NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 2

Nom nom nom words words words nom nom nom

Nom nom nom words words words nom nom nom

Welcome to part 2 of my NaNoWriMo advice on how to make it as easy as possible for yourself to keep your word count high. These aren’t writing tips per se, just some ways you can help maximise your productivity without going nuts. I’ve been a NaNoWriMo devotee since 2009 and after a rocky first year have ‘won’ every time. On with the tips!
4. Social butterfly.
I had thought that NaNoWriMo would become about staying home and making no plans whatsoever, but I actually found that counter-productive. When I tried that I went stir-crazy and became unable to concentrate on anything at all. What I think is important is a) picking your engagements wisely, and b) planning for some writing time around them. As my Birthday is in November, there’s always the worry that crazy Birthday shenanigans will hamper creativity. Last year though, my other half bought train tickets for a day trip to a really cool town that happened to be two hours away – two hours of writing there, two hours of writing back and a lovely day out too! The other day I went to a couple of exhibitions, one about Gothic fiction and the other about witches in art – both incredibly inspiring for what I’m writing. So time out from physically writing, but great food for my writing brain.
5. Planning
This could be a tricky one, as some people just refuse to plan much. And that’s fine, whatever works best for you. But me? I started out as a pantser, writing whatever came, following that white rabbit wherever he led. Which was, most often, to a dead end. And having redrafted a novel I pantsed, most of it was unsalvageable. Since I’ve started planning, in really quite a lot of detail, I never have to stop and think about what’s happening next – I’ve done all that work in advance and can concentrate on wrestling those words into the right order, knowing that they’re going to end up just where I want them. I love this chap’s approach to story structure – really helped me get my head around planning.
6. Leave it to someone else
And by someone else, I of course mean future you! You NaNo novel will not be publishable. No disrespect to you, but however well it’s going it will need redrafting at least once. And most probably a number of times. That’s the writing process. Embrace it. Don’t keep going over sentences trying to polish the language. Move on. Get a first draft finished, then worry about making each sentence the very best it can be. Who knows, when you reread your novel, you might need to remove a scene or completely rewrite it so there’s no need to get every word publication ready quite yet. Make it the best you can in the moment and move on!
7. Writin’ Juice
If all else fails, a tot of whisky isn’t the end of the world to silence your inner editor and let you get on with it! Or pour a slug o’ hooch into your coffee (a hipflask carried around can liven up a turgid Starbucks Americano too). I don’t need it to write though. I’m fine, really. I just like the taste. I don’t know where that other bottle has gone. Why’s the room spinning?
Hope some of these are useful, feel free to let me know any hacks you employ to maximise productivity.

@BornToPootle

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NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 1

Or, eating novel for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Ooooh, there's a ghost in there taking a photo of me taking a photo of it...

Ooooh, there’s a ghost in there taking a photo of me taking a photo of it…

As discussed in my last post, November is a magical time of year for me, as National Novel Writing Month rolls around once again. It’s a month where fun pastimes like film-watching, game-playing and drunk-getting are sacrificed on the altar of the great god Wordcount. The good news (for me) is that this year, as I was working on redrafting a quarter of my novel, I’m already done – a solid 35,000 words done within the first two weeks. This frees me up nicely for my Birthday tomorrow (seriously, leaving it late to buy a card guys, come on) but also left me pondering how different an experience it was to my first NaNoWriMo in 2009, when I barely scraped 40,000 words for the month. Since then I’ve hit the 50K target a fair few times, so here are a few top tips for maximising word count – some may be easy to implement, some may be for next time around.

  1. Make it easy to write

The first year I tackled NaNoWriMo it was predominantly on a combination of notebook/pen and a cheap phone with a qwerty keypad, written while out and about. I’d then type up the handwritten bits and copy the phone document into a single Word doc on my desktop at home and, if I could face it by that point, do some more writing. The following year I used a battered and pretty hefty laptop with a whopping 40 minute battery charge. Then I finally invested in a cheap netbook – Samsung NC110 – which is pretty rubbish at surfing the internet but great at running Scrivener and Word. Fits easily on my lap on the tube, starts running in seconds to maximise my lunch breaks at work, lasts for ages, and is a natty purple.

  1. Meals

This is a small, but useful tip – I cook a lot, and found that by the time I’d got home from work, caught up with my wife, cooked a meal and eaten, not only would time be ticking on with no more words to show for it, but I’d really feel like goofing off and doing something a bit mindless. These days, with a bit of planning, I make sure that all the meals I’m going to have in November are either quick and easy to prepare or make a massive amount of leftovers – so I might make a hefty pie or stew on Sunday night that lasts through most of the week, freeing up time and brain-space!

