November is Coming

 

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month
Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Have you got 50,000 words in you?

You might say you don’t. Personally, I’m inclined to disagree, and I’m sure those committed to undertake NaNoWriMo for another year might be on my side of the fence.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, and here I am with another post about National Novel Writing Month. Although not participating this year, having managed some twelve months ago to come up with a 55,000 word tale I was fairly proud of (albeit a little less so upon re-reading), it seemed timely as we near the end of October to share a few thoughts on some of the things that helped me stumble across the line in 2014.

I offer these observations clearly not as a seasoned novelist, with a bio inclusive of numerous published works, but perhaps like some of you. Someone who thought: ”you know, I think I might be able to do that… but that’s over 1600 words a day for a month… but… ohh… gee… maybe I can’t — no, damn it, I actually think I can. Wait… I’m really not sure… ahhhhh!

That of course, is exactly my point.

Although every seasoned novelist started somewhere (perhaps even with NaNoWriMo), it can sometimes be a little difficult to conceptualise expert tips and tricks into your own situation, as valid and well-tested as they are.

So, after reading two posts recently containing such tips from a professional author, I will endeavour to pass on some advice of my own, in the hope they might assist in some way to lead you headlong into NaNoWriMo greatness.

The Expert

I have previously mentioned author David Hewson and his book Writing a Novel With Ulysses. The book itself is about creative writing using text editor Ulysses for Mac and iPad, in which I wrote my 55k words in last November (the Mac app at least, with the iPad version coming later from developer The Soulmen).

Ok, to get this out of the way. Firstly, Ulysses. I absolutely love it, and use it for every piece of writing I do for this blog. The above guide by Hewson provides fantastic advice guiding the efficient use of Ulysses in a fairly large writing project (certainly larger than anything I had attempted at the time). While there are cheaper word processor/text editors out there (at the time of writing: $AU69.99 on the Mac app store; $AU30.99 on the iOS app store), Ulysses worked for me and I have not looked back.

ulysses_nano
Image courtesy Ulysses

Ulysses currently has a free trial running through to December 7 for the brave souls who may want to embark on NanoWriMo with it, and there is no better time to give it a run – NaNo or not. I remember thinking to myself half way through the free trial last November, if I manage to finish this damn thing and get to 50,000 words — I’m going to reward myself and buy this app. Just a thought.

Now, remember the three paragraphs immediately above when we come to the tip “the tools don’t matter”. Let’s get to it.

The tips

I’d encourage you to read the two posts by Mr Hewson, which I found myself nodding along with as I read, and if you’ve done any writing yourself you will probably do the same:

8 Tips for Writing a Novel this November – The NaNoWriMo Blog

Five ways to help you finish that book – Medium: David Hewson

However the stimulus for this post comes because, as well as reading and nodding, I also found myself thinking: yes I’d agree with that, however as a complete amateur, I’d also add…

So here I am… ”also adding”, to a small few of the thirteen tips contained in those original posts.

(Unless stated otherwise, quoted text is from either of the two posts linked above)

On considering your book as a journey

Hewson points out:

Yes, it’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But it’s also a journey, from life to death, ignorance to knowledge, love to hate or vice versa.

and:

When you think of a book as a journey you then realise you need waypoints, movement, progress.

Of course a lot more detail and a good example of the above can be seen in the 8 Tips post, we see how an “inciting incident” and a further seven or eight scenes might provide 10,000 words.

To that I say boom! You’re a fifth of the way there! Well, perhaps not, although I do agree that a journey with a few stops along the way is a great way to look at it. Further, once you get rolling, it can be surprising how quickly the words tally up.

On sticking with the right tools

Here I’d add, this is really only going to work with the right tool(s) for you. I don’t necessarily mean Ulysses, Scrivener (also a 30 day free trial available), Byword, or heaven forbid even Word. It might be anything.

I get it — the tools matter, but not as much as the words.

However, remember you will need to be writing — a lot, over the course of November. Where will that writing take place? Will it be one place? Your desk? Many different places? Set yourself up to work whenever and wherever you can.

