Once again it’s NaNoWriMo eve which means I’ve been blogging for precisely two years.
It’s interesting for me to look back on my first ever post and to remember how determined I was to succeed, how much was at stake. Completing NaNoWriMo 2008 meant that my decision to ditch seven years of study to pursue a career in writing was somehow justified. Reading that post again now, I can see that I was writing it just for me, not really expecting any one else to read it (hardly anyone did). In the beginning, the blog was just a way for me to chart my NaNoWriMo progress. I remember the cold feeling I got in my stomach the first time someone left a comment. Who had been reading my blog? Did they disagree with what I had written? Now I absolutely love it when people comment on my posts. I’m disappointed when they don’t. And I check my stats regularly, always hoping to beat the previous day’s hits.
It’s funny, the posts that I like the best are not necesarily the ones that draw the most traffic. By far my most popular post, alarmingly, is How to Poison Someone. My Interview with Daisuke Takahashi is also frequently viewed, but I suspect that that is because there was an ice-skater by that name competing in the Winter Olympics. I do like all my Interview with a Star posts though, and also the posts about various book festival events. (I’ve also written about some Edinburgh International Book Festival events at Suite101.)
The posts that have generated the most comments are the ones that don’t really have much to do with writing, St Ives and Cyberpunk for example. Posts that I liked that I wish had been more popular / commented on are Notes from the Continent and Carry a Poem.
After all this analyisng of post popularity I guess I’m going to have to think about how I approach blogging over the next year. I guess my strongest posts are the anecdotal ones, the less popular ones are the ones where I’ve tried to give writing advice. I’ll try to bear that in mind when writing future posts.
As for NaNoWriMo, that is just as much on my mind now as it was this time last year and also two years ago. What I learned last year was that the “reckless approach” absolutely does not work. Only thorough planning will get you to the 50 000 word mark by the end of November. This year my mum is going take part in NaNoWriMo so I felt that I should do it too to support her. Unfortunately I have left the thorough planning to the last minute. Luckily we got that hour back today; I know how to put it to good use.
I was sure “blogoversary” was a real word but I’ve just checked on dictionary.com and it’s not listed there, although “blogosphere” is. Anyway, today is My Writing Life’s blogoversary and once again I am preparing to take part in NaNoWriMo, which kicks off tomorrow. In marked contrast to 31st October 2008, however, my cupboard is bare and I’m freezing sitting at my desk. I’ve been too lazy to go food shoping and I’m trying not to run up a huge gas bill so I haven’t turned the heating on. Other differences between then and now: I haven’t planned my novel at all, although there are three scenes in my head that I will write tomorrow, hopefully hitting the required 1 667 words; I am working full time now so I really will have to squeeze the writing into an evening slot; I’m in Scotland this year (I was in Spain last year) so I won’t be able to sit on a balcony enjoying the sun while dreaming up adventures for my characters.
All in all I feel like I have taken a rather reckless approach to NaNoWriMo 2009. It might just work for me though; we’ll see if I have a novel out of it in a month’s time.
I have recently returned to my NaNoWriMo novel after about six months off and have been inspired by Isaac Espriu’s blog to set myself some writing goals. Previously I had been trying to write for six hours a day (hah!) but never managed. I could concentrate for about three hours (with breaks) but stopping for lunch was a killer. I could never get back into the flow again. There was no incentive to write a lot either, because I knew I would be stuck in front of the computer all day regardless of whether I churned out 50 words or 5000.
Now I’ve set myself a goal of writing 1000 words a day and so far it’s going pretty well. On a good day I can be finished after an hour and on a not-so-good day it takes around three hours. I plan to have the story in place by 30th June and the first draft (with all the holes filled in and superfluous ramblings cut out) finished by 30th September. I set the end of September as my deadline because if I had done the MA in creative writing, I would have had to hand in a completed manuscript by then and I want prove to myself that I did not throw away my only chance of writing a novel by turning down the place on the course.
