December 1st, 2009

great wizard by djinni

What I Learned From NaNoWriMo - 2009: Clockwork Dragon

This year I made a firm decision to do NaNoWriMo, but waffled back and forth about which novel to write. My original thought had been to finish Shifter, the murder mystery set in the Fireborn universe, but I read a number of things that made me think something with more of a steampunk feel might be more likely to sell. And I had a character in a world that mixed magic and tech, a world that intrigued me, that I wanted to explore. Similarly, the character intrigued me, he seemed larger than life in some ways and was obviously flawed in others, but perhaps not in the same ways that the first guy who I wrote about who knew him thought. So I did a bit of worldbuilding, came up with the beginnings of a plot, and started writing.

Partway in, I realized I needed a second viewpoint character, and spent a day doing almost nothing but thinking about who I needed her to be, her attitudes and skills and character.

I also kept running into spots where I needed a clearer idea of the world and how it differs from our own, or things that I had to research.

I spent a lot of my time on this book doing things other than typing words; things that made keeping up with the word count more stressful than I expected. I expect once I have the worldbuilding completed, I’ll have to do a pass through the story just to check that kind of detail, and to add things, though some things I added when going back to check information I’d written early in the book.

I learned some things about how to manage my time for writing; and I learned that the time I’ve been spending on writing since last year's NaNoWriMo has made a difference in both my ability to do this kind of sustained sprint and to do other writing while working on a novel. Last year I worked on no other stories while I was writing the first draft of Mirri's Walkabout. This year, I didn’t stop other writing during November, though it slowed down.

I learned that for me, making a commitment to other people, even to something that's basically a social fiction (NaNoWriMo isn’t exactly a contest, and I didn’t “win” anything but words on the virtual page), that having companions of some sort, even distant ones, makes a very real difference to me. This was no surprise to me; there’s other things (exercise, music practice) that I’m far more likely to do if I’m doing them with someone.

By the way, the comments I get on my fiction also work this way, helping to keep me inspired to write. So if you want to see more from me, take a moment to comment. Even a smiley-face with no words reminds me that I’m not alone, that my efforts make at least a tiny difference to someone besides myself.

But back to NaNoWriMo.

This project, more than any other, highlighted how important the writing time that’s spent on other stuff is. Research, from factual data—when were different things invented, or what an angry skunk sounds like, or how a manually-powered dumb waiter works—to more speculative things. If there’s no oil, how do people heat their houses? If people need to move to energy-efficient homes a century or more ago, what technologies were available or easily discoverable? Characterization—what type of character traits would both be compatible with the characters I can already have and different enough to provide some contrast? Stuff that’s hard to research, that you need to talk with people—how much smoke does something like a molotov cocktail or similar device make? How about using alcohol to burn an old wood door? How much air does either one of those things use up? Pacing. Holistic stuff--if the antagonist’s motive is such and so, how would that show up early in the story, before he or she takes more direct action?

And it taught me how important down time is to writing, time not spent typing words and also time not spent actively thinking about writing.

And that’s the scary part of this subject, to me. If it were only a matter of planting my rear end in the chair and typing fast, I could do 25,000 words in an 8 hour day (figured at 60 words a minute; I’ve tested at over 80.) But it’s not. It’s all this other stuff, and especially the thinking, the dreaming, and the refilling of the creative well.

There’s lots of things I understand about writing, but this one is a mystery:

How do you time-manage thinking and dreaming?