A writing thought after NaNoWriMo

I don’t know how many of you people who were chugging merrily away during NaNoWriMo have seen their writing just dry up. But I imagine it’s some of you.

And it includes me.

If there’s one thing I 100% believe as an objective truth about being a good writer, it is that it must include the ability to learn from your mistakes and stop making them. A few freaks of nature at best emerge ready made; the rest of us have to get better, and you can’t get better if you don’t learn.

One of the big things I’ve had to learn is how to get out of my own way. That’s the good thing about NaNoWriMo for me. The challenge forces me to just get on with it. Guess what happened without the challenge?

The good news is that I have at least spotted what’s happening and have been able to at least think about what’s going on. And I’d add that yes, there’s a few things in life going on making things a wee bit difficult. But insofar as I can, I’d like to be able to keep going. I don’t want to be macho about it, I don’t to be all “no graft no draft” – although that’s a great line, did anyone else come up with it before me – I just want to be someone who can write whatever. If I can’t, no point beating myself up over it, but if I can, course I’d like to be like that.

NaNoWriMo’s goals worked for me but ultimately I don’t want that to be my way forwards. For one thing, the community isn’t there all the time. For another, it feels too mechanical. Also, if I’m forever chasing targets, what happens when it comes to time for slow and careful thought?

I like to use plans as a way to avoid getting in my own way but that only works sometimes, and ometimes I get in my own way when planning, so it’s hardly a cure-all.

So what can I use? Let’s change the metaphor a little. What can I use to get back on the road when I get trapped in the bogs and fog? A map. A compass. Some authority to refer to. Who should that authority be? It can’t be someone else.

It’s here I think of a Jeff VanderMeer article on writer structure I recently featured in Friday Five. Here’s the relevant part:

“But, especially on novels, a kind of darkly glittering, revolving, usually architectural image also materializes in my mind that acts as a kind of compass — takes the form of some structure that speaks to theme and form, but is not the actual structure of the novel. It is instead a kind of scaffolding that I require and need to remember for the fiction to attain depth and originality. Thus, it is a kind of illogical creation, needing only to create a signpost for the subconscious, but in a way that has a dream-logic or perhaps novel-logic associated with it.

For example, on Acceptance, the third novel in the Southern Reach series, I imagined a four-pointed glowing star and at the center of that star, from which all else radiated outward, was the return of the biologist from the first book, Annihilation, and her further account of exploration.”

When I started work on one of my current projects, tentatively entitled Swords of Scorn, I created that image without realising. Well. It’s less an image, and more a song someone else wrote, but I made that song into my image. I did so for some frankly frivolous reasons, but I did it.

And it’s working.

It’s not working perfectly. This would be a very different article if it was. But when I sit down and write, and feel stuck, I think back to that image and taking that right decision feels easier. That image produces better structure to how I write. I’m not sure I’d have recognised my need for that image so much without the contrast between how I was going in NaNo and how I’m going now.

That lesson is more valuable than all the words I wrote last month – providing I remember it!

2 thoughts on “A writing thought after NaNoWriMo

  1. That’s interesting. My way is completely different. I get these random images in my head and then a story coalesced around it (and changed over time) until now there is a coherent outline. I’m usually a very visual thinker, but in the case of the story it really is the outline (which I periodically rewrite) that keeps the story fresh and keeps me on track.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The random images – the few major scenes and characters – are usually how my story ideas start (along with a what if question), but that and the outline alone haven’t been enough to sustain myself lately.

      Liked by 1 person

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