The dread beast nanowrimo



By the time this reaches you NaNoWriMo will be underway. Some of you will be taking part and to you I wish all the goodwill; may the wind forever be in your sales, may your word processor be reliable, may your pen always be full of the most exquisite ink.

For those of you who don’t know (and why should you?) NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a project by which you aim to have written a complete novel – defined arbitrarily as 50,000 words – in thirty days. Although it’s mainly a solo effort there is a website upon which you can sign up and groups around the world (it should really be called InNoWriMo) to meet and write (and console and drink) with.

I’ve never done it myself. I only found out about it after I was already in a regular writing routine and I felt that was a better way to produce the things I wanted to produce. I still do, and that leads me neatly on to this: another caveat scriptor.

I have concerns about NaNoWriMo. I have concerns about anything that puts pressure on you to produce. 1,667 words a day doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it’s a lot. And for what? For the warm glow of having produced something not very good?

I’m not here to bash NaNoWriMo or its participants. Sometimes targets are useful; sometimes we need a push to get going and this can certainly help spur you into action; if you’ve been spending the last five years wishing you had the time to get those burning ideas down on paper then NaNoWriMo might just be for you.

Just be aware. Writing five (typed) pages a day every day for thirty days is a lot to ask of yourself. So, before you start, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you do it? Is this target even theoretically possible?
  • How stressed are you likely to make yourself? How will you respond to the stress? Maybe you’re someone who thrives under pressure: great, I envy you. Go to it. But, if not, maybe this isn’t for you
  • How will you feel if you fail?
  • Are you prepared to get to the end, look at what you’ve done, and realise that the work has only just begun? First because 50,000 words isn’t really a novel, and you’re like as not going to have to keep working to get the novel to its real conclusion; and second because there’s no time for editing on a project like this. Forwards forwards forwards, that’s the NaNoWriMo way. Never look back, never crop out the missteps or the waffle where you weren’t quite sure where you were going.

Are you prepared for this to be a beginning?

If you’re not used to writing you will struggle with NaNoWriMo. I spent months building up the mental muscles to write regularly. I still struggle to string one word after another; I have good days, I have bad days, and to expect to sling nearly 2,000 words down on a page from a standing start is, I fear, a doomed venture.

Ask yourself this: would you be better served in putting yourself under such pressure or would you do better to try and build those writing muscles? By all means use NaNoWriMo as motivation but, instead of aiming for arbitrary targets, why not work on giving yourself a regular writing hour (or whatever) and building it into your life? Instead of leaping into a raging torrent, dip into the shallows and practice so that, when it’s time to throw those water-wings away, you can ride the wild rapids with confidence.

I put How will I feel if I fail in bold because that’s what’d kill me. Mental health is a noisome beast. Make sure it’s one you can handle.

I’m not here to bury NaNoWriMo: I’m more nanambivalent than nanonegative. Let me rebalance the argument by giving some of the positive aspects of the project:

  • A goal is a real motivation
  • You’ll be part of a community; you’ll get help and advice and sympathy if you want it
  • If you’re wanting to really leap into the writing world, doing NaNoWriMo can give you the confidence to say ‘Yes, I am a writer.’
  • You can do a lot of the NaNoPrep before the start on November; indeed, you’re encouraged to start planning months earlier so that, by the start of NaNoWriMo proper, most of the heavy mental lifting has been done
  • It’s easier to edit a bad book than to start one from scratch
  • It gives you an excuse, a reason, to seize precious writing time from friends and (especially) family. You’re doing this specific thing so you need this specific time: this is your hour, and it will remain so henceforth
  • It is, at the end of the day, one hell of an achievement if you can finish…
  • …and even if you don’t get to 50,000 words by the end of the month you’ll have made a great start

So to all you who are embarking on this project, I wish you fair weather and smooth seas. May your characters be verbose and your plots tangle-free. I salute your endeavour.

Remember this, though: no-one will think any less of you if you decide the journey’s not for you. We want you to succeed, and sometimes success takes longer than a month.

On progress

We are an impatient breed. We want results. We want success. And, no matter that we know these things come only after time and toil, we want them now. I see all the stages of editation and read-testing and weeping and re-editing – and repeat to fade – ahead of me. I still want it done. I want it done yesterday.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. Impatience drives us. It pushes us to do the work, to get this stage done so we can move onto the next task. But it can be counterproductive. Take my one experience with an agent: hearing the changes she advised me to make, determining to crack through them quickly in order to appear professional, and thus producing a shoddy piece of work that ultimately disappointed us both.

