Monday, 20 April 2009


I do have a habit of doing mad things. Frequently I regret it. Usually in the middle of the night. I once took a test to see whether I was a risk-taker. I scored pathetically on the type of risk which involves physical danger - like sitting by a window when at any moment a pigeon might come crashing through - but impressively bravely on "new experience-seeking".

If there was a category for "things no sane person would do but which aren't actually even a teensy bit dangerous" that would be my type of risk.

So, doing a NaNoWriMo is pretty much in that category.
(A Nanothingy, btw, is where a group of idiot writers decide to write 50,000 words in a month. You're meant to do it while having a normal working life, though you will not be normal by the end of it.)

I am fascinated by several aspects but I'll share just three with you. And I'm going to be briefish because a) my posts are often too long (though none of you has been cruel enough to tell me so) and b) I've, er, got 5,000 words to write tonight.

1. Changing your writing habits is a good thing

We get into ruts. People ask writers things like "Where do you write?" or "When do you write?" and we have answers. We shouldn't have answers. Whatever your answer is now, why not change it? Our brains are wired to love change. They get excited by it, pumping out dopamine, the chemical that makes us learn, and live, and love to live and learn. This week, I've changed. I was a keyboard-addicted-email-addicted-writing-is-a-last resort-can't-write-unless-I've-vacuumed-the-dog kind of a writer, but I'm now a writer who can write With A Pen On Paper, in the garden, in a coffee shop, on a bus with yackety people around me; I'm a writer who writes first and does tasks later. This is a revelation.

2. "No Plot? No Problem!" - the book by the founder of Nanowrimo, Chris Baty - is a must-read for authors. I rarely say that anything is a must-read, but this is. If you don't find something in it that excites or challenges or improves you, I'll eat my novel. I've never read a book about how to write a novel and never wanted to, but this is a totally different book about how to write a novel - it shows you how to write your novel, not how novels are written or what to put in them. Everything from time management made sexy (que?) to how to bribe, terrify or blackmail yourself or your friends into writing is covered.

3. The important thing is to turn off your internal editor. As Baty says, "The first law of exuberant imperfection is essentially this: the quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy." You're just supposed to write, get that first draft down, and allow it to be substandard. For me, it's hard not to re-write every sentence five times before going on to the next one. But it feels so much better to get some kind of flow and I used to be able to - I'm just getting it back, that freedom to write rubbish and deal with it later.

The way Nanowrimo works is that you all encourage each other. Or threaten, bribe, goad, jeer at or otherwise abuse each other. On Saturday, one of the participants and I were being silly on Facebook - "bet you can't" / "oh yes, I can" / "I'll raise you 5,000" / "losER" and in the end we challenged each other to write 10,000 words on Sunday. I woke up on Sunday with a migraine and she had a serious hangover (shame on you, Gillian ...) but we were both at our desks. (Yes, OK, I see this isn't sounding attractive.) And we wrote, oh boy did we write. Neither of us reached 10,000 - well, I could have, of course, but I felt sorry for her with her hangover, so I generously eased up and took another couple of codeine. But none of our several thousand words would have been written if we hadn't been doing this. Which feels pretty good.

Writing a novel is hard. Writing it with other people pushing and encouraging you is a whole lot easier. I recommend it. You don't have to wait for the official Nanowrimo to start - get a group of friends together online and just do it. Go to the website here for everything you need to start one. Or do a smaller challenge - anything to break whatever habits might be holding you back. (And you'll never know till you try.)

And even if you don't do anything vaguely Nanoesque, do remember:
  • you can (and often should) change your habits or at least challenge them
  • it really is worth reading this book:

Mind you, I have only done a week. In another three, I could be a wreck. I could really regret this whole post and be cursing the day Chris Baty ever decided not to be a normal person doing a normal job.

But at least I took the risk.


Scott said...

I did the crazy NaNoWriMo thing a few years ago and learned a very valuable lesson: I am capable of writing a rough draft (50,000) words in one month. In fact, my normal goal with any project is 50,000 words in one month. In fact (don't you hate when people constantly use the same phrase to start a sentence?), I wrote 50,000 words in 2 weeks one time. Yes, I banged out a rough draft in 2 weeks. It was an incredible writing experience. The words flowed like quicksilver. Okay, I was a little obsessed at the time and lost some weight as well (that, was not a bad thiing).

So, NaNoWriMo was/is a great experience. More writers should try it, or at least try to complete a rough draft (50,000 words) in one month's time. The months/years that follow in the editing process are fun as well.


Solvang Sherrie said...

I love this book. It helped motivate me to write my first really good novel, the one I'm shopping around right now. The one I entered in a contest and won 3rd place. It helped me focus, stay in the zone, and get it done. It was a great experience. I still had to let it sit and do a lot of editing afterwards, but it was a fabulous way to get the first draft out there.

Helen said...

I took part in NaNoWriMo 2008 and it completely changed my life. I used to "want to write a novel some day." Now I've written one. Sort of.
It's only a first draft so a lot of the writing is pretty dire, but there are also some really good bits that I want to develop. On reading my NaNo I've been really surprised by some of the stuff I came out with. I think when you have to write quickly, you tend to switch off the internal editor anyway.
I'm about to start redrafting and am really looking forward to returning to my characters after a six month break to get some perspective.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Ain't that the truth - write so fast the internal editor can't catch up.

Donna Hosie said...

I did NaNo last year and had great fun for the first three weeks! Then I became ill and my 43K word count didn't budge. Felt a bit of a failure until someone very sweet told me to stop feeling so effing, (didn't use that word!), sorry for myself because 43 thousand words is still more than most.

Chris Baty rocked my NaNo world. We would get emails from published authors like Philip Pullman urging us on, but it was the ones from Baty that I looked forward to.

