NaNoWriMo 2011 After-Action Report, Part 3: Story Evolution

I don’t know about anyone else, but I blinked and January disappeared. O.O I’d intended to get this last part of my NaNo blog series up weeks ago and, well, obviously it didn’t happen.

Anyway, welcome. 🙂 I’m covering story evolution today.

For me, story evolution is an organic, yet still logical process. Be it plot advancement or character development, it’s little chunks of building material stacking up in a pattern. Usually, that pattern doesn’t fully reveal itself until the end.

That’s the thing about fiction—at the end of the day, it has to make sense. Real life is full of strange occurrences that never get explained and loose ends that never get tied up, but a good story has to resolve things…at least mostly. You might have an end or two poke out to make readers contemplate things long after they’ve finished the book, but you can’t permanently leave them hanging. In my experience, it leads to ranting, raving, and marching up and down the room waving my hands in the air. (Needless to say, I was a very interesting person with whom to watch Lost. And I still say a parallel universe would have made more sense at the end.)

Forming that pattern is the challenging part. It requires knowing the starting point and knowing the endpoint…or at least having a fairly good idea of what the end is supposed to be. Often times it also involves a few clear pictures of scenes that have to be worked in at some point.

When I had the initial idea for TOSOTH, I had a handful of scenes envisioning a modern science fiction world with a nautical Firefly-esque old-fashioned flare. I started writing the story with that paradigm in mind. In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the subtle shift that took place when I wrote the second chapter. That would have clued me in as to what was coming down the pike.

As it was, those first few chapters poured out so quickly that I didn’t think much of it. But then, gradually I realized that the technology I was thinking of didn’t work in this world…or at least the world to which my main character belongs. Bit by bit, as I wrote down the scenes forming in my head, I realized that this world had taken on a decided vintage Victorian look and feel.

Yep. That’s right. Never mind the fact that it doesn’t even take place on Earth, TOSOTH decided it was steampunk.

Complete with aliens, no less.

I don’t even know what genre that falls under.

So…yeah. I really should have seen that coming. My second epiphany, however, is a great example of how a story can grow in a different direction and catch you by surprise.

Up until I wrote the scene after the one where my main character actually makes it to the Other Side of the horizon, I thought I knew how TOSOTH was going to play out from there until the end. It was going to be a harrowing adventure and it’d be fun. And then I wrote that scene and felt like I’d opened a door expecting a closet and instead found myself standing on a plateau looking out at a panoramic view of another world. At that moment, I realized the scope of this story is so much bigger than I’d imagined.

The point of TOSOTH is not necessarily why people can’t cross the Wild Sea without disappearing, it’s what happens to them after they disappear. That’s where the story exploded. Organic story evolution at its finest.

To be honest, it’s a good thing I was near the end of my 50,000 words when I hit that point. I’d love to say I was able to roll with it and keep going, but I only managed to squeeze out the last few thousand words I needed to finish NaNoWriMo before I stalled. I hadn’t planned for anything in this new twist and I didn’t have the faintest idea how any of it would play out. It required a completely new chunk of worldbuilding and I needed time to think about it before I could actually write something that would advance the story.

So, instead of powering through the next stretch of the book in December like I’d planned, writing in between visiting family and the holidays, I scratched out page after page of notes to pin down exactly what TOSOTH’s new paradigm looks like and how it works. I wrote another few thousands words advancing TOSOTH, and worked on editing Portal Woes, but did not accomplish anything anywhere near November’s 50,000 words.

Needless to say, that was quite frustrating. Here I was, fresh off of finishing NaNoWriMo and breaking barriers in my work that were holding me back, and I couldn’t use any of it yet. The rest of TOSOTH’s foundation had to first be relaid.

That’s the downside to organic story evolution. You have to be willing to throw out—or at least set aside—wherever you thought you were going before the story took an unexpected detour. And as far as sci-fi or fantasy are concerned, that can also involve entire sections of worldbuilding you hadn’t anticipated having to do.

Since December 1, TOSOTH’s cast has increased by at least fifteen characters, I created an aquatic alien species, invented an entire city with very specific spatial requirements (I would love to actually be able to visit this place), and I have several plot threads involving corruption, oppression, and conspiracies to weave together. As of Thursday, my rough draft is almost 70,000 words. I figure the finished manuscript will be somewhere in the 100,000-120,000 word range.

I’m hoping to have the rough draft completed by the end of March.

Ambitious? Yes. Can I do it? Of course—NaNo taught me that. Will I accomplish it? Well, by the grace of God, yes.

Completing NaNoWriMo was the first challenge. Taking what I learned there and applying it to my writing the other eleven months of the year while balancing editing prior projects is the next challenge.


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