Articles, Writing

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!

Articles, Writing

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!

Writing

Looking Back On NaNoWriMo

This time five years ago I was halfway through my inaugural attempt at NaNoWriMo, and halfway through writing my first ever novel-length writing project. It was the culmination of a few weeks of late-night planning of something great, and ultimately what I would say is the first big “event” that signposted my taking “this writing thing” as a serious endeavour.

I’ve attempted and completed NaNoWriMo three times; each successive time I learned something I didn’t know from the previous effort – to break my work into chapters, to have an outline prepared, and to be absolutely committed and have a rough roadmap of my story before November 1st. I really think that, as an event, it’s a great way to jumpstart one’s creativity, and to turn those eminently-latent thoughts of that novel you always wanted to write into something material. There’s also an awesome, supportive community that breaks down that barrier of writing being a solitary and exclusionary practise.

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year; I’ve always been a proponent of business being an actual help to the writing process, but my university studies are quite intensive at the moment as I’m still fully transitioning to full-time education after years away, so I can’t really pillage time from my schedule for NaNoWriMo this year; at any rate, I want to write my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw and my outline is nowhere near ready for the actual drafting to begin. I want to really harness that frenetic, creative energy to get the project off to a good start.

I always see NaNoWriMo as an opportunity, too, to tweak and further optimise one’s workflow, as productivity is key. The one aspect of NaNoWriMo that I found the most motivating was updating my spreadsheet to see my progress claw toward the goal of 50,000 words, and in a way, I find having such a crazy deadline brings about the most unexpected, and enjoyable, bouts of creativity.

I’m working right now on some ideas and plans for next year; I want to also reflect on this year as a whole – looking back on my resolutions, I’ve not kept to them particularly well, so I want to reflect on why that is and how I can look to better my outlook in 2016, and this will include the questions as to what is ultimately going to happen to my three partially-completed manuscripts that I wrote in those three heady Novembers. Happy writing!