Thoughts on NaNoWriMo – For the first time in over three weeks, I am not writing for word count (actually, I stopped writing for word count after I hit 50k, which was a few days before I finished). For the first time in over three weeks, I will not be pounding out 2,000+ words and posting them with no editing. No, I’m going to take my time with this entry and try to remember a time when the word count feature was not my best friend and my internal editor was not chained up in the basement with a rag stuffed in his mouth. This is most likely going to get a little long and rambling, so I’m going to break things up with some nifty subtitles.
Let me back up for a moment for the sake of those joining us late. Today’s entry is going to deal with NaNoWriMo and the novel that I spent the first 23 days of November writing. There are going to be some spoilers about said novel, so if you haven’t done so already, I suggest you go read the novel first. Yes, now. All 62,398 words of it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait until you finish. Oh, and you also might want to take a look at my previous entry for an idea of what I was thinking before all this started. In fact, I think I’m going to do that now, since I’ve long since forgotten.
Ah, yes. I was being my usual melodramatic self, fixating on the absolutely horrifying idea of having to write 50,000 words in a month. I was aiming for 2,000 words a day, hoping that by aiming high (the traditional “magic number” is 1,667 words per day) I would make up for those days when I fell below the required amount and still end up with 50k by the end of the month. Now, I am finished, and it is time for me to give my impressions. It is also time for other WriMos (the term used for people participating in the event, even though it makes no sense in terms of the acronym) to start hating me. A word of caution before I proceed: if you happen to stumble upon this entry and are a fellow WriMo, you should know that I am not nearly as nice here as I am on public forums. Public forums are like restaurants or movie theaters, and I try to respect the other people there. Liminality, though, is my living room, and I pretty much let it all hang out here (figuratively speaking, of course).
Anyway, my impressions. If I had to sum up all of my various impressions into one ultra-impression, it would be this: writing 50,000 words of fiction in a month is not as difficult as it sounds. I exceeded my word count goal every single day, even rising above 3,000 words on some days, and at the end of the 23rd day I had not 50,000 words but over 60,000. I won’t go as far as saying it was a piece of cake, but it really wasn’t anywhere near as hard as some of the whining at the NaNoWriMo boards would have you believe. I’ve got some cold, hard truth for the whiners out there: if you can’t pump out 50,000 words in a month, you should just forget about any illusions you may have had about ever becoming a writer. I’m serious. If you can’t motivate yourself to write that amount—even if it’s total crap—you will never be a writer.
There were some days when I really did not feel like writing. In retrospect, though, none of those days were a result of the writing itself. They were all due to non-writing factors such as work or study or just general depression. In fact, I often felt a lot better once I started writing. Even on days when I felt physically sick when I started writing, I would often feel better when I was done.
This is not to say that the words always came easy. There were times when it felt like squeezing cement from a toothpaste tube, as I believe I whined in one of my post-writing comments. Again, though, in retrospect I can see that most of those cement toothpaste days were the result of being incredibly tired when I started writing.
Of course, all of this makes perfect sense. After all, if you don’t like actually writing, that’s a pretty good sign that you’re not going to be a writer. What I believe separates the writers from the “aspiring” writers is the ability to overcome the other factors in your life that are keeping you from writing. Honestly, I think actual writing skill has very little to do with getting published. There are a lot—and I mean a lot—of people out there who can write far better stuff than a lot of the crap that gets published. What it comes down to is getting off your butt and actually writing—and, of course, being lucky enough to be “discovered” in the sea of good writers out there.
For years I told myself that I would never be able to write 50,000 words in November because of school, work, global warming, etc. In a word, I was an aspiring writer. This November, though, I shoved everything aside and made the decision to write. I think it was the fourth day when I was hit with the realization that this wasn’t that hard at all and I was going to make the 50k with plenty of time to spare. Publishing is another story entirely, of course, but at least now I know that I am capable of actually buckling down and writing.
I spent a good deal of time on the NaNoWriMo boards during October, getting myself psyched up for the ordeal along with everyone else. When November started, though, I didn’t visit the boards nearly as often. I did drop by every now and then, and some of the things I read were just unbelievable. To be honest with you, it wasn’t the whining that got to me. I can get a pretty good whine going myself when I put my mind to it, and David has proven time and time again that whining can be quite entertaining, having cultivated it into an art form. What really got to me was the victim mentality.
