Old News: November 2002
The Creative Process Exposed
Throughout November, this space will chronicle your humble editor's progress in the full-speed writing of the first draft of her next novel. Why: November is National Novel Writing Month (see the NaNoWriMo website for details). This first draft itself is certain to be too raw, too spindly, too messy for even the Inkburns reader's hearty taste, but the tale of the draft's formation may provide an interesting view of the creative process.
The goal: a 50,000 word first draft of a new novel in 30 days. Word counts listed with each entry are cumulative from the beginning of the month,
197 words. I had a few minutes before I headed out to see Beth Amsbary's one-woman play at the Frick Art & Historical Center and, needing to get at least a few words down as a token first-day gesture, rambled aimlessly for two paragraphs. It's not the strongest start, but certainly I should earn karma points for getting off the block, like the 200 points one gets for filling out one's name on the SAT score sheet.
1,825 words. Staying with friends in Cincinnati. I snuck upstairs during The Simpson's to get in my NaNo words for the day. My friend Sharon expressed shock: "You're not watching The Simpson's?" It was the new Halloween episode, too. But having fallen so far behind quota on the opening weekend, I couldn't afford to skip another day. It's harder to write while away from home, outside of my normal environs. The opening section of the draft is very rambly, largely back story about the inter-character relationships and history; hopefully it will provide grounding for later sections.
3,114 words. Visited the creative writing program at Ohio State for the day, attended workshops and talked to students and faculty. I had a little time to myself after lunch, so I sat on a bench in the Oval in the center of campus and typed on my Alphasmart keyboard. The weather had a distinctly fall character, and my fingers tightened up from the chill. I wrapped them around my ever-present cup of coffee to keep them warm enough for typing.
4,455 words. A short session this evening. The writing is progressing slowly. Last year I was able to churn words out easily most days; this year I'm having a harder time. But I picked up speed halfway through today's writing and have left myself notes for where to start tomorrow. Ernest Hemingway completed each day's work knowing what his first written sentence would be on the following day.
6,285 words. I worked in chunks today, before and after exercising this evening and then a longer period after dinner, and in addition to reaching the day's quota I discovered a possible voice for the narrator. I had been troubled that she was too dreary to carry the whole novel, but fortunately a bit of sass has emerged. I find it significantly easier to find a writing flow once I've unearthed an interesting voice. This is a big breakthrough.
8,366 words. The voice had faded by the time I woke up, but I got notes of it here and there today. I put in three chunks of writing time: at Cummings' Candy and Coffee this morning (on North Main Street in Butler; you should stop by), then two stints after dinner. What helped today was reading John Le Carre, Call for the Dead. The writing isn't stunning, but the characters are engaging, and somehow it helped me relax a bit about everything. I'm starting to engage with the central plot of the novel, so the pace is picking up. Another key: fully envisioning the scene, the room, the walls and sounds and smells. It may sound obvious, but I need to keep reminding myself.
10,581 words. Grae Yohe, assistant editor of Inkburns and humor-writer-at-large, is also participating in NaNoWriMo; currently he's ahead of me in word count. Nothing like a little friendly competition to keep things rolling. Anybody else out there want a piece of me? Let me know.
12,935 words. Today I wrote a couple of scenes, with dialogue and small action. It's interesting how quick they were to write. The hard part was working toward them, figuring out what they'd be about, who should be present, what should happen. But once a scene starts, it takes on independent life. Today's particular scenes were set primarily in casinos—the novel concerns a team of blackjack players in Atlantic City—and so I had to think through the hands, the cards that would be dealt, what each player would do and say. I don't know whether much of this will remain in later drafts, but I finished with the sense I'd done well.
14,710 words. Muddling through. Not discouraged ... just tired. The Steelers' not-a-loss-but-not-a-win-either today took some wind from my sails.
16,783 words. My current quandary: Should I stick with articulating the current series of events, in which I'm reviewing the meeting of the two main characters and consequent activity, or hop ahead to introduce the other, minor characters in the story, who could be more entertaining at face value. At the moment I'm struggling through with the initial meeting events, and in fact I'm almost through them. Doing this has revealed some new twists and possibilities, but it's been hard because it's a little tedious and I feel confident I'll trim it out almost immediately for the second draft. But as long as I'm not stopped, I think I should plod ahead with the slow bits. I'll need to tackle them sometime, right?
18,264 words. Woe is me, woe is this book. The plot is foolish and improbable, the characters dull and ill-conceived, the writing abysmal. Intellectually I know that this draft is not very different from anyone else's, but my gut says it's awful and a waste of time. I'm struggling to ignore my gut. My mantra: Trust the process. Today I started writing a synopsis of upcoming events in the story, in the hope of igniting a spark that will light everything else on fire. But I can tell the real problem is that I don't know who the characters are; the action has to come from them, from their rubbing against each other and creating friction. Tomorrow's task will be to flesh out character profiles in more detail.
20,284 words. I have crossed the 20K milestone, and it feels better than I might have thought. As planned, I delved into the characters, worked out some of their desires and fears, and thought about their relationships with each other. I also discovered a minor character who can step up and play a more significant role, which will combine the subplot with the main plot wonderfully. I hope for more of the same quality of writing tomorrow.
