No Plot? I may have a Problem

In 1999 an over-caffeinated (according to him) and bright-eyed (I’m guessing that bit) young man decided he was going to write a Novel.  His name was Chris Baty.  He didn’t really have a great idea or an awesome character to write about.  He just decided that’s what he wanted to do.  And he was going to do it in a month.  Sure.  No problem.  This was the era of crazy dreams after all -18 year olds were becoming millionaires overnight so writing a book in a month?  Piece of cake.

That July he and 28 of his friends embarked on the first of what is now known as NaNoWriMo – or National Novel Writing Month, for those who haven’t come across it before.  The goal is to write 50,000 words in one month.  Of that first NaNo group, only 6 of them finished.  6 out of 29.  Hmmmm, it seems that it might just be harder than it looks.

By 2010 the number of participants grew to 200,000 from all across the globe and had been relocated to November to take advantage of the worsening weather in the Northern Hemisphere (we Aussies are giving up our Spring for this).  I participated for the first time last year. I won.  Yay me!  Of course I should explain here that “winning” means you achieved 50,000 words.  It’s not a competition with an overall winner.  No one judges to see who wrote the best book.  Still, I managed to write 50,000 words and that all by itself is amazing.

NaNoWriMo starts again in 11 days.  Less than two weeks.  I think perhaps I might be starting to panic.  Last year I went in with no real idea of what to expect other than a lot of “bum in seat” action – which turned out to be true.  I was working on a story that had been churning around with me for a few years and for which I already knew several characters and several key plot points and you know, the big twist in the tale.  That was pretty much it.  

From that I managed to weave my tale, churn out my 50,000 words and promptly realised just how many of them I’d have to throw out.  I had started the story way too early and the whole first third was boring non-action background.  Thank goodness no one actually reads what you write for NaNo.  That would just be embarrassing.  Of course I also worked out some other plot points, found a gaping big hole in my plot and got spectacularly stuck eventually clawing my way back to achieve the goal.  The book remains unfinished.

I suspect that NaNo is a whole lot more fun now than it was when it first started out.  Oh I’m sure Chris and his friends had some fun writing sessions together but those early years of international participation would have been hard as the NaNo site would have been the only place for support.  Now most cities and regions have “Municipal Liaisons”.  These lovely folks co-ordinate activities in their region for NaNo participants.  Things like Kick-off functions, write-ins and post-NaNo celebrations as well as provide other support throughout the month.  Elle, the Sydney-ML up until this year (find her on Twitter as @honeyelle) did a fantastic job and I’m sure will do so with her new group in Canberra – our loss, their gain.

Of course what you participate in is entirely up to you.  I went to a couple of related activities – writers are a diverse and ummm interesting group to say the least.  I was surprised, for example, how many people were writing fan-fiction for their NaNo Novel.  Nothing wrong with that but it had never occurred to me for some reason.  Personally I found the write-in hard.  To be fair, I went to one in a  cafe near Circular Quay and it was a bit noisy and distracting for me (plus a good view does not help with concentrating).  I haven’t tried a library one yet, maybe that will be better.

One thing I did enjoy were the “sprints”.  As 1-2-3-Go!!!  Write as fast as you can and see how many words you can write in 5 minutes or whatever time is selected.  That was fun.  The best part about it is you don’t have time to think about what you are writing, you just have to let the words come.  Really, it’s a mini reflection of NaNo as a whole.  To add extra spice challenges are issued such as “include something red” or “talk to a pirate” or “have a character fall down”.  It can be anything.  Some challenges are harder than others depending on what you are writing but it gets the brain really working without you having to think it all through.  

I found Twitter to be a highly useful thing for this.  You don’t have to be present in person to participate in Sprints.  Follow the official NaNo feed (@NaNoWriM0), find and follow your local ML (or even one from elsewhere – I follow one in Scotland!).  Follow others who are participating.  Follow the conversation with the #NaNoWriMo hashtag.  

You get an amazing amount of support, sometimes from unusual sources.  I still have people asking me how the book is going – workmates, Twitter peeps, friends on Facebook.  Last year when I got extremely stuck late one night I tweeted a plea for help (something along the lines of “I have no idea what happens next!!!”  Instantly a bunch of responses with encouragement, advice and sympathy.  The best piece of advice came from a colleague I had worked with many years ago who told me to move to what I do know what happens.  What great advice.  Rather than stay bogged down trying to come up with something to get my characters from A to B just pretend they are already there and keep going.  Because I can go back later and get them there.  I might even write something later that will solve that problem.

In a way that sums up the NaNo experience for me.  It enabled me to take an idea and get it moving down the path of a story.  I consider it a Zero draft.  Others who have had time to plot, develop characters and breakdowns might do a First Draft.  Let’s be clear, you aren’t going to finish NaNo with a full novel ready for publication.  Apparently there are those who have tried to get their NaNo work published on December 2 and then are surprised when the work is rejected.  NaNo is good as a kick in the butt to get the process underway but it is only one step and it’s not the final step.

Having said that, at least 12 Novels that started life in NaNoWriMo have now been published including “Like Water for Elephants” (which of course is now a

lso a movie) and “The Night Circus”.  The Night Circus is a particularly good example.  In the process of trying to get through NaNo and having her story not really go anywhere Erin Morgenstern diverted them into a Night Circus just to get something happening.  The original story she was working on is not the one that is now the published work.  

Well, you may ask, that’s all very interesting but what does it have to do with your attempt at NaNo this year?  What will you be writing?  That, my friend, is an excellent question.  As I mentioned NaNo starts in 11 days.  I still do not know what I will be writing. Oh I have several pieces of ideas in various stages in my Writer’s Notebook.  Some better than others.  None I feel desperately ready to work on now.

So what am I doing writing this rather long post instead of deciding what to work on and getting down the to business of plotting, developing characters, building worlds and generally preparing myself?  Well, ummm, actually I am procrastinating.  I am actually very good at procrastination which I’m assured is in every writer’s arsenal.  Yep, I’m going to be a great writer if my skill at procrastination is any indicator.

Now you know a bit about the crazy fun that is NaNoWriMo.  Want to join me?

  • For more information on NaNoWriMo or to sign up (go on, you know you want to) go to their website: www.nanowrimo.org
  • To learn more about how NaNoWriMo got started, I recommend Chris Baty’s book “No Plot? No Problem!”  It’s also full of good tips for surviving NaNoWrimo with your sanity intact.  More or less.  The book is available from the NaNoWriMo shop (see the webpage above).

Oh all right then.  You are right.  I’m off to get stuck in. After I’ve done the bathroom.  And watched Haven.  And fed the cat.  It’s only Saturday, I can spend all day tomorrow on it.  If not, I’ll channel my inner Chris Baty and just wing it.


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