Crockpot Writing or Why I Failed NaNoWriMo 2014 Miserably and Why That’s a Good Thing
(This is an expansion of something I posted on Google+ back in early December)
Why I failed miserable at NaNoWriMo 2014. Two reasons.
Reason One: I was sick. Everyone in the house was sick. Not joking here, at least one person in the house was sick every day of November. I spent one morning in the ER after spending a night puking my own bile. One member of the household is a toddler who was sent home from daycare after a few too many runny diapers in a row. There were viruses, colds, and just when I was feeling better I rolled my ankle the day before Thanksgiving. So yeah, messy, nasty, sickness really messed with my writing time and energy.
Reason Two: I should not have started to beginning with. At least not with the story I did. I have a process but until this I didn’t realize just how much of a process I have or how important it was that I stick to it. My process is what I now call crockpot writing. I have to slow cook the ideas in my head for a long time, possibly years, before I feel comfortable enough to start it. I figure I need at least at 75% written in my head before I sit down and put fingers to keyboard, and it can’t just be the first 75%. I have a whole file of half-finished wrecks that make it very clear that I need at least a general idea of a beginning, middle, and end before I start typing.
I also need to know a lot about the characters before I can start writing them. I don’t know if it was years of method acting training (which I was bad at), or years of writing fanfic, but I can’t seem to get more than two good words out of a character unless I know a lot about who they were and what they did before the story even starts. That’s not to say I don’t discover or change things about the character once I start writing but I need a strong foundation before I do.
I had none of this with my NaNo project.
I pushed myself into the idea of writing a young adult novel which I have never done before. It’s currently lucrative and my publisher, Dreamspinner Press, has just started a YA imprint, Harmony Ink. And in the famous last words of so many I thought to myself ‘how hard can it be?’ I scraped up a vague idea for a story in mid-October and told myself that I could work it out as I went. Very Bad Idea. I should have known myself better.
I never studied prose but I did study screenwriting as part of my Master’s Degree program. My professor was very big on three act structure and outlining and it does show in how I write my prose. I get twitchy if a book I’m working on can’t be broken down into a solid act structure with identifiable highs, lows, and turning points. She also ground into her students the importance of a solid step outline, and that all actions must inform and be motivated by character.
I had done none of this before starting NaNo. None of it. I had a couple of ideas for scenes I wanted, maybe about 20 lines of dialog, and a vague idea of what I wanted the story to be about. No outline, no idea how things were going to get from A to B to C. I also knew nothing about any of the characters. My old Russian method acting teacher would have been so disappointed in me.
“How can you act when you do not know who you are?!”
How can I write when I don’t know who I’m writing? The answer is I can’t.
One of the most important relationships was supposed to be between the main character and her step mother. On November 1 the step mother didn’t even have a name. She had no job, no past, nothing. She was just The Step Mother. I can’t write emotional connection or conflict with a character who is just The Step Mother. Maybe a better writer than I can but my attempts were a disaster.
Another important character was the Ex-Girlfriend. Again, November 1 she didn’t have a name, I didn’t know why the breakup had happened, or why they had been together in the first place. The main character was supposed to be cold and closed off, instead 4,000 words in she’s pouring her heart out to a group of complete strangers. And I have no idea if that was a legitimate character choice or just my virus addled brain doing an exposition dump.
I have better hope for my next two novels. I’m not really sure which one I’m going to tackle next but they’ve been sitting in my head for a while. One is a sequel to my western novella Eden Springs. That should have probably been a novel to begin with but it was the first thing I put out there was insecure about it. It has been slow cooking since the moment I hit send on that first submission in 2012 (fuck I haven’t published in a long time). The characters are already set, their backgrounds are in my head, and a lot of it is already on the page.
The other story about ready to come out of the crockpot and onto the plate is a (very) slow build romance about a couple of government agents. That one has been cooking away since mid-2011 when I woke up one morning with a freeze frame image in my head of a man in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling and another man in a suit sitting on the edge of the bed looking away. I’ve spent the last four years teasing out that image, working out who those men are, how they got there, and where they are going. I have a lot of hope for that one.
As for my NaNo project I still think I have the seed of a good story and at least two characters that might prove interesting, and I have 13k written. But I broke my own process and that (along with several viruses) broke me. So I’ll stick the story in the back of my head and put it on low. Maybe by next November it’ll be ready for another go, maybe the November after that. Maybe it’ll fall into the same file as the poly romance I started at nineteen and still can’t work out a third act for.
But now that I have fully accepted, acknowledged, and resigned myself to the fact that I have a process it might mean fewer half finished .doc files and more fully complete novels for people to enjoy. Here’s hoping.