How Nanowrimo made me a writer.

This time last year, I was eagerly awaiting the start of Nanowrimo 2017. For those not familiar with the acronym it starts for National Novel Writing Month and it was started in the United States by a group of 21 friends in 1999. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a new book during November.

I first heard about it from my friend, author Emma Grey and made my first attempt, on a memoir about our time in Vietnam, in 2016. My enthusiasm was short-lived (we’d just moved house) and so 8,000 words in, I gave up.

But in 2017, I decided that I did want to write a book and to do that, I would have to write the first draft, no matter how bad it was. I had an idea for a dual-timeline family saga set here in the Barossa. The modern story would be about a woman who moved here to start over after the death of her husband, taking up residence in the property left to her by her great-Aunt. In my original plan, the historical timeline spanned five generations, although I soon realised that was overly ambitious.

In the lead up to November 2017, I downloaded a trial of Scrivener (a fabulous writing platform that allows you to organise scenes, chapters, notes etc) and I plotted out my story. I printed out a calendar to record my daily word count and I even went along to a meet-up of other writers in Adelaide. I made some new writing buddies and I announced my plans over social media.

Throughout November, I wrote most days. Some days I wrote well above the targeted 1667 words required to meet the 50,000-word goal. Other days I hit a wall. My exercise regime went out the window and I ate too much chocolate. There were a few wine-fueled writing sessions, but by 30 November 2017, I could say I had ‘won’ Nanowrimo as I’d written 50,000 words. It was a huge confidence boost, especially realising that once I started writing, the ideas flowed. I held tight to the idea that the first draft is just about getting the story down (thanks again Emma Grey) and that you can’t edit a blank page.

Fast-forward to a few months ago and I still only had about 60,000 words. I’d reworked the opening 10 pages to enter a competition and I’d decided to focus the historical timeline on the Great-Aunt (and not five generations). Even when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about the book, and it was great having friends ask me about my writing.

Then another idea came nipping at my heels and I was tempted to abandon my half-finished first draft and work on the new idea. Fortunately, some wise counsel from authors in several writing groups talked me out of this, explaining the importance of finishing the first draft. I took a couple of hours and wrote the new ideas down, hoping that when I did come back to it, the excitement would still be there.

I am the first to admit I suffer from ‘shiny new object’ syndrome and I love trying new things – a new magazine, a new cookbook, a new training course. In mid-August, with only 58,326 words written, I realised that this couldn’t be the case here and I set my goal to get to 100,000 words by 31 October. I would finish my first draft, then put it away while I played with my new idea during Nanowrimo 2018. I would come back to it, probably over the summer, and start the second draft.

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After a huge writing session on Saturday afternoon, my word count was at 91,263. Since then I have been thinking about whether I will add the 8737 words to hit my magic 100,000 word count but with two days left, I have decided to call time on the first draft.

In part, this is because I now feel like any words I add will be just for the sake of adding words. As I wrote on Facebook on Sunday night, I am confident that I have a fairly complete first draft. The story is there – although I keep changing how it ends. I think what is missing is the description, some dialogue and character development. I feel like now is the right time to put it away. I’ll come back to it in the summer and we’ll see where it goes.

Will the second draft bear any resemblance to the first?

Probably not.

Does that mean the last year of writing has been a waste?

Definitely not.

Every word I have written in the last 11 months is proof that I can write, that I can come up with creative story ideas and most importantly, that I want to write.

So, if you’re sitting on the fence about doing Nanowrimo, my advice is – just do it!

You can sign up here and if like me, you also need a calendar on the wall to cross off, I highly recommend this one.

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Nanowrimo 2018 calendar from David Seah

All the best and happy writing! See you in December.

Finding my writing mojo with a road trip and a pen

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Editing on the beach – I could get use to that

Despite my good intentions at the start of the year, I haven’t had nearly enough time to write and when I have sat down, I’ve struggled with writer’s block. I’ve only added 5000 words to the 50,000 I wrote during Nanowrimo and for once, the strategy to just write and let the words flow hasn’t worked.

I was feeling frustrated that I had lost my novel writing mojo. Part of the problem was the fact I just didn’t know where my novel was up to. I’d half plotted the novel out in Scrivener, and then during Nanowrimo worked on particular scenes, so when I came back to it months later, I wasn’t sure where to start.

I might have continued to flounder had it not been for the push to enter a couple of really exciting writing competitions for beginners. This was just the incentive I needed to re-focus on my writing – but I wasn’t sure how to do it.

As we were packing for a two-week, 5000km road trip last month, I decided to print out the 190 pages of my manuscript and start editing. Now, I should say now, as someone who 12 months ago didn’t think she could write a novel, I feel like a fraud describing what I have written as a manuscript – but, that is what it is – even if it is a work in progress.

Turns out that printing out these pages, and picking up a pen has had a really positive effect. Editing the words I’d written, I rediscovered my writing mojo and I rediscovered my enthusiasm and excitement for the story I am trying to tell. There were definitely moments of “this is rubbish” but these were outweighed by moments of “I love this story and I want to finish it”.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that is was easier to edit this way because I have always been a “pen to paper” editor. But the other thing I found was having the pile of papers that make up this very rough first draft sitting beside me in the car or beside my bed, has prompted me to pick it up to read, edit and write – even if I only had 5 or 10 minutes to focus on it.

