National Novel Writing Month 2009! (Debriefing)

Over the past few years, I have used the National Novel Writing Month as an excuse to indulge a few creative urges by writing novels.  2009 marked my seventh such NaNoWriMo novel and in many ways, the worst.

I usually keep daily writing logs of my NaNoWriMo experiences, but never started one in 2009 for various reasons.  First I was away on holidays, then I was recuperating from said holidays, then had a bad pass during which I wrote practically nothing, then actively started hating my novel… Here are a few excerpts of my correspondence during the month:

November 6th:

…my (awful, misconceived, dull) novel.

November 11th (answering my sister as to why I didn’t have a writing log)

Day 1: It’s going well!
Day 2: It’s not going well
Day 3: It’s not going well
Day 4: Nothing written
Day 5: Nothing written
Day 6: It’s not going well
Day 7: It’s not going well
Day 8: It’s not going well
Day 9: It’s not going well
Day 10: It’s not going well
So: it’s not going well.

November 12th

This seventh novel is a catastrophe. I have lost all the good intentions with which I began, I never had a plot, I hate my narrator and I’m blindly flaying away every day because I don’t know where I’m going.  I hit my head against the keyboard and nothing comes out.  My favourite bit of the novel remains the first three pages, written in the wee hours of the morning in my hotel room in San José. (…) My problems are, summed up, that I don’t like my narrator and that I don’t have an outline (because the story never cohered in the planning stages, because I don’t like the narrator.)

November 17th

Things aren’t necessarily going well (I’m still aiming for 50-60,000 words, I don’t have a very good plan for the second half, I still hate my character, my universe and my plot) …

November 18th

Writing about an amoral narrator in an even more amoral universe is harder than I would have thought.  Bad premises leading to an unpleasant story to tell. (…)  The book’s second half will be bigger, vaster and apparently more depressing (I took Klein’s The Shock Doctrine from my to-read shelves yesterday when I realized my story has headed exactly in that direction.  What I’m reading today has nothing to make me feel better.) (…) Sadly, the narrator is narratively perfect, especially considering what I’m trying to do (ie; show that in a horrible environment, only the most horrible succeed.) (…)  This year’s NaNoWriMo is experimental indeed.  Full of lessons, anyway.

November 21st

I’m slightly past the half-way mark of The Worst Novel I’ve Ever Written (but which I’ll complete before the end of the month.)

November 24th

This is the last stretch: One week, one final act, about 10-15,000 words to go.  I’m still plotting my way out of this impossible awful unpleasant novel, but I think I may have enough gas to make it out of there.

November 25th

Better news on the novel: as you know, I’m on my way to completion (44,000 words as of yesterday), and the process had a few surprises in store for me. (…)  I’ve been able to use characters, incidents and vignettes that I thought were one-offs to complicate my narrator’s life.  (…) None of that is going to save the novel, but there’s a good chance that it may raise its final grade from “total failure” to “bad execution”.

November 29th

It’s done. (…) 85 pages, a few words shy of 56,000.  I just wrote the ending, the epilogue, and a post-epilogue (picking up where the epilogue ends) in which I kill my narrator and his just-as-bad fiancée.

Clearly, it’s been an eventful month.  What has it taught me?

Think twice before telling a story that doesn’t appeal to you

My intentions for the novel, when it started percolating in early summer, were nothing short of admirable.  I was going to tell a dystopian story in which the things we like are the ones that destroy us.  I was going to savage the empty “Web 2.0” Twitter-about-Iran-until-Michael-Jackson-dies idealism, show a future in which the careless anonymous cruelty of online forum culture has taken over, a world where the elites use the internet as opium for the masses.  A world (much like ours) in which, incidentally, everything else was going to hell.

Ah, great ambitions.  (I’ve got about 3,000 words of background thematic considerations and ideas that, frankly, don’t have much to do with the final result.  Maybe I’ll re-use them some day.)

The ideas to “go dystopian” was both a reaction to the utopia I wrote three years ago, and an attempt to go beyond my usual comfort zones.  I’m not a big fan of dystopias, and I thought that trying to write one would be good for me. (Yes, you can start smirking now.)

