It’s Day 7 of NaNoWriMo here in Melbourne, Australia. What started out as a sunny spring day is now clouding over, as a north wind blows warm pollen-heavy air across the hills and into my sinuses. God bless the inventor of antihistamines.
I just noticed that the NaNoWriMo widget at the bottom of my WordPress blog is not refreshing. So far I have updated my word count every day and my current validated word count is sitting on 12,046 words. I am a full day ahead of the NaNo race against the calendar.
At this point, while I don’t want to over-inflate my sense of self-confidence, I am doing a far better job this year than in the previous three years.
What is it that’s working this time around, that I missed in previous years? I’m not sure, but I think these factors could be involved:
- I’ve learned that a story is not just one good idea. It takes a lot of good ideas that have to work together to carry the burden of the narrative.
- I am spending a lot of time developing the characters. One way to do that is by giving them believable personalities. While I don’t religiously apply the Myers-Briggs Typing system, it certainly helps me flesh out characters whose personalities are markedly different from my own. As an ISTP introvert, it is too easy for me to fall back on a trope of writing stories where every character is some sullen superhero wannabe with minimal emotions and a liking for fast cars / planes / spaceships. The reality is that my stories are flat and uninteresting when the characters are all lone ranger-types. As much as I can imagine an idealised universe free from the expressive emotional output of ENFJs (I joke, I joke… but we just couldn’t be more polarised if we tried) I find that my stories are a bit lifeless without the tension and interplay between personality-clashing characters
- I have a lot more characters in this story. My previous stories have been far too focused on one or two characters, and in retrospect they were really boring to write, and not even worth reading. When I think of the stories that I like, that have moved me – like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Jane Austen’s Emma, or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, or CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, or the Star Wars Expanded Universe – they are crammed full of characters. Main characters, sidekicks, friends, acquaintances, background characters whose lives and personalities intertwine with the story as full and believable worlds. Sure, some of these stories have pretty far-out stuff going on, but the characters themselves are believable as individuals. Harry Potter had Harry, Ron and Hermione – but it also had a whole wealth of other characters, each with unique personalities, abilities and connections – that made it a more full and interesting world. I love Harry Potter. In fact, I am tempted to just go re-read it now instead of working on my NaNoWriMo…
- I actually started plotting and thinking about my story early on in this year. I think my earliest notes started in March or April 2016. I would have written this story through winter (June-August) if it weren’t for the fact we were very unexpectedly evicted. For me, while I didn’t necessarily plan a lot before previous NaNoWriMos, choosing character names is a time-consuming process for me. I use a number of websites for this. My personal favourite is Behind The Name, as I find the etymology helpful. Being able to find archaic forms of modern names is appealing to me. I also Google-search the names that I tentatively compose, because I don’t want the names to accidentally be the same as notable real-life people, nor the same as popular story characters. I nearly ended up naming one of my NaNoWriMo characters ‘Hera,’ because I liked the sound and meaning of the name – until I remembered that one of my favourite cartoon and story characters is Hera from Star Wars Rebels. So I found something else, that similarly conveyed a meaning connected to the personality I intended for that character. My story already treads pretty close to being a blatant Star Wars story and I want to reduce the similarities by ensuring my characters don’t imitate pre-existing story arcs in that universe. Anyway, for me, names need to be believable, meaningful, and culturally resonant with the characters I imagine. A pale, viking-esque character might get a Norse name; a dark warrior woman might get an African name; but for me to do that in a culturally sensitive way (I hope) I try to research the meaning and traditional usage of names before I apply them to my characters. I think it is entirely possible to write what one does not know – as opposed to the adage “write what you know” – as long as one is willing to do some research first. [I think I first came across this idea in the helpful and practical book A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty.]
- I am doing my writing earlier in the day, rather than late at night. Apart from a very fruitful late writing session on Saturday night, Day 5, with my laptop in bed (terrible for sleep hygiene but as a one-off, not too bad), most of my writing has been my first or second task of the day. This is a completely different approach for me. In the past I would spend a busy day checking off my to-do list, with the intention of freeing myself up to focus on the creative writing. However, the problem is that historically I end up exhausting myself with never-ending housework, and then my writing became a late-night coffee binge. Over the course of a month I end up tired, burnt out, over-caffeinated and miserable – and by no means ready for the inevitable stress of the Christmas season. This year, I am trying to accept that life can always come up with new obligations for me, but my writing is important enough to me that I will make it a priority. The housework still gets done, the kids still get to school, but it means that I get better quality sleep, drink less coffee, and still have time to work on my other interests – like my art, learning Ukrainian on DuoLingo, reading books (ghost-themed short stories are my staple at the moment), and listening to music.
