It could be going better.
By the end of today, wrimos ought to be at 30,000 words — more than halfway to the target word count. This is one of the ways in which I think NaNo is an imperfect system for new writers learning the trick of the novel.
By NaNo standards, you’re more than halfway done. If you’re trying to complete the novel in 50,000 (which, your mileage may vary) you’ve finally zoomed out of the saggy middle, which is one of the things that slows us down in week two.
But most novels come in between 60,000 and 90,000 words, depending on the genre and the writer. I read somewhere that Brian Sanderson’s Elantris is around 200,000 words while Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just around 46,0001. So it’s not as though there’s a hard a fast rule. But at the same time, it can be hard to break out of the NaNo-set guidelines and learn better methods for structuring and putting together a novel. I think it’s also one of the reasons that a lot of people outgrow NaNo once they start writing outside of the confines of November.2
This is a lot of navel-gazing about the length and nature of novels, and how the middle always drags, and where I’m aiming is this: I’m still at the plodding, sagging middle of the novel. Despite being firm into week three (my spirits should be rising!), I’m still living week two. I’m around 6,000 – 7,000 words behind par. And while things are slowly coming together in the novel, I’m worried I won’t meet my goal of winning again after several years of depression- and fatigue-induced failure, thus regaining the passion I had for writing before my life suddenly got Very Adult on me back in 2012.
I didn’t realize it until I wrote it, but yep. That’s sort of the symbolic trophy at play here — the idea that having made real progress in many others parts of my life (most, I’d hazard to say), that all that’s left is to be at the place again where I was gleefully focused on my fiction and eagerly starting to reach for more.
It could be going worse.
I ran into a problem with the middle of my novel. At first it was an issue with my main character being passive. I struck out a scene, reworked it, and seemed to have a solid footing. I had a red herring, even — I hadn’t noticed it until that moment!
But then I realized the real issue with the middle: there wasn’t anything to put there. I had an outline, but no plan to get from “Nora chooses to follow her mentor” to “the climax starts.” This isn’t Rocky — a training montage wasn’t going to fit the emotional tone of the novel. I didn’t have enough supporting characters or any substantial subplots to move through the middle. All the same, I’m determined to put real effort into this project and to win this year, so I forced my way through it bit by bit.
And then, finally, I had That Moment when it comes together. The problem wasn’t a lack of supporting characters — I have several, actually. It’s just that I wasn’t thinking of them as functional to the story. They each had a role in getting Nora to the point where she’s chosen to follow through with Defeating the Antagonist even though she really doesn’t have the skill to do so. I had a whole cast in this novel. They just needed to be given roles to move the story.
So now that I have all of the blocks to build the bridge from Act II to Act IV in the outline (according to an outlining method Christie taught us that is quite excellent), I have to go work on my third version of the outline to flesh out those roles. To figure out how all of these supporting characters fit in the new roles I’ve given them. Once I know how they work together (and, of course, also against each other) to meet the goals of the plot, I think the middle will probably move a lot faster.
1. I’ve never read any Sanderson, even though I love his podcast work, but Adams is one of my favorite authors. So I can only personally vouch for the latter, and yeah. Hitch Hiker’s Guide is a short book.
2. Outgrowing NaNoWriMo is like outgrowing a really great friendship — it sucks. This is my tenth year, but I don’t need it the way I used to. What I really needed, more than the impetus, was the culture of writers working toward common goal. As our writers’ group has evolved to be that year-round, NaNoWriMo has become less valuable to me. It’s… not a very good feeling.