NaNo 2011: Deconstruction I

This sort of goes without saying, but the following series of posts will contain spoilers about the story. If you haven’t read the story yet, and want to, you should do that first.

Alrighty, so I gave myself a day off, and now I want to talk about some of my experiences writing this thing before I forget too much about it.  As I mentioned in my last chapter, I was reasonably happy with the results, and really glad that I did it; and from what I could tell from the comments I got from other people, they enjoyed reading it as well, so all in all I consider this a successful adventure.  I may even do it next year, but if I do, I plan to do things much, much differently.  I learned a lot of valuable lessons about writing in this thing, and I thought I’d share some of them here.

I’ve got, I think, four posts that I want to write about this.  The first is this one, in which I will talk about my basic setup, workflow, and goals for the story.  In the next post, I am going to talk about the things that worked particularly well, and the third post will discuss some things that really didn’t go so well, and ways that I may improve them if I decide to go back and edit this into a better story (the jury’s still out on that).  Finally, I have a few miscellaneous comments and observations that I want to make that don’t really fit anywhere else, so I’m going to make a separate post for them.

So let’s get started; first, a little bit about my story-telling background.  I’ve been writing since a pretty young age (I think since about first grade?), and reading even longer than that.  So I like to think that I know pretty well what goes into a good story; in high school, I wrote quite a few short stories, and a lot of poetry. Most of it was very dark. I think I scared my parents into thinking I was suicidal (I wasn’t). Since highschool, I’ve written a few stories here and there, and a little bit of poetry, but not nearly as much. In college, I started role-playing, and very quickly starting DMing (for those of you not familiar with role-playing, it is basically a group story-telling endeavour. The player characters, or PCs, create characters that go on adventures in the world, and the DM — or dungeon master — is the person who dictates how the rest of the world responds to the PC’s actions). It turns out that DMing is something that I’m very good at, and so I was hopeful that I would be able to use a lot of those skills for my NaNo story as well. As it turns out, some of it worked, and some of it not so much. But more on that later; I think that’s all the background you need to know about me coming into this shindig.

I have a friend who had been extolling the virtues of NaNo for quite some time, and she (together with a few other people) finally convinced me that I should just go for it, despite my better judgement. November is kindof a lousy month for a project like this, what with a major grad school conference and Thanksgiving smack dab in the middle of it. “You don’t have to do the whole thing!” they said. “You can just write 20,000 words instead.” I’m sure they knew full-well that I’m a very competitive person, and I’m not going to “just” write 20,000 words when everybody else is shooting for fifty.

So anyways, October 29th rolled around, and I finally decided I was going to do this thing, but I had no idea what my story was going to be about. So I decided to pull out some DMing tricks and make up some characters. I knew that character development was something I wanted to work on in this story, because historically it’s been a weakness of mine, so I decided that I’d make some characters with some interesting flaws, throw them into a conflict, and see what happened.

To generate the characters, I borrowed from an RPG called Fiasco, in which characters are thrown into, well, a Fiasco. To create interest in the characters, relationships between them are built up semi-randomly, and then details are filled out by the players. Each character also has a primary need or desire. It’s a remarkably effective way to create interesting characters and set the stage for interesting conflicts. So I decided that my story would have three main characters (who did not yet have names, so I referred to them as A, B, and C), and used the Fiasco rules to fill out a few details. I also generated a couple of locations and objects using the rules. So, here is all of the information I knew about my story pre-November 1:

The main setting would be a fantasy story taking place in a prison; this was not something I decided using Fiasco, I just thought it would be an interesting, relatively easy thing to deal with.

Main Character A would have a crime relationship with B, and would be bitter enemies with C. Specifically, A and B would have some sort of drug relationship, and A and C would be old university rivals. Main Character A’s primary desire would be to get even with a wizard.

Main Character B and C would be old dorm room bunkies. Main Character B’s primary desire would be to “get the truth about the secret project.”

Main Character C’s primary desire would be to get out of prison, which was driving him insane.

There were two important locations that I chose with the Fiasco rules; the first was the penguin colony on Rook Island, and the second was a hospital or medical facilty. Finally, there would be a forbidden object — a list of people to murder.

