When the nights draw in, a sense of excitement always fills me – a nostalgic response. Memories of new school terms, new pencil cases, new crushes, bonfires, fireworks, carnivals. And in some recent years, best of all: New Novels. It’s NANOWRIMO time – AKA National Novel Writing Month. A challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 nights. Or days, if you’re that way inclined. But to me it’s the cold dark nights that must have been designed for holing up with a hot dark drink, and tapping your way to 50k. One word, two words, all the way up to 1666 (.66 if you like) each night.
One minute it’s October and you’re feeling lazy, heading towards a winter slump and then – something happens – and before you know it, it’s December and you’ve got a whole new 50,000 you’ve written, all via a massive detour of the imagination involving people and places you didn’t know you could conjure. 50,000 words, printed out, something weighty and real. All made from nothing.
I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo three times. The first was in 2007. I was a novice, went in, foolish, unprepared, like the time I climbed Snowdon in flip flops – without a map or any sense at all of how long or challenging the trip would be. I had no idea what I would write about, barely thought about it before November 1st. So I started with a name, wrote it on the page. ‘Lyla’. Third person. I normally write in first person, but how can you do that when you don’t know who the hell ‘I’ is? I could only find my way in from the outside. Next I wrote ‘lay in the bath’. The first situation I could think of (November is no time for pondering most-exciting options). I kept writing, fast, the words appearing on the page without bothering to check-in in my head. I wrote about Lyla in her bath until I didn’t know what to write next. Which was about five paragraphs – turns out there’s limited scope for drama in bathrooms, beyond Psycho shower scenes. So I thought of another name, another location and I was away. By the time I’d written character number five I had a better sense of what might be going on with characters one and two and what their link might be, so I returned to them, wrote in a cycle. By page twenty the characters were surprising me and doing things I didn’t expect. As was I – I started listening to late 80s rave music and reading books about Jungian psychology. It remains one of the weirdest but most exciting writing experiences I’ve ever had.
Never one to leave any good deadline untested, I got to 50k at about 11.20pm on day 30. A NANO ‘win’. NANO purists may argue that it wasn’t technically a win, as what I had produced after 30 days was not a complete novel. In fact, I felt I’d only just started, only scratched the surface of the lives of the five. But it was good enough for me. I bought myself some Asti Spumante (I know how to live), poured a glass and, once reacquainted with that guy I live with (my husband, turns out) collapsed in a heap on the sofa for the remainder of the year.
In retrospect, that first time, the not knowing how long it would be, helped. The second time I took more care to know the route and plan for a comfortable journey. I planned a shopping trip, to a city I’d never been to, just to buy stationery. I got little brown manila notebooks that looked anonymous and profound. Before the month started, I wrote in that notebook all the things I thought the perfect novel should be (mysterious, emotional, visceral etc.) and the subjects that I had a passing interest in. I also bought hot chocolate, marshmallows, new music, books about subjects I knew nothing about. I tried to pre-empt the creative exploration that occurred under pressure the first time round. I followed ‘No Plot No Problem’ a book by Chris Baty (NANO’s crazy/genius inventor) about how to plan ahead of November. All these things helped to make the month less scary in the opening stages. But to me, the scary bit was when the magical bit happened and all in all, that second time was harder. I limped to the finish line, and didn’t really care to properly finish what I’d started. (Re-reading it now, you can tell that things got desperate, my writing is littered with ‘I am’ instead of ‘I’m’ and words that should be hyphenated, unhyphenated. All perfectly legit NANO practices. Even writing ‘I don’t know what to write next’ is considered acceptable though I never sank that low)
It also helped, first time round, that I had a friend doing it too. A friend who’d put me to shame by hitting 1666 by 9am. The second time I should have made more effort to take part in the social side, as that’s a big part of it – the mutual cheerleading and the moans of brain ache and wrist pain that make you feel like a proper writer (and the exhilaration when you realise that you could live with this routine. You could be a proper writer). There’s lots of ways to get involved, local groups absolutely everywhere, even in little ole cultural black-hole Taunton. There’s ‘Nights of Writing Dangerously’ – group all nighters designed to boost word counts. There’s forums on every subject (including support groups for novelists in distress), and lots of other fun stuff – pep talk emails from superstar writers, little online widgets to track your progress, some years there’s even been free printed and bound copies of your NANO novel for all who make it to the finish line.
The third time I attempted NANOWRIMO I was busy at work and crashed and burned before I’d really started. At least I gave it a shot. In recent years I’ve been busy with other writing projects. But this year… this year I’m ready for something new to think about. And I’m not sure what it is yet.
Anyone with me?