A Peak Around the Corner: My NaNoWriMo Reflections

My Writing JournalIt has been a difficult month since I first posted my Prewriting for NaNoWriMo and launched the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 Days. I find autumn hard, the dying light, our world plunging into darkness. While most people struggle with January blues, I come alive in the new year. So writing in this little cave I’ve carved out for creative projects in my basement has been tough.

It’s also tough because I am writing a very dark novel. The Curse of Téarian, though tentatively titled, is about an Exchange that takes place in every generation when the villagers of Téarian rise up and take the life of an outcast child, and in return one of the loved village children is taken from them by Death. I’ve posted chapter 1 here, which I think hints at the darkness to come. It is a magical book full of light and hope, but the Character Cheat Sheetscenes where I write the death of Téarian’s outcast children has been unpredictably painful. As the days are short, so the material is dark. The alternative title, The Shadow of Death’s Valley, isn’t much brighter.

Darkness and difficulty, however, don’t mean a lack of success.

After I tucked my son into bed on the night he turned 8, the 25th day, I sat down and crossed the 50,000 word barrier. It is a tremendous accomplishment, and I finished the month with 60,000 words, about 188 pages. I have averaged almost exactly 2000 words per day—not the 2500 I wanted, but I am quite pleased. As I suspected when I did my prewriting this is an 80,000 word novel.

So I have some work to do, and the writing continues. I have decided that I cannot let the end of November be the end of my writing. It will slow down a bit, but I think that I will have a full manuscript by Christmas even if I don’t have a title. I hate titles. The Curse of Téarianand The Valley of Death’s Shadow both work thematically, as does Téarian’s Tapestry. But none really connect for me. I was at Handel’s Messiah yesterday and The Crooked Straight leapt out of me I’ll let that one sit for a bit.

Tearian MapThere are some things that I’ve learned along the way that might be helpful for writers:

  • NaNoWriMo is definitely not the 3 Day Writing Contest! I’ve done 3DNC four times, and you strap yourself to the keyboard and type like made. If I set aside two hours each day, I can be successful at NaNo without having to rush. So for this book I got to slow down, to layer scenes, to choose words.
  • I have become a complete fan of writing and researching in the “in-between times.” If you can, turn aimless social media time into pocket writing. This has changed my whole approach to writing. I wrote about 10,000 words in the 10-15 minutes times I had throughout the month–time I have often wasted without noticing.
  • I do need those times set apart, though. For me, the best writing time is mid-morning (about 9-11), and on the nights I’m not exhausted, early evening (about 8-10). Find what works best for you and use it, but it is important to carve out and hour or two to write. I’m worried because next semester those times are taken, but we’ll see when the time comes.
  • I started taking my journal everywhere, just in case inspiration hits. Now I find that I’m sketching out the upcoming scenes in shorthand. At 62k, I have 13 scenes left. The penultimate scene is hazy, and there is lots of rewriting to do, but this pre-writing exercise has been huge for me.
  • I know that there is a lot of re-writing to do, but I think I’m going to have to go old school and do cue cards (remember those?) of each scene. It is a long project, and I need to make sure the character development is steady, the plot moves forward authentically, suspense and tension build, etc. I also need to watch for gaps. If I don’t close those holes, any heroic ending will look like a Deus ex Machina—which requires either rewriting or learning Latin to work through. Either way, I have to think about the story in a more three dimensional way.
  • I’ve wandered a bit when I wrote throughout the month. My most productive times are at my desk, but I’ve spent 3-4 mornings near McDonald’s refillable Coke Zero, typing in their cold lobby with Dollar Store gloves that I cut the fingers out of. McDonald’s is filled with old men talking about local politics, but with earphones in it is a good break. I also had a breakthrough scene at Starbucks once, though I usually meet too many people I know there to do any real work. But when it is time to move, a change of location can be inspiring.
  • NaNoWriMo suggests that you don’t edit–just write. Get to the end! Good advice, but I’ve done this before. I have 4 novel manuscripts and a thesis of 75,000 words. Bulk is not my issue (especially in the holidays). So I did edit. I reread every day, not just to fix up small issues, but to capture the feeling and voice of the scene. I play with mood and voice a lot in this book. I dig into archaisms for memory scenes and manipulate darkness and light. These writing approaches can go bad really quickly if I lose the narrative thread, let the voice fade out of memory, or develop the story too rapidly. So I reread and edited as I went.
  • I hit a really rough patch around days 11-13. It was important for me to write (and edit, when I couldn’t write) through that period. It taught me a lot, and I was able to produce a few words even when I felt like I couldn’t. Sometimes you can squeeze blood from stones–at least some stones.
  • I would advise closing email, facebook & twitter to write. We all choose what gods we serve, and what screens demand our attention.

