Writing at the end of the world: NaNoWriMo 2016

Some of you know that the publisher of Waking Up Naked in Strange Places went out of business — it was last year, but let’s just call it this year, because 2016 deserves it. I’ve been going through the usual struggles of “hey, what do you do when your publisher goes out of business, anyway?” My decision was to bring out the first novel and its two planned sequels as self-published books, and I started studying how to do that.

But of course, the first thing I had to do with the two sequels was write them.

Book 2 (current title: Stripping Down to Scars) and Book 3 (current title: Bringing the Wolf to Heel) both had narrative outlines that I thought were strong, plus scenes, plus of course the characters and world-building from the first book. Easy, right?

Ha. Writing is never easy. And it’s even harder than that.

Book 2, even with a narrative outline, went through an endless parade of “now the plot is this and it’s called this.” If a publisher had been breathing down my neck for it, I could have delivered something. But it wouldn’t have been quite right. Every draft was wrong, I could feel it, without being able to put my finger on exactly what the problem was. I tried NaNoWriMo-ing it in 2015. Then I tried a revision during Rainforest 2016. Then I tried another revision during the Clarion West 2016 Write-a-thon.

I probably wrote a million words, but all of them were wrong. I knew it. The drafts kept getting closer and closer to correct, but they still lacked that certain ineffable something, and it kept getting more and more frustrating. Then, in late summer, my writing buddy Jim Kling and I  had a little discussion about works in progress, and he said something very simple that turned the whole thing around: “Based on what happened in the first book, I would expect Abby in the second book to be looking for her father.”

That’s what I would expect too. And her father was a huge, looming presence in the second book. Yet — where was the sense of Abby looking for him? You know… taking action? Protagging, like your protagonist has to do?

It’s easy to miss it when you’ve written a passive protagonist, because a lot of the time they don’t seem passive at all — when they react very strongly to the things that other people do, and there’s a lot of shouting and running around and punching and werewolves eating people. But you end up with sound and fury signifying nothing. A book that, no matter how exciting the action seems like it should be, is kinda boring.

Once I realized what I had done wrong, everything kind of fell into place. I was hoping to finish a new draft of Book 2 at the end of September, but writing always takes longer than it seems like it should, and I was only about 2/3 of the way there. But, as I was plotting out the end of Book 2, I also ended up with a new, improved outline for Book 3.

I was hoping to be done with the new draft of Book 2 when NaNoWriMo hit, but wasn’t, so I started out November working on that. I’d sort of forgotten that’s why I originally started labeling my relevant tweets not NaNoWriMo: because I was working on an existing book and not writing a new one.

Then, you know. The apocalypse came. I spent a few days unable to write any fiction at all, and then, on November 12 (according to the tweets) started working on the third book when I realized that it had the perfect emotional resonance for the current real-world situation. The outline already demanded that Abby lose to her father and spend a while in emotionally brutal exile. I thought, “I can write how that feels. I can write how that feels so hard.”

And then, as a treat at the end, I can write how it would feel to come back and win, so I can win something, even if only in my imagination. And with that, I won NaNoWriMo. I wrote more than 50,000 words not just in 30 days — I wrote ’em in 18 days. And they’re pretty raw and I’m still not sure how I feel about some of my choices, but the whole thing about NaNoWriMo is that you don’t have time to second-guess yourself, and if it occurs to you that it would be funny to make your protagonist serve bikini espresso, you just go ahead and do that.

So, thank you Jim, I totally owe you a beer.