A Flip Through The Pages Of National Novel Writing Month

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At the beginning of the year, when Corona was just a beer, I promised myself that I would finish the manuscript of my first book, a collection of seasonal short stories. Then lockdown came, months yawned out before me. I would never get this time again, I thought, I’d better make good use of it. And I did. I wrote, but not nearly as much as I wanted to. Then, between going back to work, restrictions coming in and out faster than high street trends, and navigating a COVID Halloween, the writing dipped. But, as I scrolled through Twitter for the third hour, I was reminded that November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a perfect excuse to reinvigorate my writing. Granted, I did my own spin on it, being already in the middle of a book. I began to write again, tweeting daily so I could be held somewhat accountable.

Week One felt good; I had scratched time out of my schedule to write, I was tweeting, and even getting some online interaction from other writers: a very promising start. My first error was deciding to write by hand. My whole manuscript has been handwritten because, yes, I am a masochist. Part of NaNoWriMo is keeping track of your word count, the goal being 50,000 words by 30th. Already treading my own path, I had to count the number of pages. Most weekdays I was writing somewhere between three and seven pages, the weekend between eleven and twenty. Everything was going smoothly. Day five was the first day I didn’t write as I hit my first bump. As I tweeted, much needed napping was the priority. It was an effort not to be disheartened on the handful of days that followed when I didn’t write. Life happens, I excused myself. I would just add the missed days to December.

As the weeks went on, I finished one short story and began the next – my new target was to finish two within the month. There were days I didn’t want to write, the thought of looking at another blank page eliciting only a groan, but I pushed on. It was worth it, that extra push, that little longer before turning in for the night. As I write this, I am nearing the climax of my second story, a modern queer Diwali story. I am counting the days down, proverbially crossing them out. But what I’ve gained from this month will not stop once the clock strikes 12am on 1st December. I reflected on what I had learnt, about myself and my writing.

First piece of advice: plan ahead of time. Usually I eschew planning, preferring the pretentious path of seeing where my characters will take me (insert eye roll here). But sometimes I need a vague plan, even if it’s just a collection of scenes, quotes and ideas that I’ll string together to form a plot. When I tweeted about this article, one writer Will (@Will_copes_well) told me he’d conjured his plot only 48 hours before the 1st, having “one of those ideas [he] just had to write”. Of course, it will depend upon your own style of planning, but having an outline to start with will save you days and hours. Another anecdote in favour of planning – I wrote a character who started out hating baths, but then began bathing at every opportunity, à la Blanche DuBois: a face palm moment.

If you’re lucky enough to have the room, I would recommend setting up a dedicated writing space – make it inviting, clear of distraction, and however Insta-worthy you want it. With a space set aside, you’ll be able to get into the mindset of ‘The Writer’ as soon as you sit down – just you, your notebooks, pens and screen. How do I know this would be effective? Because I haven’t. I have a whole second room with a desk perpetually covered in papery debris, bills, leaflets and letters. I’ve written all over my flat this month, but never there. Wrong move. In the lounge, I’m distracted by watching the world go by (or the TV); in the kitchen, there’s always another snack, another drink, something to clean; and in bed, I can just roll over to sleep. Again, it really comes down to preparing and planning, taking a day or so to set up your space. Think about what you’ll need and want. Are you going to be handwriting or typing? Is there a plug for chargers nearby? Is there space for mugs and glasses? Do you want a potted plant, bring in that touch of nature? Is there enough wall space for your collection of motivational quotes and your sticky notes of plot points and jokes you have to get in to your story? If I was to offer one suggestion from the annals of my writing past, it would be to have a small collection of books on your desk. This may seem counterproductive – what could be more distracting to a writer than books – but they can be a godsend when you find yourself blocked. You don’t need to read the whole thing, just a paragraph, a page, a line can jump start you back into your flow. Often, I’ll have a few that I’m writing about, authors I like. If you’re a real swat you could invest in a ‘how-to-be-a-writer’ book, just remember to put it down.

However high your ambitions and your energy, there is a  universally acknowledged truth: you’re going to hit slumps along the way. They may be writing-related, writer’s block rearing its ugly head, or it might be life: the obligations of la vie quotidienne pulling you away from your manuscript. As I’ve said, there have been days where I’ve not written. And from the NaNoWriMo Twitter hashtag, I’m not the only one. Will says he’s “always looking for the perfect moment to write and be free to do so”, having the passion to finish but not always the time. You’ll feel bad, stuck even, but guilt is not your friend – you cannot guilt yourself into writing (believe me I’ve tried).  Instead, I’ve found going back to the drawing board can be helpful – what is this story about? Why am I telling it? Why do I want to, have to, write it? Other times, I have to close the notebook and step away. Distract myself, go for a walk, bake a cake. Doing something equally yet differently productive, cleansing your mental palette, is like hitting reset. When you go back to your story, it’s with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. Away from your desk, inspiration and motivation can strike unexpectedly. A scene or a whole passage while creaming butter and sugar or washing the dishes. A piece of dialogue when eavesdropping at a local coffee shop. You run back to your desk, reciting it in your mind, capturing it in ink and paper before it escapes. Suddenly, you’re back in the game.

By the time this is published, NaNoWriMo will be done for another year. I will have finished two short stories in that time, with only another five to complete my year of stories. I could go on and on about this month, what I’ve learnt, what I’ll do (and not do) next year and the advice I could impart. But we writers are an eclectic bunch and writing advice is rarely a one-size-fits-all situation. It’s a constant see-saw of success and failure, inspiration and procrastination, optimism and despair. If I was to offer one final scrap of wisdom, it would be to nab a few more words from Will: “pick an idea you love, but be ready to work really hard at it”.

Words by James Reynolds

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