NaNo November 11: That went quickly

It all went in a blur. I’ll take stock about what went right and what went wrong (likely to weigh heavily on the latter), but for now I’ll take a break from writing. In the meantime, these are the albums that accompanied my 23-day flurry of novelling:

Actress – Splazsh
Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – summvs
Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind
Animal Collective – Feels
Atlas Sound – Parallax
Burial – Burial
Burial – Street Halo EP
Ellen Allien & Apparat – Orchestra of Bubbles
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance – God’s Money
Hauschka – Foreign Landscapes
Little Wings – Black Grass
Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis
Mazzy Star – Among My Swan
Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
Mose Allison – The Collection
Nicholas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
Serge Gainsbourg – Vu de l’Exterieur
Studio 54, May 2, 1977 playlist
The Boats – Sleepy Insect Music
The Boats – Words Are Something Else
Thom Yorke – The Eraser

By far the most often-played album was Nicholas Jaar’s ‘Space Is Only Noise’, followed by Gang Gang Dance’s ‘Eye Contact’. It was a real surprise that Gang Gang Dance proved so conducive to writing and now the album feels rather hard-wired into my mind.

NaNo November 11: The real thing

I’ve just reread my previous posts, from all the way back in March. It’s useful to see how my attitude to my previous novel attempt changed over time. It’s also a little frustrating to realise that so much time has passed and I’ve neither continued to write fiction nor even read my 50,000 word draft. I’d thought of the exercise as an ice-breaker to kickstart my writing after years of one-day-I’ll-get-around-to-it pretence, and I suppose that on that score it was an achievement.

I’m in the midst of a real, registered NaNoWriMo challenge at the moment. Three days in, I can sense differences between this approach and February’s attempt.

Firstly, I’m working on an idea, The Pale Shadow, that’s been in the back of my mind since late September. Last time I only gave myself three days’ planning time, but this time I’ve been working on notes, on and off, for a month. I’m not sure I’ve plotted in any greater depth, but I’m hopeful that it’s allowed some of the rough edges of the world I’ve created to be smoothed out.

It’s also a different kind of plot. One of the biggest problems I came across last time was that I planned the first half of the novel and hoped that the rest would fall into place whilst writing. It never did, of course, so this time I’m hoping to counter the issue by writing an episodic story. I’m hoping that this will allow me to plan smaller arcs in much more detail and then reach stopping points where I can be sure that plot strands have been tidied up. I’m also intending to use these regular endpoints as breathing space where I’ll force myself to plan the next episode in detail rather than just plunging in.

Another issue I had last time was introducing too many characters. I don’t think that dialogue is my strong suit, but it was particularly a problem when juggling lots of speakers. Also, last time I wavered between characters, occasionally abandoning them and feeling wistful about relegating characters I enjoyed to the background. So, this time around I’m dedicating myself to two central characters and that’s that. No room for confusion there, I’d hope.

It’s 3rd November today, day three of the challenge, and it’s all going pretty well. I’ve found time to write 2500 words each day so far, although I’ll not let myself take the headstart for granted, as I’ll need the gained time for extra planning later. I’m finding that the pace is less breakneck than on my previous attempt, to the extent that my narrator’s back story has filled all my time so far, more than 10% into my wordcount. I love the thought that I might actually want to cut words rather than pad out, if I were to get as far as a second draft!

My narrator is about to meet the central character. It’s a nervewracking moment for me, as the novel really hinges on the mystery of this character. Perhaps that’s why I wrote this blog post instead of continuing with the novel…

NaNoWriMo: All done, only minor disappointment

As you can see from the image, I’ve finished the 50,000 word project! I reached the wordcount yesterday morning, four days ahead of the 30-day target. Now I’m feeling a mix of celebration (with champagne last night, although I did protest) and minor disappointment. The final couple of thousand words were shocking – not so much in terms of quality, but I was racing breakneck towards the finish line and introduced action scenes that were dispensed with in record time. I didn’t even let characters speak in case it slowed me down. And, most disappointingly, I ended on a cliffhanger after all, leaving the story open for a second volume that I (currently) have no interest in writing.

