My Mad Novel-writing Experiment

April has been a mental month. But it’s over now – and with it, so is my first attempt at writing a novel.

It kind of helps to know your strengths. However, knowing them too well can sometimes be a pain in the butt. And so it’s been with me where writing is concerned. Doing the non-fiction side of things: no problem. Writing reviews, biogs, reports and other journo-type stuff, I do that in my sleep. Don’t even need editing sometimes.

Writing fiction, however… hmm, now we have a problem. How do you go about devising plots? Giving names to characters? Putting words in other people’s mouths? Making stuff up generally? (and the first smartarse to say “isn’t that what journalists do anyway?” gets a slap) Have I really got it in me? Basically, I would love to write a novel or two (dozen), but just don’t know if I have that many ideas in my head!

And then I stumbled upon NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month): an absolutely mental competition held every November, in which the aim is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. A friend, Steve Lawson, entered it last year, keeping us all informed of his progress via multiple Tweets and Facebook status updates. I checked out the NaNoWriMo website and discovered a book whose very title spoke volumes to me: No Plot? No Problem! (a “low-stress, high velocity” guide to writing a novel in 30 days, written by Chris Baty – the guy who came up with the idea of NaNoWriMo). I promptly put in an order on Amazon; the book arrived three months later (That’s a story in itself. At least I got 3 quid off my next Amazon purchase because of the delay).

The month itself happens in November. I couldn’t be arsed to wait that long, so I went for the first 30-day month in the new year (that’s not to say I won’t do it again in November; in fact, this was a trial run for when the real NaNoWriMo happens). This was going to be my experiment; my ‘one crazy thing’ for the month (one of my new year ‘suggestions’ for 2009 was ‘do one crazy thing each month’). It was me daring myself. If I pulled it off, then at least I knew that the voice in my head saying ‘novel writing’s not for you’ was fibbing. And if not? Well, at least I’d have solid proof that I couldn’t, rather than just the thought that I couldn’t…

Chris Baty’s madcap approach to novel-writing helped in some major ways – the biggest of all being that it completely de-mystified the whole thing. You need that sometimes; you’ll never really master something if you’re totally in awe of it. It also stressed that the object is to write something regardless of how many mistakes you make, or how crap you think it is. Get it down and then after it’s written it can be re-written; advice which was reinforced by another novel-writing buddy, Mags Storey, whom I emailed for advice, saying I was attempting to write a novel in “the daftest way possible” (to which her response was: “What’s the daftest way possible? There’s no right or wrong way to write a novel!” Ta, Mags!).

So how did the month pan out? Kinda like this:

Day 1: Manage to write 27 words. Threw two street kids in a river and let them splash about. Came up with a derogatory name for petrol addicts.
Day 2: Crossed the 1,000-word mark and made a priest swear. More than once.

End of week 1: Word count hovering around the 2,000-word mark. But at least I now have some sort of plot in mind (it came to me as I was walking to the local Chinese buffet to have lunch with some mates from church).

End of week 2: Story’s still floundering. Haven’t really embraced the ‘just let go and write’ concept, methinks. Have overall plot, but not that many sub-plots and little episodes. And still not really sure how to push the characters out there. And I still only really have four characters. Could use a few more. Word count: 4,000-ish (according to the book, I should be in the 20,000 region by now).

Middle of week 3: A couple of crucial things happen that really kick-start the writing process. First I receive an email from Dieon (another writer friend), asking how one deals with writer’s block and such like when attempting to write a book. I have a good, long think and reply with some tips I believe will help her – then kick myself for not having taken my own advice much earlier!

Next, I have a “Sod it; if they say ‘just write’, then just flippin’ write” moment. I start just writing: chunks of dialogue (will assign them to characters later), describing parts of the unspecified town the action’s meant to be taking place in; describing random people who populate the place; giving the few characters I do have long internal monologues in which they just rant (a good way of exploring your own dark side, if you’re that way inclined). I try out the “jet pack” method of writing Chris Baty mentions in the book. Word count doubles in a day.

Day 19: I adopt the desperate (and rather naughty) tactic of sneaking in some novel-writing on the job. I open up a Word doc on my computer, into which I type a couple of paragraphs whenever I have a free moment (tea breaks, lunch, etc.). By the end of the working day, I have added 1,000 words to the novel. Even more shockingly, some of them actually move the plot along.

I also deploy a few more “time-buying” tactics; starting work an hour early, and taking the Tube home instead of the bus. Working from home tomorrow, so I will “jet pack” again…

Day 20: Never really got to do the “jet pack” thing properly, but still added a thousand-plus words to the word count – including a few bits written on the train to Cambridge, on my way to interview someone for the Latin Link CD. What with this, work and Latin Link’s CD to produce this week, I might as well be back at uni during one of those times when I’d have four essay deadlines at once.

