Writing books is hard shock

So, November 1st I embarked on NaNoWriMo 2015, which is a challenge to write a novel – beginning, middle and end – of at least 50,000 words between November 1-30. It’s only the 25th, but I’m calling it a day at roughly 22,000 words. And yet, I would say that this month has been a semi-success.

I’ve been a sort-of writer since I was in high school, and one of the many hang-ups I have had about this over the years is that I’ve never had a novel I was working on. Yes, “the novel I’m working on” is a terrible cliche, but the world’s full of them, so we’ll just have to take that as read. Now, I don’t prize novels more highly than any of the other art forms I’ve dabbled in, but it has always nagged me that I hadn’t ever come up with one. I had the same feeling about full-length plays, particularly back when I was writing sketches and short plays, but at least I have one in my drafts pile now. Novels, nowhere near.

Even if you just consider prose fiction as a general form, I don’t have much to show for it – a fact thrown into sharp light when I applied for this Creative Writing Master’s Degree wot I am doing, when it was very reasonably pointed out to me that I only really had a bunch of poems to submit for it. I’ve done some flash fiction on this site over the years, and I hope to get back into it in 2016, because it’s a new form you can put your stamp on, but I haven’t posted one in a while. I’ve got a couple of short stories in drafts, a bunch of ideas for them, but again, nothing concrete.

Novels, however, nothing. No outlines, no ideas, and it wasn’t an immediate ambition. One reason is the weight of the form: there have been more good novels published than you can read, let alone hope to surpass, and there are more being put out every week, so you do feel as if you can’t compete in this field. At least with poetry and theatre, about which you can say the same, and have a much longer history, they no longer have the cultural dominance they once enjoyed. As art forms, they’re possibly as prestigious as they’ve ever been, but since people are mostly looking in the other direction, I feel a bit easier going about my business with them.

On that theme, I do have to admit that I fell out of the habit of reading novels regularly as a teenager, and have struggled to get back into the swing of it. This is obviously bad: it means my knowledge of the form hasn’t been kept sharp, the books I know are either ones I’ve studied, or ones I enjoyed before c2008, not to mention that I never stopped buying them, which has given me a massive backlog. As I’ve learned from studying poetry writing, the more you are currently reading, the better you’ll be at it.

And then there’s the simple technical point that novels are long things, and I tend to do short things. On one hand, I use concise language. On the other, I’m bone idle. I could run through a list of pros and cons to me even taking on the form, but the main point is that it’s a good chunk of work that I have absolutely no idea how to produce and no ideas for.

So obviously, I started one. What appealed about NaNoWriMo when I first came across it was that it seemed almost magical. You go in one end without a novel, and you come out the other with a first draft. (Yes, I didn’t, but bear with me.) It’s something you’re doing in semi-public (which gets around my whole dislike of just writing work to furnish my private archives): I want to get everything I do out there, otherwise there’s no point in doing it, and though the process is still far from publication, there’s much less of a sense of indulging yourself. NaNoWriMo is a project that makes novelling almost like a game: the win conditions on every day are clear, and all build to a big win at the end.

But I first came across NaNoWriMo 6 years ago, according to my nanowrimo.org account, and I hadn’t done it. I remember starting it once, but I can’t have done it for more than a couple of days, and I think I deleted that work anyway when I stopped. And every year after, I came up with excuses to not do it. So this year, because I had already moved away from friends and family in order to more seriously work on becoming an Actual Writer, it seemed like the best possible year to actually give it a go. And I did. And I cocked it up. But here, in no particular order, are just a few things I learned:

  • I can do it. Alright, I didn’t do it this time, but the actual process is something I can get on with. I didn’t manage the 2000-word a day goal, and some days I didn’t write at all, but I managed 2000 some days, and there were many days I managed 1500, and it turns out 1000 words on a first-draft thing you’ll get back to later is a piece of piss if you put your mind to it. Hell, I’ve just passed 900 words on this thing. Put enough of these days together, and you’ll come up with a novel.
  • I can come up with an idea for a novel. In the week preceding commencement of work, I came up with the idea. It’s an idea that directly stemmed from my reading of dystopian fiction in Sixth Form, and my undergraduate dissertation on alien invasion and colonialism (which is somewhere on this website if you’re masochistic enough to read such a thing), and it is very much in the post-Adams/Pratchett style, but it was still mine, and something I was happy to have in my mind for the month.
  • If I’m going to do a novel, I need more stuff to start it with. In NaNoWriMo you can declare yourself a planner, who has their novel outlined and plotted, and just needs to put the words in, or a pantser, who just starts writing on November 1st and sees what happens. I’m somewhere between the two, but I’ve found out that pantsing only takes you so far. Specifically, I was hurting for material before I even hit the second week. However fruitful an idea is, I clearly need a big chunk of stuff to look at and work with in order to make something actually good. It turns out that a rough outline before you start is probably wise, because I ended up doing one as I went along anyway, and having a good sense of who your characters are will also generate its own material, so more work in that respect is necessary. However, it is still true that if I ever produced a tight and detailed plan for a novel, I probably wouldn’t end up writing it. I had a fairly solid plan for my play Just a Kiss, and that still took me three years for a first draft and will need a good seeing-to next year on top of that. The joy of discovery is part of the point of writing, and it’s what keeps me going, so I need to preserve that in my so-called process.
  • I could do it again. Specifically, although I’m putting it away for now – a difficult decision, because you always risk never coming back – I’m going to come back to this 22,000 words and build it up to its full length at some point next year. (The other worry was that I’d bust a nut trying to get to 50,000 words, and it’d wind up finished at about 40,000, which was becoming likely.) I’m probably just going to be poetry from here till Christmas, but I do want to finish this book, so I’m going try and find some relevant non-fiction to draw from before I go back in, to give the novel something to react against. And once that first draft’s done, I’ll take the Stephen King advice: put it in a drawer, forget about it, and start the next one. And try and do that one properly.

So, that’s what’s been happening with that. It’s also why I haven’t been blogging. The two things this blog is most guilty of is apologising for not blogging, and more surreptitiously, blogging as a substitute for perhaps more useful writing.

But since we’re here, might as well wrap up this post with a bit of life stuff before we enter the Christmas period. Obviously, I’ve been indoors a lot this month, but I did go and see CHVRCHES last week and it was excellent. I also did Bonfire Night, because I hadn’t in years, and the parents came to visit me in Manchester. The poetry course is ticking along, and now the novel’s no longer taking up the time, I’m going to push it up a gear. I’ve got to submit six poems at the beginning of January, and a new poem as usual plus two revised poems for next Monday, so the time is appreciated. Also, I’ve just started a new job front of housing at a theatre in town. This is the first theatre anything I’ve done in a long time, and will hopefully scratch that itch while I get on with other things.

Things forthcoming: six days before I put on my new Xmas jumper for the first time and start obnoxiously carolling. All things being equal, I’m visiting Leicester on the 5th and 6th December because it’s my birthday and I’ve got the chorus concert to make an appearance at. I’m at uni till relatively late, and am probably only going to get home on Christmas Eve considering work, so if you’re in the Warks area over the season inflexible plans will have to be made, because I’ll be back up to Manchester shortly after – most likely, it’s where I’ll be seeing in 2016. That year’s gone by, hasn’t it? I wouldn’t want to prematurely evaluate it, but 2015’s been passable, mostly. It succeeds at the relatively low bar of  Better Than 2014, but there is space for 2016 to excel.

On that fairly strange note, I’m going to go watch Jessica Jones, because I Tried To Novel And Deserve Some Reward For That. Talk soon.

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