On the road to NaNo 2016, lessons from July Camp.

NaNoWriMo 2016 is in full swing, and this year I am participating again.  So far, staying ahead of the curve, having a ball, and learning a ton!

I plan to write some posts about what I’m learning so far for NaNo 2016, but before that…

I did Camp NaNoWriMo in July, writing a 25,000 word novella titled A Dirge for the Amphiptere.  (I really should make a subpage on this blog with all the names of my stories…) Having plotted for NaNo 2014 and pantsed for NaNo 2015 and gotten similar results on both fronts (a semi-coherent story that stalled at the start of the climax), I decided to “pants” again for Camp NaNo 2016.  I did the most rudimentary prep — a little bit of character development, a little bit of plotting — before diving right in.  I hit my 25k word goal, but once again, stalled right at the climax. Currently, the manuscript is cooling in that almost-finished state, but I plan to pull it out after NaNoNovel 2016 is finished, and work it into a second draft.

Yes, I hit the wall again at the same place.  But in the course of drafting Dirge, I think I’ve figured out why that was the case.

It was an epiphany that came when I was following the blog of author Matthew J. Wright, particularly when trying out the exercise mentioned in this post.

When reading story-writing advice, one hears a lot everywhere about how Plot and Character are the key pillars of story-telling.  I know that plot and character are important things, and that they are also different things… but how are they different, and how do they relate to each other in the course of story-telling?  Believe it or not, it was never clear to me in what way plot progression and character growth arc were similar and different, that they were separate entities that can be sketched out somewhat independently of each other. Neither did I realize I was conflating both, until I read that post and tried out the exercise.

Having to tease out the movement of plot (cycles of rising/falling action, try-fail cycle, climax and denouement) from the trajectory of the characters’ growth arcs (desires and goals, wants vs. needs, areas of growth and change) really helped me differentiate the two in my mind.  That very simple exercise of having to define the starts and ends of plot and character, separately yet next to each other, resulted in both of them separating themselves from that original conflation into separate and neatly packaged story entities.

I was reading that blog while writing Dirge, and from there discovered a reason (if not the reason) why I kept stalling at the climax.  I may have worked out the plot progression, but I hadn’t done the same for character arc.  The MC was making choices that led to plot events… but for what motivations, and for what goals? So when I tried to trigger the climax, even though I had an idea of how it ought to resolve, I couldn’t figure out why it would resolve in that way. In other words, I’d no idea what the character wanted in the midst of the plot events, so I didn’t know how the character would grow once the plot events resolved.

Apart from one story, Strange Music (the first story I’d ever written, for Camp NaNo 2014), I’d never been able to get the first drafts of my stories all the way to The End. And the first draft of Strange Music had its own set of problems (which I plan to blog about later). But I think I’ve now identified a flaw in my writing process that, if I fix it, may get me all the way to The End in a first draft. If I know what the MC wants, and how s/he needs to grow through the story, I can build both plot and character together such that the MC’s character arc and main narrative conflict will come together at the climax of the story, and reach a resolution that makes story sense.

In any case, working out the plot events and character arcs separately but alongside each other seems to be a useful strategy, and I’d focused on this when prepping for NaNo 2016. As far as drafting is concerned, I’m still learning how to weave plot progression with character arc, and escalate both in a lock-step way. That is a focus for my current NaNo novel – I still have a ways to go before the first draft of NaNo 2016 is finished, so we’ll see whether the method as laid out by the blog post will be helpful for structuring my story!

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