The potential pitfalls of breakneck speed novel writing

Quill penI’m 7,000 words into my novel for National Novel Writing Month and I’ve already learned quite a bit. But first off, allow me to brag a little bit. 7,000 words in three days is definitely ahead of the required pace to reach the desired 50,000 words within a month, so on that measure, I’m succeeding. But the format of NaNoWriMo, having to write a novel essentially from scratch in a month, is quite different from the usual leisurely pace of novel-writing, and as such, it presents some pretty unique pitfalls.

I only wrote a couple paragraphs of notes on November 1 before I jumped right into writing the novel. As such, I had only even come up with cursory identities for my three main characters. I made up all of the other characters (including the names, which are hilariously bad) on the spot as the plot required them. Thus, my characters don’t start out fleshed out at all. I have no idea of their back story or what made them the way they are in the present, so it’s very hard writing their dialogue. I simply don’t have a good feeling of the characters’ voices, so they all just end up sounding like me, except without any hints to past experiences.

It’s tempting to go back through what the characters have previously said each time I have a revelation in my own mind about them to change their voice or add allusions to past events, but in that way lies madness. It’ll be a lot less work to just go through the process of finishing the 50,000 words, thus learning everything there is to know about my characters, and then going back through later to unify all of the speech, and add some foreshadowing, with what I have learned. This one pass approach should be significantly more efficient than repeatedly going back to edit.

Another pitfall is that of inconsistency. Because I haven’t planned out any of the plot in advance except for a two sentence summary of what I roughly planned on having happen within the first 10,000 words, I’m hitting lots of problems with inconsistencies. I write or describe something one way, then realize later on that another situation requires something to have happened earlier that didn’t, or worse, that I got the order of events wrong.

I’m trying to go back through and edit my previously written text to resolve these inconsistencies as I continue writing, but it’s really bogging me down. And as the body of text that I’ve written grows larger, the problem is only exacerbated further, as I thus have even more plot points that could potentially be inconsistent. My basic resolution is just going to be to ignore the inconsistencies for now. I need to reach 50,000 words first. Editing can come later.

The last big pitfall is that a breakneck pace leads to sloppy writing (no surprise there, huh?). I simply don’t have the luxury of writing out carefully planned prose and beautifully descriptive narratives. My writing is following a more basic pattern: A says this, B replies, C happens, etc. Great works of literature have a much more rich use of language, especially in their ability to paint a mental scene through the use of descriptive prose. I’m seeing the scenes perfectly fine in my head right now, but I’m failing to write out all of the rich details of them into my text editor.

The flow suffers as well. I tend to have multi-paragraph chunks of expository back story interspersed with the main narrative. This is just a result of me figuring out things as I go along, and at least wanting to write all of it down. It takes more effort to smoothly integrate these chunks into the narrative, dropping hints within every paragraph of the story instead of extruding it in chunks. It’s effort that I don’t have to spare right now. My story thus suffers from not following the prescriptive maxim “show, don’t tell”. I’m constantly telling when I should be showing.

Luckily, there’s a single panacea that solves all of what ails my story: comprehensive editing, from start to finish. But I don’t have to start doing that until December 1. And therein lies the beauty of NaNoWriMo, the whole point of which is, essentially, “Dammit, I’m finishing a novel.” It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be finished. The biggest problem with trying to become a serious writer is finishing that first lengthy work. The problem is not at all with editing; everyone has a natural tendency to want to go back through what they’ve written and compulsively edit to make it better. But the editing can always come later. Better now to just finish. And at this rate, I will, making it only the second novel I’ve ever written.

3 Responses to “The potential pitfalls of breakneck speed novel writing”

  1. Jens 'Spacejens' Rydholm Says:

    It is a shame that such a long blog post goes without a comment.

    You have some interesting reflections on the process of writing. I recognize many of the pitfalls from my RPG hobby. Not surprising, since it is essentially the same as writing a novel with several authors, and without the benefit of editing in December ;-)

    I first came to your blog to read about telescope making, but this was interesting as well. Are you going to post the finished novel online when it is done?

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Oh, heh, I’m used to posts going without comment here. This blog gets a third of the views of the other one I ran but easily less than a twentieth of the comments. That’s just how things are round these parts.

    As for posting the finished novel online – geez that’s a tricky question! I can’t really say for now. I wouldn’t post it before editing it with the above advice from the blog post. So it’ll be awhile either way. Now if I did publish it, as I understand it, that limits future marketability severely. Publishers won’t bother signing a contract to publish a book that has already been published, even if it was on the web. Then again, I’d be pretty foolish to think this is at all marketable anyway. I’m learning so many things throughout the process of writing this that I now know it’s not close to my full potential.

    So I don’t know. Maybe I will put it online, assuming I’m proud enough of it to want to show off. But there’s still 30,000 words to go in which it could all fall apart.

  3. Tod Says:

    I came here from your post on .story configuration for emacs (I also use GNU/Linux). I just wanted to say that it is a relief to see that someone else is facing the same novel writing issues as I am — namely, being able to see a scene in your head but just writing dialogue and simple action statements. I finally decided not to second-guess, but to go ahead and write all that, then make it more beautiful later.