NaNo and “Book in a Month”

So I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo again this year, and I’ve actually been doing some preparing. You read right — preparing! Me! Ahead of time!

I’ve been trying to work on my story idea a little every day — fleshing out characters, world mechanics, trying to come up with an outline (I’ve already got a cool ending in mind, but it’s occurred to me that I might need a beginning and middle too).

So far, my mood has been going in about one-day cycles: one day I’ll be totally pumped about my idea, the next day I’ll be in a state of abject depression and totally convinced that my idea is hopeless and I don’t have the skill to pull it off and I’ll never, ever make it as a writer. So, about average for NaNo, I’d say. The real test will be whether I can keep dragging myself to the keyboard in November, even when I’m in Maximum Marvin Mode.

Jennie and I stopped by a bookstore last weekend, and one of the books I picked up — on an impulse — was called “Book in a Month“, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It has some general advice, followed by a day-by-day plan for developing your plot, characters, etc. throughout the month as you write the story.

The short version: it looks like this is going to be well worth the price.

It’s not solid gold. A lot of the advice was old news, like the tired old “don’t write something just because you think there’s a market for it.” I’ve heard that advice so many times — and I can’t believe anybody even does that. Why would you write something you hated? How would you even come up with an idea that you felt capable of pulling off, if it wasn’t a genre that you loved to read?

There’s also a lot of yammering about “imagine how you’ll feel when you’ve written an entire novel”. Well, I’ve done that. Twice. Doesn’t feel that different, honestly. Now, if I had actually done any revising — or better yet, if I was depositing a hefty advance check — that’d be a different story…

But the book does have some real gems. I really like the advice to “write ‘as if'”: if you’re halfway through the month, and suddenly realize that you need to change something in an earlier chapter, then you just make a note, then keep writing as if you had already rewritten it that way. As she says, “You cannot write and rewrite at the same time if you want to finish a book in 30 days.” You’ll probably change your mind again before you’re done, so why waste time writing what’s likely to get cut or changed anyway? YAGNI as applied to novel writing — cool. And so very NaNo.

And then there’s Chapter 5, which all by itself is worth the cover price. The chapter title is a yawner (“Setting and Keeping Goals”), but what it’s really about is discovering what kind of books you want to write. I’ve found that I write best when I can put my own spin on something and make it my own — but what, exactly, is my spin? Could I explain it? Recognize it? Work consciously (instead of by luck) to apply it to a project? It turns out that maybe I can — and while my one-sentence self-pitch is still only on about its third draft (and needing a lot more), it already gives me a lot better insight into why I like the books and movies that I do, and what it would take for the book I’m writing to actually be the kind of book I’d want to read — and re-read — and re-read again. And that, really, is why I want to write in the first place.

The biggest downside to “Book in a Month” is that it’s spiral-bound. Pretty freakin’ chintzy — I expected better from Writer’s Digest Books, and I almost put it back on the shelf because of it. Heck, I almost didn’t pull it off the shelf in the first place. The spiral binding is easy to lay it flat, I guess (though far from the only choice, if that was their intent); but every time I open or close the book, or just turn a page, I’m deathly afraid that a page is going to tear out. I think they’re thinking of this as a disposable workbook (they come right out and say they expect you to buy another copy of the book for every novel you write), but if they really meant it as a workbook, they’d have left a lot more room to write in answers to the questions. (“What types of books do you enjoy? Movies? Music? Here’s a space half-an-inch high to write your answers.” I filled two pages of a spiral notebook before I got to where I could start seeing the patterns and making sense of them.)

But the book definitely got some sparks going in my head. I think it’s already earned its purchase price, and I’m only up to Day 1 — and it’ll probably earn more the first time I reread it. If you’re doing NaNo, I think this book is worth a look.

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