Nanowrimo: Where Garbage is Golden

Today I’d like to talk to you about Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is an annual writing competition where you compete against yourself, attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. This works out to 1,666 words a day, which doesn’t sound like much…until you’ve tried to do it. Nonetheless it is an incredible encouragement tool, and having just published one of my Nanowrimo novels, I want to tell you about my history with Nanowrimo and how I made it work for me.

About a decade ago now, my writing friends – made primarily on the Harry Potter roleplaying scene of Livejournal – started buzzing about something called Nano. It wasn’t new, but it was the first time I had heard of it. One or two of them took part, and regaled us through November with stories of their word counts. It sounded intense – the numbers they were throwing out weren’t small, and at that point I had only been writing shorter stories (my attempts at novels having failed).

But the next year, I made an attempt anyway. I don’t have a record of just how abysmally I failed, but I did. I believe that I wrote something in the region of 5,000 words (about 3 days of Nanowrimo if you want to stay at par) before giving up. I was, to be fair, in the middle of having a pretty major mental health breakdown. The year after, I tried again, with similar difficulties – that year I had just started university. At that age, I didn’t have the understanding of pacing out work or the discipline to see it through.

A year later, in 2010, I tried again. This time I had an idea. I had a character that I wanted to write about – a young woman who worked as a courier in a fantasy Kingdom, but had long wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, exploring the world as a cartographer. It sounds tolerable thus far, doesn’t it? Well, let me invite you to behold the majesty that was this novel. Because what I think it is important to impress upon you is this: when you start Nanowrimo, unless you are someone who has already written novels, you are going to write a lot of junk.

Edwin snorted. ‘Don’t you see, girl. Your King will use the Heart only on his own people. I will make sure that all of the lands benefit from this, and exclude your own kingdom as penance for the arrogance and hatred of your father’s words and deeds.’

‘But that makes you just as bad as him, if not worse!’

‘Of course,’ replied the man in a silky-smooth voice. ‘Did you think I was denying that? I have absolutely no issue with being, as you so kindly put it, bad.’

‘So you’re ransoming me for this artefact,’ Elmyra said quietly, almost to herself. ‘You do realise that my father is never going to give you it.’

An elegant hand reached through the bars of her cell and tilted her head up. Edwin’s fingers were almost deathly cold. ‘Ah, but we have only tapped the surface, my dear girl. There is far more that I want from your King than just the Heart. We have the opportunity to unite all of the lands. To finally cease the monopolisation by your kingdom of the lands and its resources.’ He stroked her cheek with one bony thumb and Elmyra flinched. ‘I have much greater plans for you than merely as something to ransom.’

‘If I’m so important to your plans,’ Elmyra spat, ‘then why leave me here in this cell being fed what looks like grey vomit?’

Behold that glorious, flowing dialogue. Behold such perfect phrases as “cease the monopolisation by your kingdom of the lands and its resources”. There are many far, far worse transgressions in this novel – not least the plot itself, which is akin to the sustained lament of a bird that died by crashing into a window.

But here’s the thing: when I was writing it, I didn’t stop to think. I also, to be fair, thought it was quite good at the time (oh, young me, how wrong you were). And in comparison to anything else I’d ever written, it was impressive. It genuinely did have 50,000 words of plot – unlike one of my friends, who took to quoting epic poetry in her Nanowrimo work in order to make the word count.

A year later I was back, high on the pride of success, and ready to finish the novel – for I hadn’t, in fact, finished the plot. I pushed onwards and managed progress a lot steadier than the year before. In my first year I had tried to write every day, inevitably failed, and then had to spend a couple of days writing 10,000 words a day. This worked, but wasn’t really sustainable.

That time I got the hint, and started writing every day. I missed some, of course – there were three days where I wrote nothing at all, and four more where I didn’t write the necessary amount (let alone catch up). But in general I did pretty well. I had to write 5,000 a couple of days, but the more I did of Nanowrimo the more I learnt about pacing myself whilst also driving myself.

Of course, I was still writing garbage:

‘I’m here to say thank you. At least, I’d like to. I’m just not sure how we could ever possibly thank you for something like that.’

Niamh smiled softly. ‘Powys saved my life a good few times already.’

‘That doesn’t help me,’ Elmyra pointed out, settling down comfortably into the furs. ‘I still get left owing you more than I can put into words.’

