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.

SteamersCovers2010Grid
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!

Assessments, Writing

The Story of “The Steamers”

Today I’d like to comprehensively and openly talk about my first – and currently shelved – novel The Last of the Steamers.

As with all stories, I’ll start at the beginning with the genesis of the book idea. I’d been toying around for a while, considering what I wanted to do, and one evening in December 2009 a flash of inspiration fluttered across my mind and immediately I reached for my notebook and jotted down the very beginnings of Chapter 1, creating characters and settings, but not quite nailing the plot for the book. The events of Chapter 1 were pretty much set in stone early on but the rest of the story… it didn’t quite gel. Not knowing quite what to do with this, my notebook was put down on a table.

Fast forward a year to winter 2010 and in about mid-October I remembered the existence of National Novel Writing Month and decided to throw caution to the wind and write up this novel (as yet untitled) as a debut attempt. I did so and with a feeling of exhilaration and utter euphoria, I crossed the 50,000 word mark and had a completed draft. However, I’d pretty much made up the plot as I went along, but I’d actually achieved what I thought impossible and written a freaking novel, despite a bit of bemusement from friends and family.

Anyway, I let it sit for a month until after Christmas and then went about editing it; and thus disaster struck. Not really knowing what needed to be done, I tried to proofread and rewrite the book in one fell swoop; as one can imagine, I got bogged down pretty swiftly as I didn’t have a concrete plan for a plot, just a miasma of scenes, themes and ideas that I was trying to build up to and join together. Plus, I’d omitted in the original draft to add chapters, and this was a big error: I had a 50,000 word blob of text that I was attacking from too many fronts, and eventually it became such a confused slog that about 6 months into the edit (and way, way over my deadline) I stopped working on the book, by which point had been named The Last of the Steamers.

With the help of a couple of friends, I managed to salvage near the end of 2011 the first three chapters and turned them into an audiobook preview – a project we all really enjoyed doing. However, it still left me with an unfinished novel that I was actually “scared” to work on. Honestly, I felt that my writing abilities were not sufficient to do the story that I wanted to tell justice in that book, so I’ve left the aborted edited manuscript alone for months.

All is not lost, though; I learned three key lessons in this saga:

  • Chapterise. Breaking work down in the initial phases makes life a lot more manageable later on.
  • Outline. I don’t really like to outline, per-se; however, having even a vague idea of the journey you want the plot to take, even if the ending eludes you until you literally have to edit it, will take the strain off. Outlining is a subject I want to approach again in a later post.
  • Be methodical. You don’t have to edit everything in one go with a book like this. I learned with Colonisation to not be afraid to do editing passes; with each pass over the book requiring less and less work as the refinements are ground in. Also, before you take any red pens to the work, read it in its entirety first and re-familiarise yourself with it.

What next for Steamers though, I hear you ask! Well, it’s something I do want to approach again, but I can’t quite find the time to do it. With big projects like this, I find that multi-tasking is not going to be a possibility, and splitting my energies will be detrimental to both projects on the cooker. However, I will be taking time between Colonisation and editing The World Eaters to at least import the manuscript into Scrivener; I’ll keep the first three chapters that have been edited (I would maybe re-approach them but they’re “locked” in audio form) as they stand but the rest of the book is going to be rewritten from scratch, though I will almost certainly incorporate ideas from the original draft but all the writing will be new.

Again, finding the time for this is something I’m going to have to work on – a project maybe for 2014. I feel a little exhausted at the moment so maybe once Colonisation, The World Eaters and eventually The Last of the Steamers is completed I’ll take a break from novels and stick to short stories for a while.

Well, that’s that I guess; it was good to get it out there about this project and my inner thoughts and feelings about it. Steamers, as my first ever novel attempt, is very close to my heart, and I really do hope, patient reader, you can enjoy it too.

Project page for The Last of the Steamers – with audiobook – is online now!