Unfortunately, I’ve not got a huge amount of self discipline and I haven’t managed to reach the 1000 words every day. My brother is really into hypnotism and mind control and he’s been giving me some tips on how to improve my willpower. One of them is to create an ‘anchor’. That means that on a day when the writing is going really well, I have to do some kind of action that will act as a trigger to spur me on to write on another day when I feel less motivated. So over the last few days as I’ve been typing away like mad I’ve had to remember to periodically tug my earlobes. If I keep this up, one day I will sit down at my laptop, tug my earlobes and a whole novel will spill out onto the computer screen. That’s how it works, right?
Another tip my brother gave me for improving willpower is to force myself to do one disagreeable task a day. It’s true that I don’t always love writing, but I don’t want it to be my disagreeable task either. I suppose I could try washing the dishes every day. I really don’t like doing that. I’ve eaten cereal out of saucepans and pizza off of tinfoil rather than wash up.
Putting aside these exercises in willpower for a moment, the most compelling reason for me to stick to my goal is that on the days when I manage to write 1000 words I feel great and on the days when I don’t, I feel rubbish. It’s as simple as that.
The whole “Can writing be taught?” debate has been raging for a long time and I have thought about it a lot. After doing a load of research I have decided that I like the “musical instrument” analogy best. That is to say that, even a great musician, with tonnes of natural talent, will still need tuition and plenty of practice to be able to play his violin/piano/whatever. And someone with no talent whatsoever can take scores of lessons but in the end, they may be able to play the right notes in the right order but it will never sound good.
For example, I took piano lessons for five years. Seriously. Five years. I can read music, if it’s not too complicated ( a semi-quaver I can just about manage), and I can play tunes (Christmas carols and Mary Had a Little Lamb), but that’s all you’re getting out of me. You can tie me to the piano stool and and torture me with that damn metronome but I’m never going to play like (insert name of famous pianist here). My piano teacher even told my parents to stop sending me to lessons because I was such a hopeless case.
But with writing, it’s different. I have the feeling that I can already do it and that if I were to take lessons, it would be so that it would take less drafts to do it well. I don’t want to learn to write, I want to learn to write better. So, with that in mind, I applied to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I did get a place on the course, but after a lot of deliberation, I decided it wasn’t the right choice for me. I have no objection to taking a writing course but a Masters is too much. It’s a lot of money just so you can put an MA after your name.
Before turning down the Masters, I had to think hard about what I want to achieve with my life. I always wanted to write a novel but had the feeling that I would need some support t o do that. Through NaNoWriMo, which is free, I have been able to work my way towards a first draft. There is still a loooooooong way to go but I think I can get there. I also wanted to try scriptwriting. I have signed myself up for a short course in March, much much much cheaper than the Masters, and in the meantime, I have been reading scripts from Daily Script to try and get a feel for how it ‘s done.
So, in a nutshell, can writing be taught? Sort of.
Oh my goodness, I almost did something completely crazy there. I *nearly* started a new novel. I only just managed stop myself before typing the first word onto the glaringly blank screen. Luckily I regained my senses just in time. That would have been the death of my NaNo. Once a sparkly shiny new idea gets its claws around you, there’s no going back to the problematic but ultimately workable idea that you were struggling with before.
Too many potential novels have died in this way. I have the scavenged remains of four of them tucked away in folders on my computer. The first one was never even given the chance to flourish; I abandoned it after only a few lines because the words on the screen did not do justice to the wonderful images in my head.
The second one did not survive the transition from short story into novel. It was a risky procedure but at the time I thought it was worth a shot. In order to survive as a short story I would have had to remove huge swathes of prose. I decided instead to try to stretch the thin plot out further to encompass the growing body of words. Sadly, it was not enough.
The remaining two unfinished barely started novels suffered the cruelest fate of all: they were neglected simply because a better idea came along.
I have been a callous callous writer but I will learn from my mistakes. I will not let my NaNo suffer the same terrible fate; left forgotten and unloved until there is no hope of a conclusion. I will not let it fall into decay, I will not pluck out the best descriptions nor strip it of its most polished sentences so that I can use them elsewhere. I will keep working at it until is a fully formed, functioning first draft.
It’s just hard to carry on when my new idea is sooooo much better.