- I deactivated facebook on Day 1 of writing. In the last few NaNoWriMos, I’ve reached the halfway point in a stressful panic, nowhere near the 25,000+ words that would be ideal by that stage. And every single time I have had to deactivate my facebook because it is the worst source of procrastination and mental stress for me at this point in my life. By deactivating it up-front, I’ve cleared up my head space, and ensured that my creativity isn’t hampered by having to juggle the tidal wave of pre-Christmas notifications from extended family, not to mention that it has given me some necessary space from some people whose presence in my life is currently unavoidable but very unhealthy for me. When no-contact isn’t an option, low-contact can be a practical middle-ground.
- My story is currently repetitive, imperfect, and rambling. But that’s okay. Rather than trying to chronologically write a start-middle-end sequence with eloquent prose and poetic beauty, I’m just writing it as it comes. It’s jumping around all over the place. In some ways, it’s more a heavily detailed plot plan than an actual novel. And yet, I realise that if I ever want to make this story something that other people will read, this stage needs to be written. The first draft will never see the light of day, but if I can take some time throughout next year, I might be able to edit it and rewrite it as a readable story.
One thing I’ve noticed about my story as I write it is that my focus is shifting. Originally I wanted it to be about the main female character, a human character called Chloe, a fact that is reflected in my working title ‘Chloe’s War.’ However, I find that I am writing more and more about Orion – an elvish-looking telepathically gifted alien (I know, anyone who’s read my other NaNo plots will see some glaring similarities here). The difference is that this year, having gone through all kinds of life challenges and crises, and walked alongside friends who’ve faced their own challenges, I feel that I know a lot more than I used to. If there’s an upside to reaching my mid-30s, it’s that while life hasn’t been handed to me on a plate, I’ve had enough experiences now to realise that my difficulties and dark times have made me more human than I might have been had I found my journey easy.
For me it’s like life sorrows can carve out a greater depth in one’s own being, where sadness becomes mingled with a grave kind of joy at merely being alive; or sorrows can leave us shrunken and small and turned into stone. I choose the first, and I am learning that from that space I can create far better stories and art than I would have otherwise.
So I can bring that life experience into my story writing. It’s not just a bunch of stuff that happens.
It’s bringing in elements of theories about cults (Orion and his friend Arne are unwillingly caught up in the plans of a charismatic and controlling being called Aku). How do people find themselves inextricably caught in a cult’s entangling web? It’s not like anyone sets out to join a cult or controlling cult-like religion. I find that question sociologically and personally interesting and am weaving it into elements of my story.
It’s also got thoughts on how there’s this pressure on the less emotionally expressive among us to be more – more loving, more emotional, things that really aren’t easy. The question hangs over my story – why? Why is it not enough to be who one is, and why do the people we care about so often treat us like we aren’t enough? In a world where people seem to be growing in their comprehension that everyone is different, why are those of us who are quiet and thoughtful so often derided as being inadequate?
Also in the story there’s the tension between becoming fully oneself, versus trying to appease the people in our lives. This question is one I place before two of my characters: Orion, who is accused of being more dead than alive, even though he knows within himself that he is a loving, passionate being – he just doesn’t know how to express it in a way that is meaningfully communicable to his friends; and Chloe, who grapples with the guilt she feels as the only survivor of a disaster zone, while having to acknowledge her relief at the way this disaster liberated her from her toxic, narcissistic father.
The character Arne has his own journey, too. He is a telepathically and telekinetically gifted being, who has unwittingly fallen in love with Orion against all the heteronormative customs of his species. Arne finds that in the presence of Aku his own telepathic abilities are magnified, but when he uses these abilities to reach into Orion’s mind, he is heartbroken to find that Orion could never love him that way in return.
It goes on – each character has his/her/their own kinds of questions that they are facing. At the same time, while I don’t delve too deeply into the lives of secondary characters, in my world-building phase I at least ensure that I know who they are and their motivations.
Thus, the secondary character Alya is a controlling, haughty and privileged Princess who, deep down, is afraid that her own ambitions to take the throne will come to nothing. Even though she doesn’t spend a lot of time at the centre of my narrative, she exerts considerable pressure on Crown Prince Arne to marry her, completely unaware that he is madly and unthinkably in love with Orion.
In this way, I’m trying to not merely just write a story of a human who ends up kidnapped by an alien and taken on a wonderful adventure through space where stuff happens and that’s that. I’m trying to bring out from my characters this sense that they each have their own questions, personal spiritual and psychological paths that they must take. The external events that happen to them are the mechanisms that force them to confront their own inner worlds.