Friday, November 4, 2011

The (short) life and (sad) death of my NaNoWriMo novel

These generic images are supposed to represent writers block.

It was supposed to be a month of triumph. Instead it was three days of miserable failure.

November is, of course, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) -- an event in which authors are faced with the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in only 30 days. I'd known about NaNoWriMo for a few years, but I didn't attempt it until 2010. That year, I actually completed the challenge with a full-length novel called Perforated. I waited until the very last moment -- the morning of November 1st -- before I even picked a subject matter for the book. I had absolutely no plot in mind, so I more or less improvised the entire novel day-by-day. Each day for about two hours, I would sit down at the computer in my kitchen (I hadn't gone wireless yet and was still "anchored" to the phone jack) and type whatever came into my head. Once I (barely) reached the 50,000-word mark, I stopped and pasted an arbitrary conclusion onto the end.

The trouble with all this was that Perforated ended up being a lot of random garbage, and it felt like I'd spent all month writing something that would never be worth reading ever again. I was proud of myself for finishing the challenge, but I wish I had something to show for it other than a downloadable banner -- something like an actual good book, for instance.

I vowed then that 2011 was going to be different. I was going to be prepared this time and would have a subject picked out well in advance so that the resulting book had a shot at being entertaining and readable. Back in June, I posted my plan for the second novel. Inspired by a terrible zombie movie called Buddy Bebop Vs. The Living Dead, I planned to write a novel in which the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll -- Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis -- joined together to form a Ghostbusters-type group of monster hunters. I actually did many months of research for this book, reading multiple biographies and autobiographies of my five main characters. I wanted my book to have a grounding in actual rock history, something sorely lacking from Buddy Bebop.

As late as mid-October, I was still planning to do the rockers vs. monsters book. I was nervous, though, that I couldn't quite figure out the plot. I'm not good on plot. It's not a strong suit of mine. As November 1st neared, I was feeling shakier and shakier about the upcoming challenge. That's when INSPIRATION struck! As I was driving to the train station to get to work one morning, a phrase started echoing through my mind:
"We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal!"
As b-movie fans know, this is a quote from Criswell's opening speech from Plan 9 From Outer SpacePlan 9 is one of my all-time favorite movies, and something about the words "secret testimony" and "miserable souls" must have triggered something in my brain. What was this "secret testimony?" Why were the "souls" so "miserable?" I thought I would write a book all about that testimony. It would be a series of statements from the surviving characters in Plan 9. I thought -- incorrectly, as it turns out -- that this was going to be a great idea for a book. My title? The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls. So in preparation, I watched Plan 9 about a half-dozen more times and printed out a copy of a fan-made transcript to use as a reference guide. I ran into one problem right away: there were many pivotal events in the film for which there would be no witnesses. The deaths of the gravediggers, for instance -- since no one else was around when they died, who knows what their final moments were like? Even more damaging, we only ever see three aliens: two of them die and the third never gets anywhere close to Earth. So who was the "witness" to their scenes on the space station? Nobody!

The final death knell for Secret Testimony was the fact that the survivors of Plan 9 would include a lot of really dull, interchangeable policemen and military men who would not make for very captivating characters on their own. And since Criswell was not involved in the story at all, there was no justifiable reason for having him in the book. I was left with dullards like Col. Edwards and Lt. Harper. Just try writing for those guys! The most interesting of the survivors is Jeff Trent, the square-jawed pilot whose short fuse, overdramatic ramblings, and endearingly low IQ make him one of Plan 9's funniest and best characters. For a while I toyed with the idea of doing the entire book from Jeff's point of view, after he's been locked away in a mental institution as part of a government conspiracy to cover up the whole UFO story. But then that would make Secret Testimony a 50,000-word rant by a madman, which is too close to what I did with Perforated.

"I can't say a word. I'm muzzled by Army brass!"

Faced with these obstacles, I gamely flogged away at the NaNoWriMo project for three joyless, guilt-inducing days in which the words came very, very slowly. By day four, it was clearly time to fish or cut bait. I cut bait. This has been a really depressing, disheartening experience for me. It's like that moment in Barton Fink when Michael Lerner tells John Turturro, "You ain't no writer, Fink -- you're a goddamn write-off." Sigh. Well, at least I got a blog post out of the experience and maybe learned a valuable lesson about my own limitations. For the sake of closure, let's now all bow our heads for a moment of silence in honor of my dead novel:

Holy crap! Is that a real guy or some kind of animatronic dummy?

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