Reflections of a NaNoWriMo Winner

My sister recently won a ballot place for the London Marathon. Being more of a country stroller and book shop browser I was interested to learn more about the psychology of running such a long way. Sara Kurth has written a fascinating article on the Eight Stages of Running a Marathon. I had these stages in mind when I embarked on the gruelling journey that is NaNoWriMo this year.

1. Days One – Three – Starting Nerves

The build up to NaNoWriMo is quite similar to training for a marathon. We plan, we dream, we order in food and drink, we clear our schedules as much as we can. Now day one has arrived and we are full of excitement. There is the temptation to go too fast off the blocks in the first three days and set a pace we cannot sustain throughout the month. I was really nervous, but at the same time excited, when I began, but I didn’t let myself go over the 1,667 words per day during these days in order to set a realistic pace.

It felt weird to be writing every day like this, especially when my writing has often been haphazard and spontaneous before. I also felt overwhelmed and intimidated to read the enormous word counts coming in from others, and felt pressure to go faster. However, I didn’t, and stuck to the basic word goal.

2. Days Four – Nine – I’ve Got This

By now, I’d settled into a routine of writing as soon as I woke up every day. I didn’t even let myself get a cup of coffee, but instead made do with the water that was by my bed. Once I’d reached my word goal, I could get on with other things with a clear conscience. It also meant the inner critic, who is much slower to wake than me, could be bypassed and I could just get the words on the page. I actually felt confident during this time period.

3. Days ten to fifteen – Settling In

The routine continued into days ten to fifteen. However, on one day I got distracted by a phone call when someone woke me up early, and ended up getting a coffee before sitting down to write. The words didn’t flow as freely that day. The next day, I didn’t feel like writing at all and started to feel the burn so to speak as I realised I wasn’t even half way. To combat this I just pushed through, recreating the routine over the next few days, making sure I didn’t skip meals or not get enough sleep, and kept on writing. It wasn’t a very pleasant part of the writing journey but I persevered.

4. Days sixteen to eighteen – The Wasteland

I actually started to get bored at this stage. The inner critic didn’t seem to sleep and was constantly whispering in my ear how utterly droll my story was and how no one would be interested in reading it. I ceased to be interested in reading it. It felt like every word I put on the page was a blur of nothingness and tedium. But having been warned that this might happen, I kept going, just putting one word in front of the other and reminding myself that it could always be improved in the edit.

5. Days nineteen to twenty-one – The Dark Night of the Soul

Talk about mental anguish. This was when I almost gave up. The only blessing that helped to keep me going during this time was the fact that I went away on a Writing for Wellbeing course which inspired me to get excited about my writing all over again. This is definitely a good time to go away or join a write-in if you can.

6. Days twenty-two to twenty-four – Wow! I’ve Come a Long Way!

I seemed to get over a mental hump at this stage, probably spurned on by the retreat. I spent a few moments reflecting on what I had achieved so far and I kept looking at my daily word count and thinking, “Wow, I’ve come a long way.” I allowed myself to get excited at the prospect of completing the challenge, but this made me think more about the finishing line than the next words I needed to write. As a result it started to become difficult again for me to get the words on the page. Instead, I reminded myself to keep it in the day and to only do my 1,667 words. This seemed to help me to keep going. I also created a new playlist of birdsong and bubbling brooks, and ordered some Bergamot which seems to ignite my creativity.

7. Days twenty-five to twenty-nine – I’m Never Doing This Again!

These were the days when I cursed ever having signed up to do NaNoWriMo. Every day was excruciating. I felt like I couldn’t breath, much less write. But when I look back on my word count I see I actually started going over the daily target at this point and reached my goal early. However, I didn’t want to stop there as my other goals were to finish the thirty days and to eventually finish the first draft of my novel.

8.  Day thirty – Collapsing in a Heap

Okay, so maybe not literally, but definitely metaphorically. I only wrote ten words on the last day but it didn’t matter because I’d achieved my goal and had become an NaNoWriMo Winner! I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but I know I still have a long way to go. I have about ten thousand words left to write on this first draft and then the hard work of editing and re-writing will begin. I’m looking forward to it though, but have planned a trip away for a few days before I sit down with my big red pen.

This has been an amazing journey and I’ve got to share it with some wonderful people for which I am thankful. I have taken from it the need to write every day, although I don’t think I can sustain 1,667 indefinitely. I’m probably more of a 600 word girl myself. That being said, this blog is already over 1k so I’d better draw it to a close and ask, what are your reflections from your NaNoWriMo experience this year? Do you think you’ll do it again? I, for one, am all in and can’t wait.

