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!

Editing The Thaw – Second Draft Success!

A while back I discussed where I was at with the editing process with my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw. Basically, just starting off on the wonderful journey! During that time, I happened to take a meandering, very-much-procrastinating wander onto my Twitter. I found this:

Well, I’m delighted to be able to say that, two years after I started writing the book at all (and about a year after finishing that), I now have a fully line-edited second draft in my possession! I even managed to print it out and it looks mightily impressive!

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A very proud author with his printed second draft in sunny Kingston-upon-Thames! 😎

Safe to say, I am thrilled and proud of myself for making it this far.  The Thaw is easily the longest single work I’ve written and I’m more proud of myself for being disciplined and making it through the edit. It’s been a tough process – it took about two months, with around 70 hours work, to get from cover to cover.

That’s longer than I’d anticipated but, in a way, unsurprising given how rough and heat-of-the-moment the initial draft was. What I’ve learned through this process is a lot – I’m certainly able to handle a work of this length, and more importantly, I’ve learned some important lessons about self-editing and how a novel evolves as a piece through successive drafts. With The Thaw I already feel the work is a lot stronger, a lot clearer and a lot more engaging than it was in its initial form.

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Ultimately, thinking back, I’m extremely proud of the core idea and story at the heart of my book, and I do genuinely think it’s something I’m going to pursue publication of. It’s a good story – yes, not perfect, but making measurable steps toward – and I think it’d fit right in the marketplace.

Now, while it’s easy to bask in my own self-adulation (and the heartfelt congratulations of friends and colleagues, all of whom have helped me massively) at completing this substantive edit… it’s not the final stage. So what do I plan to do now?

  • Take some time away from the new draft. One of the key lessons I learned (and ignored in a way) from On Writing is to let a draft breathe after completion. As a writer, having that objective distance from your work, so it’s not so fresh in your mind to cloud your creative vision, is paramount I’ve found. It helps ease the inevitable self-doubt that will creep in. The Thaw, even in its roughest form, is a good book. In its new form, it’ll be a better book. But it’ll still take effort to make it a great book.

    “With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen–if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”

  • Read it as a reader, than as a writer. I need to let the new draft, when the time comes, soak back in. For the first draft I did partially read over it but I found note-taking at the same time as that initial readthrough was erroneous. So when I re-read the book toward the end of July I will give it a reader’s pass before reading it again and asking myself questions how to improve it.
  • Enlist beta-readers. I’ve approached a few trusted writer friends to read the new draft and I’m designing a feedback questionnaire. I realise the book is a lot for people to mark-up inline comments on, especially to those with day jobs and family lives. But it’s important to me to get help and guidance, to help spot errors I wouldn’t on my own.

    “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

  • Explore professional editorial advice. My friend Gary Thomas has been working on his autobiography for a while. He brought to my attention an organisation called The Literary Consultancy who offer manuscript evaluation and other editorial services. I’m going to get in contact with them once a third draft is complete in August about what services they’d suggest for The Thaw – as I previously stated, I feel it’s worthy of publication and deserves the critical eye of a professional editor. Yes, it’ll be expensive but money well spent in my opinion!

As a learning process, though… there’s been some invaluable and harsh lessons I’ve learned in retrospect. Yes, I am a little regretful that The Thaw has taken so long, but I hope it’s worth it. My confidence as an author – a proper one at that! – just, at this stage, feels so very buoyed and I am excited to get started on the next phase of getting this book in front of people who could make some exciting decisions!

Plus, relief – I can breathe and relax. Enjoy video games and books (hobbies which have suffered as I’ve edited; time management skills there but I’ll go into that later).

Overall though I can’t really express how proud I am of myself for making it this far with The Thaw and I hope to be able to share some more of it soon! If you have any advice, comments or things you think I should know as I enter the next phase of this project then please feel free to send them my way.

Editing The Thaw – Starting Off!

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Just coming up to a year ago I finally finished the first full draft of The Thaw, a post-apocalyptic thriller novel I started between my second and third years of University. I’d recently read Stephen Kings’s On Writing and, as I finished the draft at some ungodly hour, I recalled a piece of advice:

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

King recommends leaving a book to sit for six or so weeks:

“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

As is unfortunately life, getting around to editing The Thaw, for me, has taken considerably longer. There’s two big reasons for this gap, because I’ve wanted to edit the book for ages:

  • Guilt about working on personal projects while in the final throes of University, where all my creative and productive dragon energy needed to be focused on my work.
  • Self-doubt about my abilities as an editor and a writer, frankly; can I do this work justice?

Happily, both of those issues are moot – my coursework is in and I finally j umped into the editing process. So approximately five chapters in, how do I feel so far about it?

I feel… impatient, honestly. The beginning five or so chapters have taken some intense work but it’s good work too. I’ve some notes I’ve made myself from a readthrough of the first draft – I’ve taken the approach to ask myself questions I want each chapter to answer.

Indeed, re-reading the book after such a time away from writing it (which was an intense process) has allowed me to soak it in afresh. Yes, the opening is the weakest part and taking the most work because I feel that, while I was writing it, I was yet to find my feet in my own work. But what I’ve read later on is some thrilling and, honestly, brilliant stuff. I’m really confident about it because it’s a fantastic story and I want to share it!

So what is my rough plan for the edit? I’m planning to take the time over the next three or four weeks to really get to grips with fixing the deficiencies, foibles, niggles and nags of the first draft, ironing it out into something less… raw from the forge of my mind. Then a week or so off then back to square one for the third pass. Once I get there I’ll have a much better idea of what I want to do with the book going forward, and maybe even share some extracts!

Ah, heck, here’s an extract now! Enjoy!

“Not too much further, Mr. President,” Abercrombie reassured coolly. The moisture seemed to drip around the prefabricated panels loosely lining the corridor. Abercrombie turned to Miller. “We’ve achieved a lot since your last report, Vice-President.”

Miller smiled again. Even the President thought his apparent glee peculiar and looked suspiciously at his junior and deputy. “Excellent. I’m sure the President will be impressed with your results. I knew you were the right choice in this division, David.”

“I do hope I’m about to see tangible results for my investment,” Meadows mused. Abercrombie stopped at the end of the tunnel. Another heavy metal partition blocked the end of the passageway. A door, like before, was here, with a computer next to it. The door was wide, with a viewing hatch punched into the metal.

“Gentlemen,” Abercrombie said lightly, “take your positions.”

Meadows and Miller stood before the closed viewport that was just on eye-level. Abercrombie tapped a few buttons. The noise reverberated into the rock outside. A metal shutter slid with the ticking of a delicate mechanism. Two gasps were audible.

Abercrombie laughed as he watched the dark bodies of the President and the Vice-President almost stick to the wall, transfixed. “Gentlemen, I present to you the future of the American race.”