NaNoWriMo: I’m Only Going To Say This Once, Okay?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts on November 1st.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the idea is that you pull out all the stops to write 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days, or around 1,670 words every day during the month of November.

Every year around this time, something else starts too: NaNoWriMo Snobbery. Professional writers, who the other eleven months of the year seem like the nicest, most generous and friendliest people, suddenly start tipping their noses in the air and saying or even writing things about how NaNoWriMo and the people who partake in it are belittling their profession, ridiculing their craft and making a mockery of the 1,670 words they write every single day of the year in order to make a living.

Now, usually I just grit my teeth and try to ignore it, but this year I’m finding it impossible—and we’re not even T-minus 1 week to go yet. (Also, I can’t think of anything else to blog about today.) So I’m only going to say this once, okay?


The NaNoWriMo Novel = Messy First Draft

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write a messy first draft, the one that “rough” would be a strong word for, the one that’s for you and you only, the one in which you work out the answers to the questions Would this even work? and What comes between the beginning and the end? No one in their right mind thinks you can go from a blank page to a finished novel ready for readers and their shelves in 30 days, but National Write a Messy First Draft That Might One Day, With Countless Rewrites, Become a Novel Month, just isn’t very catchy.

Also, keep in mind that most commercial novels these days are around the 100,000 word mark. If you thought that the idea of NaNoWriMo was to write a finished novel in 30 days, then the goal—50,000 words—should’ve been your first clue that honey, that just ain’t the case.

NaNoWriMoers = Writers

A couple of years ago I read a heartfelt blog post by a professional, published writer who truly felt slighted by NaNoWriMo. She said that this was her profession, her vocation in life, and the fact that “some people” thought they could come along and do it in the month—do the thing she had spent her adult life perfecting the craft of—made a mockery of it and her. She asked if there would be similar support for National Become a Doctor Month or the like, and ended her post by saying that she dreaded Novembers because of NaNoWriMo.

Now, first of all, get the lady 10 ccs of chill pill. STAT. (See? I could totally do National Become a Doctor Month…) The world really doesn’t need to take arbitrary challenges so seriously. But secondly, who does she think does NaNoWriMo? Sure, there’s a probably a few people in there who have never as much as read a book who suddenly decide to drop everything and attempt to write one during the month of November. But all the people I know who do it are writers.

They are already writing, have always been and for whatever reason, find it difficult to fit writing into their lives every single day. I hate that thing about there’s no such thing as no time to write, because who are we to say what people can or can’t fit into their lives? We know nothing about them. We don’t know what responsibilities they have, or what they’re struggling with. I know someone who works two full-time jobs, survives on less sleep than the average insomniac and has children to take care of. Would you tell him to “just find” the time to write?

Some people, myself included, write more when a deadline is sending us daggers from the edge of our computer screen. Some people write more when they are spurred on by being part of a group whose members are also trying to write more at the same time. And some people have so much going on that they feel they can’t set aside time to write all the year around, but that NaNoWriMo gives them some kind of official permission to do it, just for thirty days.

NaNoWriMoers are, for the most part, writers. Not “some people.”

What Are You Worried About, Mate?

Oh, you write 2,000 words every day of the year, do you? When I say “NaNoWriMo” you say “Welcome to my life”? In the immortal words of Chandler Bing, is your wallet also too small for your fifties and your diamond shoes too tight?

SO THE FUDGE WHAT if you already do NaNoWriMo every month of the year? What has that got to do with other people trying to do it for one month? I just don’t see the connection. That’s like me saying I’m going to join a gym… [Sorry, burst into a fit of giggles there; let me try that again.] That’s like me saying I’m going to join a gym and work out every day for the next thirty days, and being belittled and mocked and generally held in contempt by people who already do it, just because they already do. There is something missing there, and it’s ALL LOGIC AND SENSE.

On September 11th, Ricky Gervais tweeted about taking a moment to remember all those who had perished during the terrorist attacks. A tweeter from the UK asked him why the world makes an effort to pause and mourn on 9/11, when they don’t necessarily on 7/7, the anniversary of the London terrorists attacks. And Gervais’ response was “What are you worried about, mate?”

Now obviously we’re talking about two entirely different points on the Things That Matter Scale, but Gervais’ response to that has really stuck with me, because I’m sure that tweeter couldn’t answer it. (Because what was he worried about? Non-reciprocated  sadness?!) And so, if you are a professional writer and you don’t like the idea of people doing NaNoWriMo, what are you worried about?

