NaNoWriMo – week 1 update

So where are we? The bald facts – after 7 days’ writing, I have 35,467 words to my name this month, and after 2 days of #50K5DAYS, I have written 18,282 words.

Edit: (update) Only managed 3,040 on day 3 of #50K5DAYS, so I’ve abandoned this attempt. Should be ready to try again on Monday morning.

One thing that had occurred to me – some people might be put off by my posting large word counts. NaNoWriMo is all about personal challenges and achievements. I write fast; 2,000 words an hour is the norm for me. I am an experienced writer – I have 22 works in progress, comprising over 660,000 words (a work in progress is something I’ve written but not edited, or something half-written and incomplete). I have ‘won’ 8 NaNoWriMo’s so far in the 10 years I’ve been doing them.

All this means that, for me, my personal targets go a bit beyond the ‘standard’ NaNo, but they’re no less challenging. Maybe part of this ‘experience’ is understanding how, when and why I write.

There is no doubt that, for some, NaNoWriMo is an invigorating, enlightening time. Some will discover that, yes, they can write a novel. Some will discover the love of writing, and of creating something from nothing but ideas and thoughts. Some will begin great friendships and discover writing camaraderie. But there are some for whom NaNo is a dispiriting, depressing time. The sight of new-found friends disappearing into the distance with ever-burgeoning wordcounts can be upsetting, I’m sure.

So I’m wondering if NaNoWriMo should change, and allow people to set their own personal word count goals. If someone has physical difficulty writing anywhere near 1,667 words per day for 30 days, maybe they should be ‘allowed’ to set their own challenging target?

Then, if they do this, are these people not writers? Of course they are. They may not have the high volume output of others, but they may still enjoy writing. They may not have the stamina, or the desire, even, to create a novel, but there’s probably no reason why they can’t create a 10-minute play script, a 20-line poem, an article for a local newspaper, or a post on their blog. People who do this are writers, just as much as someone who can crank out 5,000 words in a day.

Why this? I have tapped a lot of words into Scrivener this November, and I intend to tap in a lot more. As part of our local support group, we cheerfully present our daily / total word counts with pride. But I wonder if there are some who view these figures with some sadness; I have felt awkward posting mine, worried in case any members of the group approach the challenge as a competition, and feel that they have ‘lost’ if they aren’t near the top word count generators.

But my message is: if you want to be a writer, write. Write what pleases you, write when you want to, write in whatever format gives you the best feelings. We are all writers, and we don’t need a word count chart to prove that.


Stripped-down Scrivener

NaNoWriMo 2013 is upon us, and at the time of writing (28th October), over 157,000 writers have signed up for the challenge. One of the hottest topics (as ever) is the subject of computer software – specifically, what do you use to write your novel?

For me, it’s always been about simplicity and light weight. Microsoft Word has become bloated and heavy (from a software point of view). It takes ages to load up (more than 2 seconds is ages in my book), and slows my computer down because it hogs so much memory.

Before now, I’ve used a simple word processor called “Bean” (I’m on Mac). The crucial things are that it’s free, it doesn’t take up memory and is quick to load, it has a live word count, and does first line indents on paragraphs. What more do you need of a word processor? I’m sure there are others, probably just as good.

I had been reading about Scrivener for years, had downloaded a trial version, and last year used my NaNoWriMo winner’s token to take advantage of a very generous offer, and bought it for half price.

Then April happened. Here’s the story:

So now, I use Scrivener a lot for longer writing.

But Scrivener is a beast of a programme. It is hugely clever, and has a mass of features. It can be overwhelming for a new user. It was for me, before I simplified things. I now have a stripped-down template which allows me to concentrate on my planning and writing.

This is what it looks like:

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 20.56.53

There is no data in this Scrivener sheet yet. But you can see that I have 5 folders in my binder, each of which is completely empty.

1. Manuscript. This is where my actual writing will go. I tend to write in scenes – I’ll organise these into chapters later on, but for the moment, it’s easier for me to construct my story as a series of scenes, as in a film.

2. Characters. Here, I list each of my main characters, some short physical description, and character traits. Also, any relationships to other characters are listed here.

