Notes on NaNoWriMo

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November beckons! For a lot of writers this means one thing – not the onset of festivities for Christmas but NaNoWriMo– the month-long celebration of stress and angst that’s been going for quite a while now, the challenge being to write a 50,000 word novel (well, more realistically, the very rough first draft) in the space of thirty days in the depths of winter. I haven’t taked about NaNoWriMo for a long time but feel it’s about time to address it once more!

My good friend and university classmate Rosie is embarking on her second NaNoWriMo this year – it’ll be really exciting to see how her accumulated knowledge through university improves her effort from her previous attempt in 2015!

I’ve completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012. The three novels I wrote – 2010’s The Last of the Steamers, a steampunk adventure story; 2011’s Colonisation, a pulpy sci-fi adventure set on Mars that I’ve toyed with rewriting and 2012’s The World Eaters, an attempt at a grand space opera – will very likely never see the light of day. But that’s OK – each were valuable learning experiences in my writing journey that I’m definitely proud of doing and still reflect upon now. Yes these works, looking at them now, are flawed and imperfect but they remain important to me – so much so I keep the manuscripts even now.

20181105_131218380_iOS_editedLooking back, I’d reflect upon the following nuggets of information:

  • Plan, plan, plan! Spend at least the month of October prior to NaNoWriMo outlining the work and getting the sequence of events, at the very least, set down in your mind. Writing as you go, or “pantsing” (ie: writing by the seat of your pants) is the number one reason why your novel will run out of steam within the first few pages. It’s too easy, especially for inexperienced writers who may have never handled a project as big as a 50,000 word novel (which, by the way, is nothing; my draft of The Thaw is sitting at just over double that, at 102,000 words) to just blurt out the entirety of their plotlines very early on without any structure. I’m currently working on some new plot outlines as I mentioned previously and I’m using KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel workbook and it’s really, really good.
  • Chapterise your work. For my initial, first-ever effort, The Last of the Steamers, I wrote the entire novel as one solid block of text without chapter breaks. I attempted to revise this work the following January and it became such an arduous slog it quickly became completely unmanageable. Planning your chapters is a great way to spread out points of view and plot to manage the pace of the story. Contrast this to my approach for planning The Thaw, where I split the outline into three acts, and then further subdivided those acts themselves into three (beginning, middle and end at it’s most basic) and spread out the plot and series of events that way. For that work, too, I took on a really effective lesson from the books in The Expanse series in using different points of view for each chapter.
  • Don’t worry about the wordcount goal per day. To succeed at NaNoWriMo you have to write an average of 1,666 words per day, every day. That can sound incredibly daunting – this is especially difficult if you haven’t planned beforehand (therein leaving your time in November for pure writing). But it’s easy to become totally intimidated by writing almost 2,000 words a day. Some writers can do it but a lot, especially inexperienced novelists that take the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, balk at this. So my advice here would be to split up your time – write in, say, three 500 word sessions and then add a bit on here and there. 500 words is about a page, and quite manageable in 20 minutes if you get time.
  • Find times to write everywhere in your day. Building on the previous point, finding time to sit in a darkened study, hunched over a laptop, for the daily writing session can (and in my case has) put a ton of pressure on. It’s so, so easy to psyche yourself out of a writing session if you build it up so much. So my advice would be to split this up. My personal experience is that 500 words is quite manageable in a single session, but you could write a paragraph just before breakfast, a few paragraphs over lunch or before class or at work… it’s a cumulative effort toward that goal that really counts. Or meet up in the library with friends and write together, it’s fun!Nano_2011_chart
  • Don’t freak out over falling behind. In 2011 I fell quite far behind, but it’s important to remain committed and realise that it’s possible to claw back the progress. I found the spreadsheet I used (slightly customised from the one designed by Erik Benson in 2004 which I found you can get from Book In A Week here) back then and looked at the chart. Ultimately for the first week or so I feel fairly behind but ended up that year finishing a day early, which I’d say is proof that it’s possible to claw it back. As an aside, the spreadsheet I used included notes for each day that I input and it was fairly prescient on how I was thinking and feeling during November 2011! I’d wholeheartedly suggest using a spreadsheet like this – sync it with Google Docs or OneDrive or Dropbox (along with your draft, obviously!) so it’s always there when you need it. Naturally the inverse is true with this tip: by all means build up some headroom on good days if you can but don’t allow yourself to become complacent!

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What prompted me to write this post was a question I was asked regarding one of the new ideas I wrote about previously – would I be doing any of them for NaNoWriMo this year? God no! was the answer –  honestly, I don’t think I’d do NaNoWriMo again. My experience writing The Thaw was that a month would’ve been too rushed to do that justice – you’re only making yourself more work in the first, usually-brutal edit. But also with The Thaw I feel I took too long. Ideally for my new ideas I’d follow Stephen King’s advice:

“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

That’s not to say I discourage NaNoWriMo – indeed, the opposite! I saw it as an important step in my writing career as I proved to myself (and others, but most importantly myself) that I could write a work long enough to consider a novel. And while the three drafts I churned out remain locked away for only my eyes to cringe at, they’re important milestones on the road of writing. So get going and get novelling!

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Autumn Writing Update

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I realise it’s high time I take stock of where I am with various writing projects I’ve been working on – and some new ones! I also want to expand on a lot of what I want to start thinking about progressing with next year – it seems customary with the nights drawing in as October grows to a close to reflect not on what can be done with the dregs of this year but to plan for the new year.

Overall, I’m both pleased and a little disappointed with progress with my writing projects but I feel a touch of realism is sometimes what’s needed!

  • Landlady_Cover_MockUpI’m thoroughly thrilled with how my short story The Landlady has gone down since I put it out last month. I’m really grateful to everyone who both read it and bought the little paperback editions that I made available for purchase; it was a really touching and humbling thing to have signed so many of them for good friends and colleagues. Thank you once again for all your support and comments! And to those asking “when’s the next one coming?”… well keep reading!
  • I sent my post-apoc thriller novel The Thaw off to beta-readers in second draft form at the end of July, hoping for a relatively quick turnaround to gain some feedback on it for the next edit – it’s the third draft that I want to start approaching professional editors and agents with. However, it’s been a bit disappointing, as I mentioned in a thread on Twitter, and with Christmas closing in I can’t see my beta-readers having much time. I understand that; however, I’m excited to have received word from my good friend and university classmate Rosie that her notes and annotations are incoming! So I hope to be able to start the next pass of editing on The Thaw over Christmas; it shouldn’t be anywhere near as intense as the first pass was! Overall though I reflect on the project with a great deal of pride and I really believe the project has “legs” and I’ll be pursuing it toward publication in a traditional sense throughout the coming year!
    • Incidentally, I was very pleased to be able to complete two beta-reads of my own recently; one for Rosie’s young-adult fantasy novel Under Oath and recently for Alex Clifford’s comedy novella The Very Foreign Desk. I was more than happy to give the feedback and I look forward to seeing the improved forms of both works!

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While I might not have been actively writing or editing much for the last couple of months, that hasn’t meant I’ve not been generating ideas – in fact I’ve two ideas I feel are closest in gestation that I feel comfortable talking about them, with a couple more still only in rough concept form in my notebook.

  • As mentioned, the reaction to my short horror story The Landlady has been more than I could’ve possibly imagined, and to answer those that are asking me if I’ve more in the works… I’m happy to say yes! I’ve been concepting out an idea for a horror story that might make it to full novel proportions and that I’m going to be spending the festive season planning intensely. I do want to write more horror based on this experience but I’ve a lot of research to do on the genre, but more importantly I needed an idea. By some happy accident I had the idea last week and I think I could do well with it. I’d love to say more but it’s very rough at the moment but I’ll hope to tell more about it in the new year once I’ve nailed down the plot and plan – but work is going really well as I keep thinking about it!
  • I’ve also been concepting out a climate-based post-apocalyptic novel that I had the idea for in the recent hot weather that the UK experienced – what if the UK experienced a heatwave that never ended? This one was what I thought I’d be working on next but I found myself a little stumped in the early planning but I’ve re-evaluated my ideas and, after chatting to some writer friends, have a better idea where I can take it. I originally envisaged a pseudo-political/techno thriller but I can’t say I was massively enthused by the knots I’d have to tie in my plot to make that work effectively; instead it’s going to be a bit more of an adventure into a decimated, desertified Southern England.
  • I also want to post more short stories from my university studies and re-organise the range of short stories on my site for those dear readers who are interested in reading more of my fiction. I’m really proud of the work I produced through university (even if I wasn’t a particularly happy student) and going by how people enjoyed The Landlady then I’m more than happy to show off some of my more recent, and in my opinion, refined work.

I’m excited I’ve got lots of ideas but I’m starting to prioritise them a little – I’d initially wanted to work on the climate fiction idea first but it needs some more plotting and, honestly, it’s the horror that’s screaming out to me to write first over the next while. But regardless I’ll keep everyone updated on how these projects start to shape up, as well as how The Thaw progresses, through my site but I’d also wholeheartedly recommend liking my Facebook page and following me on Twitter and Instagram for all my writing and reading goodness!

Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.

