With the 1st of November a week away here is my usual mildly self-aggrandising of attempting to offer some advice to budding writers, or as it is otherwise known the story of how I wrote my first novel. It is also the story of how I wrote my nineteenth novel.
They just happen to be the same book. The other eighteen are still sat on hard drives, in paper copies or in one case on an old Amiga floppy disc I can’t access as the format is ancient. This is because the only reason my first novel Cider Lane became my ‘first’ novel is because I actually finish writing it, but more importantly, perhaps, I actually finished a first draft.
Like most writers I suspect, I have started a lot of projects over the years, I have endless notebooks, scrap ends and one-off chapters of unwritten masterpieces (or utter drivel in all likelihood). Plenty oof those projects got past 20000 words or more before for one reason or another they ground to a halt. Some are a lot longer, other scrape over that line, but all of them have one thing in common, all of them (until Cider Lane) never got completed. Which is to say until then I wrote none of these to a complete first draft.
There were always reasons for this, sometimes I just lost interest in the story. Sometimes I found myself inspired by something else, launched myself into it and left the earlier work behind in the ‘get back to this later’ tray. Quite often life just took a turn to the left as life does that on occasion. I have been writing for nearly forty years, in that time there have been children, relationships, depressions, different jobs and a whole lot of other stuff that made writing seem unimportant. Life has a way of happening to us all… However, if I was asked to nail down one main reason that all these manuscripts fell by the wayside it is this, I used to edit as I went along…
Editing as you go works for some writers, it has however never worked for me. Editing as you go is going back to chapter one and rewrite it again and again. Then you work through everything you have written so far, write a bit further, and then you feel the need to revise things again. Edit, edit edit. Re-write, re-write, re-write… In essence I could write 100000 words, but the actual manuscript would still be only around 10000 words. Highly polished words perhaps… But six months of work to get to the perhaps an eighth of a novel… And I’m gonna edit it again before I write any further…
I know I am not alone n this experience…
It is also one of the reasons why I would get stalled with a story.
Generally, I would go back to a previous chapter because something had made a little light bulb come on in my mind and I would realise that whatever I had just written would work better it ist had a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps just if it was alluded to by a character in an earlier chapter. Then I would go back to add it, or change something and find myself sucked into revising the whole chapter from the start, yet again… And eventually you write yourself into a ditch. Meanwhile there was NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo come around every year. Unfortunately I am always busy, November my job is the worst, long hours, tight deadlines. Added to which I would always be in the middle of something writing-wise. Because of this while I always liked the idea of NaNoWriMo, I never actually did it.
NaNoWriMo, for those who do not know, is ‘National Novel Writing Month’. It’s well organised, but you don’t necessarily need to go down the organised route, indeed you don’t need to sign up to anything in order to try it yourself. The idea is to write a 50000 novel in the 30 days of November. There are Facebook and twitters groups who cheerleader each other along. Calendars to track your writing with. A whole lot of social engagement and help from other sources, you can register here, and find a local group via the main website. Importantly they also have a couple of guiding principles they suggest you stick to if possible.
- Write every day… and stick to your targets
- Don’t edit just write… editing is for December…
Its the latter one that really makes the difference for me, so one year I decided to try it. In July …
As I said, November is always a busy month for me. But other than getting the date wrong I used the word count guides, the forums, and (against the habits of a life time) not editing as I went along. A month later, I had done it, not a 50000-word novel, but at the time a 69000-word novel. I overshot because it went so well.
Now in fairness this was still bare bones, there was almost a year of redrafting ahead of me and editing, and more redrafting, and more edit etc, before the manuscript was somewhere near its final stage. But what I did have after that month was a complete first draft and therein lays the trick… I had something real, and complete to work with. I knew the story I was telling, I knew where it went and I knew how I was going to get there.
Now I should point out that I am an exception. Few NaNoWriMo novels ever get published, because for most people who do this every year that’s not really the aim. But plenty do, if not in the in the form in which they are first written (when I say Cider Lane had a lot of editing afterwards I mean a lot.) But plenty of NaNoWriMo novels prove to be the ground stones on which final novel is built.
Its an exercise in creativity, not perfection.
NaNoWriMo forces people, in a gentle way self policed way, to write with a certain amount of self-discipline. No one ever really fails, because success is not the be all and end all of the challenge. No one will say you failed if you don’t succeed in completing your 50000 words, not in any real terms, no one will look down on you for failing, but if you succeed they will all cheer when you cross the finish line on November the 30th.
Even if you fail, you still have words on a page, something you might be able to take further, or you can just treat the whole things as practice in the craft. But it can do wonders for your self-discipline, teaching you not to edit as you go, as well as how to work to deadlines no matter how self-imposed and do so just the pure love of writing.
What I got out of NaNoWriMo the first time I did it was my first real novel, but mostly the realisation that the only thing stop me writing a novel was me, and I did not have to edit as I went because a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. A realisation which has helped me no end in the years since. I am a better writer for it, not just in terms of productivity.
Its October, you have all month to register at https://nanowrimo.org/ you can plan and plot your novel as well if you want, or just wait until November the 1st and start writing.
As for myself the current ‘working’ titles I have under consideration for myself are:
- Maybes daughter part dux ( actually an on going project that is 30k done , but is planned for around 50k more and as I say nanowrimo is a great way to get a first draft down)
- Like a Bad Penny (a spin-off of a spider in the eye with a female protagonist, guess what her name is…)
- The Droitwich Horror (spoof Lovecraft horror set in the west midlands…)
- The Elf Kings Thingy (which is also at about 15k but I expect to run to 65k in the end so the same get the first draft thing applies )
I may keep you informed, or I may not make it past the first day