NaNowriMo?

It’s impossible to write without considering National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m new enough to serious writing that I’ve never participated before and I’m getting encouragement from all quarters to give it a try. It DOES sound like a good way to get words down, but I have to ask – does it really count if I’m just doing prep/background?

Don’t misunderstand me: I will still be writing key scenes for the novel and doing exercises to improve in general but I’m in no way ready to force a multi-thousand word first draft.

Part of this is because I’ve not completed my timeline of the historical events on which I’m basing my story. These cover 6 years and several countries, and while I already know I’m going to have to deviate from the reality to make a ripping yarn, I want to have this complete before I start the main writing so I know exactly how and where I’m breaking off from fact.

Figuring out a compelling story arc is the other problem. History seldom unfolds in a tidy seven-point story structure or the like, so once I have the fact down I have to hammer it into a readable fiction.

As such I’m going to end up doing more of a NaNoOutlineMo/NaNoResearchMo in order to get everything lined up. I suppose this is illustrative of how much writing doesn’t have much to do with actual writing, at least when I’m not done with my research.

this is what going mad felt like

The Historical Novel Project(TM) is creating a number of writing challenges that are above my pay grade, but it’s not the believable characterization, compression/abbreviation of real historical events or the need for creating an accurate world that intimidates me.

I think the hardest thing I’m going to have to describe is the mental state of a character who is slowly developing visual/auditory hallucinations through a combination of stress and overwork. I need to sell his slow decline to a modern reading audience while:

  • limiting myself to 16th century vernacular, as they didn’t have a vocabulary for mental illness the way we do
  • convincing the reader that the character does not realize he’s going mad – he thinks these visions are real
  • making it clear that there is no “voice of sanity” – everyone around him believes his visions are real too, and some actively encourage them
  • that in the context of the time/place this assumption makes sense.

This requires a huge amount of research. Not that I mind, but it’s hard to find sources for exactly the situation I’m trying to convey.

At the suggestion of my new historian acquaintance, I got a copy of highlights from The Anatomy of Melancholy, to get some idea of what language 16th/17th century people used to describe mental/emotional distress. I’ve also picked up Carl Jung’s Red Book, because though he does use modern psychiatric language it’s the only documentation I can find by someone who realized he was having a psychotic break but chose to interact with his hallucinations.

It’s also revealing the need for a lot of context about the mindset of the late Renaissance, when the scientific method was just being developed and a lot of superstition (such as the belief that it was possible and expected to talk to spirits) was still accepted as fact.

I’ve got my narrative work cut out for me.

writing by the seat of my pants

Last night was my first class in a 3-week workshop on character development. As in, a real, live, in person class, with a classroom and everything.

I was iffy about signing up for it at first; I prefer online instruction because it gives me time to think about my answers, and I’m always cagey about adding another non-moveable item to my cluttered calendar, but I am ultimately glad I did it.

Turns out the instant back and forth is something I need, because it short-circuits my tendency to over think. On my own I’ll constantly refer to notes (would they be in this room? What are they wearing? What time did X take place chronologically?), but the exercises were timed and specific: Take a news headline and expand on it in 3 minutes; Look at a picture and describe the character’s mindset in the same amount of time; generate a fake name from the phone book and write a first-person paragraph.

I expected these to be nerve-wrackingly difficult but they weren’t simply because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I think perhaps the most useful exercises were how to base a character on your own experiences without it becoming a Mary Sue (use a different name, write 3rd person, and change the situation slightly to build emotional distance) and how to build a character around an object (who owns this? How did they get it? Why is this important to them?). The latter in particular I’m going to use to build a character in world I tentatively built years ago but couldn’t populate.

My classmates are few but enthusiastic; one of the things I love about adult continuing education is that everyone in the room wants to be there. Everyone also got there by different side doors: one is a teacher who wants to write for kids, another is a journalist who wants to write fiction, yet another has her own historical fiction thing going on.

Also, the teacher is clearly excited about stories and storytelling, and with the small class size there’s a lot of good back and forth.

This week was “building characters from personal experience”, next week is using psychological insights, which is why I signed up in the first place. Keep ya posted.