National Novel Writing Month 2006! (Part 1: Writing)

Emotional anguish on a daily basis, just for you.

The following log is now final; no new entries will be added.

2006-10-05: Tuesday, Day -26 – 0 words – Once more!

Yes, here we go again. Not having learned my lesson in 2002, 2003, 2004 or 2005, I will once again try to write a novel in thirty days. I won’t be alone: roughly 75,000 other people scattered around the globe will try to do so, helped along by the emotional support of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) initiative. Don’t ask why I’ll voluntarily spend about a hundred hours doing this: Ask why I cannot stop myself.

Given how I have successfully completed the last four attempts at writing a thirty-day novel, I have decided to crank up the difficulty level this year: The novel I’ve got in mind (and have thought about for the past eleven months) is an attempt at a romantic comedy crossed with post-singularity science-fiction, structured around a traditional thriller plot. Furthermore, the idea demands that I abandon my usual tight-3rd-party POV for a far more intrusive omniscient narration… and that should pose its own unique creative challenges. It’s a risky project, especially given how I’ll have to concentrate on the line-per-line writing more than the plot: I really don’t know if I will finish the thing. It’s not helping that at this moment, I have ideas but no outline.

Today, I re-registered on the NaNoWriMo web site (look for "slorz" in the Ottawa, Ontario area. The link points back to this page) and started thinking in terms of game plan. Over the next three weeks, I have to develop an outline…

Watch this space for further details!

Rockland, ON – 2006-10-05 21:47

2006-10-31: Tuesday, Day -1 – 0 words – Oddly calm, in spite of the circumstances

This is the eve of insanity and I don’t have a complete outline on hand. But I’m not all that concerned: My current nine-pages outline is about five thousand words long and only gets to the beginning of the third act. I do have an idea of what’s going to happen after that, but if the past years are any guide, I’ll be able to fill in the details long before they actually happen.

Amusingly enough, the novel I have outlined is not quite the novel I had in mind at the end of November last year when I decided upon this particular "Sense and Singularity" project. I first envisioned a romantic comedy with thriller undertones, but I have ended with a thriller featuring a lot of romantic comedy. Conceptually, my current outline has a lot more plot that I first hoped for, which I see as a safety net if the scene-per-scene atmosphere I’ll be attempting fails to work. On the other hand, I have a good feeling about the current state of the story, and the themes it will allow me to explore.

But it’s still, by far, the most challenging NaNoWriMo project yet. My first four novels weren’t all that heavy on the worldbuilding (two were contemporary, and the others borrowed a lot from established futures), but this one is… something different. Not wholly original, but sufficiently so that whoever ends up unlucky enough to discuss the project with me ends up asking tons of fascinated questions. They’re humoring me, of course, but I’m having a lot of fun exploring the ramifications of the concept. In some ways, I see the next thirty days as a license to play in this universe and see what happens, at the definite risk of having to re-think the entire enterprise at the rewriting stage. More than the previous books, this is going to be about finding the diamonds in the rough draft. Or writing a seventy-five-thousand words outline.

It may help that I’ll be taking on a more intrusive prose style (ie; the book has a definite narrator, rather than the usual third-person limited-POV "oh no, no one is telling the story: we’re just following the characters" standard) that provides a lot more flexibility in what can be told, and how it can be told. I have planned a certain amount of biased-narration tricks here and there: I hope I will be able to do it justice.

So it’s going pretty well, for someone who’s about to throw away something like 90 hours at the keyboard for the next twenty-five days. I have tried to complete, or at least curtain most current writing commitments. Films, friends and family have all been put on hold until December 1st. (They understand: it’s not the first time it happens.)

To make the entire exercise even more challenging, I just bought the entire Babylon-5 series on DVD, as well as the SimCity 4 and Galactic Civilizations II computer games. All have been unwrapped, and are right next to my computer at the moment, sitting on top of Civilization IV and the CivIV Warlords expansion pack.

What? I’ve got to make it more interesting the fifth time around, right?

Rockland, ON – 2006-10-31 20:46

2006-11-01: Wednesday, Day 1 – 3,057 words – A mighty good start

Well, gee, I’m almost embarrassed at how easy that went. Filled my three-thousand words quota in less than two hours and a half, with a pretty good emotional scene that introduced three characters without clobbering the audience with exposition. What’s sad is that I have just written off the first of my nine outline pages, but that’s about 6/7 of the first of 16 chapters, so I’m not doing all that badly. (Have I mentioned that this novel will be shorter than the others? I’m aiming at about 75,000-85,000 words.)

In other news, it looks as if the official NaNoWriMo site is choking under the strain of accomodating about 70,000 would-be novelists. I’ll update my word count, check the Ottawa forums, etc, tomorrow.

If the whole month goes like this, it’ll be smoooth…

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-01 21:37

2006-11-02: Thursday, Day 2 – 6,129 words – Eeew. But Also: Moving On.