Eric said...

I haven't done a NaNo yet, but I am in a 1000/day word challenge. So I guess thats a start. If I manage to do the entire 30 days and manage 1000 words, maybe then I'll consider trying a NaNo. Then I'll start looking for a good divorce attorney because my wife will wonder if I still care. Heh heh. Just kidding. Maybe.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

The novel I am almost (almost!) done with was my first/only NaNo in 2006. My family asked me what I "win" by participating. I said, "A 90-page manuscript!"

I heard Bruce Coville speak recently, and he referenced the old Michelangelo story about "how do you sculpt a horse?" ("I cut away everything that doesn't look like a horse.")

We all know we don't have that luxury, since we're creating something out of nothing, but Coville pointed out the first draft is building the block of marble.

I loved that. It's helped me explain to so many why re-writing is so great. (I'm working with something that *exists!*) NaNo is awesome for getting to the re-write as quickly as possible.

Maybe this is Baty's phrase, but if it is I've co-oped it (if that's the right word): NaNoWriMo is all about "invoking the power of deadline" (and about tricking people into caring for a month about a part of your life they've always ignored before).

Nicola Morgan said...

Lots of positive reactions to Nanos there. Any comments from anyone who really hated it?

Donna - I won't feel I've failed if I don't get to 50,000. In fact, I'm fully expecting not to, because I have some immoveable feasts to deal with during this time. But I know I will have written way more than i would have done. That's success - and so was yours!

Scott - impressive! I once wrote a 55,000 words non-fiction book in 11 days, including the (minimal) research. But that was non-fic and so much easier - an novel in two weeks is seriously good going!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Writing with a Pen. On Paper. How retro; might have to give that a go.

Gillian Philip said...

Did anyone hate Nano? I hated it on Sunday! Hangover? What hangover? I don't know what you're talking about, Ms Morgan. It's all a blur. Ooh, I'll get you back next time there's a Pens At Dawn...

Nicola Morgan said...

Now Gillian, I would never have given away your surname! After all, I could have been talking about any Gillian, not Gillian PHILIP, the critically-acclaimed teenage author. Get writing, lady, cos you'll need to be fast to catch me. Also, I will be away and won't be able to record my word count, so you'll never know what I'm doing. (or not)

Elen Caldecott said...

I think you should both get off the blog and get back to writing!
But then, I can only think that because I came to visit the am not writing...BUSTED!

cecilia_peartree said...

I have done NaNoWriMo three times and produced one not bad novel (by my own standards, not yet published but reached quarter finals of amazon contest) from my 2006 effort and one promising looking one from 2008. The 2007 one went off in a strange direction and I can't really work out whether it is worth working on any more or not.
I strongly recommend anyone thinking of doing it to wait until November, since there is massive support available then on the forums, regular e-mails from Chris Baty and other writers etc... Personally I will be quite happy if I can write 50,000 words of a new novel every November for the rest of my life. It is great to be able to think about your next one from about the summer holidays onwards, but not to write anything down, so that it reaches the point where it is almost ready to write itself!
The 2006 NaNoWriMo changed my life, as someone else has said. Up to then I had thought I didn't have time to write, but in October 2006 I had just inherited a dog and two cats, I was in the middle of writing and producing a version of 'A Christmas Carol' for my youth drama group, I had enrolled on an OU course and then there was full time work... I feel that perhaps there should be a sequel to Chris Baty's book called 'No Time, No Problem.'

Paige Bruce said...

A writer's workshop that I'm participating in, led by Candace Havens, is having a similar sort of exercise called Fast Draft - 20 pages a day for two weeks is the goal! I'm excited to see what I get down, and I'm hoping my fiancé doesn't get too fed up with me when a few chores are late. (Or worse, not done.)

@Amy Jane: That speech by Bruce Coville sounds like it must have been great, and the statue bit makes a lot of sense in terms of building that block of marble first, then shaving it into the shape we want.

I haven't done NaNoWriMo yet, but I'm definitely going to try it this year in November, since I don't think I have enough writer-inclined friends to set one up earlier. :P

Rebecca said...

I did NaNoWriMo for the first time this past November. It was the busiest month of my life, but I managed to get past 30,000 words! That's the longest thing I've ever written, but it's still not finished. I set it aside after November was over to work on the other manuscript I had been neglecting.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cecilia - I would have agreed re waiting till Nov, but actually you can set it up at any time and get those email pep talks from all the same names! All the same challenges and everything.

Kate said...

I've never had the discipline to tackle nano - but one year I must - it seems like an excellent way of getting that first draft down!

It's a good idea though, to have a target like that, although I tend to make mine a lot more modest so that at least I have some hope of achieving it :-)

DONNA said...

I've signed up before I could talk myself out of it. Perfect for a 'I'm going to write today/this week/this year' person like me.

Emma said...

I've been watching your word count with admiration, and I'm giving NaNoWriMo serious consideration!

Sarah said...

I've not thought much about attempting NaNoWriMo. It might be good for me. I sometimes agonize over each sentence, though I've learned I do agonize for the first bit, then hit my tempo a quarter hour later.

I wonder if my tendency to concentrate on each sentence is because I adore lovely writing: the sound and cadence of what's been written, and the emotion it evokes. (As was plainly demonstrated in my short verse, photo-inspired, pigeon query.) Perhaps if someone naturally noticed story structure rather than sentence structure, they'd be able to move along more quickly. (Maybe revision would drive them crazy. I, however, love it.)

Or perhaps the Benadryl is kicking in and this is making far more sense to me than to any poor soul wading through this comment.

I am curious, though. Is there anyone here who doesn't have trouble putting down large stretches of text when s/he finally sits down to write?