NaNoWriMo winner – writing a novel in a month

Writers from the Cornwall Wrimos sitting around a table in a coffee shop with laptops and coffee

I am a NaNo Winner 2018. To many of you that will mean nothing, but to some of my fellow writers it will signify one hell of an achievement.

NaNoWriMo is a challenge that takes place every November, in which writers around the world try to write 50,000 words of their novel. Some of us want to eventually get published, for others it’s a chance to focus on their passion for a solid month alongside like-minded people. For me, it was a bit of both.

I’ve been writing with a view to being published since I was 12. In that time my writing has naturally developed and evolved. When I look back at the stories I wrote after school in my teenage bedroom I cringe at the numerous cliches and plot holes, but there is a beautiful naivety to those early forays. When I went to university I thought, finally this is it. I have the time and space to write, and will finally sit down and write that best-selling novel that’s been lurking inside, just waiting for the right moment to burst out into the world. But with basketball club and dance club and jui jitsu and so many nights out in the Students’ Union and lie-ins til lunchtime there was actually very little time to sit down and write. Because that really is the main part of it: getting your bum in that chair and putting words onto paper. And, as a master of procrastination, this is something I’m not very good at.

Third time lucky

This year was my third attempt at NaNoWriMo. Last November I reached 7,000 words and in 2015 I managed even less. I believe that every word written is an achievement, and whether you reach the 50k goal or not you should be proud of yourself for what you have managed to write. However, 50,000 words is a solid amount to get you well on the way to completing a whole novel, and I desperately wanted to reach the target word count to finally get somewhere with one of my writing projects.

So what made the difference this year? In one word: community. Unlike my previous two attempts, this year I joined a local NaNoWriMo group, the Cornwall Wrimos (see pic). With a Facebook group where we shared our progress and offered each other support, and weekly write-ins in nearby Truro, having that community made the challenge so much more enjoyable. Writing can feel a very solitary activity, so talking to other writers undertaking the same journey and sharing the experience with them gave me the impetus to keep on writing through the creative dry patches.

Trying to write every day also really helped. Some days I was on a roll and managed to write around 2,500 words. On the days where I got home from work and had to wolf down dinner before heading out to a dance class, I managed less than the target daily word count, but still managed to keep the momentum going. Moving house during the last week of November didn’t make things easy, but thanks to a super supportive boyfriend who did a lot of the ferrying boxes to and fro I managed to squeeze in some time to write.

Advice for future Wrimos

If I had to condense my advice to future NaNoWriMo participants into three words they would be this: support, continuity, discipline. Support – from a community of fellow writers but also from your family and friends. An understanding partner who is willing to do more than their share of the cooking and chores for the month in order to give you time to write deserves a huge thank you (and lots of chocolate), and may be one of the main reasons you succeed. Continuity – different writing habits work best for different people, but for me building continuity into my writing practice and trying to write every day ensured I was always making progress and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the remaining word count in the final few days. Discipline – at the end of the day if you don’t have the self-discipline to get your butt in that chair and write it’s never going to happen. Easier said than done, I know, especially when you’ve been working in an office all day and the last thing you feel like doing is spending several more hours glued to a computer screen instead of relaxing on the couch or with your family.

A little disclaimer: I work not far from where I live, I don’t have children or caring responsibilities and I’m in reasonably good health. Attempting to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month is a significant undertaking for anyone, but I can appreciate how much more of a challenge it must be for people who have a family or relatives to look after, a long commute or health problems. And of course your job can have a huge impact on your energy levels and time to write in the evenings, especially if you end up bringing work home.

To those of you who hit the 50k mark this NaNoWriMo, congratulations! To those of you who took part but didn’t reach that, congratulations are also due. However much you wrote, that is an achievement worth celebrating, especially if it has helped you develop your writing or a creative project. We should all be proud of ourselves. We are writing ninjas.

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NaNoWriMo 2017 – we’re halfway there folks!

So we are now just over halfway through NaNoWriMo 2017. Have I reached my target word count to be on track for 50,000 words by the end of the month? Not even near. But that’s ok.

Jennie pulling a confused face while writing on her Apple Macbook laptop

50,000 words? No problem. Aaaaarrrrgghhhhhh!

This is the second time I’ve attempted the glorious madness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). The first time around was in 2015, and I think I reached a grand total of 10,000 words. But just because I didn’t ‘win’ and reach the 50,000 target, doesn’t mean those 10,000 words weren’t a huge achievement in themselves. Up to that point, I don’t think I had ever managed that many words on one writing project.

