Lessons from National Novel Writing Month: a charter for your novel

One of the really valuable lessons of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is thinking out what you love and what you hate in a novel. In Chris Baty’s classic manual for the event, No Plot? No Problem!, this is called the Magna Carta, for the good reason that it’s a practical, specific constitution or manifesto for the kind of novelist you are.

There are two Magna Cartas (or Magnae Cartae, if you’re going to get fussy about the Latin), and they’re simple to write. They’re just lists.

Magna Carta 1: List everything you love in a novel. For myself: characters with eccentric skill sets (e.g. soldier of fortune and CPA, art forger and shaman); drama involving social issues; elegant three-act structure; inventive language; funny dialogue; hackers, nerds, and artists; family drama; ghosts, time-slips, and crossing of worlds; stream-of-consciousness; references to deep history; characters from many different ethnic groups and social classes; realistic tradecraft (including: anatomically accurate sex scenes and fight scenes, clinical correctness wherever possible, details of how given work is actually done).

Magna Carta 2: List everything you hate in a novel. For myself: flip, anti-intellectual POV characters; excessive product placement; narrow economic perspective; sex scenes with stupid euphemisms for body parts (you know the ones I mean); unthinking replication of the official version; stereotypical characters who are treated as props (e.g. the stoic Indian, the Negro maid, the throwaway Femme Fatale), etc.

Magna Carta 1 has been the inspiration of many a novelist; Toni Morrison and the detective fiction writer Amanda Cross both cite “writing the stories I wanted to read” as a major motivation to their entire writing careers. Baty’s version of “write what you want to read” is unique in that he includes the Dark Side.

Together with the Pleasure Principle (do what feels good and avoid what doesn’t), the two lists are your guide to really fast draft. What’s hard about that?

Nothing, and everything.

  • It makes you stand up for what you like, and name what you don’t.
  • It makes you admit that you like stories, and there are worlds you prefer the the one you live in. A successful storyteller is an inveterate and highly skilled daydreamer, and we’re already in violation of a major tenet of the industrial world there: what are you doing in the dreamtime, when you could (and should) be in the Real World So-Called, nose to grindstone and making money for somebody else?
  • It makes you question authority. We all have lists of books that are ‘classics’ but that we loathe with a pure and abiding hatred. It can feel really scary to write them out, and say why you hate them.
  • It makes you name your kinfolk, and call out your enemies. What’s your personal canon, the books you love with an abiding passion? What specific things do you love in those books? What makes those characters or places show up in your dreams? And on the flip side, what’s wrong with the novels you hate, and what novel should have been written instead? As writers, we do have the power to write our own version, and if it’s sufficiently powerful, it can supersede the previously accepted one.
  • It’s subversive, because it might just lead to action. What kind of a novel do I love? What kind of novel am I going to write this November, or maybe start writing right now?

And if you’re a bookish blogger, these two questions can keep you supplied with topics for the next month of Sundays.

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