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Gertrude the cat is making sure I edit a few pages before picking up my book

I might have deleted more words than I have added but I have realised that is not a problem. While Nanowrimo is great for setting up a good writing discipline and for getting the bones of a story down, it does set up some slightly unrealistic expectations about how much you can write. I’ve learned in the last few weeks that it is just as important to delete the words that don’t add to your story as it is to add words.

While I only got through about 50 or 60 pages, just having those physical pages around has helped me think more about my book in the last few weeks than I have since Nanowrimo. I have had more ideas about how to structure my story better, and I’ve plotted out the story. I feel like I have become engaged in my story all over again, I know where I can take it and it’s so exciting.

Early on in the year, I’d set some lofty goals to enter a couple of competitions that required a completed manuscript, and that certainly did help with the feeling of being overwhelmed. So I have dialled things back and am now working on refining just the first few chapters for a couple of competitions really aimed at beginners. This is just the push I needed, and it’s been great to realise that sometimes, going back to the basics is really all you need.

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On the road from Cobar to Bourke – I fell in love with the colours of the outback

5 lessons from my Nanowrimo win

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My first attempt at Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2014 lasted one day. I had a vague story idea, met the estimated daily word count of 1667 and gave in.

During our visit to Vietnam in July 2016, I had the urge to write a book about our posting. I wrote about 8000 words during Nanowrimo but decided moving and writing was too hard.

This year, I have focused on my writing, doing a couple of Australian Writer’s Centre courses, blogging more, listening to writing podcasts, and joining writing groups on Facebook. I have also read more – 35 books, and with 2 weeks left in the year, I’m fairly confident of hitting my target of 40 books.

All of these things meant that when Nanowrimo discussions started to ramp up, I was determined to win. After abandoning (for now) the idea to write a book about my Dad, I decided to write a romantic historical fiction based here in the Barossa. I set my novel up on my Nanowrimo page and announced it to the world. I even went along to the launch party with a group of other Adelaide writers.

I won, writing 50,000 words in November. I learned a lot about writing, my writing style and routines and the things you need to be a successful writer.

Here are my 5 top lessons

 1. Find your writing tribe

I think this was probably the most important thing for me. I joined the So you want to be a writer podcast Facebook group and the Nanowrimo Adelaide Facebook group and connected with people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I shared updates on my word counts, encouraged others and was inspired as others shared their success. The encouragement from so many strangers was amazing, and in these groups, I actually felt like I was really a writer.

I also shared updates on my own Facebook page and social media, which was great for accountability. Friends understood it when I said I needed to write and I also appreciated the encouragement.

 2. Just start writing

Even on the days I couldn’t be bothered or thought I didn’t have time, I knew I just needed to start. I would tell myself I would just write 200 words or write for 15 minutes. These were strategies I had learned doing Alison Tait’s Make Time to Write course and they really work. It’s the strategy I’m using as I write this post, which I’ve been meaning to write for almost 3 weeks.

Once I started writing, the ideas started flowing and I would find myself getting completely caught up in the story. While it was annoying to be interrupted to go to work, or take the boys to sport, it meant that the next time I sat down to write, I wasn’t stuck for ideas.

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3. Get the story down

This advice was from my friend Emma Grey. Seeing Emma’s success with her young adult novel Unrequited, which she wrote during Nanowrimo a couple of years ago has been a huge inspiration. One day when I was feeling stuck writing dialogue and descriptions about the characters and landscape, Emma told me to just get the story down because once I had that, I could go back and fill in the gaps. It was great advice and I would find myself getting completely carried away with the story, coming up with ideas and angles I hadn’t expected. Writing a novel that covers a period from the 1840s until now, I will have to fill in some historical gaps, but I knew I couldn’t get caught up in researching or I wouldn’t get 50,000 words written. And if I had started editing my work, I would no doubt have started doubting my ideas and writing ability.

4. Scrivener is amazing

Scrivener is an amazing software program that organises a novel by chapter and scenes. It is very visual, allowing you to see which scenes are finished and which need more work. There are options to tag each scene with things like the year, characters, point of view etc.  I was a bit worried that learning a new software program would distract me from writing but Nanowrimo participants get an extended trial period and I signed up to the Australian Writer’s Centre 2 hour online course with Natasha Lester in October. The course provided loads of great tips on using Scrivener and working through the modules, I was able to plot out my novel ready to start writing on 1 November. I loved the option of being able to set a daily word target and watch my progress.

I was excited that Scrivener 3 was released just as Nanowrimo finished and I was able to  take advantage of the 50 per cent discount for winners. I am definitely a convert and look forward to going back to my Vietnam memoir now I have an easy way to organise that parts I have written.

 

 5. Try to stick to a regular routine

I suspended my gym membership for November because I’d been struggling with injury and illness and I just wanted to give myself a month to get well. It is probably lucky I did, because my strategy to write every day, even for 15 minutes before bed would often result in me getting completely caught up in my story, and going to bed after midnight, where I often couldn’t sleep because my mind was so full of my story and characters. It took me the first week of December to re-set my sleeping habits and get back to the gym. I also ate way more chocolate that I should have. I don’t recommend this strategy and next year, I’ll be fitting my writing in around exercise and sleep.

While I know I could not write at that pace long-term, Nanowrimo was definitely a great opportunity to focus on getting a story written and reaching 50,000 words has given me the confidence to believe that I might one day finish writing a novel (hopefully this one).

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