How Chupacabras Saved My NaNoWriMo Novel

For National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been writing a novel called Ghostrunners. And yesterday, I reached 50,000 words, which means I “won” NaNoWriMo. And as a bonus, I finished the story as well! Admittedly, it’s too short to be publishable– to have a shot at publishing it, I’d probably have to stretch it out to 80,000 words. But there’d be so many changes in a second draft that adding 30,000 words is actually one of my lesser concerns.

My original idea, when I first envisioned the novel, was “Sliders meets Ocean’s Eleven with magic.” I set the story in modern day Seattle, to minimize the worldbuilding I needed to do; I developed some good characters; I came up with the outline of a magic system. But I didn’t come up with a plot that really inspired me.

So when I started NaNoWriMo, I was discovery writing. I knew my characters; I knew the setting; I knew some of the conflicts that the characters were involved in at the start. And from there, I was pretty much inventing stuff from scratch every time I sat down to write. Characters often made decisions for which I had only a marginal idea of the ramifications down the road. And they reacted to each other naturally, without regard for whether it would serve the plot. Heck, I didn’t even know what the plot was.

It was a stressful, terrifying, and occasionally exhilarating way to write. When things did come together into a genuine emotional moment, it was unplanned, and in those moments, it was almost like I was reading a good book, except I was typing as I read, wanting to see what was going to happen next. But that exhilaration was tapered by the ever-present fear that I would suddenly lock up, run out of ideas, and the words would stop coming.

When Writer’s Block did hit, I put myself in the characters’ shoes, and thought, “Okay, something has to happen next in their lives. What happens next? Write it.” And I did, without much regard as to whether it would make for a readable story or not.

I did, on occasion, resort to the old ninjas-kick-down-the-door trick: once with police, once with chupacabras, and once with rogue Secret Service agents. In every case it made the book better– especially the chupacabras, who more or less saved me at a point where the book was desperately searching for conflict and I felt like the plot wasn’t going anywhere. In a second draft, of course, they probably won’t be chupacabras: they’ll be creatures that wander between realities, for whom I will probably have to think up another name. But for this draft, and in the spirit of NaNoWriMo silliness, they did perfectly well as chupacabras. Lesson One from NaNoWriMo: Sometimes it pays off to just throw in crazy stuff and try to make it work.

My first novel was a massive, wide-ranging epic fantasy; this novel was a fast-paced action story. And my authorial role model for this type of story was Jim Butcher. In the Dresden Files, he drags his characters through serious pain and torment in every book, and doesn’t pull punches– he’s not afraid to make things worse, or pile even more problems on the characters. And if it all comes together at the end, if connections are made that you didn’t expect and the protagonists win despite everything that was thown at them, the result is often a really, really good book. And I tried to do the same thing with Ghostrunners. Lesson Two from NaNoWriMo: Don’t be afraid to throw your characters into the fire.

Ghostrunners is in very rough form right now– there are a few gems, but most of it is just plain old dirt and rock. A second draft would be like mining the diamonds from the ore; all the discovery-written ideas that didn’t work would need to be discarded, and the ones that did would need to be strengthened and polished until they shone. I’d like to do that with this book– and if it ever reaches “final draft” stage, it will probably only bear a passing resemblance to what I have now.

I haven’t decided what my next project is; I’d like to write a short story, and edit another one, and go back to my first novel and start revisions on that. I also had ideas for about five blog posts that I didn’t write in November because I didn’t want to get distracted. So I’m hoping that I can keep up the writing momentum even with the end of NaNoWriMo upon us. Because in the end, to be a professional writer, it’s not enough to write one month of the year– you’ve gotta keep at it year-round.

So it goes.

Mid-NaNoWriMo Update… and Story Acceptance!

National Novel Writing Month has been a series of fitful stops and starts for me so far; right now I’m sitting at 28,000 words, and have about ten days left to write the rest. So I’m a few thousand words behind where I should be, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make up the deficit over Thanksgiving Break.

So far, writing the novel has been a process of discovery writing: I have no outline, so I’ve just been writing scenes as they occur to me. This has been both good and bad. On the good side, I’ve come up with some ideas that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise, and for the most part, they’ve been ideas which flow naturally from the story instead of being forced onto said story. But there’s also been a lot of ideas which don’t work, and I’m still sort of searching for the main conflict. I have a few threads here and there, but nothing has really leaped out at me as being the primary overarching plotline of the book. So my novel writing thus far has been: write several thousand words over a couple of days, take a few days off because I’m not sure what happens next, then realize I’m falling behind and hurriedly write several thousand more words… rinse and repeat. We shall see if I actually make it to 50K, and whether I like the result enough that I end up writing a second draft.

In other news (which you probably already know if you follow my Twitter feed), one of my short stories, The Talisman of Hatra, got accepted into the Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology! I’m really happy about this. The anthology is edited by Eric J. Guignard, and of the authors who will be represented, one is Joe R. Lansdale, who is one of the best-known horror and dark fiction writers around today. I’m honored to share a Table of Contents with him, as well as with the other authors, including a fellow member of my writing group, Folly Blaine. It comes out in March of next year– needless to say, I’ll post details when it’s available.