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

Hidden Figures

hidden-figures

Last night I finally got to see Hidden Figures, the true story of three African-American female mathematicians who played a vital role in the development of America’s early space program. It was brilliant. Here are three reasons why I recommend Hidden Figures to you:

It tells a good story

Any film which successfully weaves the epic and the intimate is a classic in my book. Hidden Figures is just such a film. The backdrop of the early days of NASA juxtaposed against the intimate tale of the female ‘computers’ is enchanting, gripping and provocative. Sure we know the outcomes of the space missions themselves, but this film is character-driven with fantastic performances from a stellar cast. It’s impossible not to root for Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Octavia Spencer, and Mary Janelle Monáe as they trail-blazed their way into the history books. I’d also like to give a shout out to Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell. She made me squirm and that can’t have been easy.

It makes a statement

Set in the midst of a segregated America where one lady had to run back and forth to a bathroom on the other side of the campus in all kinds of weather just because of the colour of her skin it reminds us all that it wasn’t that long ago that bigoted prejudices were the dominant way of thinking.

With tensions today rising globally between those that look like us and those who are different it is a poignant and timely reminder that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. The haunting legacy of that era is still with us today bubbling away under the surface and sometimes out in the open. We need to figure out a way to move beyond this concept of ‘other.’ We need to realise that to empower each other to excel and thrive is to empower humanity as a whole, for surely when we do so it can take us to the moon and back.

It made me laugh

The film’s disarming humour added a lightness and class to the performances that left me inspired, hopeful and happy. Need I say more? What more could you want from a day out at the movies? Why don’t you find out for yourselves…

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?

A Writer On Twitter

birds-on-a-wire

When I first started my Twitter account in August of last year I didn’t really understand what it was all about. Being somewhat verbose I found it difficult to express myself within the 140 character limit that Twitter allows, and I felt rather as if I was shouting into an empty cave with only the echoes of my own voice to keep me company.

Then I discovered the hashtag #amwriting and realised that there was a vast writing community on Twitter who actually speak to one another. When you get beyond the incessant self-promotion and pleas to follow, follow, follow and buy, buy, buy, what you actually find are people just like you, sitting at their computer, sipping on their tenth cup of coffee, trying to create something out of nothing.

I started to interact with a few of these people, and began making some online friends. I created a list for them so that I could keep an eye on their tweets. I made a decision to start following other #amwriting writers and to do my best to get more people talking to one another. Slowly but surely people started following me back. I started to get excited about what was happening.

I don’t remember making a decision about how I would use Twitter as a writer. My posts are very much an extension of myself. They mainly contain wisdom, thoughts, ideas and prompts that help me in the writing process just as much as anyone else. I suppose I’m a community builder and writing enthusiast who likes nothing better than to see that spark of creative energy in others.

When I reached the one thousand follower mark I decided to plan my posts to go out throughout the day. I use Post Planner for this and it has really helped me think about what I am posting, when, and how often. This then gives me time to get down to the epic novel I’m attempting, and to write the occasional blog post.

I made a decision from the get-go that I would follow back pretty much anyone. My only exceptions are girls touting for business and highly offensive accounts that I simply don’t want to look at. I’ve also left my PMs open for now for anyone I am following. If things ever got out of hand that would have change, but right now I’m enjoying the dialogue with other writers and the sense of community that is building there. I don’t however follow on Facebook, Instagram and or any other social media platform, nor do I buy from someone, agree to review their books etc, on first message. I equate that to introducing someone to my parents on a first date. It feels all wrong, so please don’t do it! Get to know me first…

This week, my wonderful tutor from my recent writing retreat, Chrissie Hall, became my 10,000th follower. It’s lovely that this ended up being someone I have actually met, but it would have been just as exciting if it was a new online writing buddy. I now have four lists I manage, and have created a new prompt “Attention all Writers” to get people sharing about their writing experiences. From their replies I have been able to utilise the new Twitter tool called “Moments,” and am really enjoying the responses.

A number of us have also recently rallied around the hashtag #WriteOn as we are challenging one another to finish one piece of work by the end of the year. All fellow procrastinators and starters of multiple unfinished pieces are welcome to join in.

I have absolutely no idea where things will go from here but I am certainly enjoying the journey. If you are a writer on Twitter and use the #amwriting hashtag, feel free to give me a shout out. If you are new to Twitter and have no clue where to start, feel free to drop me a line and I’d be glad to show you the ropes.

Write On!

Liv

 

Denman Writing Retreat

 

I recently went on my first ever writer’s retreat at Denman College in Oxfordshire, England. Denman is owned by the Women’s Institute and offers a plethora of course for members and non-members throughout the year, including a number of different writing courses. The retreat appealed to me because I thought it would give me some quality time to write, away from the usual distractions of home. I wasn’t disappointed. The course tutor, Chrissie Hall, herself a published writer, was disarmingly brilliant at helping us strip away our fears, anxieties and confusion about what we wanted to do with our writing. She inspired us to unleash our creative energy and to share with and support each other. In just four days we had become family, forever invested in each other’s successes.

It’s amazing what can happen when a group of people with a common interest and passion get together. Couple that with an organisation with its roots in the Suffragette movement and you have an environment that is a hotbed for getting things done. That was definitely the case for me. My current WIP, a pre-teen novel about a girl called Mollie Price, was in the planning stages when I went to Denman. During my time there I was able to really flesh out my core characters, do a detailed plot analysis of the book, and finish a very strong first draft of chapter one. I’ve already begun chapter two, and shall continue work on that today.

We had lots of time and space in which to write, opportunities for one-on-one’s with Chrissie, and just the right amount of time to come together and share with one another. All this in beautiful surroundings, with a comfortable study/bedroom to retreat to if we chose to, and delicious food served by friendly staff.

I initially chose to write in my bedroom but quickly decided instead to work in the big teaching room with everyone else. I had my headphones on to help me focus, but the sheer energy of everyone working in the room together was an utter joy and definitely helped me to produce some of my best work.

I’m now sitting here, back at home with my headphones on, playing the same music I played on retreat, and it’s definitely reminding me of those feelings and helping the words  flow as I type. I’m planning on booking myself into the same retreat next year and may go to another in October on preparing your manuscript for publication if my current WIP has reached that stage.

The upshot of all this is that I would recommend writing retreats to anyone who can get to them. There is nothing like it and it will definitely help you progress with your work.

Write on!

Liv