On Conflict, NaNoWriMo, and The Work in Progress, So Far

On Conflict:

One point that I’ve been hammering home to myself, if it is indeed possible to hammer a point to yourself -I prefer the proverbial ball peen hammer to the skull, but to each their own – is the need for conflict.

Without conflict, you ain’t got a story. You can create terrific characters and a solid plot, but unless there’s a conflict at the heart of the story, you’ve written a story not worth reading. The notion of conflict is one of those “eureka!” moments that helps me along with my writing. Even short stories, no matter how long the length, have some semblance of conflict, even if that conflict is my protagonist wants half-and-half for his coffee, and can’t get any.

When I was brainstorming what exactly are the conflicts my main character is facing, I made some notes on what conflict should look like:

Forgive the criminally illegible and borderline bat-shit crazy handwriting.

So I examined the idea of conflict a little more, this time taking a closer look (okay, not that close) at the conflicts faced by some of literature’s most famous characters:

Jane Eyre – that Rochester’s a bad boy, yet she lusts for a man she can never really have. Also, she’s a feminist, in an era where the bitches that talk shit behind her back don’t know shit about feminism.

Ignatius J. Reilly – finding gainful employment, all the while railing against a world too stupid to recognize his genius. Also, weight issues. Also, that minx Myrna…

Anna Karenina – in love with another man (not her husband); risks being ostracized from high society. A bit wobbly around train stations.

Captain Ahab – white-hot rage; seeks revenge against the white whale that nom-nom-nommed his leg.

Don Quixote – quests himself and his trusty squire Sancho Panza to vanquish his enemies; truth is, he’s bat-shit crazy.

My novel is centered around conflicts, both external and internal. Let’s talk about this for a bit, shall we?

On the Work in Progress, Part One

The main character, Daniel, has both internal and external conflicts he’s facing. As a superhero (the World’s Greatest Superhero, to be exact), his external conflicts will always exist as long as his arch-nemesis continues to plot one villainous deed after another. But Daniel’s conflicts are more internal; his personal life is a mess, his wife has left him, and he’s in the midst of a self-diagnosed depression that he just can’t seem to bring himself out of. All these internal struggles make it difficult for him to even fathom being the World’s Greatest Superhero. And when a moment of indecision leads to tragedy (not to mention his arch-nemesis claiming victory), he walks away.

During his self-imposed exile, he takes an inventory of his life so far: a dysfunctional upbringing, an awkward discovery of his superhuman abilities, regret over the tragedy that occurred on his watch, and the flame he still carries for his ex-wife.

What he really wants is a normal life. What he wants is his wife back. But what he wants won’t be easy. Kurt Vonnegut reminded us to be sadists to our protagonists. Daniel will think he’s going to get what he wants, only for those things to be taken away from him.

Ah, cruelty.

It’s those conflicts that are currently occupying me while I’m outlining the novel, and it’s fun being a sadist. It’s fun fucking with my protagonist. Let him suffer like Job!

Which leads me to…

On NaNoWriMo and the Work in Progress, Part Two

All this outlining is really just me training for National Novel Writer’s Month. NaNoWriMo, for short. Ugh. There’s that name again…NaNoWriMo. Sounds like some organic, flax seed-riddled snack. Or a mental deficiency that plagues only the truly desperate of all writers. Myself included.

For the uninitiated, the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That rounds out to exactly 1,667 per day. There’s some back-and-forth as to whether or not the novel you’re writing during the month of November is one you’re writing from scratch. Me, I guess I’m cheating; I’ve already written exactly 17,415 words so far for the Work in Progress. But that doesn’t mean I’m already 17K ahead of schedule. My plan is to add an additional 50K words to what’s already been written. By the end of this calendar year – assuming the Mayans don’t make good on their promise to Armageddon-ize this world – I want my first draft finished, and ready to be ripped to shreds and made all pretty again.

So, yeah, I’m cheating. Sue me. What? It’s not like I’m on some PEDs or something. Whatever.

In the past, I’ve greeted NaNoWriMo the way Southern Baptists greet non-Southern Baptists: with equal parts fear, loathing, contempt, and condescension. “Come on,” I’d ask other writers, “do you really think you can hammer out the first draft of some piece of fiction you’re pulling out of your ass on the fly, in merely 30 days’ time?” What I was really saying was, “Yes, I’m sure you can do it, fellow writer, but I’m a doubt-riddled chicken shit who can’t be shackled by artificial deadlines and clever pep talks. I’m a literary peacock! I NEED TO SPREAD MY WINGS! 30 DAYS? PSHAW!!!”

