why hello, December

I’d ask where the time went, except I know the answer to that one: NaNoWriMo. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, especially since it’s my 13th November, but no. Apparently I just have to keep learning this over and over:

You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.

Gene Wolfe

For NaNoWriMo, I decided to write a thriller set in the UP. I’ve done that before, so that should make things easier, right? Well.

Normally I write my novels chronologically. I’m more of a discovery writer than an outliner. In NaNo parlance I’m a plantser. Before I start writing a novel, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about things like setting and my characters’ backstories. I tend to go into things knowing the opening scene and the first big thing I’m going to throw at them, and I’ve done enough prep that I can be fairly certain how these characters are going to react. Then, in the words of my high school mythology teacher Mr. Noller, I kick the characters in the butt and follow them.

For this November, I was dealing with a cold case. Here’s the basic setup – what I knew before going into November 1.

Ten years ago, Ollie's mom and sister were killed while she and her dad were out at the family cabin. Her high school boyfriend was put on trial for the murders and found legally not guilty, but the community decided otherwise. Recently a serial killer took responsibility for the murders, and a true crime reporter has been contracted to write a book about the case. He's on his way to Ollie so he can visit her hometown and collect interviews when she gets a call that the serial killer actually has an alibi for that night, so the case is far from solved.

So right away I started with a bang: the reporter’s about to show up, but Ollie gets this phone call, and where do you go from there? I knew it was going to be a lot about relationships: Ollie and her dad, Ollie and her mom, Ollie and her sister, Ollie and the high school boyfriend … Ollie and the reporter … so Ollie was going to be at the center of a lot of it, but there was also a lot she didn’t, or couldn’t, know. She wasn’t there that night. She didn’t actually know what her mom and her sister were thinking. So. How could I deal with it?

This is where I tried something new.

Part of the novel – every other scene – follows Ollie Today as she gets the news and things unfold in reaction to it. The other parts aren’t in chronological order and are made up of false documents that largely rely on my reporter’s interviews with other people about Ollie’s mom and sister and what they think happened. Which is confusing on its own, because they’re all recalling something that happened a decade ago, when they’ve had all this time to mold and shape their memories to fit the dominant narrative (in this case, of the former boyfriend’s guilt).

Because I’m not an outliner, I wasn’t sure how it would work. If I’d have enough interview transcripts or newspaper clippings or what have you to continue alternating between the “Now” and these other elements.

I also made things more complicated for myself because that meant figuring out a lot of the old friends and neighbors, or parents of the old friends, and what their points of view would add to the narrative … or, of course, complicate about it. There’s an incident involving the sister, for example, that we see from the dad’s, a friend’s, a friend’s mom’s and a former babysitter’s points of view. Who heard which variation, and what details do they want to pass on? All of this jumping back and forth where you first think you’ve got a handle on it, and then realize hey, actually, we all do this, don’t we? Pick which parts of ourselves to share with which other people, and why.

So I continued doing these jumps, back and forth between the plot I was discovering and the past I was pretty sure I had a handle on, fleshing things out and working toward the climax.

… and I think it worked?

I’m not going to be more certain about it for a while yet, since I’m still too close to the story, but the writing part worked. I was able to sit down and keep up with my intended word count each day while at the same time moving back and forth between Now and Supplementary Documents. It forced me to think about things in new days, with new depths that I don’t usually find until it’s time for the second draft.

It does need time to sit, though, and get out of my immediate consciousness so I can come back to it in a couple months with a less-biased eye. It’s impossible to be completely unbiased about your own work, but the pause can certainly help. Plus by then my usual immediate readers might’ve had the chance to go through it and tell me their initial thoughts.

Because that, of course, is the next scary but necessary step: finding out if other people think it worked. If maybe I overdid it. If it’s too confusing even for a thriller with false documents and unreliable narration. It’s not just about a search for the truth of that one night, but one of my favorite topics: personal identity. Who really knows who we are? Do we even know that about ourselves?

All in all, I think it was a productive November and not just a busy one. I’ve got a complete draft, at any rate, and even if nothing comes of it, I’ve got these new experiences from writing it. I kind of doubt the rest of the year will slow down at all, but at least I know where November went – I’ve got the document to prove it.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did that go? Did you learn anything new about yourself and your writing?

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