November the 1st is like New Year’s Day for aspiring writers. Instead of forking out for gym memberships or ostentatiously snipping Marlboro Lights in half over a pedal bin, they crack their knuckles, tweet ‘wish me luck! #NaNoWriMo’ and bed in for a month of handwringing Facebook updates apologising that they’ve fallen behind their word count but work has been stressful and anyway it was good to just get something started and they’ll probably continue with it afterwards smiley face with tongue out.
No. Do not do this.
Look, we all understand that NaNoWriMo is arbitrary and unnecessary and that the number of great novels written during this month will be a number hovering around zero. If you’re going into it halfheartedly, my advice to you is this: stop now, you wishy-washy milquetoast dabbler. Either do it, or don’t.
Plenty of smart, wholesome, together people do not do it every year. This is not some moral failing on their part. They are wholeheartedly not participating in NaNoWriMo. Good for them. I will be among them.
But people who start doing it, thinking ehhh? Maybe I’ll see how far I get. No. This is an awful attitude, as pathetic as people who don’t take part then spend the month posting that they wish they were doing NaNoWriMo and maybe they’ll do it next year.
If you start NaNoWriMo today, commit to it like a holy regimen. Find something you care about and swear upon it. If the loss of self-respect and mild public humiliation of failure aren’t enough to galvinise you, then add an additional element of peril as motivation. Commit, witnessed by friends, to a forfeit if you fail to complete your allotted word count by the end of the month. I suggest writing a cheque for an amount you can afford to lose but that would be painful – say, £200 – and making it out to a cause or organisation or person you dislike – say, UKIP. Place this cheque in the custody of an honest friend, with strict instructions that, should you break your vow, they will post the cheque to said institution.
You can totally do NaNoWriMo if you prioritise it highly enough. You will work through tiredness, powercuts and plot-angst if you know that failure to do so will result in a very real punishment.
I’ve written 100 poems in a day for on the last Friday in November for the last five years. Every time, it’s seemed an impossible task before I’ve started. Every time, I’ve felt a rush of nerves and excitement as I’ve got stuck in. Every time, I’ve hit about the quarter to one-third in mark and experienced an overwhelming sense of weariness and a conviction that I am engaged in a folly which I can never hope to complete, one which I might as well give up now. Every time, I’ve finished it on schedule.
So here’s what I’m saying to you, dear friend, my fellow writer, my cherished brother or sister or sibling. Enter into NaNoWriMo with the conviction and the seriousness and the joy and the sheer bloodymindedness you and your creative life deserve. No one can tell your stories for you. Writers write. So write.
Here are a few suggestions to keep you going – note how they stand in stark contrast to my usual attitude in Death Of 1000 Cuts. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not that I’m a hypocrite (although, like most human beings, I probably am).
1. Make A Rough Plan
Whether you’re a discovery writer who crashes gungho into the story, working out what happens moment by moment, flying by the seat of your pants, or an outliner who meticulously writes out a plot summary split into chapters, who perhaps even writes little character bios and a potted history of the fictive world before beginning, you’re going to need to modify your writing practices for NaNoWriMo.
I suggest kicking off with a rough 1-page plan. Trying to propel yourself through the month off the buzz of improvising is like trying to live on Smarties. You’ll get an initial boost and power through the first 2000 or so words with ease. Around 4000, things will start to get a little trickier, but no matter, you’ll think, just send in a man with a gun. Around 5000 words you’ll have your first pangs of regret: ooh, I wish I hadn’t made that plot choice back then – it’s taken me down this whole not-terribly-interesting route and I’m not sure how to resolve it satisfyingly. Around 6800 you’ll invent some pressing life crisis and quietly resign from the novel.
On the other hand, obsessively outlining the novel before you start will make writing each day feel like filling in a tax return. Powered through it by your time constraints your characters will become joyless automata, utterly subservient to the exigencies of the plot, behaving in implausible, convenient ways – dead, basically. You will surprise neither yourself, nor your readers, and emerge from NaNoWriMo having learned little.
