6 Things You Should Never Write About for NaNoWriMo
Have you started yet? Has your word count crept from the tens to the hundreds? Is your initial hey-this-is-the-best-idea-ever enthusiasm already begun to curdle into this-is-crap-and-I-suck-at-writing despair?
Probably you have a thousand great ideas for NaNoWriMo, ranging from that sexy version of Animal Farm in which Napoleon and Snowball become lovers (hey, don’t tell me you haven’t spotted that subtext) to a historical twist on the zombie trope in which Prince Albert rises from his grave and returns to eat the brain of Queen Victoria (hands off, that one’s mine).
Getting past the NaNoWriMo finish line isn’t just about perseverance and gallons of coffee. It’s about picking the right idea. Many people give up because the initial impetus of their idea drains away somewhere in the middle of the work and pushing the story along becomes as much fun as running a marathon through a waist-deep swamp.
If you want NaNoWriMo to work for you, before you start it pays to take a cold hard look at what you plan to write about. Not all ideas are equal. Some have legs, some don’t. Hitch yourself to an idea without legs and you will have to drag it to the finish, rather than it pulling you over the finish line, triumphant.
You need danger in your story. Lots of danger. Life threatening danger is the obvious kind, but a light hearted romance set in a cupcake factory probably won’t feature that, unless someone happens to fall into the mixing machinery and even then, your target audience might not respond well to a lighthearted romance where someone finds a toe in their cupcake.
Danger comes in many forms, all of them involving risk. Danger means the risk of death, but also the risk of losing your reputation, losing the love of your life, going broke, missing out on a chance at glory, and having your cupcake factory close down because of an unfortunate incident with a mixer. Safe stories are ones where nothing is truly at risk, or at least nothing that really matters to the people you’re writing about. Bringing in danger means identifying what matters most to your characters and spending the rest of your time taking it away from them.
Don’t write about safe things. Write about people perched on a precipice, at risk of losing everything they want most. Then push them over the edge.
What do you do for a job? Mine involves sitting at a keyboard making stuff up and as far as action packed jobs go, mine ranks somewhere near the bottom of the list, along with tax accountancy and government admin. Which isn’t to say I don’t love my job, because I do, but at the same time I recognize it doesn’t offer much opportunity for drama.
Remember the point about risk above? Risk is easier to introduce in some situations than others. Deep sea diving has a built in sense of risk. Stuff can go wrong in that situation. Sitting at a keyboard isn’t such a promising scenario for risk, papercuts and RSI excluded.
Should we all set our drama in high risk situations then? Yes, if you happen to know something about that situation, or are prepared to do a ton of research before you start. One of the reasons we’re often told to write what we know, is that writing from ignorance means you don’t sound convincing. If you want to set your drama on the lower slopes of a smoking volcano, then go ahead, but make sure you know everything possible about lava before you do.
But since this is NaNoWriMo and you have a month to get your story down, it makes sense to stick with what you know. Just don’t let it be boring. Have the keyboard attempt to bite off your fingers. Make the tax accountant’s latest client a mafia boss with money to launder. Populate your government department with giant rats pretending to be human, or a secret satanic cult. Think outside the manila envelope and make your scenario as weird and ridiculous as you possibly can.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to follow in the footsteps of the last big seller. Hundreds if not thousands of writers are busy writing tag along fiction aimed at capitalizing on the latest trend. This is NaNoWriMo. This is your chance to try something new. Try it.
Wish fulfillment things
Inspiration often starts with the thought it would be so cool if I could…and from riding a dragon to shagging Bigfoot, we all like to use stories to let us perform the impossible. This is a perfectly good way to get a narrative going, so long as you keep in mind that you are not the end consumer of your product. If you let the audience feel that the story is all about you finally getting revenge on that person who glued your hair to the desk when you fell asleep in History class, they’ll lose interest. They want to read about their bully receiving comeuppance, not yours.
The genre most prone to wish fulfillment errors is erotic fiction, because honestly who doesn’t fantasize about sex way more than they actually have it? What makes most erotic fiction so teeth grindingly awful is that it’s thinly disguised wish fulfillment (very often in the form of ordinary person gets to shag person who would normally be way out of their league) and the thinner the disguise, the more awful the resulting erotica is.
Generalize away from your own experience and into a story that has more room in it for the reader. The more the story is actually about you, the less space your readers have to imagine themselves as part of the action. Be spacious with your narrative, release it from the grip of your regrets and desires and it will flourish into something better.
The best drama works because it holds an element of the unexpected. This doesn’t mean to say that your story can’t follow a well worn and tradition honoured path, because love stories tend to end with a kiss, and horror stories too often, although of the kind involving fangs. Audiences can feel cheated if you hand them what looks like a romance and the action mainly involves waging war against giant insects on the ice planet Chillblain. This isn’t to say that a work of science fiction can’t also be a love story, but the emphasis has to be clear. If your book looks like a duck and sounds like a duck then it probably is a duck and you should stop trying to use it as a notebook. And you should also respect the genre you are writing in. Romance needs romance. Crime needs crime. Science fiction needs…er…science and fiction (why is it called that anyway?).
But like Guillermo del Toro says: The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a fucking tourist.
If you fail to throw your readers at least a couple of curve balls along the way from beginning to end, they’ll feel cheated. Unpredictability builds tension. The reader might know deep down that your insect planet romance will end with your two lead grasshoppers finally entwining their mandibles, but you need to keep them guessing whether this will happen until the final few pages. Thwart your characters at every turn, the bigger the road block between them and their desires the better. And here’s where you get to exercise your creative genius. Make the road blocks as unexpectedly artful as you can. Have an asteroid hit the planet just before the mandibles lock. Plant a body in the hero’s apartment which he discovers as the cops knock on the door. Make the villain’s sidekick actually the villain. Make the villain’s sidekick’s dog the one behind it all. Follow a well worn path, but make the scenery interesting and the fences between you and the car park ones made of man eating plants.
We’ve all met the drunk in a bar who thinks they're the most interesting thing that ever happened to the world. Don’t be that person. Be someone more generous to their audience and remember, there's always a 'me' in memoir.
Whatever you pick, remember to wash, remember to eat, remember to water your plants and remember to kiss your loved ones.
Want me to cheer you on? Post a link to your NaNoWriMo account in the comments. And good luck with it!
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