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.


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.


My business card says writer – now what?

A little while ago, I got a promotion at my day job, which means that I’m now officially getting paid to write things. Non-fiction, sure, and not even in the area that I did a whole PhD in, but writing nonetheless, that people are reading and hopefully liking. I’m a writer. Or Writer, even. Why don’t I feel any different?

As I’ve written about before, I listen to my fair share of writer podcasts, and read wise words from established fiction writers where I find them, on twitter, in books and on blogs. One of the things they all say – other than warning people never to listen to writing advice – is to write what you love.

I remember one writer, I think it was Tobias Buckell, talking about it like so: if you write what you love, you will start out with 50% satisfaction, which can increase to 100% if you then manage to make money out of it (simply speaking), whereas if you write what you think will sell, you start from 0% satisfaction, and can only get to 50% if you do manage to sell it.

And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m getting paid to write, but that’s just getting me to 50%. The only way for me to move closer to 100% (if that’s even ever possible to achieve) is to write fiction I believe in and finally manage to sell it, or alternatively to move to writing non-fiction in a genre that is closer to my heart, or move into editing in the book/fiction world.

That’s not to say I’m not happy to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s certainly better than a lot of other things I could be doing, and it’s a step in the right direction for my career. I guess I’m just saying that these lines we draw, these bridges we cross, are a lot more transparent than they look from a distance.

So, as a bridge I have trekked to has dissolved upon approach, so I set my sights onto the next bridge, knowing that it too will dissolve once I reach it, and I am the only one that can make it matter (pun intended). Meanwhile, I think I’ll treat myself to some fancy chocolate to celebrate.

Writing podcasts: The good, the also good, and the different good

As I stated in my previous blog post, I haven’t been writing lately (though I did write a short story on a whim not too long ago, inspired by a submission theme, and naturally it got rejected because I didn’t start writing until four days before the deadline), but I have been listening.

To be a writer, you have to write (obviously) and read, but also to listen and observe human interaction. Sure, fiction shouldn’t be exactly like real life (in fact, fiction needs to make more sense than real life does at the moment), but getting a sense of real human interaction, and how to describe it, can add an important layer of authenticity to your work.

Another thing to listen to is advice. Yes, all advice is subjective, and every writer has to find what works for them, and you should never follow any professional writer’s advice without question, even if it is J.K. Rowling or whoever your literary god may be. In fact, a good writer will tell you to take their advice with a grain of salt precisely because it is all so subjective and everyone has their own process. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things worth saying. And if you’re lucky, they’ll share their wisdoms on a podcast. Here are a few I’ve listened to that I think are helpful, entertaining, or a good wake-up call. They’re all available to listen to for free on iTunes and via the handy-dandy links I’ve included.

The Writers Panel

Admittedly, Ben Blacker talks more to screen/TV writers and even comic writers than he does to novel writers, and you might be able to learn more about the actual craft of writing simply by listening to the superb Thrilling Adventure Hour, which he co-wrote with Ben Acker, but this podcast offers a lot of insight into the ways in which people get into writing, their different processes, writing with other people, and how the things you love get made. Seriously, just look through the long list of podcasts and find the writers/producers/directors of the shows that you love, and see what they have to say for themselves. Guaranteed inspiration.

This is also a good podcast if you want to get into screen/TV writing and are happy/able to move to sunny California to pursue your dreams. It has lots of hopefully helpful advice about writers rooms, etc. An alternative to this would be the Scriptnotes podcast, which talks more about the technicalities of screenplay writing.

I should be writing

Well, the name really says it all. Mur Lafferty is not only an excellent writer (I can highly recommend the Shambling Guides series for you fantasy/Buffy/mystery fans out there), but she’s also a well-seasoned podcast host, yet she still manages to keep her advice fresh. She usually does a special NaNoWriMo podcast (or series of podcasts) and generally just talks about the craft of writing, her own insecurities and problems, and she does some great, insightful interviews with writers in various career stages that may make you think, “Hey, I could be like that”. And of course, she always reminds you that you should be writing!

Ditch diggers

Another podcast by Mur Lafferty, but this time she’s joined by Matt Effin’ Wallace (yes, it’s a sweary podcast, so beware). Together, they are the ditch diggers, coming to you live from various rooms in Morgan Freeman’s expansive estate (allegedly). Unlike ‘I should be writing’, this podcast covers the practicalities of writing as a job. So, if you see writing as a hobby, stick to the previous podcast, but if you’re serious about making writing into a career, whether fulltime or not, then this is the podcast for you. Together, they offer lots of tough-love advice and again some amazing interviews with other writers from various different backgrounds.