There were plenty of really bad words and on-the-nose exposition today as I was trying to get rid of a bothersome bit between better scenes. Awful stuff, but speedily written and it had to get out before I can figure how to parcel that information in better ways through the rest of the novel. At least some of my minor characters are slowly revving up, with much-appreciated opportunities to showcase the amusing craziness of my imagined future.

I also revisited my outline (now nine full pages, 5,150 words), fixing the most immediate problems with my ending. While the one I just sketched in is a fairly standard resolution, at least it’s a time-tested way of settling things. If I can be good enough in the lead-up, it’ll even be kind of cool. Plus I’ve got the next twenty days or so to re-think it.

Curiously enough, I’m starting to really look forward to some upcoming scenes. The Black Light District one is going to be tons of fun to write.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-02 21:31

2006-11-03: Friday, Day 3 – 9,126 words – A slog.

Ah; one of those average days. Started late, squeezed words for three hours (committing several crimes against litterature in the process) and ended having fulfilled my daily quota. Romantic interest introduced (though there’s little heat between them at this point), several more godawful exposition dumps taken and one or two nifty details that may pay off later on. Tomorrow, we shoot for a weekend double-hit of 6,000 more words.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-03 22:27

2006-11-04: Saturday, Day 4 – 14,885 words – Oops.

My traditional way of working at NaNoW
riMo during weekends is to do one 3,000-words session between one and four o’clock, and then another one between seven and ten. But what’s becoming obvious is that time-management is what separates pros from the amateurs: Due to poor discipline, some things dragged into other things and I found myself starting to write at seven, with an objective of 6,000 words. Oops.

So I banged what I could (including restarting a scene for more impact, which worked well) and ended up five hours later with slightly less than 6,000. A failure, but a noble one, and one that I hope to be able to correct tomorrow.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-04 23:57

2006-11-05: Sunday, Day 5 – 21,011 words – Better.

Well, that’s done. Two three-hour shifts at roughly the right spots in the day, a little bit more than 6,000 more words (many of them bad, but not many that are completely horrible), several exposition scenes solved and a stop at a chapter break, after which we go back to the development of the thriller subplot and the start of the second act. Overall, not a bad weekend if one abstracts the actual quality of the writing.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-05 21:28

2006-11-06: Monday, Day 6 – 24,022 words – A dramatic experiment!

Two things started bothering me after writing yesterday’s entry.

The first occured to me a few minutes after closing down the computer, as I was reading Peter Watts’s Blindsight: A hundred pages in the novel, not only is it one of the top three SF books of the year so far, but it features a number of the same neat ideas with which I’m playing in my own NaNoWriMo#5. There are about five or six specific points of comparison, and that really annoys me. Everyone likes to think they’re being all that original in their writing, so it’s a big let-down that Watts is not only touching upon the same ideas, but doing so far more skillfully –and stuffing them in the background of his narrative as if they weren’t worth a bother. On the other hand, Watts is at the top of the hard-SF game right now, so the fact that he’s strip-mining the same vein I thought I had uncovered probably means I’m doing something halfway un-stupid.

The second thing occured to me this morning and didn’t stop bothering me all day long. Frustrated by my lack of stylistic experimentation in telling the story, I suddenly realized what I should have figured out from the outline: All the action being centered in a big bubble around my narrator, why shouldn’t it be a first-person narrative?

As soon as I started to dwell upon that shift in perspective, a number of possibilities opened up. The distinctive voice of the story revealed itself to me, along with a number of dramatic tweaks, a firmed-up reason for the narration, a particular "reader" for the story, and all sorts of neat justifications about how the narrator could have access to knowledge seemingly out of reach. Plus plenty of foreshadowing and a head-kicking prologue.

The conclusion was inevitable: I had to start writing in the first person. Temporarily forgetting about the nagging problem of 21,000 existing words in third-person, I vowed to perform a dramatic experiment: I would write today’s quota in 1st-person POV and see if it worked.

The result? 1,000 words in thirty minutes, and 3,000 in two hours. That, I call a success. I even managed to cram a banjo-playing robot in my story, (on a porch, no less) and that’s just beautiful.

I’m not sure how much editing I’ll do to re-adapt the first 21,000 words, but for now I’ll just continue on to the end in 1st-person POV and see what else happens. If it goes really well, I’ll simply re-write the first chunk of the novel in between writing the climax and the epilogue at the end of the month.

But for now, I’ll just go and finish Blindsight, just to see if the rest of my story ideas are squirreled away in Watts’ footnotes.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-06 21:15

2006-11-07: Tuesday, Day 7 – 27,058 words – Electoral difficulties.

Things took a while today, but that’s just the political geek battling it out with the writing nerd as I tab back and forth between Word and for the midterm election results. At least I got to pad the manuscript with a pleasing amount of dialogue, some exposition, a new character and a nifty developing chapter. Tomorrow, the fun starts: it’s the novel’s first action scene!

In other news, two hundred and fifty pages in, Peter Watts’ Blindsight is still one of this year’s top Hugo Awards contenders.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-07 22:18

2006-11-08: Wednesday, Day 8 – 30,027 words – Not every day goes well.

