Despite the risk of nettling my fellow WriMo’s, I will start with a bold statement: This year’s November writing bonanza was by far my easiest. This is not to say that I did not get stuck in the mud a few times along the way. There were of course moments when I questioned my characters and my plot—for instance, the plausibility of dogs sniffing out disruptions in space and time just as easily as they can sniff out the cocaine hidden in your suitcase. But these literary roadblocks were more like mud puddles than floods, and I was able to navigate around them without stalling for too long. (How many travel-related metaphors and similes can you cram into a 113-word paragraph?)
So why was this November any different from my three previous jaunts? How was I able to escape with only minor psychological scrapes and bruises? Now a solid ten days into December, I can reflect back on a few of the key distinctions:
My Target Audience
Each NaNoWriMo, I challenge myself to write in a voice or format I’ve never tried before. This year I decided to write a book for kids. Or rather, for that magical age that falls somewhere between Barbies and keg parties, the ‘Tweens. Admittedly, this did pose some hitherto unknown challenges: Would an 11-year-old know what “bereft” means? Can I really write 50,000 words without cursing? No drinking, smoking, casual sex, infidelity, drug flashbacks, bar fights or hookers? What the hell (sorry, heck) else am I supposed to write about?
But these challenges were promptly countered by one of the really great things about kids: they aren’t yet jaded. When I was a kid, I loved to read mysteries and adventure novels…bring on the magical and the supernatural! I didn’t question a character’s motivations or scoff when the next-door neighbor turned out to be a witch or a unicorn herder. I did not need to suspend my disbelief because I still believed in most anything. I was – pardon the pun – an open book. So whenever I bumped up against a question of plausibility in my ‘Tween novel, I shook it off and kept going. Because of course an 11-year-old will believe that a rusty old ladder can serve as a bridge between the worlds of Here and There. Duh.
Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven
My favorite books to read and to write have typically been character-driven. Another first, this year I decided to try my hand at Plot with a capital P. In nearly every piece of fiction I have written to date, I struggled to get to know my characters, to understand their thoughts and behavior, and how they grow (or don’t) over time. But with my plot-driven story, it felt like I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle; once I identified the “big picture”, it was just a matter of sorting through the pieces. Lesson learned: It’s much more difficult to determine the trajectory of a character than of a storyline.
However, when I mentioned this discovery to a writer friend of mine, she promptly asked, “But do you feel less close to these characters?” And the answer was unequivocally yes.
A Good Sounding Board
If all writers’ have just one thing in common, it may be that we tend to spend a little too much time in our own heads. Writing is a very solitary activity, and anyone who has ever had the fortune to find a good sounding board in a friend or colleague understands the value of talking through the issues. I was lucky indeed to have such a person this time around.
Having said that – and in keeping with my previous point – I find it much easier to obtain helpful input from others when it comes to matters of plot over character. Determining the sequence of events, when to reveal the plot twist, etc. is a very different matter than looking to someone else to predict your character’s emotional growth. That’s almost like a psychologist spending 20 hours with a patient, summarizing that person in two sentences, and then asking a total stranger how to advise him. Almost.