Zero is Better than the Nothing You Had Before…

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of guest speaking at Write By the Rails monthly meeting. I decided to talk about what it meant to me that my novel was a NaNoNovel. I thought I’d share them here as well:

“The only thing that got From These Ashes written and finished was that two things happened simultaneously. One of them was a off-hand seemingly nothing statement that a writer-friend, mentor said to me, the other was discovering National Novel Writing Month.

I had written two novels before, they were both really bad and took me forever to write. I learned a lot from these two books, mostly about how very hard it was to write an entire novel and how I didn’t want to kill myself again, to take years to tell stories that were never going to go anywhere. Thank god there was nothing called self-publishing back then… the very idea of the possibility of these two very terrible novels out there in the world horrifies me even now.

So, I decided I’d write short stories. Maybe I’d learn how to be a better writer, write better novels. I started writing these short stories about this character, and at the time I didn’t realize the character was the same person throughout. They were exercises (write a story based on senses alone, so I wrote a story about a boy waking up in the forest and having to discover the world around him with nothing but his senses), prompts (tell a story about something horrible that happened in your childhood from a unique POV, so I told a story about my brother’s death from the POV of the truck driver that killed him) and I tried to make them short and poignant and I tried not to let them take over my whole life *pause for laughter*.

Then a friend, the leader of a writer’s group I was in at the time, said something that stuck with me, she said that I didn’t write short stories, I wrote scenes and to not be afraid to be epic. Which meant to me that these were never going to be stories. They were never going to be anything other than exercises and maybe they’d make me a better writer and that was great, but I sort of fell in love with these characters who all turned out to be one character.

Then the second thing happened. Someone (who would turn out about 10 years later to be my editor) told me about NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know what National Novel Writing Month is, allow me to explain (for those who do know, feel free to drift off for a bit).

Every November, thousands of people try to stop being “One Day Writers” as in, “One day I’ll write a book”  and become novelists. They do this by  writing 50,000 words in one month, or 1,667 words every single day.

I’ve attempted it every year since that first year to varying success. And the success is rarely measured by word count but rather what tidbit I learned about myself, my process and my writing.

None to date have been as successful as that first attempt, not in the work completed or in the lessons learned. The level of writing done in that month is astronomical, as is the level of suck. You have to be willing to let bad writing–really, really bad writing set where it lies, knowing it won’t be until at least December that you can go back and fix it. Author blogger–and foul mouthed guru of mine–Chuck Wendig calls the NaNoNovel the 0 draft and that is the closest to perfect that I’ve ever heard it described. But, in this one case, zero is better than the nothing you had before.

You also have to be willing to take your stories to places you wouldn’t have even imagined when you started, even if you are an excellent outliner–I am really not… at all. The best example of this I have was when I introduced a character halfway through From These Ashes that I had no idea what do with but knew he would change everything. I had been foreshadowing throughout the novel about an epic battle in the end with no idea of what that battle would be. I knew this guy would lead them there, but I still didn’t know anything else. He was the new boyfriend/husband of the two main character’s mother–their antagonist as it were.

In the mad rush to get my word count that day, I struggled with what his role would be and it was this desperation, I think, that made me dismiss evil-stepfather immediately (boring!) and grasp at anything new that would keep me interested for an entire month. The knowledge I’d gained while at the University of Montana about the sociology and psychology of religious cults came back to me. If I had the whole of my life and all the time in the world to lay out the directions, motivations and climaxes of this story, I don’t know that I would have ever taken it there.

If I never got anything else from NaNoWriMo, I would still do it every single year, if for no other reason than those moments of desperate flailing about for inspiration they bring out in me that give me something original and unique to work on and a crap ton of research to do–when November is over.

My next novel, that yes, was started during the month of November was nothing but letting the mad, crazy of NaNoWriMo wash over me and letting the rogue, smart ass character take the story wherever she wanted. Like I said about the first novel, in the whole of my life with all the time in the world, I would have never written a story about homegrown terrorism and fishing in Tennessee. Never. The research so far has been super fun though and I spend everyday waiting for the FBI,  Homeland Security and Al Gore to stop by and have a conversation with my Google searches.

Ahhh, luscious fodder.”

The rest of my time at the podium was spent trying to convince all there to join in the crazy. I might have had a few converts. Some interesting questions about my novel was also asked and answered so that was fun and I even sold a few. SCORE!

One thought on “Zero is Better than the Nothing You Had Before…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *