The negative side of NaNoWriMo

Are you amped up for National Novel Writing Month? Itching to start? Have your plot outlines, your character whatevers, your coloured pens and timelines tacked to the wall? All the research done, your pencils sharpened, alarms set for midnight, 1 November, all stocked up on coffee and chocolate? Lovely. I’m happy to hear it.

But …

Gather round, kidlets. We need to have a little talk about the negative side of NaNoWriMo (NaNo). Let’s just clear this up right away. I love NaNo, but it’s not without its faults. So, for the love of the written word, the muse who brings us here, and every publishers’ sanity, keep a few things in mind.

50 000 words is not a novel
It just scrapes by. These days, people want more bang for their buck, that means more words per novel, not less, and unless you write a spectacular, mind-blowing, life-altering, never-before-seen book, no one’s going to publish it. You can publish it yourself, but don’t be surprised if sales are a little on the low side. True, novellas are published, but rarely – if you don’t have a big name to back it up, you need to write something that’s gonna set off fireworks, and that almost never happens.

Your NaNo novel is a first draft
It is not a marketable book. You can not, must not, should not, submit your first draft to a publisher. Ever! You can not, must not, should not, self publish your first draft. Ever! First drafts are for your eyes only, and maybe a close writing buddy who can offer feedback. For the love of all that is good and right in this world, take some time, put your NaNo novel aside for a month or two and wait. Come back to it with fresh eyes in January, then edit and redraft as needed. I know you probably think you’ve just written an earth-shatteringly good book, but odds are you didn’t. I know, I’ve had those thoughts myself. Looking back, I rather enjoy my naivety and often have a good, long, hard laugh at myself.

What you write in November is a first draft, and given that the rules state you shouldn’t go back and change anything, it’s probably not a very good first draft at that. So please, do us all a favour, don’t publish, or submit to a publisher, your first draft NaNo novel, especially if you’ve never written a novel before November. Publishers and readers will thank you for it.

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National Novel Writing Month

nanoSo, it’s almost time for National Novel Writing Month again. This year, as last year, I’m not fully prepared. I do not work with plot outlines, I draw timelines as I write, and I do research as I go along. I’m a stickler for facts, and if in doubt I’ll look it up. The exception being history, if I know I’m gonna work on anything historical I’ll do my research beforehand and make notes, but plotting the story before I start writing? Never. I tried that once. It didn’t work. Within an hour, my characters took over and ran riot. NaNo prep for me, is making sure I have enough coffee and chocolate in the house to keep me going.

Unlike last year, when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to do until a day or so into November, this year I know exactly what I’m gonna write, and I’m excited about the project. That’s all I’m gonna say about it. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about works in progress.

While I can not give any pointers to help you prep for NaNo, I can talk about things that will help you through November.

You only have to write 1667 words a day
That may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. Currently, I write anywhere between 2000 and 5000 words a day. Last year though, 1667 words a day seemed like an almost impossible task. To make it easier, break your daily word requirement into chunks of 500 at a time. Get up an hour earlier and write 600 words, 500 during your lunch break, and another 600 before bed.

Just write
Don’t worry about getting it “just right” – perfection is nearly impossible anyway. You can worry about ‘nearly perfect’ during the editing phase. In November, your goal is to write, write, write – forget about spelling mistakes, syntax, grammar, tenses and whatever else the English language throws at you. After November, there will be enough time to go back and fix it (never use the backspace button).

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The voices in my head

Stephen King writes in his book, On Writing: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”

Yep, in case you wondered, big Stephen King fan.

Most of the time, a story just drops into my head, usually while I’m listening to music. It comes to me as little ‘snippets’ of mind movies, call them trailers if you want, and I don’t get the full picture until I sit down and start writing. I refer to the characters as “voices”, and it’s my job to tell their story. I have absolutely no control over it, I don’t control the characters, the plot, the scenery … nothing. I’m just the nut job at the keyboard, consuming too much caffeine, not getting enough sleep, and playing with my imaginary friends, in our imaginary world. (Don’t call the men in white coats just yet though, I’m not that far gone).

