On Day 2 of NaNoWriMo, I wrote 1743 more words, so I’m at 3439 words for my novel so far. Today I’ll pass 5K words.

While the challenge is technically to write 50K words in 30 days, I’m framing it as a daily commitment to write at least 1667 words per day. So I’ll surely end up with more than 50K words by the end. My approach is less flexible since I won’t be taking any days off, nor will I reduce the daily quota based on my ongoing word count. It’s easier for me this way since I’ll never let myself fall behind, so I’ll avoid the trap of having to write thousands of extra words to catch up later. Today is Day 3, and some people are already feeling behind because they didn’t write much on the first two days. I’d rather always feel like I’m ahead for the rest of the month. I’m ahead in my word count now, and I’m going to pad my lead each day going forward. I will never be behind, only ahead.

As I’ve noted many times before, you win a 30-day challenge before you start Day 1. It’s all in the early game. I’m well aware of the tricks and traps my mind will succumb to if I don’t frame and approach the challenge correctly, so I remove the riskiest excuses in advance. Sometimes that means being extra strict, but there’s a hidden ease and lightness in that strictness that many people overlook.

I also feel compassion for my future self, so I won’t to burden him with having to do a 5K- or 10K-word catch-up day this month. If he wants to blast out more words for fun because he wants to, he has that option, but I won’t force that obligation onto him. I’m just going to stick with a steady pacing one day at a time.

I began Day 2 by re-reading what I wrote on Day 1, fixing a couple of typos and making a few more editing notes but otherwise not doing any editing. I just want to focus on writing to get the ideas down. Some Nano participants have cautioned that it’s risky to re-read previous work during the challenge since they too easily get sucked into editing, which doesn’t advance their word count. I don’t find that to be an issue so far though. Making some editing notes is enough for me. I might toss out entire scenes later, so I don’t see the point in editing them prematurely. I see this as being similar to optimizing code that was written for a prototype, which is usually pointless since that code will likely be refactored or replaced anyway. Since I’m just prototyping my novel, sloppy code (or writing) is fine for now. Little or nothing of what I write for this draft is likely to make it into the final version.

I take to heart the advice that the purpose of the first draft is to write the story for myself. That mindset is helpful since it encourages me to just explore the ideas and possibilities and not fuss over how bad it is.

This time I wrote two shorter scenes of roughly equal length, so I have three scenes done now. Instead of writing two more scenes in order though, I skipped ahead and wrote the first two scenes of Act II. So I still have more to fill in for Act I, but I like that this helps me see one of the upcoming signposts that I want to reach. I think I have a better sense of where to take Act I now that I see how Act II begins.

I recently learned about James Scott Bell’s 14-signpost plot structure, and I like it so far. It fits my novel idea pretty well, so I’m loosely using it for my scaffolding. I think it’s more useful and insightful than the common 7-point plot structure or the 12-point hero’s journey or any of the other structures I’ve seen so far.

Within this signpost model, I wrote signpost scene #1 on Day 1 (The Disturbance), and on Day 2 I wrote signpost scene #5 (Doorway of No Return #1), along with another scene right after after signpost scene #5.

However, after that writing session, I did more reading about this structure, and I realized that it would probably be wise to insert signpost scene #6 (A Kick in the Shins) immediately after signpost scene #5.

In The Matrix movie, think of signpost scene #5 as the scene where Neo decides to take the red pill. That’s his first doorway of no return. What happens immediately after that? He swallows the pill, and now he’s on his way out of the Matrix. He touches a mirror, which sticks to him and then spreads over his skin, making him freak out. The crew makes it clear that his life is in danger while they race against time to trace his signal. Then Neo’s real human body wakes up – hairless, naked, and covered in slime. Eventually he gets dumped down a chute and picked up by Morpheus’ ship. But now he’s really weak and has to build up muscles he’s never used. I think that’s a good example of signpost scene #6 (A Kick in the Shins) following immediately after signpost scene #5 (Doorway of No Return #1).

The purpose of giving the protagonist a kick in the shins right after they commit to a new course of action is to show that the stakes are indeed high – often life or death. Neo doesn’t just take the red pill and find himself dancing with Smurfs. He’s blasted with some hefty seriousness, and the risks become more real and present. Notice what this does for the pacing and tension of the story. Imagine how Act II would flow if there was no kick in the shins. The tension and momentum would drop, and the pacing would feel slower.

I find it empowering to study story structure as I go along. This way I can connect my actual writing to the structural elements I’m learning, so the study is immediately practical. Bell’s signpost structure helps me think about the next signpost coming up that I can aim for, so there’s a purposeful progression to what I’m writing.

While I don’t have to use a known structure as a guide, it sure is helpful when just starting out. It’s also fun and rewarding to spot these structural elements in books and movies, like The Matrix. Once you see those patterns, you cannot unsee them.

I’d like to spend some time watching more classic movies this month to ponder their structure. I really enjoyed the deep analysis that was done at Robert McKee’s Story seminar last year, where we took six hours to go through Casablanca scene by scene. That gave me a whole new appreciation of the movie.

Overall the writing process on Day 2 was slower going than Day 1, taking about 90 minutes. I had to pause and think more about the character interactions and action flow. I really notice how inefficient my mental circuitry is at writing fiction. When I write nonfiction articles, ideas flow in and words flow out with nary a hint of friction or resistance. My subconscious constructs sentences and paragraphs for me. I watch as my fingers type. Editing is super easy too.

But with fiction it’s a whole different story (pun intended). It feels like I’m using brain circuitry that’s clogged with sludge. Ideas flow in, but they get bogged down in mental marshland, occasionally spitting out gobs of muddy language. I have to consciously push my thoughts through the tubes, just to get some ill-formed words and phrases splattering onto the screen. My mind pops and stutters in confusion. It takes real mental effort just to squeeze out one sentence at a time. And it’s way more taxing and draining.

Writing a nonfiction blog post about my fiction writing is so much easier and more effortless than writing the fiction itself.

These experiences are very different emotionally too. Blogging usually feels delightful – so light, playful, meaningful, flowing, and graceful as my fingers dance and skip around the keys like happy kids playing hopscotch.

Writing fiction feels darker for me. There’s tension, tightness, and awkwardness in the experience. It’s like I’m back in school doing a mandatory speech contest – a dreadful experience that I hated. But then when the day’s writing is done, there’s a feeling of relief, and I can breathe easier again.

It would be wonderful to reach the point where fiction content flows through my mind with the same ease as nonfiction. Maybe in a million words or so, I’ll be at that point. In the meantime I’m okay with the friction phase, which slows me down but doesn’t stop me. Lots of learning experiences are like this in the beginning.

Here are two things that helped:

  • Before I started writing, I did a quick journaling Q&A with the main character to ask her what she wanted me to write today and how she wanted me to express her character. She gave me some suggestions on ways to express more personality for her. This was harder to write at first, but it made for more interesting (less bland) dialogue. I’m gradually feeling more connected with this character.
  • Listening to brain.fm focus tracks while writing is wonderful for reducing the mental and emotional tension. It helps me relax into the creative writing experience.

Onward to Day 3…