National Novel Writing Month: Whodunit?

I’m thinking about November and National Novel Writing Month.  (Who reading this blog isn’t?)

Last year I started NaNoWriMo with a page or two of scribbled notes and little else.  Now, almost a year later, I’ve still got an unfinished draft with some decent characters and snazzy scenes, as well as a bunch of dead ends and ho-hum characters yawning ‘so what?’

I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was going with the manuscript when I started (which I thought would be okay, given the ‘road trip’ nature of the thing) and consequently, I haven’t gotten there – wherever and whatever there is – yet.  I’m not ready to give up on Tap Dancing at the County Fair, but I’d sure like to approach this year’s NaNoWriMo with a better sense of direction.

And I’d like your help.

There are a couple of paths I might take.  First is to build this novel on the goals and some of the story segments (this and this) I started in Merrilee Faber’s Creativity Workshop.  I want to explore these questions in more depth:  Why do people break the rules/break the law? What happens – good and bad – when they do?

I want to answer these questions journeying through the heart of darkness, A/K/A suburbia.  So the role of ‘place’ is important.  I’ve got a tentative title:  cul-de-sac.  I love that the literal translation is ‘bottom of the bag,’ which seems apt to me.

As I see it now, this would be a battle between revenge and redemption playing out in the ‘burbs by those seemingly normal folks who pass for our neighbors.  Originally I thought about a mythic journey although that may be too much to ask of my brain cells in their current state.

But. I want to have a much clearer roadmap before starting.  I’d like to have some semblance of a plot – a beginning, middle, end.  I’m not too worried about character or dialogue, since they come relatively easily to me (at least in comparison to plot), but I’d like to build some kind of structure so that I’ll know how and where this thang is supposed to end before November 1 arrives and I start writing it.

Which leads me to Plan B.

How about writing a mystery?  (What do you see at the top of my blog, in bright green letters?)   I love reading them, how about trying to write one?  I do think following a formula, laid out in advance of writing, works for a mystery – even though I’m not so sure it’s appropriate for a more literary, character-driven piece (which is what I was thinking originally with Plan A).

I took the ed2go mystery writing course a couple of years ago, and maybe the timing was wrong.  It just didn’t do it for me.  But I found The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula yesterday, and found myself nodding – not nodding off – as I read it.  It made sense to me!

So now what?

Should I focus on a whodunit and follow a genre formula?

As I was typing the above questions – cue ‘Twilight Zone’ theme music here (yes, I’m that old) – I got my daily Writer’s Digest email titled The Dos and Don’ts of Combining Genres.   I’m generally of the there-are-no-coincidences school of thought, so I found this pretty interesting timing.

How about Plan C?

Can I pack my angst-filled suburban characters into a murder mystery formula and still end up with something semi-literary?  And occasionally even funny?

On the one hand, it doesn’t seem so ‘creative’ to fill in the blanks of a prescribed formula.  On the other hand, who am I kidding?  I can’t seem to pull a compelling plot out of my brain on my own, no way no how.  Maybe the structure of a formula is just what I need.

Any thoughts on this?   Anyone familiar with the 12-Chapter Mystery Formula?  Or the Dos and Don’ts article?

Do they make sense?  Do I make sense?

Should I stick with my original somewhat vague goals and the revenge/redemption conflict?   If so, what are some good resources so I won’t spend November and beyond going around and around in circles?

Should I leave Shirley and her crew stewing in the suburbs while I dust off my Nancy Drew persona?   Or should I bring them along for the ride in Nancy’s blue roadster?  If so, any good ideas for how to bring this stuff together?  Angst and a couple of yucks?

Am I considering too much?  Or too little?   Am I making any sense?

I’d love to know what you think.  And what I should do come November.  Thanks.

Ms. Natasha.  In the study.  With the keyboard.

16 comments to National Novel Writing Month: Whodunit?

  • *Raises hand* I’m not thinking about it at all. I don’t do NaNo. But I like to cheer on the people who do 🙂

    I do think you are choosing the wrong challenge for NaNo. I don’t see any reason at all that you can’t combine literary and mystery – but maybe NaNo, with the focus on wordcount vs thought, is not the place for it.

    Why not use NaNo as a test run for your mystery template, and see if you can produce something fun, something that appeals to you in the month-long madness?

    Hmm, I am Ms Cautious 🙂 But it comes down to not piling on the pressure too much, and developing achievable goals. Only you can tell if you have the time to devote to speed AND a complex project 🙂

    • Natasha

      Thanks, Merrilee. I don’t want to put myself in yet another position where I set myself up for — not exactly failure, but for not achieving what I initially hoped/planned to achieve. I’m feeling frustrated that I don’t have a clear sense of direction with my current long WIP, and I feel I’m not as efficient (not quite the right word, but close enough, I guess) in my writing as I would be if I were following a roadmap. I’m kinda stuck, in other words.

      Which is part of the mystery allure for me. It seems like following a template would be a way for me to get unstuck.

      And also why I’m thinking about it now, two months before NaNo starts. I’m spending a lot of time trying to get into the skin of a couple of characters now, and maybe they themselves will tell me what direction to take.

      I appreciate — more than you can know — your thoughts and comments.

  • You could approach November as an exploration. Define your characters, their motives, and see what type of scenes best suites the message you are trying to present. Literary works are complicated in that there is an identifiable message. For many reasons, this requires a more cautious approach. I understand your dilemma. It is the reason TEH is a difficult novel for me to write. Yet CM, also character driven vs. plot driven, was not difficult at all. CM is NOT a literary work. I don’t think the problem you face lies in character vs. plot driven approaches. The problem IMHO lies in your desire to produce a literary work.

