The Ghosts of NaNoWriMos Past

NaNoWriMo is coming, and once again I am on board. I’ve been doing it since 2003, and while I was sorely tempted to give it a pass this year (because I have a lot on my plate) I realized, as the time grew nearer, that I just couldn’t.

Why couldn’t I? Because it’s part of my workflow.

November is the month where I try to work through a story to see how it goes. I mean, I don’t do this exclusively in November—I write all year round, and sometimes I just start writing something to see what I think of it—but what makes NaNoWriMo useful, for me, is the 30 day, 50K word goal. It forces me to keep working on an idea even after I get tired of it, to see if I can get excited about it again. November is the month when I fall in love with a story, all out of love with the story, fall back in love with the story, and at the end of it all I try to assess our relationship to see if it’s worth continuing.

This will be my twelfth year. In the last eleven years I won seven times, but some of my losses were more useful—were, in the end, better relationships—than some of my wins. NaNoWriMo doesn’t run on fairy magic—your content doesn’t turn into a pumpkin when the clock strikes 12 midnight on November 30. Wins are nice, but stories are better.

With that in mind, let me show you a decade’s worth of workflow:

2003 – The Pirate King


It was my first NaNoWriMo and I was determined to kick it’s ass. And I did: by the time November 30 rolled around I’d written 95,000 words. What a rush!

There were times I hated writing it. There were times during that November I cursed myself for ever thinking NaNoWriMo was a good idea. But then, at some point just after the middle of November, I passed the 50,000 word mark, and I thought to myself let’s see how far I can take this thing. And I took it all the way to 95,000 words before the clock ran out. What’s more, I really liked the story.

I didn’t like the title, though. A friend of mine suggested I change it to Pay Me, Bug!.

And that’s how it all started.

2004 – The Points Between


For those of you who don’t want to do NaNoWriMo because you’re afraid you’ll lose, let me introduce you to 2004. 2004 was a clear, decisive loss on my part. I also consider it one of my most successful NaNoWriMo’s ever, because out of that loss came a story that has been the most difficult and rewarding thing I have ever written (and am still writing).

2004 started with another story entirely—I was writing Double or Nothing, Bug!, a sequel to Pay Me, Bug! that I abandoned after about three chapters because all of a sudden I was struck with inspiration so overpowering I couldn’t shake it: I wanted to tell the story of a man who pulls over to the side of the road, walks through a grove of trees, and winds up in another world. The idea wouldn’t let me go, so in the middle of NaNoWriMo I switched novels.

The result was 28,000 words—something that fell far short of the 50,000 minimum—but it was, at the time, some of the best writing I’d ever done. I knew as November came to an end that I was going to keep writing the story, and even though it took me about seven years to start it up again, I did keep writing. The Points Between is now a serial on my site and while the updates are painfully slow it’s not because of a lack of interest—it’s because it’s a story that is so far out of my comfort zone that I have to tell it in inches instead of miles.

Best failure I’ve had to date.

2005 – A Rake by Starlight


I came up with a new idea for the sequel to Pay Me, Bug! in 2005, but the idea was all I could manage. Once I’d set up the story and set the stakes I got stuck. I didn’t know what happened next, and I couldn’t move past it.

Sometimes you get an idea and that’s it. That’s what happened to me… once I reached a certain point I flailed and then I failed. I only managed 20,000 words.

It was discouraging at the time, but it was useful. In 2005 I had the idea for the sequel, but I didn’t know how to move it forward. In 2012, when I tried again, I was able to move it forward.

2006 – Ebrim Darkmoon, Rogue Warlock for Hire


This was a win (51,000 words) but it wasn’t usable.

I decided that year I wanted to write a fantasy, so I dusted off an old world of mine (Alkaros, “The World of Ten Moons”), came up with a character, and started writing. I loved the world, I loved the voice, the initial setup was intriguing… and the story was a mess.

I made it to the finish line, but the horse… it would never race again.

It was a flawed, imperfect win. On the other hand, it was marvellous worldbuilding.

2007 – Northlander


In 2007 I decided to revisit the world of Alkaros, but I didn’t want to tangle with the previous year’s story, so I wrote a new story, taking place on a completely different continent. At least, that’s what I intended to do… but at 4,200 words it wasn’t much to look at.

The 2007 attempt of Northlander was my least useful NaNoWriMo effort. It wasn’t completely useless: I got a title, a protagonist, a city, and a few side characters out of it. But I didn’t get a story.

2008 – Northlander


In 2008 I wanted to give Northlander another try. I said to myself “I can do better than 4,300 words!” and ultimately, I was right. Unfortunately, 11,700 words was still rather short of the mark.

