Eric James Spannerman Discusses his Experience with Nanowrimo

Appliednaturalmagic2014 was the year in which I made the jump from hopeful writer to published author. My first book, Applied Natural Magic, was released by Musa Publishing in August of 2014 as part of the Darkside Codex series of steampunk stories. NaNoWriMo 2013 was a big part of getting me to that point, and Dianna has asked me to share that story.

Although writing a NaNoWriMo draft was difficult, producing the draft was not the most difficult part of the process. My biggest obstacles emerged during the four months I spent hammering the raw material of the first draft into submittable form. Fortunately, there are some things to do prior to and during NaNoWriMo that make the transition from draft to usable manuscript easier, and I’m going to focus on those.

I did not start NaNoWriMo with a blank slate. In August of 2013, I received the Darkside Codex Bible, a document that describes the world of Southwatch in which the series is set. The Bible lays out the physical description of the world, as well as most of its basic features. It’s a steampunk venue where magic, science and mad science all work; humans and fae have an uneasy coexistence; and a permanent toxic cloud hovers over the city, dividing the elite, who live in the upper floors of skyscrapers or a complex of dirigibles above the cloud, from the masses, who live in perpetual gloom below it. The Bible also describes other features such as the money system, basic social mores, and a complete history of the city and the empire of which it is part. Some stock characters are also included, although I didn’t use any of them. So, I began with basic world building in hand.

I took advantage of an offer by Celina Summers, head editor for the series, to review sample chapters. She said my idea was on the right track, and pointed out a couple of problems with the sample. Although this was not a commitment to buy the finished product, it was far more involvement and encouragement than I’ve gotten from any other venue before completing a manuscript. This gave me the basic tone and outline of the story.

Sometime in early fall, I discovered Randy Ingermanson’s “snowflake method” of planning a novel. His highly-structured approach made sense to me, probably because I’m a former technical writer. I started creating the various planning tools he advocated. The complete description is at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

These are the pieces I found most valuable:

Plot Summaries. Randy advocates creating a series of longer and increasingly-complex plot summaries, beginning with a one-sentence distillation of the book and concluding with a four-page description. This forced me to think through all the major events in the book and guided my writing during the draft.

Character Summaries The Character Summary consists of working out each character’s motivation, goals, conflict and epiphany, then closing with a summary of the character’s arc. I wish I’d included a physical description as well, since it’s a pain to forget what color a character’s eyes are halfway through the draft. However, if you go for the “full snowflake,” that is handled in a later step.

Scene Spreadsheet A spreadsheet with one line for each scene, including the POV character and a description of what happens. Numbering makes it easy to sort and reorder. I added some information to Randy’s basic form: all the characters included in the scene, the physical setting and a description of the scene’s purposes–introduce a character, foreshadow part of a conflict, etc. This is the piece of work I most wish I’d finished before starting NaNoWriMo, and the piece I’m most determined to have this year.

In addition to these formal planning tools, I also filed scraps of dialog, intriguing questions, pictures, and draft scenes as I thought them up or discovered them in the months between starting the project and starting NaNoWriMo.

I kept everything in Evernote except the Scene Spreadsheet, which was in Google Sheets. I like Evernote’s ability to quickly tag and file a wide variety of media and find it again, later. For example, when I wrote a riot scene, I was able to pull up everything with the keyword “riot” and see pictures of the Ukrainian protestors, a word-sketch I’d made of the scene, and so on.

I did not complete my planning by the first of November. I hesitated over the question of whether to finish the planning or to plunge ahead on the draft. In the end, I decided to use the planning I had and plunge into NaNoWriMo.

The draft of Applied Natural Magic turned out to be nearly seven times longer than anything I’d previously written. The length introduced a bunch of problems I’d never had with a short story manuscript. For one thing, the sheer size of the document made it hard to flip back through it and look up a place name or to see which characters were in a room when an announcement was made. For another, the complexity of the story made it much more difficult to keep all the pieces working together–it was too easy to go off on a tangent and forget exactly why I was writing a given scene.

This is where some of the planning materials became invaluable. By having the whole story arc in the summaries where I could look at it, I found it easier to get back on track. And it allowed me to work non-sequentially–I wrote the parts I felt like writing on any given day, which was not necessarily their final order in the book. When working that way, it was especially convenient to be able to look back in the summary and see what was supposed to have happened before, so I knew what had to be explained in a given scene and what didn’t.

Despite all that, the draft that emerged at the end of NaNoWriMo had some serious problems. There were scenes in the wrong setting, with the wrong characters, and the whole thing suffered from lack of action and lack of a good “hook” to get the reader involved early.

I set about fixing the problems, again leaning heavily on the summaries and other planning materials to stay organized. At this point, I was finding it really difficult to remember what had already happened in a given scene and what was yet to happen, because I’d been doing so much non-sequential editing. By mid-February, I decided I needed the Scene Spreadsheet, so I stopped to create it. That allowed me to see the entire structure of the book at one time, and made the final six weeks of editing much easier.

Needless to say, I’m very pleased with the results of NaNoWriMo 2013. I’ve got another book moving through the planning process for NaNoWriMo 2014, and I hope that better planning will result in a better draft.

Good luck to all, and thanks for reading.

You can purchase a copy of Applied Natural Magic here.

2 thoughts on “Eric James Spannerman Discusses his Experience with Nanowrimo

  1. Congratulations on your new release, Eric! Thank you for detailing your process. It’s always interesting to hear how other others pull their books together. Shared worlds make such interesting series. I’ve read a few Wiccan Haus books. Time for me to get the Darkside Codex on my list!

  2. Dear Eric
    Thank you so much for this terrific post! I found it after googling you this morning as your excellent tale The Fourth Quarter was my Daily Science Fiction read today. Once in a while a daily story stands out as high quality, and this one does.
    Like you, I was a technical writer for many years and like you, two years ago, I am doing Nanowrimo. However, I have never written or attempted a novel and I spent the second half of October reading advice on how best to prepare.
    Your post struck every chord with me. I have written more words than the goal for Nov 8, so I think I will pause and do more scene detailing.
    I have mapped my novel out using Freemind, which helped enormously and I shall try Evernote today.
    Your post has given me encouragement that I am on the right track and today I feel a new burst of enthusiasm.
    I shall share your post on my blog and I look forward to reading more of your work.
    Thank you, thank you!

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