True Confessions
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

True Confessions

So how did my 2010 venture into National Novel Writing Month turn out? Well, here's how I viewed it at the beginning of the process:

"The NaNoWriMo process is easier this year.  I find I'm better able to just sit down and let the words flow.  What's developing on my computer screen is by no means a finished product, but it's going to serve as a great base from which to build a real novel. I won't promise you that "Gideon's Ladies" will write itself in the next month.  Truth is, I'll still be reading and researching much of the time.  I find it easiest to write dialogue, so I'll be concentrating in creating scenes from various spots in the story.  They can always be rearranged and polished later. As I write, I'm getting a feel for the characters, and I find that some of the individuals have begun to speak in their own voices, which is always a delightful turning point. I'm anxious now to find out what they are going to do next, and how they will handle the problems they have set for themselves."

By the end of the month, I sounded exhausted and not quite so sure of what I had managed to accomplish:

"Finished! Yes, that's right! after 27 grueling days (actually 25 work days and 2 days of utter slackerness) I have managed to write the first 50,417 words of my next novel, tentatively entitled "Gideon's Ladies." Was it worth it? Well, sometime after today, I'll realize that it was.  The writing phase is always hard, and putting a word counter on every morsel  you manage to crank out is a definition of cruelty.  But now I know that this story has legs.  it can someday become a novel, and when that day comes, I'll be delighted that I spend November 2010 in this effort. For now, however, it's off to start Christmas preparations (and a good stiff drink, too.)"

And now it's true confession time.  Although I dutifully sent my "winning" 50,000 words off to CreateSpace -- to take them up on their offer to produce a proof copy of every book that qualified at the end of the month -- I couldn't bear to look at it in the new year.  The thin little volume arrived -- some 178 pages in all.  But it still looked pitiful.  It was full of typos and half-finished pages, with thoughts that started off bravely and went absolutely nowhere.

I began re-reading "Gideon's Ladies" just two days ago, as a direct result of my last blog post.  I'm still embarrassed by the number of typos and the layout.  Once in a while I have been pleased with a particular turn of phrase, but more often I've cringed. I have, however, learned a bit more about myself and about the writing process.  Here are five rules I would now be willing to carve on a stone:

1. Don't start writing until you have some idea of where you're heading.  These little chapters utterly fail to provide direction.  An impartial reader can not tell who the important characters are, or what the book is all about.

2. Have a timeline.  My events are confusingly out of order.

3. Don't confuse "show and tell." My academic background reveals itself all too clearly when I fall into lecture mode.  I thought I was writing conversations, but the result all too often sounds like a typical schoolmarm telling a class of students what they must know for the test. I wrote so quickly that I forgot to let my characters show what was going on through their words and actions.

4. Know your characters. Each one needs a distinct personality, recognizable in both their actions and in their speech patterns. If the reader can't tell the characters apart, the author has failed again.

5. Write because you have something important to say.  The reader deserves to understand what is important about your story and why you care.

So where do I go from here?  I've already made a start by changing my title from "Gideon's Ladies" (too over-used) to The Road to Frogmore. And that title reflects one other decision -- to make Laura Towne and her efforts to establish her own school at Frogmore Plantation the center of my story. My research efforts for the next several weeks will focus on obeying my other new rules.  I want to fill out my character sketches, pinpointing those traits that make each character an individual. I need to finish the timeline I have started, so that the events of my story are both logical and historically accurate. Then I can re-arrange and refurbish some of the chapters I have written. Most important, I need to make some decisions about point-of-view and recurring themes.

As for NaNoWriMo, I probably will not be participating in 2011.  Speed-writing is a wonderfully useful exercise.  It gets the creative juices flowing, and it reveals  (make that PAINFULLY reveals) what kind of writer you are.  It's a great start for those who question their own ability to write a book.  It does not, however, produce a finished product.  The sense of accomplishment it touts is basically flawed.   There is simply no substitute for the long, hard process of producing a book good enough to justify its readers' time and interest. For me, the warm-ups are now over. It's time to get to work.