Thursday, December 1, 2011

In the Writing Trenches

November was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in which scads and scads of authors spend scads and scads of time writing scads and scads of words. The official goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. I joined the fun this year, but in a "sort of against the rules" way. Let me explain.
The official way to participate in NaNo is to write 50,000 words of a brand spankin' new manuscript. You can outline, create character sketches, make scene lists, etc. leading up to November, but on November 1st, the first word you write must be the first word of something new. That's not what I did, and I'll tell you why.
I've been working on a new manuscript that I am exceptionally excited about. I'd already written the first chunk of it and knew without a doubt that it wasn't working. Not quite. So my goal for November was to write until I uncovered the problem. That might take 50,000 words, might take 5. I just needed to figure it out.
That folks was quite the lengthy introduction to the actual topic of this post...

In the Writing Trenches:
Sometimes you just have to do the work

We recently had an addition built on to our quaint little circa-1940's house. A second bathroom, in fact. Home remodels are never smooth or fast or painless. We ran into a difficulty quite early on in this project. No one, including the city, had any idea where to find the pipe that connected the plumbing in our house to the city sewer. The information on file from back when the house was originally built proved extremely unhelpful. The sewer line, that paperwork informed us, ran perpendicular to the street from under the house 100 ft from.... something. Nowhere had anyone written down what that something was.
The builder did what anyone would. He guessed, based on logic and the hope that the easiest location was the correct one.
It wasn't. Problem being, the list of possible locations was somewhat long, some of those spots were harder to get to than others, some a little more far-fetched.
The only thing to do next was pick the option that made the most sense and dig. For almost 10 hours, two guys stood in front of my house digging with hand shovels straight down over the spot the builder thought might be the actual correct place. The hole they dug went 9 feet down and at the bottom of that hole... was a sewer hook up.
What does this lovely little story have to do with anything? I'll tell you.
As writers, sometimes our only option is to roll up our sleeves and do the work.
I knew early on in my latest project that I was off-target with my story, that something wasn't right. I spent weeks theorizing about what I should have been doing different, what was at the heart of the problem, how to salvage the story. But thinking about the problem only gets you so far.
I set aside the month of November to write as many words as it took for the problem to become clear. I kept going with the story as it was, but with a new awareness of the plot and characters. I jotted down any insights I had as I went. But I kept writing.
After a while the problems were obvious. An inconsistent character. Weak motivation (in a character, not in me), a need for a deeper conflict. I knew what was wrong, because I'd forced myself to find it.
How long did it take? 40,000 words, give or take a couple. By then I knew and I was ready to go back and fix it.
The take-away lesson here is simple: Writing is hard work, but not impossible. Push through it. Keep at it. Eventually you find the sewer line... er, you get it right.

Happy Writing!


Angie said...

So true. The work is so worth it, though!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great insight, Sarah. I learned so much from NaNo this year that I'll be able to keep using.


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