3. Places. Locations where my action takes place, with fictitious town and village names, and I list some of the buildings in these places, such as pub and shop names, with some brief descriptions.

4. Research. Any websites I have come across in my research, and reference material goes here.

5. Notes. This is where I put my initial story notes, and also any notes for future changes in the story. Often, I’ll have an idea for a change in the plot, or a new character, and instead of stopping my writing and changing it all around, I’ll just make a note and move on.

6. Trash. This is a Scrivener folder. When you delete any of your scenes, characters, or places, they are not absolutely deleted, but are sent instead to the trash folder within Scrivener. Just In Case!

Conclusions: I like starting a novel with Scrivener looking like this. It’s got the folders I need, and nothing more to get in the way.


NaNoWriMo – my Top Ten Tips. Part IV Tips 8-10b


Here are some techniques I use when actually writing my NaNo piece.


Ha! Of course you wouldn’t delete some of your magic words. Would you?

Yes. I’ve seen it done (or at least, I’ve been told about it on the forums). Someone deleted several chapters because they didn’t fit in with how the book was developing. Err … hello? This challenge is all about writing words, and is all about the word count at the end of the month. By all means, delete stuff on December 1st. Delete the whole damned novel if you wish. But for now, leave all those nice, and not-so-nice words where they are. You wrote ‘em, you should have ‘em counted.

9. Interact, but not too much

There’s writing, and then there’s writing about writing.

Don’t spend too much time on the forums, or in Facebook groups. The NaNoWriMo forums are a great place to find inspiration, discover great software, ask and answer questions, or just shoot the breeze. It’s lovely to talk to other people who are going through exactly what you are. But do that after you’ve completed your word count for the day. Don’t start by checking the forums, because half an hour (500 words) disappears in a flash. Write first, chat later. This is also a RULE.

There is, as with most rules, an exception. Which is: sprints / word wars / call them what you will. These abound on the forums and in Facebook groups. What will happen is that a number of NaNos will agree to start writing at, say, 20 past the hour for 15 minutes. So, at the agreed time, someone types “go”, and everyone disappears off the forum for the 15 minutes, and comes back and tells everyone how many words they typed. There’s no prizes, there’s no shame, it’s fun. No, really it is. And it really does work to get words into your manuscript.

10. Turn off the internet

This is a bit drastic. But try just closing the browser window for an hour. The world won’t end, the government will still be in power, and the earth will continue to spin while you’re not surfing the web. But it’s amazing just how much difference that simple act can make. As I write this, I have my browser open behind the document, and I can see Facebook updates happening, which is a terrible distraction. Fortunately, I’m loving doing what I’m doing, and I’ve already completed my wordcount for the day.

There are a number of dark screen programmes around, which will make the rest of your desktop disappear whilst you’re typing. Scrivener has this facility too, which I do find actually works. I make it all disappear, write write write, and by the time I come up for air, there’s another 350 words in the document.

We can’t all have writing studios to shut ourselves away, but try and get used to writing with distractions – TV on, kids playing, wife / husband / partner moaning about the lack of food in the house. Try to get used to writing in non-ideal situations.

10a. Back up your data

Oh yes. This is a favourite of mine. And yes, I do know we’ve already had 10 tips. I planned to write 10 tips, but my plans changed as I wrote (see what I did there?)

Please, please, please back up your data. You are going to spend at least (I’m guessing) 50 hours of your valuable time writing. Are you going to trust this cargo of words to that collection of metal, plastic and magnetic whirring disc platters, without having a copy somewhere?

Of course you’re not, because you’re a sensible writer.

Copy your data to yourself in an email, use Dropbox (other online storage options are available), copy the files to a thumb / stick drive, or a USB hard drive. Just do something to make sure that if the worst happens (and don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be a catastrophic failure – some nefarious scroat could come and nick your computer, or someone could inadvertently spill beer / coffee / wine / champagne / perfume / nasty stuff all over it. Back your wonderful words up once a day. That’s right, once per day. Without fail. I shall be checking.

