Working with a guide but no guidelines

I have seen the period before actual writing described as the “compost period”. You let stories and characters sit in the deeper reaches of your brain and let them ferment. I spent the month before NaNoWriMo doing just this, but it didn’t feel like I had much to show for it when November 1st rolled around. In truth, there were probably themes and ideas that would pop up later, growing in the background during the month, but there was little to start the pen rolling on day one.

What I had was a backdrop for the book. It would take place along the Pacific Coast of the United States, hugging the coastline for much of the journey. As far as story, I had an opening moment (not even a scene) and one more scene I would use sometime later in the book. That is about it. As day one of writing approached, the details of the first scene were probably growing in the background, but I still had little idea where the story would lead.

Encouraged by Stephen King’s method of writing, I planned to write my way into the story. I have learned this method of writing is often called “discovery writing”. I don’t recall if he called it this in his book, but one of the passages I highlighted in On Writing describes it as,

“I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story…I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety – those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down.”

So I had permission to just wing it somewhat and see what would happen. But it felt like I was working without a net.

On Writing

We decided to participate in NaNoWriMo some time in September, about a month and a half before the November 1 start date. This would be the time to start plotting and planning, but of course that is not what I did initially. I went back to some of my stalling techniques.

Some years ago, I bought Stephen King’s book On Writing but never read it. It was one more book sitting on the shelf, quietly mocking me. With a deadline approaching, I finally pulled it down to see what this best-selling author had to say. It turned out to be a wonderful book on the craft of writing, and it inspired me to relax a bit about the upcoming month of writing.

Can you inspire to relax, or is that an oxymoron?

My inclination is to over-plan certain things, imagining pitfalls and solutions ahead of time. Planning to write every day for a month, without a place to begin much less an outline of the story, had me questioning if this attempt would fail before I even began. On Writing gave me a plan that wasn’t a plan.

After some memoir material about how he became a writer, the book described the advantages and pitfalls of how he went about writing his novels. One thing he mentioned was that he often started a novel with little more than an initial scene with one or two characters, and maybe a conflict. Unable to imagine planning or writing 50,000 words, I latched on to this technique and worried a little less about how unprepared I was.

But only a little.