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.

What I Thought Of… CUCKOO by Julia Crouch

If you were here last November then you may recall my spectacular failing of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a fun and somewhat tongue-in-cheek challenge to complete 50,000 words of a new novel in just 30 days. And round about the last week of October, out they came: the NaNoWriMo Naysayers and their Smug Blog Posts of Doom. ‘A novel in 30 days?’ these “Real” Writers said with their noses in the air. ‘Please. It won’t be fit for toilet paper.’ Others said, ‘I write novels for a living, and it takes me the whole year. I resent fair-weather writers saying it can be done in a month’ and ‘Write 1,700 words a day for the month of November? I do that every day of the year, darling. Every damn day.’ And then there were the agents and editors groaning aloud at the thought of all the unsolicited NaNo manuscripts that were sure to come streaming through their doors on December 1, ink still wet and paper warm. (They’re all entirely missing the point of NaNoWriMo, but how they are is another topic for another post.) I think NaNo is great fun and a great idea, and as such I’m always looking for tangible evidence that taking part is worthwhile.

Enter Julia Crouch, who wrote the first draft of her debut novel, Cuckoo, during NaNoWriMo 2008. A year of edits followed but she can now look forward to its publication on March 3, and you can look forward to reading it – because it’s great.

“Polly is Rose’s oldest friend. So when she calls with the news that her husband has died, Rose doesn’t think twice about inviting her to stay. She’d do anything for Polly; it’s always been that way. Polly has never been one to conform – it’s one of the qualities that Rose most admires in her – and from the moment she and her two boys arrive on Rose’s doorstep, it’s obvious she’s not the typical grieving widow. But the longer Polly stays, the more Rose wonders how well she really knows her. She can’t help wondering, too, whether her presence has anything to do with Rose’s growing sense that she’s losing her hold on her own family and home. As Rose’s meticulously constructed world is picked apart at the seams, one thing becomes clear: once Polly’s in, it’s very hard to get her out again.”

Well, what a little roller-coaster ride this book is. Had I wrote this review after reading only the first third of it, I would be saying that it was a competent debut that kept me turning the pages, but wasn’t anything hugely original. Had I wrote it mid-way through, I would be saying that it was creepy, atmospheric and dark, but surely headed towards an unsurprising conclusion. But I couldn’t have wrote it anywhere between then and the end, because I was totally engrossed. I couldn’t put it down – not even for tea-making. (And that’s saying something, let me tell you.) And I was about to be completely surprised.

Cuckoo is a deceptively complex story and as it unfolds, the reader’s relationship with the characters becomes one of complexity too, feelings and impressions ever churning and changing; I felt like I was losing my grip on who I thought they were just as they were losing their grip on the same thing. And with almost the entire novel taking place in and around the country house that Rose and her husband Gareth own, the sense of claustrophobia – and around it, isolation – is palpable.

When I first read Cuckoo’s synopsis, I thought of the movie Single White Female, but Cuckoo is not about a crazy lady who came to stay. This book, in my opinion, is an exploration of the darkest corners of female friendship. We all had that friend at school whom we referred to as one of our ‘best’ but whose presence always left us feeling worse, never better, usually through campaigns of subtle emotional warfare and sneaky verbal ‘digs’.

What would life be like if we were still friends with this person, if we had carried her with us into adulthood? What if what she wanted to prove wasn’t that she was better at English or that her spotty boyfriend was better than mine, but that she had the better husband, the better kids, the better life? What if her insecurities threatened not just our mood but our everything? With such high stakes, would sweetly telling our mother that her bedroom was thoroughly cleaned every day when she knew that, first of all, mine wasn’t and, second of all, neither was hers, turn into something far more dark and sinister?

Where Cuckoo really excels is in its closing act, which manages to first feel like a shock and then afterwards inevitable: the mark, in my opinion, of a damn good ending. It may have felt like a slow burn to begin with, but Cuckoo was just biding its time, creeping up on me like a stranger in the night.

Unsettling, mysterious and dark, Cuckoo is a great debut and I’m really looking forward to more from Julia Crouch.

And rest assured, I’ll be reminding you all of this come the last week of October.

And I want that pink suitcase.

Thanks to Headline for my copy.

Cuckoo is published on March 3. Click here to pre-order from

Read an interview Julia gave to NaNoWriMo’s blog about her publication experience.

Click here to see all my book reviews.

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.