10b. Don’t be afraid to enjoy yourself 

And finally, my 10+2th tip (think of it like 20% extra for free), – enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be, at least a little bit, enjoyable. Write what you want to write. Write in first person, third person, second person, fifth person, whatever. Write in rhyming couplets, write without any punctuation, write stories about great fables and legends, about naughty nannies and creepy car mechanics, write about a writer who does this stupid writing challenge every November, write about the birds and the bees, the fruits and the trees, write about nice people, nasty people, friendly people, weird people, mad people, people who all look like Tim Jones, people who talk in stilted form and add a ‘hic’ to the end of every sentence, write about pilots, sailors, astronauts, drug dealers, cops, robbers, cowboys, lathe operators. WRITE WHAT THE HELL YOU LIKE. It’s your novel, it’s your NaNoWriMo, enjoy it 🙂

And that’s it! I hope you find these tips useful, and that they help propel you through November and come out at the end with a novel to show everyone!


NaNoWriMo – my Top Ten Tips. Part III Tips 4-7


4. Get off to a good start 

Oh yes. This is probably THE most important tip. Get off to a good start (there, I repeated it for you). Work hard and get that first 2,000 words in on the first day. I know, I know, it’s more than the 1,667 that you need, but believe me, you will want those words in the bank. If you can, write more! Don’t stop.

I have seen the heartbreak posts so many times now. “I’m 1,000 words behind, but I’ll catch up at the weekend”. No you won’t. “I’ve had a slow start, but I reckon I’ll be able to write double tomorrow”. No you won’t. “I’ve not actually started yet, and I know it’s the end of the first week, but things have been so busy for me, and I know I’ll have some time during the second week, so I’ll catch up then”. NO. YOU. WON’T.

You might, though. I would say, 1 in 10, or maybe fewer than that, actually catch up. Writing is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it withers away and dies. You have to exercise it every day in order to keep it in top trim. So, during all the hype and excitement of November 1st, write 2,000 words. Next day, write 2,000 words. Next day, the same. After that, you’ll breeze through the challenge. Your writing muscle will be fully developed, and it’ll be itching to get working as soon as you open your eyes in the morning.

5. Short bursts

This is a technique I’ve used in the past couple of years. I write in short bursts. Or rather, I develop the ability to write in short bursts. 10 minutes. 15 minutes. Maybe half an hour.

We all have busy lives, and many, many distractions from our writing. Finding that two-hour golden writing time ain’t gonna happen if you work, have families, or friends, or strange habits. How many times have you said: “It’s not worth starting to write now, I’ve only got twenty minutes before …”

Poppycock. I would guess that most people use laptops. Keep your work open, and just put the laptop into sleep or whatever mode it goes into. When the advert breaks come during your favourite, can’t-miss programme, pick up your laptop, and write a bit. When you’re not writing, think about your novel. Plan what you’re going to write next. As soon as you open the computer, start typing. Don’t think, or look up to the ceiling in your best Hemingway pose. Write. I can write 1,000 words an hour. In 5 minutes, I can 80 words. During an evening’s TV watching, I can write half my NaNo words for the day, without finding any writing time, per se.

Or – spend a month not watching your normal soap operas. Two soaps an evening, half an hour each, makes 1,000 words. Over half my daily requirement.

Or – write in your lunch hour. 1,000 words, right there.

Or – get up half an hour early. A third of your words done before everyone else gets up.

Don’t expect to find two hour slots for writing. It ain’t gonna happen.

You might also look up the Pomodoro technique. Here’s a link to get you started: It’s doing stuff in short, but prescribed, amounts of time. Makes the task less onerous, and is surprisingly effective. Also, in the NaNoWriMo forums, people have ‘Word Wars’ or something similar. One person will ask “anyone up for a word war?” (other phrases like “word sprints” are sometimes used), and a group of you will write solidly for 10 minutes or half an hour. At the end, you compare amount of words written, no prizes, no boasting, and you’ve added to your word count. Get used to writing in small chunks.

6. Write every day

Don’t take a day off. Don’t think because you’ve worked hard all week, you deserve a day off writing. Writing is fun! Writing is inspiring! Writing might be financially beneficial – how are you going to know unless you write, eh?

