Today is the final day of 2020’s NaNoWriMo. Many writers have passed the hurdle and already collected their winners’ goodies. They have ordered their winner’s T-shirt and are embarking on revisions.
Others have decided they’re never going to finish, it’s a waste of time, and they’ll never do this again.
But some will.
The real storytellers, people who can’t completely stifle that dream of writing, will return in several years with a better idea and a realistic plan. They’ll conquer it, and writing will become their passion.
This year, I have so far written over 90,000 words. I wrote the final scenes of Bleakbourne on Heath, the alt-Arthurian serial I lost momentum on and couldn’t finish. Also, I made headway on my other unfinished novel, focusing on my antagonist’s story. In discovering the logic of a tainted relic, I accidentally wrote a backstory that became a novel. It is ¾ of the way done.
Participating in NaNoWriMo for the last ten years has taught me discipline.
It makes me do what is the most challenging thing for me—I have to ignore my inner editor to get my word count.
For that reason alone, I will most likely always “do” NaNoWriMo, even when I am no longer able to be a Municipal Liaison.
I love the rush, the thrill of having written something for myself, something I alone will see and enjoy. But more than that, I love knowing that some of what I have written is good and is worthy of sharing with readers.
When I finally write the last words of my accidental novel, the work will have only begun.
I will set it aside, as I need to gain some distance. I’ll go back to finalizing Bleakbourne on Heath, which will take a couple of weeks, or even a month or two. By the time that book is ready for the editor, I’ll be able to see my other work with fresh eyes.
Writers tell me all the time how new and intriguing characters pop up and take their tale in a different direction. Sometimes this works out well. Other times, not so much. I floundered for years on my first novel and can tell you now, it will never be published.
I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is apparent when you look at that old manuscript. I didn’t realize that authors are sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product. It’s only a roughly shaped block of clay.
In that glorious moment where we write the final words of our novel, we see it as a precious object, as if it were complete.
Trust me, others won’t see the story the way you do just yet.
A block of clay is only a lump of sticky dirt, but a sculptor envisions what that mass of soil can become. They begin by scraping the layers away until the real shape emerges. That is what we must do.
We scrape away, scene by scene, removing the extraneous fluff in one place and adding more substance in others.
Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together, but these scenes have an arc to them. They’re shaped by action and reaction.
These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.
Strung together, these scenes give form to the narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Often, the middle is where you discover that you have lost your novel’s overall plot. This happens to me for several reasons.
First, it can happen because I deviate from the outline, and while my new idea is better, it lacks something. I go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.
We try to figure out why the plot has failed. I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin? The MacGuffin’s importance to the story is not the object or goal itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations.
Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.
Every story has a quest of some sort. It can be a personal quest for enlightenment or a search for the Holy Grail. No matter what, the characters want something, and that thing must be sharply defined.
If the quest has become a MacGuffin, the real quest is not for the object. It is a search for power, love, money, or personal growth and must be given more prominence. The effect that searching for it has on the characters must be clearly shown.
We peel back the layers of our first draft. What symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story, clues that we can work with?
Authors always leave hints and symbols in their work, signs of who they are and what they believe. Sometimes it is intentional, but often it is our subconscious writer-mind in action.
If we can identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we have the opportunity to amplify it.
I have often used the film, The Matrix as an example of how symbolism, intentionally applied, is an underpinning of world-building. When it’s done right, it can show the story in a more focused light.
In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer.
Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is a symbol, an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.
What is the deeper story? With each pass through our manuscript, we sharpen the final product, scrape away from this part and add some over here, rewording and redefining as we go.
Ultimately, we will have exposed the core of our original vision, revealed the parts we couldn’t articulate at first. Some things only become more apparent to us as we dig deeper.
This is why, while many people can write, not everyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the core of the plot, the story that needs to be told. It also takes practice.
Digging the deeper story out doesn’t happen overnight.
A first draft is our block of clay, and after much effort, the final draft is our finished sculpture. November 30th has arrived, and NaNoWriMo 2020 is over.
Now the real work begins.
Credits and Attributions
David Monniaux, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Auguste Rodin (French, 1840-1917): Bust of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, 1882, terracotta, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University Campus, Palo Alto, United States Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rodin Carrie-Belleuse p1070141.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rodin_Carrie-Belleuse_p1070141.jpg&oldid=451362532 (accessed November 29, 2020).