The Office of Letters and Light recently announced they’re introducing Camp NaNoWriMo this summer! The idea is to do a full blown summer version for those who yearn for literary madness more than once a year, or those who just can’t swing it in November. I haven’t seen any details yet, so don’t know if I’ll be participating. But the madness, it calls to me.
The problem is I’m still plugging away at my 2010 NaNo novel! I did win last year (graphic proof of my triumph presented above), which was my second victory in two attempts. But neither novel is finished. My first novel (ever!) still lies abandoned on my hard drive at approximately 75,000 words. I made the mistake of trying to write something that was too much for my essentially non-existent skills. (Hint: Don’t try epic heroic fantasy when you’re a newbie. Think smaller.)
I won NaNoWriMo 2010 with 62,000 words and I managed another approximate 15,000 in December before I became completely stuck in January. It was frustrating to get stuck once again because for my second attempt I chose a much easier type of novel to write. I was pretty confident of the story and my ability to tell it. Though, I’ll add, not tell it well or with anything close to what could be described as elegance. Still, one can be proud of one’s drivel if for no other reason than most people never manage to write a full, coherent novel’s worth of drivel.
I’m still not sure what all went into me getting stuck, especially since I was approaching a part in my plot that I had been looking forward to writing. Part of it was uncertainty about the details of my plot past a certain point. I knew roughly what I wanted to accomplish and had scenes in mind, but specifically? Not so much. Then I realized earlier tonight that I think a great part of my block was that I hadn’t settled on a firm timeline. Reflecting on that prompted this blog post.
TIP FOR WRIMOS (and other writers too I suppose): TIMELINES ARE IMPORTANT
Most of what I say here will apply more to us planner types than those wild and wacky pantsers. But even a pantser has to make sure that their story makes sense in terms of time lapsed in the novel.
My 2010 NaNo novel takes place between a specific date in the fall and a specific date in the late spring. Early into writing I realized that time, in this case meaning not only passage of weeks and months but specific days and dates, was of extreme importance.
If I was working towards a big scene that took place on Halloween and certain events had to happen prior to that day, then I had to make sure the timing was carefully worked out. And if my characters were together on Saturday talking about something from earlier in the week I had to know what day that something happened on so it didn’t overlap with or contradict some other previous event.
So I started using the Timeline feature in my writing software not far into the month of November. (I use Liquid Story Binder, which I got for half price at the end of NaNo 2009. Great program!) Like most features in LSB, there is a suggestion for how the timeline can be used, but you’re free to use it in whatever manner makes the most sense to you. Which is what I did.
I needed to track both the day of the week and the exact date for every scene. This helps with: avoiding contradictions, making sure there’s enough time for what needs to happen between two key events, and also with more nebulous things like overall pacing. I also use it to track which characters are in each scene. (This comes in handy by making you realize you introduced Jane Jones six chapters ago and haven’t done anything else with her since then!)
I now know that part of why I got stuck was because I had been unable to decide when a pivotal event should take place. I had it figured for anywhere from March to May, but kept dithering on what would work best. I turns out that my not knowing for sure contributed to a huge mental block. It made it difficult (impossible) for me to proceed, even though I wasn’t to that point yet in my novel. Knowing how much time was left prior to and after that date ended up being vital to the manner in which my story would approach the ending.
Once I finally was decisive and said, okay, it’s going to take place on THIS date, I got unstuck and started rolling again. Now I’m rounding the final turn and heading into the home stretch of actually completing a novel!
When I started the timeline I also copied a printable version of an online calendar for the year in which the story takes place and pasted it into a Word document. The timeline is used for the actual plot tracking, but I needed to have a full calendar to look at as a reference to guide my planning. I put important holidays and other days in colored text to help me visualize.
A mystery novelist may need to be even more exacting than I’ve had to be so far. You might not only need to break things down by day of the week, but by time of day. Plot contradictions kill the plot. If you need a mysterious caller to convey a message you might also need to know exactly what time of day that happened for plotting what happens immediately prior to and after that call. And the time of day often dictates what some of that other stuff could reasonably be.
Now all of this may sound like extreme overkill. After all, time isn’t quite so vital in many types of stories. If you’re writing an epic fantasy quest you’re probably thinking in vague terms of weeks and months. And you might not be using a copy of a real earth calendar.
But I found in my 2009 NaNo that there is still an important time element in that type of story, even if it’s not completely critical. If your group of intrepid heroes set off on their quest in the spring and have been on the road for three weeks you need to know they’ve been on the road for three weeks. This helps with planning travel distances, and it’s also important for realizing things like, hey, the weather should be turning warm or hot right about now.
Having a clear idea of the passage of time is also important if you’ve got any special holidays or things of that nature included. If your priestess of Oshgosh must attend the Holy Day of Pansy Blooming at the temple in the city of Snoz, then you have to make darn sure she has enough time to get there. Having important dates pre-determined on your fantasy world calendar, along with knowing it’s going to take four days to travel from Happydale to Snoz, is part of what makes your novel work.
All this info at your fingertips in an easily referenced format, whether it’s an actual timeline, copied calendar, or a simple list in Notepad, can save you tons of headaches (and precious writing time) as you write. This is true even for pantsers who may not plot out where they’re going, but may need to know precisely where and when they have been. Paying attention to time can also help prevent getting stuck, either because you’re floundering around with not knowing how fast or slow events need to take place, or because you found you accidentally wrote yourself into a time-constrained box.
I’m off to work on my old NaNo some more. Maybe I’ll see some of you at Camp NaNoWriMo this summer!