Blindsight? Pure delight to the end. Hugo! Hugo! I’m glad it’s over now; I’ll be able to get some sleep rather than reading far too late.

Today’s action scene was uninspired and bland, along with the rest of the day’s quota. We’ll fix it in post. It’s part of the reason why things dragged on today, although I also started relatively late. I ended by writing the beginning of my Black Light District segment, which should be good fun tomorrow.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-08 22:08

2006-11-09: Thursday, Day 9 – 33,072 words – Embarassed and worried.

Pretty easy day: Late start, early end, and two good scenes nailed down. Unfortunately, I found myself blushing while writing one of them: One of the problems in writing a future that can be interpreted as a hedonistic utopia for some is that at some point, you do have to confront the hedonistic nature of it. Ahem. That’s one part I’ll think twice about releasing into the wild.

The first-person narration is working well so far, though I still haven’t quite nailed down the voice of the narrator yet. Oh well; that’s part of the process of recon-by-writing.

In other news, I’m a bit worried about the length of the project. Even though I never intended this to be a 100,000-words doorstopper, current estimates for the end word-count range between 63,000 and 84,000 words. My third act also seems increasingly thin as it approaches: trouble ahead?

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-09 21:45

2006-11-10: Friday, Day 10 – 36,076 words – Skipping movies, treading water.

Managing moviegoing during NaNoWriMo is one of the hardest thing to do. So this year, I’m trying something different: Not seeing movies until I’m done. That ought to increase the pressure nicely, and lead to something like a five-day ten-movies marathon at the end of the month. I also got invited at a party on the 25th, which gives me a specific deadline to finish it off.

On the other hand, if the goal of skipping movies was to make me work more regularly, it didn’t take very well: I started late, dawdled on the web, etc. More horribly, I held my nose and wrote almost three thousand words of romantic filler today: part padding, part character exploration, part pushing-back-the-fun- stuff-until-tomorrow. It may or may not make it to the final version, but in the meantime it’s there and it may be useful at some point. Tomorrow, the long weekend starts: I should get out of it with a comfortable 53,000 words.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-10 22:20

2006-11-11: Saturday, Day 11 – 42,045 words – Ho-Hum, much done.

Not an ideal day in terms of time management, but the 6,000 words got written, and the plot is chugging along nicely –maybe padded a little bit for extra comfort, but otherwise on tracks. My narrator even showed signs of a personality today, which pleases me somewhat.

Tomorrow, on the other hand, could be very difficult: I’m headed f
or a big "Step Two: ???" patch of my outline, and trying to get out of there could be challenging. But not as challenging as trying to figure out what happens after that.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-11 22:51

2006-11-12: Sunday, Day 12 – 48,003 words – Meh, it’ll do .

Woke up at noon (!!!) and yet didn’t have much trouble managing my time today: necessity will often do that. The words produced today weren’t particularly inspiring, but they chugged the plot along as they should. I even completed the second 3,000-words session in two hours. (On the other hand, I’ll have to take out the easy pot-shots at organized religion from the next draft: they’re dumb, they’re cheap and they don’t do much to advance either the plot or the characters.) Alas, I have the feeling that I’m paddling in place to avoid confronting the fact that I’m running out of plot for the third act.

Tomorrow: We blow up that 50,000 words threshold.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-12 21:30

2006-11-13: Monday, Day 13 – 54,056 words – Out of Alabama, into the winner’s circle.

One: Today was an off day at work, hence allowing me a third consecutive 6,000-words day. Done: this has been a most productive long weekend.

Two: I’m only one action scene short of getting out of the gosh-awful Alabama portion of my novel. It’s about *time*.

Three: Oh, look at that: Fifty thousand words, which is the usual "winning" number for NaNoWriMo. As you may have guessed, I’m not done yet.

Four: Writing is a lot more pleasant than pulling carrots out of my slimy garden like other people collect grubs. Just thought I’d mention that in case you catch me complaining about writing later this month.

Five: Was actually able to write the much-dreaded love scene without worrying about it too much. Onward. (But, of course, I know that comes next.)

Six: Tomorrow, we start worrying about the third act. Things are looking better than they did last week, though: Current total estimate ranges between 72,000 and 84,000 thousand words with the lower end moving up. All I really want is a face-saving commercial-length 80,000 words. If all goes well, I will end this sometime next week.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-13 21:24

2006-11-14: Tuesday, Day 14 – 57,030 words – Now we’re cooking.

I have already lamented how my fluffy post-human romantic comedy became a hard-edged post-human thriller, but today is the perfect reason why: I just love high-tech action scene!

One thousand words in thirty minutes, kick-ass character development, megajoules weapons, the constant possibility of double-crosses and some plot-furthering discoveries. It all comes together in the action scenes, baby. My new motto: "Keep writing until you get to the explosions."

I left my narrator in mid-emergency (standing next to a primed tactical nuke), just so that I can come back to him tomorrow all charged and ready for the last few bits of the second act.

