It’s the midst of November, so aspiring wordsmiths across the world are putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) in order to attempt National Novel Writing Month – the 30-day challenge to put together a 50,000 word novel (or more realistically, a very rough first draft of one)!
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012, and again previously I’ve mentioned the three books that I wrote in those ninety days – The Last of the Steamers, The World Eaters and Colonisation.
While my post last year does an admiral job of running through some general tips I learned from that time, I feel today it might be useful to discuss the three books themselves in more detail than I’ve likely done before.
It’s highly likely that none of these books will see the light of day as projects but I’ll expand on why that is – and why I’m not upset about that at first glance – afterward
The Last of the Steamers (2010)
This was my first proper, bona-fide attempt at writing any longform piece of prose and it shows. I’d conceived this grandiose steampunk world of an alternate 1910 where an adventure spanning the globe would take place, and even reflecting on it now it’s a fantastic idea. However, I didn’t at that time have the writerly skill to pull it off, and perusing the manuscript in preparation for this post, it shows both promise and peril.
My main issues from writing Steamers was that I went in with only a sketchy idea, and it was the most “written by the seat of my pants” book of the three I did. I did complete the manuscript at the end of the November and I recall that experience being one of the most satisfying ones in my “writing” career to date as I’d proven to myself that I could do it, which I see as more important that having a finished book resulting.
That said, I’ve always promised myself to revisit the work “once I have the skill to do the story justice” – which has been going on for nearly a decade now. I think a loose aspiration for 2020 would be to start immersing myself in steampunk works for a potential revisit – I think the core story is so brilliant, with so much imagination and great set pieces that I feel I could make it work.
I did learn a big lesson from my attempts at editing the manuscript – plan ahead and work in chapters! I also decided to compress three rounds of editing into one mega round which is why this project stalled – it became too unwieldy to edit, and I hadn’t helped myself! I also feel that during the edit I did overcook it slightly.
Regardless, I’m immensely fond of this work in the back of my mind and recall that I produced an “audiobook preview” which I’m happy to embed below:
This is probably the Nanowrimo project I’ve poured most of my energies into and I was genuinely surprised in researching this post to discover it was the middle project. I took a lot of the lessons from Steamers on and I had a killer idea for a story – an opposite of The War of the Worlds where it’s the humans invading Mars due to resource depletion! However, I’ll be my harshest critic and admit that Colonisation turned out as pretty much nothing like how I imagined, turning more into a pulpy young-adult book, which is both to its credit and detriment.
Aspects which I felt worked were the development of the characters – protagonist Rad Stratton and his “failed bromance” with training pal Jon Stryker – a complicated character who remains one of my favourite characters in any work I’ve written – resulting in the “gym scene” (which you can read here) which remains one of my favourite character-driven scenes I think I’ve ever written. I do think some of the imagery is pretty iconic but I did wrestle with both a quite complicated backstory of deception and double-crossing.
The core of the story in Colonisation is solid – I recall receiving praise from a well-read friend on my portrayal of my mollusc-like Martians. And perusing the drafts I have to hand I’m impressed about how adult some of the situations are, with some real tension during the colonist attack on the Martian outpost. I do identify the following pitfalls I thoroughly fell into in writing and working on this:
- First person perspective: I wrote Colonisation as a first-person limited perspective book through the eyes of Rad, the protagonist. And only I found it extremely limiting in terms of storytelling, so much so I would likely not write a first-person story again, or at least not for a considerable while! One valuable lesson I’ve learned (and taken for The Thaw) is that I am much more comfortable a writer in third-person prose, and that first-person is tough for an inexperienced writer!
- I planned but didn’t research: I briefly published Colonisation as a Kindle book and received a fair few harsh reviews, largely commenting that the book is based in no sense of reality toward interstellar travel. I realise this in hindsight that while I learned from my experience in Steamers by not planning by chapter, I need to have plausible, buy-able science as the suspension of disbelief required was a stretch for some. That said, some who read it, if they squinted past those oversights, enjoyed it. In hindsight now, obvious candidates for reading how to do a space-based sci-fi better are books like the Expanse books, and The Martian by Andy Weir. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars stands as a totemic example of how to do a Mars colonisation story. I’ve not finished it myself yet but what I have read was enough to realise quite how awry I’d gone
- Editing error 1: Relying on myself – publishing Colonisation as an indie author – briefly – was an experience and it taught me to be much more cautious about throwing work out there that was poorly edited; in retrospect there were far too many glaring errors for this work to ever have seen the light of the day. And looking back, I know this now from having abandoned otherwise-promising books because of the litany of editing errors. It’s why my philosophy with The Thaw is so much more structured and not reliant on my own perceptions.
- Editing error 2: While romantic and cathartic, editing Colonisation on a paper printout was a massive error as it doubled the workload – edit the work, then transpose those substantial edits to the digital version. It’s a task that simply hasn’t happened as it’s not fun at all, it’s work. That has sapped my enthusiasm to essentially make the same big changes twice. I’ve learned to just work digitally – it might not be as romantic as editing on paper or using a typewriter but my identification of my own workflow means I need to limit impedances to productivity or I’ll get nothing done.
The World Eaters (2012)
My final outing (to date!) into NaNoWrimo was with my grand space opera The World Eaters – a culmination of everything I feel I learned from Steamers or Colonisation – I’d planned assiduously for writing this one – hoping to create a whole new universe for my story to take place in. Likewise, I attempted with this project to write something completely different to what I’d done before – perhaps a gratuitous attempt at showcasing versatility, but I feel the attempt was the most polished out of the three NaNoWriMo projects I attempted. Looking over the manuscript briefly in preparing this post I feel it holds up pretty well as a first draft; indeed, I was most pleased with the prologue I’d written, which you can now read. I think it set the scene admirably, with great imagery and really dipped into the before, while the rest of the book takes place considerably after.
But what happened? Simply… I ran out of steam after completing the NaNoWriMo effort for it. I found some early edits on the first few chapters but that’s it. I do feel, now, like revisiting the manuscript as I feel it’s the one of the three I’ve given the least mental anguish to but in the time since I put pen to paper for The World Eaters I’ve read books such as the Expanse novels and they’re in a class of their own, and I can’t say I’m humongous interested in space opera, especially after reading that, but that’s something that could certainly change – I’d for a long time thought the Fallout games had done post-apoc so well there was no mileage I could take but here we are with the last edit of The Thaw before submission!
Reading over the manuscript to The World Eaters now, I think there’s some golden ideas there and some original worldbuilding but the vehicle the story is told through – the aging space freighter Urba Fawk, which naturally ends up in the wrong place in the wrong time, with it’s crew led by the devilish rogue Jack Dante (as character names go, however, this is one of my best) – screams Expanse to me now, and I worry if it would be considered too derivative.
For what it’s worth, I’m sure I’d just watched (and enjoyed a lot) Firefly…
Overall I think my experience with NaNoWriMo has been a positive one – I learned something from each project, and I tried to give something different a go each year. Initially, and importantly, it helped me gain a lot of writing confidence, enough to know I was capable of writing a 50,000 word story in 30 days! But reflecting on it in recent times… I’m not sure if I’d do it again. Certainly I wouldn’t bank on any of my three stories being “publishable” like I believe The Thaw to be, and that’s a book I feel has benefitted from a longer period of time in the oven. But I’ve even learned from that to not be too slow with that, which is something I’ll hopefully look to address in a new project I hope to start next year once The Thaw is being edited by someone who isn’t me!
For those endeavouring in thirty days and nights of literary abandon, let this not put you off, you’re doing something you should be proud of! It’s a fantastic accomplishment regardless, but my advice is there!