Day 21: At work again today. I try a different tactic this time: coming in an hour early, but this time using the extra hour to work on the novel before starting work officially at nine. Again I add a few more words during breaks and other free moments. Add another 2,000 words to the word count – including a big EastEnders-style ‘duf-duf’ moment.

I take the lappy with me when I go PRS-ing in a pub in New Cross Gate later in the evening. It’s an all-metal Battle of the Bands show – and it. Is. LOUD. Strangely, the headbangy music doesn’t inspire me to write a brutal murder scene into the novel. Neither do I feel the urge to include a satanic sacrifice. I’ve already made a priest swear and knock a gangster’s gold tooth down his throat; that’s about as sacrilegious as I’m prepared to get, thanks very much.

Day 23: Decide I’ve sacrificed way too many items in my social calendar in the name of novel-writing. Today, my good friend Candy is having a little drink-up to celebrate leaving her job. No way am I missing that. So I go along to the Jugged Hare pub in the Victoria/Vauxhall area and have a good time.

I’m also supposed to be PRS-ing in the Ministry of Sound tonight, so I leave Candy’s do just before 10 and head to the Elephant & Castle. I arrive at MoS and discover that Miikz (another good friend) is running security. The DJs kick off at 10.30pm, and I haven’t got a clue what any of them are playing. But I do have an Access All Areas wristband, so I spend the duration of my visit sitting in the VIP lounge (or as I found myself calling it, the “Bloody hell, girl; did your Mum see you leaving home dressed like that? OMG, I’ve just turned into my Mum!” lounge), where I write another crucial scene, do major development on a new character I’ve recently added to the story, and beef up some of the other characters’ back-stories. I even tap out a couple of paragraphs on my Blackberry before packing it in as I have no means of transferring notes from my BB to my lappy (a download is in order methinks). When I eventually add the new material to the book, word count exceeds 17k. Good, but still needs a boost – and I still have Latin Link’s CD (and a radio show) to complete this weekend…

Still not happy about the fact that I find writing about writing the novel easier than writing the novel (if that makes any sense).

Day 25: I cross the 20,000 word mark. I have now written more than double my uni dissertation in less than half the time that took me. What does that say about me as a writer? Or, for that matter, about my degree? I may be reading way too much into this…

I’m still nowhere near on target, but I still believe this is possible. I just need to ‘jet pack’ every day this week to pull it off! But even if I do pack it in now, I think I’ve still proved to myself that novel-writing isn’t an impossibility for me (Pack it in? Where did that come from?). Bring on the self-imposed literary torture…

Day 26: Yesterday was long. What with Latin Link’s CD to finish, I ended up going to bed rather late. As a result, my body seems to have gone on strike (and my brain too). Manage to crib 1,000-plus words together in the office, between work work (did the same ‘come in early’ tactic I used last week). Brain absolutely refuses to do anything novel-related when I get home; in fact, I get an extremely severe case of the I-do-not-want-to-do-this-any-mores. I go to bed at 8pm. Wake up around 2-ish, and suddenly cannot stop writing. All sorts of stuff comes to me. If this keeps up today, it will be fantastic. I guess the moral here is that rest is as important a part of the process as work is.

I went for an early morning swim in the pool round the corner from home. One of the things I like about going swimming is that a lot of times when I’ve been writing something, it’s when I’m in the pool that it all falls into place in my head (back in the days before I took up swimming – when I had a gym membership – the steam room was where this would happen. Which is why I dubbed the steam room “the incubator”). That is when I’m writing non-fiction stuff: articles, blog posts, etc. It has never happened the whole time I’ve been writing this novel – until today. Suddenly, ideas start to flow. Random bits of dialogue I’d written to fill space have speakers and situations to go with them. People have back stories. I can see the order in which events are meant to happen. Major breakthrough for me.

Day 27: Apparently struggling again. Not feeling 100% physically. But struggle along and add a few things to a couple of bits I’d already written. Crossed the halfway mark. Finding time to write over the next couple of days is going to be really tough; what with presentations and other work commitments I had kind of forgotten about looming…

Day 28: Will have to do some major workload reshuffling if I am to get more writing in today. Got up relatively early (6am) and wrote for about 90 minutes.