There are many other podcasts on writing out there, for example Print Run if you want to hear about publishing from the perspective of agents/authors, and I would also recommend listening to fiction podcasts to get a sense of a good story in another medium – you might discover something new about writing that you wouldn’t have picked up from reading a book. My personal favourites are the above mentioned Thrilling Adventure Hour, as well as Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown and Within the Wires. There’s also Escape Artists and its various podcasts, which are open to submissions if you would like the chance to see your story audio-fied.

In short, there are many different podcasts out there to inspire, advise and otherwise give you fresh perspectives on this wacky endeavour called writing. So if you run, or commute, or have some other 30-minute/1-hour time window every once in a while that could do to be filled with some random people talking at you, why not give one of these podcasts a shot?

When is The Lord of the Rings not The Lord of the Rings?

The short answer, of course, is when it’s not written by JRR Tolkien. Now I should make it clear that I am not talking about the movies in any way, we can all agree they are a perfectly valid adaptation of The Lord of the Rings’ books, Peter Jackson has the rights to prove it and everything. I want to talk in this post about the countless of authors, and countless of books, that over the years have been inspired by The Lord of the Rings.

Handed down from one generation to the next, until there is only tape holding it together.

The cover of my (very nearly dead) copy of The Lord of the Rings

Now JRR Tolkien is by no means the first author to have written what can be described as ‘a life’s work’ or ‘magnum opus’. That honour belongs maybe to Homerus (or Homer, as the English-speakers call him), or some Egyptian with a very strong arm (from chipping out all those hieroglyphs, geddit). What JRR Tolkien did was write an era-defining, genre-defining (probably even genre-creating) work of fiction that influenced a generation of young kids who then became the authors we love (not just authors, of course, I think it took the internet and social media to create the first generation wherein everyone is an author of some kind, but that’s an aside), as well as influencing several generations after it, present and future included.

There are of course the obvious influences, like David Eddings, Steven Erikson, basically any epic fantasy writer. It is easy to see how these authors have been influenced not only by the story structure (i.e. person finds out they are special, goes on quest, hijinks ensue, thingamabob is used to destroy ultimate evil, the whole world breathes a sigh of relief), but also the rich and fantastical world creation of Tolkien. Then there are some authors who take the world-building, and create a different kind of story (hello, Laura Lam), or take the story structure and transpose it into our world (Wesley Chu, maybe? I can’t think). Then there are authors like Stephen King, George RR Martin, and Scott Lynch, who do something that is similar yet completely different.

I am currently reading the Dark Tower series, which is what influenced this whole post in the first place. At the start of every book in the series (at least the edition I’m reading) there is a little intro by King, talking about being 19 and wanting to create his own Lord of the Rings (mixed with a Western, say thankya). Yet there is nothing about the Dark Tower series that seems to relate to Tolkien’s vision. Yes, there is a tower, and yes, there is a big evil with a big eye (of sorts). And yes, there is a ‘hero’ seeking the tower. But Roland Deschain is not really a hero, not in the Tolkien sense. He murders, a lot, and isn’t that good at making friends, let alone keeping them. The world is somewhere between a complete fantasy world and ours, with elements of both thrown together (I’m trying not to be specific so I don’t spoil anything). And, most importantly, it doesn’t feel at all like The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is at least a little good, a little evil, and a lot screwed up. Right and wrong is not so clear-cut. The lines between reality and fantasy get quite blurred a few books in (book 6 oh em gee go Stephen). I’m sure people who hate The Lord of the Rings could still enjoy the Dark Tower series.

The same can be said of the world Scott Lynch has created for Locke Lamora and the Gentleman Bastards. From their name alone you can tell they won’t be squeaky-clean heroes. The world is pure fantasy, but there’s science more than there is magic, and tricks more than there are actual illusions. It’s gritty and real and immersive in a completely different way from Stephen King, from Tolkien, from anyone else. The same goes for Westeros, which has often been described as Middle Earth with added boobies and swearing. It’s got more political intrigue, more shady characters, more murders, more dragons, and more kick-ass girl assassins than Tolkien could ever had contemplated. And most importantly of all, it has its own unique voice.

