NaNoWriMo – Three Project Reflections

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.

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Cover mockups from 2010

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:

Colonisation (2011)

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.

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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:

  • Colonisation_final_2.jpgFirst 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.

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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

Conclusions

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!

Re-Colonisation: The Journey to Mars Zero

Releasing my first full-length novel Colonisation in April 2013 was a pretty big deal for me, and even though that form was only available briefly, it taught me a ton of lessons that are reflected in my writing to this day.

I’ve been closely scrutinising my own work in terms of Colonisation; I’ve nearly finished (at long last) a careful and thorough pass over the current draft, with a ton of changes I hope to make. Some of them are to harmonise my own in-universe terms and ideas, and some are as mundane as spelling and others as significant as re-architecting entire chapters. It’s been a heavy job; I am my most ardent critic, but it’s been thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable.

During that time, too, I’ve also read a lot, and written a lot more and I feel Colonisation can benefit from the cumulative experience I’ve gained during the rewrite and writing subsequence short stories. Moreover, I feel that Colonisation has, a a concept, outgrown not only my initial aims – no longer do I feel the “young adult pulp sci-fi” epithet does the story I both want to and now feel I can tell justice – but also its title.

Mars Zero

Colonisation is no more – the edition I’m working on now will go under the title of Mars Zero.

My rationale is that my plans for the book – to bring the story to a wider appeal through better characterisation, better pacing and, to be honest, better science means a new title is not only advantageous but befitting. I’m taking inspiration from the Mars One project that I find both fascinating and inspiring. I’ve also been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal colonisation novel Red Mars – it’s a book I’d have loved to write; that realisation alone led to my new plans for Mars Zero – which had proved an education, and given me the grounds to focus my efforts with the current “green” rewrite (current rewrite is in red pen; I’ll do another pass in green with the new additions) that’ll take me the rest of the year.

The core of the story that I told in the original Colonisation is going to be intact. It’s going to be about a group of pioneers, betrayed by their human brethren, forging a path on a new world and the inherent struggles. But it’s going to be so much more than a slushy teenage love story with the a science-fiction story on the periphery; the science is going to get hardened up and the action more compelling.

I can’t wait to show Mars Zero to you as soon as I can squeeze it from my brain! So keep your spacesuits warmed up, it’s on the way!

2013: The Year S**t Got Real

With the end of 2013 approaching I suppose it’s about time for a little retrospective of the year that’s passed and how it affects my outlook into the year ahead.

Firstly, I’m probably the most impressed with my writing output this year: sixty blogposts of, I hope, decent informative quality, a novel in the form of Colonisation and eight short stories totalling 32,779 words. At the beginning of 2013, I had no idea such a thing would be possible!

Writing short stories has been a real eye-opener and it’s something I definitely want to keep going with! There’s a certain freedom in not having to devote an inordinate amount of time to a theme to find it doesn’t work which allows for experimentation, plus it gets content to people quicker! I hate to keep talking about creating content; I want to be putting it out there!

April saw the release of my debut full-length novel Colonisation, and it was a learning experience, one that I shall endeavour to document more fully later. Suffice it to say, I’ve learned a lot about the self-publishing landscape and book-writing in general from Colonisation and when Colonisation rematerialises in its second edition next year, it’ll reflect those lessons.

For me, 2013 has cemented in my mind that this writing lark is not just great fun but something I really should develop further. 2014 is the year I’ll strive to act on these instinctive feelings – the first step of which will be to begin the application process for a university degree in the field of English, something I’ll again talk about in detail soon!

So where does that leave me now? I’ve a good mind to amalgamate my eight current short stories – the four “longer” ones and the other flash-fics into my Rememories collection early next year. I’ll keep writing other shorts too; maybe a yearly collection will be the done thing for me going forward? Other than that, I’m slating Colonisation for an April-May release in its second edition guise and The World Eaters will burst forth later, maybe in October!

As always, keep an eye on the site for updates as I write ‘em! I’m looking forward to documenting the upcoming journey; stick around for the ride, it might actually prove to be fun!

Image credit

Discoveries about Editing

I’ve recently been throwing myself headlong into editing the second edition of Colonisation and in the course of this undertaking had a bit of a writer’s epiphany.

Before I go on, this is how Colonisation looks right now on my desk:

Colonisation editing

Editing my book by hand, with a red pen and a printed copy has been an extremely cathartic experience and it’s proving to be a great way to reconnect with my work at a very base level. I’m already identifying errors and passages for improvement; heck, I’m even making notations of the improvements to add as I go along! I’m also identifying stupid errors in grammar and spelling that I’m both a bit surprised and ashamed got through.

Reading my work and adding notes in this form has a totally different “feel” to the digital version I toiled over (maybe too  hastily) before. I can disconnect much easier and look at my work in a more critical light, mainly because of the drastic format change and the stark absence of “by Richard Holliday” anywhere on the printout. It’s just Colonisation the book, with space to add notes and scribblings for ideas, identifying plot holes and more

Another epic feeling is progress; with the digital copy, it just felt like and endless stream of words… that just ended. With my printout… I don’t know… I just feel I’m making more “progress” when I can turn a page and get scribbling on it afresh.

I really don’t know how I edited before, but for certain going forward, editing large projects without a stage involving a printed copy is not going to happen. It may cost me a bomb in paper, box files, red pens and toner cartridges but it’s already feeling like time well spent!

Though one thing I’m steering clear of: highlighting passages and simply noting “improve” or “redo”; Future Me cannot remember everything Current Me is thinking, so a few pointers are going in!

As Colonisation remains my first project, I’m as yet undecided as to whether to send it to professional editing. I’m of the opinion that as it’s a pretty narrow-scope book and not too ambitious I can tighten it up myself (after a few passes here) and release it as is, and move on. Rest assured, my next project, the grand space opera The World Eaters will be edited professionally as a project of it’s complex scope will require. Colonisation is more a learning experience than anything else; I’m proud of it as my first book but the best really is yet to come!

Got any editing tips or thoughts on my new workflow? Or are you interested in finding out more about Colonisation? By all means, leave me a comment; I love reading them! :-)