NaNoWriMo

Life’s spanners and NaNoWriMo: getting back on the writing horse

It’s fair to say I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately, missing weeks, publishing posts I wrote ages ago for fallow times, or republishing old posts. You may recall about six months ago I began a new day job (completely unrelated to writing) after eighteen months of trying to write full-time, and I acknowledged that I’d have less time to write, and it would take time to form new habits and routines. However, I hadn’t taken on board that shorter lunchbreaks than in my last job meant I could no longer get to the library at lunchtime to write (I’m working about 100 yards away from my old office), and I hadn’t realised how reluctant I’d be to sit at a computer on an evening when I was spending seven hours in front of a screen during the day, rather than the old blend of screen, paper, and time away from a desk. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the succession of spanners life was about to chuck in the works.

In the last six months OneMonkey and I have encountered bereavement, health problems in the family involving long periods of waiting, disruption and upset and general stress which looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Plus we both turned forty and celebrated (dancing alone to our playlist) our twentieth anniversary. There has been much reflection on life and direction, priorities and what’s truly important.

For me, writing is definitely one of the important things, but such has been the effect of the past six months I’ve barely written anything. The writing community on Twitter is another one, but I’ve largely withdrawn from that partly due to squeezed time, partly because I don’t have the energy to be social. Those of you who’ve been around here a while or know me in real life know I’ve usually got a book in my hand (or I’ve just put it down for five minutes to make a cup of tea). I’ve been reading River of Gods by Ian McDonald for so long I’ve kind of forgotten what’s going on, I’m almost reading each chapter as a stand-alone story that sets off echoes of something else I once read, a long time ago. Clearly these are unusual times.

So, in part this stands as an apology for those of you who enjoy my blog and have been left wanting lately, and those of you who feel I’m neglecting you on Twitter, whose stories I haven’t read and whose successes I haven’t celebrated. In part (upbeat ending alert…) it serves as encouragement to keep trying – I’m aiming to take part in NaNoWriMo again this year.

Some people see NaNo as a competition, a thing to win, and if you haven’t written 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th you’ve failed. I see it as a cattle prod. There’s this writing you want to do, and it’s easy to lose it among the day to day. For one month NaNo and the other writers taking part will be saying come on, keep going, just write a bit more. And for one month you can tell yourself you can postpone this other thing or not spend as much time on that, and carve yourself out a writing niche. If you write 500 words during November when you didn’t think you’d manage any, then that’s an achievement. I certainly won’t be aiming at 50,000 words of the semi-rural fantasy, for one thing I reckon I only need another 30,000 to finish the draft, but I’ll try and write some, which is more than I’ve managed in a while.

Best of luck to anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ll let you know how I get on. Eventually.

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Rewriting a novel, a cry from the midst of chaos

Three and a half years ago, you remember, when we were all younger and more enthusiastic and had more energy, I started writing a sci-fi noir novel for NaNoWriMo. Because of a bad back which turned out to be a slipped disc, I wasn’t carrying my miniature computer with its heavy battery, instead writing longhand in a purple notebook at lunchtimes and on the train. As usual with me and NaNo, the 50,000 word target drifted way past the end of November and it was January before I declared myself finished.

In between all the other stuff, and allowing for the periods where I couldn’t face sitting at a computer (that back thing again) I eventually got the raw first draft typed up. Then I printed it out, wrote on it, crossed things out, split it into chapters and amended the file accordingly. And left it alone for a year.

In the meantime I re-read a couple of how-to-write-novels books and had a long think, and came to the conclusion that I had major flaws, possibly a character that didn’t need to be there, and not enough tension. I also realised that I didn’t know my world, despite the maps I’d drawn at the beginning and the history of the state that I’d dropped in here and there. I sat with a stack of scrap paper and wrote myself a list of questions (140 so far) ranging from the vague ‘What is really going on vs what appears to be going on?’ to the incredibly specific ‘What does Maud’s cafe smell like?’. The latter has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, but it felt like something I needed to know.

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Even if you can read my writing I don’t think it gives anything away

So I haven’t forgotten you, dear reader. In fact it could be said that I’m doing this for your benefit, as maybe someday some of you will read Sunrise Over Centrified City and you’ll thank me for making a better job of it. Now I must get back to answering such pressing questions as ‘Are all the barges pulled by horses?’ and ‘How old is Greg?’.

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.

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My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

Week 5: Sleighbells ring, I’m not listening

Somebody please tell me how it’s December 5th. I’ve had the first listen to the old Metal Christmas tape, I’ve eaten half a dozen mince pies, but I’m not getting what you’d call festive. There is no tinsel in my heart. Of course this won’t surprise anyone that much if they’ve ever encountered me in December before, but I do try (sometimes) to feel the excitement and capture the magic. In a non-consumer-capitalist way, obviously.

