This be the last post from Pirate Captain Trudy, navigatin’ through the heavy seas of NaNoWriMo. Though November be not quite over, I have hung up me pirate hat, let me parrot fly free, and unbuckled me swash. Though I’ve not yet made home port, I’ve dropped me anchor in a pleasant cove and am ready to disembark for a little plunder and pillage.
Well, OK — no plunder, no pillage. But I’m done with NaNoWriMo for this year. If you look in the sidebar you’ll see that I’m a “winner,” with about 58,000 words written as of Sunday evening, when I uploaded and validated and tucked this manuscript away in a dark corner of my hard drive.
For once in my NaNo experience, 50,000 words doesn’t mark a midway point partway through the manuscript after which I stll have to write my way to the end. INstead, I decided this year to treat my NaNo project as a very detailed outline. I have written the beginning, the middle, and end of the story. I’ve given my story a plot and a shape. What I haven’t done is written an awful lot of stuff that goes in the middle that will need to be filled in later.
Part of this is research. A lot of this book takes place in late seventh-century England, and there’s a huge amount about monastic life and village life in that era that I simpply don’t know, so the story is full of gaps where I wrote things like “We walked down the street as [details],” with the details to be filled in later as I have a sense of what they might have seen on the street, or whether there would even be a street.
Some of the gaps, though, have to do with the story itself, which proved quite demanding to write. This novel started with a concept — a fragment of a valuable ancient manuscript (the Lindisfarne gospel) that turns out to be a portal for time travel, and a historical figure (the Venerable Bede) who ends up tumbling into the present. I had that concept, and three characters — Bede, the grad student Sara whose bedroom he finds himself in , and Sara’s ex-boyfriend Daniel — and an opening chapter that was universally adored by pretty much everyone who read it. And I had a whole lot of ideas that I wanted to work into the novel, and absolutely no idea what the actual plot would be.
I am kind of in awe of writers (and I can think of two among my close writer-friends) who work from very detailed outlines, knowing where each scene is going to go and how the story is going to unfold before they ever start writing. I can’t do that. The only way I can figure out where a story is going to go is to start writing it, following hunches and suspicions that someimtes turn out to lead down blind alleys. This may explain how I managed to write 50,000+ words on this novel and before figuring out how it was supposed to end. I mean, Bede’s fate is pretty much determined for me by history, but Sara’s and Daniel’s was up in the air until, literally, the very last minute — I was closing in on the ending on Sunday evening, planning to leave their eventual fate to an unwritten epilogue, when the way ahead suddenly seemed clear and I had a sense of what direction to take.
This is how I’ve always written, at least with those parts of my stories that are up to me and not determined by existing historical or Biblical stories. In both Prone to Wander and What You Want, couples ended up together that I had no intention of getting together. By the Rivers of Brooklyn was supposed to have two main characters, and a third just muscled her way in and took over a good chunk of the plot. Also in that novel, I jumped ahead and wrote a chapter that was supposed to come near the end of the book when I was still early in the process, thinking it would fit perfectly. When I got to that point in the manuscript, I had to throw out that pre-written chapter, because it didn’t fit any more with the direction that the novel, and more specifically Claire’s character, had taken. So much for advance planning.
By writing 50,000 words of Lindisfarne this November, I have managed to figure out some of the plot. That is, I now know who goes back and forth through time, and why, and some of what they do there. I’ve created a framework for the story, but it’s really like framing a house — the timbers are up there but you can still see through the walls, it’s not remotely close to being an edifice you could move into yet.
A lot of ideas that I thought were going to be important in this novel — like the real or supposed conflict between Celtic and Roman expressions of Christianity in early Britain — didn’t make their way into this draft at all. Meanwhile, a lot of things I hadn’t originally thought about — like the fact that the novel’s overriding theme is loss of faith, and how a person goes on after losing their faith — came clear to me during the writing. I’m left with a gorgeous mess of potential, three characters who I feel I know a little better but who are still largely strangers to me, and a whole load of loose ends in need of tying.
There have been points during this process when I got sick of the whole thing, sicker than I have of any of novel before, including NaNo novels. I can’t decide whether this means the novel is actually worthless, or whether it’s potentially a very good novel but just needs a lot more work than any of my others.
Somehow, on Sunday, when I’d made up my mind that I was done with the project for now and just had to slap an ending together, I ending up liking the story again and my faith in it was restored. I now believe I can come back to it later with some perspective, some more research done, and turn it into something good. I have the frame up; what it needs now, more than anything, is time.
This week I’m getting back to the project I interrupted when NaNo came along, the book I like to call Teen Esther — a young-adult version of my novel Esther: A Story of Courage that’s being released in time for the Esther-themed Pathfinder Camporee this summer. I want to have a draft of Teen Esther and also one of my Christmas novella about Joseph the carpenter (finished but in need of polishing), ready to send off to my publisher before Christmas break — two projects that actually have homes to go to and a fairly secure fate in store for them. I could use a little certainty and security in my writing life at this point.
I have a freelance project I need to work on then, and in the new year I want to overhaul What You Want, which I think is going to be a much better and stronger novel when I’m finished tearing out some of the interior walls and remodelling and redecorating it.
And then, only then — probably late in the spring or next summer — I’m going to start reading through some books about Bede and Lindisfarne and Anglo-Saxon Britain and Celtic Christianity and ancient manuscripts. Then I’ll take my NaNovel off the virtual shelf, blow away the metaphorical dust, and reread it to see what it’s capable of becoming.
To all your writers out there, NaNo and otherwise: smooth sailing, and safe harbours.