My credential for writing this is that I have written the manuscript for one novel and it has not been published. You don’t necessarily want to hear from someone who has written (and published) half a dozen or more books and is now summarizing their craft. Leastwise I don’t. When famous authors say some version of “all writing is rewriting” or “there is no good writing; only good rewriting,” that’s true in a sense. But it presupposes that you’ve written a book and you now want to make it better. Not always true. Sometimes you’ve written seven tenths of your first manuscript and you’re seriously considering throwing the whole thing in the fire except “the whole thing” is on your laptop and it just feels like, as frustrated as you are, setting fire to your laptop would cause more problems than it would solve.
So instead, let’s talk about overcoming obstacles with these NaNoWriMo tips. Let’s talk about what to do when that manuscript doesn’t quite script.
My first NaNoWriMo tip has to do with plot: it’s not worth it. That’s a matter of personal bias. I prefer novels that are about people living their lives than ones about high-stakes adventure. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Sherlock Holmes, and I’ve enjoyed more recent mysteries like The Silent Patient. But I would prefer a novel pitched as: “My aunt said something I really didn’t like. But everyone else says it’s fine. Am I the crazy one?” than: “Biff Brisket retired from the Navy Seals to live the life of a simple rockstar. But when suspiciously ethnic people put his country in danger, Beef (I mean Biff) answers the call. Only this time… it’s… personal.”
I know I keep flogging this same dead horse but the best books have the dumbest plots. Pride and Prejudice is literally: Boy likes girl. Girl doesn’t like boy. Girl likes boy but doesn’t know if boy still likes girl. Boy and girl get married and, off the page, have emotionally repressed Regency-era sex in the interval between tea time and when the Bingleys are expected for supper. No, sorry, between tea and dinner, minus the amount of time it takes to get Lizzie out of all those petticoats. And then back into them again, afterwards. Quick aside: would that be the servant’s job? Would Darcy have to announce to the maid: “The lady of the house and myself wish to partake of the afternoon delight. Please make all the necessary arrangements.”
Anyway. Make your life easier. Make your NaNoWriMo easier. Give yourself the gift of a dumb plot that just gets driven forward by occasionally asking yourself the question: what would this person do next? It’s one of the NaNoWriMo tips that I live by, even outside the month of November.
Plot versus Signposting
If you do decide to have a plot, keep this in mind: it may not feel this way when you’re reading, but the strength of your plot is not driven by how intricate it is. Nor by how brilliantly surprising it is. But rather by how well-signposted it is. If you want an engaging plot, give a sense of the stakes and the goal. “Main character wants this but is prevented by that.” The nice thing about this piece is that you don’t have to change your plot one way or the other to implement it. Just go back through the text and make sure the reader knows what’s going on at key moments. Then all you have to do is make a likable main character. Easy, no?
Right. Well. This one can be a bit tricky. See, you want your character to be likable. But not unrealistic. But not too ordinary. Like maybe someone you would want to meet at a party and have a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with, but that’s not likely because they’re far too busy to–yeah. It’s already getting exhausting, isn’t it? As in so many things, I take inspiration from Jane Austen. She once called Emma “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And she’s not wrong. Not exactly. Emma is vain, sarcastic, preoccupied with her own charms, impervious to advice or criticism, and innocent of the faintest sensitivity to social cues.
But she’s not mean-spirited. And she’s certainly not boring.
If you met Emma in real life, you’d be making excuses and heading to the privy within five minutes, just to get a breath of (comparatively) fresh air. But life and literature are different things. In literature, she’s the paragon of the sympathetic, entertaining character. Why? Because we want to see what she’ll get up to next.
Likability in Person versus Likability on the Page
The question is: how does this work? By what magic does Austen make Emma the most irritating character you’d ever be likely to meet… and yet the most compelling character on the page? Is there some magic? And if so, can it be distilled down to a simple, reproducible bit of advice, on the same level as these other NaNoWriMo tips?
The answer is yes. Austen cheats with her characters all the time. And you can too. Why do we love Emma? Well, it’s because she’s not as awful as Mrs. Elton. It’s pretty much that simple. Both characters are insufferable. But Emma is trying to do better. And we love her for that. Emma’s character would be despicable if she were not trying to do better. But adding in characters like Mrs. Elton emphasizes that Emma is trying to do better. As readers, we love to see characters trying to do something:
-Trying to accomplish a task
-Trying to make life better for themselves without hurting others in the process
-To make life better for another person
As long as your characters are trying to do better, they will endear themselves to the audience. No matter how much they fail. Actually, if you can establish that they’re trying, then the more they fail the better. This is perhaps the most important of these NaNoWriMo tips, and the one that’s most applicable to life itself: don’t focus on likability. Focus on getting stuff done and trying to be a better person.
