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

New year, new approach

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Beach walks in my hometown Wollongong

2017 was the year I started to write more. I started the Australian Writers Centre Make Time to Write course which I’d discovered during our visit to Vietnam in July 2016 when I decided to write a book about our time there. The 30 day boot-camp was a great kick start, and helped me add about 12,000 words to the 8000 I’d written during Nanowrimo 2016. I got back into a routine with my blog, especially when the post I wrote about a photo-shopped school photo went viral. Once I decided to wind up my consulting business, I started a 5 week online course with the Australian Writers Centre, joining the Freelance Masterclass program when I finished. I did Nanowrimo for third time and finally succeeded in writing for the whole month of November, putting down 50,000 words and making a good start on a book I’m looking at returning to in 2018.

But as I focused on my writing, my fitness went downhill and as we emerged from the long winter, I could no longer ignore that too much chocolate and wine as rewards for writing had resulted in me feeling unfit, fat and unmotivated. I needed to commit to moving every day – even if just for a 30 minute walk.

So while the idea of making New Year’s resolutions doesn’t really appeal to me, I decided that commiting to 30 minutes of exercise – alongside 30 minutes of writing every day seemed like a reasonable goal. I also know that its long enough to be of benefit but short enough to fit it in around everything else I need to do. I know that putting on my exercise gear or sitting down to write is half the battle. I never regret a walk or a workout and some of my best writing sessions have been when I have told myself I’ll just write for 10-15 minutes before school pick-up. Often I’ve had to leave with ideas still flowing which might once have been frustrating but I now know means I’m much more likely to be excited and inspired the next time I sit down to write.

While 30 minutes of exercise or writing in and of itself is worthwhile, I do have some goals in mind. I want to lose about 15-20 kilos (which I did 6 years ago when we were first in Hanoi) and run a half-marathon non-stop. I’d also like to conquer some fears and reach some goals in the gym. When it comes to writing, the goals are simple – get my first freelance piece published, build a successful side-career (1-2 articles a fortnight) and finish my manuscript.

In 2014 I left a career, in 2015 I started a business and wound it up in 2017. 2016 was about starting a new job and then dealing with my husband’s cancer diagnosis and recovery – and buying a house. So many big changes and challenges.

A great quote from surfer Layne Beachley at the Australian Museum’s 200 Treasures exhibition

2018 is about taking the resources and tools I already have to achieve the goals I have set. I have a couple of great writing communities including the support and advice offered through the Freelance Masterclass program. I have a great gym, trainer and community. I know how to eat well. 2018 is not about finding “shiny new things”. Instead it is about commiting – on a daily basis – to doing what I know works and applying the skills and knowledge I already have.

As a mother and wife, I know that I’ll never be able to carve out all the time I want to do “my” things. The mental load is real and the reality is, we all have the same 24 hours. Sure I’d love to not get up before 6am, but I know I need to if I want to get healthy again and have the energy I need to reach the goals I have set. I’d love a whole uninterrupted day to write, but that is probably not going to happen this year, so I just need to make the most of the snippets of time I have. Nanowrimo taught me this and I’ve also been loving Nat Newman’s messenger bot that sends me a message at an allocated time reminding me to write – which then lets me set a timer for however long I have.

The focus of this post might have been my writing and fitness but I’d remiss if I forgot to mention my reading goals. I have no doubt my enthusiasm for writing has been improved by the goal I set to read more in 2017. Using Goodreads, I set a challenge to read 25 books, that I kept increasing until it reached 40.  I read 38 books – which is probably the total of all the books I’d read in the 2-3 years previously. So this year, I’ve upped the ante and I’m aiming to read 45 books and because I like to make life “interesting”, I’ve also decided to cook at least one new recipe a week from one of my many cookbooks!

It has taken me a few years to get into the groove of part-time work, a side-gig and school pick-ups and after-school activities, I really feel like this might just be the year that it all comes together.

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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On running and writing

In the last couple of months, while I’ve been very quiet on this blog, I have actually been doing a lot of writing – and next month, I’m about to do a lot more. 50,000 words more in fact.

After thinking about it for a long time, in September I finally signed up for the Australian Writers Centre Magazine and Newspaper writing course. I had been thinking about doing this ever since the blog post about the photo-shopped school photos went viral and I saw large chunks of my blog post being reproduced. I decided that if I was going to write, perhaps I could get paid for it.

The five-week online course equipped me a lot of useful information and tools, including how to pitch articles, how to structure an article, how to analyse a publication and how to interview. It was delivered via audio each week, with a weekly task which was shared in an online classroom and for which we received feedback. I really enjoyed interviewing a classmate and writing a profile. Completing each of the weekly exercises meant that by the end of the course, I almost had a complete article and pitch ready to use. Most importantly, the course gave me the confidence to give freelance writing a go.

A week after the course ended, I pitched my first story. I decided I was going to participate in the Runaway Barossa half-marathon that I had entered back in June, despite having spent the winter injured or sick. The day before the race, I decided to pitch the story to the local paper and set myself a somewhat unreasonable deadline of providing an article “on-spec” by Monday morning. The editor came back to me and said that while there was unlikely to be space in the weekly print version of the paper, they could run it online.