Are you going to need a companion iOS or Android app, or at least something that can access your Dropbox, iCloud or Google Drive easily and efficiently — and more importantly do so reliably? Or perhaps you will be writing on the one device you can take anywhere with you.

I think a some planning here might make things just a little less stressful if you are well set up to pick up your story just about anywhere you are.

However, if things aren’t quite working in the first few days and you do have an epiphany about changing something that will see things work far more effectively — I say go for it. Within the first few days my iOS solutions were not quite where I needed them, and a little tweaking of apps and syncing worked a treat.

So, tweak a little if needed, but please, have back ups and just don’t keep tweaking.

On time management

Manage your time effectively — you won’t have as much as you want or need. Keep the book alive by making notes … when you have spare moments.

Of course in relation to the previous point about the right tools — it is great to be able to work anywhere, but you most likely won’t be able to work everywhere. When you are not specifically writing is often when the best ideas come to you. Notebooks, a sheet of paper, a phone — all perfect tools for that killer scene, idea, or great line from one of the main characters. Anything you’d really prefer not to forget.

One of the main benefits in taking notes one my iPhone is the ability to send text to whatever digital tool you might be doing your writing in (assuming it is digital — I acknowledge some brave souls do this with pen and paper in longhand). I found this useful on a couple of occasions where a note became several hundred words, and it was far more efficient to drop them into the story than rewrite from handwritten notes.

Whatever you use here doesn’t matter. Just get those thoughts down.

While we’re talking about managing your time effectively, I would also add a comment about the lead in to the November 1 kickoff. Only making the final decision to participate in last years event a couple of days before it commenced, left a less than ideal lead in as far as planning and organisation are concerned. I had the bare bones of a plot outline in my head, however my point is, even if you are feeling rather less than prepared — it can be done. The rest of my planning and organisation came along as the story progressed.

When in doubt and the calendar clicks over to November 1 — just get going and let your characters take you at least the first part of the way. Now is a good time to glance at your calendar though — see that? There are still a few good planning days left before this mayhem begins.

On writing your way out of it

Mr Hewson sir, if only I had enough talent to write my way into it in the first place!

But here’s the hard truth: the most dangerous place any writer can find him or herself is the moment you think, ‘I can find out what I want to write by writing it.’

All right then — point taken. I guess the last thing you want to do is waste a few thousand words on a scene which takes you in entirely the wrong direction. Perhaps something to remember from our expert about taking a break to reassess:

Writing’s also sitting in a bar with a beer daydreaming about the book

Is it? Is it really? Of course it is — remember what we said about when those great ideas are going to come to you?

Probably wise words indeed. Just don’t make that the thicker end of the writing wedge — sit in that bar for too long and those ideas eventually will make no sense at all. Might I suggest a calming single malt could be an even better way to go about it, however I restate one of the original points — the tools don’t matter!

Back on track with my two cents here: Resist the urge to rewrite at all costs! Mostly. Absolutely, stop, think and perhaps head in another direction — but do anything you can to avoid rewriting too much as you go along.

Just remember — this is NaNoWriMo, and if it is your first, perhaps this is also your first full draft. You will likely write more words in the coming month than perhaps you’ve written in the past twelve — maybe longer. You just don’t have the time to make this perfect. This is not putting the finishing touches to your life’s work. It is not your masterpiece — not yet.

In the words of six-time participant/three-time winner Katie Maguire on her blog I Have Things to Say:

First drafts are shit

And there it is. The honest truth. If you’ll pardon me repeating that, my first draft is sitting in a draw with a couple of initial annotations made, and is still, well… shit (apologies again, I’m done with the language — it’s just that sometimes there is only one way to describe something, particularly if that is also the very word I said aloud upon first reading back over my draft).

If you get part, half or just about all the way through and begin to think: you know, this probably really isn’t that great. Guess what? Probably half of the other millions of WriMos are thinking the exact same thing. Others might be lying to themselves, and still others might (after many revisions) get published, however as the month goes on, everyone’s eyes are on the same prize — that 50k finish line.

Just. Keep. Going. Get it done.

On simple being better

Written in bold, with the suggestion to print out and keep, Hewson gives us the following:

Simplicity is always harder than complexity.