You’re probably thinking, the victim mentality? How can someone writing a novel be a victim? And you would be right in your doubts. Amazingly enough, though, there are people out there so adept at dodging responsibility for their actions that they somehow are able to shift the blame for the absolute suckage of their story to—wait for it—their characters. It is so astonishingly brazen that it straddles the border between horrifying and hysterical.
So, how exactly do these people blame their characters for their ineptitude? It’s ingenuous, really. What they do is they take a writing metaphor way beyond the limits of reason and apply it in the negative sense rather than the positive sense. Specifically: it is a known fact among writers that, on blessed occasions, your characters will surprise you by doing things that you had not planned or foreseen. They can take your story in uncharted directions and open up new possibilities. But what we’re really talking about here is that elusive thing known as inspiration (or the Muses, if you want to get mythological). It strikes us at times, blinding us with our own brilliance. It is those moments that make writing a beautiful, almost spiritual experience.
However, when people talk about characters doing unexpected things, they are generally referring to the positive influence of inspiration. What I saw on the NaNoWriMo boards was people taking this phenomenon and trying to apply it negatively. A few examples will serve to illustrate my point (“MC” stands for “main character”):
Thread title: “My character ruined my plot!!!!” Original post: “I had this really nice plot planned out, all going to work out nicely, then i made this character who decided to flip my MC's world upside down, and what i planned on being a good thing, turned out to be an evil thing. GRRRR, i hate him for doing this!! This is what i get for doing this without an outline....Anybody else with similar probs?”
Thread title: “Lazy MC” Original post: “My main character wants to do nothing but sleep. Which would be fine, but she wants to sleep ALL THE TIME. I'm constantly poking and prodding her, but she refuses to wake up. Any ideas on how to cure her lethargy?”
See what I mean? These people have latched on to the idea that characters can have minds of their owns and twisted that idea to shirk responsibility for the fact that their story is a steaming pile of crap. I have some more cold, hard truth for you: this thing we call “inspiration” is just the working of our subconscious mind in ways that may not be immediately recognized by the conscious mind. In other words, all that stuff that you wrote? Yeah, that’s all you. If it’s great, it’s you. If it sucks, it’s you. There is no muse. You bear complete and total responsibility for what goes down on that page.
David also mentioned this phenomenon in his post-novel musing, although not in as vitriolic and scathing manner. He wrote something that was so spot on that I actually shouted “Yes!” and pointed at the screen when I read it: “My characters may go in directions I did not plan, but I unless I set up the characters, give them a plot and a setting, and push them off in an original direction, they’ll meander around the outskirts of a poorly thought-out world and—well—do nothing.” And there it is in a nutshell folks. You’re protagonist does nothing but sleep all day? Which is more likely, that you have a rebellious protagonist who exists outside of your consciousness, or that you simply cannot think of anything interesting for your protagonist to do?
I have no problem with people saying, “Hey, I’m having a hard time, I’m bogged down, and my story isn’t going anywhere.” But I believe that people need to take a certain amount of personal responsibility. And here I will make another one of my pronouncements and end this rant: if you cannot take responsibility for what you put down on the page, you will never be a writer.
I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads at me now. “Oh, come on,” you exclaim. “Surely you can see that they’re being facetious, can’t you?” Well, the thought did cross my mind, to be honest. In fact, when I first saw the above threads I held out a desperate hope that they were indeed being facetious. But after seeing more and more people use the same tact, I came to the conclusion that what I was seeing was not facetiousness, but responsibility-shirking. I must admit, though, that the first thread I quote shows signs of rudimentary responsibility: “This is what i get for doing this without an outline.” Now if the poster had just taken that thought to its logical conclusion, I wouldn’t have had a problem.
OK, enough with the negativity. I enjoy a good rant as much as the next guy, but it’s time to move onto more positive stuff. Like the lessons I learned from NaNoWriMo.
I guess I’ve already covered the biggest lesson I learned: that writing is more about willpower than anything else, at least for me. I know I have the tools and the skills to write decently, it just comes down to whether or not I’m actually going to write. In NaNoWriMo terms this means shoving your internal editor in a closet for a month. Once I actually made the decision to write, I found this surprisingly (even disturbingly) easy. I’ve always thought of myself as a perfectionist, and I can’t deny that it I wasn’t a little bothered by how easy it was not to care about quality.