If you’re fully engaged with your story, you’ll want to write. If you love your characters, and can’t wait until that next kink in the plotline, you need to keep writing! If you’ve had a really rubbish day, retreat into the make-believe word of your novel. Writing isn’t something you squeeze in when you’ve got nothing else to do. This is one month in a year, when your writing should take priority over many other leisure activities. Say: “I’d love to come to the pub, but I can’t come right away, BECAUSE I’M WRITING!” Say: “I’ll do the washing up in an hour, because right now, I’M WRITING!”

If you write every day, force yourself to put your novel first for a change, then you’ll notice something different by around the 10th day. You will really *want* to write your novel. It will start to rise up the list of “things to do”.

So – write every day. This is not a tip – this is a RULE.

7. Plough through

Yes, I’ve been in those situations. Where your characters are doing nothing, or you’ve done the writing equivalent of painting yourself into a corner, or you’ve got a dead body, but no idea who it is, how they got dead, or who did it.

Plough through. Just keep writing. Don’t put your head in your hands, telling yourself that you suck at writing, telling yourself this was all a stupid idea, telling yourself you’ll never be a writer.

Invent a new character. A space alien with a fine taste in ladies’ shoes. A mean down-and-out who just happens to be your hero’s twin sister. Or father. Or have a building suddenly collapse. Or have lightning strike something important. Or (as I often do), have a character suddenly die on you. Even better, have the main character die. That’ll get the creative juices flowing again. But don’t, whatever you do, stop writing to analyse what you’ve written so far. Plough on through.

Next time – tips 8-10 (plus a couple of extra ones for free)


NaNoWriMo – my Top Ten Tips. Part II Tips 1-3


1. Write what interests you as a reader.

There’s no point choosing a genre that you don’t enjoy and know nothing about. Some people like to choose books which might be ‘popular’ (e.g. sparkly vampires or very naughty businessmen with a penchant for violence). This is a recipe for disaster. There is an old saying” ‘Write what you know’. This is obviously not true in all cases, because there would be no science fiction. But you need to write with authority about a subject. I can’t write humour, and I can’t write romance. I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work. So I don’t, no matter how popular those genres have become. I know I enjoy writing short dark fiction, crime novellas, and longer thrillers. I find them to be the most enjoyable. So for this NaNoWriMo, I’m either writing (you’ll never guess) short dark fiction (to make a set of short stories); crime novellas (for my crime series books); or a long novel-length thriller (either techno or political – I have ideas for both).

2. Plan

Benjamin Franklin said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Variations of this abound all over the internet, but the idea is the same. People who don’t plan are called “pantsers” – they write by the seats of their pants. I’ve tried this, but it just doesn’t work for me. I have to know where the story’s going, who the bad guys are, and who gets killed in the end. That’s not to say I stick rigidly to the plan. Characters change sides, gender, even sexuality sometimes. Good guys get killed, bad guys prosper, and the creepy guy from up the road with the camera turns out to be a hero. But you must have the plan, the outline. I don’t think I’ve had a NaNo where I haven’t deviated from the plan. But that’s okay, because by then, I know where my story’s going. Create some story ‘beats’, from a few lines to a couple of pages that says who does what, to whom, and with which unearthly creature. Believe me, this will help you later on in the month.

3. Have backup ideas

Ha! Yes, I have some great story ideas. Some wonderful characters jumping and screaming in my head to tell their story. Beautiful locations, cunning plots and twists.

And then, 25,000 words in, I see it all is rubbish. The fascinating characters are paper thin, the plots are boring and stereotypical, and the locations are less interesting than that dark and smelly place behind my garage. It would be easy to throw my hands up in horror, and go and sulk. But when stories stagnate, I turn to my “ideas” folder on the computer, and zoom through a few of my story ideas, and start writing a new story. It’s okay, The NaNoWriMo people don’t mind. You then become a “rebel”, but you can still count all of your words towards the total, and get access to that all-important badge at the end of the month. It’s much better to have succeeded, and have 50,000 words under your belt, than to fail mid-month.

