Sunday, 27 November 2011

Three Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2011

Hey! Just in case you haven't noticed I'm a NaNoWriMo WINNER! Which means I wrote more than 50,000 of a novel throughout November's thirty days. Okay, rewind a moment. I'm writing a historical romance and my estimated end word count will be 80,000 - 90,000 words. I haven't written a finished novel. I've written half a first draft of a novel.

But DAMN it feels good!

So what have I learned about speed writing.

1. Your plot is organic.

In a NaNoWriMo pep talk writer Chris Cleave (twitter @chriscleave)offered this wondrous nugget of wisdom:
"You learn more about your protagonists as you write them. If you are not very often forced by your characters to bin your masterplan, then you are a wooden and a formulaic writer indeed."

YES. Say I! Or in a When Harry Met Sally esque moment. YES! YES! YES!

I have seen the detailed outlines produced by author JK Rowling. I have plotted outlines on post it notes, index cards, excel sheet and notebooks. In short, I've wasted time.

In this novel I started with two characters I knew well (secondary characters from Merely Players), a concept of the conflict and some ideas of how to test them on the way to true love. About 20K in I wrote an outline - for the first few chapters (already written) and the last few. I had a blank middle. So I wrote. And as I wrote stuff happened. I got bored by my own scene, so I threw a reversal in. I got excited by my own scene and the writing flowed out of my fingers.

All the time I thought about the bigger picture. Is this developing my guys? Is it progressing them towards their goal? Are they tested? Are they growing? Is it entertaining? And if the answer is YES in it goes.

Organic. Not pre-ordained. Characters make their own choices, I just write them down.

2. Don't write when you're exhausted or uninspired.

When you're halfway through November, your word count is just about 15K and you have a horrible chest infection, NaNoWriMo is not looking good. I had authorial advice ringing in my ears. Write every day. Write when it rains or when it shines. Write through that block. Write anything, but YOU MUST WRITE!

As I wrote in an earlier post, that ain't my style.

I’m boom and bust, famine and feast. When I am on a roll, I can charge through 8,000 words in a day. When I’m uninspired I can piddle out 200 and hate them. For me, when the muse departs it is way, way better to lay down my netbook (just doesn’t sound as good as pen does it?) and go do something else instead. Bake cakes. Swim. Have a bath. Catch a bus somewhere. Talk to a friend. Daydream.

As I have said before, do not underestimate daydreaming. Daydreaming is the feedstock of novel writing. It’s where plots are unlocked, characters develop and decisions are made. Daydreaming is valuable time.

During NaNoWriMo I found it kind of essential to give myself days off between bursts of activity. I needed to work out happened next and why, how the characters would react. Once I got it, then it would flood out. The days when I was fearful of being below that line on the NaNoWriMo stats graph (I am obsessed with that graph – competitive, me?) I would try to shoulder on through, but my writing was limp.

I completely deleted and rewrote one scene twice - an action pretty much verboten in NaNoWriMo where the ethos is more, don’t look back: plough on! But the scene was shit. I wasn’t ON it. I needed a sleep. And a daydream.

Take a break. Take however long you need. It’s good for you.

3. Research can kill you

I am writing a historical romance. Research is CRUCIAL to a historical romance. You need to know how people got about, what they were and how they swore. You need to know that whilst it is unacceptable for a woman to go into a coffeehouse in early 19th Century Paris, it’s cool. You need to know what constraints your characters work within, because those parameters shape them. You need to be able to paint a picture of the scene, evoke and conjure the tangled medieval backstreets. To do this, you need research.

But research can kill you.

Two night ago I spent the valuable 2.5 hours I had clawed back from my evening researching hotels in early 19th Century Paris. I wanted to know the most exclusive hotel in Paris, so I could plonk my hero there. I had discovered – to my horror – that in 1816, the hotel of my choice was actually still located in Calais.

As I wrote on Twitter #researchfail (is it worrying that I now think in hashtags? I think so)

Would anyone reading this have given a toss? Probably not. But we historical romance authors have our pride. So off I set. I skim read four primary source travelogues about Paris. I looked at original advertisements. I googled myself to death.

I didn’t write a word.

In the end, I identified a suitable hotel, located it and put my hero in it. And then, a couple of days later, I erased all mention of the hotel and placed him in a private house that he had bought in an extravagant fashion on his arrival in Paris. Why? Because I am the GODDAMN AUTHOR so I CAN. And also, it helped to underline an important aspect of his attitude to being in Paris.