There’s a certain trend in writing – most notably NaNoWriMo and its spin-offs – to equate quantity with quality. ‘How to write a bad book quickly’. I’m not knocking it – NaNoWriMo is great for that feeling of accomplishment and out of the raw material a greater thing can be spun. Just don’t mistake means for ends. Get the words down, yes, but don’t expect a publisher to bite your arm off for the rights. Not until you’ve gone through the work again – slower, with different eyes, with deeper soul.

And anyway, what about the pleasure? What about the joy? If you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to produce then you’re running the risk of sucking the life out of the work. And then there’s the paradoxical truth: if your primary motivation is output then you court laziness: the lowest-hanging fruit becomes even more attractive. No point thinking deeply or undertaking a difficult section as your word-count will fall. You become a typist: an infinite monkey, not a writer.

It also means that these challenging sections – where actual thought is required – can give you feelings of failure as you produce less that session. Let me tell you now: you’re writing even if you’re not at a computer. As you stare out of a bus window you’re writing. You’re writing when you do the washing up. Whenever you’re alone and underemployed you’re writing.

Targets are great. Targets – deadlines, self-imposed or external – can drive you forwards, can force you to focus and to get those damn words down. But there will be days when you don’t meet them. There will be days when you have to live your life. Don’t beat yourself up on days like this. It all adds to the rich tapestry of existence – and, ultimately, that will make you a deeper person and give your writing a greater scope. Find the balance.

Most of all you need to enjoy what you do. Otherwise you’ll never produce anything at all.

How long does it take to write a novel?

So how long does it take to write a novel?

National Novel-Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, to the initiated – is in full swing and I hope those of you that have joined this year’s challenge are getting along swimmingly. I’ve never tried it myself. Nothing against it; I’m just happy with my own way of working and don’t feel the need for this sort of mission.

The aim of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month. Possible? Yeah, I guess. But to write a good novel takes longer. That’s because getting words down on the page is only a fraction of the whole task, and not the first one either. The NaNo organisers themselves advise that you prepare by getting some idea of where you want to go in your story. And that work can continue on the project long after the onset of December.

So how long does it take to write a novel? Well, I’ve been working on Night Shift for two and a half years now –

Except that’s not actually true. It’s been two and a half years since I first started typing the first draft. But that was only after I’d abandoned a hand-written attempt. And that itself was after the hours spent lying in bed thinking about the damn thing in the first place. So… maybe three or four years, that’s how long I’ve been working at it.

Chivalry’s been longer. That’s had around six years of work. The only good thing is that you can work on more than one project at once, alternating between drafts.

The actual creation of the first draft is a relatively speedy process. Night Shift only took something like a month and a half to bring to life (63,000 words in its initial form). Just think – something from nothing in under two months. That’s kind of magical, and the act of creation has to be one of the most exciting, wonderful things a human being can do.

But a first draft is nothing. Unless you’re a staggering genius, a first draft will have massive errors and little of merit except its own potential. So it’s back to the forge, hammering and smelting and folding and annealing, testing and sharpening all the way. And it’s always important to emphasise how useful putting the damn thing away and working on something else for a while is to the process. You know what you’re trying to do; what you need is a bit of perspective to help identify where and why you haven’t quite got it right.

Night Shift is now hovering around the 78,000 word mark. Those extra 15k didn’t come from nowhere (and by way of comparison Chivalry’s been cut from 150k to around 137k); the changes have come because they’ve helped make the story more rounded and satisfying. And that all takes time, and the will to improve your work.

I don’t want to be spending my whole life working on the same few projects, endlessly rewriting and polishing and never getting it out. There are many other novels that I want to write. So it’s my hope that what I’m learning on the journey are the sort or tricks and tools that help shorten the process. I think instinct is often the word we give to experience. Knowing what works and what doesn’t, what ideas have depth and what are resoundingly non-stick, is a question of this experience.

So how long does it take to write a novel? God knows. I’m still to finish my first.

Gadgets and NaNoWriMo

I got a new phone in August. I hate it. And I hate it because I like it so much.

