This post first appeared as a NH Regional email from Municipal Liaison, Yvette Couser
[USA :: New Hampshire] Week 3 Pep Talk: The Map’s In the Glove Compartment (part I)
Welcome to Week 3, Wrimos!
Congratulations – you are half-way through this journey, regardless of your word count. You made a commitment to write your novel and for this I salute you!
You know that stereotype about men not wanting to ask for directions so they’ll drive around forever and just get more and more lost? Week 3 is kind of like that. You might be generating a lot of words or you might be poking the keyboard at a much slower pace, but in either case you find that in week 3 you’re…stuck.
You know that writing a novel is like embarking on a journey, right, so here’s a few things to think about at the midway point when you might be rethinking that commitment to your novel and that maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all. I’m going to tell you two stories (think of this as excerpts from my future NaNo Novel/Memoir) and then try to convince you why it’s worth it to keep going.
When my husband and I got married, we took our honeymoon in Rome. Yes, it was amazing. No, we hadn’t done much planning because we were young and in love and probably a bit short-sighted. One day we decided to get on a bus for some sight-seeing and ended up getting very lost in an industrial-looking part of the city. Gone were the Coliseum, the Forum and all the orange trees. I remember getting off the bus, and my husband and I were standing on one of those cement/grass islands that are in the middle of two or four lane roads, surrounded by warehouses. We were lost, tired, and probably hungry. Definitely frustrated with each other. And we ended up having probably the second fight ever in our time together. Maybe the third. At any rate, our first fight as a married couple. My point is, here we were, on our honeymoon, in gorgeous Romantic Rome, and we were standing in the middle of a road, yelling at each other. Who’s fault was it? Who didn’t read the map? Who wasn’t paying attention and made us miss our stop? Who didn’t learn Italian? Blah blah blah.
Let’s fast forward about twenty years. My husband and I are still married. This summer we took our kids to hike Mt. Monadnock. Here’s the short version: Going up was hard. I’ll admit I’m middle-aged, carrying a few extra pounds and my knees are shot. None of us are experienced hikers but we’ve climbed a mountain or two. At any rate, we all managed to get to the top (with the kids all leaping like gazelles as I trudged along in the back) have some lunch, and enjoy the view. Did the view from the top make the hardship going up worth it? Probably not. It was gorgeous, and I can only say this in hindsight, but it was the trip going down that made the journey to the top worth it.
Because going down was harder. The pressure on my knees was worse. It had started to rain. Seeing that this was going to take a while, my husband sent the kids on ahead with the car keys. One of our daughters stayed with us, while the other three kids went on ahead to wait in the car (we have three teenagers and a seven year old, and it was really best to get the 7 year old down off the mountain). It started to get dark. The rain turned into a total downpour. I was terrified I’d slip on a rock because of my crap knees and injure myself and then we’d be in serious trouble because someone would have to carry me down. Other hikers on the way down passed us. Families with small children passed us. Elderly hikers passed us. None of us had remembered to pack a flashlight. There had been no forecast for rain so no one had packed any rain gear. Being the mom, I figured this lack of planning somehow was my fault. And my slowness was ruining everyone’s day. At some point I stopped in my tracks and sobbed. It was over. I was done.
So what happened? You know you can’t teleport down a mountain. You’ve got to do it and you’ve got to do it one step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. You can’t time travel from an icky spot to a better place in the future. You’ve got to go through it. As I stood there sobbing, my husband turned and put his arms around me. My crying jag was brief, but it had to get out, and then I was alright. I was still in a lot of pain. My hips were killing me and thinking back, I really don’t think the boots I was wearing fit properly. I had to drop the tough exterior and ask for help. My husband took my arm and gently guided me all the way down the mountain. He pointed out better paths around this or that huge boulder or uneven terrain. He cooed gentle, but firm, encouraging words. I’m sure he was as exhausted and frustrated as I was but he never let that show. He stayed focused. He helped me stay focused. It took us two hours from the point that the kids had left us to finally get to the bottom. The park hadn’t closed yet but ours was one of the only cars left in the lot. It was still pouring when we finally all climbed into the car. The whole hike had probably taken about 7 hours, about 4 more than we had estimated.