Tomorrow: Tips 4-7 Writing During NaNoWriMo


NaNoWriMo – my Top Ten Tips. Part I Introduction

Firstly, what is NaNoWriMo? It ’s an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. But it’s more international, rather than national (it was started in the USA), and what comes out of it is rarely a novel.

So that’s what it isn’t. So what is it? It’s a challenge for writers and would-be writers. And the challenge is to write 50,000 new words of a novel between midnight on the 1st of November to midnight on the 30th November. Thirty days, to you and me. The mathematicians amongst you will be able to work out it’s 1,667 words per day.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. You might be able to write 1,667 words today, but can you write the same tomorrow, and the next day, and … (well, you get the idea)?

I’ve done it before. My first time was in 2003, and I ‘won’ (completed the challenge). In all, I’ve attempted it every year since then, except in 2008 when we were moving house. Pathetic excuse, I know. I ‘failed’ in 2006, but in 9 attempts, I’ve succeeded 8 times. Not a bad batting average.

Back in the first paragraph, I said that at the end of November, with over 50,000 words under your belt, what comes out is rarely a novel. That is so for two reasons:

1. 50,000 words does not generally a novel make. Novels, by publishing standards, consist of at least 70,000 words, or more. This ‘rule’ is more flexible these days with e-publishing. When all we had was print books, it was difficult for publishers to set a realistic price for short writing which could amortise publishing overheads and pre-publication costs. So, a ‘novel’ (70,000 words or more, remember) might cost £7.99 in today’s market. Something which was 50,000 words, or less, would still have to cost at least £6.99 (paper and ink is relatively cheap), but the perceived value is less, since it’s a thinner book. Therefore, a harder sell to the public.

Self-published ebooks have tiny overheads, and can be priced according to the perceived value. This has created a market for smaller writing, especially in genre fiction.

2. The speed at which you have to write, especially if you have a full-time job or a busy family and social life, means the writing can be of a lesser quality. Characters are less interesting. Plots have some whoppers of holes in them. Locations are monochrome and boring. It’s generally accepted that NaNo ‘novels’ need some severe editing and rewriting on them before they’re fit for publication.

So, in short, you can call it a novel if you wish, but I wouldn’t expect to see it on the shelves of my local (or not-so-local) bookseller anytime soon after the 30th November.

What are the potential pitfalls of NaNoWriMo?

Apart from developing an unhealthy taste for energy snacks and coffee, there are a number of problems that NaNo-ers can encounter along their journey.

* You run out of story. This has happened to me on a number of occasions. Despite planning, I get to 30,000 words, and I’ve said everything I wanted to say. My characters end up doing the equivalent of those little motorised puppies at Christmas fayres, when they move along the table, hit a buffer, turn round, and go the other way. My characters talk to each other, visit different places, but very little happens. If you find yourself in this situation, you can either: a) start writing something new (see tip no. 3 below); b) Evoke Chandler’s law – “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” or c) create a new character, it doesn’t matter if they have no backstory in the right place, just continue writing.

* You fall behind (see tip no. 4). This can be demoralising, as you see your targets and graphs fall back, and you realise you need to find even more time to write than you’ve been able to find so far.

* You spend all of your time talking about writing instead of doing it. The NaNoWriMo forums are fascinating places to chat, or discuss writing, or ask and answer questions. You can quite happily spend an hour or two, easily, wandering around the forums. It’s an interesting place. But that time could have been spent writing instead. See tip 9 below.

Next time: Tips 1-3 – “Before NaNoWriMo”


100k words in 100 days – success!

Just a quick note – after the success of the first 100k words100 days challenge this January, we decided that we wanted to run another one during the summer. Starting on July 1st, it ran for 100 days, and finished yesterday on October 8th.

And I succeeded! Early summer writing was limited due to other, non-writing projects. In early August, when the plan called for 40,000 words, I was sitting at 15,000 words. In early September, I managed some days with over 2,000 words written, which brought me more on track. From the 17th September onwards, I dedicated myself a little more, having days of 2,000, 3,000 and even 4,000 words. In the past week, I’ve had two, 4,000 word days, which brought me to the brink of success. I finished tonight with 100,496 words written for the challenge.

