January 23, 2020

My NaNoWriMo Experience

I first heard about National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, on the BBC breakfast show, but it didn’t occur to me at that moment to actually take part in the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. I just thought it was a good idea to get that first draft written out, I never imagined doing it myself though.

The idea of writing a novel seemed like a long, arduous process; something I did not have the attention span for. I didn’t even think I had a story in me that could stretch out for that many words. When I was at university, studying English, I wrote the first few chapters of a longer piece for a creative writing project which, according to the feedback I got, was lacking in the action and subplots that would keep the reader interested. The idea of only writing short stories, poetry, or articles for magazines like Flaneur, appealed much more to me anyway.

It was only when I read more about the novel writing challenge online that I began to think of taking part. I read the breakdown of the challenge, 1,666 words a day to finish on the 30th November; 2,000 words a day to finish on the 25th, with five days to spare. It seemed easy enough. Yes it took me the best part of the day to write 1,000 words when I was doing assignments for uni, but that was because I was bored of the subject matter or had to keep stopping to find quotes and facts on the Internet. Writing a story; my story, the words would definitely flow through my
fingers with ease. I hesitated for a little while, wondering if I could actually do it; the deciding factor came when I realised that I didn’t have a day job to fit my writing time around. I could dedicate myself fully to this challenge, which in future years I might not be able to. The phrase ‘there’s no time like the present’ sprang to mind. So, on the 9th October 2011, I accessed the official NaNoWriMo website and signed up to do the challenge, persuading a friend to do it as well.

I already had a novel idea formed, something I originally wanted to use in a creative writing project at uni, but had  discarded as it needed more careful planning. I resurrected this idea, saving it from a lifetime as just an idea jotted down in a notebook and started developing the characters into more realistic people, adding subplots and plenty of action. The original idea came to me a couple of years ago. I was being nostalgic, looking back at life wondering how things could’ve been different; the ex-boyfriend came to mind and I wondered what life would be like if I was still with him. He was quietly controlling in the six months we were together, wanting me to wear certain clothes and do my hair a certain way, he was very into how I made him look; it occurred to me that maybe, if we were still together, he could have become violent; I always hear that controlling behaviour is a characteristic of abusive people. So I asked myself, “what if he had been violent toward me?” And that’s how my novel idea was born; left alone until NaNoWriMo entered into my life.

The three weeks I had between my sign up date and the start of the challenge were spent turning the idea into a more rounded one. I bought a new notebook from Oxfam specifically for this novel and went about filling it, planning what would happen in each chapter, making notes of specific memories of my ex that I wanted to include. They say it’s best to write what you know, so I did. I developed characters, cutting pictures out of magazines to help me
visualize them; what they might wear, the kind of stuff they’d fill their home with, their hobbies and interests. I even met with the friend I had persuaded to do NaNoWriMo too, and over coffee and cookies we brainstormed ideas for our stories.

Before I knew it, it was the 1st of November and it was time to get writing. I don’t remember that first day specifically but according to my stats on the official website, I wrote 2,513 words. A good start considering we only needed to do 1,666 words a day, and there was no way I was going to sit and write many thousands of words each day, just to get it done as quick as possible.  No, my plan was to use all of the time I was allotted. Slow and easy!

Some days it felt like such an effort just to write the 1,666 word minimum. I pushed myself though. It was a hard slog but I pushed myself. I was determined to do it, not wanting to drop out and fail just through being lazy. I did miss a few days of writing, so I had to play catch up and double the amount of words written; my plan to live like a hermit
throughout November just to get the writing done had failed me.

I think I found it hard typing the daily minimum of words because I knew what I wanted to happen in the story, but didn’t know how to go about making it happen. This may have been down to poor planning of the actual story; only making a note of what I wanted to happen in each chapter and not planning out any scenes other than the ones inspired by the real life counterpart of the abusive boyfriend. So I went back to the notebook, and thinking about what I wanted to convey about character and situations, I built up some more scenes. I ignored the scenes I had already written at this stage of the month because I didn’t want to waste time editing the beginning and not
writing out the middle and the end. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is just to get the story written down in its entirety and ignoring that inner editor as it screams out.

Thinking of techniques used by other writers, (particularly those who came into my creative writing classes at university) as I planned out more scenes, I also wrote down what had happened in each chapter so far. I found this useful in keeping track of the story without having to scroll through pages of writing to find where something had happened and it helped me to get a better sense of time within the story.

Going back to the writing, I pushed through again, trying to reach the daily word count, sometimes falling 100 words below target when I decided to call it a day and go to sleep. And so on the final weekend of November, I focussed my attention solely on getting my words done. I ignored the boyfriend, ignored household chores and if I worked weekends, I would have ignored that too. I wrote 3,000 words on the Saturday and 5,000 on the Sunday,
which may seem like a couple hours of work for some people, but for me it took up most of the weekend because I am just that slow. I fidgeted and ached and struggled but I got there. I reached and exceeded the 50,000 word goal on the 29th November, one day earlier than the challenge finished and one day earlier than I expected to finish.

Watching the little word counter in the bottom left hand corner of my computer screen reach 50,000 was like reaching the top of a mountain. It’s such a relief to be there, to feel like you are on top of the world, but then you remember you have got to climb back down. I still had to finish the story, and re-draft it several times if I wanted to get it published.

However, I am currently still sitting atop that mountain. The story is still not quite finished (just a matter of bringing everything together) and I haven’t even thought of re-drafting; probably because I’m still uncertain as to whether I want to even attempt to get it published. After a month of relentless writing, pushing that inner critic away just so I could get the words down, it is back with a vengeance; making me doubt my ability, and whether my story could compete with the literary greats that I so admire. Inner critics are just the hazards of being a writer though. Once I read it through in its entirety, then I will probably know for sure if I think it is worth editing and sending out to agents and publishers.

Getting the first draft of a novel written down is only half the battle.

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