Blogger's Note: With National Novel Writing Month looming in the not-to-distant future, 2010 participant and winner James Pelter shares his experience and tips.
By James Pelter
When I first heard about NaNoWriMo I was intrigued right away. I had done a fair amount of writing in college but since graduating I was having trouble getting motivated. I would have ideas but without the pressure of class deadlines I never completed them. It was ironic; when I was in college, I always felt restrained by limits and rules, but without them I found I had no discipline. NaNoWriMo provided me with a cut-off date and a word count that were artificial but if I treated them like they were real, it would still do the trick. I suppose you could call NaNoWriMo a placebo cure for the “disease” of procrastination.
Not that the idea of NaNo wasn’t intimidating. The longest work I had ever written before was about a hundred pages of an unfinished screenplay. Now I would be attempting to write more words in less amount of time than I ever had before! When I had written short scripts or short stories I had never outlined. I always started with a situation or a concept and saw where that took me. However, because I was concerned about the time crunch of NaNo, I was worried I couldn’t allow myself the luxury of waiting for my “muse” to inspire me.
I wrote what screenwriters would call a treatment for a supernatural mystery story about some ill-fated campers that I gave the cryptic title: “Piano Teeth." I didn’t break the story down into chapters or arcs. I merely wrote a four page document where I told everything that I planned to have happen in the story in the most dull, perfunctory style I could. I hated it. It felt like pulling teeth. In many ways, writing this small document was harder than writing the actual book.
It also ended but being almost entirely useless because after about the first five chapters I found my characters taking over the story and things went in wild new directions. A friend of mine edited the second draft of the novel this summer and when she was finished I shared the original treatment document with her. We both laughed at how much my story had changed during the course of actually writing it. Most striking was that in the original concept I had characters behaving in ways that seemed totally out-of-character with how I eventually came to know them.
I had heard my favorite authors speak of the moment in their writing process where the characters took over and wouldn’t do what they wanted them to do. I had never experienced this personally until NaNoWriMo. Without giving too much away about my novel (because you may get a chance to read it eventually), at a certain point two of my characters entered the armory of a madman. The walls are lined with guns and beneath a work bench a bomb is hidden, which only one of the characters discovers. Originally, the scene was meant only for them to get guns and set up the existence of the explosive device for later in the plot. However, as I was writing it, I found one of the characters suddenly picked up a gun, checked to see it was loaded, pointed it at the other character’s head and said:”I could tell her it was an accident.” When that happened I had to sit back from my computer and say: “Whoa!” My character had come alive in a way I had never anticipated and I had a whole new ball game on my hands. That was one of the most thrilling moments I have ever had while writing.
Now with November rapidly approaching, I find myself full of dread and anticipation. As of right now, I have written another treatment document, this time a coming-of-age fantasy story about a nine year old boy named Alexander who lives in the suburbs in 1986. One day he is walking through a vacant lot when he quite literally stumbles across King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Right now it has the rather bland title of “The Sword” (I’ve been warned by Laura to not get too attached to titles, publishers inevitably change them). As opposed to last time, this treatment came to me very easily. In fact, it came so easily that I find myself almost suspicious, like a good story shouldn’t be this easy. Who knows what strange forms this story will take once I get into the real work of actually writing, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Too see where the path leads.