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Novel Writing: An endurance sport

I had forgotten that writing a novel is an endurance sport mixed in with monastic solitude. But, here we are at the end of National Novel Writing month, and I have, sitting on my hard drive (and backed up on a virtual drive) a document that contains 50,000 words of original fiction written by me.

I had wanted to keep a diary as well, but that proved to be way too ambitious. Suffice it to say that on November 1st I had a blank document sitting in front of me, and the plan was to write an average of 1667 words a day to complete 50,000 words (around 200 pages) within 30 days. This was a daunting prospect as I had nothing more than the vaguest idea on where the story was going to go. I was immensely concerned that I would get as far as 25000 words and completely run out of ideas. I started off leaping out of bed and then scribbling 100 words before I went to work, and grabbing ten minutes to write something whenever I can. Problem is that sometimes I do LONG days or need to do work well into the evening, so that knocks the word count average down (and, more dangerously, the desire to continue).

My major difficulty was that, while some of it was written on my computer, other parts were written in a notebook (a very nice hardback notebook that my wife bought for me for my birthday for when I next started writing a story. It’s nearly full now). The notebook was really useful. It kept everything in one place, and was most useful when I was travelling by train. Each page was approximately 200 words, and travelling by train I would fill up my pages. I left a couple of pages blank at the beginning so I could jot down ideas for scenes “infinite amount of monkeys” or “chase”. But because I was using two different ways of writing, I couldn’t write in order. Consequently, although I have written 50k words, and I definitely have scenes from the beginning, the middle and the end, most of these scenes are not complete, or there may be some “linkage” required, to get me from one event to the next. But then I also needed to type it all up. I cheated. I used Dragon Dictate. I hope it all makes sense when I get back to it. But at least I have a record of what I originally wrote, if all I see is a pile of gobbledygook.

The National Novel Writing website has a chart where you put your word count in every day. I have tried to be meticulous about this, and I notice that around day 11, I had a couple of days with very little productivity. That was where real life intruded on my writing – a day visiting my mum in hospital, a day doing some reading (it was hoped this would advance or inspire my story. In fact, it proved to be rather fruitless). From those days it took me about 10 days to get back on target. But, around this time, I had a plot. By the end I had a plot “order” as well, and I started to weave sections into some kind of coherent narrative. It wasn’t perfect. The plot only became ordered as I moved towards the end.

By Day 21 I had pretty much caught up with myself, and then I had a day where I put myself a bit ahead of my daily target, which took the pressure off my race to the finish line. The NaNoWriMo website encourages you to put in daily averages, total word count (and words left to go), as well giving little “badges” you receive when hitting a certain target. I may have felt like my momentum was dropping (largely because the real job has demanded more attention), but actually, I was still on, or close to being on, target.

At the end of the challenge my book sits at 50833 words. And my novel’s not finished. Far from it. I think there is a LOT of housekeeping that needs to be done, and the final novel will probably end up being around 70000 words. It might not be finished for a while. I need to tidy everything up as well as reacquaint myself with my family. And then there’s all the end of term marking. And Christmas …

You see! There are always loads of excuses to NOT write a novel. I found the focus of NaNoWriMo to kept me on track when I was trying to do this deeply silly task while trying to juggle it with a busy live. Instead of finding all those excuses to not do something, how about “I just need to write SOMETHING today”. It wasn’t about writing as much as I could, inflicting sleep deprivation on both me and my family. It wasn’t about trying to think about the 50000 word mountain. It was about breaking it down into manageable chunks.

Being amongst like-minded people was also an advantage. I live between two official groups, neither of them particularly local (Milton Keynes and Leicester, both likely to be around an hour away). So, we checked with the MK organiser and had our own satellite group in Northampton, in the café owned by Heather on the Kingsley Park Terrace parade of shops. There were only a few of us who came along – Heather, naturally, and Lucy. And Heather invited a couple of other writers along Sue Moorcroft and Morgen Bailey. The group noted that we stalled on Day 2 – the initial excitement turned to terror as we realised what we had committed ourselves to. I also didn’t feel ashamed to go back, like alcoholics anonymous to say that I’d stalled in my second week. Everyone else understood. Some of them had managed a REALLY GOOD session, and I think the group were supportive of everyone’s successes as well as sympathetic to those who were finding it harder.

I've met with people who completed the challenge, but I equally want to celebrate the achievements of those who didn't hit the 50k target, but who wrote something and suprised themselves. And that in itself is a great achievement.

One thing that I found immensely helpful was the “Writer’s sprint” on the NaNoWriMo website. This was a countdown, which you could set for as long as you wanted, and you just write whatever you can. I first set it for five minutes, as was astonished that I wrote 200 words in that time one eighth of my approximate daily target. If I had kept that up, I could have written everything I wanted to in 40 minutes. But the point is that this kind of writing is very draining. It's REALLY exhausting. It’s like drinking absinthe. Enjoy it in moderation. Really. In moderation.

But, at the end of this month, I have a platform of 50k words that I can build upon. I have met some lovely people. I have supported and been supported by other writers.

And who knows if I’ve written just a part of that million dollar bestseller?

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