Articles, Writing

So You’ve Finished NaNoWriMo – A Past Winner’s Tips

NaNoWriMo is finished for another year! I didn’t do NaNoWriMo, but in a sense I wish I had. Indeed, I have previously reflected on my experience from years ago. After thirty days, you’ve done it – you’ve put 50,000 words down into a (hopefully) cohesive work and you can call yourself a novelist. Now what happens?

First of all, relax. You’ve just done a great thing, regardless of the perceived “quality” of what you’ve created. Writing a novel is difficult, but you should absolutely feel rewarded in having put the work and dedication into create a story – and hopefully you’ve made memorable characters and insightful events happen in the course of 50,000 words. It’s a tremendous accomplishment after a month of madness – dizzying excitement, harrowing stress and everything in between.

Second of all, you have not written a novel. At least, not a finished one. Here’s what absolutely should not happen:

  • You post what you’ve written straight onto Amazon as a self-published book
  • You send what you’ve written to a literary editor

Why do I say this? Because a novel forged in 30 days at absolute breakneck speed is bound to be a litany of flaws, errors and narrative meandering and dead-ends. Heck, even one you wrote and thought you’d revised can turn out to be drek.

And that’s absolutely fine. Every narrative piece – from my experience – is formed in this fiery crucible. Without tooting my own horn too much, even an experienced writer such as myself writes dreadful first drafts. You will not like the response you get to either of those things listed above.

But remember what a first draft is really for: a first draft is for the writer to simply get the story down in its most base forms. The first draft is the one you will, in time, hone and mould into a polished piece to be proud of.

So, what should you do?

Ask yourself the following question: did I get the whole story down from beginning to end?

If you did: Take a break from the piece. Let it sit in a drawer or on a shelf for a few weeks. Potentially until January so you can get Christmas out of the way and be ready to approach the piece with fresh eyes which should pick up the errors more readily. You can better question the decisions you made simply to hit 1,667 words before the clock struck midnight in the cold light of day. I find taking some distance from a project can be a wonderful experience; take some time away, or even approach it in a different medium (print it out and read it fresh in hard copy) and it’ll be like reading it like you’d never even written it.

If you didn’t: Take a break anyway. The NaNoWriMo drafting process is brutal, but utterly rewarding. Give yourself some time to think about where the story still needs to go. But do not go back and edit anything. Make notes of your ideas. And, once you’ve had a rest, keep that momentum going and get the story finished. Then take another break before you prepare to climb the mountain once again.

But what if you didn’t hit 50,000 words in November? Is this cause for celebration? Yes! Are you a failure? No! Embarking on the journey takes guile and courage. The 50,000 word goal across November is totally arbitrary. You created something out of nothing and that’s absolutely laudible, brave and courageous. One of the refreshing aspects of NaNoWrimo is that there is no real judging,; it’s a challenge you set yourself because you want to, and the only reward at the end of it is the gratifying feeling of accomplishment.

The advice still stands if your story didn’t hit 50,000 – if there’s still some narrative way to go, use that momentum! If you wrapped it up in 35,000 words – well done, you’ve written a novella, which is just as brilliant and as much an accomplishment.

You may find that what you have written is irredeemable, rotten garbage. Y ou may feel that now, but in the light of day it may be an inaccurate assessment. Even if this is the case, 50,000 terrible words is still a damn sight better than zero non-existent ones. You may think there’s wheat among the chaff. That’s fine – a first draft (or to use a method I learned from Jason Arnopp, draft zero) exists solely for the author. It shouldn’t see the light of day until you’ve taken the time to polish and prune it into something wonderful – arguably the harder task after slamming down the words initially!

Editing, querying and preparing for publication can take many times the time it took for you to get those words down initially, but you’ve done the first step in an amazing creative journey. NaNoWriMo winners can and have been published, so writing those thousands of words in 30 days is just the first step along an incredible journey!

Recommended reading: So You’ve Finished NaNoWriMo by Stephan of Story Factory UK

Read more of my posts about NaNoWriMo

Articles, Writing

Milwordy Thoughts

Recently I wrote about developing healthy writing habits to bring about a positive change in workflow while maintaining productivity. This has been going mostly well for me – I’ve been setting writing goals most weeks and achieving them, though I have been a bit uninspired of late while my novel is being read by beta-readers; I have lots of ideas, just a bit of a struggle getting the momentum going.

More recently than that, I have had the concept of Milwordy brought to my attention by members of the writing community I have been participating in.

Milwordy is a challenge, a lot like Nanowrimo, but considerably more intense: instead of 50,000 words in 30 days, the challenge is to put down a million words over the course of a calendar year.