Twice dead :(

OK, so Westeros and Middle Earth do have something in common…

Now, this might seem fairly obvious. No writer writes like any other writer. And I’m sure you could argue that the straight-forward epic fantasy examples I’ve mentioned are also completely different from the world of Tolkien. But my point, as far as I still remember that I had one, is that the best writers don’t try to deny their influences, they don’t try and hide the fact that their work was inspired by the previous generation, and they don’t try to copy it. By appreciating it for what it is, by letting it be its own thing, and by going so deep into appreciating the story that they sort of mind-meld with the writerly ghost of Tolkien himself, they can create something that is wholly their own, and therefore wholly different.

So don’t be afraid to read in the genre you write in. Don’t be afraid to read outside it either, read whatever you want. As long as you commit yourself to making something that is wholly unique, wholly you, and always aim to become a better writer, no matter where you are in your career, there is no fear of you being accused of reusing plots or copying others. You don’t avoid such things by avoiding reading, you avoid it by reading deeply and understanding as much as you can about the writers that have gone before you.

P.S. Sorry it took me a while to get this post out (which I promised to be ‘coming soon’ in my last post), and that it’s not more coherent or more directly related to The Lord of the Rings. I’ll aim to be better next time.

Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!


*And by you I of course mean I…

Diversity in writing and publishing

There is almost nothing more diverse than people’s opinions about diversity. In general, almost everyone agrees that a certain amount of diversity is a necessary thing; if everything and everyone was the same, the world would be a very dull, stagnant place. Yet everyone has their own unspoken limit about how much diversity they can handle. Some can’t even fathom how any movie with a black and/or female lead could ever work (hello Star Wars aka biggest blockbuster ever), while others might draw the line at equality for human-cat hybrids, to posit some extremes.


Diversity is all well and good, as long as everyone looks like John Malkovich, amirite?

There have been many essays, many research papers, many discussions, about the necessity of diversity, in books, movies, boardrooms, anywhere. Most of these discuss diversity in terms of race and gender. I want to talk about a different kind of diversity, the kind that deals with biases in terms of people’s opportunities in life. Recently, RandomPenguinHouse (I so wish that was their merger name) announced that it would no longer require its applicants to have a degree. While this may seem like an insignificant, benign gesture, especially in Europe, where people are generally able to receive a lot of financial support to complete a degree, there’s no denying that fortune, i.e. degrees, still favours the fortunate. In fact, the current UK government is doing everything in its power to make university education just as expensive as the US, tilting the scales firmly towards the higher earners (which are still predominantly white males, so boring).

Let's help each other

Research shows that teams with a diverse mix of people are more productive

I’ve been researching ways to get a job in publishing. You can work in a bookstore, do an (often unpaid) internship, get a specific kind of degree, or…? And if you’re in the UK, you also have to be able to afford to live close to London, at least for most job opportunities. In the US, New York would be your very expensive destination. So what it comes down to is that even without a degree requirement, you still need to be able to fund lowly or unpaid work in a horribly expensive city. When you look at it like this, there’s still a long way to go.

I am interning at a company at the moment (paid, luckily), working with an editor that started off as a speculative intern (i.e. an internship not attached to a degree, like mine), who then decided to go get a degree, and a Masters in Journalism, to give herself some theoretical background. Plenty of other people at the company started as interns and worked their way up. I am also working with/for an amazing senior editor who started off in marketing. They hired me with a PhD and almost no editing experience (at the time). My point, aside from raving about my current place of work, is that diversity goes beyond whether someone has had higher education or not, whether they are a certain race, a certain gender (my current company only has 1 male employee, by the way, and it’s the most supportive, tough, hard-working environment I have ever encountered). Diversity, and this is why PRH’s decision is bigger than I’ve now made it seem, comes from first acknowledging that it is wise to hire people from different backgrounds. Technical people, artsy people, sciency people, they all bring different, fresh perspectives, which are what most companies desperately need to stay relevant.

From a writing point of view, some writers have MFAs, some don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as they can tell a compelling story. Compelling stories, they come from life, from different experiences. And so I come back to diversity. We’ve had so many stories about the plucky, muscled white guy who finds out he’s a hero and gets the girl as a reward. Just making this same hero black, or a woman, breathes so much new life into such an old trope, I frankly don’t understand why more writers don’t take this relatively easy opportunity to spice up their stories. Even the same plucky white guy, only he’s in a wheelchair – think of the story possibilities! I recently beta-read a story with a character who I thought was destined to be Mr Love-Interest until it was casually mentioned he was gay. Let me tell you, it was such a relief! Not that people have to be gay in order to not be forced love interests, of course, but still, + 100 diversity and interestingness points! It’s THAT easy.


P.S. Writing is clearly not that easy, or I’d be writing my book right now instead of this post, but you get the idea. The new, shiny, diverse idea.