Susie

Keep Calm and Keep It Simple

The very first time I had to give a presentation in a class at university my professor said something to me which has stuck with my ever since. He said, “you’re trying to give a lifetime of talks in one talk. You have a lifetime to give them so how about you tackle them one at a time and keep it simple?”

Keeping things simple, whether it be giving talks or writing novels, is easier said than done. We’re never just faced with a simple crossroads, but rather arrive head-on at a superhighway of different directions we could take our characters in. with that comes a crippling fear that we are going the wrong way, the imperfect way, the dead end way. What if we go a different way and it leads to the pot of gold at the end of the literary rainbow?

As I was preparing this blog post my mind started racing and ideas began streaming in. How about I write about the top five reasons why people never complete the novels they begin? Maybe one of those reasons is they overcomplicate things, but there are others, such as fear of failure, lack of time, no discipline, their heart just isn’t in it etc. But I have forced myself to stick to the point, and keep it simple.

In terms of writing, how many plots and sub-plots should there be? How many characters should I have? How many scenes should I visit? I’m always mindful of the book outline I saw by J.K. Rowling at the British Museum in which she listed one main plot and two sub-plots throughout the whole novel. Then there is A.A. Milne with his nine characters and Enid Blyton with just five. Every book we read has a different opinion so it’s little wonder we get caught up in mental knots and find it hard to move forwards. I don’t think there’s a magic number of sub-plots and characters. I just think readers know when we have too many. If in doubt, cut them out.

I always keep a separate note book beside me while I’m working called my “Ideas Book.” In it I scribble down all the extra thoughts and inspiration that comes my way so that I can get it out of my head and onto the page without muddying the waters of my W.I.P. A number of these ideas are ones I’ve come back to at a later date. There are enough others to last a lifetime, and as my professor said, I have a lifetime to write them.

Writing the blurb for the back of your book near the beginning is no bad thing. It can help you stay on track. If you can’t tell someone in thirty seconds what your book is about while stuck in a lift then you need to simplify it. If you don’t get it, no one else will.

So how do I simplify? I quite simply cut down, cut back and cut out. I cut down on the number of sub-plots so that I’m left with one or two. I cut back on any waffle, unnecessary trivialities, dull descriptions, and droning conversations, and I cut out any character who isn’t essential to the movement of my story. It’s brutal. But it’s worth it.

What are some of the things you do to keep your writing simple?

The P.O.W.E.R. Process: One Way To Climb the Novel-Writing Mountain

As writers we spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out the best way to write our novels. Over the years I have probably spent more time on process than I have on actually writing. I’ve learned the hard way what doesn’t work, and have picked up a few gems along the way. I’ve combined what I’ve learned into what I call my P.O.W.E.R. Process for getting a novel written.

Ponder

brainP is for ponder. For the few of us who have an amazing idea pop into our heads all at once that we can flesh out into a seven book, eight film and multi-million dollar franchise this might seem easy, but for the rest of us it can be quite a challenge. This is the time given over to ideas, brainstorming, and giving free rein to our imagination.

The difficulty we face as adults however is that we are taught to question our dreams and put a dampener on our hopes and aspirations. For many of us our inspirations have been quoshed with a healthy dose of realism.

Let’s do an experiment. Take a sheet of paper and fold it into eight. In the top left-hand corner draw a house, then top right do another house. Again in box three and again in each box until you’ve drawn a house in each box.

Don’t read on until you have done this.

I said no cheating!

What do your houses look like? Are they pretty much all the same? Children who are asked to do this exercise will often get really creative with it. They may draw a tree house, a boat house, an igloo or a teepee. The average adult will draw a series of box houses rather like those seen across the newer housing estates in Britain. (Thanks to Chrissie Hall for sharing this with me).

As you sit down to ponder what you would like to write, don’t be afraid think outside the box. At this stage no one else is going to see it anyway so you can be as fantastical as you like! Indulge in this stage, have fun with it; it is as important as all the rest.

Outline

story plottingI used to look at this word and say ugh. I never liked the idea of planning my novel out in great detail before I began to write. I felt it robbed me of my spontaneity and creativity. I now know two things: I can get creative about planning, and if I’ve put this work in I can write with more freedom because I’m not worrying about blind alleys or pot holes along the way.