So as you can see, with about a half-hour’s-worth of work, I had 3 characters with some interesting sorts of relationships, and some interesting setting information. Obviously, character A turned into Josiah, B into Idriys, and C into Cameron. After some thought, I decided that there would be some sort of drug that induced magical abilities, but also had some nasty side effects, and so was controlled by the government. This would explain the crime relationship between A and B (and, as it turned out would be the fundamental gimmick underpinning a lot of the story). The “wizard” that A wanted to get revenge upon eventually became the character of Ser Robert, though Josiah’s primary motivation evolved as the story progressed much more into a desire to be with Evelyn than to get revenge on Ser Robert.

I had no idea what the secret project was that B wanted to learn about for quite a while — of course, this eventually became the fact that the White King was killing his own citizens to get Tao power, but I don’t think that really fully solidified itself until about halfway through the story.

In terms of the locations, the medical facility turned into Idriys’s clinic, and actually was what gave me the idea that Idriys would be a physician in the first place. The penguin nesting grounds gave me a lot of trouble, but actually worked its way into the story pretty early. I was kindof hoping that I would come back to it at some point, because it was, I think, one of the most iconic locations of the story, but it didn’t really work out. Maybe in a hypothetical revision.

The “forbidden object” was very vague and nebulous, and I never really figured out a good way to incorporate it. So I sortof cheated by making Evelyn have a “list of people to murder” in her head. But that connection was pretty loose.

I also knew that there would be a troll named Percival who would serve somewhat as comic relief in the story, and I had the first few paragraphs planned out in my head. Beyond that, I knew nothing about the story before November 1. So this brings me to some of my goals for the story.

My overarching goal was to see if I could create an interesting, compelling story with as little foresight and planning ahead as possible. Mostly because I was feeling really lazy about it, partly because I wasn’t having any good ideas come to me and I figured the pressure of the moment would maybe forge some together, together with a dash of masochism. My other primary goal for the project was to work on character development. I wanted to create dynamic characters that changed over the course of the story. So my goal was to have one of my three main characters be a primarily bad character that became more good towards the end (Josiah), another to be a primarily good character that became evil at the end (Cameron), and a third character that was relatively neutral throughout the story (Idriys). This didn’t end up happening quite as well as I would have liked; Cameron, while he did eventually end up betraying his friends to the White King, redeemed himself at the end, and it was never quite clear that Josiah had stopped being a selfish prick, or what reason he would have had for this change. However, I do think that for a first pass through, the characters displayed some interesting traits that I could capitalize on in a revision to achieve my goal.

After I started writing, some of the above stuff changed, but I think the core ideas all remained largely intact throughout the entire story. I gave the main characters names as I got to them, which meant that by day three or four, I knew the names of all of the principal characters, and I had a pretty good idea of what the story arc might look like. The first two days, I took detailed notes on what I had written so that I could go back and reference them later, but that fizzled out quickly — I was writing so much, that doing more writing after I was done quickly became unappealing. I did, however, maintain a list of scenes that I wanted to include in the story — that way, if I got to a day and I didn’t know what to write about for that day, I could just reference the list of scenes and pick one that fit in with the flow of the story at that point. This turned out to be a really good idea, because it was a quick way for me to keep track of my pacing and where the story was heading.

So anyhow, that was my setup for the story. I think the best thing about it was the character development — it was a brilliant way for me to get some characters down on a page quickly, and it gave me a lot of interesting ideas for how to build up a story around them. I think that’s a technique I will definitely be using more in the future.

Thanks for reading, and come back in a day or so for part II of my deconstruction!


  • Meredith wrote:

    Hey, wow, had to stop reading this because it seems to contain spoilers and I haven’t read your novel yet!! I’m interested in your process as well as your story but I’m only on chapter 2 :)

  • Oops, sorry. I added a note to the top.

  • Of course we knew you wouldn’t stop at 20k. That would be silly. :)

    This was cool to read. I always enjoy a good set-up post.

  • Thanks! You’ve got three more coming in the next few days.

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