Third act is still a problem, though. And I’ve got a night of enforced non-writing coming up Thursday evening.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-14 21:55

2006-11-15: Wednesday, Day 15 – 60,006 words – Crack goes sixty thousand words.

Today was a nightmare of awful words and madness-inducing prose, but I had a lot of fun writing it. As long as I don’t show it to anyone else, that’s all that matters.

And so we are at the start of the dreaded third act. Our protagonist thinks he’s out of trouble… but events, as they usually do, have other things in mind for him. I certainly won’t make any progress tomorrow: due to other committments, my evening will be spend moderating a panel on SF at a local cultural center, so any writing until Friday evening is purely hypothetical. At least that will give me a few more hours to think about what comes up next.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-15 21:24

2006-11-16: Thursday, Day 16 – 63,039 words – Three good days in a row.

How was your day? Mine was excellent.

I knew I was going to spend the evening doing something else, so I dusted off the laptop, and at the end of the workday, walked straight to the Ottawa Public Library where I sat down in the relatively quiet magazine section and banged up my daily three thousand words in something like a record-setting one hour and forty minutes. No, I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired: I was just stuck in front of the screen with no distraction, no blogs to read, no email to check. Hm, maybe I should do this more often. Re-reading the stuff, I even wrote a few good lines here and there.

Then I went and did my evening thing, which went really well. The irony of the day is that for once (once!) I was in Ottawa during the evening and thus was theoretically able to attend one of the regular NaNoWriMo local write-ins at the OPL… but couldn’t because the reason why I was in Ottawa took place at exactly the same time as the write-in, five blocks south.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-16 23:17

2006-11-17: Friday, Day 17 – 66,023 words – Refocus.

Well, they can’t all be easy days. Though aspects of today’s writing were setbacks (including three and a half hours to write the daily quota), I think that the day, overall, wasn’t wasted.

For one thing, a lunchtime walk in the rain and idle thought on the bus ride back home both produced solutions to iffy plot links, strengthening the third act to an acceptable level. (It’s still too short, but it’ll do in dramatic terms.)

This, unfortunately, made me back-track five hundred words (not all of them were deleted) to beef up yesterday’s last scene and generally make it far more interesting. This was followed by more plotting, more farce (in one of the cheapest tricks in the rom-com cookbook, my narrator spends his time almost sleeping with dozens of humanoids) and adequate hooks for the rest of the novel.

Alas, this good work was counterbalanced by a lot of wasted time on Teh IntarWeb. Am I the only one who’s spending far too much time browsing through the rudely hilarious ? The waste is just strengthening my case for writing in public libraries.

Tomorrow: Difficult choices.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-17 23:06

2006-11-18: Saturday, Day 18 – 72,062 words – Death and the third act.

Sometimes, the hardest thing is staying put. I decided to stay home today and not go to any of the three Ottawa-based events that interested me, with the result that I’m now up six thousand words deeper in the story, that I’ve managed to kill a character (which really doesn’t happen all that often in my fiction) and that my third act is now firmly on track.

Part of today’s balancing plates act was what i call "revelation management", or the art of stringing along the real meaning of the story bit by bit, with plenty of misleading clues along the way. Not bad for a day that wasn’t as tightly managed as it could have been.

The further upside of today’s work is that I now have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next, and that my 80,000-words goal is well under the estimated remaining length of the story. If all goes well, I still have something like 10,000-15,000 thousand words left of plot, climax and conclusion. My original third-act outline is still valid in its general shape, but the details are quite different.

Tomorrow should see us go from a desert multi-robot battle to Medium Earth Orbit for the final set-piece. Oh yes, all the stops will be pul
led from now on.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-18 22:56

2006-11-19: Sunday, Day 19 – 78,029 words – Love in an elevator.

It’s easy to be dismissive about the quality of thousand-words-per-hour writing, but it’s always surprising when good scenes actually emerge from the morass. Today, I was lucky enough to have two of them amongst the rest of the usual dreck. One was a wild plot side-step that actually panned out with interesting SFnal repercussions that are unusual enough, in a romantic sense, to be interesting. The other good moment was ripped from the Aerosmith song title quoted above, and will go straight in the list of scenes I may not show to other people. What is it with this year’s novel? Oh well, as I’ve said before, "you can’t have a hedonistic future society without, at some point, showing the hedonism." One thing’s for sure: I’m not doing social satire again for next year’s novel.

Interestingly enough, I’ve just spend the entire weekend on one single line in the original outline. As a result, the 80,000 words threshold is well within reach, and a total between 85,000 and 90,000 words is now likely. It ends this week, probably Saturday at the latest.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-19 21:46

2006-11-20: Monday, Day 20 – 81,069 words – The freight train rolls on.

If I needed any other sign that this novel is on its way out, there couldn’t be any better one than the straightforward way today’s three thousand words unfolded, even as the hero dealt with the narrative’s most unusual environment yet. All of my pieces are nearly in place for the final action-driven chapter: One or two more days of action, and we’ll be wrapping this up with the conclusion.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-20 21:48

2006-11-21: Tuesday, Day 21 – 84,003 words – Climax considerations . Also; politics.

