I have failed – utterly – to get 50,000 words of my novel cranked out in 30 days.
I blame Larry Brooks.
You see, a year or so ago, fellow Live to Write – Write to Live blogger, Wendy, introduced me to Brooks’ work on the theory of story structure. As I dug into his content – rich blog posts, in-depth ebooks, and honest-to-goodness print books (joy!) – my interest blossomed from merely curious to fanatically infatuated. I unleashed my inner student with her armory of colored pens and highlighters and dove into Story Engineering with gusto and gratitude. I made notes, underlined everything, and drew diagrams.
I cannot recommend Brooks’ work enough.
Reading his explanation of what makes a story tick was like learning the secret behind a mind-blowing magic trick. Once I’d seen it, it made such sense. It was inspiring. It made me want to try my own hand at creating a little magic. Real magic.
As November approached, I got the crazy idea to give Nanowrimo another go (I’d “won” in 2009, but skipped out in 2010 and 2011.). Despite being super busy, I was invigorated by the thought of creating a strong outline based on what I’d learned from Brooks. This year, instead of blindly hacking out 50,000 words of crap, I would invest my time in creating a halfway decent first draft with a strong underlying structure – something with real possibilities. I wanted something I would actually want to polish instead of, like my 2009 “novel” (and I use the term ever so loosely), something I would bury in a never-visited archive folder deep in the labyrinth of my computer’s hard drive.
I was pumped. I was tingling. I was bursting with ideas.
And then, life happened.
My uncharacteristically open work schedule suddenly filled back up to its usual full capacity and all the October hours I’d gleefully allocated to story planning were sucked up by urgent client projects. No matter, I thought optimistically, I’ll just plan on-the-fly. It’ll still work.
But, it didn’t.
I couldn’t take the pressure of trying to plan my book out so quickly. I wanted time to let the idea germinate and develop. I wanted time to play with variations on the theme and a variety of possible story threads. When November 1st arrived and I was still without a plan, I found myself face-to-face with some major resistance. Though I did some work on character and location sketches, sample prologues, and a few opening scenes, I didn’t want to write.
I didn’t want to write.
It’s not that I couldn’t. I could have followed my 2009 playbook and just rambled away with no idea of where I was going (or why). I could have written random scenes and hoped that I might eventually someday stitch them together into a semblance of a story. I could have done a whole freeform thing and not cared one whit about the end result.
But I’d grown beyond that. I’d seen the truth behind the trick and I couldn’t unsee it.
“Play” writing has its merits – it can free your muse, tickle your fancy, turn expectations on their heads to reveal striking new plot insights and concept perspective. It can serve as a roundabout way to brainstorm a story. It can unearth important personal discoveries that contribute to the veracity and depth of your work.
What it won’t deliver (unless you are a massively gifted and highly experienced virtuoso) is a well-structured story that hits every mark in terms of concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, and writing voice – Brooks’ “six core competencies” of the story craft.
I knew that without a plan (or the brain of, say, Stephen King), I wouldn’t be able to create the kind of story Brooks’ work had inspired me to write. I knew that even if I managed to get 50,000 words down most of them would never again appear on my screen, let alone be read by another human being. Though I hated to do it, I laid down my pen. It wasn’t an easy decision. I am not a quitter. But, in the end, I decided that my time would be better spent continuing to work on the bones of my story. Like a sorceress creating a creature from dust and light, I knew I had to start with the bones and build out from there. It was the only way.
So my Nanowrimo dreams for 2012 met a premature end.
And I’m okay with that.
In fact, I’d like to thank Mr. Brooks.
I may not have written 50,000 words in November, but because of what I’ve learned from him I know that the next 50,000 words I write will have a much higher chance of becoming part of a publishable manuscript.
I’m definitely okay with that.
What are your thoughts on plotting (designing your story based on a framework like Brooks’) vs. pantsing (relying entirely on your muse to drive the story as you write it)? If you did Nanowrimo, did you have a plan going in, or just wing it? How’d that work out for you?
P.S. I offer my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to everyone who successfully crosses the Nanowrimo finish line this year (especially to my fellow Live to Write – Write to Live bloggers – Wendy and (hopefully!) Deborah. Way to go, girls!).
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.