03 May 2013

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

While I was still an unpublished author, but with two novels already completed and gathering dust under the bed, I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. I wanted to see if I could write under pressure, because although I knew I could write quickly I was looking ahead to when I may find myself under deadline. Pretty cheeky, for a woman who had only, to that point, received a drawer full of FOAD* letters from publishers, editors and agents. Yet, I wasn’t at all sure that if an agent said to me, “I love your premise and I want to see it. How soon can you get it to me?” I’d be able to produce.

I’d also done a lot of learning since I wrote the first two novels—taking courses, discovering just how much I didn’t know, figuring out what the market wanted, finding out all the stuff I was doing that shouldn’t ever be done. I felt ready to move on to the next level, to write a book I could actually have a chance of getting published with. So NaNoWriMo was my personal test, my big push toward success.

For anyone not familiar with National Novel Writing Month, you’re asked to commit to writing fifty thousand words during November. At the end you’re expected to have a first draft, not a book all polished and ready to be subbed. You’re also encouraged to have some kind of plan so you’re not stumbling around writing yourself into corners and wasting time.

Even as a pantser I knew my chances of writing a novel of that size without some kind of outline were slim, so I came up with everything I thought I needed—a plot, character outlines, research notes. I was ready!

I started on November 1st and cranked out three thousand words the first night. The second night I cranked out a thousand, but it was hard going. You have to understand, I didn’t doubt I could get the word-count. I’d done almost one and a half that much in the past. I was aiming for a good first draft, something that didn’t need much work at the end, so I was paying attention to all those rules I’d learned, trying to follow my plan, pushing, forcing, biting and clawing toward the end.

I didn’t finish writing the book.

It bored the crap out of me.

Hatred isn’t a strong enough word for how I felt about my heroine, hero, the plot, my writing. I had a moment where I thought I was done for. I’d failed the test and had about ten thousand words of unadulterated effluvia to show for it.

I won’t bore you with the details of my depression, hair-tearing etc. I can tell you what I learned from that experience was invaluable. I can’t force a plot or ignore the direction my characters want to go in. I can produce quickly, but there has to be a certain level of freedom to the writing, so I can stay engaged and let my imagination really be in control. But most importantly I learned that slavishly following all the writing rules, trying to conform to every little thing people say you MUST or absolutely SHOULDN’T do is the fast road to boring, stagnant writing and an unfinished book. It’s like I learned in art class…the best abstract artists are those who know exactly how to draw and paint in a realistic fashion, but choose not to.

There was other good news too. On November 12th I had an idea—a vague, “suppose” kind of idea—started writing it to get the bad taste of defeat out of my mouth, and got the entire 50K first draft finished in time to receive my NaNoWriMo certificate. I still had a lot of work to do to find my voice, to discover which rules I was able to break effectively, and I re-wrote that book a couple of times before it became Breaking Free, my first erotic historical novel.

I’ve had other unfinished books since then, but now I tend to know fairly early when to let go and not waste my time on a thread-bare plot or an untenable character. And I’m still learning when and how to break the rules… Sometimes we're better off not knowing them at all, I think!

*For anyone not familiar with FOADs, that’d be F*** Off And Die.
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