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First of all, anyone who doesn’t know NaNoWriMo, you should go check it out. 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel – or 50,000 words of a novel, or 20,000 words of one novel and then 30,000 words of a completely different story that emerged when you realized the secondary character’s tragic past was actually way more interesting than our main character’s quest to find the holy toothbrush and launched into a massive 30,000 word flashback, depending on who you are and how good you are at keeping to original plans – is one of the most fun things you can do.

Assuming, of course, that you’re both crazy and fond of writing. Which I am, or we wouldn’t be here.

If you don’t know about NaNo, learn and explore and join here! Even if you’re not a writer, it’s a great way to play with random crazy creative parts of your brain, and drive friends and family members and pets up the wall. If you’re already familiar with it, you’re awesome! Anyone with an account and an interest in becoming writing buddies, just leave your username here and I’ll come give you hugs.

I’ve tried NaNo three times now, and I’ve had a different strategy each time. Approaches are critical to the success or failure of a NaNo attempt, and they’re something in which your mileage can and will vary. Nonetheless, here’s what I know.

The first attempt, back in 2007, failed miserably.  I went into it with a plan to write a story that had been in my head and heart for the better part of a decade. I knew my starting characters and some of my minor characters, and I knew that there was a Grand Thing I wanted to accomplish. I had no idea how I planned to do that, and I think I hoped that throwing myself in the deep end would somehow make everything come clear.

It had the opposite effect. Something like 4000 words in I realized I had no idea what I was doing, and I froze up. Unfortunately, since I thought I knew what I wanted to accomplish, I was desperately afraid of just letting myself run wild, but since I had no idea what was going on I couldn’t figure out how to get where I needed to go. I rewrote the same transition scene about five times, then decided that maybe tomorrow I’d suddenly wake up knowing what to do. Or the day after. Maybe next week.

I didn’t even think about NaNo for the next three years. I didn’t actually intend to start up again, really – November 2nd, 2011, I was on a train with my laptop in my lap, bored out of my mind and wondering what I should do to pass the time. I happened to notice the date, and asked the three people I was talking to at the time what I should write a novel about. One of them didn’t know; the others gave me a girl, a magic book, and someone with no name.

There are a couple of bits of good news coming out of NaNo2011. For one thing, I won, and I actually did it pretty effortlessly. For another, I’ve since refined my basic nameless-girl-with-a-book idea into a fairly solid concept that I think I can actually write as a serious novel in the near future. The structured story I have now bears very little resemblance to the rambling monstrosity I first wrote, which is probably a really good thing, because the bad news was that I found the entire process unsatisfying. I had no plot, just a loose framing device, and so while it wasn’t hard to follow characters around for 1600 words a day I never really felt like they were going anywhere. It’s taken two years of simmering to make something worthwhile out of that starting point, and while I don’t think the time was wasted, it could definitely have been better spent.

Last year, I tried to go back to the old ways – that is to say, I tried once again to write my Masterpiece.

A note to anyone with a Masterpiece: if it’s important to you, it’s probably not the story you want to try telling before you’ve gotten to know yourself as a writer. The odds of you getting lucky and getting it even a little bit right the first time around are really slim, and it’s probably not worth the heartache you’re going to feel when you look down and realize you’ve mangled it.

And oh, did I mangle it. I’d written an outline and I followed it, and every twenty or thirty seconds I’d stumble onto something I hadn’t thought of, a problem or a tangent or a really great idea. I’m fairly sure that that’s normal, something to be expected if not encouraged on a normal day, but when you’re trying to get out almost two thousand words a day, every day, for a month, there’s not much room for careful nurturing or editing. Eventually, I found myself so tangled up in questions that I couldn’t write.

Compared to the first time this happened, I think it turned out a lot better. I wasn’t paralyzed by indecision so much as I was pulled away from writing to plan, and craft, and research. Action is better than inaction, but the action the Kendrian Cycle required of me wasn’t the writing kind of action … so two weeks and 20,000 words in I abandoned my project and started a new one. Glyphic was little more than a loosely-formed ‘what if’ that I pulled from somewhere in the recesses of my brain, but it was a ‘what if’ with a narrative structure and something resembling a linear plot, so I went with it. I managed to get 30,002 words on the subject, following my tried and true method from 2011 of just throwing a character at a scene and following wherever she led me. Once again, the result, while technically successful, was less than the creative gem I was hoping to tease from the quarry of my brain.

So this year, I’m throwing all of my previous attempts to the wind and starting fresh. I know that going into NaNo with an investment in the finished product is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, starting with a blank page on day one leads me to wander around in wordy but unfulfilling circles for the next month. The solution, I hope, is to find a middle balance; and so I’m going to spend the next month setting down the groundwork for a completely new idea which I hope will be neither too hot, nor too cold.

Taking what worked from 2011, I’m beginning this novel with four prompts pulled from various witting and unwitting friends and family members. They are:

  • Mirrors
  • Assassins
  • Mazes
  • Seven Deadly Sins

My working title for the moment: The Mirror Hunters.

Let’s get to work!