With BristolCon over, and various other commitments being dropped, November is actually starting to look relatively relaxed (at least for me). As some of you will have noticed on Twitter, I’ve actually contemplated doing NaNoWriMo. This is, of course, stupid. I do have plenty to do, and I should be prioritizing earning money with the skills I have, not learning new skills. But it did lead me to actually think about what I’d need to do in order to make a decent attempt at novel writing.
The well-known cliche from author events is that someone in the audience will ask, “where do you get your ideas from?” But any good fiction writer will tell you that ideas are ten-a-penny. It is turning them into a story that is hard. You need structure and motivations. I noticed someone re-tweet this post from Writer’s Digest with some very good advice. Before embarking on writing a novel, you need to know these three things:
- What’s going to happen in the story?
- What does the character want?
- What will the turning points be?
There may well be more things too. After all, I’m not an expert.
In addition to all that, there are techniques to be learned. In the interview I linked to yesterday, Zoran Živković said:
The trap of turning a work of fiction into a tedious tract is always there, threatening an inexperienced, careless, or simply untalented writer. Such a work betrays the very essence of the art of prose: that it is the art of storytelling.
A reliable way to avoid this trap is to master various fictional techniques. This was the reason I emphasized, in my answer to your previous question, the technical aspects I have learned from the masters of Middle-European fantastika. These aspects are essential. In my creative writing course at the University of Belgrade, I spend the first three out of four semesters teaching my students basic prose techniques. Only the final semester is devoted to content.
So even if you have a plot, and motivations for your characters, you still have to present those things to the readers in a way that is believable, and which keeps them turning the pages.
Again all of this is fairly trivial for those of you who write fiction, but for those of you who don’t it will hopefully explain why simply diving in and writing 50,000 words won’t result in much of a novel.
Of course you can just write, and clean the mess up later. When Erin Morgenstern was talking about the origins of The Night Circus during her event at Foyles, that’s exactly what she said she did. That’s partly because her particular skill is in writing descriptions. She imagined scenes, and wrote them. Plot came later. But a consequence of that is that the final novel was very different. The central character, Celia, wasn’t even in the book that she wrote during NaNoWriMo.
From my point of view, I have plenty to do. I have a magazine article to write, an interview to transcribe for Locus, a Trans Day of Remembrance post to write, the BristolCon panel recordings to edit, website updates to do, and a huge pile of books I need to read and review. If I concentrate on getting that out of the way, I may well end up writing 50,000 words in November anyway. In fact, that would be a very useful target to set myself.
Then again, as I understand it, half the point of NaNoWriMo is the process: the camaraderie and mutual learning that goes on. So if, over the weekend, I can come up with a plot and some characters to add to the idea I already have, I might just sign up anyway. It’s no disgrace to fail, right?