My thoughts and reflections on my Healthy Writing Habits post that I referred to at the start of this post came to mind when I saw this.

Then alarm bells started ringing for me.

On first glance, I think Milwordy is a terrible idea – for me, as a writer. It may work for other writers. I may, as is seemingly often the case, be blowing smoke out of whatever orifice takes my fancy.

My gut reaction was “good lord, this is awful!” but these are simply my own opinions. Let’s get past the gut reaction and into the rationale of why I think Milwordy would be fairly disastrous for me and why I won’t be participating – but to those that do take up the mantle you have my eternal good wishes as you embark upon this.

As I said before, I set healthy, achievable writing goals these days, week-to-week. I don’t always acheve them, and that’s fine, I can carry them over. But I set goals I know I can do so as not to be utterly intimidated by the journey ahead.

Milwordy can be accomplished by writing just under 3,000 words a day, every day, for a year to achieve. That’s daunting and intimidating, it’s like facing some amazingly-high cliff face with just a pick and pushing yourself to climb it. It can be done, it’ll be an achievement, but is it worth the stress? Maybe, for the kudos of having done it, but perhaps not:

I’ve often cited Stephen King’s On Writing across this blog as I think it’s a great book on craft and it’s pretty inspirational to see the creative process of a writer not too dissimilar to myself, who is known not necessarily for literary merit but effectiveness with the clunking hammer of genre fiction. However, one piece of advice I quickly realised was more harmful than good was King’s insistence on writing 2,000 words before doing anything else that day. And he does this day in and day out.

The issue I have with this is that I fear that in the quest to hit that 2,000 words before being able to do anything, you end up writing anything. In effect, you end up committing such garbage to the page in the pursuit of having “done” your daily words as soon as you wake up that you’re merely deferring sorting out the mess you’re creating. If we take the “write 2,000 words first thing before you do anything” to its extreme, literal, meaning, you come up with a lot of garbage. Indeed, my main criticism with The Shining as a book was that it was largely absolute garbage.

Going back to the post on “healthy writing goals”, I set lower limits. Sometimes it’s 5,000 words a week, which is about a third of King’s “guaranteed” output, but they’re arguably better words that will require less thought-intensive work to iron into something polished and presentable. Sometimes my weekly goals are set around “activities”, not wordcounts as I can achieve, say, many goals around writing that aren’t necessarily writing words that are just as important – planning stories, mapping ideas, working on outlines. These tasks arguably make the bash-bash-bash of actually putting the words down – which I am not avoiding, by the way; I just feel like it’s a lot easier to throw narrative meat onto a skeleton you’ve put together in planning, and I reflected on planning versus “pantsing” before, too.

I’m now in my 30s and when it comes to my writing, I am trying to be consciously more productive but also in what may seem counter-intuitive, I am trying very much to reduce stress associated with writing. Writing is something I always want to enjoy and not suffer stress over, and overburdening oneself is a sure-fire way to inordinate amounts of stress. I have a bit of a background of anxiety and depression, which isn’t fun but it’s a fact about me, and getting stressed about writing does nothing good for those things. Writing should be a fun route of escapism from those issues!

In terms of reading, I no longer track my reading on GoodReads as part of a “reading challenge” as I felt I was very much feeling anxious about that and it turned reading into less an enjoyable pastime but some mad rush to just get through books as they’d count to my total, and I would be anxious if I was falling behind. I even picked “easy” reads I knew I’d get through because of that, and it actually made me extremely conservative in my reading.

Now I read pretty much what I wish and I am a lot less reserved about “taking a punt” on books; actually some of my favourite reads have been from that “took a punt” category. I also stopped publishing my reading updates on Twitter as I was getting self-conscious about those being in public view; now I use GoodReads purely as a personal log of my reading, I don’t get involved in the challenges or post updates to social media. The result? My anxiety about reading has greatly reduced and I read for fun a lot more, and I’m surprisingly more avid in my reading now I’m not making expectations of myself or announcing my progress to all and sundry.

I’ve also had three successes with Nanowrimo in the past and these are important things to me in terms of my writer’s journey. But I am now in a place at the age of 30 where I can’t commit to bashing out 1,700 words a day in November. I’m very honest about that. When I was writing The Thaw I deliberately let the draft take a few months to write (though that slipped quite a bit, but I feel the resultant draft was a lot better than it would’ve been had I thrown words out at breakneck speed).

Though I now disregard King’s On Writing advice about writing 2,000 words a day, one piece of advice that I think marries up really well with my goal to make better, healthier writing goals is that a draft should be completed, however long, within the duration of a season. This can be seen as about three months.