My NaNoWriMo Survival Kit

Frighteningly, National Novel Writing Month is only two and a bit days away. Starting Monday at midnight, us NaNoWriMo scribblers have 30 days to get 50,000 words out of our over-caffeinated brains and into our word processing programs, preferably in some sort of coherent order. I’m using it as the ultimate deadline in my quest to finish my first draft of Novel No.2 this side of Christmas. And although my best-of-intentions NaNoWriMo prep work got bumped this week for some really good books I just had to read (and The Apprentice, both the TV3 and BBC versions), I have managed to assemble my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit.

1. A clicky pen

I do all my writing on computer (I don’t even write shopping lists) but I have to have a clicky pen to hand at all times. It helps me think. Plus the incessant clicking noise keeps everyone else away so it guarantees solitude, and should a book deal suddenly materialize, I have a pen to hand to sign it. Bonus!

2. Alison Well’s NaNoWriMo post

The internet is awash with blog posts, tweets and telegrams telling you everything to need to know about how to do/survive/ignore NaNoWriMo – and then some. Don’t bother reading those. Instead, just read this: Alison Well’s pre-NaNoWriMo post, “How To Do NaNoWriMo If You Don’t Have the Time.

3. My Mac

I love my computer, which is small and light enough to take anywhere, and has keys that don’t make an extremely annoying clacking noise when you hit them. I’m just going to have to cut the umbilical to my wireless internet connection or we won’t get anything done…

4. New music

I have something ridiculous like 2,000+ songs on my iTunes, but somehow I only ever end up listening to the same 50 or so. With them constantly on repeat, this can get pretty boring after a while and constantly pressing the Skip Forward button can really interfere with the old word count, so for some serious writing to get done, new music is required. This NaNoWriMo I shall be listening mostly to Speak Now by Taylor Swift, Battle Studies by John Mayer (as I haven’t burnt that out quite yet), No Line on the Horizon by U2 (skipping “Breathe” which I have worn out already) and whatever songs from the new Take That album I can, um, source online.

5. More coffee than I can feasibly drink in November

It was a lucky coincidence that I got to go coffee-shopping in the States recently, and brought home four bags – and four blends – to last me through the entire NaNoWriMo slog. Tip: now is not the time to try a new espresso blend. Stick to mild mediums. Coffee-drinking is pretty much essential to my writing, and if I’m drinking a lot of it then I don’t want that horrible coffee aftertaste that sticks around after a really strong cup. Medium weaker blends are best for prolonged bursts of creativity, trust me. (And yes, it’s in my fridge. Opened bags of coffee stay fresh longer this way.)

6. My novel’s “bible”

Here’s how I keep track of what I’m writing: I take a ream of A4 paper and count out as many pages as I have chapters or scenes. My novel is also divided into sections, so I print out a title page for each of these. I also make a fancy cover using some clip art. Then I take all my notes (printed out on A4 too), put the chapters/scenes separated by their section title pages behind them, put the cover on the front and bind the whole thing using a large bulldog clip. It then becomes a “book” I can flick through, but because it’s only held together by a clip I can add to or subtract from it at any time. When a chapter/scene is written, I scribble a summary of it on its relevant page, and write any notes that have arisen out of it (i.e. “Kevin mentions Tom; this needs to be addressed the next time Kevin appears”) on the page representing the chapter ahead that the note refers to. Then when it comes to start a new chapter, I simply open its corresponding page in the “bible” and all the notes and reminders I need are there waiting.

(I realize this sounds complicated but you get what I mean, right?)

7. A clear desk

If there was a stray paperclip within reach I would play with it – that’s how easily distracted I am. Therefore a clear desk with no potential playthings is an absolute must if I’m to get anything done, a desk that looks the exact opposite of the one pictured above. (Which is my actual desk just before I left for holidays. It only looks this bad on weekends, I swear…)

8. Inspiration

Whenever I feel like I can’t be arsed, I have a flick through some of my favorite writing books: Wannabe a Writer? by Jane Wenham-Jones, On Writing by Stephen King, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner and How Not To Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. I’ll also be using Save the Cat by Blake Snyder for plotting tips, as always.

(Click here to read about my favorite How To… writing books.)

9. A novelty mug

Any excuse.

10. Enthusiasm

This may wane by the end of next week, but right now I’m fired up.  50,000 words by the end of November? You betcha!

If you’re looking for another NaNoWriMo buddy and you’d like the opportunity to scream and shout at me when I get stuck around 11,000 words, I’m cathryanhoward on