It’s a shame that I couldn’t find easy inspiration on the day I wrote the climax of the entire novel, but that’s part of the process too: Fast writing works better when you think you’re not writing anything of importance. This being the entire high point of the novel, it’s perhaps inevitable that I was reluctant to tie all threads, solve the remaining problems and give it a final push. Though I’ll have to go back on the rewrite and add a lot more dramatic juice to heighten the suspense and wave a big ticking clock at the protagonist. As I stop for the day, he’s not out of the woods just yet: There’s another few hundred words of desperate survival left until the end of the chapter and then, well, the weddings and funerals of the conclusion.

On the other hand, this was finally the point at which I gave good dialogue to the Enemy, and what came out really surprised me. Good solid motivations that I’ll have to foreshadow on the rewrite, and a political outlook that I’d reluctantly classify as progressive. Which, in turn, led me to the suspected but finally-expressed realization that I’ve written a deeply conservative posthuman hedonistic romantic comedy. It’s not a complete surprise given the deliberate restrictions one have to make in order to retain a recognizable romantic comedy in a posthuman age, but it’s still a realization I’ll have to kick around for a while before deciding if I’m okay with the situation or not, and whether it helps or hinders the novel.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-21 22:06

2006-11-22: Wednesday, Day 22 – 87,081 words – Almost over.

Climaxes are hard, but conclusions are smoooooth. Today’s chapter was really easy (if clunky) to write: congratulations all around, a few extra revelations about the nature of my protagonist’s world, happy-funny lines and (gee…) yet more naughty hedonism. All is well with our characters. They’re happy, and so am I.

All that’s left is a few even naughtier lines to finalize the last chapter (Party time, yaaay!), and a two-part epilogue in which we tie the remaining plot threads and then neatly send the reader in a cognitive slingshot orbit with a good whack of sensawunder. I may delay the epilogue until I re-write the opening 20,000 words from third to first-person POV, which (at the latest) sends us to Saturday.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-22 21:36

2006-11-23: Thursday, Day 23 – 88,564 words – Indulging in an unforgiveable sin (Part One).

NaNoWriMo doesn’t have many rules ("50,000 words of fiction in 30 days. Go."), but it does have its dark corners and unmentionable perversions. Re-writing is one of those: When you’re faced with a ticking clock and a daily word quota, one of the first things you learn is that you don’t go back to re-edit. Often, you don’t even bother spell-checking.

But as I’ve mentioned previously, I switched POV twenty thousand words into the story, and I’m a bit too proud to let that stand in the first draft that I will print out this weekend. So I set aside today and tomorrow for a rewrite and, well, simply changing POV verbs and subjects seems so basic when I could just add a paragraph here, and another paragraph there, a prologue here, and a few more details there…

So, a quick 1,500 words later, I’m half-way done with the rewrite. Despite the lame and uninspired writing, there’s even some pretty cool stuff in this story.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-23 21:27

2006-11-24: Friday, Day 24 – 89,083 words – Indulging in an unforgiveable sin (Part Two).

Did some more rewriting. Less than ten pages left to revise, then it’s two more pages for the epilogue and the effective end of the novel save for the spell-checking. Expect the end of creative typing tomorrow and the spell-check on Sunday. Should have gone to a movie tonight but nooo, I just want to finish this before having any fun at all.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-24 21:00

2006-11-25: Saturday, Day 25 – 91,323 words – It’s all over except for the spell-checking.

Rewriting: Done. Epilogue that split off into a last chapter and an epilogue: Done. Over the 200-pages mark: Done. Over the 90,000-words mark: Done. Spell-check and printing: Tomorrow! Currently planned for the rest of the day: Finish Charles Stross’ The Jennifer Morgue (which I’m reading compulsively, much like a kid goes through a bag of chocolate bars), go to a movie and finish the evening at a party. Because, you know, I deserve it.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-25 16:21

2006-11-26: Sunday, Day 26 – 91,638 words – Well, the easy part is now over.

Spell-checked and (now) printing: My fifth novel.

Overall, it’s a success. I’m not nearly as confident of its quality as I was with last year’s effort, but this year was a very different challenge, with more ambitious artistic goals. Re-reading it during spell-checking, I found myself cringing, but also pleased at some passages. Not all the pieces may be properly placed, but it holds its own. The characters are fun, and it’s not going to be unpleasant to re-edit.

By the numbers:

  • Word: 91,638
  • Pages: 190
  • Characters: 568,152
  • Lines: 8631
  • Paragraphs: 3,772
  • Revisions: 57
  • Editing time: 4672 minutes (77.87 hours)
    • Word per hour: 1,177

So what’s next for me? Not quite a break: I have a 4,000-words movie reviewing column to turn in on Friday, plus the usual reviews for this web site. After that, though, it’s family, friends, movies, books and computer games for me until the holidays.