  1. Condition yourself.

Always be ready to write. Always have the tools needed to hand. This is one that I think has developed over time as my brain has got used to writing – these days I can start without needing to get ‘in the zone’ or whatnot. A great way I’ve found of developing this skill, along with just writing all the damn time, is to use the same music all along for a particular project. It might take me a while to find the right album or playlist, but when I’ve got it I don’t deviate. That way, after a few sessions, as soon as the first notes of the first song play, my brain associates it with writing and the words start to flow. Round at a friend’s house the other day, he had to make a quick work phone call. In went the headphones, on went the laptop, up went the word count.

That’s it for now – another few tips coming in a couple of days. If you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, let me know how it’s going.

@BornToPootle

 

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

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

Breaking Breaking Bad

Rather than focus on the novel I’m trying to get published, I thought I’d write something about the other novel I’m working on at the moment.

I wrote three quarters of the first draft a little while ago, and am wading through the redrafting process of the first quarter at the moment. I’m trying a different approach with the redrafting, one that I’ve nicked from Joe Hill, so it plainly works for someone. The idea is that, rather than redraft the whole shebang, you break it down into quarters (and have a read of this chap’s site about story structure if you want to define those quarters – he’s ace) and then, once you’ve redrafted the first quarter, you put it away for a while. Then you redraft the first quarter again and also the second quarter. Then put it away. Then redraft the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter etc etc… The idea being that the beginning will be so rock solid by the time you’re getting to the end that everything should fall into place.

The process was going ok – I’d redrafted the first quarter and set it aside for a while. Now I’ve picked it up again though, I’m struggling to find the excitement in it. Sure, after the crazy world changing events at the end of the first quarter there’s plenty of excitement, and my characters have all the standard stuff they need from the get go – goals, stakes and obstacles – but something was lacking. Fortunately though, I just spent three weeks addicted to Breaking Bad.

Right. So how is that useful? Isn’t it just a distraction from getting any writing done? Well yes in a way, but also it’s incredibly inspiring. I may be a bit late to the Breaking Bad love-in, but it’s gone straight to the top three of my all time favourite shows, alongside Firefly and The West Wing. All different, but all awesome. Anyway, as both my wife and I write, we often spend some time trying to analyse books, shows and films we’ve had a strong reaction to (either negative or positive) and so we spent an evening talking through what made the show work so damn well.

Turns out there are a lot of things that make it great. But the one that’s helped me out is this: Walter White is the obstacle for pretty much all the other major characters. How cool is that? It means that every character is instantly brought into conflict with the protagonist. Sure, there are some external obstacles too, but by and large it’s Walter who causes all the other characters’ headaches.

How’s that useful? In my first quarter my main three characters are school kids still. They’ve all got various obstacles, from religious nutjob parents to abusive homes to starting school for the first time ever at sixteen. One of the three is a bully and the others the bullied. When, after a few scenes, they are brought together by a shared experience they get a common goal, and despite all the external forces acting against them it feels a little too easy from then on, at least until the really weird stuff starts happening and their allegiances crumble. From the outset I’ve known that the characters have different agendas for wanting this goal, but what I’m only now putting into place is that these agendas are directly conflicting. So rather than forming a cohesive trio combating external forces, they are now also in conflict with each other. They are each others’ obstacle to achieving this shared goal. Instantly more exciting. Instantly more fun to write.

Right, I’ve run out of Breaking Bad so no excuse not get novelling. Or rewatching Breaking Bad…

An Agent Replies

Or, Careful What You Wish For.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. A little while ago I mentioned in a post that what I really wanted from an agent (other than an offer of representation of course) was feedback. As a rookie writer I sometimes feel like I’m howling into a gale – I’ve got no real way of getting decent impartial feedback without paying a critiquing company. And while I think the novel is good to go, I’m not precious about it – if something isn’t working then I’ll fix it. All I need is some consensus from people in the business to know what needs another draft. And guess what? I finally have a bit of industry feedback!

In a previous post I talked about sending the novel off to a friend of a friend of a friend who works at an agency. He requested the full manuscript and here’s what he had to say, verbatim:

‘Dear Jonathan

Thanks for this, I’ve read a bit more. I think you write really well and there’s some interesting elements in your story but it lacked the pace and edge of your seat thrill that really gets me excited about a novel. I also think it’s hard these days to have adult books which are quite so quintessentially English in there (sic) settings. I enjoy it but publishers tend to shy away as it limits the appeal out of the UK. For that reason I don’t think I’m the right agent for this book. It’s such a fierce market out there that you really need someone who is 100% behind your writing and will champion you with conviction.

