Why the zero?

You may have noticed that the little blue square on the side of the page (the one under “Novel-writing madness”) says zero. And you may be wondering why. After all, for the past seven years, the number has risen steadily throughout November – and the final figure proudly displayed for a year.

Well, there’s a simple explanation: I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. I didn’t start and then give up; I just didn’t do it. I did write stuff, but there were just too many other things going on for me to focus on NaNoWriMo as I have in previous years. So even though I did do some work on a novel during November, I couldn’t honestly call it “doing NaNoWriMo”. Besides, it’s common practice in some professions to have a sabbatical once every seven years, so let’s think of 2016 as my NaNo sabbatical year.

To all my mates who did do NaNoWriMo: well done – especially if you did hit 50k. And to everyone who’s said to me this year, “I’m going to do that nano thing you’re always going on about”: they always said I’d be a bad influence…

(Only kidding. Seriously, I feel really chuffed to know that I’ve inspired someone to do something creative, so thank you)

Advertisements

Did it again…

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

November 2014 has been and gone; another stress-filled November in which I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

I won (again – yay me!), but I’d be the first to admit that this year it was a struggle. But I have learnt a few imortant lessons from the experience – the main one being that I am not a ‘pantser’.

If you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably looked at the last word in that previous paragraph and wondered if I’m on something. I’m not (although as a writer, I reserve the right to make words up when I feel like it). In NaNoWriMo-speak, there are two types of writers: Planners and Pantsers. Planners have a clearly thought-out idea, have sketched out a few characters, and have some idea of the plot of their story is going to go. They’re prepared, basically (the level of preparation may vary from one to the other).

Pantsers, on the other hand, don’t have time for all that. They rock up to this thing on Day 1 with nothing prepared in advance; they face the blank page/screen, and fly by the seat of their pants (hence the name).

After three years of going into NaNoWriMo with an idea kind of thought out in advance, I decided this year to see how the ‘blank canvas’ experience felt. Even the title of my novel alluded to this blankness (I named it The Person Who Did a Thing – backhanded tribute to my favourite Swedish authors, Jonas Jonasson and the late Stieg Larsson, whose book titles can all be reduced to that).

So far, so vague- I mean good. I started off well; I aimed to do two thousand words a day, and for the first week, I pretty much succeeded. But then I missed a couple of days and things started to unravel. Nothing much was happening with my characters, and it wasn’t until I decided to switch from telling the story in the third person and made it a first person narrative instead that words started to flow slightly more easily.

Again, the social/community side to NaNoWriMo helped me stay on track at the hardest times. I went to as many of the ‘write-ins’ as I could (usually in a Costa near Oxford Circus) and to the ‘Literary Lock-in’ – an all-nighter at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. That really helped. Writing from 7pm to 7am in a small bookshop with about 40 other people sounds daunting. But by the end of it, I’d done 6,000-plus words and was on track once again. I finally hit the 50K target on the very last day.

At the end of a gruelling NaNoWriMo, I now have two characters (plus half a dozen anciliary ones), tons of mostly self-reflective musings on anything and everythng, and a few ideas that could make a few decent short stories at the very least. So nothing’s been wasted.

What next? Well, after a short break, my plan is to pick up Refugees & Renegades (the novel I won NaNo with in 2011) and give it that long-overdue rewrite and edit. Of all the characters I’ve created so far, Braima, Ed and Alvaro y la Familia Montes are the ones I feel closest to (probably because of the amount of time I’ve spent with them). It’s time to finish their story and get it out. Once that’s done, it’ll be either Yebu and Yasminka (last year’s winning ladies) or the two Bens (from the year before). Either way, there’ll be at least one manuscript done by the time NaNoWriMo 2015 rolls round – and I’ll probably use that time to rewrite one of the other two.

NaNoWriMo: the Morning After

Thursday 1 December 2011, sometime before 6.00am…

It’s not November anymore. So why am I still getting out of bed at such an unearthly hour and firing up the laptop? I’ve already had a whole month of this…

Yep – I signed up once again for that exercise in complete madness that is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short). The challenge, for those of you who haven’t heard of it before, is to write a novel in a month; 50,000 words or more in 30 days.

And boy, did I write. I wrote in my office (the one at home, that is!), in bed, in Starbucks, on the bus, on a plane, in a Latin music bar in Soho, a hotel in Istanbul, and reclined on a beanbag in a really nice café in Sultanhamet called the Palatium. I wrote on my new MacBook Pro and my old G4 iBook, as well as on my mobile phone (thank God for Evernote!) and even, on occasion, with good old pen and paper. 

