Nano thoughts

My hot takes on NaNoWriMo

Eight ice cubes
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Here is a description of the National Novel Writing Month stories I’ve done so far:

  • 2011 Return of the Equinox: A man awakes to find he has been revived five centuries after his death in a world where Earth is dominated by a species of artificial humanoids.
  • 2012 The Rise of Mother Blue: A small tech startup is creating 3D printers incorporating organic parts but the devices become self-aware and things go badly awry afterwards.
  • 2013 Breakfast at the Turn of the Holocene: Mutated humans from the distant future watch a twenty-four hour recording of some people in a diner in order to learn something of what people were like.
  • 2014 Beyond the Midnight Gulf: A middle-aged woman goes out to find her son who has gone off into space for reasons she doesn’t understand at first, then ends up crossing to a different galaxy.
  • 2015 The Last Parsec: A recovering alcoholic is pursued by extremists angry that she is cooperating with an advanced alien species.
  • 2016 The Path That Was Never Planned: Five stories from the near to distant future with slight thematic connections. There was a girl set upon undergoing alien neurosurgery, a violin maker on a space station, people fleeing a pandemic threatening to wipe out humanity, a ship goes to the space between galaxies and back again, a group of vaguely human types are having a cocktail party and the subject of art comes up.
  • 2017 Io Fries: A girl who had become infected during an outbreak of a strange pathogen that caused many people to become shunned by society so she and her working-class father had to locate to a colony on a remote island. (I blogged about this story in this post)
  • 2018 The Ivory Island: A young man searches for his identity in the course of investigating the nature of a coastal island being built by extraterrestrial nanomachines.

Some of my stories were more purely science fictional and some were a little less so, but they have all had some kind of speculative element in them. This one, for instance, used some alien creatures I had come up with in a previous story and considered what might happen if they sent self-replicating probes to Earth. In recent years the focus of the story has shifted away from the speculative hook and centered more on other elements I came up with. This time around, I spent most of the time considering the events of the story from the viewpoint of my main character who had been one of those children who had been separated from his family when crossing the US southern border. This let me consider what it was like for him growing up without the kind of roots most children have quite a bit more than the original alien plot. I haven’t gotten to the point of writing a non-genre story at all, preferring to live in the ill-defined realm of the interstitial novels I like to read, but maybe I will someday cross over completely away from science fiction and fantasy.

According to the NaNoWriMo website I have generated over 400000 words on these stories alone, and I estimate I must have put down another 150000 to 200000 during all of the preparation for these. I did try editing some of the manuscripts that held my interest after the month was done but ran out of the drive to bring them to a completed shape.

The main philosophy of NaNoWriMo is that it is easier to come up with a finished story if you have some raw material to start with which you can edit and shape. You are freed of the terror of the blank page during this part of the writing process by having something somewhat close to the thing you are aiming at which you can cut, reword, or extend without having to create the whole thing out of whole cloth. The quickest way to come up with a book-sized mass of text for the idea you have in your head is to trick yourself to dump it out on the page without judgment, trusting the intuitive side of your brain to do what it needs to do without being slowed down by the analytic side. After going at this for eight years, plus writing in between Novembers on my own projects, I have gotten this part of the process down pretty well. This year I reached the 50000 word mark by the 20th of November by churning out about 2100 words a day and more on weekends, following an outline I set up in October There were still easier stretches and more difficult ones, depending on what was going on in the various sections, but I didn’t have trouble piling on a substantial amount going through the process.

The trouble is that I now have eight long manuscripts which each need an equal or larger amount of effort to turn into something that I can tolerate, much less show to a beta reader. By the end of each NaNoWriMo you have a story that has inconsistencies, missing parts, characters who drop off or stay around long after they are no longer interesting, all the things you have trained yourself to ignore during the speedwriting phase. Although the story followed an outline, none of these was never a very strong structure to support a novel, sometimes petering out long before there was any kind of climax, or taking large, unmotivated leaps to get from section to section without much of clue of how to craft transitions. Occasionally there are pieces which have a decent amount of emotion in them, but other times there are stretches of raw exposition, characters going through the motions as dictated by the original plan or by the whims of the moment, and other stretches which have no salvage value. Some, but not all of the stories got to the point where something like the actual voice of the main character and some of the stronger supporting characters started to come through, which seems like a good place to start with the edits. Sometimes there would be a subplot or two which can be made to work, or some setting sketches which could stand to be improved with investing in research. I am pretty sure that some of the stories are better off not becoming novels at all, but might work as the basis of something shorter by tightening everything up.

The science fictional aspect of the stories served as a way to keep me in the game for the duration of the four weeks. The 2013 novel was an experiment in writing something less genre focusing on character, probably influenced by the Year of Reading Proust that happened then, which has influenced some of my literary likes and dislikes in the years afterwards. The 2016 effort came from a desire to be able to carve out smaller projects out of the month’s investment in time, which might be more manageable in the editing stage.

Will I do this again next year? I am pretty sure I don’t know how I’ll feel then, but at this moment I am thinking about whether I have learned all I can from NaNoWriMo and have to take on these other important writing skills instead. Ideally I would not have to choose, but just try to do both, but I also have learned over these years that I have limits to what I can do.

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