Sorry for the disappointing response but it really is just one opinion and you may find other agents who completely disagree.

I wish you all the best with getting the book published.’

Interesting, no? What do I take from this? There are two real issues here and I think they may have very different solutions.

The pace/excitement factor is something I’ve been wondering about myself, so it’s good to have that raised. I think the novel does start as a slow burner and once the strands twist together – about halfway through – momentum gathers and the pace becomes more breathless. But possibly readers are only going to get to that if they are patient for the first half. This gives me a valuable insight to feed into the next redraft, though I will keep pursuing this version for the time being. As he states, it’s all down to personal opinion so I’ll exhaust a few more avenues before picking reaching for the tipp-ex.

His observation about the quintessential Englishness of the novel is very interesting. The novel is, when you get right down to it, about a young man in small-town England discovering the English folk tradition and folk stories, so making it less quintessentially English would be either tricky or diminishing to what I’m trying to do. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought of the Englishness being a limiting factor myself, so I wasn’t altogether surprised it was raised. However it got me thinking about other novels and films that are quintessentially English in some way and yet have managed to transcend into international appeal. Richard Curtis films are a good example, I think. Bridget Jones too. Where these work is that the setting is picture-postcard enough (in a way) to be an unthreatening window into the culture for those outside and yet well-observed enough to appeal to the culture itself. Add to that dealing with universal themes and it’s a good combo.

Now, I think I’ve got that balance to a degree. The story distils into a coming-of-age tale when you strip everything else away. The setting is, I suppose, a scratch down below the chocolate-boxiness of some fluffier versions of England, but it’s not exactly gritty. There are a lot of references to geeky cultural touchstones from both the UK and America to broaden the appeal, but also my own observations of day to day life in high-street shops. And when things really get going there are weird, ooky, odd planes of existence with giant spider-monsters. Those are universal, right?

So what does that mean? I think (and I could be wrong – I may need to redraft to broaden the appeal, but as with the pacing I shall seek further feedback ahead of that) that I need to sell the book differently. I need to manage the expectations of the agents I’m writing to and join the dots for them. Effectively I need to tell them why this has more broad appeal than they may think at first glance. Because if I was told about a book set in an English high street about English folk tales then I too would assume it would appeal primarily to the English. Maybe that is the case, but I think I’ve got something more here. I’m going back to my query letter to see if I can work something in to highlight this as a positive rather than let agents think of it as a negative. In a strange way it gives me an aspiration. I want to be the Richard Curtis of the weird.

More soon!

@BornToPootle

 

Urges. How to control them and when not to.

Or, asking the impossible.

 

Tappity tappity tappity

Tappity tappity tappity

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. It’s been going on six weeks since I sent my first few query letters out, and so far I’ve had three rejections with two replies still pending. It’s getting close to time to send out the next batch and I’ve discovered a new step in the process. The urge to fiddle.

It’s impossible to know the definitive reason the three agents so far haven’t wanted to read more – it could be anything from the mood they were in when they read my submission, the fact that they just signed someone with the same basic premise, something specific in the writing, something that didn’t gel in the query letter…. The list goes on. Or, as their letters stated, it could simply be the fact that this is a subjective game. It’s dependent on taste, and for everyone that thinks my book is a masterpiece (that would be, um, me) there are bound to be people who disagree or don’t engage with the subject, setting or characters.

So do I fiddle with it (the novel, I mean. Filth.)? Well without some more comprehensive feedback, I don’t think there’s any point in fiddling with the novel itself. But that’s only part of the package. There’s also the query letter and the full synopsis which give a flavour of the book and the full plot respectively. And if something is amiss in those or could be more gripping then that could potentially be a turn off for the agents.

Or… they could be fine and just waiting to get in front of someone who really engages with them. For this next batch I’m going to keep everything the same (unless any of the agents have particular stipulations of course) and then ponder anew in about eight weeks. And I shall take heart from hearing that the author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, faced 61 rejections and three years from first submitting to getting picked up. For her it was apparently rejection number fourteen that almost broke her. I’ll let you know which number it is for me.