We start editing next year! < /p>

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-26 15:40

2006-11-27: Monday, Day 27 – 91,638 words – Perfecting the NaNoWriMo process.

Let’s gloss over my triumphant return to movie theaters (CASINO ROYALE and DEJA VU back-to-back: good stuff) and the lateness of this update to talk about the NaNoWriMo process. The way someone can actually plan on writing an entire novel in thirty days. Such a rhythm isn’t for everyone, though, nor does it produce anything that can be used as-is. My advantages, going into November, are that I’m single, I’m a 8-to-4 drone, I’m obsessive and I’ve got a good story to tell.

Still, I have learned a lot from the past four years. This year, I have stuck almost rigidly to schedule, avoided TV and even gave up movies entirely. I may not have outlined as much as I would have liked to, but what I had was sufficient to carry me forward up to the point where it got fun to make it up. In short: well done. The only recommendation I’ve got for myself next year, other than "Keep it up: This is working" is "Outline Well in Advance".

One of this year’s biggest success was that my word-count was stable and predictable, day after day. Quotas are important, as much as a target to reach than a threshold not to exceed. While writing thousands of words per day doesn’t leave time for much else, it helps to establish an upper bound on the daily productions just so that you can have an excuse to go do other things.

What I really, really like about the compressed schedule of NaNoWriMo is that it gives extra purpose to my life for thirty days (…or as long as it takes). It’s all too easy to sit down in front of the TV and do nothing from work to sleep. While the spectacle of a guy sitting down in from of the computer from 7 to 10 isn’t necessarily more exciting (or less fattening), there is a tangible result at the end of the process, a big pile of paper with a story that didn’t exist before the beginning of the month.

And that, despite my lack of identification with those who are just doing NaNoWriMo on a lark, is why I signed up again this year, and intend to sign up again next year.

It’s easy to forget, reading through my nattering about word-count, that it’s the creative process that provides the month’s best moments. The moments where the story comes together in even better ways than outlined. The times where the characters say something that surprises and delights. The fantastic action scenes as they unfold in the mind, with the impossible odds, the mounting tension and the triumphant rescues. I really did enjoy spending time with those characters, and I look forward to spending even more time with them in the editing room. I even managed, in the process, to develop a unique universe that may borrow heavily from other sources, but actually presents a fun and dynamic view of the future. Even as the novel is over, I keep going back and asking myself about this or that aspect of life in this post-Singularity future. I’m not done with this novel, not even close to it.

But as the manuscripts also pile up, so does my lack of satisfaction with the way I’m not following up on my NaNoWriMo writing. Sure, Novel#1 was re-written, polished and sent off to a publisher for consideration. But what about the four other manuscripts now languishing in my archives? Shouldn’t I be editing them, polishing them, sending them off to even more publishers?

For that matter, has something changed over those past five novels? Am I half-way through what Heinlein called those "awful first million words?" Am I, really, becoming a better writer through this yearly exercice?

But that’s a subject for tomorrow’s entry.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-27 23:13

2006-11-28: Tuesday, Day 28 – 91,638 words – Notes about becoming a "better" writer.

As I bitterly try to avoid the memory of THE FOUNTAIN and BABEL (not to mention the set of commercial ads so familiar after seeing four movies at the same theaters in the span of 29 hours: Email me for a discussion of the Coca-Cola "Polar Bears and Penguins" ad as a metaphor for imperialism), let’s focus on the question of becoming a better writer. After five novels and five NaNoWriMos, am I become a better writer?

I think so.

But first, let’s dispense with one thing: I don’t have any illusions about my current skill as a writer when compared to the professionals working in the genre. My stuff is worse than even the books I review regatively elsewhere on this site. "Better" in the context of this entry, is all about the direction of progress rather than the level achieved. (from "unreadable" to "barely readable")

Being facinated by the notion of expertise and skill development, here is why I think that I’m becoming a better novelist:

