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19 Nov

After the novel – It always feels strange when I finish my NaNoWriMo novel. After writing over two thousand words a day for the better part of three weeks, not writing anything seems odd. The past two years I’ve basked in that sudden freedom, saving my report on the endeavor for several days after I actually finished writing. This year, though, I’m going to use the momentum and just bang out my report immediately (and post it immediately, too, which is unusual for the journal). It is probably going to be a bit of a challenge to go back and edit this, but I figure I’ll have to get back into the swing of “normal” writing sooner or later.

“...the biggest lesson I learned this year is that you can’t write a novel without writing a novel.”

This was my third year doing NaNoWriMo. The first year I ended my wrap-up journal entry with a long list of statistics. The second year I didn’t bother including statistics in my wrap-up at all, although I still have the Excel spreadsheet I used to chart my progress (some Excel wizard made one up that automatically plotted graphs for you and everything). This year I figure I’ll get the statistics out of the way up front, and in the process I’ll do a quick comparison of the past three years.

In terms of total words written, 2004 comes in well ahead with 62,398. I slumped down to 50,416 in 2005, barely making it across the finish line before my ill-planned story imploded (for good measure, my wrap-up entry for last year includes an alternate ending that features lightsaber-wielding penguins in the catacombs beneath the Vatican). This year I found a healthy middle ground with 54,901 words.

This year, though, was without a doubt my best year so far in terms of pace. In 2004 I wrote for a total of 23 days, writing an average of 2,712 words a day. Last year, predictably enough, I slumped to an average of 2,401 words a day—but I was still above my goal of 2,000 words a day. This year, though, I wrote my 54k in only 18 days, finally breaking the 3k-a-day rate with and average of 3,050 words. Most of this was achieved in the second half of my endeavor—for the first nine days, I broke 3k four times and averaged 2,740 words a day, but during the last nine days I broke 3k seven times (the last seven days of writing) and averaged 3,360 words a day. I also had my earliest ever victory, crossing the 50k line on day seventeen.

Part of the reason for this is that before I began writing on day eight, I suddenly figured out where the story was going and sat down to write an outline that roughly sketched out the rest of the story (except for the very end, which I didn’t figure out until yesterday). From that point on I had a road map to work from, and it allowed me to wrap up the story as close to 50k as I could. I realize that there are loose ends still hanging, but I really needed to get this done as soon as possible for two reasons: firstly, I’ve got a pile of schoolwork that needs to get done by the end of the month, and secondly, my wife is at the limits of her patience with me getting to bed late every night. Another few days and I would have been sleeping on the floor.

Anyway, I was pleased with the way this year’s story turned out. There are plot holes the size of a house, certain relationships between characters were not properly developed, and I even made the mistake of killing off a character that I belatedly realized I needed. Add to that the fact that most of what I wrote was the slim version of the story and you have a whole lot that needs to happen in the rewrite. Yes, I said rewrite. I have not gone back to my past two novels, but this one is different. It will sit on the shelf for a while, that’s for sure, but I will come back to it. Most likely after I finish my dissertation (at the end of next year).

I’m not going to bother going into specifics—if you want to hear my specific thoughts on certain characters and plot elements, write me an email and tell me what you thought, the good and the bad, and I’ll reply with more information than you could ever want. Here in the journal, though, I’m going to speak in vague generalities and lessons learned. And the biggest lesson I learned this year is that you can’t write a novel without writing a novel.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Allow me to explain. The idea for my novel this year was actually something I came up with last year. I had a gimmick (in this case, a magical book) and then tried to build a story around it. In the weeks leading up to November I mulled and pondered and planned and contemplated. I had thought things out fairly well, except that I kept running into a wall in my planning. I would get to a certain point and then not know where to go from there. So, convinced that it would be a dead end, I scrapped the idea and decided to write from a completely blank slate come the first of November. And we all know what that got me—a bunch of lightsaber-wielding penguins running around the catacombs beneath the Vatican, slicing my protagonist in half.

When it came time to think about my novel for this year, the unfulfilled idea lingered in the back of my mind. I tried to think of another story to write, but very soon I realized that I was either going to write this story or I was going to be staring at another blank page on November 1st with no idea what to do. After what I went through last year, there was no way I was going to go down that road again. So I began to wrack my brain to explore the different possible avenues I might take with this story. But I was running into walls again. I would get to a certain point in my planning and then not know where to go next. With November looming, I started to panic.

It wasn’t until the first of November that I decided I was finally going to write the story that had been sitting inside my head half-formed for so long. I was still uncertain where the story was going, and for the first week I pushed forward blindly, creating conflict and getting things moving, but without a clear view of the future. And then it happened. Everything just clicked. I was in the shower when I suddenly realized where everything was going, and I saw the future, all the way up to right before the finale (I have never written a story knowing exactly how it’s going to end). I wrote the outline I mentioned above, and from then on everything was pretty much smooth sailing.