This being said, I had a few ideas to make the experience go a bit better: First, it would be a comic dystopia, taking my cues from Brazil.  I ended up deconstructing the ur-dystopian story (basically: low-level servant of the system meets girl, gains understanding of the terrible system he’s perpetuating, attempts to rebel.) and messing with it.  I also had the idea of a protagonist who would, by quirk of character, be able to have fun in such an environment, thus making it a bit easier to write than a doomed-doomed-doomed type.

I’ll have more to say about the narrator in a moment, but what I should note is that there was never a moment during my preparation where the story became obvious.  I knew, generally speaking, how I wanted to end the novel (triumphantly for the narrator, disturbingly for the reader) and by the time mid-October rolled by, had a good idea for the opening scene and the narrator’s place in the world.  The rest was sketched-in, with ideas for four acts and an over-story that would shape the background.

This, considering my usual work methods, ended up being a problem, especially in the thickets of the second quarter of the novel.  The best prevention against writer’s block is a solid outline: If you don’t feel “inspired”, just follow the plan.  I didn’t have a plan for this novel, and it was hell to write when I didn’t.  Things got a bit better during the second half… and we’ll discuss that in a moment as well.

But even when things got better from a writing standpoint, I still got stuck in a world I didn’t like very much.  Which brings me to my narrator.

Think twice before being an unpleasant narrator for a month.

My basic need for the character was that he would be able to be a winner is a world where everything is going to hell.  I drew heavily on Hunter S. Thompson for inspiration: not only have I been spending much of 2009 reading all of Thompson’s bibliography and biographies, I realized at some point that Thompson thrived during times of national crises.  He relished the apocalypse and looked forward to catastrophe.  Added to the joyful way in which he wrote about weapons, random violence, terrible situations and abuse of every sort, it seemed to me that I could build much of my narrator from my knowledge of Thompson.

I should have realized at some point that if I admired Hunter S. Thompson a lot, I didn’t actually like him.  What I did realize early on is that I couldn’t just re-use Thompson as-is.  For one thing, I had no desire to rewrite Transmetropolitan, which stands as a definitive re-take on Thompson.  For another, quasi-outlaw Thompson was fundamentally unable to function well in society, at least in the mercantile upper class in which I needed my protagonist to be.  So if Thompson provided much of the attitude, the rest had to be refitted to my purposes.

So it is that I ended up with a shopkeeper with a vicious streak for violence and utter contempt for the rest of humanity.  The violence thing seemed useful at first, because it meant that the narrator didn’t have any compunction to stab, shoot or steal his way to victory.  The contempt for humanity also seemed essential in making the character feel superior to his fellow citizen, and so rationalize away whatever scruples he may still harbour.  Wrap all of this in “ambitious professional” clothing (by making my protagonist part of a hierarchical structure with plenty of opportunities for advancement), and we’re getting closer and closer to Patrick Bateman territory.

The irony, I suppose, is that by creating the most appropriate character for the story I wanted to tell (as different as it was from my original intentions), I was also stuck for a month writing with the voice of a reprehensible person.  I spent almost all of the month hating my narrator: casually violent, ruthless, unrepentantly promiscuous (he ends up bedding four named characters, and about as many unnamed characters during the course of the novel), disdainful of everyone else’s misery –and yet I was supposed to make him sympathetic in some ways.  I suppose that one could admire his willingness to do what others only dream of being able to do, but by the time his personal body count climbed above twenty, it was a bit hard to be on his side.

So: antiheroes aren’t as good an idea as they may seem at first.

It didn’t help that I was stuck to that character: having made the decision to tell the story in first-person narration, there was no cross-cutting away possible.  The closest I got were a few lengthier exposition passages in which the narrator tells us about what’s happening around him.

But even those exposition sequences were, in a way, a reminder of the narrator’s self-centeredness.  After a while, his voice began to take on an increasingly solipsistic quality.  It would be “I did this, then I did that” for pages without much of a break. Pages could pass without any dialogue, because the narrator simply wasn’t interested in what other people were telling him.  Getting out of the character’s self-centered narration was another challenge in itself.

