The difference between write and wrong

nano_08_winner_100x100.gifAnother year, another 50,000 words. This is my fourth year finishing National Novel Writing Month and, by definition, the fourth year of performing a post-mortem on the experience (you can read the [first]( [three]( [years’]( entries if you’re feeling courageous).

I’ve started to look at the NaNoWriMo process as an exercise, a chance to try out things that I wouldn’t otherwise. By this point, I’m pretty confident in my ability to write, regardless of what month it is, so it’s an opportunity for experimentation.

Last year, I tried to write a young adult science-fiction novel about a girl who discovers that her older brother is part of a secret organization that fights aliens and deals with the powers of the occult. If that sounds a lot like [*The Middleman*](…well, it is, but I hadn’t heard about it prior to coming up with the idea. *The Middleman* had roughly the same concept as my story, but with one major difference: vastly superior execution. That’s okay; I don’t regret the experience of writing that story—but I don’t think I’m likely to finish it either.

So, what have I learned this year that I didn’t know last year? Well, I’ve learned that even though I *can* write mainstream fiction, I seem to keep coming up with better genre fiction ideas at the same time (I thought of at least two premises for good stories that I’d like to write). I’ve learned that having an *entire* plot in mind—which I didn’t this time around—really helps not only the day-to-day act of writing, but also the emotional investment in the novel and characters, and I learned that I can produce 50,000 words without breaking too much of a sweat. In many ways I felt like I put in a lot less effort this year. I went to most of the local area write-ins, and I regularly cranked out more than my allotted word count for a given day, allowing me to skip several days over the course of the month. I also learned that the first-person perspective is great, because you can just delve into long periods of wandering introspection, many of which were probably the better—or at least more amusing—parts of this book.

This year’s effort, [*Everything Is Fine Until It Isn’t*](—and as much as I don’t want to heap on the self-adulation, I still love that title—was largely autobiographical and, let’s be honest, more than a little therapeutic. I ditched the idea of writing for therapy way back in my first or second year of college when I realized that it was basically an attempt at wish-fulfillment: creating the scenarios that I *wanted* to happen in real life. That’s ultimately unsatisfying, however, and even though I did base a lot of this year’s novel on my own life, I wanted to take a more investigatory approach to the past and present, fictionalized as they were, instead of creating a speculative future that could never exist.

In the volume department, that works out great: there’s always more material to mine from inside your head. In terms of quality, it’s a little more hit-and-miss. Despite truth often being stranger than fiction, most of the time it’s a lot more boring. The story might be interesting from a purely navel-gazing perspective, but if you just take what actually *happens*, it’s a lot of people moving around, talking, and not *doing* much of anything. Which just kind of makes it sound like the government.

However, one of the problems with the first-person narration, especially when it’s a thinly fictionalized version of oneself, is that there’s a temptation to somehow try and get your *entire being* onto the page. Not only is that impossible, but it’s usually unwise too. The act of creation is as much about what’s left out as what’s put in, and you can never recreate the thing itself—nor should you. It’s like trying to make a completely photorealistic painting.

This year’s work started out strong, mainly because that was the part that I’d mostly written in my head already, but it dropped off quickly as I realized that I wasn’t really sure what this book was *about*. I do think there’s a potential story with these characters and this premise, but I don’t think I quite hit the bull’s-eye this time around. Despite that, I think the opening to *Everything* is among my favorite things that I’ve written and it’s kind of okay if the rest of the novel doesn’t live up to it, because at least I wrote *that* part.

So, having learned my lessons, where do I go from here? Well, there’s still that pesky third novel in a trilogy to finish (and I have a couple of beta readers who have been bothering me about that recently). I’ve got four more volumes of my graphical novel to finish (despite the fact that I recently lost all my notes for it in a [horrible data catastrophe](, and there are at least a couple more ideas that I alluded to above that I’d like to flesh out a bit—not to mention my latest, greatest idea for [an espionage cookbook](

As always, there’s plenty more to write and never enough time to do it. But NaNoWriMo does remind me that it’s possible to keep writing during the rest of the year—if not everyday—and still accomplish something.

Great commentary on the annual NaNoWriMo exercise. Seems like you’ve got a good handle on the process — completing it four years in a row is pretty impressive.

I do agree that the best way to work efficiently on any writing project is to have extensive notes and an outline — or a solid idea of the entire plot — prepared in advance. If I didn’t have outlines, I’d never get any book-length project finished.

(As for data catastrophes, I’m still trying to recover from the permanent loss of the first 100 pages of a novel. It’s a horrible, horrible thing that I’ll never allow to happen again.)

My thoughts about NaNoWriMo are quite cynical — possibly because my initial exposure to it seemed to showcase the hype and profit motivations of groups sponsoring it. (I blogged about it, but won’t insult your readers by linking to my post here.)

I enjoyed reading your take on the exercise. It makes me feel that it is a real and legitimate project — one I hope to make time for another month.

Ever work on a piece collaboratively? I’m always curious how that’d change the experience of writing, that hopefully the other would help to fill in the gaps and holes. Or even just finding an editor.