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.

Writing true stories

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Me and my Dad – late 1974

Last week, I decided that for Father’s Day, I would write a blog post about my Dad, who died almost 8 years ago. I sent a group message to my immediate family – my Mum, my two sisters and brother, brother-in-law and my husband because he isn’t just MY Dad. He is a husband and a father and a father-in-law. I wanted to make sure that whatever I wrote would not upset anyone. At first I put off writing because my Dad crammed a lot into his 83 years and his story is really interesting. There was so much I wanted to say but as I try and keep my blog posts under 1000 words, I wasn’t sure how to fit it all in.

Once I started writing, I was on a roll, and I actually mentioned to Mum that we should write a book. Mum had written a lot about Dad when he died,  stemming from the eulogy she gave at his funeral and I’m sure my siblings would have a lot to add. But that was a project for another time and for now, I just wanted to write a short piece to celebrate his life on Father’s Day.

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Our Wedding Day – and our family altogether. My Dad and Grandma at the front, then my niece, brother in law, sister, me, Simon, Mum, my Poppy, my sister in law, brother and sister. Canberra, October 2006

Born in 1926, Dad arrived in Australia as a two year old during the Great Depression. He left school young, built a career in Wollongong, first in BHP in employment, then in public relations, and then subsequent careers working for the Illawarra Hawks basketball team and at the Novotel before retiring at 73. He was involved in football (the round ball kind – soccer), was a patron of over 130 ethnic groups, was instrumental in establishing a business networking organisation, was involved in local and state politics (including as an alderman on local council and a campaign manager), had an Italian Knighthood and an Order of Australia. He was married twice and had two sets of kids – who are all to this day, close. Dad loved music, sport, the occasional round of golf, food, red wine and good whiskey.

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Front page of the Illawarra Mercury – my sister and I with Dad when he received his Italian knighthood

I’d almost succeeded in drafting a concise history of my Dad, when Simon suggested we go and visit the new gin bar down the road. Despite the fact that it was cold, wet and windy and going out would require a change from tracksuit pants and ugg boots and some make-up, it was Father’s Day, so I agreed. I was also glad to have a break from writing because I was finding it harder than usual to write the last paragraph. How could I wrap up this short history of Dad’s life and do it justice? I’d also made the mistake of reading the eulogy I wrote for Dad’s funeral and looking at the photos we’d put together for a slide show and I was a bit teary.

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Dad and Angus (about 1 month old), January 2009

So off to The Stillery we went for a G&T (from a list of about 20 which includes the Barossa Distilling Company’s own gin), half a dozen oysters and a cheese platter. A nice escape on a chilly day and I even found myself wondering whether it was acceptable to schedule an afternoon G&T writing session every couple of weeks! While the Barossa might be known for it’s wine, there are a number of craft beer, cider and spirits producers doing some really interesting things.

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But I digress – this post is about writing, not drinking! When I got home, I continued to work on the blog about Dad, but I was still finding it hard and I think for the first time I realised that perhaps I had been wrong in thinking that non-fiction was easier than fiction.  Apart from a few thousand words on a fiction novel for my first attempt at Nanowrimo (the national novel writing month where participants aim to complete a 50,000 word manuscript  in November)  in 2014, my recent writing efforts have focused on a memoir of my time in Vietnam and blog posts. I assumed that writing non-fiction would be easier because I didn’t have to be creative. It was just writing about my experiences and opinions. But nothing could be further from the truth. What I am now realising is that writing non-fiction involves so much research, fact-checking and the risk  that the way you portray a person or experience might offend someone, which is even worse if you are writing about someone who isn’t around to give their take on the story.

I am still keen to write a story about my Dad, and I would also like to explore the possibility of writing something longer than a blog post. But I have realised that I need to learn some skills to give me the confidence to accurately and authentically tell true stories. Next week, I’m starting my first formal writing course – Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1 through the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m hoping that writing more, and having my work critiqued will give me the confidence to write my true stories – and in the meantime, I might just dip my toe into the world of creative writing and see what I come up with.

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Dad wasn’t known for his cooking – apart from his bacon wrapped scallops!