  • It doesn’t scare me as much: Writing a novel seems like an insurmountable task at first. But when you break it down to three thousand words per day, when you learn about the ways you can facilitate the process, what seems daunting becomes an activity you can anticipate with glee.
  • I keep upping the difficulty level: Every year, I keep trying something new. While my palette is still limited, I’m trying to expand it. I impose harsher constraints upon myself, try to reach for uncomfortable scenes and dig down deeper in characters. I’m trying (unsuccessfully) to wean myself off the easy sugar rush of action scenes and tackle other types of emotions.
  • I want to add texture: I still aim for an uncluttered style, but that’s not the same thing as adding texture, of finding ways to describe what’s happening using different tools that would be more appropriate. Adding odd details that make a scene come to life. Frankly, I’m still flailing around for that elusive "texture", but I know I have to improve in the matter, and I know that it’s a large part of what differenciates a working, publishing writer from someone who stays in the slush pile.
  • My degree of precision is improving: This, frankly, may be the best indicator of mounting expertise: The ability to hit the targets you aim for, in pretty much the way you expect. This, I believe, separates the true pros from the amateurs: Not simply the ability to conceive of something (see difficulty level above), or to make it come to life (see texture, above) but the combination of both to affect the reader in exactly the way you’re envisioning. While I’ll have to poll my readers for their exact reactions, my degree of satisfaction at seeing the finished product is a bit higher these days than it was during the previous years. Not perfect (we’ll talk about the problem tomorrow), but better.
  • I don’t spend as much time thinking about it: This isn’t just a matter of plotting or structuring a scene, but also of finding the words on a line-by-line level. The first year was sheer torture: Thanks to a serious lack of practice in writing French (I usually write in English), I spent half the time in an English-to-French dictionary trying to actually find the words to say what I wanted. This year, I consulted said dictionary maybe ten times. This is part mastery of the NaNoWriMo write-fast ethic, part being more comfortable with the actual nuts-and-bolts of writing French. Thanks to some experience gained by blogging in French, I can now spend less time finding the words, and more time writing the words.
  • I’m starting to feel the difference between being able to tell a story, and being able to tell a story as well as it can be told: First-Time novelists usually spend a lot of time staring at their finished manuscript, amazed at the fact that they’ve been able to tell a story over that many pages. That’s fantastic, and indeed part of the appeal of writing nove
    ls, but it’s not the end of the process. Any story can be told in many different ways, but the challenge of true writers is to find a better way of telling the story. One that resonates more, one that is funnier, more horrific, more exciting, more memorable than any of the other ways it could have been told.

The real test of improvement, of course, is whether the prose I produce today is better than it was five years ago. Having re-written the first novel twice since then, that particular criteria gets an unqualified "yes!" It remains to be seen, of course, whether I’ll cringe as much when I’ll revise this year’s novel, but early re-reads are encouraging so far.

But it’s not all sun and roses in the land of this novelist. Next entry: The problems to fix.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-29 22:22

2006-11-29: Wednesday, Day 29 – 91,638 words – Problems and doubts (aka Sex and the Singular writer).

(Hey, wow: Got my official NaNoWriMo thank-you package today, only a week after sending them my annual donation. Temporary Tatoo! Postcards! Caffeine toxicity chart!)

So what didn’t work this year? Quite a lot, actually.

First up is the way the project shifted underneath me between the time I announced it last year and the time I finished it this year. "Sense and Singularity" was supposed to be a Jane-Austen-meets-transhumanism type of romantic romp, and it ended up a post-human thriller with strong romantic elements. I may talk trash about expanding my palette, but frankly, I’m not doing a very good job at doing it.

Then there’s the usual number of "oops" things that come with the fast-writing process and should be corrected as soon as I star re-editing:

  • Too much telling, not enough showing: During the first draft, it’s too easy to be mesmerized by the mechanics of the plot and forget about the way to dramatize what happens. As it stands now, some scenes are thinly-disguised placeholders for more dramatic segments. The last chapter is a particularly bad example of this.
  • Characterization: Another victim to the demands of first-draft plotting. Now that I really know the characters’ place in the plot, I can start working on deepening their traits and personalities. The bunch of crèche-mates that surrounds my protagonist, in particular, is only half-developped: Two of them are well-defined, but the three others are given short thrift. I also had trouble with my heroine, who kept coming up as too passive throughout the story, until I had an ah-ha moment and allowed her to take control of the action in one of the novel’s best scenes. That worked spendidly, but I will still have to work on making her as interesting earlier in the novel.
  • Texture: Details, gadgets, feelings and small moments. Too quickly glossed over while rushing through the story and yet essential to a smooth, convincing read. This usually requires a lot more thought than a simple write-through allows.
  • Erase the cameos: Many of my friends and family are now bits and pieces of the novel, often because I needed a name quickly and couldn’t think of anything else. I’ll re-consider all of those nods and winks and allusions on the re-write, especially when the persons in question may not agree with my use of their names.
  • Orbital mechanics training: While my post-singularity technology is quasi-omnipotent, I still have to contend with the laws of physics. Given that the third act of the novel is a steady ascent to Earth orbit, I’m going to need a good refresher in space elevator theory and orbital mechanics. I can fudge the details well enough to dazzle civilians, but I need a bit more than that to convince editors.
  • Crank the tension: Aren’t you annoyed when movies end with a three-ring circus of unlikely dangers and preposterous deadlines? Yes, me too, but it’s better than the alternative, which is a hero that finishes the villain when he feels like it. I’ve read my inner editor’s notes, and they all ask for More danger! More action! More chaos! More excitement!
  • …and of course, the writing: Given that I’m still struggling with the words themselves rather than what they all mean, I’m going to spend a lot of time staring at the screen and fiddling with words, just to make it sound a little better.

But perhaps the worst thing at this point, beyond these simple elementary problems, is the idea that there’s probably something very wrong with the novel, but I just can’t see what it is at this point. Worse: even my suspicions may be off-base.

