NaNoWriMo 2015.

I didn’t expect to join, let alone win, NaNoWriMo this year — but I did.

This year has been a drought for creative writing, because I was spending most of it writing massive essays and assignments. The Camp NaNos passed me by, and when NaNo season rolled around I initially didn’t want to join, because didn’t think I’d be up to doing yet more writing, even for fun.

But I joined in the end, because I wanted to tell a Highland Story.

The Story

It began as a fan fiction of the Pixar animation, Brave. When I watched it, I saw so much promise and potential that never got realized, and I was so disappointed by the ending and the character development and personal quest of Merida the heroine. Basically, I thought the “lessons” were superficially dealt with, and Merida’s character growth was so shallow and she got away with too much. I decided that I could write a better story. (Okay, I just wanted Merida to suffer more for the consequences of her actions.)

And so Highland Story (working title) began as a fan fiction retelling. But like all these things, it quickly took on its own life and morphed out of recognition to Brave. Probably only the most cursory of details remain the same, and I kept the names of Merida and her family. But otherwise, it’s rightly a historical fiction, and you probably couldn’t see any resemblance to Brave if I didn’t tell you about it.

I barely did any preparation for writing. Research on the Scottish highlands was so superficial, it’s shameful. Character development was just about nonexistent. While I made an outline, I only did it to the end of Act One (of a 3-act structure), and had a rough idea of the climax and resolution. But everything in between was unknown territory.

In this way I dived into NaNo.

The Experience

Writing Act One was business as usual: just follow the outline. Once I wrote past that, it was uncharted territory, and I was writing with only a faint vision of where I wanted to end up, but without much idea of what was to come immediately next. So for the whole Act Two, I was basically feeling my way forward and writing what seemed logical to follow.

That’s as close to pantsing as a born planner can get. It was actually quite fun and novel to write while thinking, “I have no idea of what’s coming next.” The amazing thing was, I managed to connect my ongoing plot with the envisioned climax/resolution in the third week of NaNo, and now I have clear milestones to hit in order to reach The End. I never expected to have this happen, so it was a real treat to find out that my subconscious was working for me all along.

I acutely felt the effects of my lack of preparation. Characterization suffered in particular — the characters were as flat as cardboard, and their motivations and desires were feeble. They all sounded the same, and conflict was a mild flailing of hands. So I learned that poor character development leads to weak conflict and motivations; this affects character growth, and thus the entire story.

Writing every day wasn’t too much of a problem. Having gone through a year of writing essays and assignments, I’m quite used to sitting down and churning out words on demand. NaNo was just a ramped up version of that: it was like clocking in an essay a day. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing that I approached NaNo like I was writing an assignment, even if it helped me make the daily word count almost every day.

Comparison between 2014 and 2015

Now that I’ve won NaNo 2015, it’s nice to be able to compare this experience with last year’s.

Prep was the biggest difference. Dragon Within was heavily planned. There was the world building, which took up months. I spent a lot of time developing the characters, especially the two MCs. I outlined practically the entire novel ahead of time, so I was very prepared when writing began. And indeed, I just had to follow the outline I’d planned all the way, as opposed to the “discovery writing” done to plot out Highland Story.

Although preparation and thus writing process for 2014 and 2015 were quite different, the outcome was remarkably similar. The quality of the draft seems to be roughly the same: equally mediocre. Highland Story is probably worse than Dragon Within, given the poor prep. Both were equally hard to write, and equally linear, with few flashes of inspiration. Or maybe the flashes came but they were so small and subtle I didn’t recongize them (the connection of plot being the exception).

Since both experiences were so similar, it’s probably my writing talent that is the common denominator. Plan or prep doesn’t seem to make any difference so far.

What’s next?

The immediate next goal is to finish Highland Story. At 50k, I’m almost finished with Act Two, and I think Act Three will take another 10k or so to complete.

Finishing is imperative. I’m much less attached to Highland Story as Dragon Within, and if I dropped it now, I doubt I’ll ever come back to complete it. This detachment could be due to how I initially conceived of writing it, and possibly the lack of character development and the fact that they weren’t “mine” to begin with.

I’m actually quite eager to revisit Dragon Within. It’s been cooling for a whole year, so that’s already enough distance from it for me to approach the editing more objectively. But the characters are calling out to me for attention, so I’m using it as an incentive to finish Highland Story so I can reunite with Nonide and Zuhal and company.

I’ve been thinking lately of how I can learn to write a better first draft. Practice is the obvious first thing to do. But I also wonder whether the pace of NaNo is not conducive to better writing. I feel that Strange Music (my novella written during Camp NaNo with a goal of 20k words, or about 800 Words/day) was way better than any of the novels. Worth testing out at Camp in future, whether writing a novel slower will produce better writing overall. And maybe I can see with post-NaNo writing of Highland Story, where I’ve given myself a daily goal of 750 words/day, and see if writing gets better.

Lessons learnt:

1. Pantsing — okay, half-pantsing — is a possibility. I can do it and still be successful in writing. That’s another strategy in my toolbox to use!

2. Character development is vital to writing a good story. The plot hangs entirely on characters, and I can’t neglect that aspect during prep. If I ever revise Highland StoryI’m going to have to do a lot of character development on the entire main cast before I even begin looking at the draft.

3. I’m getting faster at writing. It’s not too onerous to write 1700 words/day, it only takes about 2 hours generally. But this attitude might not help with my writing quality and motivation towards the story itself.

4. Try writing a novel slower. It might produce a better first draft.

5. NaNoWriMo is a blast. It was fun to go to local write-ins and join in with the atmosphere there. I’ll definitely be back next year, and I already have a story idea waiting in the wings for that!

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