November starts tomorrow, having settled into its new role as the month where you do something a bit different in order to give you something to talk about on the internet. As I already have facial hair, I can’t take part in Movember, so instead it’ll be another attempt at National Novel Writing Month. Amazingly, despite the fact it’s spread far and wide from its origin as something attempted by a group of friends in San Francisco to become a worldwide phenomenon, that stubborn ‘National’ clings alone to the front, with no concerted efforts to either delete it or add an ‘inter’ before it it. That’s probably because people don’t want to work out how to pronounce ‘NoWriMo’ or InNaNoWriMo’ after putting so much effort into learning to pronounce NaNoWriMo.
(Of course, if National Novel Writing Month didn’t exist, it’d be the sort of thing the National Office of Importance would have produced a poster about)
Yet again, I will be attempting to produce fifty thousand words of something during the next thirty days, and as this will be my fifth attempt after four previous successes, I thought I should share my wisdom with you all and collate the lessons I’ve learned over those previous 200,000 words. I may go on at length, so if you want to read more, you’ll find it beneath the cut.
The first thing I’ve learned is that it is possible to do it. That might sound odd, but back when I first tried it in 2006, the idea of writing fifty thousand words of the same story in any period of time seemed incredibly daunting, and the idea of doing it in a single month seemed impossibly ridiculous. 2206, though, was my year for doing things that seemed impossibly ridiculous at the start, and having walked a thousand miles, maybe fifty thousand words weren’t quite as impossible as they’d seemed whenever I’d heard of NaNoWriMo before.
So I sat down to write at midnight on the first of November that year and found that once I’d set myself the target of doing it, the words began to flow out of me and the story started to take shape on the page in front of me. It wasn’t all plain sailing that first year – there were several parts where I realised I’d walked my characters almost all the way up a blind alley with no way back, and a point half way through when I realised I was using completely the wrong character as the main viewpoint – but I made it with a couple of days to spare and since then, knowing I can write that much if I set that target has been a great motivation.
One thing I did learn about that year is the importance of giving yourself ‘permission to suck’ if you’re going to complete the challenge. One of the worst faults I have with my writing is the belief that everything I’ve written can be improved in some way, and it’s much more important to go back and make that first chapter perfect than it is to push on with telling the story. After a while of that, I decide that the story’s not progressing – because I’m choosing to polish it rather than progress it – and then find myself lured away by the prospect of a bright shiny new idea that definitely has legs. Now, if I can just get the first chapter of it right, I can get on and tell the rest…
There’s a saying that writing, and perhaps all art, is never finished, only abandoned. There comes a point when we have to decide to stop polishing, pimping and tidying and release something out into the world, even though we’re sure that with just a little more time we can get it absolutely right. The principle of NaNoWriMo forces that point of abandonment onto you as soon as you’ve written something. Sure, you can go back and fix those obvious and egregious errors – I’m sure I’m not alone in being unable to leave a red spell-check line in a document – but the need to produce 1,667 words a day means you can’t let yourself get too precious about anything you’ve written. You have to abandon each sentence after it’s done and move on to the next one, or you’ll never get there.
In short, you have to give yourself that ‘permission to suck’ and understand that the point of this isn’t to produce something complete and perfect but something that’s another step in the process of telling your story. My attitude to NaNoWriMo has been to see it as an exercise in producing a zero draft, something that’s not even a first draft, but a first attempt to explore the world of your story and the characters who live in it. This is an opportunity to explore and experiment, to see what the story actually is before attempting to tell it.
Your vision may vary, and that’s fine. No two stories are the same, and no two writers have exactly the same method. All I can do is share mine and hope that it somehow inspires someone in some way, even if it is just ‘well, I wouldn’t do it like that’. All my NaNoWriMo works have been stories that have been floating around in my head for some time before waiting to be set down. My stories tend to come together by accretion. I’ll start with a basic idea, which can be anything – a character, a place, a turn of phrase, an interesting image – and then other ideas will start to accumulate onto it and around it until it reaches a certain size, with enough things attached to make it into what feels like it could be a whole story. At that point, it’s ready for a zero draft.
