NaNoWriMo: how I’ll do it next time

1. I’ll spend October getting ready. 

I wanted to do that this time, too, but for the third year in a row the last couple of weeks in October were a little crazy, with translations suddenly arriving right when my pieces for the What’s On section of Away Magazine were due – and there are always more of those in the run-up to Christmas anyway, what with the markets and castles and carol concerts to write about.

So yes, there was time to throw things in a suitcase for my America trip; there was time to go out and carefully select pretty notebooks for NaNoWriMo, and I fitted in reading Chris Baty’s “No Plot No Problem” well in advance. But there wasn’t time to do character sketches or draw up timelines or brainstorm subplots. Which, in a way, is fine. I wanted to see if NaNoWriMo worked when you do no planning whatsoever – as it is, in fact, supposed to. It’s the opposite of how I wrote my first novel – carefully, deliberately, a scene when it would pop into my head, all of which after spending a long time getting to know my characters – and I was curious to see if it worked, and it kind of did, but I also kept thinking how much more productive it would be if I had a better idea of where it was going. And how much easier it would be to start each writing session if I had, as suggested my someone on I can’t remember which website, written thirty index cards, each with a scene to develop.

That said, I don’t know. Some of my best writing to date has been when I’ve started with a writing prompt and just written for thirty minutes, the aim being to keep writing, and see where it takes you. NaNoWriMo is, the way I did it, a long experiment in freewriting, and I think there is value in that.

Besides, I can do the character development and backstory and subplots and timeline now, and rewrite and add words as I need to. (And I need about an extra 50,000 words, so those things will come in handy.) Also, it’s very possible that I’m remembering the process of writing Inevitable wrongly or selectively: a lot of the brainstorming and post-it note sticking was done between drafts.

Still, next time I’ll do it the other way.

2. I’ll start on 1st November.

I’m fortunate to live in a country which has two bank holidays during NaNoWriMo – on 1st and 11th November, and if those days fall on a Tuesday or a Thursday, you tend to get an extra day off work thrown in too. My teaching also slows down during the first week of the month because it’s half term here. Which of course has been my excuse for taking that time off to go on holiday for three years in a row now. I’m glad I left on 1st November this year, because if I hadn’t I may not have made it to Philadelphia to see Staging Hope and meet Melissa Fitzgerald. But another year I will make sure I spend as much of 1st November as possible writing – or doing the brainstorming that I yet again won’t have had a chance to do in October. Then on 2nd, I’ll take to the skies. (I assume, by the way, that my next NaNoWriMo won’t be next year, because next year there is an election to win.)

I did start on 1st, and I got 1,000 words or so done, and only had to stop because the whole of Peregrine Espresso was spinning and I started to feel as if I was going to fall off my chair, what with jet lag, sleep deprivation and messed up eating patterns. And my novel starts with Aaron jiggling his leg because on the bus from Dulles to Rosslyn there was a guy jiggling his leg as he spoke very quietly into his mobile phone, and it intrigued me, because when people are stressed enough to be jiggling their legs they are normally shouting. Also, there was something nicely symbolic about beginning my NaNoWriMo novel in DC, where it is set, in a cafe of which I had thought on my last visit, “I would like to come and write here”. But still, it would have been nice to have started, say, 1,000 words ahead, rather than a few hundred behind.

3. I’ll travel.

Yes, it’s great that Belgium gives us writing time in November. But what’s less great is that, like so many things, NaNoWriMo has yet to take off here. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is the community aspect: you write together at “write-ins”, you meet up for half-month parties, you send each other encouraging emails. Yes, nominally there is a NaNoWriMo “region” covering “Belgium and Holland”, but it irritates me that they only send out their emails in Dutch – since just under half of this country speaks French – and there are very few Write Ins, and the ones there are tend to be in Flanders or Holland. Also, I have not found the Belgians to be super friendly when you first meet them, so the thought of walking into a coffee shop to join in with strangers and being met with a blank stare when I say “Hi, I’m Claire” is a little discouraging. In the US, everyone is super-friendly, especially WriMos. In the UK, I’m among my own kind, so I know what to expect. In other countries, there are also more Write-Ins – I love the idea of the California one that takes place on a a train. Write-Ins are a great way to meet people when you are travelling alone, too.

Plus, of course, there’s the inspiration factor. I don’t know if all my novels will be doomed love stories set in DC – though it’s looking increasingly likely – but there is something fantastic about sitting in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Pennsylvania writing about a date in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Pennsylvania (although I didn’t quite manage to be that in sync, sadly): about looking around and getting the real details from the real place, about eavesdropping on conversations and making a careful note of them. The dad who told his toddler “senate is in session” by way of explanation of something or other will almost certainly make an appearance in my novel, as will the dogs and small bilingual children in Lincoln Park. This kind of thing makes the place feel more real to the writer and therefore to the reader. Well, hopefully.

4. I’ll hand write.

I almost always hand write my first drafts. Working on my writing is almost the only time that I use pen and paper now, so it signals to me and my body that I am in creative mode. I am a creature of habit, and I found my writer’s voice sitting in St James’ Park writing with a pen and paper, so that’s the way it’ll stay. It’s also how I do my dailyish freewriting exercises. Fewer distractions that way. Long enough for my brain to catch up with my hand.

Maybe by next time I will have mastered the art of sitting at a computer and not flicking back and forth from my writing to Facebook to twitter to Authonomy to Blogger and back to writing. After all, I have been sitting here typing this blog post for quite q while now and resisted the temptation, so you never know. Plus, I have this funky wireless keyboard thing for my iPad now, and it’s a pleasure to type on.

But still, an iPad and a keyboard, light as they are, are more hassle to carry around than a notebook and a pen. You have to remember to charge them, and hope that nothing goes wrong with them, which they rarely do, but it does happen, and if it happens, you can guarantee it will right at that breakthrough moment when you’re typing a pivotal scene.

I also live in constant fear of my iPad being stolen, which is one of the reasons I don’t carry it around with me everywhere when I’m going to be hanging around touristy places. And yes, okay, my whole handbag could get nicked, and if my notebook were in it that would be a real shame – particularly because I back up by taking photos of my notebook, and my camera would likely also be in my bag – but I don’t furtively look around me when I get out my notebook and pen to check no one looks like the notebook and pen stealing type.

Speaking of notebooks, it’s also an excuse to buy pretty notebooks and post it notes. And who doesn’t need one of those from time to time?

5. I’ll count my words every day.

Arguably the best reason for typing NaNoWriMo novels is that the whole point is to get to 50,000 words, and therefore you need to know when you’ve got to 50,000 words. I’ve found my estimations to be wildly inaccurate – well, not wildly, but wildly once you multiply 20 words by 90 pages, which led to a frenzied final day of NaNoWriMo and a collapse in exhaustion rather than a triumphant hooray. This was, of course, after I’d hand counted most of 50,000 words over two or three days. Try it. It’s not a lot of fun. But I really did need to know if I had made it. I think I have. But then again, I might have counted completely wrong. Next time I’d like to know for sure, and I’d like to watch the little NaNoWriMo graph go up steadiliy. I’m sure I can count 1,667 words much more patiently and accurately than I can count 20,000.

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