Today is my first day back at work after two weeks annual leave. I was going to use this time to write like the wind and try to get as much NaNoWriMo word count done as possible, but I knew this year would be different on the evening of 31st October.

When I first participated in the event, I spent the first two weeks planning and the last two weeks writing 75k. (I was a jobless student ten years ago so I had the time and energy.) Last year, it took me the whole month to write just over 50k – the second half of the book I had started working on a few years before.

Instead of writing, I’ve spent the last two weeks planning. It’s not as simple as writing a stack of scene cards. I already knew my characters and their world, but I still needed to clarify:

  • Overall motivation.
  • Short-term goals.
  • How their personality traits shaped their reactions to events.
  • Major plot points for each character.
  • The events that needed to happen to get them to them to these plot points.

I started out with six viewpoint characters (VPCs), and now have five. On spending time picking through the characters motivations, and what they needed to do, I realised that one of them (although a VPC in the last book) had very little action going on at all. She also spends the entire book hanging around with at least one other VPC. All of her scenes were in danger of being reactive only – I knew I had to lose her.

I now have 90 scenes planned out on cue cards, and I’m sticking by my plan to write 1k a day until draft one is done (note the word plan. I’m not going to stress out if I don’t write for a day – as long as I’m reading, or learning about writing instead).

Learning

Apart from reading fiction (and books on writing technique), another thing I have found useful is film commentary. Yesterday I watched the writer/director commentary on the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Yes, you can read the same advice in countless books and blogs but hearing them talk about writing issues – and seeing how these choices shaped the final product – makes these points easier to absorb (at least for me). Things like:

  • Having to lose a scene full of your best writing because it blocks the flow of the narrative.
  • Realising that there is no conflict in a scene and having to find a way to introduce it.
  • Creating a new character because you realise there’s something missing, and none of your existing characters can fill the hole.

It also helped me think about writing beats (there’s a great description of them in this article on writing dialogue). It’s easy for me to write scads of pages where two or more characters bounce witty remarks off each other, but without using beats it’s just words.

Writing beats, like this example from John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men, provides a way for the reader to enter the story rather than observe it:

“George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. ‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.” ”

I guess my point is that although you have to write if you want to be a better writer – and, well, finish the damn book – becoming a better writer involves more than just churning words out. We aren’t computers. If we’re open to them, we can find opportunities to learn and develop in a wide variety of places.

It’s not all about the word count.