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How to Eat an Elephant

November is the “National Novel Writing month” (NaNoWriMo). It’s a time for aspiring writers to forget all those chores that they do to distract themselves from writing — cleaning the oven, doing a thorough spring clean, organising coins in a penny jar into date order (and writing blog entries) — and to start writing a full novel.

I first came across this initiative around ten years ago when Chris Baty published a book called No Plot? No Problem. These were in the days that I read many books on Creative Writing as a means to avoid doing the writing itself. The concept — which has been carried over into National Novel Writing month — is that you can sit down and write. Just write. And, because of your perseverance, the inspiration will flow. And the plot will come easily. And at the end of it you will have a novel of around 50000 words — around 200 pages, give or take.

If you take on the challenge of NaNoWriMo then you’re committing yourself to forgetting that you have family and friends, you’re committing yourself to be disciplined. November is a good time to do it. It’s not a time that you particularly want to spend sitting in a garden. You haven’t got the stress of preparations leading up to Christmas (unless you start planning in August, in which case you’ve got what you deserve). It’s a good initiative if you’ve had a little bit of time to think about it and are prepared to commit. All too often writers are scared about “taking the plunge”. If you look at a ream of paper and start thinking “I’ve got to fill this with something meaningful” it’s the equivalent of looking at a mountain and thinking “I have to do this in one leap”. It’s the old adage of how to eat an elephant — one mouthful at a time.

Realistically, writing a 50k novel in four weeks shouldn’t really be a problem. If you write at least 1000 words on each of the weekdays, then that should be a minimum of 22000. This leaves the balance to be written over the weekends (3500 words on each of the eight weekend days, although I’d recommend writing more at the weekend). It should be manageable.

I’ll just put a downer on the initiative before you invest any more time in reading on. Writing a novel is not easy. Writing a good novel is really not easy. True, some authors have a formula which works for them and they’re raking in millions. Others say that the novel writes itself (but even with all the technology available to us, you still can’t just say to your computer “I’m off for the next two weeks and I’d like this finished by the time I get back …”) You may be committed, but will your wife, children and social groups understand? (You’ll have to completely disassociate yourself from social networks, turn off your mobile except during working hours, not read anything unless you have to and give up drinking — you will be astonished how much time you save in not drinking). And in November do the leaves need sweeping up from the lawn? Do the kids need taking to their clubs? Do you need to take something to the tip, have a social occasion that you just can’t break, or does your partner (understandably) want some attention? And even if you’re in the same room, is your mind a million light years away as you think about where you last abandoned your characters? You’ll probably have to tell your family and friends that you’re going to write a novel, and that’s the reason why they’ll have to get their own dinner, take out the rubbish, hoover the house … they’ll have to do all the things that you usually do. But do resist answering the question “A novel? What’s it about?” That’s got to be a discussion saved for you and your psyche. A friend can so easily say “How boring!”, “That’s a cliché”, “that idea’s been done to death.” The chances are that they all have, but this is your story, being told in your own unique voice. At this stage, a negative comment can kill your novel before you’ve even written a word.

So how do you start?

In real terms if you have a basic idea for a story, then it probably begins “once upon a time” and it ends “and they all live happily ever after” or “the good end happily, the bad end unhappily”. That’s the premise of most stories, but don’t use those words. Try to steer clear of “It was a dark and stormy night”, don’t start with a car breaking down in the middle of nowhere, or a girl running through the woods, thinking someone’s following her, she thinks she’s escaped and then feels something grab her hand.

Stephen Donaldson, author of the Thomas Covenant novels, says that there are two ideas needed in a story. The first establishes what you’re doing: The location, the scenario or the main character. The second is the idea that intersects with that story — the thing that intrudes into the characters’ lives and sets the plot in motion. Here’s an example: Your characters move into an old house and discover a piece of paper wedged behind a painting. What is written on it? This plot was something that came up when I clicked on a random plot generator. It sounds like a cliché, but what you’re doing with the story might make it different. After all, it’s generally argued that there are only six or seven basic plots which cover the whole of literature. The concept of overcoming the monster applies just as equally to Beowulf, Jaws and Star Wars as it does to A Christmas Carol (the monster within) overcoming an addiction or undertaking a herculean task and eventually succeeding (writing a novel or doing a degree — take your pick).

Don’t worry about the perfect opening line that’s going to hook in the reader. That will come later. You don’t have time to wait for the muse to sing to you. If you have to begin your novel by giving a paragraph of how you might explain the story to a friend, then that’s fine. Avoid the hurdle. You can come back and deal with it later. You’ve got a deadline.

Starting a story is easy as long as you’ve got the initial idea, but the problem is sustaining that story, especially if you’ve not plotted out your ideas in advance. You need interesting characters and an exciting or romantic situation, something that’s going to keep your reader involved. When I write, there is always a danger at chapters 3, 7 and 10 that my story may lose its momentum as the idea ceases to be new and exciting and instead becomes hard work. We are all plagued by doubts. Everyone gets Writers’ Block at some stage (except for someone who claimed they had Munchausen Syndrome, but I didn’t believe them). This is where the NaNoMo comes in. Ideally you have the drive to continue writing to the end of the month. If you have to, then start handwriting the story. 1000 words is around 5 pages. Admittedly, it takes longer and you have to type it up at the end, but at least you don’t get the distractions of an email dropping into your inbox or … I must write, I must … oh! Angry Birds! Or I must check such and such on the internet … If your story idea changes as you write then that’s ok. Make notes and come back to them later. NaNoMo isn’t about writing a bestseller, it’s about writing and finishing a book.

Hopefully come 1st December you’ve persevered. If at the end of the month you’ve discovered it’s not quite 50k words but the story is finished, then that’s fine — no one’s judging you. Or maybe you’ve realised that this 50k words is the equivalent of an opening chapter of Game of Thrones (hopefully you’ll write the ending a lot faster than GRRM is doing!) that’s also ok. Bring your story to an appropriate conclusion. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Reacquaint yourself with your family again (see if you can remember what they look like first). Help with putting up Christmas decorations. What’s important is that you’ve written a book and that’s an achievement. Let the book rest. Return to it in a week, or a month or longer. You’ll see where you want to make changes. Did your ending surprise you? Good! You can go back and redraft your story making sure that there is enough foreshadowing of the finale so that your readers don’t feel cheated by the end.

But, at the end of it, NaNoWriMo has given you the determination to finish a novel of your own. And that’s something worth celebrating.

(First published on Academic Musings from the UNiversity of Northampton)

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