I still feel that this project will help me to write more, and more speedily, in future. But, around the halfway mark I felt that the novel on was salvageable, despite the loose ends and non sequiturs. But now it seems that if I were to tidy it up, I’d have to totally rewrite the final third.

So, lessons for the future.

In a speedwriting project of this nature, I was naïve to think that the final part of the plot would somehow fall into place. While I introduced new segments throughout, the basic plot milestones remained the same and the fear of a lack of direction was made worse due to having no endgame to end for. So I need to plan out possible conclusions, before I start.

Similarly, more than four days planning are needed at the beginning. Anyway, that was one of the most exciting parts of the whole project, so I think it’s ok to wallow in the plot and character outlines for at least a fortnight.
Fewer characters, next time. I introduced characters, sent them packing, had missing people return, and so on. All of this would have been ok if I hadn’t also seen fit to introduce a whole city full of supporting characters, only some of whom I had the energy to flesh out.

But one aspect that really worked for me was missing out complicated or research-driven parts of the plot, carrying on when I had momentum. I just put notes in square brackets, to come back to later, and I don’t think that harmed the writing at all. One main character was labelled [*ladyname] for several days.

So, that’s one new year’s resolution dispensed with, and it feels good. I think that I’ll have to set similar daily targets if I start editing the novel – but for now, I think I’ll allow myself a week off and them maybe start mind-mapping another idea.

NaNoWriMo: limping into the final stretch

Last night I passed the 40,000 word milestone, and I’ve just over a week of my novel-writing month to go. The last few days have been hard. During the last week there were two days where I scraped in at my minimum daily count of 1667 words, and on one day I only managed 700.The novelty of the task has certainly worn off and, though there are still aspects that I’m really enjoying, I’m really looking forward to stopping.

The actual process of writing is still going quite smoothly, though – the issue now is one of plotting. Too many times I’ve sat at my computer and started to daydream about plot events, which I should have defined before attempting to write. In the early days, I’d been happy to mull over plot events in idle moments, but now it takes a conscious effort to drag myself back to planning mode. On days when I’ve defined a lump of story beforehand, filling in the details is still really enjoyable. Next time (next time!) I attempt a novel, I’m determined to plan more thoroughly beforehand, and I’ll allow myself non-writing days throughout the process, in order to keep plotting ahead.

A few days ago I convinced myself that the story was close to wrapping up. But that was largely a cowardly decision to defer the plot point that was originally to be the central strand of the novel – in fact, I’d begun to believe that the whole segment might be a good basis for a followup novel. This morning I came to the decision that i) I was just trying to avoid writing a section that cries out for more research, and ii) I can’t bear the idea of stringing this story out for more than one book. So I’m going to spend the last 10,000 words ploughing ahead, trying to wrap everything up decisively, however hurried it may be.

I had an idea for a different story last week and yesterday I began searching for reading material on the subject. Is there a chance that I’ll continue writing? If so, no matter how the current novel turns out, this project has been a total success.

NaNoWriMo: halfway through

Has it really only been a week since I last posted about my novel-writing progress? Last night I hit the 25,000 word milestone and I’m a little over one day ‘overbudget’. It’s been surprisingly painless, most days, to find two hours in which to write and only on a couple of occasions have I sat at my computer, unsure how to continue.

There have been moments of despair, though. I’ve now used up all of the plot elements that I’d prepared in the four-day burst before I began writing. As the known plot markers grew thinner, I panicked a couple of times. The lowest point was when I was seriously considering making Sir Christopher Wren the central villain. Last night I actually jumped straight to the reveal that I’d assumed would be in the finale, so the novel has suddenly opened up into uncharted territory. Even now, I have no ending in mind, but I’ve at least decided on the direction that the third act will take at first.