Looking back, I think the problem was the original setting and story opener was too passive and low-key., too talky, too worldbuildy, and ultimately dull.

The 2008 effort distinguished itself from the 2007 by having a fair bit of good worldbuilding in it, though.

2009 – Darishan


In 2009 I still wanted to give the world of Alkaros a go but decided I needed to leave Northlander alone. So I went back to Ebrim Darkmoon, Rogue Warlock for Hire, figured out where it’d gone wrong, and started fresh from the beginning. The first few chapters were remarkably similar (I liked those chapters, for the most part) but after that the story went in a much more interesting and useful direction. By the end of the month I had 65,000 words of what I considered a pretty serviceable “End of Part One” stopping point.

I was pretty happy with this one, and it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t worked out a few things in the 2008 Northlander attempt.

Someday I look forward to posting this as a serial. Not yet, though.

2010 – Northlander


In 2010 I decided that damn it, I was finally going to write Northlander. And I did. I kept the character, changed the location, and started the story with a murder. I was rather surprised to learn, by the end of it, that I had written a “dark fantasy murder mystery.” I was even more surprised to learn that it was, apparently, the perquel to Darishan.

Weighing in at 51,300 words, it felt a little thin to me—this feeling was underscored when I pitched it on Episode 16 of the Roundtable Podcast. It needs a rewrite before I can publish, so the draft is sitting patiently, waiting for its turn in the sun…

2011 – Triple Helix


I thought 2011 was going to be a bust.

I won with Triple Helix, weighing in at 50,479 words, but I didn’t care. I liked the basic idea behind the story, but that November had been such a brutal month that I took very little pleasure in writing it. That month my body rebelled against me—every time I sat down to write, I wound up falling asleep—and I was writing right up to the last few hours before the NaNoWriMo word count verified my win.

At the end of it all, I was exhausted and extremely underwhelmed. I didn’t hate it, exactly, but it wasn’t worth the time and effort I’d put into it. I looked at it, thought “meh,” and realized, with a certain amount of disappointment, that it might have been the first time I’d done a NaNoWriMo and received absolutely no value from it other than to have made it out the other side.

Six months later I turned it into Curveball.

2012 – A Rake by Starlight


The year was 2012. November was bearing down on me like a large, implacable, bearing-down thing. I desperately needed an idea. I looked through all the stuff I’d worked on in the past and I saw A Rake by Starlight, the idea I liked but didn’t know what to do with.

Well this time I’m going to figure out what to do with it, I thought to myself. So I started from the beginning and started writing. And writing. And writing, and writing, and writing. I wrote the beginning, the middle, and the end, and by the end of November I had 50,041 words.

It’s a win! And I had a whole story!

Well… I had a beginning, a middle, and end—only between the beginning and the middle was a page that said “stuff happens here” and between the middle and the end was a page that said “more stuff happens here” and I was pretty sure those sections needed to be fleshed out a little. But the parts I had were pretty solid, and if you’re curious you can read the beginning here. I’m still working on the “stuff happens here” parts. I’m making progress.

2013 – No Working Title


2011 surprised me—I didn’t expect to get an ongoing serial out of it. But I did, so I thought maybe in 2013 I’d revisit CB’s world and tell a new story. The story I wanted to tell was CB’s origin story—the story of how he became Curveball-the-Villain, before he switched sides.

At 51,008 words, I just barely crossed the finish line. The victory is tainted in that I didn’t actually finish the story—I was nearing the end of the first arc and I basically ran out of time. Stylistically it had problems, needed editing, etc., but I liked the story a lot. It was extremely useful to flesh out his motivations, and I saw all the pieces for how he became the villain he was, and then became the hero he was.

I keep waffling between finishing it and releasing it as a separate story or cannibalizing it and putting it in the serial. Neither side has won yet, so for the moment I’m just sitting on it.

2014 – WHO CAN SAY?

It’s 2014 and I’m facing another month from hell. This may well be the one that breaks me—I have a ton of stuff to do, I’m behind on a lot of projects I want to catch up on, and I have a six year old who has a wholly reasonable expectation that her father will pay attention to her every day. For a while I was seriously considering giving the whole thing a pass—but then I made the mistake of browsing through my previous attempts. Even the failures were useful, somehow making their way, over time, into things that ultimately succeeded. So this Saturday I’m going to start throwing myself at the wall again, and I fully expect that, at the end of the month, whether I made the word count or not, I’m going to get something useful out of it.

I’d say “may NaNoWriMo have mercy on my soul,” but we all know that’s not going to happen.

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