Today’s guest post is by Marc Turner, author of The Chronicle of The Exile series.
Why NaNoWriMo Just Doesn’t Work For Me
It’s November, and for many writers that means NaNoWriMo. For those who don’t already know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of people are currently trying to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. That breaks down to just 1,666 words a day, which sounds simple, right? At the end of the process, participants have a finished manuscript that they can begin to edit into something of publishable standard.
My debut, When the Heavens Fall, came out this May, but it’s actually a book I wrote a few years ago. It’s also the first book I ever completed, so I was discovering my writing ‘voice’ as I went along. At the time, I’d read books on writing craft that stressed the importance of getting your first draft finished. Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have said, “The first draft of anything is sh@t.” That’s a quote I have drawn immense consolation from over the years! There are times when I read my first drafts back and think I could teach my dog to do better. And I don’t even have a dog.
The thinking goes, it doesn’t matter how bad your first draft is. A first draft can always be improved, whereas even the best writer will struggle to revise a book that hasn’t been written. I have a friend who always has half a dozen different projects on the go, but none of them ever seems to get finished. Sometimes that’s because a new idea captures his imagination before he is done with the old one. But mostly it’s because – as he himself admits – he is afraid to reach the end of a project, since that means the next step will be to send the book out for others to pass judgement on. And that’s a huge step for any writer to take.
“Just get the story down”, though, is an approach that hasn’t worked for me in the past. Some authors are planners and some are “pantsers”. I fall into the planning camp, which means that before I embark on a book, I write notes on each character and each culture that will feature in it. I also work out a rough blueprint for the story. I write big, sprawling, multi-threaded epics with plenty of twists and turns, so if I tried to write a story like that “on the fly”, I would quickly write myself off a cliff. That’s not to say I know everything that will happen in the book – I like to leave room for inspiration to strike. But the impetus that some authors feel to find out about their story as they go along just isn’t there for me.
Also, I have discovered that little of worth is produced when I write from the top of my head. There are some people who can sit down with a blank piece of paper and find that inspiration flows from their pen as readily as the ink does. I, on the other hand, prefer to plan out each scene – or even part of a scene – before I write it. Sometimes a good idea will come to me in the course of the actual writing, but mostly I prefer to do my thinking away from the computer. Often my best ideas come to me when I’m relaxing and listening to music, or late at night when I should be sleeping.
I could, of course, do the thinking after I’ve finished the first draft; that’s what I did all those years ago when I wrote When the Heavens Fall. When I came to re-read the book, though, I found that large sections were – how can I put it? – decidedly lacking in inspiration. I spent a huge amount of time re-writing parts and cutting others, then tightening and polishing – before starting the process all over again. It struck me as an inefficient way to work. I hear of writers who, in the course of revision, can throw away a third or even half of their book. I couldn’t do that. I have learned from experience that I would much rather put the extra effort in at the start of the process and create a first draft that I’m happy with.
Or happier, at least.
Now, I set myself a modest target of 1,000 words a day. As a result I spend a lot less time editing than I used to. I could try and increase that word count, but the extra words wouldn’t be worth the time spent on them. I might finish the first draft faster, but the book as a whole would take longer to complete.
Of course, there’s a danger in my approach to writing. Taken to extremes, it could mean that I spend so long thinking about what I will write that I don’t actually do any writing. There are also times when I feel frustrated at how slowly I am progressing – particularly when I read about other writers knocking off 10,000 words in a morning. As ever, the best solution to the problem is probably a balance. In writing a first draft, you should take enough care in your work that you do it to the best of your ability. But don’t take so much care that you start editing each sentence before you move on to the next.
If I have a conclusion, it’s that there is no such thing as a writing process that suits everyone. If NaNoWriMo isn’t working for you, don’t get disheartened. Find a more realistic word target, and stick to that instead. But whatever you do, just make sure that you are always moving forward.
About the author:
Marc Turner was born in Toronto, Canada, but grew up in England. He graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford University, in 1996 with a BA (Hons) in law, and subsequently joined a top ten law firm in the City of London. After realising that working there did not mix well with simple pleasures such as having a life, he fled north first to Leeds and then to Durham in search of a better work-life balance. Unfortunately it proved elusive, and so in 2007, rather than take the next step and move to Scotland, he began working part time so he could devote more time to his writing. Following the sale of his debut epic fantasy novel, When the Heavens Fall, he started writing full time.
Why writing? Because it is the only work he knows where daydreaming isn’t frowned upon, and because he has learned from bitter experience that he cannot not write. The authors whose work has most influenced him are Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. Consequently he writes fast-paced, multi-threaded novels with a liberal sprinkling of humour; novels written on a panoramic scale, peopled by characters that stay in the memory. Or at least that’s the theory…
He lives in Durham, England, with his wife and son.