A 1-page outline, with a paragraph each for the first, second and third acts of your novel, plus a para on the protagonist and a para on theme is enough. This is your north star, your page to return to when you feel baffled and off-course. Restricting yourself to a page forces you to keep the details of the plot vague. This allows you to experience the juice of improvising in the moment, of imagining the protagonist in each scene and how they might react, of surprising yourself, but it reminds you where all of this should be going. It allows you to plant seeds that will pay off later. It helps sculpt events into some species of semi-pleasing shape.
2. Engage The Reader’s Five Senses
In the rush to get words on the page it’s easy to forget that you want your reader to experience each scene, not simply read a dry summary of what happened. You’re under a time constraint, so your quick n’ dirty solution is to remember to engage your reader’s five senses.
You need to be a bit discriminating – there’s no art in just describing everything. Allow the choices to be filtered by your protagonist’s mood, education and personality – e.g. a nervous person noticing the broken lock on the window, a hungry person’s mouth watering at the smell of chateaubriand.
When choosing what to describe, remember that things in motion, relevant ‘quest objects’, threats and things that trigger or reinforce the protagonist’s emotional state take priority over everything else.
Sight: this can include basic blocking of character positions, room size, etc, up to intricate descriptions of objects or landscapes; objects in motion tend to draw the eye
Hearing: sudden loud noises, timbre of a person’s voice, the sound of breathing; remember that silence doesn’t really exist – indicate quiet by the smallness of the noises heard, breathing, rustle of clothes, etc
Smell: pleasant smells, like baking, horrid ones; try to go for the more interesting, unusual smells – these, after all, tend to be the ones we notice; remember, also, that people become habituated to smells very quickly – the whole coming home from holiday and discovering what your house smells like to guests syndrome
Taste: one of the hardest to do, but remember that the air can have a taste; exercise can leave a taste in the mouth; tiredness or dehydration can be identified, in part, by the tastes they leave
Touch: ambient temperature is part of touch, as is the texture of objects; try to link experienced sensations to emotional states or tone
3. Be Specific
Simple one, this. Favour crunchy, specific words over general ones. This isn’t about marshalling your army of adjectives and modifying every noun within an inch of its life. It’s about picking strong, accurate nouns in the first place. ‘Miniature schnauzer’ over ‘dog’. ‘Forage cap’ over ‘hat’. Extra points if your novel features a miniature schnauzer in a forage cap, obvs.
Use Wikipedia and Google for spot research. This isn’t time-wasting. Like a wizard, you need to know the true names of things. Then you can command them.
4. Keep Your Dialogue Tags Simple
No ‘he muttered’, ‘Katherine averred bitterly’ please. How many fucken times you guys? ‘He said’, ‘she said’. Sometimes no attribution at all. If you want to get fruity, use beats to suggest the speaker, e.g.
Edgar slammed the pewter mustard pot down on the nightstand. ‘Fuuuuuuuck muuuuuuuuuuustaaaaaaaaaaard!’
5. Don’t Worry. Keep Moving.
You’re going to have doubts. Your internal editor, no matter how purblind and atrophied and bone idle, is going to spot flaws and try to tempt you into wheeling round and fixing them.
Don’t. Move on.
This might sound weird coming from someone who continually bangs the drum about the need for good self-editing, but this is not the time. When you’re writing a first draft, especially for NaNoWriMo, your internal editor is BA Barracus and you need to get him onto a plane. Spike his milk with knockout drops and leave him blissfully unconscious for the whole flight. If he wakes up, he’ll only start calling you a ‘crazy fool’ and disrupting things.
Your internal editor can have a crack at the text come December. (or, ideally, January) There’s a time for editing, and the first draft ain’t it. You’re not qualified to edit chapter one till you’ve finished the final chapter. NaNoWriMo is your chance to produce loads and loads of wet clay, which an older, more sober version of you can sculpt into something.
Don’t waste time regretting early plotting decisions. Embrace them. Give the problem back to the story. If stuck, ask what the worst thing to happen next could be. Write a 5 minute list of the 20 shittiest plot twists you could introduce. You might well stumble across something useful.
Bon chance, noble warriors. Remember, writing is not something to undertake lightly. Imagine what you could achieve if you gave this all of your heart. Then do so.