NaNo AutoBio, or: A Chronicle of Failure

Hey gang! It’s NaNoWriMo, or Alex Doesn’t Live Up To His Own Expectations Month, everybody’s favourite madcap dash to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo for eight years now (I think), and during that time I’ve taken many different approaches to the challenge. Some have been a success; most, if the title of this post didn’t give it away, have not. All the same, one of my favourite maxims of writerly advice is that what doesn’t work for one author may work perfectly for another, so perhaps there’s something of value to be learned from my various defeats? Or perhaps not. In any case, I was looking to jog my memory a little, so I decided to write up the following recollection – a trip through the Museum of Abandoned Drafts. Who knows what terrors lie within? It’s me, I do.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the Alex of 2011 was convinced he was going to write the next great novel. Specifically he was going to write the next great contemporary urban fantasy novel, and it was going to be Deep and Meaningful, and it was going to be a doorstop. I’d been sketching out the barest bones of an idea for quite some time – a man who, after an unfortunate miscommunication, accidentally sells his soul to the Devil, and must embark on a globe-hopping magical mystery tour to render the contract null and void before it’s too late.

I had my hero – a befuddled everyman in the style of Neverwhere’s Richard Mayhew, desperate for a return to normalcy, propelled ever onwards by the strange characters he keeps stumbling across – and I had a starting point. I decided my protagonist’s name was Edgar, and that he was a journalist (not particularly everyman after all), and that he had spent his entire life up until the novel’s open being perennially late for everything. I had a couple of scribbled A5 pages describing Edgar’s outlook on life, and the barest idea of how the practicalities of selling your soul actually worked.

With nothing more planned, and no real intention of thinking over the material I did have planned any further, I burst into action on November 1st. The first chapter dealt mostly with Edgar’s backstory, which was about as nondescript and uninteresting an origin as it’s possible to imagine, and yet still took up a good couple of thousand words. After that, I tried to launch Edgar into my pre-arranged inciting circumstances through a chance encounter at the Rainhill train station – after all, you gotta write what you know. Wrangling an utterly unremarkable protagonist into conversation with Lucifer himself proved a little more difficult than expected – nobody seemed to want to be in their scenes, and the dialogue was lifeless and jumbled. Almost immediately, I developed an avoidance strategy that I haven’t been able to shake since – when it felt like a scene between two characters wasn’t coming together the way I wanted it to, I’d have one of them make an unexpected exit and carry on the story without them. This led, essentially, to four chapters of nothing happening, because all the important, narrative-driving conversations kept getting pushed forward.

This avoidance was, eventually, my downfall. Around 15,000 words in, I had finally put my foot down. I was going to write the scene in which Edgar sold his soul to the Devil. Edgar had travelled to an abandoned warehouse (you know, classic) on Lucifer’s invitation. All hell was about to quite literally break loose. It was going to be spectacular. And, for a short while, it was. For once, everything seemed to slot into place, and everyone seemed to know what they were doing. It was exciting stuff! Edgar signed the contract, and the Devil laughed maniacally as he revealed his subterfuge. A real gut punch, honestly. But imediately after that I encountered a problem – Edgar needed to escape. If the Devil dragged Edgar down into hell right there and then, the story as I’d imagined writing it was over. But Edgar (a bit of a bumbling idiot) managing to outwit the Devil seemed too implausible to ignore. How was I going to write through this one?

The answer, sadly, is that I didn’t. With no idea how to push the scene forwards, I instead took my avoidance strategy to the next level. Rather than try to delay the scene, perhaps sensing there had been quite enough of that already, I skipped it all together. I essentially built myself to a narrative climax I couldn’t bring myself to actually write, and instead of Edgar’s dramatic escape I was working on his quiet moment of recovery in an alleyway, tending to injuries I’d assumed he would have sustained. It got me past the roadblock directly in front of me, but having broken the flow of the story, I struggled to reforge it. I couldn’t figure out the direction I was meant to be going anymore, couldn’t get a read on how I wanted my characters to feel. Everything felt a bit wrong.

Writers often circle back around to difficult scenes – it’s a nice way to put an issue in perspective, and writing at the edges of thorny problems gives you a decent chance of untangling them. But without any semblance of a plan for what was going to come after, and without the written trajectory of the dramatic scene itself, I simply ran out of steam. If there’s a lesson to be learned from my performance in my first NaNoWriMo, I’d say it’s this: don’t be afraid to write an awful scene. Not just a bad scene, no, any NaNo participant can do that. Be willing to write a scene that you absolutely know doesn’t work; be willing to tackle problems that feel like they’re beyond you, well aware that you will most likely fail. The mere process of forcing your way through difficult scenes is valuable – what you write may not be glittering, but it will show you a way forward. In the process of grappling with a problem, you will learn something about it – and about your own writing. Is that a lesson worth recounting? Well, too late to say otherwise, since I’ve already finished recounting it.

2011 Word Count: 16835

I enjoyed setting that out on the page – there’s nothing quite like a trip down memory lane into the projects of youth. Even the terrible ones. If you enjoyed reading this, or you’ve got a fun NaNo tale from days gone by you’d like to share, give the comments section a whirl and get in touch. I think I’ll try and revist more of my past NaNo attempts over the course of the month, if and when I get the chance.

In the meantime, give my Patreon a look if you want daily updates on how my right-now currently-happening 2019 NaNoWriMo project is going. Is it better or worse than the fiftul, sputtering early chapters I wrote back in 2011? It really is difficult to say.

Peace and love,

Alex xo


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