I’m not going to tell you how to plan. There are a plethora of books, blogs and podcasts that can do that. My only advice to you is to find your own unique way of doing so. Take what you find useful from others and leave the rest behind. Whether you plan in a linear fashion or through a series of mind maps it doesn’t matter so long as it works for you when you refer back to it as you write.

One thing I will share is that it can be multimedia. I’ve found video clips of accents on YouTube that match the tone of a character’s voice, images that reflect their appearance, templates for characters, scenes, plotting etc that I now use regularly. I interview my characters as I find it easier to hear their voice when I do and they sometimes reveal little nuggets I never knew about. Get creative about planning and find a way that works for you.

Write

WriteDun dun dun! If you’ve got this far then you’re in a very strong position. You have a destination, and you have a map. Now you can begin your journey. This is the point where you can get really creative (remember the house exercise?)

The wonderful thing about having a destination and a map is that there’s more than one way to get there. You can include blind alleys, pot holes and cliff hangers because you ultimately know where your character is going. She won’t get lost. You can take your time to enjoy the scenery or you can rush her to that finish line at breakneck speed. You could even have her journey in a yellow submarine if the mood takes you.

If you have given over enough time to ponder and outline then the only thing which will get in your way are your own demons, or what Melissa J Hayes calls her ghosts. If your ghosts are haunting you as you stare at the blank page or screen I highly recommend you watch her TED Talk. She’s on your side and she has a fantastic way to inspire you to exorcise those pesky blighters.

There is no right or wrong way to get the first draft written, no magical daily word count, location, amount of time or brand of coffee that will get those words on the page. You just have to do it. What I will say is that the more you do it, the easier it gets to keep going. Our writing muscle is like any other, it needs exercise to build strength and stamina.

Edit

Elements of StyleI actually love this stage. I love it so much that I want to do it in every other stage preceding it, especially during the writing process. DON’T DO IT! Have an edit box in the same way some families have a swear box. If you catch yourself editing when you shouldn’t be, put a quarter / 50p or some other coin in the box. You’ll soon learn to stop it! You could give the money to charity. I don’t recommend you spend it on yourself. That would make me want to edit more!

Editing by its very nature is methodical and left brain. But I get excited about it because it gives me the chance to learn new words when I’m repeating myself, swot up on grammar books (I have a long way to go in that department), and hopefully polish my script until it, ‘shines like the top of the Chrysler Building,’ (brownie points to whoever knows that quote!).

I do recommend a very useful tool for this stage. If you don’t already have a copy grab yourself “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It’s brilliant and makes me wish I paid more attention to dear old Miss Case at school.

Release

palms with a grain of wheatOnly when you have gone through each stage above are you in a position of power to release your work to others. If you do not yet have an agent or publisher this is when a couple of beta readers come in handy to give you honest feedback. I’d normally say don’t pick family as they tend to be biased cheerleaders but my own mum loves grammar is is meticulous about detail so is a fantastic beta reader. I have another friend who is a voracious reader and whose opinion on what makes a good story I value. She is my other beta reader.

After I get my feedback from my beta readers I do more edits. Then I step away from the manuscript and put the pen down. I can do no more. It’s time to sent it out to people I don’t know. Whether you choose to go to traditional or self-publishing route I wish you much success as you release your words to the world. My only advice to you is persevere, don’t give up, start pondering the next book while you release the first. Your stories are important. Stay true to yourself. You can do it. All power to you. Have fun.

Liv

We Are a Muse

robert_graves
Robert Graves

All my life I’ve enjoyed being around creative people. Regardless of how they express themselves, something inside me comes alive when I’m in the company of writers, artists, musicians, dancers, actors and the like. They make me want to burst and express myself in a new way. They make me feel most alive.

My mum was at Oxford with Lucia Graves. A writer and creative in her own right, she is also the daughter of World War I poet Robert Graves, who is best known for writing I Claudius. During a number of summers we would go out to Deià, Majorca, and stay with the family. Robert was a magnate for creative people. Across the road from the houses, amongst the terraced olive groves and the sheep and goats with the clanging bells, he built a small amphitheatre. It was here that he would perform his poems. It was also the venue for plays put on by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company who happened to be spending the summer there. I will always remember the night I did the thunder sheet for the Tempest.