The point here is simple. A story told in a simple, straightforward way is far easier to understand than something overly complex simply for complexity’s sake. How to recognise it? Try this example:

You’ve just decided part way through this is actually a two-era story, part of which will take place in the modern day and the rest in Regency England featuring a mirror cast.

Thank you Mr Hewson, with that laugh out loud example above, we are just about done.

I would add here that the same rules apply to individual scenes or pieces of dialogue from your beloved characters. That said, sometimes you just need complex. An example? I give you, that classic piece of cinematography, Wayne’s World, where one of our heroes, Garth Algar hatches the “simplest” of plans:

OK… First I’ll access the secret military spy satellite that’s in a geosynchronous orbit over the Midwest. Then, I’ll ID the limo by the vanity plate “MR. BIGGG” and get his approximate position. Then, I’ll reposition the transmitter dish on the remote truck to 17.32 degrees east, hit WESTAR 4 over the Atlantic, bounce the signal down into the Azores, up to COMSAT 6, beam it back to SATCOM 2 transmitter number 137, and down on the dish on the back of Mr. Big’s limo… It’s almost too easy.

Complexity, when used for effect, can be quite powerful, however unless you have a real knack for clarity, it can certainly weigh things down over time.

My advice? Just write it as you’d think it or say it. Speak the scene out loud — even just in your head. Simple just works, and is an efficient way to plough on with the story. It also makes the whole thing much more readable for those who might eventually be on the other side of this situation. That’s right — your readers.

In conclusion

Truth be told, I’ve probably written almost as many words about NaNoWriMo as I’ve written in it. Who knows, last year may have been my one and only shot. If so, I am happy with how it turned out, and is something I would recommend to anyone considering having a go. It is indeed an exhilarating ride.

If that is you, then I hope some of what I’ve written here might help a little, or a lot. Perhaps it won’t help at all, and you’ll get “stuck in” and come out a winner in precisely your own way. In all honesty it will likely be the latter, given how different we all are, which is of course the best part of it. I’ll look forward to hearing how you went, what you found most useful, and if you don’t mind, perhaps use a few of your tips next time I find myself knee-deep in words one November.

So, November is indeed coming, and so is a flurry of words. Good luck with that word count, have fun, and be sure to raise your arms when you pass the 50,000.

I’ll certainly be cheering for you.


Decent Human Beings

Two nights ago I stood during the opening of my children’s high school awards night.1 During the convocation by the school chaplain, we stood in prayer, which included: “we pray that we shall walk with integrity and act as decent human beings”.

Those familiar with a certain disagreement recently played out online may immediately conclude this is simply another post about such matters. In many ways I guess it must be about that — yet at the same time it isn’t. While the impetus for this post may in some way be related to those events, it is in large part due to the simple, yet powerful message I relayed in the introductory paragraph.

Every day I am thankful for the wonderful people I interact with online through the communities I am lucky enough to be a part of. I wouldn’t say I know those I interact with in the traditional sense of the word. Lets face it, most of them live on continents distant from my own, although thankfully at least a few are a little closer than that. We pop in and out of each others timelines, in boxes and lives. We offer and receive advice, encouragement, maybe a little ribbing — and are perhaps even set straight about things every once in a while.

This is all in a way which conveys the utmost respect for each other. We act with integrity. We act as decent human beings.

I cannot imagine turning up to an online world in which I am constantly in conflict with others in it. Perhaps that is in large part why many opinions I keep to myself. That is a personal decision. If you can make your point well enough in 140 characters for example, by all means do so. The number of draft tweets I delete suggests there are many times I don’t believe I can — or at least be clear enough about what I am intending to convey.

Speaking of what I am intending to convey, I can sense I am now heading towards where I did not intend to go with this post, so let me finish by saying this: I teach my children to act with integrity and as decent human beings, and the school I choose to send them to shares those values. In my own life, whether online or off, surely — surely, the very least I can do is the same.

So I am grateful to those of you who make this online place a positive one for me. Those who also share these same values. Thank you for acting as decent human beings.


