This is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, AKA NaNoWriMo, and I just started today’s chunk of writing. Since this is my first NaNoWriMo, I decided I wouldn’t do any preparation at all to see just how awful it would be. I’ll keep track of my insights here.
I’d chosen the plot of a story that had been kicking around (or so I thought) since the 1990s. It was to be the backstory of a game I’d been working on at Qualia back then; I figured why not try to write it now?
As it turns out, having a few skeletons of a concept is not a story, and I immediately ran into the challenge of making up details as I went. However, since NaNoWriMo is about just getting to 50,000 words and not having a polished story, that’s OK. And thank goodness that is the case.
The act of writing a novel implies that there is not only an interesting premise, but that there’s also interesting storytelling involved as well. How do you introduce the ideas? How do you introduce the characters? How do you write exposition through dialog, and how do you keep everything from bogging down in a mess of exposition? These are HARD PROBLEMS, and because I haven’t formally studied them I’m hitting this wall for the first time. As I’m writing my novel on-the-fly, I’m painfully aware of the flaws as I’m typing them. I was briefly tempted to start over and choose a different kind of novel to write, as science fiction imposes an additional expositional burden than, say, a novel based on what I do every day. However, that feels like it would be cheating. I think the value of participating in NaNoWriMo is to being forced to finish something that I’ve started, bulldozing through problems and doubts until something it complete. That something will be a mess, but it’s the mess that appears before the true shape of the work starts to emerge. My 50,000 words will probably, in the end, be 2500 words of good stuff. That good stuff can become the starter for 50,000 words of better stuff.
This is, essentially, the creative process laid bare. I can’t think of the finished product now, or worry about the quality or sophistication of the writing. I need to make a big ole’ mess of words, and learn as I slosh them around. And I am telling myself that I’m fine with it. The experience is the reward!
Lesson: The Perils of Not Preparing
I’ve just finished watching the last three seasons worth of staff commentary on the show Community, and it’s been interesting to hear Dan Harmon (creator) talk about how he approached each episode. He talks about sitting in the writer’s room “breaking” an episode, the allusion being to that of cracking-open an episode from concept to finished script. I found the concept interesting, that a bunch of writers would sit in a room and FIGURE OUT how an episode would play out based on continuity of the characters and Dan’s idea of a theme. His themes weren’t easy sitcom tropes like, “Nerds discover pop rocks, and funny gags ensue”. They are more like, “Jeff discovers the meaning of friendship, and realizes that he’s changed, which disrupts the balance of power in the group.” Doing this and being funny at the same time seems like a tall order; without it, you end up with a show like Family Guy.
After writing my 1667 words today, I’m keenly aware of how little preparation I’ve done. I haven’t defined any characters or relationships. I haven’t defined the world or technology. All I have is the notion that there is a central character that’s a 12-yo boy that lives in a place that has tried to erase its origin as a mothballed starship facility over many generations, and this boy is discovering this and unlocking it. I also want it to be funny, which is something I need to be more aware of. My first day of writing was woefully unprepared, and I’ll have to think about it in greater detail.
One of the greatest challenges I faced today was that I hadn’t worked out the technology, nor had I worked out the social framework that this story would take place. That made DESCRIBING it difficult, and overly expositional. There’s no anchor for the reader to grab onto and start exploring. I think for inspiration, I should read the opening chapters of a few books I like. I think I have some Zelazny kicking around, and it wouldn’t hurt to reread a bit of Harry Potter #1. The book I’d like to pay homage to is Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat, which was originally a series of short stories I believe, but it wouldn’t hurt to reread the very first one I read, a thick collection in pocket book format sitting in my basement.
But I’m OK. There’s 29 days to go, and again it’s not about perfection. It’s about completion. The journey WILL BE the reward! In the meantime, I don’t need to feel bad about writing poorly. Writing in the first place will lead me down the path of some future victory, even if I don’t win the quality war in this pass. It’s a new era!
I’ve forgotten the rules for punctuating dialogue! Google to the rescue!
I’m using Sublime Text 2 as my editor, which is a text editor that I’ve grown to like for its novel approach to text editoring. It has a Quake-style console, accessible by typing CTRL-TILDE, which delights me for deep nerdly reasons. I used it to install a package manager that loaded a Word Count module. Very cool.