I do have aspirations to start a new novel project in 2021, which I will be planning for pretty extensively in the twilight months of 2020 and I am eager to really strive to get the first draft of that done in “a season”, or about 12 weeks. Without wanting to jinx anything, I could potentially do two first drafts of novels in 2021 if I give myself the requisite planning time – maybe 12 weeks to plan, 12 weeks to write.

But back to Milwordy: the pressure of Nanowrimo is something that is feasibly confinable to a messy November. 30 days of stressing over daily word counts and prose issues is uncomfortable but doable. I’m not sure I could prolong that for an entire year. Plus, too, I think that Milwordy requires a great deal more foresight than Nanowrimo, and who knows indeed what they’ll be doing in a year? Given how 2020 has unfolded across the globe, who could have possibly predicted us being where we are?! And I fear that this sort of unknown might seriously impact a writer’s confidence as there seems to be little room for error for “real life” to crop up unexpectedly, as these moments invariably do.

My writing routine is not to simply wait for the muse to strike, however; but I take a technical and pragmatic approach to my goals and my writing when I’m putting pen to paper. I can and do have bouts of extreme productivity but especially when starting a project, it sometimes takes a little coaxing, hence I can’t always drop everything to write, though I do when the imagination sparks, don’t you worry.

I admit, this post may seem like I am chickening out of Milwordy. Perhaps I am. I am happy to say that if that’s the case. This isn’t meant to be a bitter post about the concept as anything that gets writers writing should definitely be commended. But I’m always trying to re-evaluate my workflow when it comes to writing and get to a comfortable but productive zone that I’m happy with. Writing should always be fun, and the biggest motivation killer I’ve found is when it feels like work – you don’t want to do it, and you end up actively avoiding it.

That said I would be extremely interested to hear from anyone who is doing Milwordy and what they think about my criticisms and thoughts on the matter. They’re entirely personal and are reflective on my own state of mind when it comes to writing, and I do wish those aspiring to complete Milwordy all the best, and don’t think I won’t be supporting you on this epic journey!

Articles, Writing

Writing Thoughts: Developing Healthy Writing Habits

Recently I’ve been exploring a bit more of the writing community – it’s great fun getting to know an interacting with more like-minded souls who are embarking on the writing journey.

I’ve recently subscribed to UK-based writer Benjamin T. Milnes as part of these efforts and I’ve been watching his various videos on his YouTube Channel – there’s some very good writing advice there and some great insight into his own processes. Recently he published a video about building writing habits:

This was a very good video and I’d strongly suggest you watch it in full. Certainly it got me thinking about my own writing habits and how important that is to constantly evolve but also to be aware of one’s own habits, so I think it’d be helpful to reflect on my own writing habits and some of the pertinent points from Benjamin’s excellent video.

Benjamin makes an excellent point that writing needs to be habitual, or a book will never get written. Occasional writing is almost worse than no writing at all as the speed at which one produces a work is glacial. Benjamin talks in his video about his initial draft that he was working on occasionally being one that would’ve taken years to complete. This is routinely unsatisfying as a writer for a few reasons:

  • The book takes forever to write – I feel that if you want to take writing in any way seriously you need to be somewhat productive and able to sustain writing large amounts of words in a fairly short time. Writing occasionally does very little to foster a professional attitude to writing that is necessary to be in any way a professional writer or author.

    I know this myself from my past projects: The Thaw is a book I wrote in my second year of University – so, 2016 time – and it’s only now approaching a stage where I’m ready to get it professionally edited and then start querying it. There’s been periods of months between edits – some of those times are unintentional, due to real-life stuff taking priority – but I look back in some shame at the time it’s taken me to get The Thaw done, because it has taken a long time and also, when reading the later drafts, I realise it’s a great book and I’m immensely proud of it; I just want to get it done and out there!
  • It’s easy to lose track of ideas – as one’s memory of writing a specific section wanes as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult to remember those points and having to look those up again for the details only serves to further slow the writing process down.
  • You’re unable to work on other ideas – if you’re spending so long writing one book, what good is having an idea for another if you don’t have the creative endurance to work on it? I am, myself, quite single-minded in that I don’t tend to spin more than one creative plate at a time, lest they all suffer.

So where can occasional writing come from? One aspect I’ve acutely had to deal with in the 10 years I’ve been writing “properly” is a sense of imposter syndrome. I think about writing a lot, but actually putting pen to paper, or hand to keyboard can be a terrifying prospect as I don’t feel worthy. But I know that I am – firstly, I hold a degree in Creative Writing. But more importantly once I gain that initial momentum of getting going even on a short session the flow quickly follows.

But I do have a great sense of what I type needs to be perfect first time I type it or don’t bother and that is a killer fear that results in procrastination – doing anything but writing.