That’s all well and good, but what to do in the interim? I can’t just twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best, that’s no way to get anywhere. I’ve dusted off the novel (or the three-quarters-of-a-novel) I wrote the first draft of for last year’s NaNoWriMo – The Lord of the Dance – and have got well and truly stuck into the redrafting. One of the major elements that need some TLC are the characters. Perhaps because of the time constraints that NaNoWriMo brings, the characters all start fairly strong then become a bit wishy washy. I’ve decided to borrow a trick from my other half (also a writer) and try casting the novel. Alongside doing a load of other character development bits and bobs, it’ll help me get back on track if I feel them drifting again. That and, if you cast them with actors who make interesting or bold character choices then maybe some surprises will pop up. So who is in the cast? My main five are:

Shia Labeouf (that breakdown has made him so much more interesting!), Cillian Murphy, Mia Wasikowska, Ellen Paige and Adrien Brody

I’ve cast this lot based on the character elements that I’d already come up with and written 80,000 words about, but it’s made me ponder what would happen if you approached it the other way around, if you used actors as your first stepping stone into characters’ heads. And more importantly, if you could pick any five actors to sling together in a cast, who would it be?

The Dreaded Synopsis

Or, how I learned to stopped worrying and love the process.

This chap may be better at jumping through hoops than me. His name is Humperdink.

This chap may be better at jumping through hoops than me. His name is Humperdink.

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. As promised, this post is about the synopsis which will accompany my covering letter and first three chapters when I submit to agents. The most important thing, for all of these bits that agents will see, is to work out why they want it. What are they hoping to gain from its inclusion (other than see that I’m willing to jump through a big scary hoop)?

As far as I can work out, they want the synopsis to tell them what happens. And when it happens. Sounds pretty obvious right? They might get blown away by the writing style of my three chapters (here’s hoping), but if they then look at the synopsis and realise it all becomes a rambling mess half way through, they may think twice. To my mind, they want to see that I understand commercial story structure (because I am aiming for commercial appeal rather than those new forms Konstantin bemoans the need for in Chekhov’s The Seagull) and, of course, see whether it gets (more) exciting.

Now, in my Elevator Pitch post, one of my discoveries was that, as well as being a nightmarish prospect, it was quite a lot of fun trimming 90,000 words down to 25 words. And that’s what I found with the synopsis as well. This time I had in the region of 800 words to play with so, y’know, par-tay.

If you’ve been reading all these and the comments, you will know that I fall firmly in the planning category of writer (though I was a die-hard pantser when I started), so what I’ve realised is that getting to this stage in the process is kind of cyclical. When I start writing something these days I’ll get some idea of the basic set up, work on the characters, expand the plot outline, back to the characters, back to the outline and so on. For bringing it all back down to a synopsis, it was essentially the same in reverse.

Things that need to be included: the plot from beginning to end in the order it happens; a little about each of the major characters. Simple.

My first attempt was a rambling 3,000 word monstrosity that tried to address every little twist and turn. I swiftly realised that wasn’t the right approach. Sub-plots and lesser characters be damned! My novel is very much my main character’s story and so I went back to the keyboard and tried again focusing solely on what happens to him, what he does about it and what knock-on effect that has. Because it all needs to be cause-and-effect or the novel will feel very episodic. As I carried on and honed the synopsis I was also able to spot any points in the novel where things either didn’t quite make logical sense or characters were solely reacting to outside influences and not becoming an influence in themselves. I’m pleased to say there weren’t many points like that, but as I did it when gearing up for a swift final draft it both bolstered my confidence and gave me a few extra ideas for areas that needed attention.

So there we have it, my synopsis discoveries. Rather than being a big scary hoop that needs to be jumped through, it’s a really useful tool for making sure novels are on track. Who knew!

Progress update: I’m now just about three quarters of the way through the redraft, but just coming up to a section that needs a bit of TLC. Still aiming for the end of the month, so wish me luck!

Hopefully my next post will be about researching agents, but I might get distracted by something shiny and write about that instead, we shall see. In the meantime, have you had an experience like mine – a big scary necessity that actually turns into something really useful?

The Manifestation of a Manifesto

Manifesto

As you may well note from the long silence, I’ve been struggling for a while with the purpose of this blog. But time has rolled on, projects have been polished and realisation has dawned. I’m about to embark on a terrifying new journey and you, my imaginative and imaginary chums get to sit up front in First Class.

What am I babbling about? Simply this: in a couple of months I will submit my novel to literary agents for the first time. And so this is the forum where I will keep track of my progress, be able to sob over my failures or share my successes. It’s completely new territory, so may prove either a cautionary tale or inspirational chivvying depending on how things go. For those with similar goals it might be a useful resource and for those without it could perhaps be an interesting insight.

So that’s the manifesto. What will the next few posts hold? Some background on the novel and how long it’s taken to get to this stage. A look at some of the work that needs to be done outside the novel itself in order to submit. And I would have thought there’ll be plenty of procrastinating about quite where ideas come from, things I’m finding inspirational and ludicrous facial hair.

Are there any parts of the process you’re particularly interested in? If so, stick a comment below and I’ll see what I can do.