National Novel Writing Month 2014 - Former NaNoWriMo participants share their experiences
Aspiring writers worldwide attempt to write a 50,000 word book in a month
‘Why should people aspire to write novels?’ ponders English author Ally Kennen. ‘There are much more useful things to be doing, like reading or knitting a jumper. Knitting’s just as laborious but at least it’ll end up keeping you warm. But if you love writing, you’ll make the time. Writing novels is good because it means it’s impossible to do too much housework, and too much housework will curdle your dreams.’
There are two kinds of aspiring authors: the bystanders who quite like the idea, and those understand the huge physical and mental effort involved. For both, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a combined support group, route map and endurance test. A non-profit organisation based in America, its website allows you to track your progress in writing a 50,000 word novel and engage with fellow writers doing the exact same thing. Those who can keep up an average of 1667 words a day ‘win’ the challenge, and although the tagline ‘the world needs your novel’ may not be entirely true, your commitment level for the month will tell you how much you really need to write that novel.
For many participants, it’s worked out very well. Kennen has twice been on the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize longlist (including for her NaNoWriMo-written Sparks in 2010), while self-published US author Hugh Howey has seen his Wool series meet with huge success. ‘For many readers, writing a single novel in their lifetime is a major goal. NaNoWriMo gives support and encouragement for reaching this goal, and once you know you can do it, you'll write another, and another, and you'll start to surprise yourself. My first NaNoWriMo routine was to get up early and write without glancing at email or the internet. I wrote until I went to work, on my lunch break, and at night. On the weekends, I really went after it. I didn't allow myself to waste time editing what I'd written; it was all about forging ahead. I hit the 50,000 mark by the 15th, and by the end of the month, I had already done a full revision. Not all NaNos have gone this way for me.’
For most NaNoWriMo writers, the key phrases seem to be ‘quantity not quality’ and ‘whatever works’. ‘Starting is great,’ says crime writer Julia Crouch. ‘You discover characters and plots unfold. The doldrums hit around 20–30,000 words, when you wonder if you aren't barking up the wrong tree and wonder what on earth possessed you; although I’ve found this happens with every novel I write. But it’s a great exercise in discipline, determination and imagination, and a process that constantly surprises you. It’s incredibly liberating, because it's doubt and self-criticism that stand in the way of most writers, whatever stage they’re at.’
Crime writer Elizabeth Haynes says a hard drive failure which lost 20,000 words was her low point, but otherwise ‘every completed NaNo novel for me is mostly dire with some infrequent good bits.’ Even when she makes the 50,000 words, she goes on to double that total before the onerous editing process. ‘I very rarely feel optimistic about anything I write, but I’m almost superstitious that this is a good thing. I feel that if I ever start to think "hey, this is good stuff", I will have turned pompous overnight and everyone will hate the book as a result. There are a few delicious moments when I get excited about a plot line or when my characters start to take over and make the story their own.’
The whole point of taking on the challenge, it seems, is to separate the head-in-the-clouds notion of writing from the hard reality. ‘NaNoWriMo is deliciously unpretentious,’ says Kennen. ‘It allows the writer to be playful and take walloping risks. It enabled me to make a quick first draft, so I had something to work with. Then the real writing began.’