It’s been just over a month since I completed my project for National Novel Writing Month 2012 and I’ve had enough time to assess what worked and what didn’t and put together some thoughts on the contest itself.
First, let’s look at my overall performance in the four NaNoWriMo’s I’ve participated in. I have a 50% success rate:
2009: Finished novel The Ferry in 21 days.
2010: Stalled at 17,210 words on expansion of short story Low Desert.
2011: Stalled at 5,073 words on expansion of short story The Dream of the Buckford Church.
2012: Finished novel The Mean Mind one day early.
The Ferry started life as a short story that started growing into something that might have become a novel had I not abandoned it in 1993. Which I did. When I picked it up in 2009, I dusted off the unfinished beginning, fixed it up a bit and continued from where I’d left off, following a rough plot outline I had written down in my head. The headstart allowed me to finish early but I’d have finished early regardless, as I wrote the thing in a blur. Something else that contributed to an early and easy finish that’s important (as I’ll explain in a bit in reference to 2012′s entry) is this: The Ferry is a straightforward story. It takes place almost entirely in one location with a small group of people and is spread over a mere 24 hour period (less, actually). The entire narrative is as direct as it could be. Things happen as they happen. There are no flashbacks, no subplots, no back story. It’s a monster movie waiting to be filmed (please write or call if you are interested in purchasing the rights. Unless you are Uwe Boll. No, even if you’re Uwe Boll. Maybe especially if you’re Uwe Boll).
2010 was a noble attempt and the short story (originally titled “Hello?”) lent itself to expansion to novel-length. The problem there is I had no real plan on where to take the story beyond its short story roots. I tried writing it with the same kind of narrative directness as The Ferry but ran out of steam quickly.
2011 was a repeat with a different story but with the additional complication of the story being complicated. The short story hints at complexities existing between the waking and dream worlds and I intended to flesh this out but eventually it felt like trying to untangle the cord of your earbuds before getting on the bus. You can either untangle the cord and miss the bus or get on the bus and try untangling the cord as you slosh around against all the other passengers standing around you. Neither option is optimal, so the real solution is to untangle the damn cord before leaving home. Or in terms of NaNoWriMo, spend some time before November plotting out the story, even if you end up deviating from what you’ve planned because going into NaNoWriMo with a complex story and little to no outline to guide you is like going into a dark cellar without a lantern. You will be eaten by a grue.
Which brings me to 2012′s effort. Did I complete the objective? Yes, I wrote 50,000 words. Did I finish the story? No, it did not reach an actual conclusion, unless you consider the last scene a particularly obscure ‘What if?’ scenario where it is left to the reader to imagine the rest of what happened. Unlike 2009 I am not happy with the effort this time. There are parts of The Mean Mind that work very well. The opening third of the book flows well and I was fully engaged with the story in the first few weeks of November. But while I actually had a plot outline this time (having learned from 2010 and 2011) it became clear that this was not going to be a slim 175-page novel. Sure, it also wasn’t going to be a Steven Erickson-alike that would bend the shelf it was placed upon but I soon realized there was no way I would complete NaNoWriMo unless I did some serious compression with the story. Long scenes were reduced to lines, characters were brought in quickly and sketched minimally, ciphers to be detailed later. The plot jumped with a kinetic energy that was not invigorating but maddening–like reading one of those Reader’s Digest condensed novels (what an awful idea those were) that had been further chopped in half again. You know how a lot of people complain that some of Stephen King’s books are too long? Imagine IT or The Stand being 200 pages in length. They just wouldn’t work.
That’s how The Mean Mind felt. By the time I passed 50,000 words I was relieved to be able to stop writing and put it aside. I haven’t looked at it since. I will, eventually, and if I like enough of the skeleton I may try adding flesh to its bones.
But going forward I will make sure that my next NaNoWriMo effort (and I will do it again, unless I’m hot and heavy in the middle of something else) a trifle, something suitably shallow or pulpy, where the pace is brisk, the characters broad and the action worthy of Michael Bay. Or maybe even Uwe Boll.
No, not even Uwe Boll.
Or to put it more simply: I’ll keep it simple. And the story will be better for it.