Lessons learned from failing NaNoWriMo – the 2017 edition

So, I took part in NaNoWriMo again this year. And unlike the first few years when I took part, I did not win (winning being defined as writing 50,000 words in November). To be fair, I did not make it easy for myself.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with National Novel Writing Month the last few years, wondering if it’s actually helping me write or just write badly, which is part of the reason why I’ve taken a few years off (alongside life reasons, naturally). I even have a draft blog post about the subject, which I may finish someday.

This year, to see if I could improve while writing wildly, I set myself the impulsive task, thought of a few days before November while in the shower, to try and write a short story a day. I’ve been trying for a while to improve my short story writing, so I can start submitting stories to magazines and websites, and actually get paid to write fiction. But it’s a different beast from novel writing, so I thought some deadline-delineated practice would do me good.

I thought of a few story ideas, and then when November came around, I started writing. It all went downhill from there. While I had some vague ideas, the same kind of vague ideas that have led to whole novels in previous years’ NaNoWriMo attempts, trying to condense a story into 1,700 words (= one a day) and give it a satisfying start, middle and ending is a lot harder, at least for me.

By the third story, I realised most of my words were coming from dialogue, and I wasn’t filling in the story, giving anything a background, or indeed doing anything that would be required for a decent story. So, I started writing a story about someone locked in the trunk of a car with duct-tape over their mouth. And then I stopped.

NaNoWriMo is good for a lot of things – for getting you out of your comfort zone, for letting you make mistakes, and for helping you finally get that (part of a) first draft down on paper. It’s not very good if you are trying to level up your writing, at least in my experience. That said, it did bring home what it is I need to be working on. I may not have won, but I’ve learned a lot anyway.

So, if you want to improve your writing, try writing a short story (could be about a minor character in your novel), figure out what you’re doing too much of or not enough, and then try to write another story that does the exact opposite. And, crucially, don’t give up, as I did.

I’m hoping to get back to my weird non-dialoguey short story after the holidays, but as you can see from the 18 days after November it’s taken me to write just this short blog post, I’ve clearly got some mental blocks I need to push through first. Hopefully I’ll be able to get through them and report back to you how I did it.

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Reach for the stars! Try not to think about the long drop down!

Meanwhile, happy holidays, everyone! Wishing you lots of writing and life success in 2018, and hopefully some return to general sanity after these last two years.

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NaNoRebelMo

November is nearly upon us, and so another National Novel Writing Month begins. Last year, I took part in my very own International Thesis Finishing Months, so I was too busy to write any fiction in November. This year, unless I come up with an exciting new idea for a story within the next 10 hours, I will be doing a National Novel Rebel Month.

It’s coming!

Instead of writing a new book, I will be going back to one of my old ideas. This idea started out as a failed attempt at doing my own NaNoWriMo while I was unemployed, then a script I wrote for Script Frenzy, and then again an incomplete novel. After all this time, across all these versions, I still haven’t found a decent way to finish the story. So I’m going to start at the beginning, making a few changes right away that will hopefully make the book more exciting and add at least a bit more diversity (it had talking llamas before it had a non-white person, and I am sorry about that). I won’t be starting exactly with a blank slate, hence the rebel part of my participation, but like most NaNoers I’ll have no idea where the story will take me, which will hopefully be somewhere unexpected. With new forward momentum, and my previous experiences of successfully pantsing my way through novels, I hope I will finally encounter the ending I’ve been looking for. Even if I don’t succeed, I will have had more than a month away from my finished draft of a different novel, which I can then attack (i.e. edit) with a vengeance.

First, I must start. Good luck to me, and to you if you’re also taking part. I would love to hear from other rebels out there. If you’re not taking part, keep writing anyway!

The not-so solitary writer

Dear reader,

Yesterday NaNoWriMo published a wee blog post I’d written for them. The only thing they chose to edit out was my mention of ScriptFrenzy, an old event that asked people to write a 50 page script in the month of March. I’d like to think they are just still too heartbroken to even think about it. Anyway, since that post was in the form of a postcard, and this one refers back to it, I thought it fitting to have this one addressing you directly as well. Hope you don’t mind.

I’ve been thinking about some of the comments the post has received on Facebook, especially in relation to my previous post about critique groups, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the myth about writers being solitary creatures is not only wrong, but also potentially quite harmful. (Most) writers, in fact, need lots of different groups of people around them.