Day 30: Final day of the experiment. Nowhere near the 50k target word count – but that really wasn’t the primary point of this exercise for me. Anyway, let’s see how much we can add on today, eh? I have reshuffled my workload so that I can devote the whole day to this (will do all the Meth House writing I was supposed to do today on Monday. There – that’s my Bank Holiday up the spout. I hate writing…)

The writing binge starts at 6am – even though I woke up at five. Spend more time tweeting than writing that first two hours (bad boy, bad, bad boy). After breakfast, I de-camp to Starbucks at 10am and settle down to write some more. Wi-fi in Starbucks not working. I take this as a sign that there is a God, and that he wants me to write this thing without any distractions. I’ve left the cheap headphones at home and brought out the noise-cancelling cans instead (special day, innit?). I stick some Paul Ewing on the iPod and get stuck in. About three hours (and two big-ass coffees) later, I have the book’s closing chapter and “Yoda moment” written (I have decided that all my novels will have what I call a “Yoda moment” – mostly because I find I enjoy writing “philosophical, worldly-wise old man dispenses wisdom to young Grasshopper” dialogues).

I get home from Starbucks, check up on email, do a little more writing and then go for a swim. Then write (almost) continuously from 8pm until midnight. Have vowed not to check the word count until midnight strikes. Feel myself flagging physically the closer midnight gets. I’ve been writing non-sequentially, so the novel’s beginning and end are already done. The middle, however, is all over the place. But that can be sorted out in the re-writing process, so no worries.

Final word count at midnight on Day 30: 29,231 words.

So, what have I learnt about novel-writing (and, more importantly, about myself) this mad month?

  • Well, I know now that I definitely can write a novel. That’s one voice in my head I won’t be hearing anymore…
  • I’m definitely a “morning person” when it comes to writing stuff like this. The earlier, the better.
  • Contrary to what girls say when they’re being sexist, us blokes can multitask – just as long as it’s doing more than one thing we actually want to do!
  • If you are going to write with a glass of wine in your hand (that nice, romantic picture people have the moment you say “I’m a writer”), then remember: the ‘drink in moderation’ thing still applies. Especially if you’re writing after a busy day at work, whatever your job is. People talk rubbish when they’re plastered – and guess what? They also WRITE rubbish when they’re plastered!
  • You probably know this already, but reading does wonders for your writing. I joined a book group at work, and we started reading David Nicholls‘ novel One Day. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, but I have already picked up some brilliant ideas on how to get a story moving from it.
  • Also, we do like to keep our work in progress ‘under wraps’ and then make a big public announcement once it’s done. But occasionally throwing bits out while you’re working on it can be a good way of testing how it’s going, or even for picking up ideas. I posted a couple of quotes from the novel as Facebook status updates. They started some fun conversations, and even added a comic twist to one minor sub-plot (ta for that one, Sara-Jane!)
  • Daring yourself to try something new is a good (if absolutely mental) way of learning how to do it. The opening line of the book was “Here goes nothing!” because when I was learning to swim (something else I only learnt to do much later in life than usual) that’s what I would say whenever I decided to just jump into the pool and get on with it. “Just write” sounds like terrible advice – especially if you’re used to more methodic, factual writing. But it does work! Certainly in my case, the day I had my “Sod it; just write” moment in Week 3 was the point at which the book really started coming together. Sometimes just the act of writing opens up the mind. Ideas start flowing. So yes – one good way of fighting writer’s block is just to write! Dare yourself!

Well, the experiment’s over now. So what next? The book’s far from finished, but I am going to let it rest for a bit; a couple of months, at least. I already have another book-writing project that’s going to keep me occupied for the next couple of months (a ghost-writing gig – with a proper contract and for real money. Wahey!). I’ll come back to this once that is done, arrange it in some proper order, and see what I can do with it.

Yep – that was my April. How was yours?

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4 thoughts on “My Mad Novel-writing Experiment

  1. That was a very fascinating read George! Everything in that piece is the reason why i hate writing. Fiction pieces are something you conjure up throughout the entirety of your day not just when you’re ready to write. This piece could easily be a blueprint for those who are in the dreaded dissertation stage. If a job comes where im a full time writer I will honestly go into it kicking and screaming as its a nightmare. Well done regardless, now can you write my bio 🙂

  2. Well done George.! You inspire all of us. I knew you had a book in you and I know there’s more where that came from. Let the gift and grace flow… and keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Matey,

    Great to see you at the D: launch.

    As to the steam room & swinmming pool, I have also noticed the blank-mind way of loosening the brain. If I’m at work and there’s something I can’t quite bring to mind, I find a loo trip works. It makes me not try so hard to think and then the thought appears.

    Any chance of you guys approaching Mike Farris for GB10? He’d do a storming set!

    btw, I should have guessed that JoC would appear, given the Jude A link. I worked it out the morning before it was announced. How slow of me!

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