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This Writing Life: Peaks and Troughs

14 November, 2011

I’m well into the middle of NaNoWriMo now, with nearly 24k words written. Writing so much in such a short space of time (two weeks, to be exact) seems to have thrown every aspect of first-draft novel writing at me very quickly. It’s my usual writing process, compressed into a really short space of time. As such, I’ve been reminded how many peaks and troughs there are in writing. These seem to come in two forms: in the story itself, and in the writer’s enthusiasm for it.

The first should, in general, be intentional. You can’t write a novel entirely consisting of action scenes (although someone’s probably going to tell me this one’s been done…), or emotional, teary arguments between characters. Whilst conflict is the lifeblood of most novels, there have to be peaks and troughs in that conflict, at least until the final climax/show-down/boss battle or whatever you want to call it. Particularly if you’re writing a long book (like an epic fantasy), there need to be chances between the action scenes for readers to get to know your characters in their quieter moments, or to introduce interesting bits of world-building.

Those second peaks seem to map frequently, but not exclusively, onto the first. When you’re deep in action or scenes where everything is falling apart for your characters, the words tend to flow. Action! Conflict! Your main character finding out he’s fathered a love-child with his best friend’s wife! These exciting moments can be as much fun to write as they are to read. It’s the in-between moments that are often more difficult. Yes, you need to get across some key piece of world-building, and your characters desperately need a break if they’re not going to die from exhaustion, but how to make that interesting for the reader? How to make it interesting enough for yourself that you want to write it in the first place?

I think the key is not to let these scenes get too long (unless they need to be – there’s a reason to break every rule). Have your characters been sitting in the pub for the last three pages? Can you no longer bear to open your Word document? Time to throw in some more action (and if you can’t think of anything, try looking at NaNoWriMo’s novel dares). Ninjas! Zombies! The love-children of ninja zombies (ew…)!

So, if your NaNoWriMo novel is floundering, it might be time to break your characters – and yourself – out of the trough and climb back to the giddy peaks of action, excitement, and perhaps anything else a NaNo dare throws at you.

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92 Comments
  1. 14 November, 2011 7:42 pm

    Woo hoo! Love children of Ninja Zombies! Now there is an idea. πŸ™‚

    It’s funny you mention characters sitting in a pub for three pages… my characters are never in a pub for my NaNoWriMo creation, however, they are in other spaces and I find myself wondering… are my characters talking too much?

    Well, it is the first draft, so I can weed through it later.

    Thanks for a great, thought provoking post.

    Darlene

    • 15 November, 2011 4:33 pm

      That’s one idea that’s free to anyone who wants it! πŸ™‚

      My characters always talk too much in first drafts, whilst my action scenes and descriptions end up being a bit sparse. But that, of course, is what rewrites are for!

  2. 14 November, 2011 7:50 pm

    I agree that the best parts to write are the action packed, love triangle scenes. However, as writers, we still need to write the boring, character/world building scenes as well.

    Great post! πŸ™‚

  3. 14 November, 2011 7:50 pm

    I’m so impressed with those who attempt NaNoWriMo…while I’m not a novelist (but instead, a full-time freelance non-fiction writer and blogger about my bat-sh*t crazy life…), I can only imagine the commitment it takes to write this frequently and consistently!

    Best of luck to you — hope you find many peaks, and the troughs are short-lived…

    πŸ™‚

    • 15 November, 2011 4:34 pm

      I think any life of writing, be in fiction, non-fiction or blogging, takes a huge amount of commitment. Definitely one of those jobs that you do for the love and not the money!

      • 15 November, 2011 6:37 pm

        Commitment – most definitely! Money – it would be nice, but helping others brings me great satisfaction. I get a chance to step away from my own stuff in life. Perhaps I will get paid for writing one day.

        Money does not promise satisfaction from within. I love writing to make a difference. I love writing – period! It is all I think about. Writing – thank you God for my gift!

  4. A Pakistani Boy permalink
    14 November, 2011 7:51 pm

    I readd of this phenomenon in the newspaper. Good luck to you. Though i write short stories and poetry, i can imagine how it to write a novel. NaNoWriMo is a perfect trigger for you to finish your own novel…or at least start it πŸ˜€

  5. 14 November, 2011 7:54 pm

    You’re brave — I’ve always chickened out of that contest. But my best writing advice is always to just keep doing it. So it sounds like you’re on your way!