(Side note: agents and editors can probably answer that question because they do have something to worry about: the influx of newborn manuscripts that start arriving in their mailrooms come December 1st from the small minority of people who think you can conceive, draft, rewrite, edit and polish a novel in just 30 days. But for the rest of us, what does it matter?)

NaNoWriMo + Time = Bestselling Books

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Cuckoo by Julia Crouch and Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes (which, by the way, was one of the most unsettling, nerves-on-a-knife-edge thrillers I’ve ever read) all started their literary lives as NaNoWriMo projects. You can see the full selection of published NaNoWriMo projects here.

Fun: Have You Heard Of It?

The whole point of NaNoWriMo—more so than writing 50k, I’d say—is FUN, as in, the having of it. During NaNoWriMo, you can sign up for groups, even meet those groups in your town or city, and create a buddy list that will help spur each other on for the month. It’s great craic, as us Irish would say.

And sometimes, having fun is reason enough to do something, all by itself. This is one of those times.

So NaNoWriMo Snobsters, stop taking a dump all over it, would you please? And bring your nose back down until it’s parallel to the horizon while you’re at it. Thanks ever so much.


What do YOU think?

(P.S. What do you think about NaNoWriMo, NOT what you think about 9/11, 7/7 or Ricky Gervais. I know how this internet thing works and I’m telling you right now, that’s NOT what this post is about, okay?)

UPDATE 2015: You might also be interested in… My debut thriller, Distress Signals, will be published by Corvus/Atlantic in June of next year and I’m chronicling the publication process and my attempts at writing a second book in almost no time on this blog, in a series called Book One/Two. Read the first installment here.

My NaNoWriMo Diary | Days 8-12

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for only slightly shorter. The aim of the game is to get down a legible 50,000 words, which means completing an average of 1,667 words per day for thirty days. I’ve failed (drastically) once before, but 50k would bring me past the finish line of the first draft of Novel No.2, so…

But despite a good 6 hours of start time enthusiasm, Week 1 didn’t go so well. (Catch up here and here.) I managed a respectable-ish 7,635 words but soon floundered under the pressure of producing 1,667 words a day or… well, nothing actually happens if you fail, but you get the idea. I thought doing NaNo would give me the push I needed to add 50,000 words to my current work in progress but there’s something about authority that makes me want to do the opposite. (This is why WeightWatchers doesn’t work for me – my leader’s enthusiastic encouragement actually makes me want to eat cake.) Suffice to say, things haven’t been going well…

Day 8 | Monday 8th November

No words…

Day 9 | Tuesday 9th November

…still no words…

Day 10 | Wednesday 10th November

…and still no words. Disastrous! But I blame the delivery of Jane Wenham Jones’ amazing new book, Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of? (which I’m in, a little bit – have I mentioned that yet today?) and the shopping trip which was supposed to be for a winter coat but turned out to be for an amazing cupcake stand from M&S (pictured below), and mini gingerbread men which will fit PERFECTLY into the silver pail decorations I’ll hang on one of my two planned Christmas trees.

Distracted? Me? Never.

Day 11 | Thursday 11th November

Went to Dublin first thing in the morning…

Day 12 | Friday 12th November

… and stayed overnight. So both these days were write-offs, NaNo-wise.

And here’s the thing: I’ve decided to throw in the towel. I just can’t take the pressure, and I certainly can’t work under it. I thought that maybe making my NaNo efforts public would give me no option put to succeed, but it didn’t. NaNo, in my humble opinion, is perfect for experimenting with a project or trying a new genre or something, but for me it’s only having an adverse on my work-in-progress and I can’t afford to let it continue.

So I’m going to go back to write the way I normally do, which is to do as much as I can on any given day, but not berate myself if the imaginary voices in my head decide to stay quiet for a couple of them.

I hope the NaNo Overlords – and you, dear blog reader – can forgive me.

(And if you can’t, be kind!)

My NaNoWriMo Diary | Days 5-7

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for only slightly shorter. The aim of the game is to get down a legible 50,000 words, which means completing an average of 1,667 words per day for thirty days. I’ve failed (drastically) once before, but 50k would bring me past the finish line of the first draft of Novel No.2. Can it be done?

Well based on the evidence I’ve generated so far, I’d have to say no.

Day 5 | Friday 5th November

The word of the day is… ugh. Now – does anyone have another 1,666 of them?

Today went something like this:

7.45am: Wake up.

