Monday, November 16, 2009

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in NaNoWriMo

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in NaNoWriMo
By Jason Black

I'm ashamed to say that I didn't write my first novel until I was 35 years old.

I tried to write when I was in high school. Stories would come to me, and in my head they seemed so grand and epic, yet they inevitably fell flat on the page.

I'd begin with all the enthusiasm and zeal in the world, but three pages later I'd be at the end.



I'd shake my head and wonder where the heck my story went, because there was nothing grand or epic left in those three pages. I had no idea how those "real" writers sustained a story not for three pages, but for 300.

I decided it must be a gift you have to be born with, so I gave up.

That's what I'm really ashamed of.

But I was wrong.

It's not something you're born with, any more than you're born knowing how to walk or speak or use a spoon. My problem wasn't some lack of genetic ability. It was that I didn't know the fundamental law of fiction.

Twenty years later, a friend convinced me to try NaNoWriMo.

I decided to write a fantasy novel based on a role playing game I had run for some friends several years back.

I told those friends, and one of them gave me the best pieces of advice ever. "Remember to show, don't tell."

Maybe it was luck.

Maybe the stars were aligned.

Maybe I was just--finally--ready.

But whatever the reason, that simple edict guided me on a 30 day, 300 page romp of a fantasy novel that in the end bore almost no resemblance to the story I thought it would.

The bliss of redemption has never tasted so sweet.

Showing, as it turns out, is the secret to sustaining a story for as long as you want. When I was younger I had been telling, not showing. Showing is also the secret to making the story interesting and compelling for the reader. "Show, don't tell" is the fundamental law of fiction.

This year is my fifth NaNoWriMo.

Over the past four years, I've learned an awful lot about the practicalities of writing a novel: The subtleties of different point-of-view choices. What it means to have an inner character arc to go with your outer story arc, and how to tie the two together. How to write so as to create mysteries for your reader, rather than to destroy them. The value of conflict in every scene and across the entire plot. The "Hero's Journey" structure. How to balance protagonists and antagonists. How to create compelling stakes.

And on and on and on.

But what I've learned most of all comes back to that advice from my friends. Show, don't tell. At the end of the day, writing is always about "show, don't tell." Every piece of writing advice out there is, at heart, just another manifestation of that one fundamental law.

Or as master short story writer Anton Chekov put it, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Guest blogger Jason Black is a freelance book doctor working with aspiring novelists to help their work escape the slushpile. He writes about effective techniques for creating great characters at Click here and may be found on twitter as here

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