Guest blogger – Michael Tierney “NaNoWriMo – My Crash Course in Novel Writing

I want to give a big welcome to Michael Tierney to the VolcanoLady Blog.  Michael is a determined author who can speak to the phenomenon that is National Novel Writers Month.  I’ll let him do all the talking/writing:

A serendipitous set of circumstances last fall launched me down the path of novel writing.

NaNoWriMo, if you are not familiar with it, is an acronym for National Novel Writing Month, a program put on in the month of November by a non-profit, the Office of Letters and Light, in Berkeley, to encourage would-be writers to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and spew out at least 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.  Editing is not encouraged.  Just get it down on paper and revise the whole mess later. You have an entire community of like-minded writers trying to reach the same goal as you, available for encouragement or commiseration.

The beginning of NaNoWriMo 2012 neatly coincided with the start-up I was working at running out of money and closing up shop.  It was not a surprise—we had ample warning that the funding situation was dire.  And as luck would have it, I had been spending some of my increasing free time writing a few initial scenes of a steampunk/alternate history novel.

When I had heard about NaNoWriMo in years past, I remember thinking that it seemed like an interesting concept, but I was busy with work and family, and didn’t have a clue what I would write about anyways.  But this time, the stars aligned, the tumblers fell into place, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a clean break from my old job and start something…new.

I’ve always enjoyed writing.  In the positions I’ve held over the years in various companies in the medical device industry, I was usually known as the scientist who could also write. I thus had the opportunity to take on special writing tasks, although drafting invention disclosures and clinical reports is probably the furthest thing from penning a novel.

To write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November comes out to 1667 words per day, every day. Knowing this going in imposes a certain amount of discipline on your writing, a self-imposed discipline to be sure, but one that comes with an entire group of people that somehow you don’t want to let down.  Come November 1st, I already had about 12,000 words written and  was determined to write at least 50,000 more.  So, I set out to explore this strange new world of fiction writing.

My story takes place in Victorian times, like many steampunk stories do, but in a world whose history is changed just a bit from our own.  Not so much that it’s fantastically different, but one that is completely recognizable if one imagines that certain historical events happened differently, sending the timeline down a different path.  While I’ve been a devotee of Victorian things for a long time (I live in a house built in 1880.), building my novel’s world required lots of research, something that NaNoWriMo discourages as getting in the way of the Almighty Daily Word Count.  Still, I think I did a reasonable job balancing research and writing, although considerable fleshing out happened in later edits.

At some time around week two or so, I realized that I didn’t have a very concrete idea of where this story was going.  So, I spent parts of several days sketching out crucial scenes and plot lines, and figuring out interesting ways to get the characters to what I had envisioned to be the end of the story.  I found plot-building to be the hardest part of the writing process.

Meeting the Daily Word Count requires you to be pretty intensely immersed in the writing process, and I discovered that magical things can happen there.  Early on, I learned that my main character, Nicodemus Boffin, shares his name with a character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which was a bit of a surprise as I had come up with that name because he is a scientist (thus, Boffin), and because Nicodemus is the patron saint of seekers and skeptics, as well as being a perfectly suitable wizard name, should that need arise.  Did I work this happy coincidence into my story?  You bet—Professor Nicodemus Boffin is the son of the Dickens character.

At one point during the month, I realized that sometimes it felt that my characters were acting on their own accord and I was just standing by, taking dictation as fast as I could.  Fortunately, they were fairly well behaved and did not require much more than gentle prodding keep them following the plot. I also discovered traits of my characters that revealed themselves without my consciously having thought them up.  To me, this felt like a milestone, comparable to dreaming in a foreign language—a sign that you’re becoming comfortable and confident.

As Thanksgiving approached and the end of the month was in sight, I actually quickened my writing pace a bit, just enough to be able to take Thanksgiving Day off from writing.  (My writing space, the dining room table, was otherwise occupied.)  From my NaNoWriMo word count graph though, it seems I did manage to squeeze some writing in on Nov. 22 between the turkey and apple pie.

Of course, just because your word count reaches 50,000 words, it doesn’t mean that you’ve arrived at the end of your story.  But in my case, it worked out that 63,344 words brought me to what I had been envisioning as The End.

So what did I learn from NaNoWriMo?  I learned that I really like writing fiction, as I always thought I would.  I learned that the old adage that “The best way to learn how to write is to write.” is true.  And in the intervening time, I learned how incomplete my first draft was (requiring at least one entire additional chapter, as well as the filling of numerous plot holes).  And I also learned that I really need the discipline that NaNoWriMo imposes.  So come November 1st this year, I will again be butt in chair and fingers on keyboard, writing a prequel to last year’s novel.

Bio: Nothing in Michael Tierney’s past could predict that he would start writing Steampunk/alternate history novels. Except that growing up near Boston, he developed an abiding interest in history.  And those degrees in chemistry he earned, as well as his fascination with the history of science. Not to mention his love of Victoriana, its architecture, design, and culture.  Oh, yes, and his rampant Anglophilia.  Plus, he’s always enjoyed writing, even though most of his work to date has been non-fiction and technical in nature.
On second thought, maybe it was inevitable.

5 thoughts on “Guest blogger – Michael Tierney “NaNoWriMo – My Crash Course in Novel Writing

  1. Mike Tierney

    Thanks, Thena, for the guest-blogger opportunity. I hope I can keep this year’s word count on track. So far, so good, although it seems this year’s story will take many more words to finish.

  2. Pingback: Welcome! | Airship Flamel

  3. Pingback: How I plan to lose NaNoWriMo this year | Airship Flamel

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