I hit 50K on the very last night of National Novel Writing Month. I’d started November off on vacation and then got sick. So a very slow start and then very slow progress due to raw exhaustion. I didn’t see the doctor until the day before Thanksgiving and got antibiotics. So over the course of the last week of November I wrote over 25,000 words. After that I feel like someone’s been beating me in my sleep.
For this year’s NaNoWriMo, I relied entirely on the crude outline I created in the one-day workshop I did with Mark Teppo through Clarion West‘s one-day workshop in early October. For a lot of reasons, mostly involving the build-up to November (including World Fantasy Con and AmberCon Northwest back to back), I didn’t get a blog post about my experience with his workshop. Since the novel came out of the work I did in his workshop, and it’s a great chance to see how that worked for me, I figured it was best to combine those two posts.
As I’ve continued writing over the last several years, I’ve increasingly found writing to be a very spiritual experience for me. I don’t mean spiritual in the sense of “developing a closer connection to an otherworldly being” but more in the sense of self exploration and understanding. In theory all moments in life are opportunities to learn something about yourself, but I feel it most acutely through writing (and being a writer as well, which is a little different). My best guess is that writing comes from and touches a deeper part of my psyche than, say making photocopies or feeding the cats. NaNoWriMo drills all of that down into a very intense month of beating my head against a creative work without room to give up or back out.
The one-day workshop I did with Mark Teppo was called “Jump Start Your Novel.” It was a day long exercise in taking whatever elements you have in mind for a novel and finding ways to expand it into a coherent and well crafted book. Some people came to the workshop with just vague ideas about what they wanted their books to be about. Others came after having written a good chunk of a novel and found it unworkable.
The first part of the class focused on us writing out answers to questions about our book. These questions asked about the protagonist, the theme of the book, as well as how the book would end. The second half of the class focused on how to translate these answers into an outline. Mark offered a lot of templates for plot structure for us to hang ideas on. He covered what he called the “Hardy Boys” chapter structure, the heroic journey, the three act structure and a variation on the Celtic Cross tarot spread.
Throughout all of these exercises, we had the opportunity to draw one tarot card per question to help us generate ideas. At first only a couple people did it, but as we got deeper and deeper into the exercise more and more people went looking for inspiration. In some parts I just flailed as I stared at the “white bull” of my lap top screen.
But, in the end, I had an outline for 25 chapters in pretty broad strokes with a lot more solid about my novel idea than I’d ever had besides some broad concepts. I felt pretty empowered.
What I should have done at this point was to flesh out narrative arcs for each of my chapters, apply the same questions I had written up to all of my primary characters and maybe written a little backstory for each of the characters.
But I had this faint hope that I could finish my novella before November hit and was pushing to do that. And I didn’t. But in the weeks between the workshop and November, I didn’t do any further work on my pre-NaNo prep. So late Halloween night I realized I didn’t even have names for most of the characters in the book, nor anything more solid about the broad strokes I’d fleshed out. And I didn’t even remember what half my broad strokes were supposed to mean.
I stuck with the outline for maybe two or three chapters, getting the feel for the writing before veering off course. The consistent problem I have with outlines is that the map is not the territory. When I actually get in and start putting words down, I start to get a feel for the flow of the plot and the structure of the story. I guess some people don’t have that problem. I haven’t grown past that. Anyway, since this outline was so loosely sketched out, I realized fast just how little thought I’d put into it the story. I went away from planned territory in a way I haven’t done in several years. The entire narrative arc was coming out of the ether as I went. I still used many ideas generated by the workshop, but the plot only bore the most superficial resemblance to my outline.
There’s an important lesson to be learned here: Workshops of various stripes are excellent for improving your skills. But the benefit comes from doing the work that needs to be done, not just half-assing it. If you have a chance to take Mark Teppo’s workshop in some form, I encourage you to do so. He’s a great guy, an excellent teacher and I really learned a lot through his workshop. My failure to follow through on the awesome I got from him is all my own damn fault.