 

  1. A proud father indeed, both earning academic excellence awards for their efforts throughout the year. ↩︎

 

Here’s to the Creators

Recently I had a fleeting thought about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), as I intermittently do for some reason. Let’s face it, November is not all that far away for those who might be inclined to participate this year. Myself? I won’t be grinding away at the keyboard again this November – with the exception of an occasional blog post of course. Although participating in NaNoWriMo is definitely something I highly recommend, I’ve opted out this year — with 2014 of course being the first time I had opted in.

Which brings me to the few thoughts I had which generated this post.

What about those who never opt out? I read, listen to, and follow many very talented people in this corner of the internet, and you will have already seen links to many of them grace these pages. People I like to think of as creators. People for whom “opting out” is not, well… an option. Those whose living — either in full or in part — is made through their creative work.

Here I am not talking about the overt success stories — the best-selling novelists; the rock stars; the internet sensations. For every one of those, there are a thousand others locked in the knock-down drag-out battle to not only create great work, but to somehow survive by that very means.

Those who sit in front of an empty page, screen, canvas or microphone and produce something great — or not — and if not, keep coming back until they do. Every day without fail, they show up and create. Pushing on, and approaching every day as though it will produce their best scene, verse, or sketch yet.

The faith, hope, and perhaps on some days — the desperation. Those who push through meaningless comparisons, second guessing, and maybe repeated rejections. Those who won’t be stifled. Those who flourish — perhaps in spite of it all. Even if you half-heartedly believe everyone has that killer story inside them somewhere, not everyone has the desire, nor the ability to tell it — and perhaps some who do will never try.

Now in this, my fourth NaNoWriMo inspired post reflecting on last November I ask: did I produce something great? Definitely not (believe me – I’ve read through it). However I did manage to produce — or should I say to create— something I thought I never would: a 55,000 word novel. Although I am now finding the revision and re-write that much harder, lets face it, I really don’t have much riding on it do I? Yet there are many who do.

So here’s to the creators out there.

Whatever you might be working on today (or in November) — keep working. On those tough days? Might I at least encourage you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and stand tall. If it looks a little dark and empty ahead? Just keep walking, and above all — blink last.


My previous thoughts on the NaNoWriMo experience:


The Great Unpublished

As I sat and began writing this post, I had set in my mind it was post number 199 on this very blog, and of course my mind began to wander into the realm of “better come up with something big for number 200”. Indeed, there are plenty of things I could write about for a milestone post. Milestones themselves would be a good one, perhaps where I have come from with my writing, or maybe where to next. All valid ideas, which might be of interest to those of you who stop by and read every now and then.

Of course my next step was a quick trip into my WordPress admin page to check on that, and of course, what do you know? This, friends, turns out to be the big 200th. The milestone post, the introspective reflection on posts gone by. The line in the sand drawn and stood behind with one hand on my hip, the other shading my eyes from the sun, as I look into the future and extol what the future holds for these pages.

As you can probably guess by now, this post is neither of those, save perhaps for a little bit of reflection.

Perhaps with better planning I might have reached 200 with a bit more of a bang. As I think about it, in actual fact, the number of posts actually written, is closer to around 220 – the number of those actually published is now 200. Why the difference? To be honest, there are a few things at play here.

True, a few of those posts which we’ll call “the great unpublished” simply were not up to scratch. I had either written myself into a corner, was so far off track in what I was trying to say, or even forgot my original point. The majority however, were pieces containing personal thoughts or feelings that I was not comfortable in publishing to the big wide world. Some I plan to revisit and perhaps tweak a little to allow them to pass through the too-personal-to-publish filter, however some will never make that journey.

As an intensely private person (at times to my own detriment), some of these posts might be viewed by others as — how can I put it — quite low on the personal scale, however we each have our own frame of reference and level of comfort, which is what makes us unique.

After completing one of the great unpublished posts, I am sometimes a little annoyed at myself given the time I put into some of them, which is, on balance, no more or less than some of the other posts which do make it up on the site. No, it is more so the thoughts around the apparent waste of time writing a piece with the express purpose of posting, which then goes unpublished.

