No Halloween blogging this year. I dearly love Halloween, but I’m challenged when it comes to writing horror, and I’m never sure whether my taste in horror is YA-suitable. Plus I haven’t read/seen any good horror lately. I’m moving right along to NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, where lots of people agree to spend November writing novels. The goal is 50k words within that one month period, and if you hit your mark you get all kinds of virtual trophies to hang on your social media. Plus it’s an excuse to meet other writers, and would-bes, and wanna-bes, and their fans. There are actually parties where people write in public.
I did a NaNoWriMo for the first time a couple years ago, and it’s probably why I’m here now. At that time, I was laboring under the delusion that I was writing a 300k word novel with a twisty plot (instead of the three 200k word novels it currently is). I looked at the paltry 50k requirement for NaNoWriMo – so small, so puny. I could do that in a month, I thought.
Now there was one particular scene that is crucial to my main novel. It drives the grudge that people are still willing to fight and die for, seven years later. It has to do with a war crime that happened in a skirmish between the bioengineered super soldiers and the extremely smart scientists who refuse to engage. They have other names and deeper backstory, but those are the essences. They got together and had a fight in the town of Manganela.
I do a lot of behind-the-scenes writing, especially for a monstrously big story like this. Sometimes I’ll have my characters sitting around a table for a story conference, or sometimes I’ll indulge a few pages toward a story from their earlier life, just to help me put things together in a more coherent way. I realized I would have to write the story of the battle of Manganela eventually, even if it were just for my own files – that’s the only way I’d ever really get a sense of what happened.
I decided to write my Manganela flashback as a NaNoWriMo. I took a pause from the Sonny Knight story and switched to another narrator in another land: Arturo “Turo” Berengar, a sixteen-year-old super soldier brimming with tragic memories. He’s part of an army besieging a futuristic self-sufficient city. Inside the city is a girl, Zeffany Silva, and the two of them bond over their anxiety/stress disorders. Meanwhile, half the characters from the Sonny Knight stories make cameo appearances.
My idea (before I started) was that this NaNoWriMo novel would be my first submission, the one that would land me a publishing deal for the Sonny Knight stories. It would be slick and commercial and exciting, with a generous helping of teen romance.
When I finished it, I loved it, but I was taken aback. Instead of my action star vehicle, I had something grim and awful. Some dark things happen in this story, and there are flashbacks that are even darker. Instead of saying “peace is good” I wound up saying “war will mess you up fifty ways to Sunday and I’m going to show you some of the uglier ones.”
Moreover, most of the action dealt with soldiers on active duty in a war zone. My first completed novel (if you didn’t count the ones I wrote by hand in composition books when I was twelve) was military sci fi. A genre I know nothing about, and probably will never tackle again. A genre notable for having lots of libertarians and conservatives – not the kind of folks who want to hear about war messing people up. I treated the soldiers with honor and respect, mind you, but this is a weird and asymmetrical war between gamers with remote-control drones and well-armed body builders, and I researched it by reading about child soldiers, so it's a little surreal and off-kilter. I wasn’t sure if this story would appeal to either soldiers or peaceniks.
Although it is a fine kick-ass story if I do say so myself, as long as you don’t mind a little … darkness. When I said I had a difficult time writing frightening tales for Halloween, I was talking about supernatural horror (ghosts, witches, etc.) – not real life horror. Sieging Manganela is non supernatural, but it's downright nightmarish in places, and I’m going to lay down some disclaimers when I finally self-pub it next year. It’s kind of the fourth leg of the Sonny Knight trilogy, and it can also stand on its own. .
Writing Sieging Manganela dragged me out of my solipsistic writing reverie and forced me to confront other things beside the prospects of the market and agents and editors and publishers and all that. It made me think hard about genre, and whether I wanted to be a lonely hippie in a sea of military historians. It made me conscious that a 300k word novel was excessive, and I immediately began the Penultimate Rewrite (I’m doing the ultimate rewrite currently, except for volume I, which has already escaped).
Plus it solidified in my head the concept that I was writing novels now. In fact I’d finished one! I entered NaNoWriMo as yet another scribbling noob, but I emerged a novelist. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Maybe there’s a novel inside you, too. It doesn’t have to be a good one, and you don’t have to bother with all the official team spirit exercises at all. You just have to be willing to spend November typing it out, and you can always go back and fix the spelling and grammar later. And if you make it through ... you're a novelist. And nobody can ever take that away.