Monday, 16 December 2013

Banishing the Demon: Reflections on NaNoWriMo

As someone with a science education, working for thirty plus years in a highly technical industry, nano has always had a specific meaning: Used primarily in the metric system, it is the prefix denoting a billionth, a factor of ten to the minus nine or 0.000000001. In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about nanoscience and nanotechnology, the study and application of extremely small things.
But for the past few years, it has had a very different meaning to me and many other writers — and this time it’s big, very big — and it’s written differently. NaNo is short for NaNoWriMo, which itself is short for National Novel Writing Month. In 1999, founder Chris Baty and 21 other writers set themselves a challenge: to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Six of them completed the challenge. Over the years, the number of participants has grown and this year 320,671 took part. I was one of them - and for the first time in three attempts, I completed the challenge.
“I kill people for a living” is the way author Chris Nickson describes his crime-writing; descriptions based on other genres might be “I am a serial matchmaker”, “I put people in dangerous situations and then watch them struggle to get free,” or “I invent new worlds and new species”. Writers are a real mixed bunch, but we have one thing in common: we are all insecure about our work. I suspect there isn’t a writer now or in the past who hasn’t thought at some point this is rubbish; no-one’s going to read it.
When I first started to write fiction, a good friend told me it would ruin the pleasure of reading for me. She told me about the little demon who would sit on my shoulder, critiquing everything I read, examining the structure, the use of language, the characterisation, rather than letting me just concentrate on the story. She was right; members of the my book group often tell me I read differently from the rest of them.
But my friend didn’t warn me that the little demon would be even more vocal when I am writing than when I am reading. Sometimes it's difficult to concentrate for the voice of derision shouting in my ear. But not in November! During NaNo, I sent that demon on holiday and just wrote; it was an exercise in creativity, in pure quantity not quality. And it was such good fun. I’d given myself permission to write complete rubbish; I didn’t need to edit it in any way (that will come later).
I didn’t want to start a new novel; I’m still working on the one which began life as 6,000 words written during my first NaNo attempt in 2006. So I decided to use my word quota to write short stories, to build up my work-in-progress file for 2014 competitions, submissions and anthologies.  I aimed for 25 at 2,000 words each. The scientist in me knew I needed a structure to work with, so in the weeks leading up to 1st November, while colleagues were thinking up plot structures and jotting down notes on characters (planning is allowed, pre-writing isn’t), I made up three bags full of slips of paper: characters, locations and behaviours. Each time I finished a story, I pulled another slip from each bag, spent a few hours thinking about the ideas, and then went for it.
Over the course of the month, I wrote about a prudent teacher on a village green; a relentless student in a doctor’s surgery; a lustful chimney sweep on a bus; a hopeful shop assistant at an archaeological dig — and many more. I wrote twenty-three stories, well twenty two and a half, really. On 28th November, I hit 50,022 words — and stopped. Not actually mid-sentence, but certainly mid-story. This last one is a bit different; it’s a murder mystery in the style of Midsomer and it’s certainly way too long for a short story. Perhaps I did start a second novel after all. Maybe I’ll finish it in the New Year — or maybe I’ll hold it over until next November and write the rest of it then.
It’s now more than two weeks since NaNo finished and I’ve had time to reflect on what I got out of it. There’s the obvious sense of satisfaction of completing the task; I’m sure my Facebook and Twitter friends will excuse me displaying the ‘winner’ logo for just a little while longer. There’s a good stock of story drafts waiting for me to edit and polish in January. There’s the sense of camaraderie from knowing that so many other writers are doing the same thing at the same time all around the world. There’s the fun in watching the graph on the NaNo site grow each time the word count is updated  On the downside, there’s the stiff neck and sore back from sitting at the laptop so long every day (but they went after a couple of hot baths).
Most of all, there is the joy of just writing, without judgement, without criticism, without any sense of guilt at not producing perfect prose first time around. And that’s one benefit that I’m hoping to keep hold of until the same time next year. 


  1. I got my 50k words done in November too, but now I have to finish the novel. I've done about 12k words since then. I joined a group called NaNoFiMo (National Novel Finishing Month, and their basic aim is to encourage Nano entrants who haven't finished their novels in November to finish in December. The usual 'classic NaNoFiMo aim is 'finish your 50k word uncompleted novel at 80k, that's 1k words per day. I'm not keeping up very well, but I'm not a lost cause yet. I have scores of unfinished projects, so my new years resolution is to joint 100k in 100 days on FB and use the word count total on my various unfinished works. I really enjoyed November, though, it was a joy to just write at a daily target no matter what and somehow, I'm enjoying my December too, even if I am some 4k words behind. Congrats on completing your NaNo 50k.

    1. And congratulations to you too, Maria. I am taking December off, but will also be doing the 100K in 100 days in January.

  2. Interesting thoughts, I really enjoyed your blog.