What did we do before mobiles, tablets and their ilk? When we were on our buses and trains, when we were waiting for friends or our families, how did we pass the time? Were we perpetually bored?

I hate my phone because instead of spending quality time in my head I play chess or read Twitter. I don’t use my eyes as much – spend less time playing with architecture or admiring nature, or people-watching or dreaming. Several scientific papers – no, I can’t quote them – have suggested that we overstimulate our children and that being bored is an important part of growing up to be a human being. Now I worry we’re losing that as adults.

Because being in our own heads allows us to dream. It allows us to create stories, to make connections – a form of meditation where we can enter a state almost like sleep. Quiet time, where we do nothing, is a precious resource. It’s where we get to know our characters both real and fictional, where we plan and sketch theories and refine and abandon them. I’m a landscape historian by education, and my eternal pleasure is to spot old hedgerows and trackways and try to trace them back through time: to see where a t-junction used to be a crossroads; to spot old manor-houses and lodges and…

And so on. The point is that we’re willingly giving it up. And this time we sacrifice is also the best time for thinking of new stories. Writing-time isn’t just that spent on your computer or with your note-pads: it’s also the time we spend seeing and drifting through time, into wild fantasies and lurid, sweat-drenched nightmares.

Modern technology is fantastic. It’s given us so much, freed us up for more and more time to do what we actually like to do. But don’t let it steal your ability to dream.

*          *          *

It’s been a quiet time here at Writerly Towers. After the highs and lows of September, getting baited by publishers only to see them withdraw the hook, and the new first drafts, and all this… activity, I seem to have been swept into the Doldrums. Becalmed upon an ocean lacuna, awaiting fair wind to gently blow me into harbour, I’m slowly picking my way into the second draft of New Gods and sending off the occasional submission.

As I’ve said on many occasions, it’s a strange life being a writer. You’re constantly sculling from one manic phase to another, trying to cram as much real life as you can around the edges. I’m not a believer in some benevolent muse who’s pulling your strings like a puppet; writing is much more of a habit, even a struggle, than a gift. Still, there are days when the words just won’t come and, despite your best intentions, you feel like it’s just been wasted time.

I’m old now, and resigned enough to be philosophical. Take your time out, take a walk, visit the most excellent Norwich Beer Festival (who can fail to enjoy a brass band rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody with an ale in ‘and?). I’m not a big one for holidays, but I’m treating this time kinda like a brain-off-the-hook session. It’s nice to coast, for once, and not be hammering my muscles against the mighty ocean. And speaking of, you might like to check out this article ( which demonstrates that it’s a mighty ocean indeed.

So for now I’m coasting, doing just a little every day; a sort of busman’s holiday. How long will it go on for? I’ve got no idea. Next week I might be back in the midst of creativity, as abustle as a Dickensian Matron. Who knows, maybe I’ll have had another nibble of interest and I’ll be bouncing around puppy-like, unable to keep from yapping at you all. Or I might have had hopes dashed, thrust into maudlin bitterness and lashing out at the whole industry.

A writer’s life. Weird, unpredictable, where the dull moments are to be treasured and schizophrenia is a constant.

Who will you be today?

*          *          *

It’s NaNoWriMo! That’s National Novel Writing Month (although it should really be InNoWriMo, as it’s gone exceedingly international) for those not in the know. The aim is to write a 50,000-word book in thirty days; a real challenge and a real achievement for those who get it done. Anybody out there giving it a try? I’d love to hear your stories of success or failure, elation or frustration.

I came across the idea a few years ago when I read the official NaNoWriMo guide – memorably described by my Dad as ‘a good book telling you how to write a bad book quickly’. I’ve never taken part; it’s not for me as I’ve got my ways of working and I reckon I’m doing okay on my own. Still, anything that encourages writing – or reading – is a good thing in my eyes.

Just remember that writing is supposed to be fun – or, if not exactly fun, then at least satisfying. For amateurs like me who don’t get paid for their work (not yet, at least) it’s important that we don’t burn out by setting unrealistic targets for ourselves. If you want to write know that I’m here cheering you on; there’s a great writing community out there and we’re all on your side.

And remember that, if it all goes wrong and you abandon your project half way through, that’s okay too. It’s how one responds to setbacks that really defines us as people. Treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, etc…

Happy writing!