First Drafts and Final Thoughts; A NaNoWriMo Retrospective

November has finally turned into the last month of the year, and that’s my very first NaNoWriMo over. I’m thrilled to announce that I successfully completed the challenge, with a final official word count of 50,108.

In some ways, it did take over my entire November, but in other ways, it hasn’t felt like nearly so huge an undertaking as I had imagined at the beginning. Of course, it’s easy to say that now, looking back, and I almost certainly felt differently at around the 27,000 word mark when I wasn’t sure at all that the novel was working out or had any future. But at over the halfway mark, there’s no way you want to just pack it all in and quit, and so I found that I had a few incredibly depressing mid-week days where I was half-heartedly scattering a few hundred words of utter drivel hoping to get somewhere interesting. Which, thankfully, happened and if you take a look at the little graph here you can see the couple of times I stalled slightly, before having epic 5000 word days and catching right up.

So, without further ado, here’s my humble retrospective on the things which I loved, hated and learned during my NaNo month.

Don’t Set Unrealistic Goals 

The story itself is nowhere near finished. I realised at around 30,000 words exactly how unfinished it was going to be at 50,000 words, had a bit of a stress about it, and then yelled at myself for being ridiculous. At a rough estimate, I’m maybe a little over halfway through, but I now have a clear understanding of not only where it needs to go now, but also how it’s going to finish and what needs to be done about editing the content I have already written. Because, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, there is a LOT of crap in there. There are what I term ‘placeholder’ sentences; things like ‘the event was finally over’ and ‘once all that had happened’ – badly worded and nippy phrases to get me over a clunky part that I’m not yet ready to elaborate on, and into the parts which I was surer of. 50,000 words is a LOT of story, even if it’s only a beginning.

Don’t get stuck on self-imposed rules

There were moments when I lost all train of thought regarding a particular chapter, but had a later one completely clear in my mind, twitching to get out. I abandoned my intentions to write chronologically in those cases, and opened up a new document, typed up everything that was clamouring to escape, titled it something like ‘Unknown Chapter’ with a two or three word description tagged on, saved it and closed it. It added to my word count, perking me up a bit as I saw it steadily climbing, and on top, gave me a goal to aim for between where I was in the story from a chronological viewpoint and where I needed the story to get to. Rather than fracturing my writing or causing me to lose my train of thought, it actually helped me enormously to get these bursts of inspiration out and onto paper. Or screen, rather. Although I have damn near filled a Moleskine with story parts which I wrote whilst out and about, or during my downtime at work. At a guess, I’d say close to half the novel so far has been hand written originally – something which I have found tremendously helpful for me since I find that writing by hand stimulates my creativity far more effectively than typing directly does. On top of that, for every 1000 words I handwrite, I can estimate 1200 or more once it’s typed up, because I never type word for word directly. When it comes to typing it all up, I have further thoughts and ideas, rearrange sentences, restructure dialogue and add or delete sections.

Get over the quality control

It’s not going to be amazing quality writing from start to finish. It doesn’t matter. I knew this from the outset, I had the words ‘quantity over quality’ repeating in my head. It still took me a while to get over the fact that, on occasion (on several occasions actually) I was having to write tedious phrases, unconvincing sections of dialogue and repeating words too often within a paragraph simply because of time, tiredness and the effect which staring at a screen for too long can have. I did find that this was less of an issue with the handwritten parts, because as mentioned, I find it easier to think creatively when I’m writing as opposed to typing. But still, there are a whole lot of sections which need editing, expanding upon or deleting and re-writing completely.

