Conundrum Part II: Write a Novel With Only a Sketch to Guide You

I’ve told people not to ever throw out unfinished creative work. Completed creative work that you really hate, sure. The experience of creation and evaluation is more valuable than the product, in that case. But unfinished work? The beginning of something? Getting rid of that is like cutting out the warmup before a race. Why not go into a massive undertaking, like, say, to write a novel, already having stretched your muscles?

2016 in general was a massive undertaking, full of significant changes. Many of those changes were achievements of one sort or another, which made 2016 a win personally, even though, globally, the year was kind of a tire fire.

One of those achievements, and a significant one for me, was that I wrote a book during National Novel Writing Month. Or, at least, a good chunk of it.

NaNoWriMo 2016
Proof I made it!


That was November 31 when I hit 50k. I learned a ton doing it. Since then, I’ve put another 18 000 words into The Amundsen Effect. It’s got probably another 19 000 to go. I’ve been doing more on YouTube lately than I have done writing. It’s a product of a lack of necessary input (see Rule 3 here) and a general difficulty I’ve had staring at text on a screen afterwards, given the month I’ve had at work.

The Amundsen Effect started as a sort of Canadianized riff on The Martian, a version of The Martian for ecologically-motivated millennials. “A reporter battles the elements, sinister forces, and his own unreliable mind as he tries to survive being abandoned in the high Arctic,” reads the synopsis on my NaNoWriMo novel page, where you can read the first chapter, if you’re so inclined.

I’ve been lacking motivation. Not just for writing; the past couple months have been bad for diet, exercise, everything. So I’m charting my habits and behaviours – I’ll talk about my incentives soon. I’ve decided to get back into the habit of writing regularly again. After all, I have 19 000 words still to write before this first draft is finished. At my target pace, that’ll be in about six weeks. I think that ultimately it’ll be more like nine, but it’ll still be done before the spring.

An old post from five years ago today jump-started my desire to finish my desire. It’s titled Conundrum, and it talks about my desire to make a video game. It contains in it the following:

I’m not equipped to create a[n expansive videogame] world in my spare time. But as I had no other ideas, I halfheartedly kept making notes and slowly updating a wiki to organize everything. For the last week, I’ve been developing a game I didn’t want to make.

Then, today, while putting away the dishes, I had a flash of insight. Just a mental image:

A man crawls out from behind a snow-frosted and upturned table, bleeding. The vessel he’s on is abandoned. He knows why he’s there and who he is, but has no idea why the boat is silent. It’s night. Polar night. He’s in the high Arctic, freezing to death, and alone. And something doesn’t want him to get off the boat.

Then I sketched this.

CCGS Beaufort - 2012, from the novel The Amundsen EffectThis is it. This is my game. Confined by the size of the boat. Confined in its scope. Atmospheric. A character study. An old-school adventure game, built on free tools, an opportunity to really showcase my art and writing. Fewer voice actors needed. And way more accessible than a JRPG.

I don’t have a name for it, or a high philosophical concept, or a motivation to make it that borders on obsessive. What I do have, however, might be something that people would want to play. And something I feel I can make–and make well.

Back in 2012, I came up with the idea for the opening of my novel (again, read the first chapter here, if you’re interested), but I didn’t know what direction it would take. I didn’t know that it would become a thematically dense piece of writing. I didn’t know that it would eventually tackle the rampant technologism that permeates the discourse around climate change. I didn’t know that it would deal with whiteness and the millennial, progressive desire to learn about and develop empathy for aboriginal and Northern issues, and how to navigate that as a responsible ally. I didn’t know that it would be a love letter to millennial tech culture and new media. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with my story, that it would make good on my admiration for Stephen King and his distinctions between horror and suspense (mine is very much a suspense novel), that I would have a blast writing it, that I would see it being worth something someday.

So, after five years, this is a conundrum that I’ve resolved. I didn’t tell this story as a point-and-click adventure game, it wasn’t an elaborate escape room. It became so much more. It became more because I grew, because I got smarter, but also because I never got rid of that original idea, that blog post, that drawing.

A lot of people say don’t give up on your dreams. It’s an easy cliché. I want to say don’t give up on your ideas, either. Maybe it’s not their time, but it might be some day, in some form. Give them the opportunity to work for you again. You might just be surprised at how well they turn out.

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4 Thoughts to “Conundrum Part II: Write a Novel With Only a Sketch to Guide You”

  1. […] my book is, in a nutshell, The Martian by way of the high Arctic. My hero is stuck on an abandoned […]

  2. […] (If anything, my problems are more about throwing myself into things with too-high expectations, taking years to get around to a project because I hadn’t found the correct form for it, seeing the potential for a project despite not having the right tools available at the time, or […]

  3. […] need a change of pace from The Amundsen Effect, the sprawling 120 000 word eco-thriller I’ve worked on for the past couple of years. I […]

  4. […] have had a number of successes with National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo. I wrote a novel with only a drawing to guide me, learned some lessons, lost, and won. I’m getting practiced now, and have completed three […]

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