I’m still enjoying the process enormously. Even though I’ve had to be a little antisocial at times, everyone’s been very understanding about my need to disappear for a couple of hours each day – in fact, my social life has been a little busier than normal rather than less so. While the moment-to-moment process of writing has occasionally felt a little hollow (given that I’m not scrutinising or rereading anything I’ve read, it’s likely to be a stream of rambling piffle), the fact that, this month, the main activity I am doing is writing still feels worth celebrating.

Rose is already bracing herself for more of this kind of behaviour, as I’ve started trying to convince friends to join me on a real NaNoWriMo project in November. I’ve become convinced that, if only I’d had two weeks’ preliminary planning instead of four days, I’d be flying along at a terrific rate.

NaNoWriMo: 10,000 words in

I started my novel-writing month a day later than expected, on Tues 8th February. As the sole participant of this unscheduled challenge I see that as my prerogative, although now I’m determined to stick to the rigid 30 days.

The first week has been an interesting experience. I’d felt that the first act had been fairly tightly plotted in my mind-mapping sessions. But, as it’s transpired, a swiftly written novel likes to untether itself from expectations. Frequently, characters have ended up in unexpected surroundings, plot points have been revealed far sooner than I’d anticipated, and whole new events have unfolded without planning. NaNoWriMo forum members have talked about ‘characters leading the way’ – I rather see it as the desperation of writing quickly produces shortcuts and forces odd associations in the brain to become meshed within the story.

One of the biggest challenges so far has been to reign in the plot. I keep threatening to reach milestones far too early. This feels like good experience – I think I tend to rush through stories, and while it can at times feel like ‘padding out’, I expect that on rereading it’ll all still feel breakneck. We’ll see, because I’m determined not to reread any of the story until the 30 days are up. Even then, I think I’ll need a break before I face up to what I’ve created…

The 1667 words per day is proving perfectly workable. I’d banked a full day’s extra wordcount in order to take a day off on Saturday, on a London visit to celebrate Rose’s birthday. I’ll aim to build up an extra few hundred words per day as I go on, too.

So, in summary: this is an excellent project. I’m aware that I’m producing some turgid rubbish at times, but actually getting to the 10,000 word mark this evening – far more words than I’ve written in total in the last three years – was exhilarating.

Writing a novel in a month

Since New Year, I’ve fretted about not writing. My resolution to write something original each day has been a help – although it’s been derailed slightly into diary entries, blog posts and long-overdue emails.

I’d heard about the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) a while ago, through a friend. The principle is that each November, any number of would-be novelists club together for mutual support, and aim to each write a complete 50,000-word rough draft of a novel in just 30 days. The emphasis is on quantity over quality, skipping over difficult research and unsuccessful passages in a blind rush to reach the word goal. As a procrastinating self-doubter, I like this idea very much.

November is too far away for my possibly-shortlived enthusiasm to wait, so I’m going to go it alone. Without the NaNoWriMo community to back me up, I’ve mentioned the project to several people in order to have a useful sense of guilt if I’m falling behind. I’ll use this blog as a way of publishing my wordcount failures – or even successes – too.

The most helpful piece of advice so far has been to allow myself only one week’s planning time, and to choose an entirely new story idea rather than a pet project. In one fell swoop, this has freed me up enormously. I’ve several story ideas knocking around, all of which I feel too precious to mistreat in a month’s frenzied typing. I came up with a new story idea on Tuesday, and by Thursday night I’d written plot notes and created a mind map using the Freemind open source software (the first time I’ve successfully used this type of planning tool – it’s been perfect). On Saturday I scouted some potential writing spots (Costa and the Oxford central library) and created another map, this time showing plot events in a rough order.

My novel-writing month starts tonight. In theory, I need to write 1667 words per day. I’m already feeling my nerve faltering, with anxiety about an overly complex plot and a potential inability to give each character a distinctive voice. But then I remind myself that the aim is to break down the normal criticality and just produce something complete. Perhaps it’d be helpful to think of it as ‘typing’ rather than ‘writing’…