Friday, 9 December 2011

Time for Reflection

During November, in common with many other writers, I took part in NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. The aim of the exercise is to start and complete a 50,000 word novel within the month. Of course, that doesn’t include planning the book, just writing it. And here comes the difficult bit. Not writing the 50,000 words, no, because I do write very quickly, but 50,000 words is only half a novel by my standards. When the task is broken down, 50,000 words over 30 days is an average of 1,667 words every day. Easy, I thought, provided I planned meticulously and kept my focus.

And so it should have been. A writing friend of mine managed - wait for it - 112,600 words inside the month and knowing him, I also know that he will have been scrupulously honest and not written a word until 1st November. I worked out I needed to write about 3,000 words each day to get to my usual novel length. My preparation was good. I knew the characters, the setting and the plot. By the first week, I had written some 20,000 words. Then a few personal problems hit the fan and for 4 days, I didn’t write anything. Not a problem. I had to put the problems on the back burner and bring the novel back into focus. And I did for one memorable day when I wrote over 6,000 words. This is not to be recommended. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was exhausted, nothing left. Next day I was ill. And I stayed ill for almost a week.

I could see the word “failure” staring me in the face. So I knuckled down and, to cut a long story short, I did manage to end November with almost 53,000 words done, including the end. The middle is virtually non-existent. What have I learned? I can do it. Well, I can write over 50,000 words inside a month, but I can’t write a novel that fast even though I prepared more than I usually do. Why? Because writing is organic.

I am not a machine churning out words. The words build up into an entity that has a life of its own and sometimes, in fact, often, it doesn’t want to go where you planned.

It’s like driving from London to Birmingham. There are so many routes and you might well plan to go by the most direct motorway route. But, wait a minute, what’s that over there? Looks interesting, let’s go and explore. And suddenly you’re miles off the motorway and although the bonnet of the car may be sort of pointing vaguely towards Birmingham, you’re in the middle of the countryside discovering places you’ve never been to or heard of before. And you’re loving it. It isn’t about getting to Birmingham any more. It’s about the discoveries on the way.

Just the same with writing. I write on a loose plan, know the beginning and the end, but the middle isn’t set and that’s the most enjoyable part. Exploring. It’s what quickens my blood when I’m at the computer, fingers flying allowing the characters to take me where I hadn’t even thought of going.

So the biggest thing I’ve learned is that, yes, I can do the words, but that isn’t what drives me. It’s the journey. Not the destination.


  1. Great piece, Avril. The NaNoWriMo is undoubtedly a real challenge, and I think every writer who classes themselves as a novelist, or wishes to do so, should at least try it once. It's a great exercise in the discipline of just getting the writing done and avoiding the prevarication that bedevils a lot of would-be writers. I knew you'd make it as soon as you said you were attempting it; never a quitter, you see?

  2. Thank you Stuart. I still bow down to your stupendous achievement of over 112,000 words, though. I wonder if that is a NaNo record?