This year’s NaNoWriMo felt a little different to previous ones where, for the most part, I’d come in to the exercise on Day 1 with a blank sheet and just winged it. I always believed that I would be more in control if I already had an idea and outline planned in advance, and so knew what I was supposed to be writing about when writing time came along. This time round, I did have an idea – and with a little help from the NaNoWriMo workbook Ready, Set, Novel! I had a handful of characters ready to work their magic. All the advance preparation helped me build up some great momentum in Week 1 – which helped, because things got a bit slack on the writing front in Week 2 (see previous blog post for some idea why; I had far too many late nights and other events in my diary that week). I struggled a bit in Week 3 but kept writing, and got back on track in the final week.

What would I say I learnt from this year’s NaNoWriMo experience?

Well, I’d learnt a long time ago that NaNoWriMo is a means to an end and not an end in itself. But that became more and more obvious to me as the month progressed. Basically what happened was that I developed an idea I thought was strong, but then struggled a bit with making it work (too few subplots to keep you going from one end of the story arc to another). I kept on writing nonetheless, but a lot of the time, it felt like treading water; just writing to keep the word count up, rather than to advance the plot.

Just write. It seems like daft advice, but none of that work is wasted. If nothing else, it is good practice – and it really does help sharpen your writing skills!

Well, November is over and I have a little under 51,000 words about an unconventional family I’ve quite grown to like. It would be nice to work on them a bit more and get them to the point where I’d be happy to introduce them to the rest of the world. That phase, I’ve decided, will start after Christmas.

Watch this space…

During November, I went on a Quiet Day at work, at which I was given this notebook. One or two of my novel ideas ended up in here...

My “NaNoWriMovember”

November was an interesting month, to say the least. It did seem to fly by very quickly; I’m not sure how much of that was down to what I spent the month doing. And what was that, I hear you ask? Well, I mostly spent it writing a novel and growing a moustache. Let me explain…

Back in April, I’d spent the month doing the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. That time, I only managed just over 29, 000 words (to be honest, I only really got going on day 23). Still, I learnt a fair bit from the experience – both about the novel-writing process and about myself.

I was in two minds about doing Nanowrimo after that; squeezing out two novels in a year seemed like a big stretch. But even though I had no pre-planned story idea and never really made the decision to do it until three days before kick-off, I jumped in on the first of the month and just wrote a load of stuff. There were a couple of days in that first week when I flagged a bit, but I basically just went with the “just write” advice and just wrote.

I started with a couple of characters just talking to each other – mostly over big dinners or very short chess games (very short because one of them was rubbish at chess and they’d both had a fair bit to drink). Various elements of people I’ve met began to click together to form new characters. After ‘freestyling’ for about a week and a half with three different sets of characters, their paths began to cross and a story began to develop – a story which became a bit more exciting (and totally daft) after I took a friend’s suggestion and wrote a certain reality TV character into the book! (Before I get sued, I should point out that the character in the book is only modelled on him. It’s not him!).

Anyway, to cut a long story short (and other cliches I’ve banned myself from using), I won NaNoWriMo. My word count clocked 51,725 on Day 30 – although according to NaNoWriMo’s word count verifier, it was only 50,056. Either way, that was enough to get me past the 50,000-word target.

Around the time I was twiddling my thumbs over whether or not to join in the exercise in total madness that is Nanowrimo, someone at work suggested that the men in the office join him in participating in ‘Movember’ – where men get sponsored to grow moustaches during the month of November, to raise money for the Prostate Cancer Charity.  Though not a big fan of either beards or moustaches, I thought I’d give it a go. After all, it’s a lot easier to do than writing a novel (if you think about it, it just involves NOT doing something – shaving – and so doesn’t really require much effort). And so I ended up with one seriously itchy caterpillar under my nose… and the campaign to kick cancer’s butt became £60 richer. Thanks to all of you who gave, and didn’t tell me I looked ridiculous.

There's one serious Mo', bro...

November was also special for reasons other than novel-writing and moustache-growing. Among the month’s other highlights, my dad turned 75 and we celebrated with an enormous meal in Rodzio Rico – a Brazilian restaurant in the O2. Two friends got married in a lovely wedding service in the City Temple. On a much sadder note, another friend died after a lengthy bout with cancer (the second friend of mine to die from that vile illness in as many years).

After all that, December’s looking rather unexciting. Still there’s Christmas to look forward to (do adults really look forward to Christmas?) and a few more mundane things to take care of – last year’s tax return being top of the list. Having not done any messing about with music in November, I plan to spend a bit more time working on stuff on the DJ front (expect a mixtape or two up on here before the end of the year).

And that was my “NaNoWriMovember”. It was fun, but I’m kind of glad it’s over.

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?