Niamh rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her palm and sighed. ‘You don’t owe me anything,’ she began to say, when her hands were moved out of her eyes by a smaller, paler pair of hands. Niamh’s hazel eyes locked with Elmyra’s blue ones, the hues of their eyes just visible in the light. ‘Elmyra…’ she whispered, becoming unnerved suddenly by the closeness of the small figure in front of her. ‘What are you…?’

If truth were told the princess was not entirely sure precisely what she was doing; but as she looked at her companion’s exhausted face it seemed to her to be the only possible action to take. Shifting slightly to press herself flush against Niamh’s body, Elmyra’s eyes fluttered closed as she pressed her lips against Niamh’s, their breath a heated contrast to the icy cold air. Into the slow and languid kisses Elmyra poured all of the gratitude, warmth and belonging she had felt since travelling with the two of them.

Their kiss gets far worse (though, fortunately, remains just a kiss), but I won’t inflict that upon you. I had absolutely no idea how to write half the things I was writing, but I was learning. I also learnt how to show my novels to someone else. When I finished this glorious epic of hideousness, I showed it to someone – who politely told me that it was absolute garbage with some redeeming features. Impressively, that person later asked me to marry them, which is a testament to either his masochism or his abysmal taste in literature.

But really, I cannot emphasise enough how good a learning process Nanowrimo is. If you’ve read anything that writers have said about writing, you’ll have read about the need to make writing into something you do regularly. Into something you do like a job. Into something you do even on the days that you don’t think you can. Nanowrimo teaches you that: whether you’re writing garbage like I did or a masterpiece for the literary canon, you’re still learning to write to a deadline.

In 2012 I wrote a novel for a game I was playing, and found hitting my word count a lot easier. This is another thing to say for the benefits of writing fanfiction – sometimes, it’s easier to work in a world that is pre-built for you whilst you learn to write. Doing this made me a lot more confident. I felt comfortable in my capacity to write this many words. I now had one 100,000 word novel and one 50,000 word novel under my belt. And if I hadn’t done that, I might not have been able to do what I did next.

Because the year after that, in 2013, I started a novel that I was calling ‘Wonders Beneath’. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have any idea of where I was going with it. I just sat down on the 1st November and I started writing, and these were the first words that I wrote:

For as long as she could remember, Odette had been possessed of a terrible tendency to daydream at every possible opportunity.

Which, if you’re at least a few pages into Mundane Magic, you will recognise.

This first draft was pretty awful, as with all first drafts. It was radically different to the novel that you now know, and it had a lot of problems – plot holes, wavering characterisation, terrible description. But by the end of the month I had a first draft of the first 50,000 words. The next year, in 2014, I called it ‘Odette’s Story’ and I wrote another 50,000 words, this time adding in Henry’s POV – which in the first draft was not present at all.

In 2015 I went back to it, the final plot solidified in my mind – though this wasn’t the final plot, as it turned out – and I finished it. I felt amazing. Three years of work were sitting in front of me and, actually, I didn’t hate what those three years had created. In fact I was pretty proud of it. I started, slowly, to show excerpts from it to other people and to see what they thought. I still have the emails that those alpha readers sent to me: “I read all your 67 pages in one sitting, last Friday afternoon about 20 minutes after you sent it to me – so that should give you some early indication about my feedback to you.”

It was that love and generosity that made me start to think about doing something with it. I’d heard about Nanowrimo ‘success stories’, of course – there are plenty of them, which you can read about on the Nanowrimo blog. It would take me another two years to finish the manuscript, have it edited and publish it, but thanks to Nano I was over one of the biggest hurdles.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a pretty big fan of Nanowrimo as a result. I’ve already used it to do a first draft of the beginning of my next novel – I’m going to throw it out entirely and start over this year, but writing that draft enabled me to see that I needed to do that. If you can’t manage November, there’s also Camp Nanowrimo, which runs in alternative months and allows you to set your own target – it’s more about ‘finishing a writing project’ than ‘writing a novel’.

So go on. Do something daring – join me this November, and who knows. Maybe in a few years we’ll be celebrating your novel being published!

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2 Comments

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  1. I don’t know. A man stroking my cheek creepily while talking at me about my kingdom’s monopolisation of lands and resources? Hot. If you turned it up to an extreme you’d have a fantastic parody at your hands. 😉

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