This year, November, the month of NaNoWriMo, just so happens to also be the month of the NCTJ national exams. I’m currently studying the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism via distance learning, and last week I took the media law and magazine regulation exams. All the studying and revision has meant I haven’t been able to commit my full attention to getting those words down on paper (or computer screen) for NaNoWriMo. Nevertheless, I have still managed to write several chapters, fitting in writing time during my lunch break, for an hour when I get home, or a few hours here and there at the weekend.

If you’re a fellow adventurer on this intrepid journey and feeling in a need of a little pep talk, author and podcaster Mur Lafferty has written some oh so true words about why not hitting the 50,000 words target is not the be-all and end-all. Read Mur Lafferty’s article ‘Help! I’m 10,000 words behind!’ on the NaNoWriMo Blog.

Julie Murphy, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin’, says “No-one writes a good novel in a month” in her pep talk for NaNoWriMo writers. Read Julie Murphy’s pep talk on the NaNoWriMo site. She says: “whether your thirty-day novel is The Book or just an exercise that you shelve in the dustiest corner of your computer, I promise you there is something to be gained from this experience”, and I heartily agree. Whether I hit 50,000 word or not by the end of this month, I will have written more words and dedicated more time to one of my novels-in-the-making than I ever have before. And that is most definitely a worthwhile achievement. Now let’s get back to writing. Onwards and upwards!

New Year’s Resolutions 2016

Well, better late than never: Happy New Year everyone! Over the past week I’ve been reading some fantastic New Year’s Resolutions posts from bloggers all over the world. I normally only tell close friends and family what my personal goals for the year are, but there is one ‘resolution’ that I wanted to share.

Rather than drawing up a long list of goals and aims I would struggle to follow past January, I decided to focus on three main areas: writing, acting and personal (about trying to be a better person and all that). Midway through last week I added one more, which is perhaps the most important of all:

Be proactive

There are several ‘p’s that are important in the acting industry, and could just as well apply to life itself: be personable, persistent, punctual, polite… but at this early stage of my career, I think ‘be proactive’ is the best advice.

As an actor, this means building and keeping my contacts book up to date, knowing what’s going on in my industry, following directors and other artists whose work I admire, going to see plays on a regular basis, being active (and positive!) on social media, constantly looking for opportunities and networking the hell outta this year.

As a writer, much of the above also applies – contacts book, networking, keeping up to date with the work and careers of writers I admire, and also putting my writing out there: applying to competitions, submitting work to magazines and other publications, perhaps posting my creative writing here on my blog.

I can also be proactive in my personal life – remembering friends’ birthdays (something I’m sadly bad at), making the effort to see people in person rather than always texting or Facebook messaging, and looking for ways to help people out.

So if anyone’s stuck for a mantra for 2016, you’re very welcome to give mine a go!

 

 

NCTJ Production Journalism exam

Last Thursday I took my NCTJ Production Journalism exam. I’m studying for the NCTJ Diploma via distance learning, and after putting my studying on hold while at drama school, I recently decided to pick up where I left off. The Production Journalism unit is one of my two optional units, the other being Business of Magazines, and it teaches you the principles and practice of sub-editing.

As a distance learning student living in Putney, I sat my exam at the nearest centre offering that unit, which was Lambeth College. The exam lasted 2 1/2 hours, which I thought would drag terribly, but once I’d got stuck in to the tasks it flew by and I had to step up my rather relaxed pace in order to give myself some checking everything over time at the end!

JR-Production-Journalism-cswk3

While I was preparing for the exam I re-familiarised myself with Indesign by creating some mock magazine spreads. You can see one of the pages I created above, using text from previous blog posts. Unfortunately you can’t see the edges of the page in the jpeg, so it looks like there’s a hell of a lot of white space!

Considerations when creating this spread included:

Fonts/typography: I used a serif font for the main headings and subheadings and a sans serif font for the main body text. I think a sans serif font is easier to read for features, though many magazines do use a serif font for the main body text and sans serif for the headings.

Use of colour: I chose one of the colours in the image (the girl’s cropped trousers) and tried to find a colour similar to this for the main title, subheadings and pull-out quotes. I also used the same colour but knocked back to about 40 per cent for the border around the review. By doing this I hoped to create a theme for the colours so they worked in harmony across the spread.

Breaking up the page: The unit teaches you the importance of breaking up a page to keep the reader’s interest, so I tried to do this by using pull-out quotes, subheadings, placing the image appropriately and laying out the review slightly differently to the main article (placing a white text box on to a coloured box and laying the text out in just one column rather than two).

My practice spread has a very clean and simple layout, which I do like to see in magazines, but I have also come across some rather busy-looking spreads that I love, mainly because of the harmony of the colours, beautiful designs and illustrations, and the skill of the sub in ensuring everything is still clear.

