NaNoWriMo – My Experience

The first of November is rolling around, a date that has indelibly been stamped into my mind for the last five years. Not due to Halloween-induced hangovers or the fact that it marks a fortnight until my Birthday, but because it’s the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I thought it worth a quick pre-NaNoWriMo post in case I sway one more person into taking part, because (spoilers!) I think it’s awesome.

Picture the scene. It’s September 2009. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve got the first few thousand words of a couple of different novels languishing a long way short of complete. One of them, at fifteen thousand words, is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And then my wife discovers NaNoWriMo. I grumble that it’ll distract us from finishing what we’re working on, that it’s better to keep our heads down rather than start new projects. She, fortunately, ignores me, and I eventually see sense.

With no planning, and no idea of what I’m trying to say, I write a complete first draft in a month, mainly on my phone on my commute and lunch breaks, and scribbled in notebooks to be typed up later. It’s about 40,000 words, so shy of the 50,000 target, but it’s the longest thing I’ve written and my first attempt to structure a longform story. Unsurprisingly, when I read it a few weeks later, it’s Not Great. Very Not Great. But there are some interesting things in there, and having completed a first draft I begin the process of redrafting for the first time. It’s the obligatory post-apocalyptic coming of age novel, of course.

A year later, and this time I’m a bit more prepared.As well as massive supplies of tea, I have an idea of the general plot and characters for my steampunk opus. I write about 60,000 words in the month and finish it off in December with another 10,000 words or so. Upon reading it, it’s also Not Great. But I have some thoughts on why, and look up more about how to structure a plot. How to plan a novel. How to develop characters.

Next time it rolls around, rather than start a brand new project (which is what NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about – honestly though, who cares as long as it gets you novelling) I turn to the idea that’s been burning at the back of my mind all this time. One of the novels I’d started before NaNoWriMo came into my life. I spend a month plotting and squeezing my brain and then spend November completing the novel. The planning paid off – it’s a lot more coherent than my previous attempts, though needs a lot of work still.

The next year is spent redrafting that novel, A Calling-on Song, and I give NaNoWriMo 2012 a miss, but when the Summer version, Camp NaNoWriMo, approaches in 2013 I decide to take a break from redrafting. I spend a couple of months preparing a new novel, The Lord of The Dance, then kick it’s ass in a month. I write the first three quarters of it, but it’s already 80,000 words. I leave it there, happy to draft the last quarter when I’ve shored up the rest, and return to redrafting A Calling-on Song.

And now, as I’ve been blogging about, A Calling-on Song is being chucked at agents in the hopes they like it and I’m in the process of redrafting The Lord of the Dance. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about writing, about me as a writer and about what I want out of life along the way.

Will writing a novel in a month make you a successful author? No.

Is it hard work? Yes. Oh god, yes.

Will you have to make changes to your routine to accommodate it? Yes.

Could it be the most awesome thing you ever do and change your life? Yes.

Let me know if you’re tackling it. Good luck!

@BornToPootle

Where do you get those ideas?

Or, Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow.

Some of the books I've stolen from. I mean, 'been influenced by'.

Some of the books I’ve stolen from. I mean, ‘been influenced by’.

Welcome to the latest in my series about trying to get published for the first time.

I’ve been submitting my ‘finished’ novel to a few more agents over the last couple of weeks, and an interesting thing occurred to me. On many submissions advice pages on various agencies’ websites there’s something along the lines of ‘include anything that makes you an expert in what you’re writing about.’

Now, I’d sort-of assumed that was mostly there for non-fiction submissions but now I’m wondering if that’s not the case. Faced with my query letter, synopsis and novel extract, a prospective agent is, I imagine, looking for two things: material they really connect with and a reason to say no (given they’ve got unsolicited submissions coming out of the wazoo, wherever that may be). Or, perhaps it’s a default ‘no’, but they’re looking for a reason to say yes, something they can sell, some nugget they can base a pitch to a publisher around, something that lends credence to a submission.

I’ve not made much of an effort to disguise some of my book’s origins – it’s set in the town I grew up in, and the main characters work in a DVD rental store (possibly the last one!), which plays host to a number of important scenes. I worked in record shops in the town for four years between leaving school and going to drama school, so there are a fair few little quirks and tics that are directly based on those experiences. So far, so not-that-enticing – who hasn’t written something based on a re-imagined version of their home town? It’s far from an original idea.