Combined with the aimless plot, not liking a narrator counted as the book’s biggest problems.  Still, this seventh novel wasn’t all a failure.  Before getting on to the successes, though, let’s have a look at three mixed grab-bags of experiences writing this seventh novel:

Working retail

Late in my preparation, I finally hit upon the wholly-original metaphor of the shopkeeper as capitalistic swine.  (I kid, but not too much.) This meant that my narrator would become a retail store manager, thus having some power and prestige, but still be stuck in this corporate structure.  Having never worked retail, I had to undergo a crash-course in store management by the time the novel began.  I scoured the web, grabbed bits of knowledge here and there, did not order any books from Amazon (no time!) and started playing around with a character who was supposed to be a master shopkeeper.

I have no idea whether my portrayal stands up to the real thing (I suspect that my character has far more control over his store, pay envelope and working schedule than real store managers have), but I’m reasonably satisfied by the details I was able to put in the story, and the way the character’s worldview was shaped by his job.  Rapidly re-reading the manuscript, I’m not entirely happy with the slap-dash way I described operations at the shop, never doing more than sketch the other people working there, but as a structural conceit, that worked adequately.

Writing style

I won’t shout it from the rooftops, but I think that the line-by-line writing of this seventh novel is a bit better than the previous ones.  I was writing a bit more slowly, via a narrator who allowed himself to use more naturalistic language than I would otherwise feature in fiction writing, and after seven books, well, it’s a bit easier to find the right words.  (I didn’t spend much time fiddling with translation resources or dictionaries this time around, except for esoteric bits of technical language for which, as it turns out, there were no good natural translations.)

Writing first-person narration was unusual, but not innovative: Novel #5 was also told from first-person narration.  Writing in present tense, however, was a bit new, and it worked more or less well.  Anglophone readers should understand that present-tense narration is neither rare nor awkward in French literature, and that it is in many ways a more natural way of writing than simply working off the English-language past-tense standard.  I had been meaning to try it for a while, and this novel seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.  While I’m still not sure it’s a good way to work on all future novels (or if it’s particularly well-done here), it’s been successful enough to give me another choice in future projects.

A schedule compatible with a real life

My usual approach over the past NaNoWriMos was to shut myself off from the world in November and focus exclusively on the novel from seven to ten o’clock every day, with an extra three-to-six hours on the weekends and holiday.  For various reasons, this wasn’t going to be possible this year, and my lack of interest for the novel was already telling me to cut my total objective from 100,000 words to 55,000.  In return, this allowed me to play around with a schedule that was a bit more accommodating to holidays, day trips, unforeseen work issues, medical/dental appointments and the rest of what happens in life.

Alas, I was also writing more slowly, my distraction being magnified by my lack of interest in the novel.  In the end, I was able to play with my schedule, return from California, go see a few movies, go spend a day in Montreal, fiddle around with non-novel writing and still complete the novel with more than a day to spare.  On the other hand, this half-sized novel still consumed most of my time during the month, and a lot of stuff (emails, reviews, personal projects, movies) got pushed aside until December.  Clearly, I should focus a bit more on productivity and concentration during the next NaNoWriMo.

So file those three under “promising indicators” and reserve judgment until the next novel. Fortunately, I was happy to see that a few of my core strengths as a dilettante novelist still managed to emerge even during this awful, awful novel.

Writing action!

Old-school hardboiled writers will tell apprentice writers that if they don’t know what to do next, they should bring in a man with a gun.  That usually spices up a story, distract everyone’s attention for a while, and ends up forming everything you need to resolve for the next thousand words or so.

Me?  I just love writing action scenes, especially after pages and pages of narcissistic exposition from the narrator.  Suddenly, there’s a kidnapping!  There’s a riot!  There’s a hostage situation!  There’s a man with a gun!

Whenever I have an action scene to write, suddenly my daily word-counts go up magically.  Suddenly, I don’t glance at the clock, refresh my word-count total, wonder when I’ll be done with this awful novel or try to go read another blog.  It’s the most fun I can have writing, and that’s not just because I’m an action junkie: writing action sequences is a thrill because of the sheer density of writing problems to solve.  Characters still have to behave according to their type, villains have to be resourceful, you must work your way to the next big spectacular action point, and write in such a way that the readers will come along for the ride.