As discussed previously, it is good for a writer to have critique partners, who read through your work and tell you honestly and helpfully what they would like to see improved, or what just doesn’t work for them. It is the best way you can improve your writing enough to get it published. But this is only one kind of support group. There needs to be at least one other group in a writer’s life: the cheerleaders.

The ultimate solitary writer, with the worst kind of cheerleader

If you are lucky, maybe you have uber-supportive parents or a great partner, and that is all the support you need to reach your goals. If you don’t have this built-in support system, a writers group can make all the difference. This would not be a group that reads what you write and criticises it (although members of the group might do), this is a group where you go to and say, “I will write 500 words a day”, and then the next time they see you they will ask, “Did you?” and either you say “No” and they will commiserate, or you will say “Yes” and they will celebrate. No judgement, only support.

I realise that everyone is different. Some people don’t need an extensive support system, some people work better with being punished, some people work best by rewarding themselves with chocolate. Looking at the writers I follow on twitter however, I don’t know a single professional who can actually stand to be alone all of the time, to do nothing but write all day. Because in your room, sitting behind a computer, that’s not where stories happen. You need to go outside, to be inspired, to give your creativity fuel to keep itself going. And you need other people to talk to in order not to go insane, in order to get some encouragement or commiserate with each other.

So, dear reader, and probably aspiring writer, I tell you this. Get yourself a group of writers willing to look at your story and critique it, but more importantly, find yourself a group of writers who are willing to support you and talk booky with you, and in turn support them. This can be in the city you live, online, or any combination thereof. You may come across groups that enjoy being negative about each other’s efforts, and feel that that somehow pushes people to do better (mostly it just helps protect their own feelings I assume). Avoid these groups if possible, try to transform them into a positive support network if necessary.

Whatever you do, don’t believe the stupid myth that you have to cut off all communication with the outside world in order to be able to write a novel. Writing and trying to get published is not something you do in a week, or a year, or maybe even a decade. It takes a long time, which is why the people that surround you and are going through the same journey with you can make a huge difference. Everyone wants to quit sometimes. Having a community of understanding friends around you makes it so much harder to give up, and so much easier to get to the next step on the writing/publishing ladder.

As with all things in life, there has to be a balance between bleeding your heart out on the paper/screen, and recharging your creativity/enthusiasm/imagination with others. What do you think?

Hope your writing is well,

L.B.

NaNoWriMo approacheth

So I grandly and hilariously failed at keeping this blog updated, but with NaNoWriMo once again approaching, I thought I’d better return ever so briefly from the dead aka thesis writing hell. This November, I will be participating in InTheFiSh: International Thesis Finishing Shenanigans (or you can imagine a less savoury Sh word..). The end of my PhD is very near, yet it still seems very far away. Lots of work to keep me occupied, in other words. Yet I’m still crazily considering taking part in NaNoWriMo, ever so slightly, just because it’s been such a wonderful part of my life the last 5 years, and I love it completely. Who knows, it might motivate me to finish my thesis as soon as so I can still take part (though that depends on my supervisors as well).

I’m writing this post however to motivate other people into doing NaNo. I’ve talked before about the essential tools, especially Scrivener (free trial during NaNoWriMo and 50% off if you win!) and the NaNo-community, but today I want to talk about a wonderful book called No Plot No Problem, written by Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month. A revised version has recently been released, including a small quote from me (cooool), but aside from my paltry contribution it’s just chockfull of great tips and inspiration during all of the weeks of NaNo. Part 1 is all about the preparations you can take before November starts, and then Part 2 takes you through the experience week by week. If nothing else, it lets you know you’re not alone. And that, when it comes down to it, is the beauty of writing in November, no matter how many words you manage; the feeling that you are not alone.

Regardless of what tools or essential writing foods you stock up on this November, be brave, let the words fly, and whatever you do for heaven’s sake do not edit! Good luck everyone!

Lessons learned from my just-about win.

The first four years I did NaNoWriMo in November, I won easily, with plenty of time to spare and a word count of +60k. So I figured this year would be much the same, even with an increased social life, and set my daily word count goal at 2000 words. I failed that goal miserably, barely making it to 50k on the last day. This is what I learned from my almost-failure:

1. It’s ok to put your own life before writing. I loved my time away from the novel, travelling, meeting people, seeing new places, and I don’t regret it for a second. That said..

