We’re about six weeks away from the next installment of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Are you trying to decide whether to participate? Perhaps you’ve got a great character in mind. Perhaps you’ve already imagined a breathtaking opening scene.
Your problem, as you often confess to your writing friends, is that your life seems to be full of starts but skimpy on finishes. And truth be told, once that breathtaking opening scene is written, you don’t have any idea where you’re going next.
I just finished a novel. While I didn’t finish it in a month, I did reach the end of a draft in just under three years. Considering this is the first novel I’ve finished, I’ve set a world’s record for me. Now I want to figure out what I’ve learned, with the hope of next time beating my personal best.
Narrative arc. If that phrase makes you nervous, take heart. It was important for me to realize that narrative arc was something I could pay attention to after I had a narrative. Instead of predetermining plot, I relied on those aforementioned great characters to lead the way. I put them in contact with one another and watched the scenes unfold one by one, or “bird by bird” if you will.
Write by hand. It sounds practically pathological to suggest greeting something as intense as NaNoWriMo armed with nothing more than your writer’s notebook and favorite pen. However, I found this process useful. I needed to slow my brain so I could envision the scene, hear characters speak, and set it down on paper. Writing by hand let me overhear the undertones of conversations and envision actions. The eventual typing of scenes got tedious at times, but never so tedious that I switched to composing on the computer. The slow paying of attention yielded too large a payoff.
Attend writing classes, writing group meetings, and writing workshops. All offered ideas that kept me going. The trick is to manipulate any assignment you receive so it meets your needs. For example, if the workshop leader brings a plastic bag filled with paint chips with exotic names (Fire on the Mountain?), imagine the conversation your character might have about that chip and where and how such a scene might fit into your narrative. Does it reveal character? Advance the action? Provide a much-needed concrete detail? Once you’ve got a project going, make writing workshops work for you. I can’t imagine any workshop leader not applauding such a practical and necessary ownership. Check out the opportunities at the Carnegie Center. Writing Practice is a flexible way to push ahead.
Recently one of my students, a retired police officer who is finishing his own book, reminded me of this E.L. Doctorow quotation: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
And pulling into your final destination is every bit as sweet.