NaNoWriMo: Day Seventeen Update – Story Isn’t Linear

NaNoWriMo 2016: Life is nothing if not unpredictable.


Ok. Life threw me a curve ball. So much for outlines. So much for schedules and daily word counts.

img_0034For the last ten years, I’ve been the proud companion to a small Cocker Spaniel. In the summer of 2007, my then-wife and I found her at an animal shelter. She was a pathetic little thing, rescued from a kill-shelter in the Carolinas to a shelter in New Jersey, emaciated and filthy. Before we made the decision to rescue her, we brought our three year old to the shelter and asked if we could take this poor little creature for a walk-about through the parking lot. I handed the leash to my three year old. If my daughter could handle her, then this was certainly our dog.

My daughter had not even a moment of trouble, and so we brought that orphaned little waif home. Though she was my daughters’ dog, she and I bonded immediately. I was practically raised by dogs myself, and had been the primary advocate for getting a family dog. She followed me everywhere, and stayed up nights with me in the basement while I wrote and pursued my Master’s degree in English literature. It became a truism that anyone looking for the dog simply had to find me, and she’d be somewhere in the vicinity. And when the divorce became inevitable, ultimately, little Coco ended up with me in California.

Since then, she’s been my constant companion. Kind, loving, timid yet proud and assertive of her rights, she traveled with me thrice across country on my adventures and won the respect and admiration of dogs and people wherever she went.

Last week, she developed a cough. On Thursday, she put up her dinner and became listless. On Friday, she refused food. The veterinarian diagnosed an enlargement of the esophagus and a secondary pneumonia. The choice was to hospitalize her and feed her food and medicine through a tube, or bring her home and put her on a bland diet of gruel, feeding her what oral medication she could keep down to fight the pneumonia.

Friday night, she could keep down neither gruel nor water, and I stayed with her all night, sleeping with her on her dog bed.

As Saturday went on, she continued to weaken, to the point where she couldn’t get herself up to her own feet. I did all I could to make her comfortable, and when she could no longer raise her head to take water, I soaked a cloth and suckled her as if she were a baby.

At 6:54pm on Saturday evening, she went stiff, and died in my arms.

And so I haven’t made much progress toward my NaNo goal the last few days. Sometimes, there are more important things in life.

NaNoWriMo? Today? DoublePlusUgh…

I’ve said before, writing isn’t a hobby for me. It’s a job. I love it, but like any job, there are days when one just wants to call in sick, take a mental health day, crawl back under the covers and not do the adult thing.

Sometimes, it’s hard-earned, and I’m the sort of beneficent self-employer who sympathize and say, “Yeah, man, take all the time you need.”

But that time’s over now. So yesterday, I went back to work. It wasn’t a good day at work. It was even worse than a bad day at work. But it was a day.

Altogether, my NaNoWriMo stats to date:

Target average words per day: 1667
Actual average words per day (including five days without writing): 2167
Target total words written (NaNo challenge): 50,000
Target total words written (personal challenge): 65,000
Actual total words written: 34,683
Actual words remaining (NaNo challenge): 15,317
Actual words remaining (personal challenge): 30,317

According to the NaNoWriMo goal, if I continue at my current average pace, I’ll finish the 50000 word goal by 24 November. At the current average pace, I’ll meet my personal goal by 30 November.

I’m in pain. I’ve lost my best friend unexpectedly. But I made a commitment to her, many years ago, to take care of her through the rest of her life. And I stood by that commitment everyday thereafter, even when it was expensive or inconvenient.

Likewise, I made a commitment to complete this book this month. I made that commitment to myself. I made that commitment to you and all my other readers. A commitment means staying loyal to what I said I would do long after the mood I said it in has left me.

The mood has certainly left me. But I’m a writer. That’s my job. And whether I feel like it or not, I show up and get the job done. That’s how Grandpa did it. That’s how Coco would have done it. And that’s how I do it.

When I got up this morning, I felt a lot like the guys of Delta House in the video clip. Beaten. Defeated. But NaNo isn’t over until I say it’s over. So I’m buckling on my big boy pants. Let’s do this.

Day 64 – Story isn’t Linear

Story isn’t simply about a heroine pursuing her goal and then succeeding. No one would care.

What readers are interested in is the heroine’s shift in perception. They’re interested in the journey that leads to the heroine’s growth. They’re interest in what the heroine comes to understand as a result of her journey, in how she relates to other characters at the end of the story. Our heroine’s goal never changes, but her approach to that goal must be constantly shifting to keep our attention.

Story forces us to wake up. At times, we think we have it all figure out then—POOF!—the dog dies and everything changes. We want to know the rules so we know what to do and where to stand. If only we could get our hands on life’s thrice-damned Owner’s Manual!

But there isn’t one, because if there was, we’d never wake up. We’d never need to change and grow. Just when we think we can see the rules—through a glass and darkly—the rules seem to change.

And that’s what’s happening to the heroine in my story.

I’m playing catch up to my original plan now, and fighting through the grief of loss, trying to reach that point where my heroine suffers, the point where she begins to understand how difficult her situation is. Surely, I’ll have a lot of raw, painful material to work from when I get there.

What occurs next in the story should be a direct result of what happened previously, which sounds so obvious until one realizes it’s not. Why? Because my idea for the story can’t be sustained for a 260 pages. My idea is actually very limited.

To say I know exactly where my story will go—even given all the planning I did—would still only be guessing ahead. It isn’t possible to know. I can’t guess where these characters are going to take me. Yes, I have a basic sense of the journey from my notes and my outline, but I have to take care not to strangle it and give the characters a certain freedom. I have to maintain a spirit of curiosity and continue to question what my heroine wants. Only that way will the next action emerge.



















Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Commitment, Discipline, Story Structure, Writing craft, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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