2. It’s really hard to get back to writing if you skip a few days. Next year, I am definitely making sure there are no holidays booked in November, because even though I had a great time, I really struggled with getting back into a rhythm. Before the start, I figured I’d just come back and write 4000 words in a day to compensate. I barely made it to the minimum 1667 the first day. There’s a reason professional writers write every day.

3. Plot ninjas are life savers. I was frustrated with struggling to write, didn’t like what I was writing, and overall just wasn’t motivated. So I had my main character kidnapped and turned the novel upside down. I don’t know if it improved things, but it certainly helped me to keep writing and get me interested again.

4. Past performance is no indication of future success. I was too cocky with my word count planning, and I paid the price. It was a very humbling experience, and I’m glad I had it (but still won in the end.. phew 0.o). It reminded me what NaNoWriMo is all about; not to write loads of words, but to push yourself and do the unexpected.

5. I’m incredibly proud of the NaNoers in my region who managed to write over 10k words on the last day and make the word count goal. I have no idea how they managed to keep going, but they made it, with no permanent injury to their backs or typing fingers and no use of tricks (like writing down lyrics) either. I can only hope to have the same motivation and investment in my story (which I really didn’t have this year..) if I were ever to fall so far behind.

6. I need feedback. I kept thinking my writing was awful, and wondering if I’m actually improving as the years go by. The only way I am going to know for sure is to let others read my work. So that’s my goal for next year.

So that’s what I’ve learned this year, I would love to hear what other people have learned, so please comment.

On the last day of NaNo..

Hey all! First off, congratulations to all NaNoWriMo participants! Even if you haven’t validated yet, the fact that you have more words written now than you did at the start of November means you’ve basically won. For those, like me, hovering around the 40k area; keep writing! It is totally possibly to write 10k in a day, I’ve seen people do it. For those over 50k (like past me =(..), have some well-deserved sleep and maybe a chocolate or two.

I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging for the month, but I promised myself I would only post if I was on schedule, which was basically never. I’m used to writing 60k in November and finishing way ahead of time, but this year I took days off and they basically killed my writing pace. Not that I regret my beautiful holiday, or my mom visiting, but next year those things definitely won’t be planned for November 0.o. Anyway, I’m still writing, so keeping this short. Will be back after November with a lessons learned post.

For now, remember if it ain’t midnight, you need to still be typing, and even if you don’t reach the rather arbitrary goal of 50k, you should still be proud of yourself for sticking to it ’til the end. Confetti & cakes for all!

Time – missing or right there for all to grasp?

I realised after my last post about NaNo-prep that I missed out on one of the key things we need to write: Time. And with good reason. You see, as any Dr Who fan will tell you, time is a tricksy thing. When we think we have oodles of time, things don’t always get done. Yet when there is no time at all, suddenly, magically, things work out. That’s where the magic of the NaNo-deadline comes from; with only 30 days, time is a limited resource, and this restriction creates a breeding ground for creativity.

Doctor Who?

From a Time Lord’s point of view, your entire life passes in the blink of an eye.. Don’t let it go to waste.

From a psychological point of view, it’s not at all easy to measure people’s perceptions of time in an objective way. Time is after all subjective. Yet there are some studies out there that have shown how time slows down when you feel frightened (by having people fall!) or how time moves faster as you grow older. And as the great Chris Baty himself wrote in my NaNo-bible, No Plot? No Problem, for some people it is a lot harder to write when they are doing it full-time, compared to cramming it into their busy lives.

As for myself, November is inevitably a busy month. Not only is work a bit hectic at the moment, but I’m also taking a trip to Venice, and my mom is visiting, so that’s at least a week’s worth of writing pretty much out the window. And yet I’ve never found that I’ve had to give up anything to do NaNo. An hour or two in the evening, and my daily goal is met, even with my favourite TV shows on in the background.

So, my advice, in case anyone wants to know, is to just do what you would normally do (including washing and keeping the house sort-of tidy), but find those moments, in the evening or in the morning (depending on when you’re most awake/rearing to go) when you’re not usually doing all that much anyway. Everyone has times like that, when you’re just hanging out on the couch, watching TV, checking Facebook, or waiting for someone else. Use those pockets of precious time to write like the wind, and you’ll find you won’t need to cancel (too many) social events or become a hermit for the month, or (tempting as it may be) write at work and risk getting fired.

Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey works in mysterious ways, but there is always enough of it if you look closely enough. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find you can keep your writing time even after the deadline has passed. I certainly wish I had the gumption to keep up my NaNo-habit the rest of the year.