Then there were the dinners on the terrace, the chatter, the laughter, the candles flickering in the evening light. After clearing the table one night a dancer from the Royal Ballet taught us how to jump and spin our way across the flagstones.

ballet-jump
The Royal Ballet

Towards the end of his life Robert was sadly struck with Alzheimer’s, a particularly cruel illness for such a great mind. As I sat next to him one evening as the adults were in the kitchen washing up he gently lifted his hand and put it in the pocket of my big baggy dress. It was as if he had taken my hand and we sat there, an old, drooling man in a wheelchair, a young girl of nine full of hope for the future. This was communication on a level way beyond words.

the-terrace-at-sunset
Terrace at Sunset

His wife came out to wipe down the table. She stopped and smiled and said, “if he’d been able, he would have written a poem about you.” Then she stopped some more and considered. “Wait, what I see before me right now is poetry.” That moment changed my life. It made me look at the world in a completely new way, and in that second I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I still surround myself with creative people. I go to concerts and hear incredible music, attend plays, visit galleries, read great books. All of these things and all of these people, along with fantastic sunsets, laughing children, and the moments like that on the terrace in Deià touch my soul, pump my heart, and revitalise my mind. These are my muses, what are your’s?

Top 10 ways to fill your ‘inspiration well’

Most writers carry a notebook around with them wherever they go. Whether electronic or paper, they recognise the importance of recording every good idea they have. But where do these ideas come from, and how can writers get more inspiration for their work? Is your ‘inspiration well’ running a little dry? Then you’ve come to the right place…

 

  1. Sight – Take time to stop and look at the world around you. Whether it be a beautiful landscape, an expression on someone’s face, or a bag of knitting sitting haphazardly next to an empty chair, write it down! Collect images and scribble them in your notebook. You never know where they might lead. I had an idea for a story just from seeing a broken watch lying in a drawer. What do you see around you? Write it down!
  2. Sound – A piece of music playing on the radio, the waves crashing on the shore, a child laughing. All of these sounds are absolute gems for your work and you need to get used to writing them. So often writers spend a great deal of time writing about what they see, and not enough time exploring the other senses. What can you hear around you right now? Write it down!
  3. Touch – You’ve probably figured it out by now, I’m working through the senses. But humour me a bit here. When was the last time you really took time to describe how something felt to the touch? What does it feel like to hold a new born baby in your arms? Describe walking barefoot through dew-drenched grass. What does it feel like to get sunburn because you stayed out too long? Close your eyes a moment. What can you feel right now? Write it down!
  4. Taste – Do you rush your food to the point that you don’t take time to taste what you are eating? Slow down! Consider it research and savour the different tastes of the food you eat. Drinking an iced-mochachino is definitely very different to working your way through a hot curry. Describe it. Write it down!
  5. Smell – The single-most memory-inducing sense we have and the one we describe least in creative writing. The smell of petrol at the gas station. The smell of bread baking in the oven. The smell of a wood fire. What can you smell right now? Write it down!
  6. Feelings – Whether it be joy, anger, fear, disgust, or sadness our emotions are an incredible source of inspiration for our work. Make friends with your feelings! Give them air time and write them down. Observe the emotions of others and do the same. The more comfortable you become in describing the feelings of your characters the more authentic your work will be.
  7. Thoughts – Same as feelings. In order to be able to get in the head of your leading character you first need to be comfortable in your own head. Spend time just thinking. Don’t worry what comes into your head, whether it’s thoughts about what you might have for dinner, a reminder to call someone that has been on your mind, or the meaning of life, write it down! – BTW the answer is always 42!
  8. Dreams – Every writer should keep a notebook by their bed. If you don’t have one, get one. Dreams are a fantastic source of inspiration. I once had a dream that a girl who worked in a restaurant was being blackmailed to serve a man a poisonous dish of food. Random I know, but I wrote it down and it may yet appear in some of my work. Write down your dreams!
  9. Muses – Other people are an excellent way to gain inspiration. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by creative people who spark ideas, get me motivated and drive my dreams. They don’t all have to be writers. They just have to be creative. Some are musicians, artists, crafters, and dancers. All inspire me to write it down!
  10. Imagination – Finally there is the illusive imagination. If you’ve had a lot of people burst your bubbles over the years you may find it difficult to let rip. There may be an internal voice deriding any wild and crazy ideas you have. If this is you my best suggestion would be to write that voice down and then kill it off! You have the power to do in literature would you would never (hopefully) do in real life. Kill! Kill! Kill! Anything that gets in the way of you writing down the wildest and craziest ideas which pop into your head. Then write those ideas down!

Here are my top ten ways to get inspiration. What are some of your’s. Please add them in the messages below.