8.45am: Get up.

8.46am: Coffee preparation. Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf House Blend in a one cup filter belgique.

8.57am: Morning rounds. Yahoo mail, Gmail account, other Gmail account, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Twitter again, Yahoo mail again, Novel Rank, Amazon DTP, Perez Hilton, TMZ, Google News, Twitter, repeat as required.

9.45am: Get dressed.

10.10am: Coffee preparation. Decide to open the Dunkin Donuts House Blend and make it in the french press as this will waste more time.

10.04am: Breakfast.

10.35am: I’ll just check Twitter…

11.15am: Open NaNo MS file. Start to write.

11.25am: Was that the postman?

11.26am: Read mail.

11.30am: I’ll just check Twitter…

12.15pm: Back to MS.

12.27pm: Isn’t it cold in here?

12.35pm: Move some stuff around. Note to self: cutting and pasting does not increase word count.

12.46pm: I’ll just check Twitter…

[Disappears down rabbit hole after following interesting link]

2.15pm: Coffee preparation. Back to the filter belgique.

2.28pm: Back to MS.

2.29pm: I’ll just check Twitter…

5.16pm: It’s past five? Really? Where does the time go?

5.23pm: Close MS. There’s always tomorrow. Well, until November 30th anyway.

Look what I found today: NaNo-generated stats. De. Press. Ing.

Day 6 | Saturday 6th November

Now maybe I’m a bit slow to catch on, but it was only today I realized that the progress bar in the word count widget (above right) is red in color because I’m behind. It’d be nice to see it green – does it go green? – before the end of the month.

It’s not happening today though. I managed 1,744 words but as I have now gone two of the last six days without writing, I’m waaaay behind.

Day 7 | Sunday 8th November

Managed 0.00 words today (that’s a Bronx Beat reference) but I have three rock solid excuses:

  1. Reading the Sunday newspapers took up nearly all of my morning
  2. The Brazilian grand prix was on for the whole afternoon
  3. The X-Factor results show absorbed the majority of my evening.

I’ve had a mini break-through though, which has me feeling hopeful about next week: I’ve realized the beginning of my novel is in entirely the wrong place. Does that mean the 8k or so words I’ve written this far are now basically useless? Yes.

But let’s not dwell on that…

Read all my NaNoWriMo posts.

My NaNoWriMo Diary | Days 1-4

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for only slightly shorter. The aim of the game is to get down a legible 50,000 words, which means completing an average of 1,667 words per day for thirty days. I’ve failed (drastically) once before, but 50k would bring me past the finish line of the first draft of Novel No.2. Can it be done? I’m not sure, but I’m going to try…

Let’s do this thing.

Day 1 | Monday 1st November

My NaNoWriMo Bid 2010 gets off to a shaky start: I sleep in.

Last night I did the responsible thing and went to bed early. Alas, my head was full of sentences (and Christmas present ideas, and To Do lists) and I couldn’t sleep. After laying awake in the dark for an hour, I gave up and decided to read a couple of chapters of the next book on my towering pile, The Lost Girls. I finally got to sleep around two, but woke up about every half hour – it felt like – for the rest of the night. Officially the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had, and that includes my last night in Orlando in 2008 when between stumbling home after a drunken night out and heading for the airport to catch a flight to Guatemala, I enjoyed exactly 55 minutes sleep. But as I don’t have a job – amazingly, my parents refuse to consider Dreaming About Being a Published Novelist a full time gig – and have a clear schedule for the day, this is no excuse.

(Can you think of excuses for me? Answers on a postcard please.)

I wrote for about five hours (minus 45 minutes for lunch and every other minute of the rest for prolonged periods of staring out the window) and managed a slightly painful 1,758 words. I know I should be using this Start of NaNo Enthusiasm I’m supposed to have to bank extra words – before the “Why did I do this?!” ghoulish wails start in next week – but my brain just doesn’t want to do it. We’re on the minimum required, for now.

Day 2 | Tuesday 2nd November

Some people snort at NaNo in the same way readers of NME spit out “X-Factor”. “Novel writing takes years!” they protest. “It’s a craft. Encouraging people to write a novel in a month is distasteful at best and a mockery at worst!” But they’re completely missing the point (fun – have you heard of it?) and the benefits of taking part: a rock solid deadline you cannot waver from, and a gang of people – your NaNo writing buddies – who will dismember you slowly if you fail to pass the finish line.