    ~Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One

  6. 14 November, 2011 7:58 pm

    I’m not into these challenges, but I admire anyone who is. Keep on and you’re there. Well done!!

    http://valentinedefrancis.blogspot.com/

  7. 14 November, 2011 8:02 pm

    Congratulations on pursing NaNoWriMo and doing so well so far. I debated trying it this year but am half way through writing a novel and didn’t want to ditch it (like a tired lover) in order to try something new for a month. I’m definately going to work my schedule around the challenge next year. It sounds like a great way to push yourself to meet your word count and stick to it (something I too often struggle with). Keep up the good work!

    • 15 November, 2011 4:36 pm

      I did actually abandon another novel to work on NaNoWriMo this year, sort of… I’d stopped working on it a few weeks beforehand, with plans to go back to it early next year. But yes, making NaNo fit into your work schedule is one of those things that’s best with a bit of forward planning!

  8. 14 November, 2011 8:08 pm

    If you are at 24K you are right on target. Cudos to you. I participated last year and one of the best things that came out of it was that I found out my husband could cook. We have been married for 40 years and I never knew he could cook. Anyway, best of luck, I know you can do it.

    • 15 November, 2011 4:38 pm

      Hah, now THAT’S worth doing NaNoWriMo for! πŸ™‚ My partner’s been making himself useful this year, too. I can actually hear the sound of the vacuum cleaner as I write this!

  9. 14 November, 2011 8:08 pm

    I think your idea is excellent. and that breaking the characters out of their doldrums is really a method of creating conflict, both internally and externally. Nothing like challenging a characters when they least expect it.

  10. 14 November, 2011 8:36 pm

    I hope the rest of your NaNoWri Month goes well! AND Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  11. 14 November, 2011 8:48 pm

    I don’t get this challenge. If I forced myself to write 60,000 words just because it was November, I would spend a month making my fingers hurt and I would have a 60,000 word candidate for my Recycle Bin. Not to mention I would lose my job and probably be looking for a new roommate. Good luck to those of you doing this!

  12. Kai permalink
    14 November, 2011 8:49 pm

    I am just venturing into writing through my blog, something I have been wanting to do for some time, and took the challenge to write a post a day for the rest of 2011. I am so glad that I didn’t start this at the beginning of the year. This can be brutal at times. So, can only imagine the joy and pain of a NaNoWri Month.

    good luck.

    • 15 November, 2011 4:42 pm

      I sometimes find blogging more strenuous than the pain of NaNoWriMo… But that’s probably just me! Good luck with your writing, though. Writing every day IS brutal, at least at first, but like most things, it gets easier with practice.

  13. 14 November, 2011 9:26 pm

    Does anyone have an idea when in life we can stop challenging ourselves and do what we want to do?

    Ronnie

    • C Oba permalink
      15 November, 2011 3:57 am

      …who says challeging ourselves isn’t exactly what we want to do?

      • 15 November, 2011 4:40 pm

        Agreed. πŸ™‚ I wouldn’t do NaNoWriMo if I didn’t enjoy the challenge. Actually, in that case, I’d probably stop writing altogether…

  14. Michelle vb du Toit permalink
    14 November, 2011 9:29 pm

    NaNo What ?? Help .. I love writing — I have like 30 short srories ans 3 novels all on hand written paper in a box in my house — tried blogging — When ,where and how does one eget into this ???

  15. Michelle vb du Toit permalink
    14 November, 2011 9:35 pm

    NaNo What ?? Help .. I love writing β€” I have like 30 short srories ans 3 novels all on hand written paper in a box in my house β€” tried blogging β€” When ,where and how does one get into this ???

  16. 14 November, 2011 9:55 pm

    Ugh. I’m failing at NaNoWriMo hardcore, just like I do every year! 😦

  17. JamieCurtisBaker permalink
    14 November, 2011 10:03 pm

    I’m a little sad about NaNoWriMo. I signed up in early October and thought it was an amazing concept. Unfortunately I am working hard on a new novel and just don’t have time to do it. I guess I can still strive for the 50,000 word goal but it’s going towards my real work. HaHa

  18. Ariel Price permalink
    14 November, 2011 10:16 pm

    I’m definitely at a trough in my NaNoWriMo adventure… I’m looking at blogs to avoid my novel, but you’ve inspired me to get back to work! Ninjas, zombies…something is coming and my characters better watch out. Thanks!

    • 15 November, 2011 4:44 pm

      I’m glad I could help! I think characters in NaNo novels have to put up with a lot more than characters in general – all those writers throwing in crazy stuff when they run out of ideas. Poor characters!

  19. Miriam Joy permalink
    14 November, 2011 10:22 pm

    Ninja zombies sound … messy. You know, when they leap through the air at high speed, bits might fall off.

    Why are you looking at me like that? Someone has to think of these things!

