Thursday, 20 October 2011

Nano Prep: A Little Panic on Plot and Word Counts

If you Nano on a regular basis, you know the spiel. 50,000 words is Of Mice and Men, a quick action-oriented novella by today's standards, or one of thousands of sci-fi books your parents collected in the 70's and 80's.

Today's word counts have an interesting history based partially on being paid by the word and partially driven by consumer expectation. There's obviously many other factors behind the word count evolution, and all it means is that two out of the last three books I bought can be considered concealed weapons if they could actually fit under my coat.

A little bit of word count

Conventional wisdom and other writing articles give rough estimates of word counts thusly:

<100-100 words = drabble
100-500 words = flash fiction
100-750 words = short short fiction
<25,000 words = short story
25,000 - 40,000 words = novella
40,000-60,000 words = short novel
70,000 words = basically a normal novel
>100,000 words = burglar stunner, also called an epic (or "bargain" in terms of entertainment hours)

So that 50,000 word draft you're about to lovingly pound out in a matter of days filled with caffeine abuse, familial neglect, and passionate bouts of insomnia, is a fantastic entry to the world of long form written art.

What about panic?

The first time I participated in Nanowrimo, I had never written anything longer than a short story or a long essay. I had some idea about how to plot an entire novel because as it turns out, pre-writing and procrastination are pretty darn close. Pre-writing gets you a neat little outline, maybe a massive wall of stickies, and carefully crafted character arcs with every gel pen color you can get your hands on.

What it doesn't do is sit your butt down and get you to write.

Around day four, I learned it was all fine and well to move character B across setting C to have conflict with characters E and I, but (aside from a hard lesson in ridiculously large casts) when the words won't come, all the stickies in the world can't get you across the 50,000 word finish line.

After a precious 3000 word dry spell (approximately 2 days of not writing) I started getting that itchy feeling of staring at a great big F for failure. It's not like Nanowrimo costs you anything, but losing usually karate chops my dignity something fierce, even if we're talking about losing Stupid Ninja seven times in a row. Nanowrimo says, in many sayings stemming from founder Chris Baty and from hundreds of thousands of participants: just write.

Desperate to not lose a contest in which I held no actual personal stake and won no riches beyond a little pixel icon, I broke my story down into mini stories, or what normal writers will probably recognize as "scenes", wherein each day of typing encompassed a beginning, middle, and end, with action and reflection and more than just a little word salad. Hey, it's 50,000 words, and one of the strategies repeat winners recommend include losing your em-dash between paired words and make at least one character a stutterer.

This year I'm going to stretch my ability to focus by breaking my overall plot into chunks. A few thousand words go into the premise [from my story sentence(s)] and a few thousand words go into the opposition and how he's going to stop the protagonist. A couple dozen grand go into the main journey part of the plot and perhaps a few thousand go into the emotional connections between the protagonist and her citizens. Before you know it, I will have ripped out 50,000 words of mayhem and occasional sentences that actually make sense in English.

My strategy will look like this:

40,000 words = main plot (includes premise, protagonist and antagonist, and just a few allies and enemies along the way)
10,000 words = secondary plot takes the main stage to take me through the muddy middle
20,000 words = main emotional past issue arc (also called "How did we get here?")

If you do math moreso than me (not hard), you'll notice that adds up to more than fifty thousand. It's about 70,000, or roughly a marketable length for a real live novel. This will be my fifth year doing Nanowrimo and I thought it was time for a little extra challenge. I'm breaking out in hives even thinking about it because I have been one of those 11:59 pm word count validaters on November 30th, but if we reach for the moon, we land among the stars. Or at least, somewhere beyond where I have gone before, and that's what Nanowrimo is all about.

So to all you plotters out there, are you stickies fanatics or do you prefer twenty packs of multi-colored gel pens?

And to all you pantsers, what kind of inspiration and caffeine are you stocking up on in preparation?

No comments:

Post a Comment