22,120 words. OK. Now I have discovered the narrator's voice, the main premise of the book, the obsession that will anchor it ("Give a character a compulsion and set him loose."—Ray Bradbury), and the theme. Well...the theme is shaky. But otherwise, I have all that I need. The constraints of NaNoWriMo compel me to keep plunging forward, without going back to review what I've already written and correcting it to fit in the newly realized material. I think this is a good thing: I would otherwise spend time making everything fit with everything, when really that's the easiest aspect of writing. The hard parts are coming up with the next bit and knowing what results. So, I will now pick up where I left the plot and see what results. I can think of one more character to reveal, and probably the narrator's parents need some study, as they are central. And the narrator still needs a name.
23,263 words. It's the halfway point for this noveling month. I'm a little behind schedule regarding word count, but I have made up ground since the beginning. I have a busy weekend ahead of me, so it will be a challenge to find time to write. I have at least found a tentative name for the narrator: Tatiana. It's in contrast with her personality, as it is supposed to be. We'll see if it sticks.
23,284 words. Yep, I wrote 21 words over the weekend. There's still time for me to write more this evening, but I am feeling quite wiped out. I drove to Philadelphia yesterday to attend a wedding (which was wonderful, by the way) and then drove back this afternoon. I think to be a successful writer one has to lead an uneventful, unsociable life; travel takes too much time. I am committed to staying home as much as possible for the rest of the month.
24,560 words. Life continues to intrude on writing time. I'm very close to the halfway point, but I had to attend to other things today and was left with just a little time to write. I scold myself that a real writer would do the writing first, let everything else wait. But then again, it's said that a real writer is someone who has written today, and that's a criterion I did fulfill.
26,372 words. Hooray, a fast-writing day! I wandered through some narrative first, pieceing together plot details that will be useful, and then slipped into a scene that flew along, fleshed out bits of character that I knew and unearthed others I hadn't known about. Great stuff. It's the kind of writing session that reassures me that I'm on the right track, that the effort is worthwhile. Excellent.
26,652 words. I have run out of words today. Or rather, I have run out of brain power for generating words. I used up a lot of thinking, and time, on a task that I had thought would be simple and quick, and then another thing and another, and now it's late and I need sleep. I had hoped to attend a NaNoWriMo group-writing event in Pittsburgh this evening, but ran out of time for that too. I feel like I have fewer hours available than others have, although the opposite is almost certainly true.
30,059 words. I have been writing short, disconnected scenes involving pairs of the principle characters. When I start each scene I have a sense of what part of the plot I want to unroll, but twice now the scene has mutated after about the first paragraph to an entirely other section of the plot. It's interesting to watch it, to experience the actions unfold and to watch the characters reveal themselves. Another development is that since I'm so far behind schedule—I think I need to write at least 2,500 words per day from here out to finish on time—I've been pushing myself to meet extra, arbitrary word count goals each day ... to cross the 30K barrier this evening, for example. And yet the extra effort results in interesting plot and character developments, rather than in rote, uninteresting blather. I've always felt that I work best under deadline, and here's irrefutable evidence of that.
33,130 words. A glorious 3000 words today, written in two chunks, and lots of it not bad if I say so myself. I have posted an excerpt of it, which you may read on my NaNoWriMo profile if you promise to remember that this is a first draft, that things will change alot in later drafts. I need to keep up the top speed tomorrow, so that I'll have reasonable quotas for the final week, as things become more challenging.
37,130 words. Within the last week I've watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Sliding Doors, Shallow Grave, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Panic Room. There was no particular advance plan to my viewing schedule, but in thinking back on it I can see that it's influenced my current writing: I've created several interesting, new psychological twists in my novel. (Maybe Four Weddings didn't help with the plot twists, but it reinforced for me that Andie McDowell is a lousy actress.) I'm now trying to find a way to ravel all the plots to create a climax, and then resolve it, all before the 50,000 word mark. I'm worried. I will do a bit of outlining tomorrow, I think, so I can allot some number of words to each critical scene, leaving a bit extra at the end for unexpected developments.
40,166 words. Today I added one childhood flashback by the narrator, and it was so good it easily outshines any scene so far. I also filled up a big chunk of words working through some possible climaxes to the book; I think I'm close to discovering it, but it's tantalizingly just out of reach. Tomorrow, perhaps.
41,431 words. Slow day. It's hard to maintain the extra intensity over three days, one of them a work day. But I started a good scene and left breadcrumbs so I can pick up the trail tomorrow. Oddly, this is a violent scene; my protagonist seems to be having as much trouble with it as I am, but for me that makes it more interesting.
45,068 words. Back pain kept me from writing yesterday, but fortunately I made up some words this evening. The story has continued in a violent vein, with one character currently unconscious and possibly in a coma from which he will not awaken, and another character dead. Homicide detectives have made an appearance. The end is in sight!
47,818 words. Bounding ever closer to the end. I have enough time to write more this evening, but I think I will not push things. Instead, I'll let the ideas from today simmer. I created an ending, to my joy and relief. It seemed at first that all the main characters would be simply dead or unredeemed, which is sort of OK but does not make for a pleasant read. Then I thought about the themes of the lead character and decided to leave a few characters alive, which made it possible for the lead character to be redeemed. Excellent, and all within 2000 words. Tomorrow I will sketch out some other scenes that I skipped and come in exactly on time.
50,123 words. And done! At 3:30 p.m. EST today, I stopped to check my word count and found I had exactly 50,001 words, which seemed a perfect place to end. But then I decided I would rather close on a philosophical note, with a paragraph that sounded more like an ending, so I wrote some final thoughts on the now-redeemed protagonist and called it a novel. The text will require significant, probably painful work in the next few drafts, but I feel that altogether it has been a fine and worthwhile project. Hooray!
And congratulations to the other NaNoWriMo winners of 2002! Three cheers and a tiger for us—we have won!