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.

The Thrice-Over Movie Club

At the end of last week’s entry, I mentioned I’d watched the Fifty Shades of Grey screenplay from 2015. I enjoyed it marginally better than the book, but I would not seek out either the novel or the film again.

Some people find enjoyment in reading the same novel multiple times over several years, or watching the same film on a regular basis. I know of one colleague who revisits The Wasp Factory annually, and another who views Casablanca every month.

By contrast, I’m not normally inclined to go back to a book or a screenplay, even if I’ve enjoyed it. I can think of only two novels I’ve read more than once: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls, and the Chris Brookmyre book All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. I’m not even certain I finished the second of these for a second time.

Yet on the film front, there are more contenders, and some belong to an elite called the Thrice-Over Movie Club. It’s also great to air the word ‘thrice’ from time to time.

Inductees of the Club include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Home Alone (1990), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Being John Malkovich (1999), The Matrix (1999), The Phantom Menace (1999) and most recently The Greatest Showman (2017).

So what is it about these particular films that make them stand up to repeated viewings? The short answer is that I have no idea, and I’ve redrafted this entry several times trying to find a common thread. Even the three released in the 1999 have little in common with each other:

  • With Home Alone and The Matrix, it’s because I’ve owned the video or DVD.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas staple and is frequently shown around that time.
  • I’ve seen Being John Malkovich mainly by introducing it to others.

And I first saw The Phantom Menace at the cinema when I was about 15. It was with a girl I was trying to impress, and it turns out that’s the very much the wrong film to do it with.

Playing it by Ear

About a month ago, I bought my partner an audiobook through Audible as she prefers them over paper or e-books. I also received a credit to use in exchange for an audiobook of my choice.

After some deliberation, I picked the J G Ballard novel Crash. With a running time of six hours, it was shorter than many other novels and a good introduction to the format, this one spoken in the calm and almost factual manner in which the author writes.

When hearing something on the radio or in a live setting, there’s no opportunity to recap what you’ve missed. Yet when listening to Crash, I found myself many times pressing the button to skip back 30 seconds.

It is true that if I were to let my mind wander, I would soon be able to grasp a sense of what had just happened. The novel is a heavily descriptive one, going into detail about the curve of the motorway embankment or the injuries sustained by the characters.

I’m already accustomed to listening to podcasts. I found it easier to listen to a single voice on an audiobook, as podcast hosts often talk over each other. That said, with the opportunity to repeat the previous half-minute, I wanted to dwell upon each word and to confirm my own understanding of what had just happened. I only made an exception if it were too inconvenient to reach the controls.

I am keen to listen to more audiobooks, as I enjoyed being free to work or to wash dishes at the same time. I reckon the more I do it, the less I’ll be inclined to rewind what I’ve just heard, so I’m still checking Audible every so often for other appealing titles.

Making Time for Editing

Beginner writers sometimes fall into a common trap after finishing a piece. That trap is reading over a freshly-written piece once or twice, correcting any obvious mistakes, then sending it out into the world. As a result, editors and competition judges routinely receive work that is littered with careless mistakes. Most of them are not inclined to read beyond the first few errors.

By contrast, more experienced writers know that creating a satisfactory piece of writing is not something that can be rushed. Editing work is a very distinct process from writing it, and the mind therefore needs time to switch between the two.

As such, it’s essential to leave an interval between writing a piece and looking at it again with a critical eye. That means leaving your work in a drawer – either physical or virtual is fine – and returning to it at a later time.

In just about every piece I’ve written, the passage of time has alerted me to spelling and grammar errors, sentences that are too unwieldy, or plot points that aren’t clear to the reader.

But how long should you leave that work in a drawer? This is a question I’ve previously considered on this blog, but I’ve returned to the issue as I consider how much breathing space is necessary once I finish my current long-form piece.

In an entry from three years ago, I proposed a minimum period of one minute per word or at least 24 hours if the length was under 1,500 words . Three years is more than enough time to revisit that entry and to tweak the formula I proposed.

My new recommendation is to leave at least three minutes per word, or at least 72 hours if the word count is 1,440 or below. The slight adjustment from 1,500 to 1,440 is merely a pedantic tweak to reflect the number of minutes in one day.

If you don’t have the luxury of time, cut those figures to two minutes per word, or 48 hours for 1,440 words. And whatever deadline is absolutely looming, I still strongly recommend one minute per word or – you guessed it – 24 hours at the lower end.

This works out at between one and three days for most poetry and flash fiction, while a 20,000-word novella would be left between roughly two and four weeks.

When you open the drawer after that time, one of the best ways to spot mistakes is to read it out loud without an audience, as any blips are more difficult to ignore. It’s also a good idea to read it at different times of day, when you’re in different moods, and so forth, and see how you react to it then.

If you still have the time, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it aside again and coming back to it at an even later date.

With these blog entries, there often isn’t a lot of time as I want to publish by 6pm every Tuesday. But I always aim to make sure it’s typed up early, and I go back to iron out the inevitable mistakes.

After these periods of resting and editing, that’s the time to send your work out. Naturally, there is still no guarantee of success, but there is a higher likelihood that editors and competition judges will read more of the work you send them and take it more seriously.

What to Read Next

Waterstones has a reward scheme where you receive points on a card depending on how much you spend at the till. You used to be given stamps on a card but this has been replaced with a credit-card-style system.

On Sunday, I discovered I had three old stamp cards. When they were trasferred to plastic, I discovered I had £20 towards my next purchase.

While this is great news, there was nothing in stock that attracted my interest enough, and I also have enough books waiting to be read without buying any more. I’ve been a terrible writer of late, as I haven’t read enough of others’ work.

What I might do instead is save the card until I need to buy a gift for someone. It’s a satisfying feeling to pick exactly the right book that you know they’ll enjoy.

More Important Than the Important Work

There probably isn’t an author who hasn’t been distracted from their work at one time or another. Even when a deadline is approaching, sometimes it’s a more attractive option to wash the dishes, walk the dog or head to the pub.

I suffered from this affliction recently when I spent about an hour trimming the cords on the blinds in my writing room rather than complete a piece. The cords did need trimmed, but as they’d waited about a year already, there was no reason why they couldn’t have lasted another day.

Now it’s happened again. The distraction this time isn’t a menial task, but another piece of work.

I recently joined a story writing group called Table 23. The intention is for the other members to chip in with suggestions for our individual projects and to provide some friendly peer pressure so we’ll actually complete what we’ve proposed.

I talked about the novel I want to redraft and I was given helpful suggestions about how the plot might progress. But after several visits to the annual Edinburgh Festivals this month, I’ve come away with another idea, this time for a one-hour play featuring two characters. I find myself thinking about it and coming up with new plot points at the expense of the Table 23 novel.

In this instance, I’m going to run with the play and at least make a first draft. My novel has at least been planned out and can wait a little longer, whereas I want to capture the play on paper before all the details evaporate.

When It Sounds Terrible on Paper

I’m a member of the Poetizer app, where members can post their poetry for others to read. I use it only to post my own work and read what my comrades have written., but some people explicitly state in their profiles that they welcome feedback on their work,

One profile contains the following:

Currently working on changing every chapter of the Book Thief into separate found poems. I would love feedback and constructive criticism!!

My first reaction to this was No, please don’t, that’s a terrible idea, although I didn’t reply to the person.

Thinking about it, however, I realise I don’t know exactly how the poet intends to execute the project, and it might work well once it’s done. Look at the success of the 50 Shades of Grey series, which started out as Twilight fanfiction.

A few years ago, I wrote a poem called Sir Madam, featuring a character who identifies as neither female or male. I was already uncertain about whether I’d hit the right tone or conveyed the right message. Before its debut, I summarised it to a friend, who reinforced my doubts and added Check your privilege.

I performed the poem anyway at a showcase event. But I included an introduction by way of mitigation; this went on longer than the piece. I needn’t have worried; Sir Madam was rather well-received, and was the one that people remembered when they saw me next.

When a plot is reduced to nothing more than a summary, the nuances are lost and the emotion can be sucked out of it. We always hear stories about authors who had novels rejected multiple times, but it’s likely this was also a judgement on the synopsis, not just the sample chapters that agents often request

With this is mind, I plan to keep an eye on Poetizer, and find out how well – or badly – The Book Thief lends itself to poetry.

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.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.