    On the other hand, you could approach the month of November with my intention, which is START A NEW NOVEL. Simply write and forget daily totals. There is no law that states you MUST WIN the 50K challenge. There is no law that states you cannot start a novel in the month of November unless you are a NaNoWriMo participant. At least I’m not aware of one.

    Here’s the skinny: The reason I’m taking the time to plan my novel this year, (even more in-depth than last year) is that my intention IS to produce a WIP. It’s plausible that I’ll reach the 50K mark during November. I have more time to write than most of our group. However, reaching 50K is not my true goal. My idea of a successful month would consist of the following elements: Anything over 25K that is solid writing; a strong theme; a logical sequence; Three-Dimensional Characters and writing VOID of any side tangents.

    In the end, you have to decide what is most important to you. What do you want to write? How do you want to present the work? How do you measure success? Only you can answer those questions.

    • Natasha

      Thanks, DS, for your as-usual insightful thoughts. I’m nodding in agreement with your list of characteristics of a successful month. Where I freak is with the logical sequence, which is generally what trips me up. This suggests that there’s a coherent storyline somewhere, and that’s not necessarily the case for me.

      We’ll see… I’m realizing that I’m not a strong enough writer to be able to carry a literary work 🙁 and so I’m looking around at the alternatives since I’m too stubborn to just stop writing.

      NaNo is, for me, a good opportunity to practice curbing my Inner Editor every second of the way and so I kinda like the word count aspect of it. But I’d sure like to come away with a piece of writing that’s worth working on past December.

      Maybe it’s just because the last couple of books I read were mysteries that it seemed like a possibility.

      • I disagree. I think you have exactly that it takes to write literary works; experience; education; a wealth of knowledge; and a grasp of how all things travel the web of exsistence and tie to unniversal truths. You need to accept that you ARE talented and quit worrying about how long it takes you to cross the finish. As I told Linda, it is a journey – not a race.

        • Ditto what DS said! If anyone can write a literary novel it’s you, Natasha.

          Here’s my take, I’ll never start another novel without some sort of plan. After spending a year trying to get DE in shape and not willing to give up—I WILL NEVER START ANOTHER NOVEL WITHOUT A PLAN! At least some sort of plan.

          Honestly, I think even literary novels need structure. I planned to write a blog post about this site I found. Just this morning I read a post about how literary and memoirs should also have some structure to hold interest and sell. The name of the post was Eat, Pray, Write. It’s a great post and a great GREAT site. I’ve learned more about story structure on that site than anywhere else. Check it out. Read Eat, Pray, Write! And tell me what you think.

          Also, I agree with the above comments. If you wish to write literary, I wouldn’t rush it. As far as combining the two…??? I don’t know. But I think it would be fun to try. 🙂

  • ?? Where did my comment go??

    • Natasha

      Into spam, along with the you-know-what enlargers and the opportunities to franchise aluminum siding installation. I have no idea WHY that comment and not this one….

  • Natasha

    Thanks, guys! And I’m totally agreeing that I/you/we all need plans and structure. I can hardly wait to check out the storyfix site but there are all these people/dogs/cats (okay, only one of each, but still…) looking at me and expecting dinner to magically appear on their plates.

    I’ll let you know what I think. After I perform kitchen magic or open some jars of stuff or something.

  • I also agree with the DS, Merilee, and Dayner. If you are struggling with your current WIP, maybe switching gears to a mystery with a floorplan will give you more freedom in your writing. Some of the process is already mapped out and you fill in the details and characters using ideas you have swirling about in your head/pen. Your blog name certainly indicates you have a penchant for mystery. Plus you have taken a class in mystery writing. Why not give it a try. Carolyn Keene (and all who wrote under that name) wrote the stuff of my childhood. I’m ready to try your adult version!

    PS I printed off “Plotting the Mystery Novel” and I’m going to sit down with it soon to compare it with my notes from the class I took. I need some help with the process and this just might be it. Thanks!

    • Natasha

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of Plotting the Mystery Novel, especially in comparison with Steve’s course. I’m pretty sure I still have lessons/notes from that class and I want to look at them too. It’s funny how timing can determine how/if something goes ‘zing’ for you or not.

  • We should start a writing group. “Old bats writing slipstream mysteries”, or something equally quaint. I’ve always wanted to try a mystery.

  • Although I, of course, understand the point of genres from a marketing standpoint, I’ve never liked them from an artistic standpoint. The whole idea of art is that it should be unfettered. Trying to cram a story into a set of predefined guidelines admittedly makes me cringe a little, as both a writer and a reader. I would always, always, always vote for writing the story the way the story wants to be written, regardless of genre. You can always sort that out later. Besides, genre bending is very popular these days!

    • Natasha

      The notion of predefined guidelines has always made me cringe as well, but I’m learning that I am NOT a patient person and it’s just taking so darned long for my longer WIP (granted, it’s the first novel I’ve tried/am trying to write) to tell me how it wants to be written. So NaNo seems like a defined period in which to try something new — like Merrilee’s Creativity Workshop was — and it could be fun to see if I could ‘fit’ into a genre box.

      Most of the mysteries I’ve read lately seem not to be formulaic and are more satisfying than ‘XYZ is for…..’ (although I have enjoyed all the Sue Grafton books I’ve read, I’ve forgotten them as soon as I finished them).

      I like the thought of genre bending, though, and I’m TERRIBLE at following rules, so we’ll see what happens.

      I’m probably better off in the long run with unfettered, even if it’s not as quick and easy as other approaches. Thanks for your thoughts.

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