There is an important lesson here. I could have:

1. Stuck with my inaccurate original location

2. Made up the name of a hotel – perfectly acceptable

3. Extensively researched this one tiny detail thus wasting hours of writing time

4. Come up with an alternative solution

In the end I went through three of these options before realised that – THIS IS WHAT DRAFT TWO IS FOR! If you don’t know the answer, put in a place holder. But get the story down, imperfect in its detail but full of verve. Because ultimately your book will win or lose on the strength of its story and characters. The rest is window dressing.

I LOVE research. But it can kill writing dead. So make a wise choice. Is this particular piece of information crucial to the plot? If, for example, your plot depended on the hero travelling from Paris to Calais in 2 hours, research would stop you from making a hideous error. But the name of a hotel? The height of a waistline? That stuff can wait.

Just for laughs here are some of the things I have researched this month:

1. Early 19th century hotels

2. Street plans in the Ile de Cite, Paris (what were the streets called?)

3. Ghettos in Paris (Where were they? Were they like London ghettos? Is it conceivable that gentlemen might go there to gamble or wench?)

4. Images of Ile de Cite (what did the houses look like? The streets?)

5. Walking and evening dresses from 1816

6. Travelling carriages and coaches in the early 19th Century (what did gentlemen use? Could they fit four people? Where would the servants go?)

7. Public transport in early 19th Century Paris (how many people could fit in? Where would they be found?)

8. Duelling and places to duel in Paris in the early 19th Century (fields or woods? Where? Any landmarks?)

9. Men’s hats (were they wearing tricornes or beavers?)

10. Rococo interiors (what did an aristocratic 18th Century bedroom look like?)

11. Cafes and gambling houses in the Palais Royal (where was the play the deepest? Which were the most scandalous?)

12. Parisian opera companies in the early 19th Century (where there any in the Palais Royal? What were they called?)

13. Piquet and Hazard (how many people play? What are the rules?)

14. Cravat pins (can they be used to stab someone?)

So there you go. Three lessons.

1. Your plot is organic – let the characters lead it

2. Don’t write when you’re uninspired – let your muse take control

3. Don’t let research kill you – or your novel

Even when it’s fun.

Monday, 21 November 2011

To BANG or whisper - what makes a good first line?

One more than one occasion I have been known to claim that the best first line of all time belongs to Homer's Iliad. I firmly believe that it does. There's something about Homer's words which sound like a cymbal in my head and capture something of the glory and tragedy of what is to follow.

All in one line.

But of course, I haven't studied ancient Greek for years. I'm talking about the Iliad in translation and that means that the first line in question belongs not only to Homer, but whoever interpreted his words to bring them to us.

How on earth do you go about translation? Do you focus on conveying the words literally, or on capturing what you believe to be the essence, the emotional flavour? How do you capture the rhythm and structure of poetry? What is compromised in order to get your readers the best possible understanding of what is happening there? For a really great perspective on that have a listen to Peter Meineck's superb lectures on Greek Tragedy.

I don't think there is a single right answer. You just have to go for the version which strikes a chord with you. And there is lots of them to choose from, which gives us a great excuse to consider what makes a good first line!

The Translations:
George Chapman (1598)

Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique...

Alexander Pope (1715)

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!

Richmond Lattimore (1951)

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians...

Robert Fitzgerald (1974)

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous...

Robert Fagles (1990)

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses...

Stanley Lombardo (1997)

Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain....

Herbert Jordan (2009)

Sing, Goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles’ anger,
ruinous, that caused the Greeks untold ordeals...

Which ones jump out at you? Which make you sit up in your seat and hear the clarion sound of swords crashing against shields? Which make tears choke in your throat, feel the poignancy of the moment? Which make you want to read on?

I grew up on Richmond Lattimore's fairly literal translation and I love it. I love the note that "Sing" strikes, clear as a bell. I love the rhythm of the words which follow. Lattimore was a poet as well as a translator. I think that comes across in the way his words flow across each line.

But I am also attracted to Stanley Lombardo's translation. The guttural roar of RAGE which is pulled up, a line above the rest. It dominates like a battle cry, interrupted by 'Sing, Goddess..." Lombardo designed his translations to be delivered orally. He writes in a vernacular style, which brings you close to the action.

The other versions don't do it for me in quite the same way.

Let's take Fagles for example. He starts with "Rage" but goes straight into "Goddess, sing".

Why doesn't that work for me?
It's because word order underscores what is important. "Rage - Goddess, sing" places the Goddess above the song in the hierarchy. But to me the song is what is significant. One of Homer's important themes is about the price people pay to become immortal, to become part of a song. The Goddess is secondary. She is the vehicle of the song and thus should be coupled to it, but always placed behind it, as in Lattimore's version "Sing, Goddess".

