OK, so I'm rarely in jeopardy, but I write woman-in-jeopardy novels—otherwise called "Modern Gothics"—and this is my blog. It will probably have lots of time between posts, but I'll try not to bore you. Welcome.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why I'm Failing NaNoWriMo

Photolink http://cheezburger.com/2397522688

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month", a major annual event wherein writers (both published and unpublished) sign on with a single purpose: to write 50,000 words (or more) in 30 days.

It's a great idea, a great initiative, and provides both support and a kick in the pants for a whole lot of new and experienced writers. In recent years, my children have signed up on NaNoWriMo's Youth site. And this yearpartly to show my support for them, and partly because I was getting a bit tired of having them come down for dinner each day in November with word counts that left mine behind in the dustI signed on, too.

What better way, I wondered, could there be to drive me through the middle of my current work-in-progress than to have the whole machinery of NaNoWriMo keeping me on track?

Just after signing up, my fellow writer Stephanie Draven (who's done this a few times, successfully) sent me this link to her post giving great advice on how to take on the "50k death march into the writing desert" that is NaNoWriMo, and I read her points and nodded and said, "Yes, that's what I need to do."

And then I started work on my next chapter, and I realized I was never going to make it. Why?

Stephanie's second point is: "Research Later". She's right. If you want to write quickly, you can't stop to look up the decorative details until you get into the editing stage. "Put a note in the margin if you have to," she advises, "to remind you to research it later, but for now, shove all research questions to the side and keep writing."

Which is great advice, really. Except I've just learned I can't do it, myself. Let me illustrate:

There I was writing away, doing fine with the word count, when I reached a scene where my characters stop for a moment to look at a grave marker inside a church. I could—I should, for sake of speed—have simply carried on and made a note to self to properly describe the marker later, when I edited. My characters would simply have moved on, and talked of other things.But honestly, I needed to refill my coffee anyway (if I could add one thing to Stephanie's list, it would be to bring the coffee-maker right into your writing space, to minimize these moments of distraction) and along the way I passed the bookshelf where I stack up all those photocopied records that I keep for research, and right there on top I saw the drawing of the grave marker.

In real life, the actual church that I use in the scene is long gone, but with help from the National Archives of Scotland I happen to have a good copy of the original plan for the monument, showing the carvings and scrollwork and Latin inscriptions beneath the armorial bearings...

Armorial bearings, I thought. Hm. I wonder... The person who's buried there wouldn't have had his own coat of arms, so whose...?
I refilled my coffee and carried the drawing back to my computer, and opened a search window. (BIG no-no, by the way, for NaNoWriMo—you DON'T open search windows. But I'm a first-timer, what do I know?)

So I started refreshing my rusty remembrances of what the parts of armorial bearings mean, and by a wandering path, in a rather obscure private history on Google Books, I found my answer: I knew who was granted those arms, which in turn told me why they were used on that monument. Hm, I thought. That's very interesting.

There was a motto as well, which was written in Latin, and since it had been a long time since my own high school Latin class, I started searching again...

By the afternoon's end I had pretty much sorted out what every carved skull and symbol and word on that grave marker meant, and I saw how those meanings could shape the whole section of dialogue between my characters, making it better and richer than it would have been if I'd just pushed ahead with the story.

And not only better and richer, but different. I could have, perhaps, simply gone back and edited in some things afterwards, but it would never have been the same scene it is now. And the scene it is now has, in turn, moved the characters forward in ways that I hadn't predicted.
Could I have written the scene faster? Certainly. But I'd have sped by the chance to make something more out of it, and that's a chance I'd have hated to lose. 

The great thing about writing and writers is, none of us do it exactly the same way, and none of us do it the wrong way. We do what we do. So I guess I'll just have to embrace my distractable ways and the fact that I write at the speed of a glacier advancing, and realize I'm going to fail NaNoWriMo this year.

That's OK. I'll still cheer on my children, and everyone facing that "50k death march". I'll be right behind you. I just have to look something up...


  1. I'm here to tell you that my alter-ego, Stephanie Draven is kind of full-of-it.

    Frankly, she has only ever been able to perform that "research-later" trick successfully writing contemporary paranormal romance where research generally involves 'what kind of gun should my hero be brandishing?'

    Writing historical fiction is a different animal. At least for me.

    If Stephanie Draven were giving better, less general advice, she would have said that sometimes when you feel as if you need to know some important fact before you can go on, you should trust your gut.

    Probably no great symbolism could be made out of gangplanks on Roman ships--the example she uses. However, a grave marker isn't a mere decorative detail. It's wrought with importance. It stands for a PERSON!

    I would have also needed to know about that grave marker.

    Now, it could be argued that over time we will develop a better instinct for which kind of details can be researched later and which must send us to a grinding halt.

    But I suspect there is another reason that Stephanie Draven can write a HQN Nocturne novel in a month, but I write at glacial pace that makes my agent despair.

  2. OK, Stephanie, now I feel better :-)

    And I still think your advice in that post was excellent, and would work for most people who don't get distracted as easily as I do.

    And since that grave marker belongs to a key character from a previous book of mine that I know you are fond of, I figured you'd let me off the hook if I slowed down a bit...

  3. Oh, I feel so much better now.

    I'm 13,000 words behind, and why? Because my NaNo project is set in a coal mining town and there's a disaster, and I realized that I don't know anywhere near enough about coal mining to write 1/3 of the book. (I have three storylines running simultaneously but the accident is the catalyst.)


    I, too, fell victim to the Search window. And somehow my Search window started looking up things other than coal mining. Things like 80s music, and calorie counts of whole containers of Ben and Jerry's, and just how far the Baikonur Cosmodrome *is* from Baikonur (ohhhh, those Russians).

    So I feel better now. Pretty sure I'm going to miss my 50,000 words for the sixth year in a row (and did I mention I started a new job in a book store the day before NaNo started?).

    But that's okay. Because my favourite author feels my pain. :)

  4. Karen,

    I'm not even going to ask what the calorie count of the Ben and Jerry's is...no need to ruin all my illusions.

    And just think of the fun that you're going to have doing research on coal mining :-)

  5. I have the utmost respect for anyone who can complete 50000 words in a month. I am lucky to string together 20 coherently! 20 words, not 20000!

  6. Marg, I'm not sure I could ever do 50,000 words in a month. I'm too poky :-)

  7. I want very much to be able to write faster, but for the very reason you mention here, I never will. Research informs the depth and direction my historical novels take. Think about it. What if you spent a month whipping out 50,000 words of a novel, only to find, when you finally get deep into research, some turn the plot took in those 50k words isn't plausible, historically? I won't risk it. I'm not that brave. :) Not to mention the more subtle changes and deepening that happen along the way, that you mentioned, from digging into the research during the first draft.

    The most I've ever written in a month is 30k, and that was at the end of a manuscript, when most of the research was done and I was confident of exactly where the story was headed.