Whenever I got bored, especially during the middle third of the novel, I threw in robberies, riots, vandalism and people being threatened while they’re strapped in chairs.  By the time I had my character trying to avoid being killed during a battle between land-owners and the national guard in a post-apocalyptic Brooklyn, I knew I was too far gone yet having too much fun to care.  It helped that this all served a plotting point, and no-so-coincidentally occurred toward the end of the novel, at a time I was beginning to wrap everything up.  Which leads me to late-novel plotting…

Plotting instincts can serve you well.

There are two bits of ongoing plotting in this novel that I’m particularly proud to have achieved.

The first one was an instinct, early on when I wasn’t too sure what to do, to multiply my narrator’s problems.  The first fifth of the novel is crammed with a pile-up of issues being set up: romantic, professional, personal, national.  When I didn’t know what to do next, I just reached for the issue that I hadn’t touched for a while and heated it up.  I ended up modifying my laughable “outline” from four to three main acts in the course of writing the novel in part because I was burning through my crises and resolution (I ended up combining two main plot beats in one stronger act break), but at least it gave me something to do next.

This took care of much of the book’s first half.  The second half was considerably easier, since I could see the plot threads converging into a mirage of a conclusion.  That conclusion changed a lot along the way (I didn’t even end up using one of the stronger conceptual ideas I had for the ending, one that I had carried all the way from the book’s initial conception to, literally, the day before I wrapped the novel), but the wrap-up was unusually satisfying after the rocky beginnings of the book.

I’m amazed, for instance, at the way I was able to go and round up a number of incidents, characters, references and vignettes from the first half of the book and re-use them in the conclusion.  A lot of the material has been written as a one-off way to pad my word total and get from one plot point to the next.  In the conclusion, however, I was able to re-use a surprising amount of stuff to make it all seem even more complex.

I still left a lot of good stuff lying around, though.  Don’t assume that the book is tightly-wrapped just because I feel that I was able to tie up a few more threads than I expected.  There’s at least one secondary character that doesn’t have a satisfactory place in the book’s conclusion, and a few more other named characters that should have better send-offs, or even a place during the conclusion.  (Aaah! Writing this, I can see how my secondary character can be brought back for a suitable wrap-up. [pause]  There, done and I just added almost 200 words to the total, taking me over 56,000 words.)

Getting it done

Of course, I can dissect and bemoan what a piece of trash I have written in November 2009, but the greatest thing about it is that it was completed at all.  It may rank as one of the worst pieces of fiction in the known universe, but it’s still a 56,000-word story that didn’t exist thirty days ago.  You may point and laugh at the incompetent writer/novelist that I am, but let’s be serious for a moment: unless you’re parenting a newborn, fighting cancer, taking down tyranny or a fellow NaNoWriMo novelist, what have you done last month?

As bad as it got, as far behind as I was in my word-count, I never contemplated the idea of quitting.  I knew it wasn’t going to be a 100,000 back-breaker, but I knew I could take it over 50,000 words without too much trouble.  And I did.  The point of NaNoWriMo is getting it done, no matter what it takes –or what form it takes.  At the end of the month (and at the end of these 3,500 words of debriefing) the final word is simple: done.

Next?

This seventh novel is dead.  It’s awful enough that I’m not going to even attempt to revise or polish it, let alone let someone else read it.  That’s OK: NaNoWriMo is about the possibility of failure, and I have learned more about writing during this novel than the last two or three put together.

In fact, the best thing to emerge from this mess may be the next novel in the queue.  As a reactionary mechanism, I started thinking about my eighth novel even as I was being stuck in the seventh one.  I’m deliberately setting it up to take advantage of my strengths, and to avoid the issues that have plagued me this time around.

It’s going to be optimistic, it’s going to be big, it’s going to have likable protagonists with strong ethics, it’s going to have an omniscient narrator, but follow about four or five characters, it’s going to overflow with ideas and most of all, it’s going to be fun.  I already know how it begins (I have written a trial first paragraph, and it’s cool), I know what the first-act twist is going to be, and plot possibilities just seem to spring forward from this premise without effort.  If I can manage to do justice to this first impression, it’s going to be a pleasure to prepare and even more fun to write.  Wouldn’t that be worth an awful novel as a down-payment?

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