Mark J. Keenan
Slaying the NANO-beast
NANOWRIMO, you are a foul-smelling beast, wretched in your hunger for words, eating at my soul, devouring all my time, awakening me in the dead of night...but you will not beat me!
I wrote these words on November 15, this year, at the midpoint of my first encounter with the writing behemoth that is National Novel Writing Month.
For the uninitiated, NANOWRIMO is a global writing project, run annually in November. This year over four hundred thousand writers participated, all of them attempting to ‘win NANO’ by writing 50000 words in a single month. It doesn’t sound hard, especially if you say it fast. But it was, and I learnt a lot, about writing and me, and how we do, and don’t, work together.
CHOOSE WHAT TO WRITE CAREFULLY.
I didn’t think much about what I was going to write about and that was my first mistake. Earlier this year, I submitted a flash fiction story for a competition. I had enjoyed the character and world created in those thousand words and I had received positive feedback from the judges. They thought it was well crafted, called it unique and imaginative. I would use that story as the starting point.
I still love the character and I still love the concept but I think, for a month of mad-ass speed-writing, I should have chosen something that was more familiar to me. The story is set in the future, after a terrible event has changed the world irrevocably. Trying to write fast, and convincingly, about an imaginary dystopian world was a difficult combination.
DO SOME PLANNING.
I thought about spending time before November on how I might develop the story. But I am a pantser*, not a plotter, and I simply didn’t think I needed to. In retrospect, a little time planning might have been a good idea. Consequently when I started, I discovered that my main character, Meg, is quite an introvert and also suffering from severe anxiety. So the first issue I encountered was that she was hiding away in her home, in this post-apocalyptic city I had created, not doing very much. No one else was living in her home, or even nearby, they were all dead or imprisoned. She had no one to talk to. That meant I started writing a lot about what she was thinking and how she was feeling, breaking the golden rule of writing, ‘show, don’t tell’. Fortunately for me, she got bored and left the house, eventually meeting some other people allowing dialogue and action to move the story along.
PREPARE TO MAKE TIME.
In the past, on a regular day, I might have written anywhere between 1000 and 1500 words. It would take around two hours and would be at a pace where I felt comfortable. Occasionally, I would have days where I wrote more words but those were rare.
To win NANO, and to keep my weekends free for things like family (who I preferred to still recognise me after November), I would need to write at more than twice the pace I had for my previous work of this length. It didn’t seem like that much more.
But it was, and then there were the low word count days. Life. Work. Running. Sleeping in. All these things got in the way of the writing. And those low word count days really play with your head when you get closer to the finish line. Missing a day at the beginning adds only a small amount to the words you need to write to meet the target. Miss a day in the last week and your literary pain suddenly can jump up by 25 percent. There wasn’t any way around it. I could give up or work harder. Giving up was not an option and so I set about adjusting my schedule completely around my writing.
BUILD YOUR CHEER SQUAD. One of the best parts of NANO for me was the community spirit. Writing is a solitary pursuit for the most part; just you, your imagination and a keyboard. But the NANO community, and the entire writing fraternity, is incredibly supportive of writers.
I attended my first ever write-in at a kickoff party in Fremantle run by Write Along The Highway. Along with a few dozen others, all armed with blank pages and full imaginations, I spent three hours writing, talking and drinking coffee. I joined online forums and felt the exhilaration and anguish of other NANO challengers. Without knowing others were having the same experience as me, without providing and receiving moral support, I am not sure how I would have fared. I also got to attend a Write Night towards the end of the month, to listen to a panel of wonderful authors and editors, whose stories and attitudes inspired me.
Of course, if your family is not on board, then you don’t stand a chance. I am also lucky to have an understanding wife who put up with my constant discussions about word-counts, where my story was and wasn’t going well, and my writing-induced mood swings.
IN THE END. In the end I was right, I did win. NANOWRIMO didn’t beat me. I can say that reaching the magic number was quite something. If I was a drinker I would have had a beer, or maybe champagne. But I’m not, so I settled for cordial and a cheese sandwich.
It’s not a complete story. Not yet anyway. But it’s a draft and a good start that, without NANO, I may never have written. I will get back to it later but for now, it’s time to go back to being a normal human being. As normal as possible anyway. And to start work on the second draft of my main manuscript in progress, Chasing Shadows.
*someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants’ **WATH Write Night Panel - Natasha Lester, Justin Randall, Claire Boston, Naama Amraam, Wolfgang Bylsma