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Hat(s) courtesy Sister Number 1.

Closest I’ve got this year so far is via the fabulous sketches by Chris Mould for Matt Haig’s new children’s book The Girl Who Saved Christmas – he’s tweeting pages day by day I think. Incidentally, it looks like Chris Mould is from Bradford, which I honestly only noticed after I’d been bowled over by his illustrating style…

This week I’ve made two story submissions, and written nearly 6,000 words of the novel I was doing for NaNoWriMo (it got derailed so I’m giving it a bit longer). And read a lot of urban fantasy (which is relevant to the novel I’m writing).

Time to start thinking back on the (reading and writing) year, soon. How has yours been?

Week 4: NaNo grinds to a halt

Considering my prediction last week, this week has been surprisingly eventful. I managed to spend a few hours in Leeds at the New Writing North Northern Writers’ Awards Fiction Roadshow on Saturday, soaking up advice and information about the awards themselves, how to edit your work to a suitable standard for sending out, and how to approach agents, as well as some glimpses behind the scenes of publishing. I feel slightly more confident about entering the awards again this year.

No submissions this week, that would have required a bit more coherence than I was generally able to muster, and only the one rejection, but I have got a couple of submissions planned for the coming week. Along the way I wrote a short story I didn’t really mean to – I’m supposed to be writing a novel, if you recall. Sometimes, though, the story is just hammering on the inside of your skull, demanding to be written down, and if I could have written that many words in one day every day this month I’d have cracked NaNoWriMo about a week ago instead of being barely in five figures with only a few days left.

I also rediscovered a novel. By which I mean I looked in a file I hadn’t touched since August 2012, wondering just how many words of that crime novel I’d written and if any of them were any good. The answer being about 45,000 and if I’d read those first few pages in a book I’d picked off the shelf in the local library, I’d have been hurrying over to the desk to get it stamped. Simultaneous joy at my (ahem) brilliance, and despair at having wasted four years not finishing the blasted thing. It’s now been added to the (ever-growing) list of stuff I really need to spend some time on during this sabbatical/period of unemployment/temporary withdrawal from the rat race.

All this, and December is almost upon us. Time to buy some mince pies and limber up for a good Bah-humbug.

Week one of the writer’s life

I’ve drunk a lot of tea and I’m feeling free, as Ian Hunter never quite sang. One week into my season of writing and there’s not much more to show for it than a pile of teabags in the compost caddy and a vague aura of tranquility, though I’m enjoying the pre-breakfast walks and big rollneck jumpers of the new regime. I never did get used to the filtered air and unseasonal temperature of a mechanically-ventilated office.

I’ve had a rejection for a story I sent out in March (seven and a half months to read 350 words!), and I’ve sent out another story to a new magazine, but there’s been no step-change in my submission habits. NaNoWriMo carries on apace, but sadly that’s a snail’s pace and I’m averaging only about twice as many words as if I’d had to cram all my writing into my lunchbreak, as I used to do. If I was including all the notes I’m writing, however, I suspect I’d be nearer the mark (and I’m certainly doing better than last year). I have been doing a lot of poking around the internet and calling it research: Cumbrian folk songs, terraced houses to rent in small Yorkshire towns, maps of the north Pennines. Are you intrigued yet?

Thankfully I’m also finding time to read. I was a bit concerned that without that 40 minutes of sitting on a train with a book, I might fall behind. So far this week though, I’ve finished the Doctor Who novel (7th doctor, one of the Virgin New Adventures) I was reading for the last few days of commuting, read the first couple of chapters of a novel I’ll be reviewing for The Bookbag in a couple of weeks, and worked my way through chunks of two creative writing books (one fresh out of the library, one I own and have read before). And I’ve messed about on Twitter a bit. Obviously.

All in all not a bad start to a break from the 9 to 5. Further updates to follow.

November spawned a writer

New month, new phase, and for the next few months at least, I’m a full-time writer. I’d been in the day job nearly 9 years and for various reasons it was feeling like something I didn’t want to do any longer. Yesterday was my last day.

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As you all know, November is NaNoWriMo time so today after a glorious early-morning walk on the moor I settled down with the big purple mug my closest colleagues (who I will miss, having spent more time with them than with my closest schoolfriends, who only had me for 7 years minus long holidays) gave me as a leaving present, and started on a new novel. I didn’t mean to, when I was planning to leave work I meant November to be a solid month of editing Sunrise Over Centrified City (which started life as my NaNo novel a couple of years back) but then this idea for a post-Brexit urban (semi-rural perhaps) fantasy started germinating and I’ve been writing notes since August and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

It remains to be seen whether I’ll take a few months out to recharge my batteries and finish up a few major writing projects, or make a proper go of this writing lark. Either way, I’ll keep you posted. Now to get back to listening to Morrissey and increasing my wordcount.