Another lesson I learned was the importance of planning. I must admit that this lesson wouldn’t have been as nearly as conspicuous had it not been highlighted by my writing buddy’s experiences. While I must admit that it was at times amusing to watch David wallow in misery while beating himself on the head with tall mochas (sorry, man, but you just make misery so much fun), it quickly became apparent to me that the source of his woes was his lack of planning. To put it bluntly, I pretty much destroyed David as far as word count goes. None of that had anything to do with our respective writing abilities, though. It all came down to simple planning. Although I didn’t actually write anything down, I did a lot of planning for my story, and had a very solid plot frame that extended to the halfway point of the story. As I wrote, the picture grew clearer, and I was able to build on that frame as I went along, always having a solid idea of what was going to happen next (until the very end, that is, which may be why the ending is somewhat weak).
David, on the other hand, did not do as much planning. I know he talked about his story a lot, but I don’t think he had a clear idea of where he was going before he started. As a result, he struggled with his story. (I should make it clear that I am not putting David down here. He knows this, of course, but I just wanted to say that for the benefit of others who might think I was busting on my friend. We generally save our busting for private correspondence. Or do we bust on each other in public and save our positive comments for private correspondence? I can never remember.)
I guess those were the two big “lessons” I learned this month, but I came away from this with something probably even more significant that could not be called a lesson: I remembered what it was like to just write. I remember that I really enjoy writing fiction and that, deep down, I am a writer. I may be a scholar or a translator by trade, by my spirit is that of a writer. In that respect, NaNoWriMo was a very emotional experience for me. It brought back memories of university creative writing seminars, when I use to begin writing at two o’clock in the morning and write through until the next afternoon, right before class. Of course, I can’t do that anymore—my brain pretty much turns to mush sometime between ten and eleven. But I remember now what it felt like to just sit down and write a story. Granted, I never wrote anything quite this long in university, but the spirit is the same. I was a writer of fiction again, and it felt good.
As for the story itself (here’s where the spoilers come in, by the way), I have to say that overall I am pleased with what I shoveled out. For a first draft, I think it’s not that bad. It is no where near being a finished product, though. It still needs a whole lot of work before it will again see the light of day.
One of the things I really need to work on is the characters. I suppose this could count as a lesson, but it’s really just a reminder of something I knew in university but had forgotten—I am definitely more of a plot writer than a character writer. I’m pretty good at planning out an interesting sequence of events and driving a story along at a healthy pace, but my characters tend to be on the shallow side. They often end up being cutouts that stand in for characters, rather than real characters in and of themselves. In other words, they’re placeholders—they occupy a place where a character should be, saying the words and playing the part, but they lack depth.
I was talking with a friend about the protagonist’s relationship with his girlfriend Jill, and she said, “Well, we don’t really know much about Jill, so....” This wasn’t her main point—it was really just a lead-in to her main point—but it stopped me in my tracks. ‘She’s right,’ I thought. ‘We don’t really know anything about Jill. We don’t know anything about anybody, for that matter.’ That may have been taking it a bit far, but I don’t think anyone could say that any of my characters are fully fleshed out individuals, including the protagonist. We get a better picture of him simply because the story is told from his point of view.
Part of the problem is that I didn’t really start out with a clear idea of who my characters were. I started out with a very clear of what was going to happen in my story (i.e., the plot), but not a very clear idea of who was going to populate it (i.e., the characters). Like I said above, this is nothing new. I have always been stronger in plot than in characterization. NaNoWriMo, though, remind me of this, and it’s one of the major things I’m going to have to work on in the rewrite.
Jill, for example, is a major character in the story, but we know only a few scattered facts about her—and these facts don’t even really come into play most of the time. And what about Yuhwa’s real-life counterpart, Aislin? We know absolutely nothing about her, mainly because she was more of an object than a character. I honestly feel badly about that, because the events of the story affect her as well, and yet I was callous toward her. She is a real person, she has her own dreams and motivations. These need to be manifested in the story.
Then there’s the dream tailor. I did a pretty good job (I think) of coming up with an explanation for why he would do what he did, but it feels a bit thin. Who exactly is the dream tailor? How did he get the powers he has? I did actually get an idea for his origin about halfway through, but I couldn’t find any way to work it into the story. He really ended up being pushed aside for much of the middle. I realize that he can’t be there all the time, but his presence should be felt. Even if I don’t get into his origin, it should be in my mind when I’m writing him. Incidentally, I wonder how many readers got the feeling that the monk at the Temple of the Nine Dragons was the dream tailor’s “avatar,” so to speak. That was my intention, at least.
