I note – with significant excitement – that there are less than three months before NaNoWriMo 2015 begins. I entered this annual writing event in 2013 and 2014, in both cases taking out the title of “Winner.” To clarify, in this instance “Winner” does not mean that out of 310,000 adult competitors (as counted in 2013’s event), I somehow floated to the top and was deemed champion – as nice as that would be. It meant that in the month of November I wrote a 50,000+ words first draft manuscript of a novel, with the word count then verified by NaNoWriMo. Winners are anyone who hits the minimum 50,000 word count mark. Starting from word number one on 1 November, right through to word 50,622 submitted before midnight local time on 30 November, I joined a virtual community of would-be novelists in typing out an original story.
In 2014 I wrote within a fantasy-horror genre, and 2013 it was sci-fi-with a strong dash of fantasy.
I’ve learned a lot about writing, crafting novels, and the sheer hard work involved and I look forward to exploring it further later this year.
Some thoughts on NaNoWriMo and writing:
Planning is essential! In 2013 the story came to me fairly easily. I was writing something I’d internally composed over the previous decade, so once I sat down at the keyboard it flowed pretty naturally. The difficulties I faced had more to do with environmental circumstances. At the time I was struggling with my in-real-life experiences, which meant that my natural but extremely temperamental creative streak had to be forced to perform. This was a challenge; I’m used to “waiting for the inspiration.” NaNoWriMo taught me that sometimes you have to challenge your creative self to work, and work hard, and it’s entirely capable of producing some decent results with practice.
In 2014, while in-real-life circumstances were greatly improved, I was starting from scratch on a whole new set of ideas. I didn’t have years of unexpressed writerly goodness from which to draw: it was sheer hard work and I both loved and loathed the difficulty of the process. However, I also spent a large portion of the time asking myself why I thought I could just thrash out a whole novel in 30 days without so much as preparing a list of possible character names or having a beginning point more detailed than the phrase “vaguely post-apocalyptic supernatural horror” in my mind.
This year, 2015, I intend to do more on the planning side and see if that improves the writing process.
What does my NaNoWriMo planning entail? Procrastination! I’m better off procrastinating now than in November.
More helpfully, I do things like reading my favourite etymology websites to get a feel for possible character names. I like names with appropriate cultural references. This year I’m contemplating possibly writing something in a more contemporary Australian setting, which meant scanning lists of common Australian given names to try to give a more authentic feel to the story. Anyone up for the suburban adventures of Bazza, Gazza and Dazza, three mates hooning in their Commodore ute, drinking beer with Shazza and Kezza at the corner pub…? Okay, maybe not. All my characters will get their own handwritten page in a folder of notes, with detailed descriptions on anything relevant – from their physical appearance and ethnicity, through to their education or career or origin on a particular planet.
I go for walks, and find that being outdoors, listening to the birds and frogs and creek along the local bike trail frees my mind to imagine possible ideas, stories and settings.
I also like to draw maps. As a reader of fantasy, I appreciate a book with a decent map. I think of Dinotopia, by James Gurney, one of my all-time favourite stories and with a beautifully detailed map representing not just locations but terrain and ecology. I love plotting out the journey taken by the characters through the story as I read it.
Personally the visual prompt of a map helps me to ensure a consistency in the story. Otherwise even the basic geographical details are going to go awry and the cold, southernmost town in one chapter will later become a northern tropical village.
Geography is a big concern. I’ll make a pretty detailed map. I’ll write descriptive notes for each significant location, too. Is there a particular type of terrain, ecology, fauna or flora significant to the region? It all goes in my plans. It’s also a point of internal conflict for me, in the cultural divide between my own culture and nearly every possible reader demographic I could want. As an Australian, my inner compass automatically denotes southern regions as cold, and northern as hot or tropical. Winter is June to August, and the Summer Solstice falls in December. The sun travels across the northern half of the sky. East is coastal, damp and forested, but the further west one travels, the hotter and more desert it becomes. Deserts are red, forests are eucalyptus-based and evergreen, wild animals are kangaroos and koalas, and everyone drives on the left hand side of the road. I am quite conscious of the fact that the majority of people who might read what I write would find something jarring in all that. Conversely, Australia has a whole lot of unique attributes that people outside of our country might find fascinating, so I don’t want to pretend to be anything else. It used to be the case that the only novels I read were European or North American. When I came across The Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell in my mid-teens, finally I was able to delve into a fantastical world entirely recognisable: the kangaroos sheltering under stands of wattle, the rough wild Brumbies (an Australian breed of domestic horse) galloping over the hill country of northern Victoria and southern New South Wales, references to characters from the Gippsland region (where I lived until my mid-20s), and the descriptions of different types of gum trees.
Making the most of every spare moment. In the last two NaNoWriMo Novembers, I have learned that while I do tend to frantically write the final 20,000 words in the last week, it’s the first half of the month that can make or break the word count. I will inevitably have days where I can’t make up the ideal 1,667 daily word count. So I need to be realistic. Some days I’ll be easily able to tap out 3,000 words. Others I might only write 100. But it all counts and it’s better to write a short paragraph on a bad day than nothing at all.
