Two years ago, I got recruited as a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month. One of my less visible duties alongside my colleagues is to moderate threads on our regional forum.
So of course my first question was “What’s the most troublesome topic?”
Answer: “The one true NaNo.”
Which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me. Wherever people are doing a thing, there will be other people stepping in to tell them that they are doing it wrong.
It also gave away the secret behind the consistently civil and reasonable tone of the NaNo forums: one heck of a lot of work backstage.
So to today’s theme: There is no one true NaNo and I am not the Pope of it.
There are lots of different ways to create a project at NaNo scale (50,000 words). One of the artificial dualities NaNo novelists use is “planners vs pantsers” (lay out a plan vs fly by the seat of your pants). Fact is, they’re the same thing. It’s on the same order as the classic art-theory brawl “color vs line,” with the same answer:
Not either/or but both/and.
Improvisation has live energy, and the pantsers know this – as do the stand-up comedians and the actors. Yes, you prepare the role, but nothing really prepares you for the live-wire contact between the you, the unknown, and a really good prompt.
The terror of improvisation is the very real possibility of freezing in the headlights or flail-and-fail. That’s why the plan.
You need both.
The temperamental difference is which you give the conscious emphasis. My good buddy Devin Harnois is a self-described pantser, and he writes the tightest, cleanest first drafts I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, he has a really clear picture of what kind of story-energy he likes in the moment-to-moment. Reading his work as a beta reader (and a regular reader, once it’s published) I can feel how he’s integrated a certain kind of story-form at the level of the nervous system. It feels really similar to the freedom an actor exercises within the role/energy given by the playwright. The writer is an actor/playwright/set designer all at one time.
Different projects have different energy. You can strike out into the unknown and let a story take shape out of scenes juxtaposed one against the other. I’ve started from two characters talking or otherwise interacting and built whole novels.
Nor is there one true form for the novel. Gonna evangelize for a moment: in my profile I call myself a novelist and a shape-shifter. That’s redundant. The novel is the protean form that pretends to be something it isn’t: a diary, a set of memos or case notes, a stage play or a movie, a kinesthetic experience, or all of the above. The earliest novels are True and Authentic Accounts of things that didn’t happen, or bundles of someone else’s letters, or sprawling sagas. (for two really different experiences of What a Novel Can Be, check out Tale of Genji and Njal’s Saga. and yes, I classify the Icelandic sagas as novels, because they have all the goodies I look for in a novel, including courtroom drama and axe fights on skis).
I learned how to do mathematical proofs in part by reading murder mysteries backward. The classic murder mystery is plot-and-timeline intensive; it requires a skeleton of cause and effect fully as rigorous as an organic chemistry lab report, with the same ever-present potential for explosion.
Some of the best mysteries are about sorting through the debris field to figure out what happened.
Oh yes, let’s also talk about pathology. What Went Wrong (Ivor Kletz’s book of this title is one of my favorite nonfiction books, about process plant disasters – also an awesome title that made me reach that book right down off the New Arrivals shelf). Disaster reports are one of my favorite sources for ready-made plots.
And then there’s the Story Cookpot, the ultimate feel-good improv prompt. Fill up the pot with nonfiction stuff or fiction stuff, doesn’t matter, that you Want in a Story. The more heterogeneous, the better – that gives pattern-making brain something to chew on.
Both as a writer and a person in the world, I’m about breaking the rules. I’m constantly picking a fight with one version or another – and my answer to a fiction that ticks me off is to run another version that makes Original Flavor implausible forever. (No, I’m not the first writer to love a good knife fight – literary history is full of fictioneers yelling back at someone else’s version. It’s what makes our world go round.)
Another piece of advice for dealing with the NaNo forums – if somebody’s consistently bloviating and telling you How It Is, take a look at their novel word count and their years Doing the Thing. If they’re on the forums more than on their novel, take it with a grain of salt. And even if they have lots of novel-words, take it with a grain of salt.
Including anything I have to say. Keep your options open. Don’t get attached to brand-name approaches. There are thousands of paths to your goal.
(And some of them go through the sneaky woods where the trees play tricks on you, but that’s another story.)
Keep honest, rigorous track of your own forum word count vs novel word count. I’m having to do this now with social media. Did I do my work today? No Twitter hobnobbing till I’ve done my thing.
(Or in this case, let Twitter hobnobbing remind me of things I want to say at greater length.)
NaNoWriMo has been around since 1999, so it’s got a culture and a whole bunch of accretions. Feel free to ignore any or all, and do your own thing. A lot of us use the November challenge as a reset – what do I want to do differently in my writing practice going forward? This year I want to work on sustainable practice, small writing, and accessible community.
A lot of NaNo write-ins take place in settings that require money or transportation or both. One of my ongoing projects is figuring out how to create accessible artistic communities that don’t assume you’re a middle class White person with disposable income.
In person, I’m doing a lot of write-ins at libraries.
On line, I’m hanging out with a speculative poetry spoonie gang. And heeeere’s the Spoon Analogy, which has saved my life these last two years. I see how I fall into the workaholic trap.
My co-MLs are both highly productive writers who do the six-figure thing to perfection. So I’m going to try out the path less traveled – using poetry and self care chops to build a novel that (as my writing-brother Lev points out in his essay On Small Writing) is like a quilt: one exquisitely worked patch at a time, and then the decision about where it goes.
One last bit of advice: if someone says something in general about the writing of fiction, feel free to go prove them wrong.
Write the fiction that proves them wrong.
And yes, I can happily co-exist in the state of “64,000 paths to salvation and more ways than that to write a novel” alongside “Mofo, you are so wrong, it would NEVER go down like that – let me show you what REALLY happened.”