I survived the 21km, which started with a 4km jog, moved to a jog/walk,  a walk and finally a stagger towards the finish line (and Riesling). After spending Sunday in Adelaide,  I left my story to the last minute (something I will not be making a habit of) and spent Monday morning frantically putting something together. Within an hour of providing it to the editor, it was shared online and while I was disappointed in the lack of proof reading and by the fact I hadn’t pushed for payment, it was still a good experience. I was feeling bad that I had worked for free until a number of people who had graduated from the course said this was still good experience as long as I was clear about why and when I would work for free.

While I have a couple of ideas about features I would like to write, my next step is to speak to a couple of editors and see where there is scope for paid work. One of the big lessons I have learned that unlike blogging, feature writing is not about my opinion and in fact, the trick is to keep yourself out of it.

Launching a freelance writing side-career would probably be enough to keep me going for the rest of the year, but NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow and I am giving it another go. The National Novel Writing Month (which started in the US and is now international) is a month long “competition” with the aim of writing 50,000 words. I lasted a day in 2014 (which probably had something to do with trying to write fiction on the barest of outlines) and got about 10,000 words done last year before moving in and setting up our house took over.

I had initially planned to start a novel/memoir of Dad’s life but given the interviews and research it will require, I have instead decided to try a work of fiction. I’m going to have a go at writing the sort of family/inter generational saga/romance that I’ve enjoyed since I first read the Thornbirds as a teenager. Tentatively titled “Budburst”, it will be set here in the Barossa and I’m hoping to weave some historical stories alongside a modern story. I’ve been having a lot of fun plotting it out and I’m making the most of free access to the Scrivener writing app to draw up a rough outline of the chapters. I’ve also been doing lots of research about local history although once Wednesday rolls around, my aim will be to write 1667 words every day and finish the month with a basic story – and a long list of questions to follow up.

I have a few friends who have done it in the past, including my friend Emma, who wrote her novel Unrequited (published by Harper Collins and is being performed as a musical in Canberra this week) during NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago. I went along to the Adelaide kick-off party for NaNoWriMo and have also connected with a few other people I’ve met through a couple of podcast groups,  that are planning to do it – so hopefully we’ll be able to keep each other motivated.

Given how long it has take me to write this post, I can’t promise I’ll be blogging in November, but at the same time, once I’m back in the daily habit of writing, knocking out a quick blog post might actually be welcome relief from working on my manuscript. After surving that half-marathin, I’m feeling like anything is possible!

Making time to write

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A month ago, I got up before 6, made a cup of tea and began writing a book. I’d decided that after thinking about a book on my visits to Vietnam between 2003 and this year, including the 3.5 years we lived there, that the National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo was a good time to start. A workshop with Emma and Audrey from My 15 Minutes – and finally meeting them in person was further encouragement and motivation.

I joined the rebels forum as I would be writing a non-fiction work, I signed up online and started mapping out what I would write.

Despite having only moved into the house 6 days before, I cleared away some boxes and made sure I could write without distraction.

That first morning I knocked over 700 or 800 words before going for a walk with a friend. I came back later in the day and got to 2000 – surpassing the daily goal of 1700. The next day was busy and I thought I’d failed – but after dinner, I forced myself to sit down and write, and got to about 3600 words. I don’t remember what happened then but I know I only wrote a couple more times, and made it past 5000. So much for the 50,000 word goal.

The annoying thing was that once I actually sat down to write, the words flowed. The memories of my first visit in 2003, living there with Simon and the boys and then reliving our last visit in July when I decided I wanted to both record my feelings about Vietnam and my observations about the things that had changed (or stayed the same) over the years.

So what stopped me writing? Too many things.

I certainly underestimated how much work moving into a new home would take. And while we’d had some of the main work done like painting and floors, there was some work we did ourselves like painting the kitchen cupboards and wardrobes for the bedrooms.

The overgrown garden is a never ending battle and while I can’t help but feel that gardening makes me feel very grown-up, my body wonders how older people keep up with it. But now, I’ve decided that apart from the obvious weeds,  we should take the advice many have given to see what is out there before we start pulling too much out.

Add to all that work, a possible new consulting project, and the day to day house and family stuff – and Christmas and it’s easy to see how distractions took over.

Yesterday was my first blog in a long time and came after starting my Australian Writers Centre course on making time to write. This course popped up in my Facebook feed towards the end of our trip to Vietnam in July and it was a sign that I should do something with the ideas floating around in my head (and the diary full of notes from my first visit in 2003).

The key takeaway so far is that many writers (especially starting out) make the most of small amounts of time during the day to write – the idea of a full day of writing sounds nice but most of us have other things to do – and even if we did have the time, chances of being distracted by everything else are high.

So, while I probably should be at the gym, I’m not, so I may as well make the most of some quiet time and get into the habit of writing – because apparently its a habit that might take  254 days of doing it to stick!