Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Another NaNoWriMo Challenge Met

It doesn't seem like much in the practical scheme of things, but that's often how people regard it: I didn't do it to make money (impractical when I'm not making any, right now) or because I had to (no one assigned it to me). It took a month when I could've been doing something practical; it took time away from doing stuff that should've taken priority or at least should've been more fun.

But it also took discipline, something I've lacked as a composer ever since the late-1980s, and have only started getting back in the last few years, sitting down to compose every day at least for a few hours whether I got anything accomplished or not.

Writing a book – in this case, a novel – is different that composing a song cycle, a sonata or a symphony. For one thing, it's a lot easier to feel you've accomplished something when you can say “I wrote 2,147 words this morning” (about 5 pages of a standard paperback book, today) rather than “I have a page or two of sketches filled with scratches nobody can read that will probably translate into about 2 seconds of music” if it was a good day.

But for the last two years, I have spent the month of November writing a novel. Well, trying to write at least 50,000 words of a novel. That's the month-long goal at NaNoWriMo, a popular social-creative website where November is NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth.

There's something about trying to do this when you can tap into the collective energy of thousands of others around the globe trying to do the same thing.

There are writers in my region and they have gathered at Writing Parties held at bookstores not far from my home. But for me, writing is a very private thing – plus I don't have a lap-top (wireless or otherwise) I can take to one of these gatherings to plug into the social experience of writing en masse. Plus they serve lots of sugary snacks – donuts and stuff – to pump you up and, frankly, I'm very happy having lost 15 pounds since June.

You sign up at the web-site, you build a profile, keep track of your daily word count – I've been boring my Facebook Friends with daily status updates that read like “And today I wrote...” – keep in touch with fellow WriMos and read blog posts, check out the Procrastination Station and get weekly pep-talks delivered right to your e-mailbox.

Well, frankly, aside from two blog posts here myself, I was so busy writing, I didn't have TIME to read their pep-talks, didn't NEED to check out the Procrastination Station and was never in the kind of a bind where I felt inclined to check out what other people were doing when they were stuck.

Lucky me. Doesn't mean it couldn't happen or that I'm some genius that was able to leap over tall stacks of Writer's Blocks in a single bound. It was just luck.

And planning.

I first heard about NaNoWriMo in 2006 just as it was about to begin, but that November things at work were too busy and I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to do to just jump right in there.

But in 2008, suddenly my schedule was, shall we say, “wide open” and I figured “Why not?!”

So in October, I sat down and started to plan what I wanted to do, did some research, worked out back-stories for some of my characters (helps to avoid Bovarisms like having a character being blue-eyed one time you see her, then brown-eyed another, given the likelihood of color-changing contact lenses in 19th Century France) and ended up having a vague idea of what I wanted it to be “about.”

Then, on November 1st, I sat down and began writing.

My mind had already been working on what it would or could be, so by the time I actually started putting pen to paper – or rather, finger to keyboard – the interior creative process had already been underway. Now, the exterior process took up the challenge of working it out.

One of the biggest problems for a writer, I imagine, is where to begin and then where to go from there.

I already had an idea of what the “structure” of my novel would be: how the story-line would stretch out over time. You think, perhaps, you begin writing at the beginning and when you reach the end, you're done. But in many cases, a novel has to have some kind of time-span to evolve into, a sense of flow, of contrast and variety, of cohesion – oh hey, just like a piece of music! – where the drama or tension or whatever it is builds to a point and then reaches, somehow, the climax or a conclusion.

My first novel – an idea I'd been toying with for... not years but decades – was going to be built out of a series of events over the character's lifespan with small “segments” (grouped into larger units like “chapters”) that seemed to have no chronological rhyme or reason but which grew one out of the other (if not directly, then over time). I had planned 100 of these segments and mapped out in advance when in the life they might have occurred, jotting down ideas as to what these events might be but leaving the details up to the moment of writing this segment. The order they were to occur in had little bearing on the order in which they could be written in.

In this way, if I got stuck on one segment, I could move on to another. Plus these weren't terribly long, designed so I could write at least a full “segment” in one day (500-2,000 words, initially). This would solve the problem of picking up the next day after the energy has been interrupted and the train of thought destroyed (“where was this going? Geez, I have no idea...”).

That way, it was fairly easy to keep on writing and not get bogged down in stuff like “what do I want this to be about? Who is my character? Would she do a thing like that?”

A friend asked me how I could write a few thousand words on the first day when she was only able to write a couple hundred.

This pre-planning jump-started the creative juices: by the time I was ready to begin on November 1st, my brain was already past worrying about where to begin.

The first day of writing is November 1st. It doesn't say you can't think about your novel before that.