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed, good luck with the rest of NaNo πŸ˜€

    • 15 November, 2011 4:47 pm

      It’s a really good thing I’m not drinking coffee right now or I would have just snorted it out of my nose… πŸ™‚ I don’t actually have any ninja zombies in my NaNo novel, but now I’m really tempted to add some!

      • Miriam Joy permalink
        18 November, 2011 11:02 pm

        I snorted tea up my nose while laughing the other day, and took a sip just before my friend made me laugh so it came out of my nose … yes, attractive. Drinking and funny comments do not work well together.

  20. 14 November, 2011 10:43 pm

    Congratulations on accepting the challenge of NaNoWriMo. Enjoy the peaks and troughs.

  21. 14 November, 2011 10:43 pm

    I am doing NaNoWriMo for the first time and have 27,029 words. I just got home from work and have to do today’s writing. Of course I have not gone back to do any corrections or rewrites that will have to be after November but it is exciting and has gotten me to sit down and focus.
    Good luck to you and everyone who is doing it. Enjoy the challenge. Yotaki Beautywalk

  22. 14 November, 2011 10:49 pm

    I find it so interesting that you find the troughs much less fun than the action-packed mania. I think it’s safe to say that I am the opposite, which may be why I struggle with plot but love getting deep into a particular scene or mood. Congrats on your NaNo adventure, I hope you find it thoroughly rewarding!

    • 15 November, 2011 4:51 pm

      I think it’s because I tend to plan my action scenes in advance, as big set-pieces where all the conflict and emotion comes together. I frequently find that I’m writing towards scenes like that, and the bits in between feel like much harder work.

  23. 14 November, 2011 11:09 pm

    Ahh. I am nowhere near 24k words… but still hoping to get to 50k by month end! nice post anyway, sounds like good advice.

  24. 14 November, 2011 11:48 pm

    Great writing post! Thank you for sharing!

    I will follow your blog for sure.

  25. 15 November, 2011 12:14 am

    Congrats! Almost halfway there!!!

  26. 15 November, 2011 12:24 am

    Is there also a National Rewrite Your Novel Month?

    • 15 November, 2011 8:29 am

      @mohanmohan. Funnily enough, there is a National Novel Editing Month (NaNo EdMo) where you spend 50 hours editing you rnovel in the month of March.
      http://www.nanoedmo.net/xoops2/

      • 15 November, 2011 4:52 pm

        Ooh, I hadn’t heard of that. I might have to try that come March. I always need more of a push to edit my novels than write the first drafts.

  27. 15 November, 2011 1:30 am

    Interesting insight into your journey and congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  28. 15 November, 2011 1:48 am

    You’re so brave for doing NaNoWriMo! I’m reaching my final year of highschool and so I’m terrified of having to commit so much time during such critical examination periods! Congrats on FP’ed!

    πŸ™‚

    uponatlas.

    • 15 November, 2011 4:53 pm

      I first finished NaNoWriMo whilst I was in my second year of uni, which was a bit crazy. Mind you, I actually had a lot more free time at uni than I did whilst still at school!

  29. 15 November, 2011 3:16 am

    Hi, love the writing tips. Will be checking out your page more often once I get started πŸ™‚

  30. OneGirlRiot permalink
    15 November, 2011 3:31 am

    I’ve been struggling through NaNoWriMo–this post and the comments are encouraging. I guess if you all are sucking it up for the month, I can do it as well. glad you were freshly pressed so I could find you.

  31. 15 November, 2011 3:48 am

    Great little blog, and I’m glad I found you. (Will be following you πŸ™‚ )
    I’m zipping through my NaNo, (42k so far! Yay!) although the troughs seem bigger than the peaks right now. Thanks for the insightful posts.
    Keep them coming!

    • 15 November, 2011 4:54 pm

      42k?! I am both very impressed and a little bit jealous. πŸ™‚

  32. 15 November, 2011 4:08 am

    That’s awesome you are already on the way. I just haven’t the plot I want yet to attempt to Nanowrimo yet.

  33. 15 November, 2011 4:09 am

    Although I write mostly non-fiction, every year I “think” I’m going to enter and then fall short. Last year I even bought “Fiction For Dummies” book but alas, it sits unread. Maybe next year. Congrats to you for following through–great blog.

  34. 15 November, 2011 4:50 am

    I really admire the people who have the persistence in NaNoWriMo.

    Many ideas also come up in my mind and I want to write them on my blog too. However, it is really difficult to just insist on the writing stuff. And sometimes, I just feel that I am writing a bad post and then have to give it up.

