Wednesday, October 30, 2013

National Novel Writing Month

It's almost November--also known as National Novel Writing Month or, more awkwardly, as NaNoWriMo. Writers from all over the globe are challenging themselves to produce 50,000 manuscript pages by the end of the month, which roughly translates into about 175 book pages. That's a slim novel, just a hair past novella territory, but novel length nonetheless. I'm reading Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and it comes in at 178 pages. The cover says it's a novel. I'm not about to argue with Neil Gaiman.

Do I think you can write a novel in a month? No. Not really.

There are always notable exceptions, of course, but they're rare. A great novel is more than just a word count--it's well-developed characters, an absorbing story, precise language.  In my experience, plots and characters never behave as you want them to and despite your best intentions, the story will take on a life of its own. This is a good thing. This also means there will be a lot of decision-making and problem-solving along the way that can take a lot of time to sort out. If you want to create depth to your storytelling, you need time. Pacing, rhythm, good dialogue--all take time. Quality can't be rushed.

If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great opportunity to kick-start your novel idea or to develop the discipline of writing every day, toward a goal. A deadline can help you ignore your inner censor and keep pushing through--a problem for anyone working on a first draft. I plan on participating by keeping up with a daily 2,000-word count, even though I'm in the middle of a novel I've been working on for several years. Will it be finished by the end of November? Absolutely not.

Need some inspiration? Here are some of my favorite writing books:

How Fiction Works by James Wood

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Mid-Book Crisis

Now that my novel is chugging along well past the midpoint, I've decided to plunge back into social media--and I'm quickly discovering it's still the same time-suck that made me temporarily abandon it in the first place. I've just joined Twitter (@stephdoyon) and I'm thoroughly enjoying the distraction. When I start looking for ways to procrastinate in the middle of a project it's a sure sign that I'm facing what I like to call "The Mid-Book Crisis."

For those of you who don't know, I spent my formative writing years as a ghostwriter for a teen series called Sweet Valley University. I also wrote a few books for a series called Fearless and a quartet of my own called On the Road, about an eighteen year-old girl who takes the year off before college to travel the country (or at least she was supposed to, until the series was canceled--but that's a future blog post). The point is, I've written fifteen books and it doesn't matter whether the story outline was handed to me or I developed the plot on my own, whether it was a teen book or a literary novel, I've always run into a crisis of confidence at exactly the same point in every book--right around the middle.

Beginnings are tough in their own right--there's nothing tougher than facing a blank page. On the other hand, there are so many ideas and hopes and characters that beginnings are also full of excitement and energy. An unwritten story is full of limitless potential. Characters develop and situations unfold. It's an exciting process of discovery.

After the beginning is established, characters assert themselves and conflicts arise. There are past details to fill in, threads to follow. Tension mounts. Then the plot starts moving toward a climax and  characters must make a key decisions. Action must be taken. This is the big moment...

And that's when the crisis hits. This is the moment when I freeze.

I know when I start to approach the midpoint of a book because suddenly I'll find myself cleaning the house, surfing the Internet, blowing off my work schedule. I'll get an idea for another book or a short story and start writing that, instead. Right now I have an idea for a humorous memoir about the writing business and I'm just itching to get started on it. And before that was an epic I started set in San Francisco and Shanghai at the turn of the twentieth century. Both of those sound like more fun than what I'm currently writing. Anything to avoid the work at hand.

Why is this the midpoint so difficult to face? Because it signals the death of possibility.

Every story starts with an infinite number of choices (characters, genres, plots, point of views, techniques, voices, etc) and slowly, through decision-making and the process of elimination, I am now confronted with the product of my choices. Worse still, if I'm true to my character, there is really only one perfect choice he can make at the climax. It's all been building to this moment. The grand story that used to exist only in my imagination is now specific and concrete. It's also flawed and not quite what I thought it would be and there's a fear that all the work I've put in is not quite adding up to something worthy of all the years I've spent on it.

But here's what I've learned: No creative endeavor ever quite lives up to our lofty visions. Every artist is afraid of failure. Some believe that it's better to shelve the piece and always wonder, than to complete it and be disappointed.

This is the real point of failure for most. Ask any writer and they'll admit to having at least one unfinished manuscript tucked away. But you have to press on. You're so close. The groundwork has already been laid, the hard part is over. Once you reach the climax of the story, the consequences of the characters' actions are inevitable. And then a beautiful thing happens--the last third of the book nearly writes itself.

Do you have a story you're afraid to finish?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Time to Start Blogging Again...

It's kind of shocking how long it's been since my last post (don't look), but now that I'm well past the mid-point of my latest novel, it feels like the time is right to revive this puppy. My hope is that within the next several months, as I finish the first draft and attempt to get my second novel published (second adult literary novel, that is--I've written 13 young adult novels) I'll be able to share the process with you. Publishing a book is a wild ride--the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It's full of fantastic surprises and crushing disappointments. So why not share all the juicy goodness?

Part of what will make this particular journey interesting is that it's been eight years since my last book came out. It has also been eight years since my twin daughters were born. Notice a correlation? Some people are able to juggle a career and family at the same time, but I was not able to do that very well. So I decided to enjoy my children, write when I could, and try to forget that I was falling behind my peers. I have to constantly remind myself that life is not a contest and that comparisons are damaging.

The reality, though, is that I've essentially been out of the publishing business for eight years and during that time it has become a completely different animal. People I've made connections with have moved on. E-publishing is now a big deal. Social media has exploded. I'm fascinated by the changes and terrified, too.

Will you join me? It should be an interesting ride.