Saturday, November 29, 2008

That actually worked

50,000 words in a month. A month in which, incidentally, I blew an entire day and a half on fretting over and then celebrating the election, not to mention did my share of cleaning up an incredibly messy house and preparing Thanksgiving dinner for eight.

Six or seven weeks ago, I was having trouble writing despite my passion for my project due to a paralyzing perfectionism. I really, really, SO MUCH want to get this manuscript just right. It's a big story, with characters I could happily write about for years, maybe even a decade or two. And I've gotten such good feedback on it so far--contest success, praise from industry professionals who've seen a snippet of it--that it paradoxically made me freeze up. As in, what if I can't make the entire story live up to the strength of the premise and the opening chapters? What if I'm not good enough to do my own story and my beloved characters justice? So I was feeling my way through the manuscript at a snail's pace, maybe 500 words a day, agonizing over every sentence and sweating the structure of every scene. It had to be just right before I could go forward.

But then two things happened. The first was attending Donald Maass's master class at the Surrey Writers Conference in October. We spent most of the three-hour session taking apart a scene from our manuscripts we thought needed improvement and finding a way to strengthen it. I was amazed by how much my scene improved through the exercises Maass gave us, how much subtle changes enhanced the conflict and deepened the emotional impact and sensory vividness of the scene. It made me see that I was going about it all wrong in my effort to write a perfect draft, that there was nothing I couldn't improve AFTER I'd written it. (Yes, yes, I'm on my fourth manuscript, and you'd think I'd know that by now. But I'm still getting the hang of editing for story structure as opposed to style.)

Then I decided on a whim to try NaNoWriMo. I knew I needed something to push me out of slow motion. I didn't think I'd manage 50,000 words, but if I could just make it to 25,000, I'd be in so much better shape than I was 10/31. So I sat down with a pile of index cards, plotted out the scenes I knew I would need to get me to the end of the manuscript, and dove in. When I finished a scene, I grabbed the next card from the stack and wrote what it told me to do.

It shouldn't have worked. It's contrary to how I've always written in the past, and, really, there's no logical reason anyone who was barely managing 10,000 words/month should suddenly be able to do 50K. But I kept at it, and found myself enjoying writing more than I had in months. I was living my story again, wanting to grab everyone around me and babble about my characters and how much I loved them. (I resisted the urge. Mostly.)

I'm sure I'll have to rewrite many of those 50,000 words, but that's OK. I'm confident I've found the bones of my story now. The rest, I can fix. I'm not going to go back and look at them yet, lest I paralyze myself again with the urge to tinker. NaNo got me through Act II and into the beginning of Act III. I'm going to take a day or two to plan out Act III, make those scene index cards a little more detailed, and then I'm going to plunge back in. Not quite as fast--50,000/month IS a bit excessive. But I think I can manage 25,000 without neglecting the rest of my life, and at that rate I'll have a draft to start polishing by sometime in January.

So, all in all, NaNo worked better than I'd dreamed.

1 comment:

Christine E. said...

Congratulations! I'm really impressed. Wishing you luck in getting published, if only for the selfish reason that when you do, I'll be able to read your books!