The third of my occasional posts for National Novel Writing Month. Don’t worry, it’s nearly over…
I love Christmas. Always look forward to it. But this year I am anticipating opening the first door of the advent calendar with particular enthusiasm. It will be December 1st and NaNoWriMo will be over. For better or for worse. Thank goodness for that.
Don’t get me wrong; I hate to wish even a few days of my life away and I love writing. However NaNoWriMo places a particular kind of pressure on an obsessive compulsive with an addictive personality like me. Others take a philosophical view if they stall at 10k, but I HAVE to get to 50,000 words written by midnight on the 30th. Or else.
The real difficulty is that I know it is a shocking piece of writing. I am flitting about between decades as if I am in H G Wells’ time machine, the Tardis or the phone booth in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. One minute it is 2010, the next it is 1882; or 1905; or 1922 ; or 1864. Today I added 1932. The characters are largely the same in each period, so continuity is a nightmare. They probably haven’t changed their underwear in sixty years.
So what do I think is the point of the exercise? Why is National Novel Writing Month a ‘good thing’? Creative writing courses everywhere say ‘Just write!’ ‘Practice writing every day!’ ‘Don’t eat till you get 500 words on the page’. OK, so I made the last one up but it is probably out there somewhere as sage advice. NaNo makes you do these things and millions around the world put themselves through the mental torture every year so there must be something to be said for it. Or is there? Is it simply another way to speed life up to an unbearable degree? WiFi words. A book at the speed of broadband…..
If you look closely at advice from published writers they go further than ‘just write’. They recommend notebooks to jot down ideas, they talk about the ‘tactile’ pleasure of writing, they offer exercises where you ‘sketch’ an object in words or develop a memory from early childhood. Writing a page and looking back over it to find a nugget of brilliance is one thing. Looking over 100 pages is far more daunting. There may be many such sparks in my NaNo effort, but do I have the mental capacity to go through the painful process of editing all the random scenes I have created?
Much of the pleasure in writing in the ‘normal’ way lies with the time spent researching, planning and mapping out a skeleton of a plot at least; writing a chapter, or a few lines of poetry and then rewriting and writing again. It is therapeutic, cathartic and all those lovely words that trip off the tongue to justify holing yourself up in a room with chocolate and a gin and tonic of an evening. For the last 26 days I have eaten plenty of chocolate, but have barely tasted a morsel. There has been no point in drinking alcohol – my brain is addled enough as it is. No wonder I can’t wait till it’s all over.
So I have been looking at the broader picture. If I never look back over the 50,000 words that qualify me as a ‘winner’ and get me the badge, what have I learned this year?
1 Don’t do it again in 2011.
2. Don’t write sex scenes. At best I could have turned thousands to celibacy; at worst they’d have died laughing. Look what happens when people read Alan Titchmarsh.
3. You can’t write good work in a hurry. Well I can’t. I’m not even sure I can write good work if I take my time.
4. You really can only write from what you know. If you don’t know what a kitchen looked like in 1905 you cannot give them an integrated oven and hob and hope no-one will notice.
However, one of the most useful things I have learned this year is also the most unexpected. I have realised that as much as I love to read poetry and wonderful works of literary fiction, my career as a researcher writing strategy and policy documents has hard-wired my brain towards writing non-fiction. I thoroughly enjoy the detective work research involves. Add to that a fascination for Victorian and Edwardian London and I can imagine having a lot of fun. So a cliché it may be but I have learnt to be true to myself and focus on what I know I am good at. In the end perhaps that is what NaNo is about for everyone.
Besides, there are some fabulous works of historical non-fiction that combine facts with literary flair, like the following, which I really enjoyed and heartily recommend:
I would also have loved to have written The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale. It is a clever mix of fiction and fact, based on a real Victorian murder case. Who wouldn’t want to write a bestseller like that?
All of which goes to prove, I suppose that the best stories are the true ones…..
Roll on the 30th November!
Photo credit QueenNeveen