NaNoWriMo 501 — Salvage the Story

November 21st. NaNoWriMo ends in 9 days. And since you’re either unemployed, or your job gives you two weeks off for Thanksgiving (like everyone else), you’re well poised to race downhill to an easy finish. That’s if you’re competent, able to finish things you start (unlike anyone else).

On that note, for your edification: here are the top five reasons people don’t hit the 50,000 mark:

  1. Children
  2. Employment
  3. Smallpox
  4. Accidental death or dismemberment
  5. Running out of writing gas / Creative engine failure.

That last reason is an absolute sham.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I’m stuck. I have thousands of words to go, but I’m literally, definitively, assuredly stuck. I feel like I ran the novel in a ditch and I can’t get it towed. Is it too late for me to salvage it?

—Breeann Foxton, Beaverton, Ore. 

(Note: NaNoWriMo is short for Narcissistic Nonsense Writing Motivation or something like that. Simple premise: write a “novel” of fifty-thousand words within the month of November. The prize? Fifty-thousand dollars. In the competition’s 196-year history, only three have claimed the prize.)

It’s never too late. Only too soon. I could spin up a whole blog post on the bad practices and habits that fashion failures such as you. I mean, yours. I’m not going to assume that you’re not writing because your kids got in the way or your month-long sabbatical was cut short. No, I’ll try to suggest the things that get the gas back in the tank, get the motor started once again.

1. Write the ending.

Unless you’re recovering from a lobotomy (and somehow writing a novel?), you probably had the ending in mind when you started this thing. Go ahead and write it. You won’t like it. You’ll work backward to fix it. (Editor’s note: This is, in a sense, how I finished my first novel. I went back afterward and put in a peach of a chapter to tie things together.)

2. Rewrite the beginning. 

Daring or draining? Both. You only get so much out of a marathon when you rocket to a start with a sprint. Nice work, hotshot, beating the pack for the first thirty minutes, then careening off to the sidelines, yakking your guts on a hapless water holder. You’re a more mature writer: go back, start the way you meant to. Build different. Let that seep into the vacant crevasses of the work.

3. Materialize that idea you’ve been holding back.

I don’t always bet the farm and the barnyard pals, but when I do, I’d bet that you brewed a semi-decent idea within the stew that became your novel. There’s always some gem of a notion held back, something you want to weave into the fabric. Break out the loom and do it. Save the story.

4. Compare what you think you wrote with what you wrote.

A step of risk, to be sure, as you won’t be towing or pushing the ditched car. You’ll be inspecting it, thigh-deep in mud, wrapping your head around the problem, then the solution. And your novel? Memory taints everything for better or for worse. Go back and read. Don’t skim. That’s when you let memory do more work than it should. Read. There are always lumps in the dough that you don’t see at eye’s first glance. Get the hands in there, press it out. What slosh you penned in fervent madness may stand to use some finer fleshing out in lucid focus.

5. Loan a camel.

There’s a Bedouin parable of a man who bequeathed 23 camels to his three sons, willing that the eldest receive half of the camels, then to the second son, a third, and to the youngest, an eighth. Being mathematically inclined, they worked out the proper solution, but the youngest objected to having the camels vivisected.

Along comes a merchant who hears of their dilemma. He loans them a camel, saying it’ll help sort out the matter. With 24 camels, they divvy it up without needing to divvy up a camel. One half (12), one third (8), and one eighth (3). One camel left over to pay back the merchant. Easy. Those crafty Bedouins, I tell you. You know they founded Bed, Bath, and Beyond, right?

Stories stall when you don’t have enough camels in the caravan to tote a complete narrative. Loan that twenty-fourth camel. Whether it’s a dark side to a character, a burgeoning romance, or some furtive plot point in the subcurrents of the narrative — find something missing that wasn’t missing in the first place. It may be a keeper, you never know. If it isn’t, send that camel back and loan another one.

What do you use to get the narrative out of the ditch and save your story?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and probed for more NaNoWriMo nectar during the month.

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