I felt strong about the prewriting and had a great month. There are three things that I was timid about going into this challenge.

The first two fears were programmatic fears. First, I didn’t have a real outline even though I did a lot of prewriting. I usually have a strong outline and follow it, but this time I had a smattering of scenes, a magical world, and strong characters. I found as I wrote, though, the scenes came to 2012-NaNo-Winner-Certificateme naturally. I never exhausted the well so that the next morning I always woke up with something new. And as I mentioned above, I began sketching out scenes ahead in my journal. This has been a great learning moment for me.

Second, I was sure I couldn’t finish the book in 50,000 words. On Nov 1, the story felt like 80,000 words, and it still does on Dec 3.  I chose not to rush this project, but to slow down, take my time, and write well. I’m glad I set the parameters for my own success on this novel, and I think I will continue well through December.

My third fear was–is still–the writer’s fear as he or she sits at the edge of a project. As I said on Nov 1,

“I may fail. I may write and it is bad. Or, worse still, I may write and what comes out is a fair story, something that causes readers to shrug and move on. That would be deadly.”

Even at the beginning I had some insight on this situation:

I cannot control the outcome. I can’t peak around the corner. Instead, I’m going to launch in. I don’t know if this story will magically appear in bookstores in 3-4 years, but I do know that if I don’t write it, it will never be sold.

Sitting 3/4 of the way through, I’m pleased with the story. I still don’t have a title, and the key scene that closes the story isn’t clear to me. But they will come, I believe. I forge on in my November writing into December, no longer a WriMo but a writer only. But perhaps that’s the point: we carve out special time so that we learn the discipline of making writing an everyday exercise. It is painful, we bleed on the page, and often stumble into the world changed in a way others can’t understand. NaNoWriMo gives us space to do that.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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10 Responses to A Peak Around the Corner: My NaNoWriMo Reflections

  1. Congratulations on a great month of writing – and the whiff of your story sounds great. I love the idea that NaNo helps reinforce discipline. My NaNo was derailed by a medical emergency, but I’m working on building up the routine again. Writing (like parenting) is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – yet by far one of the most rewarding. I love what can be found on the page, but it sure doesn’t come easy. Best of luck finishing the novel – whatever you decide to call it!

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    • Thanks for the encouragement! I was following your blog, and am glad to see you posting again. Writing through life, writing in life–this is what we do (though we might be tempted to write instead of life).

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  2. jubilare says:

    “Exchange that takes place in every generation when the villagers of Téarian rise up and take the life of an outcast child, and in return one of the loved village children is taken from them by Death.” How is this an exchange? It sounds like they kill someone in order to have one of their own killed.

    And yes, titles are a pain. I am still calling my WIPs “Unnamed 1 and 2.” Bleh.

    “I started taking my journal everywhere, just in case inspiration hits. ” When I started doing this, my writing changed dramatically. Now I have ridiculous numbers of journals, and I am starting to use Evernote when I can as well.

    “I may fail. I may write and it is bad. Or, worse still, I may write and what comes out is a fair story, something that causes readers to shrug and move on. That would be deadly.” aye, there’s the rub…

    In the end, I think, we can only trust God to bring something greater than our abilities can create from what we write.

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    • The Exchange is out of their control, and as the work is finished I will rewrite so it leaks out precisely in the way I want. In the village in each generation or so, an outcast child dies at the villagers’ hands, and one of the non-outcast children are “taken”–the child disappears into the deep, leaving only pain and loss behind.
      Unnamed 1–catchy. I’ll get there. And trust is huge, isn’t it?

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  3. Fantastic work! You are inspiring. Tiny thought: I like “The Curse of Tearian” best; it seems to fit the genre.

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    • Thanks Sørina! I like that title, and I am using it as a functional title (with an accent on Téarian–we love accents, don’t we?).
      I like the title “Life in Flame,” which comes up several times. It’s the orb-viewing in the 1st chapter, and the way some victims die. It is also almost chiastic, has a euphonic ring.

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