Below are some of my favourite magazines in terms of layout and design (click on the name of each to go to their respective websites – unfortunately the websites don’t always give you a good idea of the hard copy magazines so I would of course encourage you to pick up a printed copy if you can):

Oh Comely magazine

Aesthetica magazine

Elle Decoration

Little White Lies

Please feel free to comment below and share your favourite magazine layouts!

 

NaNoWriMo – bitten off more than I can chew?

So at the start of this month I signed up to do NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Naturally, the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month somewhat fazed me, but I thought if I put my back into it I could give it a good crack. The fact that I was also rehearsing for a show and that show week was in the middle of that didn’t seem to enter my mind at the time. Now, however, it most definitely is, as is the fact that I have just started working back in my old office for a few weeks, limiting my writing time for the final sprint. Out of a goal of 50,000 words, my current word count is: 2,918. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

The answer is: probably yes. Will I make it to 50,000 words? Probably no. But according to the lovely folk at NaNoWriMo: “If it’s really not looking possible for you to hit that elusive 50k target, then why not set yourself an achievable goal for the end of the month and work towards that instead? We all know Real Life can get in the way sometimes, but even writing a little every day can make a big difference.”

Despite signing up to NaNoWriMo on the 2nd November, I didn’t actually write a word until two days ago. Up to that point I was still planning! Obviously the idea is to plan before the start of November so once the month starts you can write away to your heart’s content, but I was a little late to the party. Now I am cracking on with the writing, like most writers I’m finding it difficult to fit my writing time into the day. The bookbaby blog has some great advice on time management for writers and a few tips for setting deadlines that I’m going to use from now on to help me rattle off that first draft. One of the most crucial tips for me is to focus on phase one first. I’m guilty of constantly thinking ahead, looking to the future, the next step, the finished product, rather than focusing on the here and now, and not just in my writing!

To all you fellow NaNoWriMos, I salute you! Whether you’re on track for the 50k target, have flown past it already, or, like me, have set your own smaller goal (I’m going for 10,000), I admire your effort, your persistence, your tenacity and your desire to tell stories. Keep on writing!

 

Simon Stephens playwriting workshop

I’ve always considered myself a writer of sorts, but until now I have limited my efforts to writing short stories, journalistic articles, marketing copy and multiple abandoned efforts at writing a novel. My love of theatre and, particularly, my current actor training on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, has awaked a desire to write for performance. So you can imagine my excitement when I went along to a workshop run by award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, called How to Shape a Play: Narrative Structure.

photo-7

At this point I feel the need to say this workshop actually took place over a month ago (drama school = limited free time = a backlog of unwritten blog posts), but I felt it still worth writing about, especially as I thought it was a really useful and inspiring day. The workshop was organised by Actors and Performers and took place at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in London.

Simon strode in clad in a trendy suit yet with an air of something rather rough-and-tumble and not so trendy about him. As is the custom with most people in this business he swore passionately, fidgeted and fiddled with his hair, a habit he happily drew attention to. I instantly liked him. There was something very human and not at all ‘award-winning playwright’ about him, but then, how many award-winning playwrights have I actually met?

The day was fascinating, and not only did I feel very inspired speaking with Simon, but also being in the room with so many other writers from different walks of life. There were some brilliant and original ideas zipping around, and an air of excitement and enthusiasm hung in the air like a thick electric cloud, generated by the coming together of so many creative minds and our shared passion for theatre. I came away with so many useful tools for developing characters and plot. I don’t want to set down everything here as it would spoil the fun of doing a workshop with Simon – and I highly recommend it if you get the chance – so I’ll give my top five nuggets of food for creative scribblers from the day:

 

Playwrights organise chaos and ask the question: what is it to be human?

“I am not a writer, I’m a write” (in the words of Mr Stephens) – the word ‘playwright’ comes from the word ‘wrought’, not ‘write’. ‘Wright’ was an old English term for a craftsman, so a ‘playwright’ is someone who has ‘wrought’ words into a dramatic form i.e. crafted plays.

ACTIVATE, don’t CONGRATULATE – make sure each line of speech has an action behind it (what is one character trying to do to the other?).

Structure is music – plot the structure of a play on a chart with one vertical line per scene, spaced out as they are in the play (i.e. if scenes are set far apart time-wise draw them far apart, and if there are some scenes that happen a few hours apart draw them very close together), then if each line is one beat/tap, tap out the sequence of lines (i.e. scenes) and you’ll find the rhythm of the play. This worked brilliantly with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.

CONTENT-STRUCTURE: your play and its gesture lies in the relationship between the content and the structure (music – see above).

 

If this has fizzed up your creative juices and you want to read more about the day (and don’t mind a few more spoilers), you can read a thorough account of the day by Actors and Performers web editor John O’Donovan on their website. The Actors and Performers blog is worth a read too.

You can follow Simon Stephens on Twitter at @StephensSimon.