For instance, I have repeatedly alluded to the often-naugthy nature of the novel in the entries above (deliberately using "naughty" rather than "kinky", "pornographic" or "vulgar", because naughty-funny is the feel I was going for) and I’m still on the fence as to whether any, some, or all of it will remain in the next drafts. On one level, the situations, word-plays and emotional resonances of those passages really add a lot to the novel. On another, I can just envision the embarassed stares and "Oooh, I now know way too much about your fantasies" thought-bubbles popping over the heads of my first readers. Errr. Not to mention the risk of sounding puerile: I keep hearing a nagging little voice telling me "You prude! You white-bread cracker! You repressed Catholic choir-boy! You don’t even understand the nature of naughty! Your kink is someone else’s way of saying Hello!"

So there’s plenty of material to think about until the re-write. For now, the novel is going in a locked drawer for at least the next six months. When I’ll sit down at the computer again early next year to re-write fiction, it will be an effort to turn last year’s techno-thriller into something worth reading for my usual circle of first readers. (Now accepting application.)

And that’s pretty much all I had to say about "Sense and Singularity", my fifth successful attempt at writing a novel in thirty days. Thank you for reading, sorry for being so dull and long-winded, hope you enjoyed the adventure, and I hope to hear from you at some point.

But if you stick around for the next entry, I’ll give you a preview of next year’s project.

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-29 22:59

2006-11-30: Thursday, Day -335 – 0 words – Coming attractions.

The amusing thing about saying "I’m writing one novel per year" is the way ideas align naturally for the next project down the line.

Faithful readers probably noticed that my novels tend to oscillate between science-fiction with a heavy thriller component to thrillers with a heavy techno-scientific component. After this year’s SF extrapollanza, it’s time to get back to the present and dive down in the murky depths of today’s geopolitical reality.

The way my novels usually start to cohere is that I stuff all of my current subjects of interest into a big grab-bag and see what happens. Lately, I’ve be fascinated by the way war is evolving, with the military-monopoly known as the USA failing against cruder upstarts. I’ve been aghast at developments in private military contracting (a fancy word for "mercenaries"), network guerilla warfare, corporate amorality, the rise of autonomous killing technology, the failure of the US at anticipating the consequences of its actions, and the looming impact of China rising in the geopolitical sphere. The real world is truly more fantastical than fiction, and the paradox of returning to a techno-thriller is that it will allow me to explore issues what would be dismissed in SF as being too "far out".

In parallel, I want to start poking holes into my assumptions as a good Canadi
an. I want to look behind the tinted glass and peek at the vampiric nature of western civilization as it exists on the back of the third world. I want to explore the idea that Canada is a full-fledged imperialistic country, the idea that no one is innocent of what people are doing to other people so that we can have our SUVs, our iPods and our everyday low prices at Walmart. I know, I know: not a new notion. But I still want to look at it.

As I start to dig down deeper into the story, it’s becoming clear to me that Africa is going to play a big role into next year’s novel. By many measures, it’s still one of the most hopeless places on Earth, showing none of the upward trends that are benefitting Asia or South America. It’s shaping up as a battleground between an energized China and a bloodied US. It’s a place where "Africa Wins Again", defying western expectations and confronting the occasional enlightenment of humanity against its brutal nature. Africa is the perfect battleground between hope and reality.

And next year, reality is going to pummel hope. Poor characters. Poor hero/heroine, who’s going to discover the horrible truth. Poor sidekicks, stuck in the crossfire between rich entities that just don’t care. Poor ordinary people, living in a fairytale bubble of denial until someone decides to pop it. Poor Africa.

Poor writer, who’s going to be stuck researching all of this.

Some of my favourite films of the past year were SYRIANA, THE CONSTANT GARDENER and LORD OF WAR, with my fingers crossed for the upcoming BLOOD DIAMOND. I want next year’s novel to be a lot like those films. Multiple characters, wide-screen action, hard moral choices, odd bits of dangerous knowledge, few certitudes and a feel that seems ripped from what the headline news won’t show us.

So, who wants to talk about increasing ambitions?

(Don’t tell anyone, but I already have plans for Novel#7: A middle-future SF dystopia of post-peak-oil crisis, tight surveillance, rampant corporatism, oppressive government, amped-up terrorism and runaway climate change. With luck, it’ll remain a science-fiction novel from now until 2008.)

Rockland, ON – 2006-11-30 22:05

2006-12-01: Friday, Day -334 – 0 words – Epilogue.

Right on cue, Winter fell upon Ottawa with sleet and everyone’s favourite icy treat: slush. Mmm. Good thing I had to walk a kilometer in that weather so that I could get the full experience.

But first, I discovered troubling similitudes between my novel and Teilhard de Chardin’s theories, even down to the specific wording of certain concepts: no mean feat in French!

Then I sent off my much-laboured 4,000-words movie reviewing column. It’s quite a change to actually rewrite stuff after thirty days of straight-ahead drafting.

And elsewhere, 12,945 authors (including myself) simply basked in the glory of finished novels: NaNoWriMo participants collectively wrote 982,523,177 words in November 2006. Only 17% of them managed to write more than 50,000 words.

See you next year!


Last Updated:
December 2006

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