Yesterday, I wrote 1800 words on my NaNoWriMo project, slowly chipping away at my deficit after a couple of terrible days early on.  Yay!

In those 1800 words, my protagonist Tari was shown to her room and took a shower.  So there’s that…

In general, the pacing of what I’ve written has been atrocious.  I mean, it took nearly 15,000 words for the heroine to finally stumble upon the plot.  There are stories that can make something like that work, but I highly doubt this is one of them.  I fully anticipate that much of this is going to die quietly and unceremoniously in revisions.  (Or possibly loudly, to the tune of much moaning and screaming of “What the fuck was I thinking?”)

And I’m okay with that.  A lot of the detractors of NaNoWriMo say that the novels produced within such parameters are generally not very good, and I think that, on the whole, they’re right.  I’m four for four on “wins” (meaning I hit 50K), and here’s the breakdown:

  • One novel that came out clean and coherent; it went through several rounds of readers and revisions, but the draft that I’m now submitting to agents still has quite a lot of material from that November
  • One novel that has gone through one sizable revision, but still needs some significant overhaul, largely due to a completely muddled setting
  • Two unfinished raging hot messes

So my track record doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of work produced in November.  But that doesn’t mean that those three problematic drafts are complete wastes of everyone’s time.  Sure, they’re not remotely what one would call publishable right now, but there are quite a few bits of brilliance in there, characters and setpieces and turns of phrase that are like beautifully faceted jewels set in a crown of damp wood pulp, worth fishing out, cleaning up, and putting somewhere more suitable.

And here’s the thing: Of those four novels, the first was the only one where I did any sort of prep work at all.  Yes, that does make a decent case for plotting over pantsing, but it also means that no part of those other three existed in any form before starting their respective months.  It wasn’t a case of me having an idea and then sitting down to get it out of my head; all of those bits of brilliance only came into being because I needed something, anything to write.  In other words, without all that damp wood pulp, I wouldn’t have those gems at all.

Basically, for most of my NaNoWriMo career, it has served as an extended writing exercise, more for my own benefit than for the goal of producing anything someone would want to read.  And you know what?  That’s not a bad thing.

Circling back to my dire “getting ready for bed” scene, there’s actually quite a bit that I’ve gotten out of it:

  • Identifying places where I need further research.  So what I’m working on is a time travel story that, as far as I can tell, is going to take place largely in colonial Singapore.  I did some fairly broad and shallow research into that location and era before I started (partly because I only had a couple of weeks), and as I write, I’m coming across all kinds of little details that are going to need some deeper investigation.  Falling down a rabbit hole about turn of the century plumbing would have seemed like a waste of time before I started, but now I can see that it’s the sort of thing that might be useful in determining how my heroine would describe a modern bathroom.  Rather than trying to become an all-around expert in a fairly broad field, I’ll be able to focus on the subjects that have a direct bearing on what I’m doing.
  • Establishing worldbuilding details.  I’m at the point in the story where Tari has found the time travelers’ hidden base and is exploring it for the first time.  Digressions on room layouts and details of how they retrofitted this ruined building would be dead boring in a finished book, but I’m still trying to figure out for myself how all this stuff works at all.  Once I’ve worked through it, I can incorporate those details in a more organic way (and only as needed) in later drafts.
  • Figuring out the characters.  Going in, I had a vague idea of what roles I needed characters to occupy, but as for who they were and what they wanted, not so much.  Now, bouncing them off each other for a while, they’re starting to take shape; Tari is clever and almost suicidally driven, while lead time traveler Raf is awkward and compassionate to a fault.  As they evolve and I get a clearer idea of where their arcs are going to end up, I’ll be able to go back and make sure those arcs start in the right place.
  • Writing every day.  I cannot overstate the importance of this.  The only thing I’ve written all year has been revisions on last year’s manuscript and an abortive attempt at a novella during Camp NaNoWriMo.  Forcing myself back into the saddle has been rough and painful at first, but it’s getting easier.  Writing what is essentially filler is still writing, and as those dormant muscles get loosened up and strengthened, I know that I’ll start getting back into the groove of writing something I can use.

What is shaping up under my jittery hands is essentially a zero draft, something that isn’t coherent or cohesive enough to be properly considered a first draft, something that is likely to bear little resemblance to the finished work.  It can be a bit disheartening to know that what I’m writing will rightfully never see the light of day, but I think it’s worth understanding that there’s value in the writing exercise.  You can’t revise an empty page, and sometimes forcing yourself into a corner prompts unexpected creativity (cf. MacGyver).  Writing a story occupies some nebulous place between art and craft, and in both you have to make mistakes and push through them to get to something special.

Really, if you secretly suspect that what you’re writing this November is crap, it probably is, and that’s okay.  Embrace the crap.  Then take a shower, because ew.

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