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Gavin Greig [userpic]


December 6th, 2006 (12:02 am)
current location: KY16 8SX

As I promised last week, here's a more in-depth post about my experience of taking part in this year's NaNoWriMo.

I signed up on the 18th of October with no plan as to what to write and not even sure that I'd do anything about it at all. I was mildly curious; I could set up an account just to find out what was involved and maybe just leave it at that.

And so I might have done, except that I unfortunately outed myself as a potential author while supporting the principles of NaNoWriMo in a discussion on sharikkamur's journal. Hubris would not then permit me to back out without giving it a proper try, so I started to take preparation a bit more seriously.

That is, I created a Word document for a plot outline, and managed to fill almost half a page with random notes. At this stage, it wasn't looking too hopeful.

I figured that in order to succeed in writing 50,000 words in thirty days, I should try to write 2,000 words a day (the required average word count being 1,666 words). That would give me a bit of leeway for days off or lazy days.

On the 1st of November, I started off with a respectable-but-not-stellar 1760 words, then languished rather than languaged until the first weekend. Weekends turned out to be when it's possible to make most headway, particularly Sundays. This was something I'd also found when writing up my Ph.D. while working full time. My lowest daily total (ignoring the days when I wrote nothing at all) was 432 words (Friday 10th) and my best was 6,076 words (Sunday 19th). My best run was the 27th to the 29th, when I wrote 11,756 words, averaging 3,919 words a day. There were six days when I wrote nothing (one of these was the 30th, when I had already finished).

You may have noticed a certain statistical bent to the last paragraph or so; perhaps a slight obsession with word count? How does this tally with the production of ART, I hear you say?

Well, here I must come to NaNoWriMo's defence. NaNoWriMo is not about producing great art. NaNoWriMo is about encouraging people to write, and that is a wholly laudable goal in its own right. If 42,618 people write a load of utter tosh that isn't worthy to show to the cat, never mind a publisher, that is still 42,618 people who have taken the time to be creative and try to express themselves in writing. There is no down side to that, and that's what NaNoWriMo really wants to achieve - more people with some experience of what writing requires, and the knowledge of what it might take to improve on what they've done. Hopefully, there will also be some proportion of those people with the confidence to go on and do something more valuable with what they've learned.

Before you condemn NaNoWriMo for encouraging sausage-factory prose, please recognise that they're completely up-front about acknowledging you're unlikely to bash out a masterpiece in 30 days. In fact, they also point out that 50,000 words is probably not enough to get published anyway; the real length of a novel is more likely to be upwards of 70,000 words. NaNoWriMo is about encouraging people to realise what's possible, and what they may be capable of, not about actually writing straight-to-press novels.

There are two things a novel must have in order to be viable commercially. One is, of course, some degree of quality; but I'm afraid the other is the very vulgar quantity. And if you have to provide people with a way of gauging their progress, which of these are you going to measure? When you come up with a reliable way of measuring quality let me know.

I think NaNoWriMo has it just about right. Writing concentratedly for a month is difficult, but it's not so long that it's a great loss of time if it comes to nothing. It's easy for people to give it a try and see if it suits them. The word count of 50,000 is achievable with a full time job, and comes within spitting distance of real novel lengths, so you can see that it really is achievable if it's something you might like to go on to take more seriously. The annual push in November provides community for those who want it, and a bar graph of progress for those who don't; and by restricting it to one month a year, it avoids over-exposure and makes it a bit of an occasion.

Obviously NaNoWriMo will not be right for everyone. If you are serious about the quality of your writing and sufficiently motivated to get it done yourself, you don't need it. Fair enough, but NaNoWriMo is there to help people who don't have your advantages.

Boring statistics and general defence of NaNoWriMo aside, what was my personal experience of NaNoWriMo actually like? Well, you already know I completed the challenge, so we don't need to say any more about quantity, although I'm sure it'll dominate the comments again.

My novel is not ready to be published, but it's closer than my last effort (about a page and a half when I was a teenager and wanted to be Alan Garner). I expect it will see the light of day at some point and in some form, because despite what I said earlier about a month being expendable, I didn't set out to waste a month on something I wouldn't be able to use.

