NaNoWriMo #03: to plot... or not

So, it's 9 days until November 1st - the start of National Novel Writing Month - and I don't have any idea what I'm going to write about this year, but I'm not worried. Well, I am a little, but in a good way. I'm getting that low level stress response - the one which registers as the first twitches of chrysalises rather than fully fledged butterflies in the stomach. It's the same feeling I get when I realise it's close enough to Christmas to start being overtly festive and good-willish - probably around 25th November (this year), thanks to my NaNoWriMo buddies in the US.

I'm not too concerned about the lack of plot or characters (I haven't even decided on a genre) for my novel because I've discovered that this approach works best for me and it's the one advocated by Chris Baty in 'No Plot? No Problem':

"From that first NaNoWriMo, I learned that you are allowed to begin a novel simply by turning on the nearest computer and typing. You don't need to do research; you don't need to understand anything about your characters or plan out your setting. It's fine to just start."

My first NaNoWriMo (2007) was exactly this experience: I signed up on November 2nd and started writing straight away - the first thing that came into my head, all the while knowing (and ignoring the fact) that whatever went down on that page was staying there for the next 28 days.

It went like this:

"Josh didn’t like heights, a fact he was more acutely aware of in this context than in any other, in part because this was a very high platform over a body of water that did not appear vast or deep enough to cushion any fall. This, he had concluded long ago, is not phobic, in the sense that phobias are irrational fears: this was based on the only possible outcome of falling from a great height, which at the very least would involve a certain level of physical injury."

As I typed, the questions kept coming. Where was I going with this? Who's Josh? What on earth is he doing up there? Where is 'up there', exactly? The human mind is an extraordinary piece of kit, for as quickly as the questions formed themselves, the answers appeared like sharp little pins, popping balloons full of ideas so numerous I could hardly keep up. As Chris Baty says:

"If you spend enough time with your characters, plot simply happens. This makes novel writing, in essence, a literary trapeze act, one where you have to blindly trust that your imagination and intuition will be there to catch you and fling you onward at each stage of your high-flying journey."

And trust it you must.

Four years on the finished product, a novel of around 110,000 words, is... erm... not really finished at all, to be honest. For instance, I know there are too many characters, but I can't just cut them from the story, because it is theirs as much as it is mine. Each time I re-read 'Hiding Behind The Couch', I try to convince myself that THIS is the very final pre-print proof-read. Then I start fiddling with it, finding more things to tweak and tidy. Thus, I've recently come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is just publish the thing as a free ebook and move on.

I entered the November of my second NaNoWriMo in much the same spirit - write whatever springs to mind, although this time I did have a back-up plan. If all else failed, then I'd sequelise 'Hiding Behind The Couch'. So I started writing:

"Not the typical murder scene. No dark, rainy street filled with concealed doorways and nooks where dangers lurk, imagined or real. Not even a place devoid of other people that would witness such grisly events with relish. This, an average office in a busy multi-storey block, in the middle of the day, a bright, warm one at that, and the usual staff milling around, mostly temps, armed with reams for photocopying, or otherwise glued to the nothingness of their computer monitors. No-one heard, saw, suspected anything out of the ordinary."

Now here's the thing. I evidently started out with some unconscious intention of writing a murder mystery (something I've not done before and might perhaps consider for November 2011 - I'll see when I get there), but that sequel I mentioned? It was never far from my thoughts. Indeed it was a mere chapter away, although to call it a 'back-up plan' is overstating the case somewhat. It was an idea, nothing more, but once again I had no advanced plot and it still turned out OK in the end. That said, I haven't read it since 2009.

On to year three then: this time I did have some clearer thoughts on the starting point (i.e. I knew that a cliff was going to collapse in the opening chapter) and a couple of ideas about the plot (it was something to do with perception-based time travel), but I still didn't plan ahead, essentially due to lack of time. As a consequence and in contrast to the previous two novels, I made it through November with only 18,000 words to spare, which is no mean feat, but not on par for me personally. Nonetheless, I am told it is a decent story, so it became my first self-published novel 'And The Walls Came Tumbling Down', but it made me question whether a detailed plot and chapter outline would improve my next attempt / make it easier.

November 2010: 'The Dream Police' was ready to go. I had a plot, character profiles, chapter outlines - everything I needed to steer my writing through the next 30 days. There was direction, purpose, suspense, mystery and plot twists. The hero had morals and faced tricky moral dilemmas; the narrative offered a social commentary (in response to a prior accusation of class treachery) and the author...

The author was rendered creatively catatonic by boredom, despair and eventually apathy. I faced a new problem: I knew exactly what to write, but did I want to? Not even slightly! For three days, I tried to muster the enthusiasm to continue, all the while adding the missed 1,667 daily words required to my existing overdraft. I was 5K behind by the time I decided that I couldn't just walk away from this.

Contrary to all of the NaNoWriMo advice out there, I binned the lot (or at least I kept it for my word count - regional word wars need us foot soldiers) and started again more than a week into November, so it's no surprise that 'No Dice' limped in with less than 58,000 words and is noteably simple in plot; it had to be to ensure I could finish it in time.

For all of this, I am proud to declare that I have participated and won four times. This year will be my fifth on both counts, because failure is not an option and I will sail to success on this wave of self-belief, with or without a plot. I don't have a secret key, but what I have learned is this:
  • whatever happens, start writing and try not to delete anything;
  • one month does not a good novel make;
  • planning might work for others, but it definitely doesn't work for me;
  • whatever happens, keep writing - every day is best, but catch up if you miss a day;
  • 9+ main characters is at least 6 too many;
  • 50,000 words in 30 days is achievable - possibly even easy;
  • 100,000 words in 30 days is a bit trickier;
  • whatever happens, you must keep writing until you reach your goal.

If it's your first time, it might help to read about other authors' experience, but it might not and I share my experience as an example, not a model. The only wrong way to do NaNoWriMo is to ignore what works for you, which is why it's only 9 days until November 1st and I still don't have any idea what I'm going to write about this year, but I'm not worried.