IT’S ME, YOUR OLD PAL, CHNURK MANDOG
and it’s time to —
*jumps up in the air, a trail of stardust and rainbows firing from my feet and/or butt parts, freeze-frame, kapow*
— do some NaNoWriMo!
Here’s the thing about the ol’ National Novel Writing Month: it both didn’t work for me when I tried it, and also, at the same time, kinda works for me in my actual career. What I mean is, when I tried to do NaNoWriMo way back when in the Happy Days of egg cream sodas and hitting jukeboxes to make them play music, it didn’t click for me. It was too rushed, I was too unfocused, the pressure crushed me like a human baby dragged to the deepest undersea canyon. At the same time, I am now a full-time AUTHOR OF BOOK-SHAPED THINGS, and that means I quantum entangle my ass to the office chair every day, and I write like I’m dying and each page is my last chance to be heard in the abyss preceding my demise. I tend to write 40-60k words per month, as a result. That doesn’t often complete an individual novel, though sometimes it does: I’ve written several books in a month’s time (first draft only, to be clear).
So, I tried to think, what is it that gets me there?
What gets me to write that fast and iterate so quickly?
And what can be taken from what I do and potentially foisted off on my unsuspecting audience as “useful tips” that would “get them to buy my book.”
So, I’ve decided to write this as a recipe! Because everyone needs a gimmick, am I right? What better than the super-twee format of pretending that I’m writing a recipe, like for food, except for your novel? Ha ha ha it’ll be great shut up and follow the instructions.
Zesty NaNoWriMo Roulades with Havarti Pumpkin Chunks
1 to 5 free-range characters with problems to solve
1 sheet of shattered, status quo (candied)
dash of constant conflict (set to boil)
8 oz of pure mystery syrup
3 TBsp a reason to give a shit
1 daily syringe of discipline, but substitution of
cocaine coffee is acceptable
zero fucks in your fuck basket
50,000 words, some duplicates okay
a metric shitload of blank pages, analog or digital
also 300 lbs of havarti pumpkin chunks
First, you’re going to need to butcher your characters. I know, gross, right? But we need to crack them open, we need to split them down the middle, see that they have everything they need. The key thing here is that the characters must possess problems to solve — meaning, they have a problem right out of the gate. The moment the characters step onto one of those blank pages, they need to instantly be introduced to their problem. That problem is, for them, something far greater and far less soft-and-wifty than “motivation.” Motivation can be vague, like, oh, I want true love, but a problem is concrete, like, I am constantly being attacked by bats, or, my father has been taken prisoner by a cabal of goat-people. A problem is some shit you can act on in a story — and, Moving At The Speed Of NaNoWriMo means you need to activate the narrative quickly and be able to get this slurry a-bubblin’.
You will season to taste.
One character may not be enough. For more complex flavors, add more characters with problems. Preferably with problems whose solutions compete with one another.
Next, you’re going to need to take a sheet of shattered status quo.
An unbroken status quo will not do, because it will not fit in the pot.
A story must begin for a reason, when something has changed. Normalcy is broken. Things are no longer as they were. Hence: broken status quo.
Then, add in your spices: first, stir in the constant conflict, which can be in the form of really anything you want, including but not limited to: heartbreak, bees, lightning, wolves, assassination attempts, kobolds, ninjas, debts, deceptions, pirates, weaponized cole slaw, lack of coffee, addiction, serial killers, ancient freemason conspiracies, l33t hackers, wayward lumberjacks, sentient dildos, and also bees.
Next comes the pure mystery syrup, which must not be added all at once. Mystery is added at various stages throughout — questions drizzled in at the ends of chapters or even at the conclusion of vital scenes. The goal here is to create enticing odors and also to activate various tantalizing glands, ensuring not only that the readers will be excited to consume your Narrative Goop, but also that you’ll be excited to hover over the pot for 30 fucking days as this thing cooks down to a rich protein pudding matrix.
Dump in the three tablespoons of reasons to give a shit, which is to say, you need to know why the fuck you’re writing this damn thing — I mean, “cooking this soup or whatever.” You caring about the characters and the problems and the story is the most meaningful ingredient you bring to the broth. If you don’t care, if the story doesn’t speak to you, eventually you’ll wander away from the pot to do something else. And you won’t come back, because you don’t give a rat’s right foot. Be advised, that’s not an ingredient —
DO NOT ADD RAT PARTS TO THE BREW.
