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November 03, 2010



 by Nancy Martin  

Now that November is over, can we talk about NaNoWriMo?  Because I’m intrigued by the whole concept of writing a novel in a month (even one that's 50K, which is more like a novella, don't you think? But for the sake of today's discussion, forget I mentioned that.)  Until now, I’ve been afraid to voice my thoughts about NaNoWriMo because I didn’t want to interfere anybody’s writing process.

Every writer’s process (two words that must be spoken in stentorian, James Earl Jonesian tones) is different, none is Right or Wrong, of course, and we all eventually figure out what works for each of us. There are more approved methods than we can count.  I know better than to dis somebody else’s way of accomplishing the feat of writing an entire novel no matter how long it takes.

But if you wrote a whole book in one month, please tell me how you managed, because I’d like nothing better, believe me.  It takes me nine months to write a book, and that’s after 30 years—and nearly 50 books--of practice. Every time I start a new one, I think, “this is the book I will be able to bang out in a couple of months.” It never happens.  I finish a book, hit “send,” look up from my computer and realize it’s once again been nine months to the day. For me, however, writing is about as easy as chiseling marble with a toothpick, and the idea that I might be able to write a whole book in a month---plus roast a turkey and bake pies for the entire family—boggles my mind.

 Here’s how it works for me:  I think for a couple of months.  I outline for a couple of hours.  Then I bang out 50 pages at a time. (When I’m drafting, I try to write 10 pages a day.)  Then I stop and realize those 50 pages are all wrong and I go back to tweak the story. (Usually, I need to ADD MORE CONFLICT* or COMPLICATE THE PROTAGONIST’S LIFE* or MAKE THE SUSPECTS MORE MEMORABLE.*)  When I hit the Page 100, 200 and 300 marks—(the spots a mystery story really cries out for plot points where the reader realizes:  “Hey, this story isn’t at all what I first thought it was!”)-- I spend a few days the twisting the outline because READERS LIKE SURPRISES.*   (The Snowflake Method: "Three disasters, plus an ending = a plot.") When the whole thing’s drafted, I must spend a couple of months revising.  Revising for me doesn’t mean re-plotting.  It means word-smithing, because READERS LIKE BOOKS THAT ARE WELL-WRITTEN.* It also means making the story more emotional BECAUSE READERS LIKE TO FEEL.* Revising is also about making the protagonist wonderful.  Because READERS LOVE PROTAGONISTS WHO ARE FULLY-FLESHED PEOPLE.* Tah-dah! All done. But then I look around and realize it’s taken me 9 months again.

Maybe it takes so long because for me writing isn’t just about writing.  It’s about reading.  I try to read a book a week, but when I’m writing, it’s usually a lot more.  (I don’t necessarily finish every book I start.  Some books are just not . . . nevermind.  It’s stupid to say bad things about another writer’s work.  I’m on a couple of listserves where writers feel completely free to say bad things about writers and agents and publishing houses, and I find myself screaming at my computer screen: ARE YOU COMPLETELY STUPID? PUBLISHING IS A SMALL COMMUNITY!  DO YOU NOT REALIZE WHAT YOU’RE SAYING GETS SPREAD TO EVERYONE ELSE IN ABOUT TEN SECONDS?* But nevermind.  Let’s just say there are books you only need to read the set-up and you kinda know what’s going on from there. If you really love the characters or the world, of course, you keep reading for the sheer pleasure of reading a fave. But if you're a professional writer, I think you can have permission not to finish everything you start to read.)  I also read The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and sometimes Vogue and whatever happens to be sitting at the doctor’s office. Every day, I go “word shopping” in magazines.  This morning I found, “Chateau Cardboardeaux.”  Great, right?  And I know just which one of my characters would say it, and it’s the kind of thing that would make my reader chuckle (I know my readers very well and UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY LOVE AND WHAT THEY DON'T*) so I'm totally stealing it.

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How can any writer not read?  Half of my reading is just keeping up with trends--the fresh ideas of writers who are way smarter than me—and that takes a lot of time every week.  Have you read ROOM yet?  Are you keeping up with Laura Lippman’s books?  Writers must read to make sure what we’re writing isn’t dreck.  Or ten years out of date.  Tell me what you’re reading right now, please (is it fresh? Different?) because I’m reading FREEDOM, and I’ll be finished soon and need something else that’s challenging or fresh or thought-provoking.

I also read all the how-to books.  Over and over, I ponder my favorite passages of Jane Smiley’s THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL. (“Landscape as moral destiny.” Great, right?) Did you read TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION by PD James? Carolyn See’s MAKING A LITERARY LIFE? Even the basic plotting books like Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and Robert McKee’s STORY are books I pick up and read a few paragraphs at a time to remind myself how to do my job. And if you’re a writer and aren’t occasionally checking in with Alex Sokoloff to see what storytelling wisdom she’s dishing up, you’re missing out.

Plus research! READERS LOVE BEING IMMERSED IN A REAL WORLD,* and the only way to deliver that important reading experience is to do the time-consuming research. Looking for the just-right detail that will transport a reader to my world—that’s not something I can skimp on.

Plus, a lot of writing books is just thinking.  My best thinking is the kind where my left brain is busy (driving the car, taking a shower) so my right brain can roam around in creative territory.  I can't rush that.

Okay, sorry for the self-indulgence today. Usually, I find reading about the process other writers use is dull, so maybe you're bored. Bottom line: I have my own methods that work for me.  But over the years, I’ve discovered that becoming more self-aware and being open-minded is helpful. The only way to do that is to continue to seek knowledge.

So if there’s a way to write a book in a month, I want to know about it. Because I just sold a new Blackbird book to NAL to pay for my daughter’s wedding, and hey---I need to pound it out.  Otherwise, it’s DeNoWriLo for me—December Novel Writing is Long.

Suggestions, please?

* Nancy’s Ten Tips For Today.  I wish I could remember these words to write by, but it seems I have to re-learn these lessons every time I start to write again.


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