.
Doing all this first gave me an idea about what the story might actually be about, what events I wanted to take place and how I might glue them together, and most importantly, it saved me from deleting a lot of words, because I ended up scrapping most of it and moving the rest around.
Plot is boring.
Characters are what connect your story to an audience. Without characters, you’re just listing a bunch of Things Happening. Sure, from a certain perspective, every story has characters. But they are not all characters. This is the distinction between, say, Transformers, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
With great characters, you don’t even really need “plot” as most people think of it. Some great writer once said they only resorted to using plot as a last resort. This idea of plot being closer to Transformers way of life: this robot does this, that robot does that, the Army does these things, and so on. This is why we leave the theater after movies like these feeling tired and unsatisfied.2
In contrast to this, truly realized characters create their own plot. It develops naturally from the wants and needs of the characters themselves. In addition to this, the conflicts that stem from the characters are given opportunity to be reflected in other conflicts within the same narrative. This turns a good story into a great one with thematic resonance.
To have a good character you only really need to start with knowing three things about them. Don’t waste your time on those character sheets, the “what’s her favorite band? favorite color? childhood nickname?” stuff that just passes time while feeling productive. You can do them later if you want. Instead, focus on these three things:
- What does this character want?
- What does this character need?
- How does your character present themselves to the world?
All characters have to want something. They have to want it so bad they’re willing to dramatically alter their everyday lives in order to get it. This want needs to be so powerful it exposes your character’s weaknesses and exploits them for dramatic effect. These wants become the driving force of the narrative, creating conflict and tension.
The character’s need will typically become the thematic underpinnings of your story. It’s also often at odds with what they want, or something they need to learn / achieve before they can actually acquire their want. When a character gets what they need, they often no longer want the same thing, or their reason for wanting it changes and becomes more noble.
The third item is not so important for thematic cohesion or crafting plot, but it does make your character feel like an actual person. We all think, speak, and behave differently. You don’t want to wind up with something like Don Delillo’s The Names3, where even the small child characters sound like all of the rest of the adults, meaning eloquent and poetic.
All the other character work stems from these three things. All the rest of the novel comes from this.
So after I spent a good bit of time working on these things for my characters, I saw the story in an entirely new light, and reworked the outline from the beginning. Instead of thinking, “What happens next?” I thought, “What does X want, and why can’t they do it yet?” Repeat for every section, chapter, and scene.
#3: Butt in Seat Time
There are no shortcuts to writing a novel. There is no magical formula to follow to arrive, suddenly, at a finished product. You need to spend time with your butt in your seat with your fingers clacking away at the keyboard.
I spent a lot of time writing. I took a week off work. There were days I didn’t feel like it and powered through anyway. My rule was this: I had to be at my keyboard at least an hour a day. I didn’t have to write, but I couldn’t do anything else.
Yes, there were still days when I didn’t write. I had to adjust accordingly to meet the month-end deadline. In real life I don’t think I’d set such a pace for myself, and I would build in some days off to rest and relax and think.
But without my butt in my seat, fingers at the keyboard, nothing would have been done at all.