    Your writing tips are really helpful and suggestive, thanks. πŸ™‚

  35. Author Shauna permalink
    15 November, 2011 5:45 am

    Good luck with your Nano.

  36. 15 November, 2011 6:40 am

    I’m extremely impressed by anyone who attempts to write a novel in a month! Doing much better than Brian at least: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dNkf6uFZIs (aspiring novelists watch this. Hilarious!)
    Best of luck with your book πŸ™‚

    • 15 November, 2011 5:00 pm

      Hah, that video is brilliant. “How’s the novel coming along?” is one of those questions that every writer hates to hear. That, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “So have you published anything yet?” πŸ™‚

  37. 15 November, 2011 6:43 am

    Best of luck. At least somebody is writing.

  38. B.G. Mitchell permalink
    15 November, 2011 8:44 am

    Nice one Amy.

    This is my first go at writing a novel in November. For some crazy reason I thought it would be fun to combine it with the blogging challenge of posting every day. As such I’m releasing a first draft chapter into the wide world every day. Up to 15 so far (what with it being the 15th Nov and all that).

    15 days and chapters to go…

    Good luck and writing fun to you!

    PS. Cool to learn about NaNo EdMo in the comments too!

    • 15 November, 2011 5:02 pm

      Wow, that is brave! I don’t think I could ever bring myself to post anything from a first draft… But I can imagine what you’re doing is an excellent motivator. Good luck!

  39. jackgreen1609 permalink
    15 November, 2011 8:56 am

    Great post, I’ve never written that many words but if I ever do I’ll make sure I follow your tips

  40. 15 November, 2011 12:05 pm

    The comment about characters sitting in a pub for three hours reminded me of something Terry Pratchett said in an interview – if you’re suffering from writer’s block, just get two characters talking. They can talk absolute rubbish, and you can go back and delete it all, but the conversation will get you writing…

    • 15 November, 2011 5:03 pm

      Ah, that is a good idea, and an excellent way to learn more about your characters before you get into the novel proper, too. Although I would imagine Terry Pratchett’s characters talking “absolute rubbish” are more entertaining than most!

  41. scorpiandev permalink
    15 November, 2011 12:07 pm

    Congratulations, admire the people who have the persistence in NaNoWriMo and doing so well so far. Best of Luck.:)

  42. 15 November, 2011 3:11 pm

    I gotta agree that the action parts of writing a Novel always seem to flow freely and it comes comes to you easily what is going to happen. The quieter moments are the little more tougher ones, those subtle things your character might do, or say, to give you a little more idea of who they are besides the action.

  43. energizeyourlifetime permalink
    15 November, 2011 3:35 pm

    hey I was quite impressed with the setup you used with this weblog. I use blogs my self so very good job. definatly adding to bookmarks. http://energizeyourlifetime.com/

  44. Terese permalink
    15 November, 2011 4:04 pm

    I’m inspired once again! I haven’t been committed to NaNoWriMo this year but I do have a novel started that I could jump back into for the 2nd half of the month. Being reminded that I’ll have slow periods – both in the story itself and in writing it – was very helpful. Thanks for a great post!

    • 15 November, 2011 5:05 pm

      I think that’s the real joy of NaNoWriMo: you can jump in and out at any time during the month. As long as it gets you writing again, it’s definitely been worthwhile.

  45. 15 November, 2011 4:45 pm

    Perfect blog with interesting content!

  46. Barun Jha permalink
    15 November, 2011 5:20 pm

    I am not big on writing except that i write…….it is always useful to get perspectives from one doing it… nice content

    http://barunjha.wordpress.com

  47. 15 November, 2011 6:13 pm

    Hooray another Nano writer! Loved this, just the encouragement I needed to get back in the saddle and bring those characters back into the light. Successful the past 3 years, I find myself slower these days… still climbing to 20K. Ah well, there are two more weeks…
    Great post and Congrats on Nano AND FP!
    Kris

  48. 15 November, 2011 6:33 pm

    A good read and helpful. I’m currently studying a comprehensive writing course although I have a novel in there somewhere.

  49. 15 November, 2011 7:30 pm

    I’m about where you are for Nation Novel Writing Month as well…we writer’s should form a support group LOL. Good luck. Feel free to check out my blog as well:)

  50. 15 November, 2011 7:34 pm

    Congratulations for working on NaNoWriMo – and being right on track to have a successful finish! I’ve tried so many times and always get sidetracked by a different idea as soon as I start my NaNo story. I’ll definitely trying taking a peek on the website and trying some of the dares with my characters in my own short stories, though!