NaNoWriMo is a reminder to take myself seriously as a writer. The only other time in my life I was really encouraged to write, where I had regular feedback, support and constructive criticism, was during my university studies. Then I had to research and write an 18,000-word dissertation. It was incredibly hard work. But I received a lot of helpful advice from my supervisors, including the idea that what I wrote did, in fact, have value, and that it was both interesting and enjoyable to read. For me that was huge praise, considering that my three supervisors were all published writers and academics with some excellent books and journal contributions to their names.
Another useful idea that I gleaned from my uni days included the power of handwriting as a way to manage writer’s block. Following the advice of my supervisors, I learned that when I feel overwhelmed and scatterbrained in my writing, I can take a blank notebook, a pen, set aside any electronics devices, and sit outdoors to write whatever I can draw out from my memories. It’s also an excellent way of processing what I have already learned. Sometimes I surprised myself with how much I’d taken in from my studies.
Even though NaNoWriMo isn’t until November, already I’ve started taking notes and making up an inspiration folder for my story this year. I have no idea, yet, what I’m writing about, though it’ll will probably fall somewhere in the realm of sci fi or fantasy, simply because that’s what I enjoy reading. I make a note of any useful thoughts that pop into my head, too. An idea, a possible plot concept, and even printing out interesting photographs that I saw on websites about Celtic spirituality. They all go in the folder.
Ideally, I would love creative writing to be a daily practice. It almost is. Unfortunately real life, as it is, places other demands on my time and energy. I have to carve out time for writing – saying no to mindless social media, limiting catch ups so that while I do regularly see friends (which is positive) they don’t take all of my time (which is frustrating), allowing my introverted-self enough space and solitude to function healthily, working on eating healthily and maintaining my fitness so that when I write I can do so calmly and with a clear mind, and taking care of priority activities in the first half of the day so that I can write, in good conscience, in the second half of the day. I also note that about ten years ago I stopped watching television. At the time I was juggling preschool-aged children, volunteering, university and struggling to adjust to life in the much busier suburban environment, and The Husband had just started a new career after university which meant we had less time to spend together, and tv simply didn’t help. With so much going on in my life, the weakest link in the chain of activities had to stand aside in deference to higher priority concerns. I do sporadically watch some serialised shows on DVD (namely, Star Trek and the Stephen King-inspired series Haven) but generally the only use the tv gets is when the kids watch their weekend cartoons.* If I were an avid tv watcher I would have no room in my life for creativity whatsoever.
NaNoWriMo is great in that it enables me to set aside a whole month to write, when family and friends know that I’ll be deeply immersed in my creative work. It reminds me to take my writing seriously, too. It encourages me to give my creativity an annual top priority status, when so often it gets lost in the midst of chauffeuring the kids to school or fulfilling the endless stream of volunteer commitments and appointments and social events. When I look back on my life I’d like to know that I made a genuine attempt to wring from life the most I possibly could, in spheres like creativity, intellectual pursuits, spirituality and physical health, community involvement and social activism. Writing, for me, is a major way for me to express a number of those areas in a way that brings me a lot of joy and a lot of satisfaction.
So even though I have to wait until November before I can begin my third NaNoWriMo entry, today – a beautifully sunny August day, with early signs of impending spring in the mini daffodils in the garden, and the subtle changes in the blackbird songs, I am already preparing my initial character ideas and possible plot points in anticipation of the first day of Nano writing in November.
Find the NaNoWriMo website HERE.
I’ve written elsewhere on the topic of NaNoWriMo HERE.
*On television, and my avoidance thereof, and the endless bewildering monologues I’ve received fuelled by skepticism towards my preference for non-screen-based modes of entertainment: I know people are oddly compelled to interrogate me on my lack of knowledge about currently popular television shows, as if my profound disinterest in tv is somehow a moralistic attempt at asceticism, or an attack on tv fans, whose choice to watch tv doesn’t affect me in the slightest – but it really comes down to the sense that for me, I’m happier without extraneous noise, and I’m happier reading or writing or staring at the clouds than I am passively absorbing mass media content. To put it simply, I find tv to be mind-numbingly boring and a chore akin to scrubbing the bathroom rather than, say, a pleasant mode of entertainment. I feel the same way about the vast majority of films, too. When people say, “You should watch…”, regardless of what title follows that statement, it’s as if a heavy burden is placed on my shoulders and I shrink into myself, searching through my stockpile of polite ways to say “No thanks” for the most plausible excuse as to why watching hours of bogans cooking meat on whatever cooking show is currently in vogue or hours of American sitcoms interspersed with shouty adverts for ornate carpets just isn’t as exciting to me as it’s assumed to be by roughly, at a guess, all 23,859,641 other Australians (give or take a few). But that’s an aside and only relevant here in the context of the question, “Where do you find time in your hectic schedule to write?” Of course, I literally don’t care if my friends choose tv as their primary mode of entertainment, and more power to them if that’s what they enjoy. I’ll be over here reading heavy 19th Century dramatic European tomes, but it’s a big world and there’s room for all of us.
** A quick perusal of the Myers-Briggs Type forums for ISTPs (the personality type most resonant with my own experiences and outlook) very quickly suggests that, in general, we are not usually television watchers. I feel validated by that. I hadn’t really thought consciously about that before, but for those of us personality types compelled to engage with physical reality, in tangible and creative ways, tv is just too passive for our tastes. I’ve written elsewhere about being Introverted and ISTP and on how learning about personality types through a bunch of different systems has helped me better understand the way I interact with other people (and how they perceive me).