aka Embracing the Suck
|| I am once again actively doing NaNoWriMo, and having more fun with it than I have ever had before. I always seem to have more story than words, and between my work, life, and other creative interests getting ever more words to page has often been a struggle, so in years past I tried to use NaNoWriMo as a serious tool to accomplish it. While I have won it twice, hitting just over 50k both times, it has been a daunting challenge. It has been a lot of beating my head against a wide variety of walls while a giant hourglass in the background is pouring sand down at an ever increasing rate. The cycle this creates just isn’t conducive to writing, and it makes the storytelling feel like a fight. (A fight with any number of ways to lose, but hardly any to win.)
This isn’t exactly a new difficulty for me by any means, as I have often felt this untoward pressure that if I have a few hours free, I have to write. I not only have to write, but I have to be serious about it too, and I need it to be good from the get go. My therapist helped me reframe the issue of time by the simple expedient of thinking of it as I get to write, instead of that I have to write. It may seem like a silly distinction, but it has done wonders in relieving the unrealistic expectations and pressure I was putting on myself.
The other bit, that it needs to be good, and that I don’t have time to waste writing crap has been a longer journey in unwinding. The breakthrough started when I wrote Brass Automaton with Mark Gardner. It was just a challenge between bloggers with a, self-admittedly, ridiculous plot mashup. But it was fun because of how ridiculous it was. How can you take a story smooshing Terminator and Snow White together with any kind of deep seriousness? I couldn’t. So I wrote with abandon, had fun, and then out of the blue Mark asked me if I was up for publishing it! I may have had a bit too much fun some of the names, as they are almost all criminally forced anagrams, but it was still possible to take that reckless storytelling and turn it into something that I’m proud of.
Abandon. Reckless. Fun. It was embracing these that helped open the floodgates of writing. The words don’t need to be perfect, the story doesn’t need to be perfect- hell it doesn’t even need to make sense!- as long I am willing on the back end to do the work of fixing it, normalizing it, and then polishing it. To close those plot-holes, tie those loose ends together, and make sure that the characters are consistent to themselves, even if they ended up different than I wanted.
This is the first NaNoWriMo since I’ve taken these lessons to heart and it has been truly fun. I have also had far higher word counts than I would have thought possibly, rattling off 1,500 to 2,500 in a sitting without it feeling like a burden. The words have just flowed and it has been fun seeing where the story goes. It’s a highly convoluted dystopia with three point of view characters, a never ending war, and the entire story was inspired by a friend’s Facebook post. Seriously!
It was one of those meme challenges whereby if you replied he would write you into the opening of a novel. The inestimable Joe Streckert of The Weird History Podcast and Portland Mercury fame thereby christened me thusly:
“The history of the Great War of the Mechanoids was a long one. Angel knew. He wrote it. It had been an immense undertaking. He’d spent long hours in the archives reading through the journals of Air Admiral Montero, and he’d thrilled at finding a first-hand account of Assault Knight Brask’s daring battle at Turing’s Gate, and the upheaval of O’Connor the Chainbreaker. However, this was something he’d left out. Angel examined the journal, marveling at the fine lines of the handwriting. It had to be a fake, he thought. This couldn’t be real. But, there it was: The secret journal of Madam Maltease, the spy who, more than anyone else, might have turned the tide in the Great War of the Mechanoids.”
And so the Mechanoid Empire was born, even though it was not my plan for NaNoWriMo at all. I was actually starting down the same path that had failed me so many times before, and I was going to (finally) get that serious, technically tricky, and rewardingly complex novel onto the page. I was working on outlines, I was thinking of how the characters were going to interact with each other, and then I found out that the first 2 weeks of my November were going to be dedicated to a large, time consuming project. Dammit. So I switched to the Mechanoids because in this case, something, anything, was going to better than nothing.
Then my project went away of its own accord and I realized I was actually looking forward to writing about those blasted Mechanoids. So I did and I have been close to on pace every day since. The writing came easy and when I missed a day I gave myself leave to be OK with that. The main goal this time around was not the 50k in 30 days, but to write as much and as often as I could while having fun, and if I hit the 50k all the better. But the 50k was not going to be the be all end all, it was simply a motivator.
In fact, I keep forgetting character names too as I switch viewpoints and instead of going back and figuring it I have relegated that task to the editing phase. So I literally (literarily?) keep going with everyone’s name constantly shifting because I know who everyone is, even if their nameless, and I I’ve learned I can let go of that need for precision up front. (Though, truth be told, the next time I do this I will go ahead and create a story bible before starting so the names will at least be semi-consistent.)
Despite this wealth of improvements and learned lessons, I still found a way to start struggling. I was moving along switching between the views as I mentioned, and then I hit a wall. A very tall, very thick, and quite solid wall too. All the “fun” was gone because it seemed like I wasn’t so much writing a novel as a much as a half-assed homage to Lost. Every chapter spurred the reader onto the next one, but I’d already burned through 25k words and I hadn’t gotten to any of the important stuff yet! What do?
The first answer, as always, was to try and “power through it” while still “having fun.” Which is the writerly equivalent of putting on a helmet before bacging my head against a wall. My writing time went up and my word count went down. I started feeling guilty, and ashamed that I was giving up, when I remembered, truly remembered, to give myself a break. I relaxed over the weekend. I let my brain slow down, and then two answers to my stories issues emerged.
The overarching one being that while NaNoWriMo is predicated on a 50k novel, most of them these days are closer to 100k! So I wasn’t halfway through, I was only a quarter. I had time. Plenty of time to explore the world I was building, and still give the characters their journey. The other, more immediately practical epiphany was figuring out how to escape the corner I had written myself into. It was also going to help me direct the action throughout not just the next few chapters, but the rest of the book as well. I sat down the next day, because I was stupid exhausted by the time my brain shared these insights, and I wrote 2300 words in just over an hour and a half. It was glorious.
It was also a huge, ginormous reminder of why all this messy blue prose was so necessary to start with. I had the rough shape of the story, I could tell it as a legend around a campfire or in a twitter thread, but the actual core of the story- how we get our 3 POV characters from point A to B to C etc. was only rough. Writing it freely, for fun, has opened up new vistas to the story that I would not have seen other. New connections that I didn’t think would even exist are now blindingly obvious, and they will help make the story all the more relatable and smooth, even though a lot of the writing itself is awful: I embraced the suck, and was rewarded accordingly.
So there you have it, my 2/3rd done check-in and I’m still a day and a half behind pace, but once again having fun! And while these 1,400 odd words won’t help my NaNoWriMo word count*, they were what I needed to write tonight, which counts even more. I hope you all are doing well with your entries too, and I hope you have embraced the joy, as well as the suck, of it!
aka Embracing the Suck