Tuesday, 11 October 2011

NaNoWriMo: My Experience

Novel Writing and Nanowrimo
Mark Lee Pearson

November is Nanowrimo. National Novel Writing Month. Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days along with a quarter of a million other people on the planet (Yes, I know it should be International Novel Writing Month). I thought I would share with you my Nanowrimo novel writing experience to date.

Once Upon a Time

I’d had a little novel-writing experience before my first attempt at Nanowrimo. I finished one 50,000 word short novel about a Monster Lighthouse Keeper back in 1993 and I also wrote a 60,000 word middle-grade fantasy tale in 2005 about a boy who shrunk to the size of an anchovy and got washed down the plug hole of his bath into a magical sewer.

I doubt either of these will ever see the light of day. I put both stories down to be a part of the learning process, 110,000 words of the necessary 1 million words that you have to write before you are good enough to sell anything.

50,000 words in a month

Anyway in 2008 and I was ready to try again. I’d joined Zoetrope Virtual Studio and started workshopping my short stories. That had given me the confidence to move forward and submit to publishers and as a result I’d had a couple of shorts published in semi-pro magazines. I’d read a couple of How-To-Write-A-Novel books and I was really inspired to make a start on something. 

It was October. I remember Googling the key words How to write a novel and discovering nanowrimo was about to start. Talk about serendipity, I thought. Even though I had two little kids that demanded a lot of my time, I had a very supportive wife; and so on November 1st 2008 I began the novel that would change it all.

No Plot No (Big) Problem

I’d just sold a story to Space and Time Magazine called Hideki Desu. It was about a boy who traveled the Universe by hitching rides on people’s dreams. I wanted to see what I could do with this strange character in a parallel Tokyo over the space of a whole novel. I had a character, a setting and a concept. That was it. No plot no problem, said Chris Baty, the founder of Nanowrimo. 

So, I started writing my novel on the 1st November 2008. Inspired by the pep talks I received by e-mail, I wrote 30,000 words. And then I hit a wall. I was left standing by all those online novelists. And I left Hideki standing on the Tokyo Bay getting ready to jump in. He is still standing there today. I have no idea why. The whole idea of No Plot No Problem was not working for me. I may return to Hideki when I figure out what his motivation is.

Redux: Forward Planning

I stopped writing novels and went back to short stories. From short stories I found I could get a more instant gratification from my writing. I could write a story, polish it and have it sent out to a publisher for consideration in one or two weeks. What’s more I was beginning to have a few more sales and some interest from respectable magazines in the field. However, I was still intent on writing that novel. You know, the one that’s going to make you a Bestselling Novelist? 

I’d had a short story out in the slush piles for about a year about a boy who attracts whales with his voice. It was getting a lot of interest, but no bites. I thought it was the best thing I had written to date and I wanted to explore the characters more thoroughly, so I wrote out a short plan of how I wanted the story to develop. So, when November came around again I threw myself straight back in. This time I had a setting, a bunch of characters, an idea, and an idea for a plot. I couldn’t fail.

Nanowrimo Winner?

The story started well, I had a hook, the characters’ motivations were acting against one another. I had a plot roadmap, which amounted to fifty chapters with one sentence hook for each chapter. I started writing on the first day of November, but soon found that it was really difficult to keep writing 1600 words a day. I was teaching at elementary school and finding I was coming home burned out from lessons and dodgeball. I would catch up at the weekends, but by the third week I was far behind. 

On the last day I remembered what Mur Lafferty had said in her I Should Be Writing podcast; that it was okay to suck. So I wrote 8,000 words of 100% pure unintelligible suck to get me to the finish line. I put the novel aside. I had mixed feelings. Yes, I had completed a 50,000 word novel in the allotted time. Yes, I was now officially recognized as a Nanowrimo winner. But at what cost?

2010: Third Time Lucky

I shut down my computer and wrote nothing for the first nine months of 2010. I wasn’t a writer anymore. I was a failure. Then in September of that year I had an email from a guy called Roque Ruiz at Cloudberry Records who wanted to interview me about my experience of establishing an independent record label in the 1980s. I answered his questions the best I could and found that there was a story there. Roque told me that there was still interest in Ambition Records. I thought it might be an idea to write the story of Ambition. So in November 2010, thanks to Roque’s encouragement, I embarked on my third attempt at Nanowrimo.

This time I was determined to make a go of it. I knew the story and the characters. It was my story. My autobiography. I couldn’t fail. One thing I had learned from my failures was that doing it alone, even though there are many nanowrimers doing it too, was hard. I decided to go public. I opened my office on Zoetrope and posted inspirational articles and pictures for myself as well as the other members of the office. I updated my word-count on my blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I challenged other writers to reach the goal before I did. I built a little community around myself. I told everyone, so I had to finish.

The social experience was amazing. I got encouragement from all different areas of my life. And I flew past the goal of 50,000 words on day 26 of nanowrimo. I went on to complete the story at 60,000 words.

I was happy with the outcome, 60,000 words closer to the required million! But I was burned out. I left the story on my hard drive, stopped writing again, and went to play with my kids.


In April 2011 I discovered the Machine of Death Anthology was putting out another call fro submissions for another anthology. I started writing again. I wanted to get in that anthology. I tried and failed the first time. I saw the amount of interest it kicked up on the Twitter and I wanted to be a part of a fantastic book. The characters in the story were the same characters I had worked on with my nanowrimo 2009 novel. 

MOD2 rebooted my interest in writing. I wrote another novella, The Tide Jewels, which will be published later this year at Wicked East Press, and two more short stories, which are now patiently waiting for the attention of a couple of discerning professional magazine editors.

But those characters were still drawing my attention. I knew I had to go back to them. So In August I went back to the novel. I reshaped and replotted it. I cut out 10,000 words of crap, leaving me with a meager 40,000 words. Then in 2 months I rewrote the entire story from scratch ending up with 65,000 words.

It is October and I have now just finished my second editing pass on my Nanowrimo 2009 novel: Whaling the Multiverse. I am burning to send it out, but I still need to give it another few editing passes to iron out some of the flaws I can still see. I am about to put it away for another month while I try Nanowrimo for the fourth time. When that is finished I will not give up writing. I will be ready with my red pen!

November 2011

November is approaching. This time I want to write a story that my kids will read and say, "Hey Dad, I love science fiction!" So I am going to write a middle grade time travel tale. I’ll be ready at the start line with my plan to strike another 50,000 words more off that required one million. See you on the first of November.

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