JP Flintoff

NaNoWriMo: Getting started

By John-Paul Flintoff

On the first day of NaNoWriMo, I quickly and easily completed my 1,700 words. This is how.

Sitting down in front of my laptop, the cursor blinking on a blank page, I faced one big problem: I didn’t know anything about what would happen in my novel.

All I had was this:

Wondering how to get Daniel Defoe from England to Barbados in the late 1600s, I just started typing.

I was in the kitchen at The Hurst, former home of the late playwright John Osborne. Today, it’s a centre for residential writing courses, and I was there to teach storytelling to 16 adults.

I had 90 minutes between breakfast and my first teaching session.

As I’d told the would-be authors there, I sometimes pretend that my fingers are in charge, and just watch them type whatever they like. It helps me to remove the anxiety about “coming up with good ideas”.

Anyway, back to Defoe… one obvious mechanism would be to have him sent to Barbados as punishment, after the Monmouth Rebellion. This kind of thing really happened, much as (later) petty criminals were sent to Australia.

But that didn’t grab me.

I recalled that Defoe’s most famous character, Robinson Crusoe, mentions investing in the slave trade, and I thought I might get Defoe to do the same. I would put him on board a ship to Africa, collect human cargo for sale in Barbados, and profit from it. Much more interesting!

But how to get him on the ship in the first place? He needed a specific motive: people don’t just decide one day to become slavers.

So I gave him a powerful reason to go to Barbados: to rescue somebody already sent there as punishment. Could be somebody he’d fought alongside.

And then I needed to have Defoe find out that this special person had been deported, and resolve to rescue him.

Please note: at this point, I had no idea who the person was. It couldn’t be just any old rebel. It had to be somebody really important to him.

Having done this, it became a lot easier to find a path forward.

Defoe would need to join the crew of a ship. He was no sailor, so would make himself useful in ways that suit his character: befriending and advising the captain in some way, keeping written records…?

His closeness to the captain would cause the captain’s mate to become jealous, giving Defoe a powerful enemy, and exciting opportunities for that enmity to play out later.

I didn’t want the story to drag, so they would arrive in Africa fairly quickly, and buy slaves. In Africa they would witness scenes that my readers might find harrowing, though the characters themselves might not be moved by it.

(There’s no reason to suppose that Defoe would be especially sympathetic to African slaves – that’s a modern attitude.)

The ship would cross the Atlantic… and because it’s a ship, and the Atlantic is a mighty ocean, the ship would hit a storm. (It’s my firm belief that, even subconsciously, readers would be disappointed by a smooth crossing.)

And so it continued, with each new development necessarily following the last. As much as possible, I tried to reincorporate things I had already mentioned, to give a sense of meticulous planning that wasn’t really there to start with.

It’s worth reading that again: the clever structure of a plot can only really be achieved after writing, not before. Hence the importance of getting something down.

Anyway, I won’t sum up everything here. Let’s just say that, in 90 minutes I had created a basic plot for an entire novel, each development leading to some kind of crisis, looking for resolution in a subsequent chapter.

Towards the end, I had to decide whether to have a “happy” ending, or something more complex. I love the momentum of a thriller, but I hate thrillers that are morally banal. In a couple of minutes, I came up with a way to leave a slightly sour taste.

And then I stopped typing.

I looked at the paragraphs I’d written, tweaked them a little so that each one could be a chapter in the book. Then I numbered them, and saw that I would need to write about three chapters every two days to finish the book in November.

I didn’t look for complexity, or subtlety. That would only cause me to get bogged down. I wanted a basic plot. I could add the rest later.

I closed my laptop. Stood up, cleared away my coffee cup, and went into what was once John Osborne’s lounge, where talented 16 adult storytellers were waiting for me.

Posted: November 1, 2018

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