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Photo/Text © 2011 Sean M. Madden. All Rights Reserved.
NaNoWriMo comes to a close today, 30 November.
One month ago, on 31 October, I announced my decision to participate, to push forth to the 50,000-word goal which gives one the right to call oneself a NaNoWriMo winner.
Well, I didn't hit 50,000 words. I wrote 25,000 not including many pages of story concept notes handwritten in the two notebooks I've used the past month. But I can wholeheartedly announce tonight that I'm a NaNoWriMo winner. Not word count-wise, as I've said. Rather, in what has transpired over the course of November as a direct result of my having participated in NaNoWriMo.
Around the middle of the month, my writing stalled. Not because I couldn't keep up the word count. But because I realized that word count isn't enough for me, despite the fact that I emphasize freewriting in my creative writing classes — simply putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and writing without a destination in mind. As Natalie Goldberg reminds readers in her Writing Down the Bones, it's good to give yourself the space to write for a long time, if necessary years, without a destination in mind. Write for the sake of writing. Be inspired in the doing, by the act of creating.
But I already do that, have been doing it for years, having written countless articles that way (including this one), poems, literary essays, stories, my master's thesis on Hume and Kant, etc. And while that's how I jumped out of the NaNoWriMo starting gate — and was enjoying the fast and free ride of bringing my two protagonists to life — I reached a point in the first couple weeks when it wasn't sufficient to keep galloping away. I wanted to consider, closely, what story these two characters were going to tell.
It's not that I was concerned that their story wouldn't ultimately emerge. I long ago learned to trust in the process of writing, and the creative process more generally. However, I decided to stop where I was, and rather than to keep writing like the wind, to consciously consider story structure.
This was a definite "Mind the Gap" moment. And rather than to be carried away on rails to some place utterly unforeseen, I decided to stop and consider exactly where I wanted to go, what my destination was to be.
At the time, I was using Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird in my creative writing classes — as I've been doing for about two-and-a-half years — specifically, the chapters on character, plot and dialogue. These are good, but they're not enough.
While I had been out to the site before, @suddenlyjamie reminded me of Larry Brooks' storyfix.com. Larry is Jamie's story structure "guru" who "opened [her] eyes to the beauty (and sanity!) of structure." Immediately realizing the benefit of Larry's Six Core Competencies model for successful storytelling, I began considering how best to apply this model to my NaNoWriMo novel.
This rediscovery was huge, and has led me to return to Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters which my partner Mufidah had suggested I read a while back but which, in my organic, freewriting frame-of-mind at the time, I semi-pooh-poohed. This time, we both delved back into the book, as we have into Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, both books dealing primarily with screenplays, but which apply, too, to novels.
All this convinced me that my time would be infinitely better spent in the latter half of the month continuing to dig into story structure, considering which story I most wanted to tell, and then applying this rich knowledge of structure to that story, before continuing to write a first draft. The story is thereby far more likely to be successful and to be written much more efficiently — and even more creatively — than if I were to keep marching forth with a lengthy first draft, NaNoWriMo-style.
Furthermore, I shifted gears with regard to my own upcoming creative classes, and decided to run a five-week intensive novel planning and plotting course (or four weeks, not including the ten-day break during the holidays), from 5 December to 5 January. As we'll be meeting for two hours twice a week throughout the four weeks of class, we'll be together for a total of sixteen hours. During this time, we'll not only discuss the theory of successful storytelling but also nail down our game plan for our respective novels, working together to hone ideas we've been developing on our own between classes.
The goal is to emerge at the beginning of January with a fully structured novel — complete with a scene-by-scene story map, or beat sheet — such that we'll be ready to begin writing a first draft of our novel thereafter, a draft (and, thus, a novel) which contains all the crucial elements of a successful story.
And so, in summary, none of this would have happened had I not decided late Saturday night, 29 October, to participate in my first NaNoWriMo event without a fleshed out novel idea in mind, let alone a full-fledged story concept with mapped out, compelling plot points. I knew this then, but understood as well that this challenge would no doubt spur on good things in countless ways, and it has, indeed, done exactly that.