Then there’s the cast of work characters I introduced and then promptly ignored, with the exception of James (and Jonathan, to a much lesser extent). I introduced the characters to give the story a little kick in the rear and spice things up a bit, but the day I wrote what was supposed to be their defining scene I was either sick or depressed or something and I just whipped through it, killing some potential characters before they even left the cradle. I’d like to work a little more on them and the protagonist’s workplace to give the reader a look at the protagonist’s life outside of the dreams and Jill.
Another big area I need to work on is research. Most of what I wrote about 7th century Korea was just basic knowledge, and some of it just basic knowledge about medieval Korea in general. Take, for example, the bamboo satgat (conical hat) that Yuhwa wears to hide her identity. When I told my wife about my plans, she said, “Did they even have satgat in the 7th century?” “I have no idea,” I said. “And I could care less right now.” So I threw a lot of things in that are very likely anachronistic. The historical framework is all sound, but some of the details might not be right. Also, this lack of knowledge led to what I feel is a scarcity of historical detail. I plan to do a lot of research and really beef up the description to give the reader a clear picture of what 7th century Korea was like (or, more accurately, what I perceive 7th century to have been like as a result of extensive research).
Interestingly enough, though, the Korean setting is more detailed in terms of geography than the real world setting. I used historical maps to plan out the Korean setting, so all of the major place names (not the minor villages, which I made up) are accurate, as are the major geographical features. The city where the protagonist lives, however, is pretty vague. Here’s a little behind-the-scenes commentary that you may or may not find interesting: the city is very loosely based on London, in that the Jury Market area is my recreation of Covent Garden. When I was trying to think of a new name for it, I was flipping through my memories and came upon Drury Lane (in the Covent Garden area). I said it out loud and realized that “Drury” sounds very similar to “Jury,” and Jury Market was born.
The alley where the dream tailor’s shop is located is based on Neal Street, which is more or less north of the market area (I think it’s actually northwest). There is a tea shop (called The Tea House, not the Tea Shoppe) a short way up on the left where I often bought tea. It’s a considerably more modern street than the street in my story (the idea for the buildings crowding in on the street came from a medieval street in York named “The Shambles,” but I didn’t really develop that idea). I’m not sure why I picked this area for the dream tailor’s shop, but it just seemed to fit. In fact, you can take a look for yourself—the dream tailor’s shop would be located between Aldo and O’Neill (if it were actually on Neal Street, that is).
Of course, it’s important to realize that Farren, the protagonist, does not live in London. He lives in a nameless city that is loosely based on London, but is not actually London. I did this on purpose—I wanted the real-world setting to be real, of course, but less fixed geographically than the dream world. I’m not sure I developed this aspect to its full potential, though. For one, the city needs a bit more detail, and I’m going to have to draw out a map showing the relative locations of Farren’s flat (I deliberately used American English terms like “apartment” and “subway” in the story to disguise the fact that the city was based on London—not sure if it worked, or was even necessary), Jill’s flat, Jury Market, Farren’s workplace, etc.
To put it simply, the story needs more. More of what? Pretty much everything. Except maybe my tangents on food. I think I may have gone overboard on a couple of those, but I just really like food, and it’s a lot of fun to write about. When you’re writing for quantity rather than quality, you tend to write what you like writing rather than what you “should” write, thus I ended up with quite a few little treatises on various types of food. It was interesting how writing about food had an actual physiological effect on me—whenever I wrote about food, I got hungry. Just like how whenever I wrote about sex, I... um, right, family program... moving on.
If there is one thing that bugs me about the story (outside of what I covered above), it is the ending. I must admit that after I hit 50,000 words I pretty much just wanted to end the story. Not that I wasn’t enjoying writing it. I was. I was having a great time, as a matter of fact. But I got anxious at the idea that I might not be able to wrap things up before the end of November. Thus I pushed my plot off the edge of a cliff and watched it accelerate to a giddily high velocity. As a result, the ending feels rushed, stretched thin, so to speak.