(Or something less violent and grotesque. I’m asking mine to shout at me.)

Do I have a point? Not really. I was just telling you all that to distract you from the fact that today I was a naughty NaNo-er and wrote absolutely zilch. I was out all morning and by the time I sat down at my desk to crank out the 1,667 words required to keep me up to date, my eyelids felt like they’d tiny weights attached to them and my brain was devoid of thought. (Well, it did have one thought, and that thought was, Afternoon nap? Don’t mind if I do!)

I blame The Lost Girls for keeping me up past my NaNo bedtime for the second night in a row. How very dare they.

I’m testing a theory whereby writing abusive messages to myself on my word count tracker encourages me to write more words. You can also see where I wasted thirty minutes figuring out what days I was due to hit the milestones (10k, 20k, etc.) so I could color them in. Then I allowed myself a green box which symbolizes Lots of Editing Done, which means you only need to hate yourself half as much today for not making your word count.

Day 3 | Wednesday 3rd November

Not a good day. Despite having no interruptions other than those of my own creation, I only managed to squeak out 1,750 words even though with my current One Day Behind status, I should have done at least double that.

The problem is this no editing business. Writing without correcting myself just seeing where things will go is like walking across a woodworm-infested rope bridge hanging hundreds of feet above a pile of sharp rocks with your eyes closed – I don’t like it. And what’s the point of having 50,000 words if 49,871 of them are total rubbish?

So I’m revising my NaNo plans. Instead of trying to get down any 1667 words on any given day, I’m going to aim to get down any 1667 words before noon, and then spend the afternoon trying to turn them into something sensical. My novel’s plot is planned out already and I feel that’s the only way I could make my words stick to it. We’ll see how it goes. And how long it lasts.

I suspect until about 12.05 tomorrow.

Another thing that would be helpful: finishing that bloody Lost Girls book. It’s way too distracting.

Also distracting: finding out that if you’ve a Google account (like Gmail or Reader) you can set your own background image on Spent a good half hour trying different images out, even though I never visit the website but just type what I’m looking for in the handy Google search box of my Safari window. I settled on a picture of my favourite place, the town of Celebration, Florida, where I plan on moving to should I ever be lucky enough to make a living as a writer.

(The NaNo Overlords say: AS IF!)

Day 4 | Thursday 4th November

Today I gave myself a metaphorical slap across the face, grabbed myself by the shoulders and shouted, “Get a grip, woman!” I was stressing about the pressure of producing x number of words every day, and wondering if I really have enough time to not only write them, but make sure they’re not completely crap as well. Then I realized that I did, because I’ve done it before.

When I was writing Novel Number 1, I didn’t have a daily word quota. I only tried to get one chapter done per day, and these varied from 1,000 to 2,500 words. Starting the morning with a blank page, I’d write the a rough draft of the chapter very quickly – not so much writing the words as I wanted them, but sort of sketching the chapter’s layout – and then go back and rewrite until I was happy that although the prose might not yet be perfect, the story was going where it needed to go. I managed to do this without feeling like I had a panic attack coming on, which is how I’ve been feeling trying to get these NaNo words done. I need to start thinking more about what I’m doing – writing a book – and less about that awful number of 1,667. I want NaNo to help me write through the pressure of a deadline, but I could do without the shortness of breath.

Today’s distraction: these beautiful F. Scott Fitzgerald hardcovers by Penguin Classics the postman brought me. (There’s actually a set of six, I believe, but since I have no intention of ever reading them – just gazing at them – I figured five was enough. Maybe. We’ll see.) They are the equivalent of book cover porn for those of us who love our books as much as we love reading, and they’ll look great in my Fantasy Library of the Future, which will be in a light-filled, swanky apartment and stocked with white Billy bookcases.

P.S. This blog post is 1,265 words. So there.

Read all my NaNo posts.

Keeping Track of Your Plot: How To Make A Novel “Bible”

After my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit post on Friday, a few of you told me how much you liked my Novel Bible idea (also known as The Only Possible Way I Can Keep Track of The Needlessly Complicated Plots I Write Myself Into) and so today I’m going to go into it in more detail.

My “don’t forget to put this in!” notes from Novel No.1 – and this was with only a chapter or two to go!

