One-Month Challenge

Thursday, December 13, 2007

All written out

Perhaps I should rename this blog "month-and-a-half challenge"? It somehow always takes an extra two weeks (minimum) for me to get around to the writeup...well, this time it has been especially difficult, since this time I've been spending far too many hours each day writing, and since I (*sob*) must admit a kind of defeat.

> Publish a 2,000 word entry to [Thu Duong] / Write a short story of 3000 words on a topic and in a style of your own choosing [Lee Konstantinou]

I decided to take this one step further and participate in National Novel Writing Month: a truly insane thingamajig (technical term) in which folks across the globe agree to try writing 50,000 words in a single month. While I can't claim success on that front, I did get a good 25,000 words banged out; no small feat for a newbie. In the process, I learned a lot about the process of writing, and about my own skills, deficiencies, and style.

First, the raw data; allows you to submit your word total count on a daily basis, and generates some nice graphs (PS geeks: full API here):


Now, if I had kept up with the flock, that slope would be about twice as steep (imagine a line running from the bottom-left to the upper-right of the graph). So, I churned out about half as many words/day as I needed to, and often less than that. Note the big push at the end: the last several chapters were written in a single 48-hour period on a random road trip between Oklahoma City and Memphis (helping my friend John finish his all-50-states-before-turning-30 challenge...thanks for doing all the driving John)! I now understand why so many novels have terrible endings. Nonetheless, the plotline is completed. A few more subplots to round things out, and it will be ready for first revision.

The biggest eye-opener, I felt, was the way in which the characters really do take over. I've heard this from authors before: you may think that you can control the personalities you create, guide their actions, subject them to your will. But you are wrong. Once a character has his own view of the world, he takes over, pushing your plot where he will. Don't like it? Go back and rewrite him from scratch (ugh). Better yet, follow him and see where it takes you, because this is when writing really takes off: your hindbrain is in the moment, you are watching a movie on your private internal silver screen, and your only job as an author is to observe the action taking place and translate it into words.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't play continuously. Sometimes, you tune in and there's nothing but dead air, a blank screen staring back at you with guilty eyes. In fact, most sessions start like this. A couple hours might pass as you follow stray thoughts down dead-end alleys, sipp a latte or three, and check email three or four (hundred) times. But eventually, if you are patient, the film starts rolling and things are beautiful for the next few scenes.

Of course, your characters also do some odd things. Aside from forgetting to follow their main plot objective, they also forget where they live, who they are sleeping with...even their own names. You will be tempted to revise these so-called "inconsistencies". Don't. If you do it now, instead of sitting back and waiting for the next scene of the movie to begin, your story will be clean and consistent...and about half as long as you'd prefer.

Pardon me while I wipe this egg off my face.

Other things you will learn while trying to write a novel:

  • You do not actually know how to spell the simplest of two-syllable words. Or, if you do, you surely cannot type them correctly on a regular basis.

  • Webcomics are not your friend, though you'll read a lot of them while you should be writing.

  • The Internet, as a whole, is not your friend. You will end up browsing YouTube, or the Jargon File, for an entire day. Add a parental control filter to your web browser so that it only permits access to Wikipedia, which is invaluable for research.

  • Your friends are not your friend. They want you to go outside, to bars, to anywhere that fun takes place. Your place is in a dark coffeeshop, far from anyone you know.

  • Other writers are your friend. Get a writing group, take a class, whatever it takes. Once a week, spend a couple hours with them, blabbing about your ideas and getting their feedback. A single offhand comment often generates a new scene or subplot. Best of all: unlike the rest of your friends, they don't get annoyed when you stop listening and start typing.

  • Subplots happen. You might be tempted to devise them ahead of time; this is not a bad idea, but be prepared to discard and revise. Your characters will end up in unexpected situations/relationships, and when these happen, you can simply open up a new file and begin writing about them. Oh, look: my female lead's parents died when she was four! I wonder why...

Okay, 'nuff lecture. Back to ME (that is, after all, what this blog is about :-)

I'm burnt on this one for now. Main plot complete(-ish), ending needs rewriting, but I know where things stand. I'll let her sit for a month or two, then come back and start exploring further: there are a lot of alleys left unexplored, and a lot of details need to be added. Even more importantly, I probably need to write a couple shorter stories before going back to a novel-length plot: these will provide more writing practice while simultaneously giving me the freedom to find out more about my characters in an uninhibited context, should I choose to include them in the shorts.

And lastly, a meta-analysis: I'm a natural ferret, a spaz, a hyperactive child in a grown body. My focus drifts from one obsession to the next on a monthly basis. The beauty of writing is that it incorporates this jack-of-all-trades knowledge into a single objective: who knew, when I became obsessed with martial arts and dance at an early age, that those experiences would be the basis for a couple chapters in a novel? Or that sleepless nights rewriting thousands of lines of code until they were just right would also help me design a protagonist and his opponent?

Writing gives us the chance to take all that we know, mix it up with a bit of speculation and fantasy, and produce something that somebody...somewhere...please...might care to hear about. All the random experiences of our lives coalesce into a new creation: a series of words never before spoken in quite the same order. Something unique. Something novel.

And the process of creating such a work is almost as satisfying as reading one.