The newest (Revised, Updated, and Expanded) version of Chris Baty’s wonderful book, No Plot? No Problem! has just been published. And I’m in it — again. How cool is that!
Twelve years ago I participated in my first NaNoWriMo. That first time was a disaster, but (at the same time) not a disaster. I found out about the event on the day it began in 2002, on the morning of November 1st. I heard about it on an interview on NPR, while I was driving to work. It sounded like something that would be interesting and challenging. I had always wanted to write a novel, and had taken several stabs at it before, but gave up each time. It had always seemed to be too big an undertaking, too massive a project.
I had just started a new job at Rice University a couple of months earlier, and I had no idea what to write about, but when I arrived at Rice that morning, I logged onto the NaNo site, and committed to participating. No one else was in my building yet (I usually drove in fairly early to avoid the worst of Houston’s rush hour traffic), so I stared at my laptop and thought about what I could write about until 9:00, when my coworkers started to show up at our offices.
As I worked, I kept trying to figure out what to write about. I was struggling so hard to decide, I wasn’t even able to start. The Word document I opened on my laptop earlier (the one that was now buried behind the website I was designing) was as blank as my thoughts. Just before lunchtime I decided that writing about anything was better than not writing at all. So, while munching on my sandwich, I wrote a few paragraphs about a young woman who was beginning her first day of work at a major university, in a job very similar to mine. An image of a seriously evil person started to form in my mind (a sociopath who had been alive for a long time, maybe centuries), and I knew this woman would become a threat to him somehow and would find herself in danger. I realized I was writing a thriller. I even gave it a name, Into Each Life. The name didn’t stick, though. I may reuse it someday.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “One word at a time. I can do this.”
I knew I needed to write an average of 1,667 words each day in order to reach NaNo’s goal of 50,000 words in a month. I only wrote 428 words that first day, and they were terrible, but I kept going, writing early in the morning and after I got home at night. My biggest mistake that first year was deciding that I needed to have my facts straight before I could write about them, so I spent some time each day researching. This (of course) caused my word count to go up on some days and down on others. Mostly down. Four of the days I wrote nothing at all. I only broke the 1,667 word count goal twelve times during the month. The highest word count was on the final day, when I was faced with writing 14,222 words in order to reach 50,000. I wrote 3,483. My final count was 39,255 words.
I wasn’t thrilled with losing, but I was happy that I had tried (and I had a good start, nearly 40,000 words down, only xx-thousand to go). I still thought I had a good idea for a novel, but — after rereading what I had written — I realized that the quality of my writing was crap. I tried to revise and expand on the novel for a while, but, discouraged, I gave up in mid-December, deciding the book was hopeless. The next year, I started thinking about NaNoWriMo during the spring, and did a bit of brainstorming. I took notes, puzzled through various possible scenarios, and decided I didn’t like any of them.
It was summer before I came up with an idea. I was daydreaming, sitting in an airport, when a fly buzzed past me. I started wondering what a fly’s life was like. I remembered (incorrectly) the Edward Lorenz quote, “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park, will there be hurricanes in China?” His actual quote is, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?” My first thought was that I could follow the effect of a butterfly’s flapping wings as it generated the storm on the other side of the world. The thought lasted about ten seconds, until my rational brain kicked in and decided that would make an intensely boring book, but I kept fiddling with the idea.
By the time NaNo rolled around in November I was ready. My plot had a spine. A Monarch butterfly would travel from Canada to Mexico on its epic annual migration. As it flew, it would intersect with the lives of several people, and the novel would pick up each of their stories; and, of course, there would have to be a storm to impede everyone’s progress. For a few months I read about butterflies and hurricanes, and began making notes about the various individuals I thought I might want to populate the novel with.
Being ready to write before I began, instead of trying to figure out what to do after I started, worked very well. I managed 53,098 words that time, and had a workable (but very skimpy) novel at the end of the month. It was far from complete, with tons of plot holes to fill, but structurally sound. It took me another six years or so, and some major restructuring to finish it; plus a few additional years of pitching and querying (and multiple revisions and trimming) to discover that no agent wanted to touch anything that large from a first-time author (it was over 200,000 words, trimmed down from over 300,000). I’ve moved on to other projects, but I haven’t given up on Butterfly. I’m seriously considering self-publishing it. If you want to read about the genesis and writing of the book, click here, http://michaelsiroisblog.com/?s=butterfly (or just type “butterfly” in the search bar at the top of the page).
Anyway, this post so far has just been to show you that NaNoWriMo helped me see that writing a novel wasn’t an impossible task, so I continued participating every year. I now have two finished novels, a few others well underway, and some more in early stages of plotting and prepping.
Early in 2004, a few of the wrimos from Houston (and hundreds of others from around the country, I’m sure) received a list of questions from Chris Baty about our participation in NaNoWriMo. He was writing a book about how to write a novel in thirty days, and wanted our input. I submitted answers to his questions, and he used one of them in the first edition of the book, No Plot? No Problem! I was thrilled when I found out he used one of mine, of course. Last year, he was reworking and expanding the book, and asked me to submit some more answers to some new questions, and this time he picked two of them for the new book. Yay!
It’s a great book. Lots of tips and tricks for writers, whether you’re thinking of doing NaNo or not. Check it out here, http://www.chrisbaty.com/books/.
What’s your favorite book on writing?