The reason I did this for Novel No.2 is the mess I made without it on Novel No.1. I get most of my ideas while writing, so I could be in the middle of Chapter 3 and thinking of things I want to put in Chapters 11, 21 and 34. I scribbled them down so I wouldn’t forget them when I actually got to Chapters 11, 21 and 34, but as I just kept adding to the same list it quickly got out of control. Starting a new chapter, I’d have to trawl through the list and pick out what I needed and then, once I’d finished it, go back and cross off what I’d put in. (And add the new ones… You can see how this turned into a nightmare.) I was also frequently re-reading the start of the book to remind myself of what I’d done which as this excellent post by Kay Kenyon on points out can lead to editing blindness. And so I took Kay’s idea of a scene list, added enough paper to satisfy my love of making notes and a cute clip to satisfy my need to peruse stationery catalogues for hours on end, combined it with the idea of a “building a novel in a folder” that I’d read about in Wannabe a Writer? and hey presto, my novel bible was born.

So here’s how to make your own.

You will need:

  • A4 paper
  • A large clip (like a bulldog clip)
  • Your synopsis and notes printed on A4 paper
  • A desire to procrastinate while appearing to work.

1. Decide how many chapters your novel is going to have. (You could also do scenes if you prefer and – of course – the novel isn’t written yet so this is all approximate.) Count out enough pages of A4 paper so that you have one sheet for each chapter. Write or print the corresponding chapter number at the top of each one and draw a horizontal line about a third of the way down the page.

2. My novel is divided further into five or six parts or sections, so the next thing I’ll do is take a page for each part and insert them in between the chapters where I think they’ll appear in the book. (I use my beat sheet to determine where there’ll be, although this could – and probably will – change.) If you want to be fancy about it, you could print out these as title pages and use a different colored paper so you can easily find the section splits when the document is put together.

3. I have a one-page beat sheet showing all the major points in my plot; that goes at the front. Then between that and our blank chapter pages I’ll put any notes I have/Wikipedia entries I copy and pasted. (Joking about the Wikipedia entries. Well… kinda.)

4. Make a cover. By law, this cover has to include the words “A Novel by” so that you’ll start thinking of what you’ll have once you’ve finished (OR it’ll heap tons of pressure on you, so much so that you throw your novel bible on the barbecue and go cry under your duvet). If you’re not ready to start writing yet, you can always waste a day or so mocking up a cover. At the very least, use some clip art.

5. Secure everything together with a clip. (A bulldog clip is what I’m calling it, but that’s not exactly the kind of clip I use, which is the one pictured above.) This way you can flick through it like a book, but add to or subtract from it whenever you want.

How to use your novel bible:

I wrote my first novel section by section, in that I planned out the first section meticulously, wrote it and then started planning the second one, and so on and so on. So let’s say it’s the first day of NaNoWriMo (oh wait – it IS the first day of NaNoWriMo!) and I’m about to start writing Chapter 1, Section 1. I figure out (with my beat sheet) what needs to happen in the ten chapters that make up Part I, and then I divide up the action between each of the chapters. Remember that horizontal line we drew on our chapter pages? Well now we’re going to write a couple of sentences or a few bullet points above that line that’ll remind us what needs to happen in that particular chapter.

This is the one I’m using now for the Dreaded Second Novel. I’m a bit weird about telling anyone else titles until the thing is written, so I’ve blurred that out. But I DID use clip art.

Let’s skip ahead to, say, Friday of this week when if my impossible-to-keep-to-schedule works out, I’ll be starting Chapter 5 or 6. As I’ve been writing all the chapters leading up to it, I’ve been scribbling notes down about things that need to go in future chapters on those chapters’ corresponding pages. So now I can flick to the page titled Chapter 6, read my summary of what needs to happen (e.g. “The unemployed Irish girl trying to make it as a writer runs into a rich, gorgeous musician with a US passport in the security line at the airport and he falls madly in love with her.”) and my own reminders to put in some of the smaller details (e.g. things like “In Chapter 2, Irish girl says she loves pancakes. In the security line, the musician should have to dump a packet of pancakes he’s carrying. This is their conversation opener!” and “Don’t forget it’s not lunchtime yet” and “BUBBLES! LOTS OF BUBBLES!”)

[I’m obviously making these up, but maybe there’s a novel in there….)

Now if you’d like a big gold star stuck on your forehead, you can take this one step further. Every time you finish a chapter, replace its scribbly, messy page in the bible with a neatly typed fresh one showing a short summary of the scene in the top third of the page. And can you guess what we’ll do with this? We’ll use it when we do our second draft, of course!

NB: This is entirely separate to the manuscript, which I don’t print out until I’ve finished a draft.