Creativity breeds creativity

I don’t know of anybody else experiences this but, when I’m in the middle of working on anything remotely creative, my brain starts firing all sorts of ideas at me. It’s the opposite of creative block, it’s more like creative flooding. During the month I’ve had ideas for not only other stories, but also for artistic projects. I haven’t had much of an interest in photography for months, not to the extent that I used to have, but over the past month I’ve had two separate, close to fully-formed, ideas for lens based projects which I’m not looking forward to working on. Which brings me onto…

Have an idea outlet, but don’t cheat on your novel

I didn’t want to lose those ideas, but neither did I want to get completely sidetracked from the novel. There’s a fine line between cheating on your NaNo and completely losing some potentially incredible ideas. Plus, if there’s a constant battle in your head between the plot you’re trying to focus on and a group of other characters and storylines clamouring for attention, chances are, nothing’s going to get done very fast. So, I wrote them down, taking only a few minutes each time. Not much, just enough to jog my memory later, not enough to get myself involved with them. The result being that, on December 1st, not only did I have half an actual novel drafted (woohoo!) but I also have two visual arts project ideas, and no less than five story ideas, two of which are fully formed enough that they may become longer length pieces of fiction. So, that’s me not being bored for the next year.

This will clarify exactly where the weak points are

In my personal opinion, the research thing is something which needs to be done either well before, or well after November. Definitely not during. But, nonetheless; I spent around four or five months planning out this story after the germ of an idea for it first entered my head. By November 1st, I knew my main character so well that I can pretty much hear his voice in my head when I type. I had pages of research, a folder of bookmarks, bullet pointed lists of timeframes, historical events and plot notes. It still wasn’t enough. I imagine this is only an issue when writing things which rely on major social, historical or political events, and is less of a bother when writing from, say, a fantasy standpoint. But whilst I felt, a month ago, that I had enough research done that I could effectively ban myself from any more during the month, it turns out, I was very wrong. But, I now know precisely where my weak research areas lie, and I know exactly which characters I need to spend time developing. These are things which I had no clear idea about only that one short month ago, and even if I end up having to rewrite damn near everything I’ve got down already, I think that getting to the end of this challenge was worth it for that reason alone.

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Procrastination, Research Holes and A Novel in a Month

Throughout November, like a great many other people, I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. The challenge, to belt out 50,000 words of novel in the space of just 30 days.

Now, I’ve just this second seen a retweet from the NaNo Twitter account, which reads thus;

My first thought was, why would an English teacher be confused that anybody wants to write a novel? I can’t quite reach my head around the idea that somebody teaching English – or any educator, for that matter – would have a problem understanding the concept behind wanting to create something, and wanting to do that creating as part of a challenge. Particularly when, as an English teacher, he or she should be completely used to the idea of setting deadlines for writing assignments. Which is pretty much what this is, just on a much larger scale.

One thing I will say about this is that it will take over your life. Once you’re in the flow of writing, you’ll find yourself writing beyond your daily target. You’ll have ideas about plot and dialogue when you’re doing the shopping and stand completely in the way of everybody else whilst you frantically try to make a note on your phone before the thoughts become lost in the expanses of your imagination. You’ll keep a notebook beside you at work, jotting down a sentence here and there, and suddenly you’ve got a whole chapter ready to type up. Four days in, and I’m keeping a notebook, a calendar and three separate copies of my written novel (master, cloud stored, external backup drive – baby, I’ve had too many data loss incidents to take any chances). You will go slightly mad, and you’ll love every second of it. Probably.

Why do it, though? I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, belting out this novel in such a short space of time is the best possible idea. It’s my first attempt at a novel, and it’s something I have been researching and planning for months. Being the master procrastinator that I am, I could easily spend the next year or more continuing to research and plan, and never actually get around to writing the damn thing. Getting a first draft out in a month, however rough, will tell me whether or not the story is going to end up viable, or even interesting, without spending a tonne of time on it. It’s the perfect opportunity to do something fast and dirty, without worrying about ladles of research, without worrying about what other people will think. I’m just getting that story out, I can worry about editing it later.

I will say that since my plot is concerned with some key historical points, I’m making the odd sidenote to research a particular point later, and check for historical accuracy. But beyond that, I’m just writing, and it’s incredibly freeing to do that without worrying whether Brylcreem was available in 1948 (turns out it was) or whether my main character is dressed correctly. For an undertaking that might usually take a year or more to complete, there really does have to be a lot of elements removed. Research and editing as you go, have to go. Once you’ve reached that 50,000th word (or, conceivably, more – I’m presently 8000 words in, I don’t think I’ve written any filler but I’m not going back to check yet, and I’m nowhere close to the juiciest parts yet), then is the time to freak out about piffling little points like that gaping plot hole and the fact that you have no idea if your characters should be drinking quite so much tea.