Well, more or less smooth sailing. Writing a serial novel without a clear plan from day one is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the need to make later events fit logically with earlier events can lead to some ingenuous twists and turns that you might not have come up with otherwise, since you are forced to be exceptionally creative to make the pieces fit. On the other hand, though, things never fit completely perfectly, and you are often left with gaping holes in your plot that can’t be stopped up no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you make ill-advised choices along the way (like killing off a character you’ll need later... sigh) and you just have to live with them. The NaNoWriMo participant’s mantra during the month of November is: “save it for the rewrite.” Whether or not you ever get around to rewriting doesn’t matter. What matters is that you just let yourself write and save the worrying about cleaning up the mess for later.

And I’m going to leave my thoughts on my novel at that. After the past two Novembers I went into more detail when analyzing my story, talking about specific character relationships and plot quagmires. This year I’m going to forego that. I already know that the characters and their relationships need a lot of work, because characters tend to be a weak point with me compared to things like plot and atmosphere. But I’m not going to go into specifics because I plan on rewriting this, and I’ll have plenty of time to rethink things then, after the story has had time to cool down.

But this is not the end of NaNoWriMo for me. Like last year, I am the municipal liaison (which is a fancy way of saying “cheerleader and event organizer”) for Korea this year, and I will still be hanging around the forums, encouraging the people in my group, and trying to plan the Thank God It’s Over party in December. Unlike last year, I decided to make life even more difficult for myself by producing a daily podcast called “ The Sixty-Second Pep Talk.” You can visit the website if you want to find out more about it, so I’ll skip the explanation. Instead, I’ll talk about how it affected my novel-writing and November in general.

I deliberately kept the podcast to sixty seconds. I knew it would be hard to say much in that amount of time, and I was tempted to increase it to ninety seconds. Yet I knew that anything I could say in ninety seconds I could probably also say in sixty seconds, and I wanted to cut down on production time as much as possible. I think I made the right choice. I’ve gotten a feel for how much content can fit in sixty seconds (at my speaking pace, I can usually get 190-200 words in comfortably), and I’ve gotten used to writing for that time frame.

The method by which I write my Pep Talk scripts is pretty much the complete opposite of how I wrote my novel. When you write your novel the goal is to get as many words down as possible. No time is wasted editing—whatever you write stays. The Pep Talk scripts, though, have to be carefully polished and honed to squeeze as much content into as small a space as possible. The process usually involves a rough draft followed by a lot of cutting and editing. Then I do an actual read through and see how it flows. Unlike my novel, which is probably not going to be read aloud, the Pep Talk scripts need to approximate spoken language or they’re going to sound stilted. Also, some words are just harder to say than others. In the beginning I wrote scripts that later got hacked to pieces after I had tried to read them and tripped over my tongue. This polishing process continues until I have a script I am comfortable with and that lasts almost exactly sixty seconds.

What happens next depends on the day, although I can sense a general trend of improvement as the month goes on. Pacing is really the most important thing, as that determines the length of the podcast. Sometimes I get a good pace in my first few runs, and then I take that good run and go through it to pick out trouble spots—where I stumble over words or where the microphone pops, etc.—and rerecord them. Sometimes I have a really hard time getting the pace down, and I’ll do ten runs before I get a good pace. Usually, though, these runs are pretty much flawless, since I’ve had so much practice by then. Today’s (tomorrow’s actually, since I do them a day in advance) podcast was one of the latter. I did a few runs, changed the script, did a few more, completely rewrote the second half of the script, and then did a bunch more runs until I got one that was good to go without any further editing. However it turns out, though, the entire process usually takes about a half hour from start to finish.

Knowing that the podcast production process and the novel writing process were so different, I was a little concerned that they might interfere with each other. Fortunately, nothing like that happened. The media are entirely different, and it wasn’t difficult to keep the two separated in my mind. I usually recorded the podcast first and then switched into noveling mode, and I never had a problem with the transition. I was also worried that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew, but I didn’t have a problem with that either. On days when I knew I was going to be pressed for time, I did a few podcasts in advance, and I usually had scripts written in advance as well. At one point I was five scripts ahead and three recorded podcasts ahead.

Now that the novel is over, I wonder if it will be even more of a challenge to do the podcast. That might sound counterintuitive, but it felt like the two complemented each other. I was talking to people who were writing novels as someone who was writing a novel himself. But now I am no longer writing a novel. I’ll still be writing, but it will be presentations for school. So it will be interesting to see if I can bring the same kind of dedication to this in the last third of the month. I’ll be doing my best, of course, because I made a commitment and I don’t believe in going back on my commitments. Who cares if no one is actually listening? (Although I happen to know that people are, in fact, listening—not many, but a few dozen a day at least.)

So National Novel Writing Month will continue until the end of November, and I’ll be there along with everyone else. A pretty big part of it is over for me, though, so it feels a bit odd. It will be nice to get back to writing in the journal here, but my next entry probably won’t be until my presentations are over (i.e., December). My experiences with the podcast have also led me to consider doing something like that for Liminality proper. It definitely won’t be every day, but I could probably swing a once a week podcast. It would still be brief—I do like how the sixty-second time frame forces me to be concise—but it would focus on a much wider range of subjects. Most likely it would be little tidbits that are on my mind, and it would be much different from my journal entries. The only question, of course, is would anyone actually listen (besides me mum)? Only time will tell.

That’s all for today. See you in December.

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