The answer is 1667. If you’ve just completed National November Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t, the idea is that you write a 50,000 word novel in just the 30 days which make up the month of November. Many people around the world get involved and local events are organised where people get together and just write.
Well anyway, I decided to have a go this year and this is what happened….
I’ve had a couple of characters and a scenario in my head for a few years now, but haven’t really given it serious thought. In the summer holidays, the plot suddenly came to me out of the blue and I quickly wrote it down in a notebook. Then, of course, my clothing business is at it’s busiest from that point till Halloween, so I had no time whatsoever to do anything about it. My daughter has had a crack at NaNoWriMo before and really enjoyed it, and was proud of her achievement despite not cracking the 50,000 word mark. She asked if I’d have a go, so there and then I decided that I would. It’s a quiet time for the clothing company, and as I’d already decided not to do craft fairs with the pyrography business this year, November was a good month to allow some extra time for writing.
The first day was awful. It took me about 5 hours to write 1000 words so I honestly thought I wouldn’t even get half way. The key to NaNoWriMo is preparation – something I hadn’t done any of at all. Apart from my main 2 characters, I had no idea who else was going to be in the book. I knew they were traveling around England, but I didn’t know where yet and I’d done no homework on the late Victorian period – the time in which my book is set. Also, although I had my main plot, and the ending more-or-less in mind, I had none of the other 2 plot points or any pinch points – or whatever they’re called – the interesting bits that keep you reading.
So I felt a little despondent right at the beginning, but I’d deliberately told everyone I was doing it to make me keep going. I decided to halve my time between planning and writing, and that worked well the first week, though I was still at it for about 5 hours a day. The whole thing was simply taking too long. However, something clicked in the second week and all of a sudden I was able to just keep writing. I now knew exactly where my book was going and I’d outlined a few more characters that were important to the story. I was on a roll. By then I’d also got the hang of just writing. This was extremely difficult at first and I found it nearly impossible not to write well – or at least to the best of my ability. I do like to like the sentence I’ve written. Knowing that half the words have recently been repeated and no better word than ‘nice’ came to me on the spur of the moment is quite horrible. I’d die of embarrassment if anyone came across this first draft. I’m used to sitting there and thinking of the right words before I write them down and at the beginning I did wonder if the whole thing was a waste of time as nearly every word will need writing again.
However, there is something to be said for just getting it down on paper. When I’m writing quickly and under time pressure, I find that pretty good plot ideas, or extra nuances to enhance the book come to me. I found myself writing a scene thinking this whole bit will end up getting cut out as it doesn’t go anywhere, and then all of a sudden a vital conversation happens between characters and a little back-story is revealed to give the reader more information, and something is said which reveals the main character’s personality and I think of a whole new and much better ending to the book than I had before. This method of just writing, no matter how rubbish the initial result, really does work! I could spend hours; days; weeks planning a novel; knowing everyone in it intimately and faffing about on their irrelevant back stories and knowing exactly what they have in their pocket and what their favourite colour is. It’s all a complete waste of time.
I’ve never held much regard for those people who say things like “You know you’re writing well when the characters tell you what’s going to happen next.” Or. “I wanted this to happen in the novel, but the main character just wouldn’t let me.” It’s pretentious bollocks in my humble opinion! You, the writer are in charge of what happens in your story and it’s up to you to develop suitable characters that would make that happen. Otherwise you might end up with Anne, a lovely old lady whose favourite colour is yellow because she likes sunflowers; she carries boiled sweets and tissues in her pocket; she went to a well-to-do state school in the country and now she polishes the pews in the local church and enjoys walks with her labrador called Monty (named after Monty Don off Gardeners’ World). Not exactly a recipe for an exciting story, and if one did turn up on one such dog-walk; say, a young handsome man acting suspiciously in the park, Anne wouldn’t do anything about it because it’s not in her character.
So anyway, at the moment there is little substance to my characters because I haven’t got that far yet, but I do know what happens. As the story goes on, some of the characters do start to get a little clearer to me, but on the whole, I know I will have to go back through and put their personalities in later. I think it works far better to ask, What sort of person would do that? and why? than begin with a person and then find out what they’d do. If extra bits of plot develop from that then fine, I can put that in later too.
Let’s get back to the point: I did it! I had that writing spurt in week 2, then wrote a regular 2000 words every day until I actually finished on 50,000 words 4 days early! I can’t quite believe I managed it! The book is by no means finished though – I think I still have about a quarter to go, and as I think I’ll only be adding to it on the first edit, I’m a little worried about how long this book is going to end up. Maybe the final edit will involve me cutting out large chunks – it’s too early to tell at this point. I’m keen to get it finished, but I confess, now that the official word counts aren’t done each day, I am slacking off.
I can’t offer a full conclusion to the NaNoWriMo process until the book is completely done and ready to send off. It will be interesting to see just how long it takes me to do that first edit – when I actually stop and think about what to write, rather than just letting nonsense come out of my pen. However at this point in the game, I’m rather pleased with it, and if I’m honest, with myself too.