Of course I fully understand the futility at being annoyed about not posting something which I chose to write about, and subsequently, I chose not to publish. Further, I am of the opinion that if I never write posts of this nature, I will: (a) never get better at writing them; (b) never get better at writing, period; and (c) most likely fail to draft certain posts which I would happily (and proudly) publish.

Being annoyed about writing and not posting, is in itself annoying to me as well you see. The main reasons I write here are for enjoyment, relaxation, and the rewarding aspect of learning more about the various topics of my posts. I must admit however, there are times when a lot of effort is required to partake in this relaxation. The many times I am up before dawn to put together drafts before work sometimes does not feel like relaxation, although it is this very effort which generates the most reward.

Where do the great unpublished posts then end up? Many places if I poke around looking for them. There are some in Day One or Evernote, others are archived in Dropbox, and a few remain lurking in a folder within Ulysses, hopefully to see the light of day in future for editing and revision — and publishing. If not? Well, that won’t be the end of the world either.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure whether I will really change as time passes. After this many posts I am perhaps set in my ways, however I’d like to think there is still some evolution to occur on these pages. Only time will tell I guess.

So to finish up, technically this is my 200th post, however you could argue I had reached this some time ago. Either way, the numbers are not why I sit and tap away day after day — and certainly if the page views were, I’d have given up long ago. Thankfully I have long since freed my mind from that burden.

What is then, might you ask?

As I mentioned earlier — I enjoy it, and it helps me learn. Two things which were apparent from post number one and remain as powerful as ever today. The unpublished posts? I enjoyed writing them and learned something about myself from creating them. The monumental 200th post? Now done and dusted, and as far as introspective reflection and bold predictions are concerned?

I am mostly proud of the posts I’ve written so far, and there will be more. To say anything further might be too, well… personal.


Why Did I Actually Stop Reading?

To accurately answer that question, it bears asking when and why I started in the first place. I suspect it might be the same as many — the high school english class novel. Of course here I refer to commencing reading the full-length novel, having bypassed the Bible and many shorter stories from primary school.

Perhaps the most appalling aspect of reminiscing about this is exactly how little I remember about these early novels — of which there must have been at least half a dozen throughout my secondary schooling. The one I do remember? Educating Rita by Willy Russell, subsequently the subject of a movie and many a theatre production — and not forgetting of course — the high school book review and analysis. Speaking of appalling — the reason I remember it? The sheer excitement at the prospect of one of my classmates or — heaven forbid — me, being able to read aloud in class the first Department of Education book we had come across containing a profanity, ironically so commonly used in the playground just outside the window.

I even remember who said it, and I’d also bet money I also distinctly remember he cleared his throat at the beginning of the sentence, and projected that word like he had not done before, and never did thereafter, in the playground or otherwise. Yes, the maturity of high school boys can be quite astounding at times.

The traveller’s read

Let us safely say then, the reading bug was not generated by my high school experiences, and again, perhaps I am not alone here. Coincidentally though, it was at this very time I was bitten by the reading bug, simply for very different reasons.

My secondary schooling was very much a time of great sporting endeavour and heroics, however very much at the expense of a certain amount of academic focus. Thankfully by my final year I managed to achieve a certain amount success in both. Ironically, it was the sporting side of my teenage life which triggered my discovery of reading for enjoyment rather than classroom necessity.

Whilst waiting in an airport departure lounge when 15 or 16 years of age, I noticed a book containing a collection of four stories titled The Bachman Books, which sounded like a decent read. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman. I seemed to recall the (true) name of the author, and thought I would take a punt on it being a worthwhile way to pass the time.

What can I say? I loved it! I don’t believe I really wanted to get on the plane that day, and continued reading all the way to touching down once I did. So away I went, well on the way to a lifetime of reading enjoyment. Over the next couple of years, my bookshelf filled with an endless row of Stephen King novels, which also transformed many otherwise boring flights or bus trips.

Branching out

Upon leaving school to attend University, perhaps my thoughts turned from the supernatural and horror to (supposedly) more real life events, and it was at this time I came across two things – John Grisham’s The Firm, and a realisation that I seemed destined to pick an author, and fill my bookshelves predominantly with their work. I should also probably add here the slight obsessive in me had to have them all in new release hardback. How else was one’s bookshelf to look even?

