This is to let you know that I have failed to complete the NaNoWriMo 2018 Challenge. What exactly is this, you might ask and rightly so. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, a challenge that started in the US about ten years ago and has since spread to every corner of the world. Every year thousands of people vow to complete the arduous task of writing 50k words within a month, i.e. a short novel that has about the same length as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As part of the preparation for NaNoWriMo, I read No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, which is a practical guide on how to carry on with this challenge written by no one else by Chris Baty, the person behind this worldwide phenomenon. Towards the end of October I issued a public statement – on Instagram, where else? – that I’m taking part in this challenge and that in case I don’t make it, friends and family are welcome to publicly mock me until the end of eternity.
Well, friends and family, I failed. I’m tempted to say miserably but I have penned 30k and this is quite a feat. I’m now ready to resurface and return to my social life and normal sleeping patterns but not before sharing the learnings I accumulated through this process:
It’s a great exercise for all writers, essayists, diarists, poets, anyone who loves arranging strings of words that are not work emails.
I’m not a fiction writer but I am an obsessive novel reader. As a result, I started off ambitiously, knowing what doesn’t work for me as a reader and vowing not to fall into that trap. Well, guess what? I did. I also managed to write excruciatingly cringe-worthy scenes. When you’re working against a word count and a deadline set in stone, words need to flow. You also need to learn how to turn the picture inside your head into text, which is – wait for it – challenging. However, pushing through it feels greatly rewarding. Yes, sometimes you end up with an otherwise wonderful/ hilarious/ dramatic/ cinematic scene or sequence written in crappy manner but it’s now on paper and the imaginary editor you from the future will take over after the November frenzy has passed and polish it out, fine tune it until it becomes something readable.
Screenwriters are probably novelists who could not decide between verbs like “say”, “ask”, “cry out”, “scream”, “mumble”, “retort”, and the lot so decided to abandon them altogether.
There’s a very fragile balance between beautifully crafted dialogue and turning a paragraph into a series of “he says she says”. I remember reading Stephen King’s On Writing, where he suggested that he avoids these verbs – besides the minimalistic “say” – as well as anything that resembles an adverb when it comes to describing how their characters are speaking. Perhaps it’s me not being able to write strong dialogue but how do you manage without, Stephen?
Nothing gets the words rolling like a sprinkle of disaster.
I felt hopelessly stuck until I decided to kill one of my characters. Note: it was not the Killing Eve kind of perfectly planned assassination, more like a bloody car accident. Besides the newfound admiration of the colleague I confessed this into, it rewarded me in terms of word count: finally I could spend page after page writing about how the remaining cast was left behind to process grief and loss, each one on they own way.
Everything becomes a source of inspiration.
You stare at the stranger sitting opposite you in the tube (for your own safety, try to limit this to a minimum) and weave a story in your head about who they might be and what they do and how they could fit inside your story, then you go ahead and add them to your novel. I was reading a short guide at the back of a TimeOut London for a small countryside town somewhere nearby London and I had an eureka moment: what if my main character moved there? Squeezing the article for specifics, I could now follow my character’s every move – stepping outside their door, walking down that small picturesque street that thanks to the TimeOut piece had a specific name, and meeting a friend for a coffee at a dog-friendly cafe (adding the dog description to the word count so win-win).
Every once in a while you have a revelation about yourself.
Somewhere on the verge between free and automatic writing, attempting to write a story with a beginning, an end and plenty of shenanigans in the middle whilst keeping up with the daily 1,677 word deadline, it feels almost unavoidable that at some point you’re going to tap into your subconscious. Write something that will make you sit back and think, “Why the hell did I write this? Where did this come from?” To give you an example, I’m not very keen on babies. Toddlers. Children. Anything that relies on an adult to survive unless it has four paws and a tail. Since I’ve been branded as a “baby hater” in the past, I’d like to set the record straight: it’s not that I dislike them, it’s mainly the fact that I’m not particularly interested in them. There’s certain unease on how to talk to them or behave around them, and uncertainty on whether I’d like to have my own later in life. [On the other hand, I find the process of language acquisition by babies and children immensely fascinating.] Yet somehow I found myself writing at least a handful of scenes with children, scenes that I genuinely enjoyed writing; scenes of tender, skilful writing. Obviously, this had me staring at the ceiling and trying to decipher what it means. Does it imply I’m subconsciously planning to become the next Molly Weasley? Unlikely. For better or for worse, at least now I know how to speak to toddlers. Well, my heroines do.