Until then, the point of it (for me anyway) is the complete freedom to write what will hopefully turn out to be a novel. In a timeframe which won’t make me cry if it’s actually a lengthy bag of nonsense and boredom.

Contemplating Mortality and the Prospects of Age

At what age did you realise you were not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?

I’m not completely sure it’s sunk in even now.

I mean, in the abstract of course I understand that I will one day die. Even at 32 I am beginning to notice the first small signs that I am not as young as I was, and that age is undoubtedly beginning to have its way with me. In the most logical, on paper way, I understand that my day might come and that day might be tomorrow, it might be in another fifty or so years, it might be anywhere in-between. But who on earth is capable of imagining what that will be like? Even the most creative human mind needs some frame of reference for the imagination, and there isn’t a soul on this planet who can provide a frame of reference for death. Death is the last great taboo. Nobody wants to talk about it because nobody wants to think about it. It’s the ultimate unknown, the only thing that cannot become a lesson in itself, not for the individual, anyway. Nobody but the living can learn from death. 

Part of the human condition has always been the attraction to the concept of immortality. As beings with a limited lifespan, and a comparatively short one in the grand scheme of life on earth, we are intrigued by, and desperate for, a solution which might mean extending those years. But with a caveat, of course. Nobody wants to spend hundreds of years living in an aged body, the skin deep beauty of youth long since lost and the cruel japes of old age pressing on every joint. 

But to stay young, and live forever, well that’s the premise for one of the most popular literary themes of the past few hundred years, isn’t it? 

When you come right down to it, the general idea of the vampire is rather disgusting. Drinking blood and only appearing at night, on the surface just doesn’t sound like an overly appealing way to be. But the idea that this is the trade off for immortality and eternal youth has pushed the vampire myth well towards the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a romanticised idea, upon which tale after tale has been based. If the pull of eternal youth is strong enough to make the less savoury aspects of being a vampire seem perfectly sane, even desirable, then this is evidence that it is a powerful pull indeed.

But back to reality, and the progress of modern medicine not only in the sense of effective immunisation and cures, safer birth methods and advances in the treatment of previously short-term terminal illnesses, but also in the fields of cosmetic surgery. With enough money, (and seemingly a little luck, or at least sound research into the right surgeon), a sixty-plus year old can have the appearance of a 40-something. Whilst this doesn’t address the issue of mortality, of course, it’s yet another way in which a person can put off having to think about the matter. I suspect it’s far easier to brush off the  of your own impending demise when the face staring back at you from the mirror is relatively smooth and wrinkle free. 

Then there’s cryogenics. A concept which has seemingly grown in popularity during recent years, I had already been aware of the general idea when I saw an exhibition a few years ago at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford called ‘The Prospect of Immortality’. The photographer, Murray Ballard, had spent time documenting the “tiny but dedicated international cryogenics industry”, producing a final exhibition of striking, massive format pieces in beautiful colour alongside audio recordings of some of the people involved in the industry, from the doctors taking care of the patients through to the prospective patients themselves. The work provides an absolutely fascinating insight into this extremely niche, and much ridiculed, prospect, and offers further evidence of the lengths that the human race may go to in the name of extending their natural lifespan. 

The entire idea of immortality of course is only attractive as the abstract concept. I wonder if any person could live with the reality of it. Even assuming that many of the difficulties of a long life at the moment reside in the issues which old age presents, and further assuming that those difficulties might be eradicated with the aid of further medical advancements and the halting of the physical ageing process, I can’t imagine living for hundreds of years. But, life expectancy on average has been steadily climbing, and as science presents further advancements, who’s to say that the curve will not continue to rise? Even now, based on my own family history, and assuming that none of the stupid things I’ve put my body through over the years affect my own life expectancy, the possibility of my reaching my nineties is reasonably high. 

On the other hand, that still means that I’ve lived a third of my life already, and if I’m unlucky, maybe half or more. Which is a depressing thought, and going back to my opening statements, one which I’d certainly prefer not to think too hard about.

That way, I suspect, madness lies.


Response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt for October 20th.