It is possible, if I really pull my finger out and improve it a lot, that I might consider submitting it to publishers. As I've said, it's not there now, and I'm giving it a rest before I do any more, but thanks to NaNoWriMo I'm past the page-and-a-half stage and I have something that it might be worth polishing if I feel like it.

If I don't feel like working quite so hard, or I do and no-one likes it, there's always vanity publishing and I can use it as background for a roleplaying game. I deliberately chose a setting I'm interested in, which gave me a place to try out some thoughts without having to face players and make stuff up on the spot. I have found a few things that need fixing as a result.

As for the actual writing, I did find the deadline helped to keep me going and without it I would not have achieved nearly as much, but you won't be surprised to hear that it also had some negative effects. The plot is quite linear, and although I don't think I ever got really gratuitous about padding, there are stretches of dialogue that I feel are a bit sterile. The central character is a bit of a cipher, and another major character doesn't appear early enough, because it took me a while to think him up.

If I do a serious revision, I would hope to improve characterisation and add a little more complexity to the plot - my lack of preparation shows.

I should say it's also not finished in terms of being a complete storyline; the ending is still unwritten, although it is one of the things I had better defined in my mind from the start. The title remains unexplained in the text. However, at least this suggests I could make it up to full novel length without straining it.

In summary, although it was heavy going some of the time, I've glad I've done it, I enjoyed it (over all), and I now have a useful resource I can use for... something, somehow.


Posted by: Vilebody the Merciless (vilebody)
Posted at: December 6th, 2006 11:28 am (UTC)

I'm impressed you did it at all - I managed it a few years ago - and am still talking about rewriting the results into a decent novel - but importantly I think it can be. The worst thing about novel-writing is the daunting quanitity, and I really do think NaNoWriMo takes the fear out of that. And its just a great sense of achievement to realise you've written more (of whatever qaulity) that even some of the most aspiring writers will write in their entire lives. Well done!

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: December 6th, 2006 01:21 pm (UTC)

Thanks! Yes, NaNoWriMo is no free ride to instant publication-quality writing - it couldn't possibly be and doesn't claim to be - but its great success is that it helps brings novel-writing into the realms of the possible for "ordinary" people - like me, or any of us. It opens up a possibility.

Posted by: myceliumme (myceliumme)
Posted at: December 6th, 2006 05:40 pm (UTC)

I'm still very impressed - merely resizing and cleaning up photos, adapting blog and diary entries and filling in the lacunae (when I can remember anything) from Random Bozo's Asia trip is almost a full-time job. Writing this amount of original prose? Again, I salute you.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: December 6th, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC)


Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: December 6th, 2006 08:18 pm (UTC)
Smiley Rosa

Will be interested to read it.
But for me, the whole thing is far too reminiscent of exams and essays: "you will write x words in y time", "you have failed if you don't write enough in that time or go over time", & c.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: December 6th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC)

But for me, the whole thing is far too reminiscent of exams and essays: "you will write x words in y time", "you have failed if you don't write enough in that time or go over time", & c.

Fair enough, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. For things like this, where there's no obligation or requirement to be doing it in the first place, I tend to take the attitude that I've succeeded to some degree by being motivated enough to take part at all, and so I can't "fail" even if I don't achieve the arbitrary goal. It's not the same as an exam where the failure may be real and have real effects.

However, feelings are not necessarily respecters of that sort of logic, so I can understand that it might not work that way for others.

FWIW, for most of the last week I expected to "fail", as I had dropped behind and didn't think I would be able to make up the word-count in the time I had available. A late burst of productivity and a day of being sent home from the office because of a power cut made the difference. I would still have blogged about it and spoken of it positively. I can be sure of that, because I'd already said so to msinvisfem. (I also think I would have finished without the day off work, but it would have been a much closer-run thing.)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 01:27 am (UTC)

I heard about NaNoWriMo during a writing seminar I was taking this fall, and the teacher talked three of us into trying it. Two of made it to the 50k goal, and there is a certain sense of accomplishment in just having produce some sort of product.

I wrote rubbish, but I learned a lot about how I would approach a real novel. Plan out and play with characters. Have some idea what you want to happen, but don't be too wed to it. Write every day.

You live 5 km from St. Andrews Golf Course. That is incredibly cool. And I don't golf.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 09:00 am (UTC)
Re: Congrats!

Thank you, mysterious stranger!

I don't golf either, but yeah, it is kind of cool.

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