Fitzgerald lacks oomph for a different reason: word choice. "Anger" is not as powerful a word as RAGE or WRATH. It doesn't stomp its foot or bellow. It's more moderate. If the angry word is to be your opening gambit, it needs to be the strongest angry word you can find.

Word choice and word order are what strikes Jordan off my list two. He places Peleus above anger in his first line ordering and his word choice generally errs on the side of moderation.

Rage and the Song are what it's all about. That's where the drama is for me. I want them up front, slapped in my face. I want to be plunged right into that. I want immediacy.

The lack of immediacy is what puts me off the older translation by Pope - why start with 'The' when you can plunge right into to 'Wrath'?

I do however have a sneaking affection for Chapman. There is something about "Achilles’ bane full wrath resound," which is so very grand. But his text is denser than the text of Lombardo and Lattimore and harder to access.

So what then can I conclude about first lines from this?

I think the main point is that everything counts. In poetry that is a given: the structure of a line, its relationship to the body of a poem, every word choice is spare and defined.

But it counts in prose too. To think about that for a novel of 90,000 words is intimidating. Its most likely what got James Joyce in a pickle when hunched over his writing desk. But it's also what makes a novel rich, individual and meaningful. It's craftsmanship at its finest. It's why writing is hard and why it is rewarding. It's worth learning those lessons from poetry.

And if you are going to apply it anywhere, apply it in your first few lines. Hit hard. Slap your reader in the face. Start with a whisper or with a bang, but capture your story in distilled essence in your first few lines.

Flash Fiction is a GREAT discipline for focusing down on this. I recently judged the Tuesday Tales flash fiction contest over on the Glitter Word Blog and my top picks all had that winning combination: structure, word choice, rhythm.

In summary, my golden rules for a good first line:
1. It captures the distilled essence of a story
2. Its word order and sentence structure underscore key words
3. Its word choices are strong and appropriate

If you want to explore this more, here are some links...

Fiction Writing: Word Choice and Vocabulary

How crafty word order can instantly improve our writing

How Flash Fiction can help you become a better writer

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Does writing fast mean writing crap?

The world is ablaze with fingers tapping furiously on keyboards (or quills on parchment, whatever is your bag). It's November and these days that means two things:
1. Moustaches (if that makes no sense, google Movember)
2. National Novel Writing Month.

I'm a woman in my early thirties. Thankfully, moustache growing is a few years off yet (all things in good time). But NaNoWriMo?

Now that's tempting. However, commitment-phobe that I am, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I flirted with the website, posted my registration and then promptly disappeared. I was disappearing under an avalanche of work. My baby had a cough. I was too busy to write.

So I didn't. I daydreamed. Or twilight-dreamed to be precise. It's what I've always done in that lilac time just before sleep comes, when my muscles are easing back and my head is floating. I play with stories. Tease out characters. Dress them up, dress them down, given them trouble.

I've got a word for it now that I didn't know before. I call it composting. I've stolen that from someone, Stephen King perhaps (I liked On Writing a lot).

In the times when I can't write, I dream. I weave the stories and allow the idea to come. I build up a world in my head. Until at some point it just spills over and I sit down and write. Words come out of my finger tips, racing like ants. The page fills. I can write 5000 - 10000 words in a day.

At the beginning of November I had written 5000 words of Boundless as the Sea. At this midway point I've written nearly 30,000 of Boundless and about 5000 of Daughters of Leda. I've written on approximately four or five days, which means averaging 6000 words each of those days. Not bad.

Question is, is it crap?

And the answer is - no. Or at least I don't think so.

So let's take the month of November. Lots of folks are writing every day. They're clocking up their word count, making time. At the two thirds point they're on their way to hitting their goal.

Steady, planned. Getting there.

I have never, repeat, never been able to work like that. Not in my day job, not in my academic essays. I'm boom and bust, always have been. I'd cram my head full of reading, assemble pages of brightly highlighted notes and then I'd mainline coffee and write a five thousand word assignment right through the night. And it worked. At least for things of that length. I got the marks, good marks in the main. Firsts, sometimes.

The downside is, you burn out. You live for deadlines and then you flop. You can't sustain it over long periods (dissertations for example). Unfortunately, real life goes on. When your fire is more of a damp squib you still have to get your arse out of bed and go to work. And the world doesn't work to your schedule. Stuff needs done, delivered. Children need parenting, meals need cooking. Everything doesn't stop just because you're on it and the muse is calling.

There's a balance.

So some days I write, some days I don't. I go to work. Some weeks I'm on fire, some weeks I'm not. I paint, bake and do the mummy thing. But sometimes we just huddle up and watch cbeebies.

I'm thinking that this is okay. It might not be how it's supposed to work and from the outside it might look a little bit like chaos. But it works for me.