This has seen me write one almost novel-length thriller (45,000 words), complete a crime novel (adding 21,000 words to the previously-written 44,000 to make 65,000 words) and begin several shorter works in the horror, thriller and crime genres. I’ve also done some planning for NaNoWriMo 2013, and written several blog posts.

All in all, a tremendous personal success.

As a group, we wrote over 1.65 million words. Eight of the group managed to write over 100,000 words, and one writer managing over 160,000 words during the challenge. All along, there was fantastic support in the Facebook group created for these challenges, and we shall be continuing the support process during NaNoWriMo as a number of us are taking on that challenge as well (50,000 words during the month of November). And next January, we shall be restarting the next 100kwords100days challenge.

My thanks go to Sally Quilford for coming up with the idea in the first place, and the rest of the group for their support and banter.


Write well, or write well enough?

I can write good. Oh yes, I can (the first sentence excluded). I’ve been involved in many online writers’ groups and critique circles, and although I never got anywhere near winning any of the prestigious competitions or being published in highbrow periodicals, I had some of my short fiction featured in now long-defunct publications and I did win a very minor competition (for which there was no prize).

But I’ve had my work critiqued enough to know that, at times, it can be pretty good. And if I take my time, work at it, review it, I can feel proud of what I have produced. Some of it even got into my two collections of flash and short fiction, Bleak Midwinter Tales and Bleak Midwinter Tales 2. There is a BMT3 coming out sometime in the not-too-distant future.

For my longer work (greater than 50,000 words, approaching novel length), I have struggled. I have eighteen pieces of writing in progress, most of which have been produced as a result of time-limited writing challenges, such as NaNoWriMo and #100kwords100days. Each of these has been a strain and a struggle to get through. Recently, I have managed to complete not one, but two novels (one is 45,000 words in Draft 0 form, and the other is 65,000 words in Draft 0). *

But, coming back to the point of this post (see what I mean about podgy and moribund middles?), I wonder how good my books need to be.

They should be the best they can be, right? Well, yes, but there is the 80/20 principle, and a definite dropping off in the effort / value ratio as I spend more time agonising over individual words and sentences. I love the fact that people are reading what I write, and some of them like it so much they take time to email / message me and tell me. Which is wonderful. If I can make a few pennies on it, so much the better.

But I’ve seen some horrific writing out there. But what’s more horrific is that some people seem to like it. To the tune of tens of thousands of people buying the thing, and 5 star to 1 star ratings ratios of 30:1 or better on Amazon.

Whaaaat? When I read the same book, I see paper-thin characters, dreadful clichés, stilted, unrealistic dialogue, and ludicrous plotlines. But people seem to love it. And the writers are earning (presumably) a reasonable amount of money from it. “Can’t wait to read more from this author!” “Couldn’t put the book down!” “I loved the main character – in fact, all of the characters!” Are they even reading the same book as me?

So I sit here, with my 18 works in progress, and wonder how much effort should I put into making them the mostest, absolutest, bestest they can be? Should I spend a couple of years on each, editing and brushing-up and polishing until it sparkles like a gemstone in the Alterian twin suns? Or should I cobble together something quickly, throw it out like yesterdays newspaper, and write some more rubbish as quickly as I can and hope someone buys it?

I suspect the answer will be “somewhere in between”. I should work at my writing until it’s good, with no mistakes, no spelling or grammer snafus, and no plot holes or pointless dialogue; and until it is formatted perfectly, and with an appealing and professional cover. Then usher it out with a gentle hand behind it and some encouraging words in its ear.

And then write the next damned book!


* Out of interest, Draft Zero is my version of a first draft, except it’s less good. My Draft Zero is a very rough, clunky, badly-written story, but it is complete with a start, usually a podgy and moribund middle, and a long floppy end. But the story is told, and I will then take this, smooth out the rough bits, tighten up the floppy bits, and give it to my Alpha reader for feedback. Thence (once I’ve stopped crying), I will edit and restructure and replot it until it looks a bit more like a finished work, whence it will be dropped upon unsuspecting Beta readers. After a few more tears, and more editing, it should be ready to be thrust out into the world.