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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Beginnings – how to make a start

Last night I went to my second session with Kerry McPhail’s writer’s group. Scribbling away in the new Innovation Space in Portsmouth with cups of tea and chocolate swiss rolls, the wonderful plethora of stories and writing styles once again fascinated me.

Although I’d only been with this group on one previous occasion, it already felt like rediscovering old friends. There’s a lovely sense of camaraderie among writers when you get a group of us together to share our work. Whether a profession or simply a pastime, writing can be a very solitary thing, so I think we all feel a bit of light relief to come out of the magical writer’s cave and be in the company of our kind.

The writer's group in action

The writer’s group in action

We looked at the beginning of our novel or whatever we’re working on. Kerry reiterated an important and often surprising point from the previous session – that writers often don’t start writing their novel at the actual start. You may open up a book to the first page and presume that’s where the author started writing, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Regardless of whereabouts in your story you start writing, the main thing is to start. To help us do this, Kerry gave us an exercise. She asked us to write our first paragraph, starting with the words ‘It is’. This is what I came up with:

It is funny, the things that come back to you in your final hours. You would expect it to be the big things, the momentous events, loves lost, life-altering moments; the landmarks from your life. Not the time you got a parking ticket when you were 17, or the imprint of lipstick your mother always left on her drinking glass. Certainly not the strange clicking sound your grandad’s knees would make as he tackled the stairs. But those were the things that came into Emily’s mind as she lay there slowly dying.

After reading our paragraphs aloud to the group with positive feedback, Kerry asked us to cover the same material but start this time with dialogue. As my protagonist Emily is alone when we first meet her, I found this one a real struggle. After a fair bit of umming and aaahing and false starts, I managed the following:

“I can see mum’s lipstick smudged on the glass,” I said to the haggard old woman in the mirror. Her lips curled up into a faint smile as she remembered the way mum would hold her glass with her pinky finger stretched out, just to make Emily laugh. A solitary tear rolled its way down my cheek and the smile turned into a silent sobbing. Even remembering grandad’s clicky knees didn’t cheer me up. I missed his soft knees poking out below his shorts in summer. I looked down at my own knees, now soft with age too. Death came and took him all those years ago, and now it was nearly my turn.

Fellow newbie to the group Sally made an interesting remark – with the first version, she had pictured a young woman who had been attacked and was lying dying, whereas in the second she said it was clear that it was an old lady who was dying. I’ve also just realised that adding the dialogue resulted in me moving from the third into the first person, something I didn’t actually intend to do.

I do much prefer the first version, but the exercise just goes to show that there are a number of ways you can start, and a number of perspectives you can give your writing, still covering the same situation or events. Next week: endings…

A note on Life

I was reading through my notes in my writing scrapbook earlier, and suddenly noticed a tiny bug, the colour of skin, translucent and almost too small for the naked eye to see. At first I was simply going to brush it away, most likely killing it in the process, but I decided to watch it a little, tracking its progress. I strained my eyes to watch it as it made its way across the page. Here was life. It may be small and seem insignificant, but of course everything is relative.

I tried to get it to crawl onto my finger so I could take a closer look, but every time it got near my finger it could sense it looming there and turned to take a different path. Sometimes it faltered a little before doing so, and I realised there must be some sort of thought process going on there! It seemed as if it was not just reacting instinctively, but actually choosing how to proceed. (I’m sure a biologist may have an explanation for this that renders my thoughts merely the result of an over-optimistic imagination.) Suddenly this tiny life-form became very significant. It was life; beautiful, complex, perfectly functioning life. Alive. Living.

There is so much life, all around us. So much energy, so much existence. I imagined its life, this little bug. What did things look like from its perspective? Did it really ‘think’? Was it aware at all? What was its purpose? Did it even need one? Or was it simply existing because it can? Because life is everywhere, and it needs no reason, no justification for being.

We have such small eyes. We think we’re kings of the world. But we’re like moles, burrowing through all this wonder.

Polar Bears by Mark Haddon

I think this fascination with life fuels my creative instincts. When I act a part in a play I am inhabiting a life other than my own, the life of the character. When I put pen to paper my imagination is giving birth to a character, a personality, with every hope, flaw, habit and subtle nuance that altogether moulds a spirit that is uniquely theirs, as they burst from my mind and spill onto the page.

I’m not particularly religious – perhaps ‘undecided’ would be the most suitable label, if anyone feels I need one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find life itself magical. And right now I can feel a new life coming into being. A new voice wanting to be heard. Has she been there all along, waiting for the right time, for me to discover her? Or were the seeds of her creation only sewn a week or so ago as the idea for a story, her story, first crept out of my subconscious and gave my grey matter a little nudge?

The idea I mentioned in my last post, the beginnings of yet another story that wants to grow up to be a novel, has set down roots and firmly planted itself in my mind. It’s just waiting for me to breathe some life into it, and now that life is ready. I call her Emily. I don’t know her favourite food yet, have only a vague idea of her age. I don’t even know her favourite colour, or if she indeed has one. Whether she’d choose Britney or Christina, or if she even gives a damn. But all this will be revealed to me, as she speaks and I listen, jotting down a characterisation, sketching out the lines of her life. And like the little bug – as important in the scheme of life as ever, yet blink and you’ll miss him – it’s the little details that count.