What, therefore forms a “healthy writing habit”?

In the video, Benjamin starts by stating his initial writing habit was to write 500 words before doing anything else. That’s not a bad starting point for establishing writing as a routine that you do, not something you’re almost too scared of doing. However I don’t necessarily agree in totality with daily writing goals:

  • Daily writing goals leave no room for off-days – sometimes when you’re writing constantly, you can suffer from burnout.  I think writing every day results in added stress and pressure to create, which can be one of the biggest motivation-killers
  • You write anything to reach that goal – Stephen King famously, in On Writing, said that he wrote “ten pages a day”. I’m sure he also referenced getting those done before anything else in his day. While that does result in the word-count quickly accumulating, as Benjamin qualifies later in his video, it’s better to write 500-1,000 decent words a day than 4,000 absolutely terrible ones that you’ll only have to fix in editing.
  • Unattainable goals can hurt motivation – sometimes you just can’t write as much per day as you’d like, and I think that having unrealistically-high wordcount goals – Benjamin mentions in the video upwards of 7,000 words a day – not only results in churn but you set yourself up for failure if you simply can’t write that much on any given day; this sense of failure takes the enjoyment I think is key when writing to stay focussed and motivated.

I agree – forcing yourself to get in the chair and put pen to paper can be the key to setting up a healthy routine. And yes, finding a time of day that you’re most productive at helps massively too. I recall writing quite large sections of my stories at ungodly hours in the morning – that was what worked for me at the time and sometimes when the muse hits you, you have to grasp it then and there.

So what are my own personal thoughts on developing a healthy writing habit? Let’s examine the mindset I’ve thought up over time:

  • Set weekly or monthly goals to accomplish – this strikes a fine balance, I feel, between writing every day – which while good when it’s sustainable can be a drag when not – and writing occasionally, which is very unproductive. Setting a weekly goal also allows, I feel, for the intricacies of real life – it allows for “off-days” that you simply can relax on, either to cool off or let ideas percolate.
  • Work on diverse projects you can switch to as you feel able to  – While I’m a poor proponent of multitasking when writing, sometimes you get stuck on a project and if you’re being too rigid with yourself with your writing habit, that can, like so many of the other pitfalls, just crater your motivation. I like to have a few projects or goals for any specific period of time – say, editing one longer piece, working on another shorter piece or throwing together a post for my website – that I can jump to on a specific day.
  • Be mindful of letting those days-off turn into months-off – distance from a project is healthy – King once again stated in On Writing that once a draft is finished to throw it in a drawer, to take some distance from it before returning. But too often I’ve let that becomes a several-months gap, for which I’m kicking myself. But it’s about allowing yourself that period of relaxation, recharging the batteries, even being able to watch TV without feeling guilty you’re not constantly writing that helps but maintaining that momentum. It’s a fine balance of maintaining a good distance from the project to remain objective to losing sight of what it was you wanted to achieve.

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

Stephen King, On Writing

My personal writing habits are to set those weekly or monthly goals. For instance, I’ll aim to “do something creative” most days of the week – whether that be writing new words, editing projects, or working on a blogpost. Attempting to do a mix of writing and editing keeps both skills supple and gives a project to “switch to”, should the motivation on a given day peter out. I prefer to work during the day these days, with the window open and the sun shining – though creating a productive workspace is a topic for a future post.

Benjamin states in his video that a motivated writer achieving 7,000 words a day can have a novel done in a couple of weeks – but should they? As before, such high volumes so quickly increases dramatically the chances of “churn”.

Setting a more healthy and attainable long-term goal of 500-1,200 words I feel is ideal, especially for those new to writing longform prose. I recall cutting my teeth on that in November 2010 as part of NaNoWriMo when I wrote a book entitled The Last of the Steamers – it was a fantastic achievement to have done, and the average writing goal of 1,700 words a day to achieve 50,000 words in November is just at the upper sweet spot of what Ben – and I – consider a decent goal.

Nowadays however my timeframes are more relaxed – I recall more of King’s advice from On Writing:

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

Stephen King, On Writing

I agree, that is the sweet spot – my first draft of The Thaw that I’m currently working on took around 4-5 months. This missed the goal set by King (and that I’d set myself) but I was still happy to have taken my time, and I’m sure that the next book I hit the ground on (I’ve plenty of ideas!) will further get me to that goal.

The most important takeaway for authors approaching this? Train yourself to be productive, and don’t fear it. But also find a healthy compromise that maintains your productivity but doesn’t result in stress. After all, each word that you write each time you can is a word you didn’t have written before!

I’d also highly recommend Benjamin T. Milnes’ YouTube channel as he’s posting some great videos on craft and his own work. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook.