Sprinting Like a Champion

Yesterday, I volunteered to take over one of the Twitter accounts for National Novel Writing Month for an hour. NaNoWordSprints provides nearly 50,000 subscribers with writing prompts and encouragement to reach their chosen goals.

When I first started writing, I went to classes with an author who would give us five or ten minutes to write a passage inspired by a snippet of text or a photograph, or occasionally an object.

My approach to this hour-long stint was similar, except that shorter prompts and longer writing periods seem to work better on Twitter. I’d thought about the prompt topics in advance, but the structure was constructed largely on-the-fly. In minutes, the four sessions were: 10, 15, 15 and five. The third of those had a photograph as a prompt instead of text.

On top of this, you need to keep an eye on any replies coming in, and answer accordingly if it was warranted. However, I found the pace manageable, and once I was in the swing of presenting the exercises, I enjoyed the experience so much that I signed up to take over on the three coming Mondays.

The Fight Against a Bad First Impression

Every Tuesday, our National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) group meets virtually on a Discord server. This is software that was originally designed to allow users to chat while playing computer games, but the layout and features makes its useful for writers too.

By default, servers are not open to the public, so users have to receive an invitation issued by an administrator, namely me or my assistant. These can be generated or revoked easily, and we can change how many times they can be used and their expiry dates.

As part of our NaNo affiliation, we’re required to make the official website the first port of call for members, and we have a Dundee & Angus region page to make announcements. We can, of course, can cross-post links to other places like Discord.

Unfortunately, when I last refreshed the link a week ago, I posted the wrong one. Existing members could use the server as normal, but new users wouldn’t be able to join. I found this out because a new member had twice posted on the region page saying that she had finally worked up the courage to join the group, then found the link didn’t work.

It took 25 minutes to notice this because the official website doesn’t notify organisers of any posts to our region page. I also spoke to my counterparts in other regions about this incident, and it seemed this was also a source of annoyance among them.

Because we weren’t notified, the member probably thought we were ignoring her when we simply weren’t aware of her message. That frustrates me: first impressions stick, and it wasn’t our fault. What’s more, people also talk to each other about their bad experiences – and I would do the same – making it even harder to fight back the tide.

As soon as I realised what had happened, I immediately e-mailed out a corrected link to the whole region. I was able to send the member a private message, and the other region runners said it was likely she would have been notified of that. I also asked our region members whether anyone knew her personally, so we had another way of reaching out.

Happily, she responded about 24 hours later, and I was able to apologise for the mix-up and to welcome her to the Discord server. What’s even better is that we’ve attracted two other members in the last week or so, and we remain as active as ever.

November, But Not as We NaNo It

We are fast approaching the start of November, which means that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo) is nearly upon us. This is a worldwide challenge to draft a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days, and I run the Dundee & Angus region for Scotland.

NaNo headquarters in California took the decision not to endorse nor support any meet-ups in person until they say otherwise. This has had a profound effect on our group, who have been accustomed to meeting all year round for five years. Even the pub we use is currently closed until restrictions on selling alcohol indoors are eased.

What we have in our favour is a number of student-age members who are accustomed to interacting online. We already use Discord software, and we’ve been working this week on improving its features.

Traditionally, physical goodies are part of the experience; these usually include stickers, pens and erasers. This also introduces another hurdle of either asking folks to trust us with their postal address or meet up in accordance with local regulations. As such, we’ve replaced the pens and erasers with bookmarks so they fit more snugly into an envelope.

In short, this does not and will not feel like any other NaNo. In other years, I’d even associate the colder nights with the coming of the contest, but that simply hasn’t happened.

There are a couple of factors, however, that won’t change and that we’ll keep reminding our membership:

  • Everyone is welcome in our group regardless of nationality, LGBT identity, &c, provided they follow the published codes of conduct.
  • There is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.

Writing Prose Again

When I first began writing in 2010, my output was exclusively prose. I was in a writing prompt group where I would regulary produce short stories. Around the same time, I was producing longer works through National Novel Writing Month, normally known as NaNoWriMo.

My step into poetry happened around three years later. It coincided with being single for six months after a long-term relationship, but I can’t say how much that influenced me. Since then, I’ve crafted my poetry more and more to the point where I almost exclusively write verse.

Recently, however, that has started to reverse, perhaps because my poetry group is taking a one-month break. I’ve drafted one piece that will probably end up being no longer than 150 words, and I’m planning another with five characters who will likely dictate the length of the story before I know it myself.

NaNoWriMo is a contest to write 50,000 words in November. It’s not widely known outside this circle that there is a less formal contest at other times of the year known as Camp. April saw the last one, and we’re currently in the July edition. In these months, you pick your own word count and type of long-form piece.

However, I’m not writing these stories as part of Camp as I don’t intend them to be terribly long. What I’ll be doing instead is keeping aside my existing longer pieces and working on them during November.

What I have to do now is find a way to keep up my prose momentum from now until then. That said, the excitement in the group tends to swell around November, and that helps a lot.

Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.

Pomodori Doppi

With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) underway, there is currently a worldwide race among members to tap out 50,000 words each by the end of November. But how does someone find the time to jot down an average of 1,667 words per day?

For someone like me who generally works core nine-to-five office hours – with at least one shift per week lasting until 6:30pm – I have to make use of any time possible.