I finally hit the 50 000 words and as a reward I have ordered myself a NaNoWriMo travel mug. I have been looking forward to this for ages! Every now and again while struggling with my novel, I would open up a picture of the travel mug and gaze longingly at it; knowing that such a beautiful prize would be mine spurred me on. I have spent many blissful moments imagining my future with my travel mug: me and my travel mug on a bench in the park; me and my travel mug at a picnic on the beach; me and my travel mug winning the Nobel Prize for literature. Last night, I even dreamed about it! How nice that my dream is soon to come true (I mean ownership of a travel mug and not the Nobel Prize, of course).
There has been some serious cheating going on in the last few days as I try to reach for 50 000 words. Favourite things to do are to write gobbeldy gook when I can’t think of the right English word:
She had the height advantage but even so she felt overwhelmed by the aksjdf woman.
to write notes to myself amongst the text:
She imagined herself hitting him over the head with it (why? she doesn’t know that this is a bad guy).
and to redraft a sentence or a paragraph but not delete the original resulting in duplications:
He saw himself how Sophie saw him and he was disgusted. He saw what Sophie saw and he was disgusted.
If I keep this up, I should be finished in no time!
As I grapple with my multi stranded story line that does not seem to tie together, I have found this web page about structure and plot very helpful. I particularly like the advice about raising the stakes of your character’s emotional journey. Basically, this means that your character must overcome a series of obstacles in the course of the story, each seeming even more insurmountable than the one before.
The obstacles that the heroine in my novel is facing are malicious acts of sabotage which become increasingly threatening as the story progresses. At least, that was my plan. Skimming through the first few chapters this morning I realised that my heroine has a pretty easy time of it obstacle wise. I have a dangerously over salted bowl of soup – shock! horror! – and water savagely spilled over a pile of research notes. Yes, these are the kinds of terrors that plague my heroine’s existence. She can no longer trust the canteen food in case some maniac with a salt cellar has tampered with her lunch, nor can she leave her PhD thesis notes unattended in the college library for fear that a lunatic armed with a bottle of water may drench her notebook.
My only defence is that at the time of writing the above mentioned ludicrous scenarios I was under the influence of large amount of caffeine and cracking under the pressure of having to churn out 50 000 words in a month. I promise I will do better in the next draft.
My head is just so full of stuff, yet I haven’t even managed to write 200 words of my novel today. The plot plan I started with has served me well so far but now I’m beginning to see more of a shape in what I’ve been writing. I’ve started to think of my plot as a vine with shoots coming off it. Everything I have written these last 17 days belongs to the shoots. The central stem that holds it all together is missing. I need to do some serious thinking so that I can wrap this thing up by the end of November.
Originally I was planning just to write 50 000 words out of the novel and not necessarily to finish it; however, Chris Baty of NaNoWriMo fame recently sent an e-mail advising us to get the endings down during November. As he pointed out, when the pressure of National Novel Writing Month is over, it will be easier to fill in gaps in the novel than it will be to write the ending from scratch. I think he is probably right, which means I have to work out my ending – fast.
So I need a central stem and some kind of spectacular blooming flower to top it off (or a bunch of grapes, whatever is appropriate for this metaphor). Hmmmm. Back to the drawing board.
Last week I found two hidden treasure troves in the house where I am staying. The first was a bundle of DVDs that had come free with a newspaper. So far I’ve watched Bagdad Cafe (the film – I vaguely remembered a show of that name with Whoopi Goldberg in it and was a bit confused until good old Wikipedia sorted me out), Orlando (saves me having to read it) and Hideous Kinky (might like to read it anyway). There’s still The Wicker Man but I’m a bit too scared to watch it on my own.
The second hidden treasure was a pile of old Mslexia magazines which I have been working my way through. One thing that has really stuck out is the number of writers who claim that their friends and family do not encourage them to write. Worse, that sometimes they are actively discouraged or scorned. My family have always encouraged me with my writing, and I thought that was normal. When I said I wasn’t sure if I would manage to write a novel, my dad said “I think you will.” My mum e-mails me with details of publishers and agents. When I told my friends about my NaNoWriMo adventure, several of them offered to proof read the manuscript.
So now I am wondering: am I just very lucky, or have the women who I have been reading about been very unlucky?