But it’s not just the pacing that bothers me—I can’t help wondering if I wrote the right ending. I knew this was going to happen, of course. I knew that whichever ending I wrote, I would wonder about the other one. Roughly speaking, there were only two possible endings: either Farren leaves Jill and seeks out Yuhwa/Aislin, or he doesn’t. If he does, of course, the story goes on quite a bit longer, and then I have to deal with what happens when he actually finds her—does Aislin break off her marriage or not? Honestly, having him pursue Yuhwa/Aislin would have been the more dramatic choice, which is probably why it’s bugging me.
I wrote the ending that I felt followed naturally from the story. I didn’t try to force it. However, I can’t help wondering if my decision to pick up the pace resulted in the story leaning in that direction. It doesn’t really matter, of course, because when I rewrite this, I guarantee that the ending will be different. It may not swing completely to the other side, but if I succeed at making the characters truly deep individuals, the story will likely change drastically. Even if I don’t go that way in the end, I will most likely try writing an ending where he pursues Aislin in real life—if for no other reason than to get it off my chest. I just want to make sure I’m not taking the easy way out. I don’t want to cheat myself, and I don’t want to cheat the reader. It just felt like things wrapped up too neatly.
So, now that November Madness is over, what does the future hold for the writer that has been reawakened within me? Well, for starters, The Dream Tailor is going to be put on the shelf for a while. I want to let it sit for a while before I go back to it. As for the story’s future on this site, I am planning on leaving the draft up at least through the end of the year. I may elect to leave it up longer (or even permanently), but there is also a good chance that I will take it down. I will leave the main NaNoWriMo 2004 page up to commemorate the activity, though.
I do want to continue writing fiction on a regular basis. I’m not sure if this will happen daily, but I do want it to be something I do fairly often (at least a few times a week). This writing will be NaNoWriMo-style (i.e., no editing, just writing), and it will not be appearing here on the main Liminality site. Liminality is a place for finished works, not works-in-progress. Thus I am currently in the process of putting together a very simple page (yes, page) to act as a workshop of sorts. The purpose of this page is to keep me accountable—that is, having to actually put something online keeps me honest—rather than to act as a showcase.
However, all of this will have to wait until next year. While November was a month of madness, December is going to be a month of unbridled, soul-sucking insanity. For starters, on the school front I have a presentation next Friday and a paper due on the 23rd. Work is a bit heavier: not only do I have to continue with my current translation project, I have to submit my application (including sample translation) for a literary translation project, do my quarterly magazine translation thing, and edit a book that’s being translated from Korean to English. I’m pretty sure there’s other stuff that I have to do, but my brain can only comprehend so many tasks at once—which is probably a good thing, since I would otherwise go insane.
Anyway, free time is going to be a bit limited in December, and I’d like to use that free time to catch up on some content for Liminality that I’ve been meaning to put up. I’ve got a non-fiction piece for the Writings page that was nearing completion before November body-checked me through the plexiglass and into the stands, plus I’ve got a bunch of photos to catch up on. I’m also thinking about making some minor changes to the general look of the site. So I’d like to do this stuff before I launch my new writing page. That’s pretty much what the immediate future looks like from where I’m standing now.
Let’s face it—everyone loves statistics. Statistics are the raisins in the Raisin Bran of life. No, I do not have any idea where that metaphor came from, but I’m sticking with it. Anyway, here are some raisins from November. Some are chewier than others.
Total words written: 62398
Total days spent writing: 23
Total time spent writing: 41 hours 35 minutes
Total time spent proofreading: 4 hours 15 minutes
Average words written per day: 2712
Average words written per hour: 1501
Average words proofread per minute: 245
Average writing time per day: 1 hour 48 minutes
Average proofreading time per day: 11 minutes
Most words written in a day: 4212 (23 Nov)
Longest writing session: 2 hours 30 minutes (4 Nov, 23 Nov)
Fasting writing pace: 2007 per hour (20 Nov)
2000-2500 word days: 8
2500-3000 word days: 9
3000+ word days: 6
And there you have it. That’s all for now. Should it come as a surprise to anyone that my first entry after spending a month focusing on word count is my longest entry ever, and that by a large margin? Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride this month. Thanks to all who commented on the story, and especially to David, my partner in crime and the original inspiration for this whole thing. My next entry will most likely be in December, and will probably mention (at least in passing) how Christmas music is already starting to drive me crazy.