Then, time to use that syringe of unfiltered discipline. This is liquid work ethic, and is earned, over many months and years, by being a hardworking human being. Plunge it into your bloodstream and enjoy the cool saline rush of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps! If you don’t have a syringe of this, like me, then you can just drink a lot of coffee or inject Red Bull into various areas of your body.
Now, check your fuck basket. Is it empty? If not, take the fucks present, and discard them. Throw them fucks the fuck away. Into the garbage disposal they go, or feed them to your dog, I don’t care. You can’t have any fucks left in there. You’re going to have to care literally not at all how this Narrative Casserole looks as you make it and bake it. You’re going to put a helmet on your head and run careening through this recipe for thirty days, and even a single untoward fuck in your fuck basket will cause you to stumble. Later, you will heartily refill this basket when it comes time to edit this casserole into something vaguely edible.
Oh, wow, time to add the 50,000 words. Here’s the trick with this, and this is a persnickety step — you’re going to need to add these words in sensible order. Like, you can’t just add them willy-nilly, or you’ll end up with a lot of “niagara monkey dump certification” and “whistle jumper sassafras cheese” nonsense. This shit has to make at least a little sense, like, “Dave went to the store and fought a freemason ninja.”
Dump all of this into a giant labyrinth. The labyrinth is the perfect baking vessel for this unholy stew — as your characters are attempting to make a beeline to solve their problems, you’re going to stick them in this labyrinth instead and watch them run around that thing, and every mystery and every bit of conflict is going to force them to take another circuitous bend in the maze — this will delay your Roasted Narrative from cooking too fast.
To finish, slather all of it on a series of blank pages.
Digital or analog is fine, we’re not uppity, here.
And that’s it! Enjoy the heinous but delightful mess called a “first draft.” Sure, it probably tastes like shame and rat parts, but that’s okay — because the great thing is, you’re still not done, and get to keep cooking it down, reducing it further, adding new spices and mysterious meats until it actually tastes good. This may take a second draft, or maybe three-hundred-and-thirty-first draft, but you’ll get there, chef.
You’ll get there.
Okay, What I’m Trying To Say Is
Writing a story fast and frenzied is tough stuff. But it’s doable, and one of the ways that I find it to be doable is to — assuming a lack of any meaningful outline — be able to put compelling, active characters with agency onto the page and let them run in the maze in order to solve their problems. Give yourself the advantage of letting them create the plot for you. Fuck structure. Fuck an elegant architecture. Seriously, just create some interesting characters who have problems to solve, and let them work at solving them. Get excited. Find a reason to care. Make characters you want to watch get into various shenanigans for 30 days and 50,000 words — don’t worry about your audience. Worry about your reasons to get through this thing.
Okay, What I’m Really, Really Trying to Say Is
BUY MY BOOK
NO REALLY IT’S CALLED DAMN FINE STORY AND IT TALKS A LOT ABOUT THIS STUFF AND YOU NEED IT OR YOU’LL DIE
IT’S LIKE, YOU’LL BE READING THIS THING AND SAYING WHOA AND DANG AND YOUR MIND WILL BE BLOWN WITH ALL THE SHIT IN THERE ABOUT CHARACTERS AND PLOT AND THEME AND BEACH DOGS AND ELK-WHACK AND JOHN MCCLANE AND PRINCESS LEIA AND
IF YOU DON’T BUY MY BOOK YOU CAN’T BE A REAL AUTHOR
I’M PRETTY SURE THAT’S TRUE*
YOU CAN GET IT IN PRINT IF YOU LIKE HAVING AN OBJECT YOU CAN READ BUT ALSO THROW AT PASSERSBY
OR YOU CAN GET IT IN ELECTRONIC FORMAT WHICH ACTUALLY USES DIGITAL INK MADE FROM THE GHOSTS OF OLD FORGOTTEN BOOKS, SO THAT’S PRETTY COOL, HUH
ANYWAY GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH**
* totally not true
** also don’t forget to read Fonda Lee’s Anti-NaNoWrimo Case Study post
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.