Tag Archives: nanowrimo

Changing the irons

I have a collection of phrases I tend to use. I can never remember them all, funnily enough, and some might stay unused for weeks. I haven’t yet been accused of reducing life to cliches, but it’ll happen one day, I guess. But the phrase I particularly want to reference today is “I have too many irons in the fire”.

For those roughly my age and younger, this elderly phrase dates from before electric irons were a thing. Instead, ironing clothes required a heavy piece of iron with a handle that was heated on the (wood-burning) stove. The phrase itself, though, means that I have too many half-finished projects on the go. Which has always been true for me.

But it’s coming up to November (again) and that meant NaNoWriMo (again). And for various complicated reasons, I want to try to do this (again). I’ve never managed to finish fifty thousand words and it’s been several years since I tried. So I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring again and charge at it.

So I have to re-arrange which irons of mine are warming in the fire. Some will just have to get cold for a month.


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Write the crap.

It is a sobering fact that a successful author with a few novels to their name will have probably written several million words of original fiction by then. This is an uncomfortable fact that new writers have to both ignore and respect. Including me.

When you do get the writing bug and want to create The Next Great Novel, many new writers launch into it with a vague idea and just spew out a cascade words of undirected fiction. This is how NaNoWriMo is intended to work and some people create best like that, but there is a much older technique, too. And that is to write less than novel-length stories. Lots of them. Your first half-dozen might tap out at a few hundred words, but with even this little practice you will get better at creating bigger ideas. Before long two thousand words feels like not enough. Given enough time, ten thousand words will sometimes not be enough room.

However, it is still a god-awful big leap to go from a ten thousand word story into a sixty thousand word novel.

And I still cannot resist editing as I write, which makes my own raw output considerably slower than it could be.

So what do I do?

Well, I started paying attention to some of the more sober advice about writing. They usually all descend into: write. Write lots. And then write some more. No, still more. When you reach at least a million words of finished work, throw it all away and keep going. This is the writer’s version of an old programming mantra: “Be prepared to throw the first one away.”

Another way of putting it is that anyone has to practice a new task before they get better at it. Our brains don’t come with much pre-wiring. Unlike most mammals which can figure out how to walk in a few days, we need about a year. Any task needs practice. Although I did woodwork in high school, I’m still pretty crap at it. I still usually fail to cut wood square and easily strip screw heads. But I know it’s just a matter of practice. Likewise, I’ve picked up a few random phrases in Korean, but if I want to speak the language, I have to learn it properly.

Writing is the same. “Waiting for the muse” is a furphy.

Similarly trying to produce Great Writing means you first have to produce Good Writing. And that means you have to first produce Okay Writing. And that means you have to first produce Crap Writing.

So I’m trying to just write potential scenes for one or more of my Works-in-Progress. It doesn’t matter how well they all meet up. There will be conflicting storylines. That’s okay. Once I have a body that tells a more-or-less complete story, I can clean it all up into a coherent work. But there needs to be the writing to edit first.

After all, you can’t edit an empty page.



Filed under editing, NaNoWriMo, storytelling, writing

NaNoWriMo Is Coming! (again)

Line art representation of a Quill

A writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you want to get the novel you know lurking inside you out onto the page? Feel like doing it within just 30 days? Great! Welcome to National Novel Writing Month! Well, actually, NaNoWriMo, as it is known for short, is November and it’s international, not just the USA. And with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world participating, it is definitely on the radar at many publishers. Just don’t sent them your first draft.

Amongst other things, NaNoWriMo has possibly popularised the term panster. This refers to ‘writing by the seat of your pants’ – kind of a no-belt, no-braces, no-safety-harness approach to writing. The opposite is a planner, which is what most writing courses teach. Many many writers attempting NaNoWriMo start with just an idea in their head and then spend a month spewing out undirected fiction, creating characters, scenery and story as they go. And over the course of the month, the NaNoWriMo forums acquire more and more posts from writers who discover their characters going off in unexpected directions. And towards the end of November there is a shift to writers who start discovering their finished work is really quite crap.

However, one of the really good things about NaNoWriMo is that for a lot of people it shows them that they can create fiction. There is a kind of “unstopping the blockage” that happens when you want to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. That’s nearly seventeen hundred a day and for many people, that is somewhere between one and two hours of writing. Each day. Newcomers who used to struggle to write five hundred often develop their skills needed for ten or a hundred times that through sheer practice. And it is only through practice that it happens. It is quite simply true that the more you write, the more you can write. A thousand words used to feel like an awful lot to me. Now it doesn’t. Not for a story. It can be easy to underestimate the value of this.

Still, one of the recurring criticisms of NaNoWriMo is that it doesn’t encourage writers to plan. That’s not the same as discouraging them from planning. It’s just that the program is focussed around writing and provides little or no support for designing the shape of a novel beforehand. (There is also little support for editing, which can range from fixing typos, tense and terminology, to wholesale re-writing of 99% of the work. But that’s a separate problem.)

And planning does have to be done beforehand to some extent. I know of an author who plans his NaNoWriMo novels over a couple of months from around August. He goes as far as chapter and scene breakdowns and big charts about what is intended to happen. When he reaches November 1, it is  a fairly straightforward matter to turn all this structure into fiction, often to the 85,000 word mark. He has written and self-published five novels this way.

So what I’m trying to say is that if you think you want to have a serious go at writing a novel in the month of November, you should already be halfway through your planning!

I’m not kidding.


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Full Steam ahead

This time of the year now has extra meaning for me. It used to be that I could just watch October 31 go past at a comfortable distance. Hallowe’en is not, after all, celebrated in suburban Australia in anywhere near the extent or fashion that is in the USA. Mind you, I still liked the American sitcoms that had Hallowe’en episodes. The fact the scares were on the other side of the screen helped.

These days, however, October 31 represents the day before NaNoWriMo starts! Which is nearly as scary but in a really different way. Instead of ghosts and ghouls, it’s the prospect of writing fifty thousand words in thirty days. Instead of spooky decorations and trick-or-treat, it’s writing guides and write-ins. And meeting new people! It can be easy to forget when going to a write-in that most of the other people there are probably just as introverted as you and may not know anyone either.

But that’s just frippery: The real purpose is to write.

Planning or not.

Just write.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

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Writing is like Programming


I’m coming to the realization that writing is like computer programming. A lot like programming, in fact.

Like writing fiction, writing a program requires you start somewhere. Some programmers start by designing their program. This means laying out what the screen will look like, how it will store its data, the structure of the internal objects, etc etc. Others cobble together enough to make it go and display something even vaguely like what is wanted. Then bits are added until it starts resembling the original vision. Strictly following the former approach and you don’t have anything that will work until quite late in the process. But it should work quite closely to what was intended, if the design works. On the other hand, strictly following the latter approach and you get a program that has an organically grown feel. Experiments are easier with the latter approach, but a lot of code will probably be re-written before the end.

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Where do ideas go?

It could be said that unpublished writers can be divided into roughly two types: those that have lots of partial projects and those that nurse only a few. Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair. But sad tales are not that hard to find of unpublished authors with one nearly finished manuscript that they’ve been working on for the last decade.

It does make me think, though, about what people do with story ideas. Some are clearly big ones that can generate an epic book series (J. K. Rowling comes to mind). Others are only big enough to distract a secondary character for a page-and-a-half, maybe to help differentiate them from the main protagonist. Not that this is a bad thing. A lot of writing requires creation of these little ideas and many many many articles and blog posts are written about where to find these. They can often come out of two characters interacting: it is common during NaNoWriMo for writers to discover that character interactions can drive their story in new and unexpected directions. Sometimes annoyingly so.

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