I’ve chafed at the idea that one can fashion a readable manuscript, albeit one desperately in need of revisions, in 30 days. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen how-to books instructing us on how we can bang out a novel in 30 days, even less. Yeah, whatever. Kerouac wrote On the Road in, what, 20 minutes, while all hopped up on Benzadrine? Psst…you’re not Kerouac. On the other hand, Melville took nearly a decade to write Moby Dick, so I take comfort in that if Melville wrote the Great American Novel in almost 10 years’ time, well, then, by cracky, I didn’t need to rush my own genius either!

That’s right: I was too fucking good to be bothered with such trivialities.

The truth was, the only time I participated, in November 2009, I went into it with gusto and bravado, convinced that, oh hell fucking yes, I can rock this bitch. After all, my story was a killer – a tale of an amiable slacker whose schizophrenic mother is convinced he’s the bastard son of Keith Richards, and…oh, right. Now I remember why I gave up after 1800 words: THE STORY FUCKING SUCKED. Eh…who knows, I might be able to cannibalize that thread into some other story, some other time.

This time, however, I’m giving myself an advantage, which I’m sure thousands of other NaNoWriMo 2012 participants are doing: getting myself and my work into the best fighting shape possible. It’s going to promise to be a grueling 30 days. There will be pitfalls: work getting in the way, family demands, and the evil threat of pumpkin pie and tryptophan on the horizon.

Alright, time to get some more outlining done. Gonna fire up Freedom and shut the Internet down for a few hours.

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20 thoughts on “On Conflict, NaNoWriMo, and The Work in Progress, So Far

  1. Hey Gus,
    Glad to see that you’ll be participating in this years NaWriMo – I wish you much enjoyment! 🙂
    I’ve participated three times: 2009 (won), 2010 (won) and 2011 (abbandoned).
    This year I won’t be participating – going away for several days due to my Mom’s 70th birthday.
    I have to say that having a good/detailed outline is alpha omega if you indend to fnish the draft by Nov. 30th, the more detailed the better (though always allow room for deviations and flexibility!). I can definitely recommend using the program called Scrivener (available for both WIN and MAC), In this digital age I would not be able to write without it. All three years that I’ve participated I’ve had an outline with Scrivener and it has definitely helped me in my writing process (except for last year. The story sucked and took directions that I did not intend).

  2. Hey Gus, it’s possible to write your whole 1st draft in a month. Did 80,000 words this April, I’m doing editing on now. If you wanna talk about some things that’ll keep you on track … hit me up.

    One of the things I’d say, add dialogue. Then add more dialogue. Then add more dialogue.

    First of all, that’s what people want to read. Second, you’ll fall into a trance and the words will just come. Third, you can cut out boring dialogue later. Save the necessary.

    Went from 106,000 words at the middle of May–recently down to 83,000.

    You’ll be amazed what you find when you start cutting.

  3. Hey Gus. I completely agree that you have no story without conflict. I just blogged about that very thing myself. Conflict is what makes readers turn the page to find out what will happen next, and it gives the character texture as we see him react the the challenges we place before him.

    And good luck with your NaNoWriMo project! It is a great premise, and you’ll have a lot a material to pull from with that story.

  4. I have been wanting to try out this NanoWriMo thing for the last couple years… I can’t imagine myself actually completing it… my life is so full of crap and more crap and crap I have to do and want to do and need to do but don’t. But, oh, how I’d love to do it… even if the story were sub par, it’d be an accomplishment nonetheless. Keep asking myself, “When are you going to start taking your writing seriously?” Maybe this would be a start.

    And this “Freedom” thing? OMG, I have been conceptualizing such a simple creation for years and wondering when someone would come up with it. AWESOME. Definitely something I wanna look into. Now this Scrivener you mention… something else I should look into, perhaps.

    Your posts are little goldmines. Thank you for sharing.

    • NaNoWriMo’s a lot like a New Year’s Resolution: it’s an artificial time frame you set for yourself in order to accomplish something you want to accomplish. But, really, there’s never a right time to kick off and take your writing seriously. For me, it happened this past February, and I haven’t looked back since.

      The beauty about Freedom? Once you set the “clock” on how long you want your Internet connection shut off, there’s no turning the clock off. You have to let the clock run out before you can go back online. But if you really really REALLY want to check your Facebook update feed, you’re going to have to shut your computer down. And you really don’t want to be that loser, do you?

      Thanks for reading!

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