The idea of that draft is to work out in words what works and what doesn’t. Because it’s not for publication and possibly not even for reading, even by me, I can turn off all the filters and just let the various facets of the story pour out onto the page. Characters can wander, conversations can meander and narrative structure can go for a nice holiday and come back in another month when it might have a role to play. When faced with the looming word target of NaNoWriMo, I have to get all the various agglomerations of detail out of my head, and then see what shape the story takes. I don’t like infodumps – most of the time they’re not storytelling, just recitation of information – but this is their natural home. This is where I can break the rules and let people have ‘as you know’ conversations about history or how something works because while they might know it, I’m not sure I do.
Effectively, I’m interrogating my subconscious to release all the things about a story it’s been working on and then deciding if it works. That first year, I discovered that the basic idea I had did work, but the way I was thinking of telling it didn’t work. It’s an odd realisation when you get halfway through a story and the person you thought was the main character is effectively shouldered aside by one of the supporting cast saying ‘excuse me, but this is my story, haven’t you realised that?’ That story’s still sitting there and waiting to be written, though I’ve read and seen other novels using similar ideas published in the last few years, so I don’t know how original it would seem.
The second time I did it (2009), I found that a story I had thought of for a while could work on the page, but it seemed that it needed the right structure to do it. Though later, the new structure didn’t help and I realised it actually needed a whole new setting, and working on that will be the basis of this year’s writing.
The third time (2010) was the first time I came up with a story that I couldn’t get to work, despite trying a whole load of different angles on it throughout the month. I made it to fifty thousand, but it wasn’t the most pleasurable of experiences, and the story’s been locked away in an obscure part of the hard drive ever since. It still resurfaces in my mind occasionally, but I’m still not sure how to tell it, or even what the story itself is at this point.
And last year, I had my NaNo-rebellion, producing fifty thousand words of short stories because I needed to take a break after producing the first draft of the work I’d begun in 2009. That was fun at times, and certainly different, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a different approach to NaNoWriMo. One thing that’s helped me get to fifty thousand in previous years is the ability to digress and explore, and that’s not there in a short story. Each time I finished one, I had to come up with something new for the next one and rather than the momentum of a continuing story, I had the stop-start of separate ones to contend with.
And as you’ve made it this far through my ramblings on NaNoWriMo and storytelling, some tips for those of you who might be mad enough to be attempting it.
First up, if you can, try and write tonight from midnight. If you can get in a solid hour before sleeping then you’ve got a decent start when you sit down to ‘properly’ start tomorrow. Following on from that, don’t always expect to do all your words for the day in one sitting. Squeezing out fifty or a hundred words here or there – you’d be amazed at how quickly you can write a paragraph if you need to – chips away at the target in manageable chunks, not a mammoth slog every day.
Don’t be afraid to digress, diversify or wander. Use the chance to explore and find out what makes your characters tick, how the world they live in works. Think about the minor characters and the background ones – if everyone’s a hero in their own story, what’s happening to them while your story is going on?
Make some friends while you’re doing it. After years of doing it on my own, I finally went to a NaNoWriMo meetup last year, and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made the great friends and contacts I’ve got through Colchester WriteNight. Indeed, if three of us from Colchester hadn’t decided separately to go to Chelmsford that day, WriteNight probably wouldn’t exist.
Finally, remember that 1,667 words a day isn’t that much really. Honest. This post is now almost 1,800 words long and has taken me about an hour to write. Something like this every day would be enough to get you over the finish line with a couple of days to spare. And if I can do it, why can’t you?
Quick plug: WriteNight will be hosting NaNoWriMo write-ins from 7.30pm on every Monday in November. Monday 5th is at firstsite, and the 12th, 19th and 26th will be at Fifteen Queen Street. People will also be meeting during the daytime at Tea and Sympathy on Crouch Street. For more details, check the WriteNight or NaNoWriMo Essex Facebook groups.