But that’s just the setting. And there are reasons and ramifications for that setting, but it’s not the juicy part of the novel, it’s not necessarily going to hook anyone in unless they have some kind of affinity for the town. The real meat (or tofu-steak I should say, being a damn hippy) of the novel is in the folk tales that stalk my main character and that besiege him at every turn. It is, when boiled right down, about a young man discovering a deep connection to the traditional stories of these isles. And that’s where I’ve been underselling myself.

When I was 12 I joined a youth theatre, and the first play I performed in was a version of Robin Hood that reconnected the character to traditional folklore. It was an established play co-written (I think) by Toni Arthur, and we were lucky enough to have her directing us. Those of a certain age may remember her from the children’s show Playaway. She taught me most of the swear words I know. But she also, during the course of the play, taught me and the rest of the cast a few folk songs. And I’ve been singing them ever since. A few years later for a different production her ex husband, and former musical partner, Dave Arthur, taught me a few more folk songs. And then, a few years later still, in my mid twenties, I got interested in American folk and made the logical leap back into traditional British folk music. It really did feel like coming home.

Dave and Toni Arthur were part of the 60s/70s British folk revival that spawned the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who, along with Martin Carthy, I’ve been lucky enough to see live a number of times over the last few years). And they taught me folk songs which wormed their way into my bones and have wound up in my novel. So that is where the root of the idea comes from. And I think that’s a much more engaging narrative for my own journey to write the novel than the one I’ve been giving to potential agents.

What do you think? Is it worth letting agents and publishers know the truth behind the novel?

Creative Distractions

Or, the play’s the thing. Unless the novel’s the thing.

My latest mash-up attempt. High culture and Firefly (or, as I would have it, HIGHEST culture)

My latest mash-up attempt. High culture and Firefly (or, as I would have it, HIGHEST culture)

I mentioned in my last post that I had, for a little while at least, stalled while redrafting the novel I’m working on. The good news is that I’m back up to speed, but this post is about something a little different. While I was stalled my brain threw up all kinds of things to distract me from the task at hand. And fortunately I’ve been in such a routine of writing that some of those distractions were creative. So over the period of a couple of days when I was supposed to redrafting I wrote a play. Don’t worry, I was as surprised as you.

Despite training and working as an actor for a few years, I’ve never really had the inclination to write a play, so I was quite surprised when an idea popped into my head almost fully formed that had a nice bow tied around it reading ‘for the stage’. Odd how ideas instinctively seem to know what medium they’re going to be in.

Well I wrote it, a nice half hour two-hander set in the cockpit of a spaceship, and then gave it a quick redraft. And then… I didn’t really know what to do with it. It feels so different to writing a novel – I’ve spent the last few years teaching myself about that process, and suddenly felt adrift.

The thing with a play is that, unless you’re going to direct and star in it as well, other people are going to get their grubby little paws all over it. Reading it after the redraft it became very apparent that I needed to hear it out loud, in other peoples’ voices, or I wouldn’t have a clue how it actually came across. Fortunately I know some awesome, super-talented actors, so I assembled my crack squad of two, both rather handily with experience in writing and workshopping material they’d created, and on Saturday I held my first workshop for something I’d written.

Definitely best to theme clothing to the task at hand.

Definitely best to theme clothing to the task at hand.

The first order of business, after admiring the Jayne Cobb T-shirt and hat one of the actors arrived in (see above for my attire for the day – you may have spotted I’m a Firefly fan), was a first read of the play, sat in chairs, sipping tea. Even just that was really useful – both actors approached the roles in interesting ways, picking up on a dynamic I hadn’t thought of. And rather pleasingly I thought the writing held up pretty well when vocalised – with a few clunkers thrown in for good measure, of course. It was clear to me though that the drama was very one-sided and the denouement slightly rushed.

After a brief chat about the play and the characters in general, I got the actors to improvise around a couple of the key moments. The play opens with one of the characters wanting solitude and the other wanting interaction, so I gave the actors different levels of how much they needed that solitude/interaction and then made them raise and lower that need throughout the improvisation – it helped unlock a couple of interesting dynamics that will feed back into the script. I might leave out the dance routine though.

After three different improvisations, each looking at a different part of the drama, we went back to the script, and had a second readthrough, but this one following the few stage directions I’d written and moving around the space as and when the instinct kicked in. It all came together remarkably easily, helped by the fact that I hadn’t written much physical action, and once again really highlighted the two big weak spots in the play which, thanks to the improvisations, I’ve got some great ideas for how to fix.

So what now? Well I’ll have another re-write and then I don’t know. I’ll look up some short play festivals and see if I fit the criteria, or check out some new writing nights. Which is all-new, all-scary but also all-cool!

@BornToPootle