NaNoFeed: the long look back (five-year retrospective)

On one of the National Novel Writing Month boards (can’t find it now) there’s a thread about what you learned from NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, but more in terms of what I’ve learned each year. This is the fifth year I participated in NaNo and won, so a good time for a grand retrospective of what I’ve learned from each of my five November novel marathons.

NaNo 2008: I learned that I’d been spending all of my storytelling energy on running contingencies at my dysfunctional ex-job. NaNoWriMo was the first thing I did after leaving that job, to kick off a one-year sabbatical devoted to my own creative work. I followed Chris Baty’s advice in No Plot? No Problem! and made a list of stuff I loved and stuff I hated in novels, and started my first NaNo cookpot. The Scottish Play, or Fire and Ice began as a series of disconnected scenes that proceeded to spontaneously generate a plot. The result of that first NaNo run was 51,000 words of raw materials and another 30-40,000 words of plotting, forum posts, and other process writing. Very soon it will be time to throw this project back into the cookpot to see if I can pull a finished first-draft novel out of it.

NaNo 2009: My first seriously research-based novel, The Reincarnations of Miss Anne began as a fictional summing-up of the previous five years’ reading on American contributions to the theory and practice of genocide. I ‘won’ at 72,000 words, but didn’t complete the story, which was still opening out onto infinity when I finished. When I reread the manuscript, I was terrified at the authority and originality with which I had taken on American slavery, the eugenics movement, the Nazi genocides, and other deadly-serious subjects. This thing wants to be a real novel, I thought.

NaNo 2010: Consciously located in Minneapolis and nowhere else, The Shape-shifter’s Tale was my first completed story arc at 64,500 words. Yes, it was lumpy and misshapen, and yes, I got to the end by giving up, putting Prokofiev’s War and Peace on the headphones, and banging out a Traveling Shovel of Death intentional outtake. After that, I wrote the real endgame. This was the first year I had a finished story to give to beta-readers, and my Preferred Beta Panel began to take shape nearly immediately. Once other people had spent effort and attention on responding to my draft, I felt obliged to proceed with revisions. Beginning in March 2011, I did 30-day character interviews for each of the seven central cast members, and thereby spawned a whole collection of stories in the same universe. Erika and the Vampire and Max and the Ghost were written later that year, in MiniNaNo sessions in June and July; Annie Brown and the Superhero Blues followed in August, and was submitted for publication. I learned a huge amount from my beta readers about genre (“Hey, have you read this story? It really reminds me of yours!”) and work process. 2011 was the year of miracles in first-draft generation, and the beginning of my serious work with revision.

NaNo 2011 began with one idea (a Russian-American-Aztec magical-realist steampunk fusion, set in a universe where human sacrifice is efficacious magic) and shape-shifted into another (a mummy-resurrection tale with a Northern European bog body in the feature role, “Pygmalion meets Frankenstein, played as romantic comedy”). I knew that from the outset, from the working title The Necromancer and the Barbarian: a Love Story. I spent October interviewing my two main characters, generated 85,000 words during NaNo, followed up by interviewing my villain and then finishing the story at 95,000 words. All in all, four and a half months went into this “one-month marathon.” Since February 2012, the story has been making the rounds of beta-readers with various expertise, from microbiology to architecture to linguistics to Iron Age archaeology.  I was in love with this project from beginning to end, and learned first-hand of the generosity of the muse. I also did close analysis of my work bouts after the fact, and learned that creative work has the rhythm of a heartbeat: 30 minutes of intense effort, followed by 30 minutes of relaxation, recollection, or research.

NaNo 2012 began with a challenge, in chat with my good buddy TruantPony. “Afrocentric steampunk Cleopatra” popped up in our chat on 31 March 2012, and immediately got the title Cleopatra’s Ironclads. My subsequent search on “Afrocentric steampunk Cleopatra” led me to some awesome blogs and multicultural steampunk writers (the Steamfunk movement, more of which in subsequent blogs, and Aker’s amazing blog Futuristically Ancient). This one wasn’t fun, but I learned to follow my gut instincts on research and my childhood obsessions in writing stories. I learned that “average” (1667 words/day) is good enough during NaNo, and produced my first-ever 50,000-word story arc. I still haven’t reread it in full, but I remember the process all too vividly: research alternating with bouts of writing. My writing buddies helped me immeasurably by being there, on-line or in write-ins, to run bouts when I had zero motivation but had to crank out words. (special shout-out to Devin Harnois and Becca Patterson!)

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