    Thanks for giving a minor homage to the importance of a stories troughs. I absolutely love those moments in books – getting to understand and connect with characters – and I’m a huge fan of ‘the long road in,’ even though that’s totally fallen out of favor lately. Thanks for giving the troughs a spotlight right along with the peeks!

    • 18 November, 2011 12:26 pm

      I think the ‘long road in’ still exists, but primarily in epic fantasy. I’ve read a few books lately where the first third of the book (usually the first book in a series) is really devoted to developing the characters and world, and setting up the conflict.

      I have that problem of being too easily distracted, too. Still haven’t quite found a way round it!

  51. 16 November, 2011 2:11 am

    Good job even trying to complete that task! πŸ™‚

  52. 16 November, 2011 5:20 am

    I Liked

  53. 17 November, 2011 12:30 am

    Too true. Half of good writing is pacing, and finding that proper “groove” to settle both yourself, and your readers into. Finding just the right balance can be a challenge at times, though – and with something like NaNoWriMo, there’s no time for dawdling I do suppose. All the best to you on your writing endeavor!

  54. 17 November, 2011 3:42 am

    Personally, I’m partial to explosions. I so rarely get to use them though, since I haven’t pantsed properly since my first Nanowrimo!

    • 18 November, 2011 12:27 pm

      Ninjas AND explosions! Now there’s an idea… πŸ™‚

  55. Writing Jobs permalink
    17 November, 2011 4:51 am

    Great job thanks for sharing this.

  56. 17 November, 2011 8:24 am

    Thats such a good idea!

    My characters have been traveling for almost a week now and they aren’t hardly close yet but I have to get out of that. It won’t be ninjas but…it’ll be close.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • 18 November, 2011 12:31 pm

      Anything that shakes events up is good, and it’s amazing how trying to shake your characters out of a rut can change the whole direction of your story…

  57. 18 November, 2011 9:09 am

    Getting unstuck tip: start the next sentence with “But then suddenly”. Follow with something violent & unpredictable. If that doesn’t restart the creative juices add Steven Segal. He writes himself.

    • 18 November, 2011 12:30 pm

      ALL books need more Steven Seagal in them. Particularly if you’re writing a slow, thoughtful literary novel. He’d definitely get things moving! πŸ™‚

  58. 18 November, 2011 1:12 pm

    I find developing a character before you write about them useful, however, if you get too stuck with the idea of a person, it can be counter productive, just like this example, when you suddenly find yourself captured within these self imposed restraints.
    It is then when I have to remind myself, that I am the person who created the character and if needs be, they can change, easy!

    But I always forget and get frustrated.

    Rich

  59. 21 November, 2011 10:24 pm

    Love your Blog! I am starting my first Novel and have terrible first time writers block. Any suggestions?

  60. 23 November, 2011 7:03 am

    Like! I’m seeing the same things in my own work. I have long summaries right now, but I’m seeing all of the things you are talking about here in them πŸ™‚

  61. 23 November, 2011 7:05 am

    Love children of ninjas and zombies….now there is an idea………..

  62. 26 November, 2011 5:12 pm

    Writing a novel seems to be like painting in that with a canvas, you need to have some space / a place for the eyes “to rest/pause” as they take in the complexities of the entire picture. You are right that a novel needs a few quiet moments to develop characters and for the brain to consider all the plot twists and turns (and complex relationships – and even how this story relates to their world or the world at large) before getting back in gear and charging on. Great observation – looking forward to reading more. Nice post

  63. 26 November, 2011 7:31 pm

    Oh, I tried Nano, but with no success. I’m going to try keep writing at my own pace though, one day I’ll get there : )
    And I absolutely agree with you. Thanks for this, it was quite interesting : D

  64. springfieldfem permalink
    27 November, 2011 8:03 pm

    I decided at the 11th hour to get on board with NaNo. I think next year I will be more prepared. As it is, I am at 16k with no hope if finishing. Le sigh. Great blog!

    jenn

    http://jennifermkearbey.wordpress.com/

  65. jax jillian permalink
    28 November, 2011 11:20 pm

    I am happy to have come across your blog. I am an aspiring novelist currently working on my debut novel. I just recently started my own blog to turn to when I am suffering from the unenviable disease called “writers block.” It is nice to read about the trials and tribulations of another writer, such as yourself. it makes me realize that I am not alone. I look forward to catching up on your blog.

  66. 30 November, 2011 2:09 pm

    Kudos for NaNo! I hope to give it a try next year. I look forward to your next post.

  67. 15 August, 2012 3:30 pm

    You are going very well job! keep it up

  68. 6 December, 2012 11:55 am

    a very interesting and dramatic story.

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