The current novel I’m working on, Beyond Repair, came to me completely unexpectedly. And it was a whopper of a voice. Sam. Poor, poor, damaged, tortured Sam. I told him to go sit in the corner and wait his turn, while I continued to struggle with a story I just wasn’t feeling, but whenever he got a chance to be heard, he took it. In bed, in the bath, while I worked, while I played, while I tried to sleep. If he saw a gap, he jumped in.

So, I gave up. I put the other piece of crap (and it was absolute shit) aside, and I listened to Sam, who didn’t care to show me everything, until I sat down and really paid attention to him. When I opened the door and let him in, man alive … I wanted to cry. He is tearing my heart apart.

It started out ass backwards. We started with his wedding night (which was just sickeningly romantic), and worked our way back, to the day he met his bride for the first time. As I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, he showed me much more than I could ever have anticipated. The story I thought would be something short and sweet, evolved into a novel. There is one image that stuck, and I’ll share it with you, but you’ll have to forgive me, it’s still rather raw, and unedited:

My heart hammered in my chest, and blood roared in my ears. Sweat poured down my body. I clawed deep scratches into my throat, convinced his hands were still there, desperately trying to pull air into my aching lungs. Elisa grabbed my wrists and pulled my hands away from my throat. Holding my arms down, her voice, calm and soothing, made its way through the fog. “Look at me.”
I had the odd sensation that I was looking at her through a hazy curtain, and realised I was crying. She let go of my wrists, and wiped the tears away, holding my head in her hands, she forced me to look at her. “It’s just a panic attack,” she said. “Breath with me.”
She took my hands in hers, and brought them close to her chest, keeping them there. I breathed with her, trying to calm my mind, trying to put the flashing memories way down deep where they belonged.
I breathed, and my heart slowed.
I saw myself, lying naked and bloody and broken and torn to pieces on the bathroom floor, too scared and hurt to move, clutching a teddy bear to my chest. Crouching in a bath, because it hurt too much to sit, bleeding into the water.
I inhaled and exhaled with Elisa.
I felt the deep, burning stings of the cigarette burns on my chest. Heard the swish of the strap, and felt it connect with a loud, wet smack. But mostly, I felt him behind me, smelled his stinking breath, felt the blister of the foul air on my skin, heard him grunting. Groaning, I hit myself against the forehead, trying to stop the avalanche.

Sadly, that is not Sam at his worst. He had a rough life, and sometimes it catches up with him. I have tried to put this story aside. I have tried to ignore him. I write horror, damn it, not this stuff! But, in a way, this is horror. Tear your guts out, make you want to hurt people, horror. This is real life, which is often so much scarier and more painful than we can ever imagine, and someone has to tell his story. Might as well be me.

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Writing a novel is hard

Another National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is approaching, and I’ve learned a few things since I finished it (for the first time) last year.

Writing a novel is hard
Yes, it is. I don’t care what the people over at NaNoWriMo tells you, it’s not as simple as sitting at your keyboard and hammering out 50 000 words. I can do that in 2 weeks. Anyone can do it! The hard part is creating something worth yours, and your readers’, while. You want to write a good story, with strong, engaging characters, and that takes hard work and a lot of practice.

Write more, rather than less
Up until recently, I wrote short stories, 5000 words or less. I have written novels, but I followed the ‘short story’ formula, and while they were okayish, they weren’t good (lots of plot holes). Fast pace, very little description, no real development of characters – you know the drill. With a novel, you can’t do that. People want to really step inside your characters’ skin, get to know them, feel what they feel, see what they see. Readers want to experience the world you created, feel the caress of the soft evening sunshine on their skins, smell the roses … okay I suck at this, but you get the idea. You will have to cut a lot of this stuff later, but while drafting, throw it all on paper – it’s easier to cut unneeded narration during the editing phase, than it is to add details later.

You will, at times, hate every single word you write
Many a night, I wanted to cry at my own ineptitude. I always love my characters. Creating them and giving them a voice is what I’m good at, but I find narration, setting up beautiful captivating scenes, and transition very difficult at times. I’m sure everyone goes through it – the I suck at this feeling. There have been, and still are, times when I wanted to throw in the towel and start over. I wanted to kill the whole thing by setting my laptop on fire. Remind yourself, that it is probably not that bad. We all experience doubt. It’s normal. Keep writing, finish that novel.

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