So I'm taking a stance on the 'you must write every day' brigade and indeed on the 'you must stick to one thing' police. I'm saying be a jack of all trades if it pleases you. It helps to keep the balance. Let your wordsmithery starve one week and then feast the next if it works for you. Why the devil not? Flick between two stories if your mood demands. Put your novel on the shelf for a few weeks if you need to, it won't go anywhere.

Just keep composting. Keep turning it all over, thinking it throw, exploring the angles. It's still writing.

You just haven't written it yet.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Being Plagued by Plaguery

This has NOT been a good month for blogging.

I've been struck by the plague. For two solid weeks I've been coughing up some sort of ectoplasmic substance worthy of an Exorcist remake whilst looking like the vanguard of the zombie apocalypse. Any day now someone is going to dash a red cross on the front door and wall me in.

It's a lowering thought to realise just how crap an old person I will make. I don't deal with illness in a dignified manner. I rage at it. I charge on through, downing lemsip and REFUSING to let it take me down.

Until the ectoplasm kicks in and I crumple on the sofa in a fit of coughing and finally, finally ring in sick, fretting all the time about the work that will mount up and feeling, frankly, extremely sorry for myself.

Of course, you're never ill in isolation. My little girl and I sound like a baritone version of a particularly poorly frog chorus. Cough, Cough, Cough AYAYYYYA. And my husband has taken to his bed, feeling wretched.

If there's one thing worse than illness, it's COMPETITIVE illness. Clearly we both believe ourselves to be iller than the other. I have the galloping consumption, he has man flu. Or not.

There is nothing like a nasty cold to leave you wishing for a mum to bring you tea, toast and cosy sofa blanket. You deserve those black and white films. You deserve that bottle of lucozade. You deserve being waited on hand and foot.

Unfortunately when you ARE the mum it just doesn't work out that way. And if I can't ENJOY being ill, I don't want to be ill.

I hate being ill because it means I waste time. I want to work. I want to play with my daughter. I want to function. And I want to write.

Instead I feel like I'm operating with half a brain.

And to add insult to injury my beloved netbook, which appears to be symbiotically linked to my immune system, is DOWN. It's buggy. It's spitting out win32 errors. It's refusing to let me access my control panel. It's losing it's internet connection. The poor baby is stuffed.

Well BOO to that.

I'm nailing it. I've taken the time off work. I've made a doctor's appointment. And I've got some bad ass antivirus software. For me, for him and for my netbook.

Or a lemsip, whatever.

But I have written nearly 20,000 words of my new story. Not bad for half a brain.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

#TuesdayTales 13: NaNoWriMo and Jaundice

This evening I got home at 7pm after working late, cooked the tea and spent the next hour or so dealing with tantrums of the 'nonononono I don't want to brush my teeth' variety (NB I was not the one having the tantrum).

By 9pm I'd fallen asleep putting my overtired baby to bed and thus didn't write the business plan I'd brought home. I had however, between stirs of my cheese sauce, managed to write my 100 word entry for this week's #TuesdayTales on the notepad my iPhone. The two prompts were:

1. The word JAUNDICED

2. A yellow hued picture of two empty chairs facing each other (you can see the image on @theGlitterLady's blog)

You can read my entry below:

It was a plague year.The pestilence had spread everywhere. Cassandra could smell it in the dank air, in the blank, jaundiced windows of empty houses and in the silence. The silence was the worst. Lifeless playgrounds, deserted streets. A yellowed poster hung, tattered and flapping on the townhall: 'Ambrosiol: Live Forever'. The wonder-drug of big pharma. Reverse aging. Become immortal.

Ambrosial. People couldn't get enough of it. Gods at last.


She'd told them all punishment would come. Cataclysmic. Cruel. No one believed Cassandra. Not until the first child died. Be immortal, the gods whispered. Suffer.

The exciting thing about the 13th #TuesdayTales wasn't @theGlitterLady's cleverness in having her Halloween week contest be number 13 (see what she did there?). It was the fact she turned it into a NaNoWriMo launch. Lots of this week's entries are the openers for NanoWriMo - a month long novel writing challenge. And the quality is HIGH.

I find myself jealous. There's a GREAT buzz of writerly excitement around NaNoWriMo. Twitter and the Blogosphere are alight with chat about it. There's a vast and supportive community forming and I WANT TO PLAY. But unless I make like Annette Benning in the wonderful 'Slipper and the Rose', wave my magic wand and declare 'Well why not? I'll just make time!' with the full force of my fairy godmother powers, I'm stuffed - because the aim of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Tantrums notwithstanding, that's a lot of stirring of the cauliflower cheese.