NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month for those of you who have a life, has come and gone, and I for one say, thank goodness. The idea is for writers to spend the month of November writing an entire novel. As my friend and fellow writer Lisa Borders once pointed out, this seems a little extreme and unrealistic, even if we could manage to have a solid month off to write, free of distractions like working, buying groceries, and keeping our children/partners/elderly parents from running amuck in the neighborhood.
Lisa should know—she’s a talented writer and it took her many years to write her latest novel, The Fifty-First State. This spring, she instead started the more practical version called BoNoProMo, or May Boston Novel in Progress Month. The idea was just to set aside 10 hours a week to write and be doing it with other writers. It came on the heels of a blog post she wrote about not being too hard on yourself when life gets in the way of writing and to create a schedule based on your needs, rather than those edicts that declare if you write less than five hours a day, you’ll never amount to anything. OK, maybe that’s just what we writers see when we read any advice about how much to write. Once we see a number, all we can think about is how many errands/gym sessions/babysitter dollars/partner forgiveness points/doctor’s appointments are going to have to go out the window.
When Lisa declared BoNoProMo, I was actually in a place where I could devote more time to writing, and lucky for me I had a novel that I’ve been writing way longer than Lisa had. I loved Anne McCaffrey’s fantasy dragon novels as a teen, and they inspired me to write my own. My novel is about a woman who saves the world by weaving–I kid you not. I wrote a big chunk of it in my 20s…on a Wang word processor (go ahead and click on the link, I dare ya!), which even then was on its way out. Lost the hard copy in a move, but had the floppy disk backup! Except that by that time even the last adopters of technology had moved past the Wang. I was heartbroken, but decided to try to rewrite it. If I had fun doing it, I’d keep going. If it sucked eggs, then I’d leave it relegated to its magnetic, floppy disk form, perhaps to be discovered in the future by aliens with a penchant for retro human technology.
I wrote, and it was fun. I wrote some more. Still fun. I wrote until I had more than a 100 pages. Then I started working on and published a nonfiction book, had a kid, and only worked on the novel sporadically for the next 10 or so years. It has never left me. Every few years I pick it up again. The last serious attempt was when I took a writing class, which forced me to realize that while I’d been having fun all those years ago writing 100 pages, I’d just written all the scenes as they had occurred to me. The plot was nowhere to be found. I always thought the plot would take care of itself, right? I mean, when I wrote about my family in WWII, I didn’t have to structure anything–history had done that for me already. Wasn’t novel-writing similar? My teacher’s raised eyebrows and stern expression said otherwise. So I soldiered on in her class, trying to create and lay down a plot structure on a piece of writing that was like a rebellious teenager. It stayed up late, slept all day, it didn’t come home some nights, and I swear it was doing drugs. Or maybe I was when I had written some of these scenes. It wasn’t pretty.
Lisa’s call to write got me going again. Since I already knew the problem was the plot, or lack of one, I put on my riot gear and dove in. I actually made some real progress—there are lots of helpful tools and tips for getting your plot in shape. I was merrily feeling like a real writer when the novel’s deadly flaw revealed itself like a zombie hand coming out of the dirt in a bad horror movie. No, the real problem was the main character. I thought I knew who she was, but as the plot came into focus, I realized with that sinking feeling you get when you watch a bad horror movie, she was whoever I happened to be at the time I was working on the story. She was first a young women in her 20s, and then she was a women in her 30s. All her traits, fears and doubts changed as mine changed. Don’t get me wrong, as a character based on me, she’s fabulous; but as a real character who has to carry a whole book, she hasn’t got a clue. And neither do I. I love putting her in different situations, but this whole writer’s thing of knowing where she is going and what she’s going to do to get there–well, I’m still writing my own pages, so how should I know about hers?
And there’s the rub. Novelists know. Essayists and bloggers report on what is and give it a twist. I should have realized this earlier; I used to tell my friends I’d write a thinly disguised novel about us. Like my character’s name would be Cindy Eden. I’d write about what happened to us, but just make us look cooler. Now that’s a fantasy novel.
My son learned about the book back when I was taking the writing class, and every once in a while he asks me about it. I don’t know if he saw NaNoWriMo on YouTube or what, but yesterday, the last day of the month, he asked me again. What I couldn’t confess at the end of BoNoProMo, I confessed to him: I realized I have no idea who the main character is and that’s kind of a deal breaker. But when he asked if I was going to give up on the book, I knew I couldn’t. So what if the main character is sketchier than an iPhone seller on a street corner? Who cares if I have no idea how to get her from the edge of the sea to the deep, misty forest (which is a really cool place if I may say so). Maybe I wait until I’m old and know her story, or maybe I just write scenes that are fun and not worry that the plot needs recreational drugs to make sense. Maybe I shake out some of the other characters to see if they have enough moxie to lead the way. Maybe I just write. NaNoWriMoBoNoProMo. Sounds like plan.
Image credit: http://www.mrxstitch.com/category/weaving-2/