I also organise the events for our region. Throughout the year, we have two hours of ring-fenced writing time every Tuesday evening, and an extra two hours per week on a Saturday throughout November. While at meet-ups, it’s relatively easy to crack on with work because everyone else is also trying to reach their word count goal.

The difficulty arises on non-meeting nights. I want to achieve a certain number of words per day, but I also need to tidy the flat and catch up with correspondence. The solution I find works best for me is based upon the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, one of the official NaNoWriMo Twitter accounts ran Pomodoro word sprints just today.

In the classic technique, you carry out a task for 25 minutes and take a break for five. However, I find that isn’t enough time to allocate to writing, so I prefer a double Pomodoro: write for 50 minutes and tackle another task away from the PC for 10 minutes.

I also have an instrumental playlist that lasts for approximately 50 minutes and helps me slip into the mood for writing, as that’s what I chiefly do when I listen to it.

Whatever time management techniques work for our members, however, we the organisers always make it clear that National Novel Writing Month is supposed to be fun.

If anyone finds it overwhelming, we want them to know it’s perfectly acceptable to leave aside a project, and there is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.

Four, But Not of a Kind

I’m a member of at least four literary groups. I would normally have perhaps two in one week, or have to miss one because another takes precedence. But in a rare alignment last week, they occurred in sequence from Monday to Thursday.

On the surface, it might seem unnecessary to be in so many groups, but each one has its own distinct character and role. I also run the first two groups, while the other two are held by others. Here’s a brief rundown of what happens.


Monday: Hotchpotch

Of all my groups, this is probably the one I talk about most as it’s open to the public, while the rest have a semi-closed membership. Once a month on a Monday, we provide a space for writers to showcase their work in an open-mike format. There’s a strong ethos of no judgement and no criticism, so members are never given a hard time even if they make a mistake or if their work is rather political.

Tuesday: National Novel Writing Month

Although National Novel Writing Month officially only takes place during November, our region has continued to meet up in a pub every week for the past three or four years. We work on our own projects and have a lot of banter, although it’s not specifically for feedback. We’re gearing up for November by providing extra meet-ups and more encouragement for participants.

Wednesday: Table 23

Table 23 is an offshoot of our Tuesday meetings, named after the table we normally monopolise. These are held roughly every month at a member’s house. Unlike Tuesdays, each of us talk through our current writing project and ask for feedback about how it might be improved or about how to solve a particular plot problem.

Thursday: Wyverns

Wyverns is a group exclusively for poetry, formed when the local university stopped providing a suitable evening class. The members write a poem to a theme each month, and it receives constructive feedback from the others. We’re also working on our second pamphlet; our first was about Frankenstein, while this one is themed around the River Tay.


It can be hectic keeping up with all these groups, but it’s so rewarding to have this support from other writers that it’s definitely worth the effort.

The Camper-Plan

As we head into the July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided my project will be to revisit an old novel and turn the handwritten manuscript into a typed one.

My plan was to copy out the piece, making any amendments as I went along. But when I started writing, I found the rather bland factual descriptions were somehow morphing into something ten times as lively, with the narrator’s personal opinions peppered throughout. I’ve since written a few guidelines to help keep the voice consistent, and I’ll be introducing a counter-narrator for alternate chapters.

I don’t know why this particular leap occurred, because I haven’t revisited the manuscript since it was drafted. Perhaps it’s because I wrote it in chronological order – which is unusual in my practice, and indeed unusual among novelists in general. As such, I know how the characters develop by the end of the story.

One factor that’s helped in the past, as possibly with this piece, is the use of voice dictation software, specifically Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I initially installed this program to reduce Repetitive Strain Injury, but I now find it invaluable in other ways, since I have to speak my handwritten text out loud. This is great for highlighting individual words that slow down the narrative, and I find that some pieces have a different tone from what I intended.

During Camp, I’m aiming to edit for an average of one hour per day, although I’ve built in time to read my mailbox messages and to catch up with fellow writers in our online Cabin. A Cabin works a lot like Twitter, but is restricted to 20 people; writers can choose to be assigned to one at random, set up a private one with friends, or elect not to use one at all.

Personally, I’m finding their support invaluable, as I’ve only managed around 10% of my goal and we’re 30% through the month. There’s still time to catch up, but it will be a struggle.

The Project That Turns into Another

In April, the first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events takes place. This is a less involved version of the main National Novel Writing Month in November, where members can choose their own word count or even a different type of literary project.

My aim was to produce another draft of the novel I’d redrafted in November, spending a target average of one hour per day. However, I haven’t done any of this editing so far because my time has been taken up organising three live events over the next month. There will be more about those in the next entry.

In fact, the entry you’ll see next week has already been partially written, and that’s because I put aside that for a piece that came to me yesterday, prompted by a sign on a coffee machine that read ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

It certainly isn’t the first occasion where I’ve felt inclined to put one project aside in favour of another. Depending on the time constraints, I usually choose the one that’s eating away at me the most.

In the case of the biscuits poem, I probably would never have completed this if I’d left it aside to write the original blog entry. By contrast, I know I’ll come back to that entry next week because this space needs to be filled.

Moving On

On Friday evening, I finished National Novel Writing Month just over the target of 50,000 words.

But rather than look back and analyse the struggles of achieving that goal, I feel more inclined to tackle the tasks that had to be put aside in the meantime.

To that end, have a great week, and I look forward to updating you in a more complete fashion.