Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo, which, for the uninitiated, is not a rare zoo animal, but National Novel Writing Month. During NaNoWriMo, participants are encouraged to write a novel in (50,000 words +) in a month’s time.
I have since decided that NaNoWriMo is for masochists.
I began strong. Well, sort of. I uploaded the beginning of a manuscript I had started six months earlier, which is probably cheating, but having a 5,000 word head start gave me a definite psychological boost, which lasted for all of three days. On the third day, I blogged the following about NaNoWriMo:
I’ve gotten stuck.
Perhaps you’ve seen the Frank Capra film “You Can’t Take it With You.” If you haven’t, go and rent it right now.
Penny Sycamore, mother of James Stewarts’ paramour in the film, sits in the middle of her living room writing her endless novel. She finds she has gone and written her protagonist into a monastery. Every character in the film who traipses through the living room (and there are quite a few who do so) is questioned as to whether or not they have ever been in a monastery. Penny never has, and doesn’t quite know how to get her character out of the setting. Here are some lines from the movie:
Penny Sycamore: Were you ever in a monastery, Mr. Poppins? Poppins: In a monastery?
Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: What’s the matter, Penny, stuck?
Penny Sycamore: Yes, I’ve sort of got myself in the monastery and I can’t get out.
Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: It’ll come to you. Remember how you got out of that jail.
I have written myself into a basement with a bunch of giggly teenage girls and I can’t seem to get myself out. The novel isn’t even about giggly teenage girls and I don’t know how I wrote myself into this mess.
I could scrap the whole scene and be out a couple of thousand words. I could just skip and go on to the next chapter and come back to it later. I could admit utter and total defeat already and move on to something else, which would be just like me. I have a rather short attention span. Or, I could go with it and see what these giggly teenage girls do next. I have a feeling they are up to no good.
I have since put that novel on hiatus. I’m ashamed to admit that I never got out of the basement.
I’m somewhat encouraged to find out that I’m not alone in this mess. I just stumbled across this interview with Richard Stark (a pen name- his real name was Donald Westlake), who wrote the famous “Parker” novels.
Question: Since The Hunter was first published in 1962, the Parker series has been going for over forty-five years now. Since the basic setup is largely the same—Parker gets into trouble, Parker gets out of trouble—how do you continue to come up with interesting new variations? Do the trouble itself and the way out of it come to you at the same time, or do you, like Parker, have to figure it out as you go?
Donald Westlake: I’m my own first reader. I don’t outline or plan ahead but every day tell myself some more of the story. I know the characters and I know the subject, and usually I can figure out what happens next. Sometimes the title is almost the only seed needed. Breakout came about when I realized that, in all these years, Parker had never been jailed except once before the first book. Get him arrested, and watch how he handled it. At the end of part one he’s out of jail, but not out of trouble, and at that point I came down with bad Lyme disease, in the hospital four days, unable to work for six weeks, and I kept saying, ”Well, at least he’s out of jail.“ We both hated the experience, and we both worked very hard to get him out of there. When I got back to the book, I realized the title meant the whole book so the entire thing is Parker clawing himself out of places he doesn’t want to be. They usually find their subject and their path that way, and if they don’t I simply give up writing, move to another city and use a different name.
Funny thing is, Westlake had a number of pen names, which makes his last comment a bit ironic. Perhaps he should’ve tried an outline.
I’m seriously considering outlining this novel. I even went online and found a nice little worksheet. I have a basic idea of the plot in my head- but the idea of an outline feels… confining? And (dare I say it) boring as hell?
So I ditched the worksheet. After all, we each dance to the beat of a different drum, and detailed outlines aren’t for every writer. (Mine is definitely a counter- rhythm. Calypso, maybe?) Thankfully, there are a few different options that will help to keep a novel on course. Here are some short to long pre-writing exercises.
1) Write the entire plot for your novel in one sentence. This is a surefire way to tell whether or you are ready to begin writing.
2) Write the synopsis for the back cover of your book. Write an enticing synopsis that doesn’t reveal the ending and then one that summarizes the entire plot. Have a word limit and stick to it.
3) Pretend you’re a critic and write a detailed review of your own completed novel. Be sure to include a short summary. Take a look at the longer book reviews in the New York Times or Salon or Literary Saloon and emulate different styles. This is a great exercise- it helps you to establish not only plot, but mood, tone, and character development.
4) Write down all of your ideas for scenes in your novel as they come to you. When you are finished, put them in a semblance of order as to how they are to appear in your book. As you look through the scenes, note whether or not the plot seems fully developed. What scenes are missing? Does the plot make sense? Try rearranging scenes, playing around with the timeline, etc. This is a fun creative exercise.
5) Make a detailed outline of each chapter and don’t start writing your novel until every scene is established, every character developed, and every plot line consistent. Use Excel if you must. Be thorough.
And here are some groovy worksheets to help you get started:
You probably have a totally better idea than I do. Please share below. And if you don’t outline- why not? And has it ever gotten you, well, stuck in a basement with a bunch of giggly teenage girls?