Eliot’s Story and the Creative Process (Mine and Yours)

Things Keep Falling Out of My Head (book illustration)

image via Rita Sá

For a long time, I’ve had a story in my head. Maybe you have too. I don’t know the story in your head, but the story in mine is about a kid named Eliot who’s obsessed with science. He’s got a startling grasp on the big picture, but he’s a little out of touch when it comes to homo sapiens, especially those his own age. Also, he’s got some massive, dark secret lurking at home.

If you’ve got a story in your head, chances are, you’ve given some thought as to how you might conceivably get it into other peoples’ heads–i.e., on paper, and/or in an e-book. You may even  have some acquaintance with this process. For me, so far (with other novel projects), it has involved feeling my way slowly but surely through the material, editing, revising, and literally “re-visioning” the work as I go.

The first draft, for me, is about as exciting as a root canal. Let’s qualify that: a root canal from the elderly dentist in my hometown, with shaking hands, who keeps up a running monologue on the long-term effects of gingivitis. With Muzak–a Kenny G. Christmas, maybe–tinkling in the background.  I wondered, is there a quicker, less painful way to accomplish this thing?

The folks over at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each year challenge  the good people of the world with a book languishing inside to write that opus–come hell or high water–over the course of a single month. Many writers I know and admire have done it (though I will admit that most of those are not people who otherwise write a whole lot). Many writers I know and admire (who do engage with this craft on a daily basis) have expressed revulsion at it (see Tayari Jones’ “NaNo Hell No?”) citing the need for time and craftsmanship.The point, they argue, is not just to get 50,000 words down, but 50,000 words someone would want to read.

For my part, I’ve always been intrigued. Sure, NaNoWriMo is great for those to whom setting words to screen really is the point. But could that kind of speed work for those of us who slave away daily at this mysterious business? Maybe even kick a few pylons loose?

I wondered, what would happen if I stuffed my head full of research for a year, then wrote Eliot’s story in one mad dash? What if I invested a year in the planning, envisioning, obsessing, and pre-writing, then just forced myself to accept whatever came through in writing a complete draft over the course of a single month?

Could writing this novel in just thirty days get it out of my head and into the heads of other people? Or would it simply yield an unmanageable pile of crap?

Honestly, I have no idea. But I do have a working hypothesis:

Writing a novel in a month will indeed yield a pile of crap–but if I plan carefully before embarking on the journey, stew the project in research, and then work with an editor to revise the draft after the fact, it will not prove unmanageable.

And another:

If I keep what actually happens in the story (i.e., the plot) pretty simple, there will be room to accommodate improvisation without taking the story off down some overgrown two-track, never to be heard from again.

I could very well be wrong on either count. But, in a way, that’s what’s exciting about it.

I’m interested in creativity as a process, and it’s my hope that over the next year–through the research, conversation, scheming and dreaming on Eliot’s story that will appear on my blog, and the live-blogging madness that will ensue over the course of NaNoWriMo 2012 (during which I will produce something between a steaming pile of crap and a grand work of art, before your very eyes)–we can all learn something about the process of getting the stories in our heads out into the world where they can live and breathe.

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5 thoughts on “Eliot’s Story and the Creative Process (Mine and Yours)

  1. My best friend has done NaNoWriMo four times now. 3 of them she’s written first drafts of the first, second and third novels in a fantasy trilogy. They end up filled with sentences like, “and then the king banished what’s-his-name from the town of something-or-other.” But each time, she’s spent a good six months or more after the fact rewriting, editing, and rewriting some more. The stories have changed SO MUCH since the initial NaNo drafts, and the process has been just like writing several drafts of a “regular” novel – NaNoWriMo just gave her the kick in the pants she needed to get the initial words down. I’ve been inspired enough by what she’s done that I started doing February Album Writing Month (FAWM) a couple years ago. And I still have a secret dream of one day finishing NaNoWriMo myself. Good luck!

    • So good to hear a report from “on the ground!” And glad to hear that your friend has been successful in revising/editing those NaNo novels. Feel free to put us in touch, as I’m a huge fan of fantasy and sci fi (actually a dedicated genre editor) and would love to hear more about her process.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. Ayn Rand spent a good amount of time developing the tenets she believed in which she wove through Atlas Shrugged. She also did quite a bit of industrial research. So yes, even if the time spent in research and planning doesn’t translate into a chapter, it certainly will give the story the depth you’d want.

    I found NanoWriMo a great writing exercise. My goal was to see if I could keep 4 storylines (which I’d already thought about) going with an unreliable narrator (think of a Kate Atkinson piece). The time constraint freed me from that nasty inner critic who stalls me from getting it down on paper.

    Does it need editing….oh hell yes.
    Good luck, my fine writer friend.

      • I edited it with a critique group to gain some skills, but it’s not publishable. I tromped over too many copyrights and stole too many characters. Think of it as a hilarious revenge of your high school/college reading list. (if you list includes classics, Manga, and Halo guidebooks). Hoot!
        Thanks for the kind nudge though.

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