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.


Anonymous said...


A xxx

Anonymous said...

Most of my stories are unresearched so modern day stuff I already know, but historical novels always peaked my intereste I think maybe my next novel try will be in a different time to see how I like it. Enjoyed your excerpt and hope that I get to be one of the first people to read a draft. And I completely agree with the organic plot. I am a pantser myself!

Meg McNulty said...

@Glitterword Maybe that's why your stories are so original - you're not trying to plant them so hard in a particular look and feel. I'd like a bit more of that originality going on!