Okay. It’s week two. The first flush of certainty of finishing this year’s NaNoWriMo has drained from your cramped little fingers, and you’re staring blankly at the wrong end of 50,000, wondering why you shouldn’t just give up and watch Big Bang Theory.
(Well, you should, because it’s hysterical, but I digress.)
I’ll give you two answers to this frequent NaNo problem: A How, and a Why.
Check to see if you have actually presented an obstacle for your protagonist. If you haven’t, now is a dandy time to do so. Or maybe you presented an obstacle and she already solved it. Fine; throw in a new one. (I always suggest a ninja attack.)
If you’ve “gone up” on your story – like an actor “goes up” on a line, forgetting absolutely everything and not having a clue what happens next – there’s a good chance you’ve not complicated the life of your protagonist enough. There’s still plenty of time to do it, so get busy. Make this character’s life a living heck.
But remember, it’s not just about throwing tragedy at him; that would be literary fiction (BAZINGA!). No, what you what are problems he can and does attempt to overcome. The cat dying is not a plot complication, unless the protagonist needs to get said-dead-cat to N.O.R.A.D. because her ribs are inscribed with secret codes that can prevent the unintentional launch of multiple nuclear warheads. Now see, that’s a complication. (Feel free to use it. With ninjas.)
If you’re still stuck, try watching one or two of your favorite action movies. Spielberg and Lucas are particularly good for this (whether or not the movies always land well or not). Look at how the protagonist has a goal, keeps going after it, and how everything keeps getting in his way. That’s the backbone of your story. Without that, it really is just words on a page, and may really just be literary. (In my humble, commercial opinion.)
Can your story have too many problems? Only in revision, my friend. Only in revision. For now, give that character a goal and make her do everything in her power to reach it. Just make sure she fails every time, until around the last few pages.
If you someday want to publish fiction for a living, you’d better learn. That’s why.
All kidding aside, I cannot stress this enough, and won’t stop until every aspiring writer on earth hears it: Writing and publishing books is a business. Whether you shoot for Random House and six-figure advances or e-pubbing via Smashwords (again, perhaps for six figures!), do not doubt for one second that writing fiction is a job, and usually, a full-time job whether you have another one or not.
One of the greatest things about NaNo is it forces you to fight through these tough spots, wondering where your characters went, wondering if the plot makes any sense. NaNo teaches the first rule of professional fiction writing: You gotta write the dang book. Period. It may be a stinker – indeed, I’ll wager it is. It’s a first draft, that’s its point! But you have to have a finished manuscript before you can take the next steps. Use November to teach yourself how to do that if you haven’t yet. Worry not about quality; worry about getting a story out. Any story, doesn’t matter, just get it out.
Because the day may come (fingers crossed) that you’ll have this same problem with your second, third, or tenth published book. Might as well learn now how to deal with it.
Take care, and keep writing!
TOM LEVEEN is the author of four young adult novels: PARTY (2010), ZERO (2012), and MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRL (April 24, 2013) with Random House; and MONSTERS (Fall 2013) with Abrams/Amulet. He is a frequent school and group speaker and panelist, having appeared at Phoenix ComiCon, the Romance Writers of America, SCBWI, and many others. He will be teaching at next year’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference at ASU, at AZLA later this year, and this November at NCTE. Tom can be reached via his website at www.tomleveen.com for information on presenting to your class or group.