It gives me a store of energy (or ideas or details) that I can draw on to keep on going and overcome those creative lapses that usually spell trouble if not doom for a writer.

Now, I didn't finish that novel – Echoes in and out of Time – but I managed to get over 70,000 words done in five weeks: I had gone past the 50,000 word goal a few days before the November 30th deadline and kept at it for another week or so. Then I stopped.

There, in my computer, was a pretty good rough draft for a large percentage of these “segments.” There were others that needed to be filled in, some that would need revised (of course) and maybe even tossed out. But that's what a rough draft is for, something you go back and rework into a second draft.

That's another thing not to get too involved in during your Month of Writing Dangerously (as they call it). DON'T WASTE TIME EDITING. In fact, don't waste time trying to find that RIGHT WORD or the BEST TURN OF PHRASE... get something down you can live with, mark it somehow – in [brackets] or by WRITING IN CAPS to remind yourself you'd rather change this (later) – and move on with the job-at-hand: getting as much down in solid form as you can. Then go back and rework it later.

The problem for me was, then, not going back and doing another thing with it. I printed every day's writing and put it in a notebook – in addition to backing up each day's work on a CD (one friend lost a week's writing time when his computer froze up on him and he had to take it into the shop: meanwhile, he had no back-up and, as I recall, may have lost a large chunk of the work he'd done which resulted in not making the goal) – but there it sits, unfinished.

However, it's a lot more than I've ever gotten done on this novel in all the years I'd been thinking “Gee, I'd like to try writing a novel.”

This year, I was thinking about just picking up where I more-or-less left off and writing another 50,000 words on Echoes in and out of Time, but something else happened.

Because I had done a parody of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code a few years ago and recently revised it – The Schoenberg Code was a serial novel (pun intended) of some 45,000 words written in maybe 3 weeks' time, though not concentrated in one on-going creative push – it seemed logical to want to do a similar musical parody of his latest book, The Lost Symbol.

So that's how this year's project was born, The Lost Chord

Since my genre was now “humor/parody” rather than “serious/long,” I already had a framework to go on. So what I did was map out the events of Brown's story, figure out what my “equivalencies” were going to be (trying not to imitate them exactly which became a real challenge in the scene where the villain blows up a computer lab: I mean, how many different ways can you create a combustible scenario for a scene like that?) and proceed from there.

In this case, I actually did start at the beginning. I mapped out how Brown's 135 chapters would blend into my 24 chapters – I wrote about the structural plan here – and if there were details (or scenes) that didn't work for me right away, I marked it with some symbols (lost or found) which I knew I could then go back and fill in when the inspiration was more likely to strike. This also meant, as I figured out details for a later sequence, I realized I need to change some facts – one, pretty significant – that would involve rewriting a couple of earlier segments. But I didn't want to get bogged down in that now. That's for later. The job now is just to write.

And so I had passed my 50,000 word goal on Thanksgiving Day and managed to go over it by some 14,000 more last night at 11:00pm.

It's a rough draft. It's not even complete – in fact, all that and I'm still barely half-way through the story-line! Sigh...

But I have the satisfaction of knowing I wrote about 145 pages of text and more importantly that I had the discipline to sit down and write almost every day. Only a few days were spent, ironically, writing MORE words, in this case about Haydn for my class at the community college or for the symphony's pre-concert talk. Thinking of what I was NOT writing at the time, I seriously considered, “well, I wrote these words during the month of November, maybe I can just slip them into the word-tally anyway.” Ultimately, I didn't need to.

And no, it's not ready to start posting on the blog.

Some friends were hoping I'd do that and I thought it might be cool to post it day-by-day, watching the novel grow before my eyes. But it wasn't ready for that: it still needs some rewriting and changes need to be made. Other than a “scholarly” interest in following the process from sketch to rough draft to final product, it didn't seem worth the fuss. Like a piece of music, you'll hear it when it's done, I guess: the day-by-day sketching (and kvetching) does not always make for an interesting experience for everyone.

Then, too, if I don't finish it in a similar, timely fashion, it's no big deal.

But someday.

Oh, okay, I might post a few scenes from it – not necessarily dramatically involved ones where you would lose the continuity in reading an excerpt. Teasers, if you will (which also might make you think, “Eww, why would I want to read that?”) And since not all of my friends have read Dan Brown's original yet, understanding the parody takes more explaining (beyond just the characters' names).

So more of that, later.

Meanwhile, I really need to get back to composing. There have been ideas banging around inside my skull for the opening song of this song cycle I've been working on since May: it's time to get back to it and apply the discipline I've gotten used to in writing prose to composing music again.

Or exercising, for that matter. Or dealing with Reality_101, that would be nice, too...

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