Book Thoughts: The Attraction of Physical Bookshops

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

A recent newsworthy event was that Waterstones, arguably the leading High Street brick-and-mortar bookshop here in the UK was to acquire Foyles, a chain of independent bookshops with a storied history.

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The outside of my local Waterstones

Ordinarily I would be fairly unimpressed at the homogenisation of the marketplace as I do believe competition fosters the best – indeed, over the last fifteen years or so the number of discrete chains of bookshops has steadily declined through acquisitions. Borders, Dillons, Ottakars… I was even a little disappointed when I visited Hatchard’s in Piccadilly at the recommendation of a friend to find it was a slightly-rebadged Waterstones. Not that that was intrinsically bad… but I’d left the flagship Waterstones store (which I instantly fell in love with) to explore this purported quirky independent.

Returning to the point: the UK retail book market has essentially homogenised into three large players whose stores I do frequent often – a trip down the High Street usually results in popping into all three:

  • Waterstones is the “full-fat Coke” of UK bookshops – stores that have wonderful bookish atmospheres that encourage browsing.
  • WH Smiths, whose more utilitarian “plain vanilla” shops lack a bit of soul, but WH Smiths has that rich history behind the name, for it was WH Smiths that led the popularisation of fiction back in the Industrial Revolution;
  • The Works, a young upstart whose stores are cheap and cheerful, usually packed with items and nick-nacks I have no interest in purchasing but there’s always the chance of a discount steal. Indeed for a long while I did not know that The Works sold books!

Why am I telling you this? Waterstones would have you believe that the acquisition of Foyles is about challenging Amazon as the big intangible behemoth. Whether that’s strictly true (or if it’s a calculated attempt to simply buy up market share) is not really the remit of my blog but it’s a precursor to the point I want to make and started with in the first Book Thoughts post.

But what’s interesting is that each of those three major chains seems to have carved out their own particular part of the book market – Waterstones is perhaps more “premium”; WH Smiths is more in the middle; The Works serves the budget end of the market. And that’s actually a great thing as it serves the entirety of the market with pretty good bookshop coverage – something for everyone!

Not only, in recent times, do I read more physical books while my Kindle gathers dust in a drawer, I find myself purchasing these books in a physical bookshop – usually but not always a Waterstones. Waterstones is certainly not the cheapest place to purchase books but, much like libraries, physical, tangible bookshops I think are important to support.

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I’ve actually been one of those people who goes into a bookshop and photographs a book to look it up later. Indeed, throughout University my first port-of-call would be to buy the paperback on Amazon and have it whisked at near-light speed to me via Prime – because it was convenient and I was hardly the most assiduous student, a fact I take no pride in.

But what I’ve noticed more than anything… buying books on Amazon is so mechanical and, if you like, soulless an experience it’s a little disheartening. What Waterstones, especially, but the others do well also, is to foster a sense of discoverability. Browsing in Waterstones is a joyous experience because their stores are near-universally great places. There’s a sense of care and attention, maybe even a bit of personalisation in each when it comes to the table displays and endorsement cards that adorn shelves.

Again, whether that’s a corporate missive or genuine is neither here nor there. This post is not intended to be a treatise on the rights and wrongs, and the motivations of large companies. I’ve had wonderful experiences buying books from Waterstones, chatting to engaged and enthusiastic staff… it’s an experience I feel Amazon cannot replicate. Amazon does a lot well, but this is one thing I feel visiting a physical store cannot compare to.

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My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

That’s not to say Waterstones as a company is perfect. I’m aware of stories where they’ve acted what seems to be capriciously in notable times, and they’ve perhaps thrown their weight around as the UK’s dominant bookseller to mistreat authors. And it’s easy to chalk them up as another “big corporation” – this is by no means a total defence of Waterstones, but neither is it a total defence of Amazon. Waterstones may still be the biggest bookshop chain in the UK, and about to grow some more, but even then as a corporate identity Amazon is a truly gargantuan behemoth.

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My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

What I am defending is the experience that a physical bookshop gives to its customers – this an experience I am totally in favour of. Waterstones are the totem of what I’d call a welcoming environment for book lovers – not to say independent bookshops are worse, but Waterstones as a brand are cementing their position. And their shops – like all bookshops – are ones we should support as readers.

Physical books are making a surprising comeback, and I’m happy to think about factors other than solely the bottom line on my wallet. I’m happy to pay for the experience of walking into a bookshop and enjoying the experience of being there. Amazon might have the convenience and price factor (and I’m not for one moment saying I’ll never buy a book on Amazon again) but they lack the experience and discoverability that walking around a physical bookshop can provide.

Oh, and the irony among irony? Waterstones’ website is a pale imitation of Amazon – so the battle lines are drawn!