If you don’t have any writerly friends, you might have missed the news that National Novel Writing Month is about to roll around again. (In all honesty, it should be called International Novel Writing Month because it is worldwide. Maybe “IntNoWriMo” doesn’t roll off the tongue as readily as “NaNoWriMo“.) The idea is to write fifty thousand words of fiction in thirty days. This is not easy, but it’s not impossible either. It means averaging just under seventeen hundred words a day. And how much is fifty thousand words? In a world where we look in terms of page count, this can be difficult to answer. I’m told that Douglas Adam’s novel “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” is about fifty thousand words. My early edition paperback is about one centimetre thick.
But NaNoWriMo is not a time for me to try to write a novel. For me at least, it’s a period to re-connect with why my writing group got together. I’m not going to not write, but I’m not going to do the madness of starting a story on November 1 and try to best fifty thousand words before December 1. And the reason is because of how I write my stories.
NaNoWriMo has been criticised for encouraging people to “write now – edit later”. If you’ve never tried your hand at large-scale fiction before, I believe this is a good approach. It shows you how to get words on a page, it gives you a sense of scale about what a thousand words can look like and it lets you learn by experience some of the basics about constructing a narrative. But what it doesn’t teach is how to plan and structure a story, or how to design characters or how to build a world. So as November progresses, the forums start filling with people saying “my characters have taken the story in a direction I didn’t expect!”
Writing this way also requires you spend months afterward in large-scale editing. And by that I mean developing a structure around what you’ve written, moving or rewriting parts that don’t fit and doing more writing for the new holes you’ve uncovered. This is what writers in days gone by did when all they had was a typewriter. Or pencil and paper.
But I don’t use either of those: I use a computer. This permits a vastly different approach to writing where I can edit as write. And I do. However, this technique is fundamentally incompatible with NaNoWriMo. It makes the daily word-count troublesome and best and totally meaningless at worst.
My works always begin with a scene or a setting. Characters are added and the writing begins. I’m more aware now than twelve months ago how to present them with problems for them to solve (and thus to create a story). And out of that I can usually build a story outline. Often later pieces in the outline require earlier scenes to be written. The whole process for me has lots of feedback.
I happen to know an author who can completely design a novel before he writes any of it. He has now completed this planning just prior to November several times and used the month of November to turn the outline into fiction. This requires more discipline than I usually posess!
But it is a valid approach, if you think that way. The key is to know how you think, to know how you construct such things.
In short, you need to know how you write.