Coming back to the beginning, or lessons from the cook pot

Sometimes you don’t know what you were setting out to do until you’ve done it.

Last year, I wrote my first completed story arc for National Novel Writing Month. For the first time, I sent a work out to beta readers to tell me what was fuzzy, what was there and what wasn’t, and where they wanted more. Then I sat down to figure out all of the secondary players in the story. Between March and June, that generated some 60,000 words of character interviews, some of which spawned independent stories.

Starting in May, I took on the “out-of-season” challenge of a monthly MiniNaNo, seven days at 1,667 words a day (the writing rate that will get you 50,000 words in 30 days). I proposed it as a dare for a writing friend (clarke.kent on NaNoWriMo) who wanted to have a successful go at NaNoWriMo.

“It’s a marathon,” I said, “so let’s run some sprints out of season!”

This led to the two of us trying the challenge in June. By July, a loosely coalescing galaxy of friends and colleagues had gotten into the act, everyone from an undergraduate computer scientist writing a research proposal to professional “pulp and proud” novelist buddies to a colleague working on a master’s degree in multicultural education, and thus was Big World Writing Club born.

Then two of us decided to take on the Samhain Superhero Romance challenge, and I was off on my first actual submission for publication. The original proposal for drafting that one was the “Lost Weekend NaNo” which is to say, three days to bang out 33,000 words of draft. I made the deadline, too, though not with the finest piece of writing I’ve ever done. No matter: I have something to edit. “Don’t get it right, get it written.” The journalists are right about that one. You can’t edit a blank page.

Autumnal equinox marked the start of preparatory work for this year’s NaNo novel. I already had a concept, but my freestyle, free-associating internet research of a single day decisively changed the story. I got a character, and that was the beginning of the new project.

Today I started on my checklist for finishing the NaNo novel, and then I started rereading the cook pot from the beginning. It’s fascinating reading, watching the interplay of character, situation and plot. Some writers start with a character, and some with a situation that generates characters, and some with a plot that implies characters and their situations. It’s all the same, really, and the differences only a question of the angle of view. It’s like bone and muscle: they develop together. The inside of the skull bears the impress of the brain and its blood vessels, and the bones are marked by the muscles that attach to them. A novel is a live organism, when it’s right.

The cook pot began with the thing that grabbed me, and it’s useful to review because it takes me back to the essence of the story. That’s the True North both for finishing the story (what story am I finishing?) and for revising (what belongs to this story, and what is extraneous?) The cook pot let me think about plot and characters from the outside, and the character interviews let me get inside the characters’ heads and bring them to life.

The thing that unifies all of this work is so pervasive as to be invisible: sustained work. I resolved to treat all deadlines as arbitrary. This is the first year that I’ve been able to continue work on the NaNo novel once November was over, because I’m already in the habit of working regularly on fiction.

That’s quite a way to come in a single year.




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2 Responses to Coming back to the beginning, or lessons from the cook pot

  1. Sue says:

    sometmes I can’t resist sending you comments – you intrigue me – and your mind comes up with such beauty. I start my drafts with characters and ideas. then I have to go back for plot, arc, and dialogue – all new concepts to me. I’ve only been writing seriously for a year. And today a friend blogged about “black moment” Writing well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not that I write well, but I try. and I learn something new every day. There are so many puzzle pieces to fit in and to make sure are not excluded. It’s hard work. fulfilling when someone says good stuff and creative and exercises the mind. I haven’t written in a couple of days due to family shit. I will have to write soon. For it is an addiction.

    • epbeaumont says:

      Great comment. The line between creative practice and addiction is very, very thin. “Writing well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Anyone who’s ever done this work would agree. Keep on. It’s more than worth the effort.

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