Here’s why I tell you these two embarrassing stories, Wrimo and here’s why I appreciated the climb down more than the view from the top. In both situations, I was stuck. I was in unfamiliar territory. No one was going to get me off that highway divider or off that mountain – I’d have to do that myself no matter how slow or painful or embarrassing it was going to be. But the difference in the two situations was this – Time. My husband and I had spent the last twenty years raising kids, moving households, changing jobs, going to school, enduring deaths and births and pretty much everything life can throw at you. That couple in Rome, at the beginning of our story, were pretty naïve and quick to place blame when faced with a problem. If they called it quits now, they’d never learn about each other or about themselves. They’d never learn that conflict develops character. They’d never know the joy of bringing out the best in themselves or in another person. Whereas, the couple on Mt. Monadnock are somewhere in the middle of the story. They’d spent a good chunk of time weathering tougher situations and were still together despite everything that they’d learned about each other.
Time with people (or characters) gives you the opportunity to learn about each other. My husband knew my frailties and my strengths. I knew I could trust my husband and literally lean on him for the duration. In real life as it does in fiction, conflict develops character, and I’ll tell you something else, Wrimo, conflict reveals character.
My point is this: before NaNoWriMo started, you might have done prep work, or you might not have. You might have thought you knew who your characters were, but now, in the middle of the journey, you definitely know them. You have spent three weeks with them and they’ve surprised you and maybe pissed you off but you’ve stuck with them and you definitely know them. They need you, Wrimo. I’m going to guide you around the big boulders so you can get yourself down off this mountain:
First of all, take a breath. Stop yelling at yourself. Stop yelling at your characters. Stop ignoring them and get back to work. Fighting yourself or your characters stops the action. Loving and nurturing yourself and your characters moves it. Look at your characters, see what they need and give it to them. How to you figure that out? I’ll tell you:
Still have that Idea or Question in mind I mentioned last week? Look at that again. Let it wash over you and remind you why you embarked on this endeavor. You started this journey because there was something about it that made you want to commit. There was something about it that you loved. Grab it and hold on to it. Feel the excitement and potential. Now you need to articulate it.
You really do have a map. Check it. If you think you don’t have a map yet, then that’s only because you haven’t jotted down the information that you know about your story – you have a map but it’s still inside you. Create one right now – you’ve got a great vantage point from the middle because you’ve already planted some markers on the way up, and you just need to find them on the way back down. Maybe you’ve gone off course a bit in the frenzy to meet your word count but you can adjust your course. I’ll tell you in a minute about a beat sheet that will help you draw your map.
You are not alone. You have companions on this journey. We’re here as the clock ticks, the rain pours and the sky darkens. You will need to put one foot in front of the other/one word in front of the other but we are holding your arm and guiding you down.
It might take you longer than you planned, but you still need to finish this journey. I want you to promise me, Wrimo, that even if November 30th comes and goes and you haven’t reached 50,000 words that you will still get off that mountain and finish your novel. Promise me. I am making that same promise to you. Don’t sell yourself short.
It’s time for me to finish this up, Wrimo, and get back to my book. I still have to hit my word count today and I’m behind.
Ok, so drawing your map:
I’m a planner, so a few months ago, I worked through a screenwriting book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. I found this a quick and easy read which encourages writers to plot out their story by beats. In this case the examples are 3 Act screenplays but I think it translates very well to any 3 Act structure. Snyder calls the middle of a story “Fun and Games”. I thought this was curious since I always have the hardest time writing the middle and there’s nothing fun about it. But Snyder says this is the point in the novel when the MC has accepted the call to adventure and is thrown into a “Bizzarro World” or a flip of the normal world, in order to fix the things that are wrong at the beginning of the story. And as the author, you throw tons of problems at them and watch them move and learn and adapt. Watch them fight for what they want. Watch them fail. Lost in Rome and standing on a highway divider or stuck on a mountain are definitely a flip of my normal world but coming through I came out more knowledgeable than I was at the beginning. It’s the same in your story. I’ve attached the Beat Sheet at the bottom of this Pep Talk so you can see what I’m talking about and experiment with it. Think of it as a borrowed, fill-in-the-blanks map. Toy with it. Make doodles along the edges. But think through what you know and want from your story and jot down some ideas.
You can do this, Wrimo. The World Needs Your Novel. YOU Need Your Novel.