If you’ve noticed an element of “self-help” seminar in this series, you’re right.
Part of writing a novel — especially under the contrived constraints and faux sense of winning or losing that is NaNoWriMo — is indeed as much about how you think, what you believe to be true about yourself and about the writing craft, as it is about your protagonist or your concept or your skill.
Which means you need to optimize that — the way you think — as much as you need to optimize your creative choices.
I hear from people all the time about what I write here, and what I’ve written in my book, “Story Engineering.” For the most part the feedback is gracious and appreciative, even when my penchant for analogies or a cynical perception of my tone irritates (based on Amazon reviews, that’s about 1 out of 5) doesn’t hit home.
Some people mistake passion and urgency for… well, other things.
Part of the reason some find me irritating — notice I said “part,” I’m not dodging or defending, though I could and I often want to — is that I’m challenging their limiting beliefs about writing fiction.
“Nobody’s gonna tell me how to write, damn it, there ain’t no rules anyhow, this is art!”
That’s what all the dead pilots said about flying, too, before the Wright brothers figured out the physics. Just sayin’.
With writing, a few of the common limiting beliefs often include:
– Those guys in the bookstore, they’re way more talented than me.
Probably not. What they are is way on the other side of “getting it” where story physics and architecture are concerned. This is a learnable trade. No gene pool required.
– I can just sit down and write a great novel out of my head (which is, a) doubtful, b) naive, c) ignorant, and d) arrogant) without knowing my ending, milestones or caring about 4-part narrative and character arcing.
Maybe. First question I would ask of you is… how many successful novels have you actually written that way?
If that’s what you believe, the truth behind “great” and “not so great” is that such a draft — especially a first draft — is really a means, a step, in your search for story. And it can work.
But it rarely — like, with DNA-test certainty — works with a first draft. Because only when the writer knows the major expositional arc and has an end-target for the story solidly in mind can a draft actually work, to an extend it’s a polish away from submittable.
That, too, happens, all the time, in fact. But only when you apply the principles of story architecture (what I call the Six Core Competencies) to that process.
Those principles are universal. They aren’t mine. I only put a fence around them and slapped on some labels. We can argue process for years if you want, but these principles, benchmarks, physics and elements… non-negotiable. From Shakespeare to Asimov to Hammet to King to Franzen… to you, to everybody… non-negotiable.
Stephen King may be the Grand Pubah of pantsers, but even he doesn’t write a first draft that works in doing so. Close, I’m sure (he is Stephen King, after all). But more likely, when an idea hits him mid-draft, he immedately retrofits and revises what’ s already on the page to make the new whole function within the principles of his structure. This is a way to get to a viable first draft… just not within a 30-day window.
Do you know those principles? If you think you do, but you really don’t… that’s a killer limiting belief.
– I can’t outline, it ruins the creative experience for me.
That’s exactly like someone saying, “I can’t stay on a diet,” or, “I can’t quit smoking.” That’s not true, it’s a choice being made, couched as truth. It’ s the longer and harder road, the definition of insanity (you want different results but refuse to do things differently). If suffering is paramount to your writing experience, then by all means dive in without planning anything.
It’s naive and limiting because, even if you draft, you are, in fact, engaged in a form of outlining, which is itself just a form of the search for story.
If you can’ t outline in the traditional sense, fine. I’m not saying you must. There are many ways to write a novel. But all effective stories require certain elements and have certain criteria, which begin with the aforementioned search for the story (however you get there), and demonstrate the benchmarks of execution.
A draft that successfully finds the story is, in effect, a long, heavily worded outline. So you’re stuck with outlining whether you want to call it that or not, or like it or not. When you realize this is true, it all becomes semantics, and suddenly you are on the same page as writers who do, in fact, write publishable, readable fiction.
You’re sitting in front of a screen with your choices. whatever they are.
Accept your preference as a choice, and then accept that your draft is — exactly like the outlining process — merely a vehicle in the search for your story. The poison of this limiting belief that it isn’t, and it kicks in when you believe the early draft you’ve written this way (when it’s actually, in spite of what you think, actually nothing other than, nothing more than, a story search tool) is, in fact, already structurally sound.
You can set out to drive from Los Angeles to Miami, and then when you reach Dallas decide you want to go to Montreal instead, via Montana (because the idea hit you somewhere along I-10)… but you can’t take that route in a story. At least not at the professional level.
And that is what you’re striving for… right?
This limiting belief can and will kill your dream.
– I can’t write a first draft — and NaNoWriMo always, at best, yields a lame first draft — that works, that’s a polish away from submittable.
Not true. Not if you go about it in context to planning that takes place according to principles of story architecture. You’ll be shocked at how good your first draft will be if you know only a handful of principles and structural milestones and apply them with discipline.
– Planning is hard, it’s easier to just write a draft.
You’ve never heard me claim that planning makes this easier. It is hard. It can take weeks and months of juggling creative alternatives before you can string them together into the right story.
You still have time before NaNoWriMo. Start your beat sheet… now.
– It’s been done before, I can’t write something fresh.
Wrong. Unless you wrote it, it hasn’t been done before.
Every mystery and romance ever written has, in some ways, been done before. There are only a few plot models out there (seven is the accepted number… everything is just a variation on one of them). It’s your touch, your nuance, and your execution that will be fresh. And even if it isn’t completely new territory, strive to make it delicious and you’ll still succeed.
Sometimes you just want a great hamburger. A traditional burger, well cooked and well dressed. Original? Nope. Worth the four to ten bucks you’ll plunk down to get one? Absolutely. And you’ll keep coming back for more. Because it’s so yummy.
If you can’t write a gourmet feast with a recipe of your own invention, write a great hamburger. The market for that will never go away.
– I can’t really write a NaNoWriMo draft that’s worth anything anyway, this is just “to see if I can do it.” For fun.
How do you define “it”? And how do you define “fun”?
I’m hoping that, for you, both words mean the writing of a draft that is, in fact, viable, something not so far off the mark (more than a big pile of words) that you can actually, and with passion, keep pounding on them come December with the confidence that it was all worth the effort.
A 10-year old can pour 50,000 words onto paper in 30 days. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s true. If that’s your idea of “winning,” I wish you well. It’s a low bar. Unless you write something that works, what have you really accomplished?
Thinking that what I just said there is crazy and wrong… that’s a limiting belief.
Get honest with yourself and seek to separate fear and lethargy from truth and capacity. And then step into those fears and defy your limiting beliefs with the confidence that comes from having the right tools, creative context, frame of mind and a target worth pursuing… and you’ll find your NaNoWriMo to be much more of a gift than it was a burden.
Tomorrow: A cool little trick to give your main characters depth and motivation.
If you’re into self-help workshops… I used that arena in my novel, originally published as “Pressure Points,” and recently re-published on Kindle (and other formats) as “The Seminar.” The novel is an example of how to harness the power of arena, and it may actually mess with your head in ways that both entertain and give pause.