Given The Firm was Grisham’s second novel, I immediately jumped back to his first, A Time to Kill, which remains one of my favourites to this day. As my collection grew with yearly Grisham releases, I also seemed drawn to international spy thrillers and other such conspiracies, before settling on the crime fiction genre through my late 20’s. Thus beginning a long run of Michael Connelly, which began in 1996 with The Poet.

I must add here one particular year (1998) also contained a run of Carl Hiaasen novels, which — anyone who has read them will understand — are great books to read if perhaps, you were working in a job for 12 months which wasn’t really your favourite place to be.

Cessation

Meaning no disrespect to any of the above authors, you may of course notice an absence of anything that would be classed as particularly literary. We all have our tastes, and those above and the many others I’ve not mentioned were immensely enjoyable nonetheless. So we now return to the question — why stop?

I have probably enjoyed reminiscing on what I have written above more so than coming up with an answer here. Further, I don’t really believe there is a single answer. It certainly wasn’t technology, however I cannot deny the impact my fairly digital lifestyle has had on reading in the past, say three or four years. Although as I note below, in more recent times the power of the internet has helped in bringing me back to reading.

Probably the biggest impact at the outset was a combination of very young children and some less than desirable working hours. Certainly no excuse, however clearly my priorities at the time lay elsewhere — and given their importance in the journey to where I am today, I would do the same again.

Looking back, what did surprise me the most I guess is the fact I essentially stopped reading completely (other than professionally), for about six to eight years in all. Now that I do find appalling, not only in losing something I found so enjoyable, but also in the knowledge my efforts to be a better writer rely heavily on being a better reader.

The answer then, was fairly easy to come by after all I suppose. Could I say life got in the way? Perhaps, however more accurately it would be a combination of life’s priorities and an error by omission on my part.

Return

Why the concerted effort now to read more again? There are many reasons: realisation of the benefit; seeing my children’s bookshelves slowly filling as they find their own tastes and styles; casting my mind back to something which brought great enjoyment yet has somehow fallen off my radar; and probably the most telling — the simple fact reading (or not) is something I have direct control over regardless of anything else which may be going on in my life.

In an interesting way, writing this blog, participating in NaNoWriMo in 2014, and an interest in podcasts have also contributed to a renewed effort to get back into reading. All in many ways powered by technology and social media.

The blog and NaNoWriMo seem fairly obvious — clearly the objective here is to read more and eventually write a little better as a result. The desire to create more — and with better quality — has fuelled the need to consume more.

The role of a podcast? A little more obscure perhaps, however after coming across Covered, by Harry Marks, a discussion about various books, often with their authors, my interest piqued even further. I can thank Covered for pointing me towards very enjoyable reads this year, in Consumed by Aaron Mahnke, and the superb Above All Men by Eric Shonkwiler.

Fortunately, I have also rediscovered the power of the essay, and if you’d like to do the same, you need look no further than Matt Gemmell’s Raw Materials. If what I have seen so far is any guide (site membership perks being what they are), Matt’s first full length work due for publication later this year will be another highlight.

In conclusion

Although a little disjointed and certainly not intended to be an exhaustive history of my reading to date, what appears above were the things which came to mind recently reflecting on the very question which is the title of this post.

The realisation I had drifted away from the reading I enjoyed immensely so many years ago, to a list dominated by professional journals and publications was a fairly disappointing one to say the least. Of course priorities change — and rightly so — out of necessity and the various stages we reach in our lives, both professionally and personally.

If by now you have already concluded that I of course had the time to continue reading, and I simply did not make the time to do so, you would be absolutely correct. To bring this piece towards a close, let’s go with one of the most overused clichés we can find — it’s never too late.

Although a walk in the park compared to those of you who power through a mountain of books each year, in January I set a target of reading 24 books for the year. As June rolls along, I have read nine. Will I make it? Perhaps not, however even reaching two-thirds of the target will be an improvement on the past year — or six.