This might be the hardest one to do. Or at least the hardest one to talk about. But unlike plot, you can’t just ignore it. So of course there are a flurry of NaNoWriMo tips specifically focused on setting. The thing about plot and character is that, to a certain extent, they’re fungible. You can pick up a character from one setting and put them in another. Yes you’ll have to change certain things. But the fact that Satyajit Ray said: “What if Sherlock Holmes but in India” and Rabindranath Tagore said “What if Jane Austen but in India” and Kazuo Ishiguro said “What if stereotypical faithful English butler but sad and lonely and tragic” tells use that you can take a well-known character or archetype or plot and insert it into any kind of story you like.
Let me tell you a really dull secret; a secret that will shame me not at all to tell you, and that will scandalize you not at all to hear: I usually start with setting. I think of a place where I want a story to happen. Only then do I think of what kind of story I’d like to tell in that place. A lot of people have that approach to reading. In fact, genre is often defined by setting. A fantasy novel can be any kind of plot as long as the setting is, well, fantastical. A space opera can focus on rival political factions (like Dune) or it can focus on capturing the bad-guy-of-the-week, like Cowboy Bebop, or on the implications and effects of new technology, like Foundation, as long as it is set in a civilization knit together by space travel.
One approach to setting
So maybe you’re the type of person who likes to imagine their setting first. Great! But once you do, and you start to think about the type of story you might… set in your setting, take a moment. Maybe you want to write a really conventional story. Nothing wrong with that. Set your heroic quest in a fantasy or Western setting. Set your detective-story in gritty New York City. But what if you wanted to switch it up a bit?
You could make like early George R. R. Martin and set your introspective relationship drama in an intergalactic sci-fi setting. Or you could make like Lesley Nneka Arimah in “What it Means when a Man Falls from the Sky” and try to tell the sort of realistic, personal story Joyce Carol Oates or John Cheever were best known for… but in an Afro-Futurist science fiction setting.
Another Approach to Setting
The other approach is the same as the first… but the opposite. The first approach was to take your setting and decide whether you wanted to set a conventional or unconventional story there. In other words, starting with Regency-era England and deciding if you want to set a comedy of manners there or a science fiction samurai adventure. Now, imagine you’re starting with the story but trying to decide where it should take place. Yes it makes perfect sense to set your comedy of manners in Regency-era London. But why not set it in 1920s Brooklyn? Or in a medieval convent? Or in an exploratory mission to the bottom of the Marianas Trench?
NaNoWriMo Tips… for Life
A quick note about setting. This isn’t so much one of the official NaNoWriMo tips as it is good advice in general: be careful of depicting cultures as… exotic. It may be that in the course of your novel you find you need to include scenes that take place in a Native American long-house or a psychiatric ward or a queer artistic commune, or anywhere else, and you may not have direct experience of those locations. The temptation is to depict them as magical and mysterious and exaggerated places. But how can a place where people live be magical and mysterious to the people who live there?
I won’t tell you your business. But I can strongly recommend talking to people who have experience living in the places you want to depict. For one thing, research makes the writing easier. For another, it’s just respectful to ask questions about people you don’t know when you’re trying to get to know them. And writing is, in the end, a tool to help you get to know other people, no less than it is a tool to help you get to know yourself.
The Last and Foremost of the NaNoWriMo Tips: Get Back to Writing
Like most of the others in this article, this is one of those NaNoWriMo tips that does apply outside the month of November, and also outside of the discipline of writing. Ultimately, that’s why most people do NaNoWriMo. After all, not everyone who writes a novel wants it published. And not everyone who publishes a novel wants a career as a novelist. Most people just want practice trying out new ideas. Undertaking a difficult task to see if they can pull it off. And, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity, nay, the privilege of reading astonishingly, eye-openingly brilliant and entertaining articles about NaNoWriMo tips.
Admit it, though. You read this article as a way to procrastinate. Go write! And let us know how it’s going, either in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.