I’m not the most disciplined person. I meet major deadlines, but generally in something of a rush. Minor deadlines tend to pass unnoticed, and then I desperately try and fill them before they become not just late but impossible. It isn’t that I don’t have good, diligent intentions, but that I am easily distracted from the grind by almost anything, and that I know that I can generally produce something serviceable in a rush.
This is obviously not an ideal set of character traits – it makes my life by turns both indolent and panic-ridden. It makes simple tasks drag out, it hinders me in the completion of things that I wish and ought to do. It is, moreover, rather worrying if the most accurate term you can find for yourself is “wastrel”.
Periodically, I attempt to change this, with varying success. By the end of university, I was writing essays two days before they were due, not the night before. By the end of last year, I was slightly more beforehand with my preparations in various areas. Still, it is not enough – I want the work ethic of archetypal dour protestants, to be able to sit down and complete a project without it becoming a looming spectre of failure or ending up rushed and shallow.
This year, I plan to take part in NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month (though it seems to be rather international). The basic idea is that you attempt to write a novel of 50,000 words or more in the month of November. It’s very popular, even having produced some well-known works, like the incomparable The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.
I want to do it because I enjoy writing, and I’m out of practice. I want to do it because I like stories, and making stories is an obvious extension of that. I should do it in the vain hope that it might instill a practical work ethic in me.
Ideally, this will make me a faster and more versatile writer, capable of sitting down and completing things in a timely manner, rather than at 3 am the day before everything goes horribly wrong. It should help me force words out without worrying that they could be made better, and thus drifting sideways into criticism and then getting discouraged. It will be a long-term, voluntary task to attempt.
It is something of a forlorn hope – fate has conspired against me, and it seems that the first two weeks in November are to be my busiest ever. Work recommences, courses kick into gear, et cetera. I fully anticipate that I will fall behind immediately, and fail to complete the challenge. I’m aware that that is an extremely negative attitude, but I do insufferable arrogance all the rest of the time, and realism seemed like a more practical stance. I’m cleaving to “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and all the other clichés about trying being better than never attempting. I will try, I will probably fail, but if I don’t, I will have done something to be (hopefully) proud of.
The internet is filled with people announcing their attempts, and explaining everything in immense detail. Blogs are stuffed with advice and suggested structures, catering to people who plan in vast detail or those who see where their whimsy takes them. I fall decidedly into that second camp; I can’t tell you about the snowflake method, or explain the dialect of the mud-sweepers in my main city, or draw a blueprint for the protagonist’s SV-class starship. I don’t know any of that yet.
My basic idea is simple – I am going to write a generic fantasy novel. As I’m more interested, at the moment, in the process than the prose, this should allow me to write faster, without spending ages devising totally original plots or characters. When I say generic, I mean totally archetypal: farm boys, magic swords, fey elves and gloomy dwarves. I love epic fantasy, and every other kind of fantasy, but it always saddens me how rare it is to find un-apologetically conventional books.
Everyone is trying to break the mold, to bring new twists to old ideas. Frequently, they fail and are cliché-ridden and derivative, but the attempt is almost always made. Everyone is so busy avoiding convention that they don’t realise that the conventions are no longer around much. It’s a shame, because I love those conventions. They are cathartic, and exciting, and fun.
The world has a surfeit of gloomy anti-heroes currently, of tragic pasts and surly protagonists with wounded hearts. I want to kick against that, to show a world where everything is as expected – where heroes are heroic, damsels distressed, quests are undertaken, and the expected person doesn’t double-cross you at the expected moment just to show how gritty the whole thing is. So I’m going to write that.
I’m not saying that my intention is to write poorly, or to steal ideas. I will write as well as is in my power, I will tell my own stories. But I’m not going to shy away from tropes. Countless non-derivative stories do the same; trope-wise, The Matrix is Harry Potter, and Star Trek is Gulliver’s Travels. You can tell a new story using the same building blocks as others. That is what I will do – I will begin with an idyllic village being attacked by minions of a dark power, and go from there. It is an opening that has been done a thousand times before, just like all the other openings. The only difference is that people have noticed this one.
It will be difficult, I anticipate, to play it straight. Already in my head the ideas are twisting, and I keep thinking of interesting ways to subvert this trope, confound that expectation. I’m going to try and resist the temptation as long as possible, though it may eventually overwhelm me.
So that is my plan. I’m going to try, whilst everything else demands my attention, to write 50,000 words in a month. I am going to tell a story that doesn’t try to be amazingly original, just solid – a story that plays the archetypes of fantasy straight. I am going to try to make that story not too boring or amateurish. My attempt will, hopefully, be both fun and worthwhile.
Once upon a time…