I’m not very good at preparing for NaNoWriMo. Most of the time I get to November 1 and write a sentence and then wish I’d spent more time figuring out what the next sentence should be. But if you’re the kind of person who chooses to shame and embarrass people like me, here are my suggestions for starting the month with a bang instead of a scrawl.
So here’s something:
I “won” on the 27th, actually. I got to 45,000 words and just went a little ballistic trying to get to 50,000, so I could go to Officeworks and get the whole thing printed.
Why I won this year
1. I’m self-employed
I would go so far as to say this is probably the main reason I won this year. Not because that means I’m not busy, because Lord knows being a freelancer is total chaos and nightmares, but because it meant I could essentially write whenever the mood struck. It also meant I could set aside dedicated time each day for writing.
I made myself a Nano appointment from 10am to 1pm every day, and wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote outside of that time as well, but that morning block was when I did my best work. Had I been working for someone else, that wouldn’t have been possible.
2. I killed my inner editor dead
I’ve spoken before about how I want to get things right first time, every time, but this year I have been fairly successful in ignoring the word choice fairy (“Seriously? That’s the one you’re going with? Well, it’s your life, I guess.”). I have frequently bitched out on a decent story because I couldn’t find the right words. This time I’ve chosen to believe that I can improve the words later, and that has made all the difference.
3. This is my second go at this story
Yes, I’m a NaNo rebel. Last year I started writing a story about a woman called Meg who had miscarried, moved into a new house and then become haunted by her garden. But it deviated wildly and became a rollicking alcoholic poverty love story, which didn’t make a lot of sense. I wrote about 60,000 words of that story this year, but it needed a total overhaul.
My NaNo has become a completely different story, but I have definitely benefited from knowing what doesn’t work.
4. I have forsaken all other activity
I haven’t watched TV, read books, seen friends, shopped or slept. I’ve spent somewhere in the region of 6 hours a day writing. My children can’t remember what I look like. Last night I washed my hair for the first time in 10 days.
I almost forgot! Gaz has bribed me with a puppy. If I get a book deal (sometime, not necessarily with this story), we’ll get a puppy. I am extremely susceptible to both bribery and puppies.
Why I didn’t win last year, but did win the year before
In 2011 I won NaNo with a startling woeful story about a woman who finds herself having an affair with a man whose wife has been rendered infertile after cancer treatment, and you can imagine the rest of the plot. Oy. That year I won because it was new, and I didn’t know what winning or failing would feel like. I had no expectations. I just wrote and wrote and it was terrifically bad, but I was so focused on getting to 50,000 that I didn’t care.
This is all in stark contrast to last year, when I laboured over every word and then deliberately made other plans so that I wouldn’t have to look at my NaNo–not because I hated the writing, but because it caused me physical pain to write down the “wrong” words. I was a huge NaNo Diva. I took myself as a NaNoer very seriously. That is a poor approach.
Returning to NaNo is a bit like the first pangs of your second childbirth experience. The first time around, it hurts, but with nothing to compare it to it’s possible to just keep riding it out, always thinking “it probably gets even worse than this”. The second time around, you know exactly what to expect, and that knowledge can be crippling (“I know how much worse it gets and I don’t want to do it again.”).
I imagine I will fail dismally again next year. I’m like the Geelong Cats of NaNoWriMo–odd years only.
About my story
I’ve called my story Latkes with Sylvia, and there is a lot in it with which I am genuinely very pleased. It feels less like a series of vignettes than I had feared it might, and some of the writing is solid.
I’ve been working on an elevator pitch that doesn’t make it sound like a bunch of people crying for 200 pages. Because that’s not what it is, but the central theme is grief. It’s a kind of Love Actually: Everyone’s Got Their Own Grief. The main character, Heather, has lost a child, and has no choice but to move to the house she had bought before. There, in her black cloud, she comes to understand that grief takes many forms and at many stages of life, but rather than being crushed into emotional oblivion, she is buoyed by the camaraderie of her new neighbours, family and friends. And a strange man who lives in the garden, but he’s up to something decidedly more sinister. This is all told to the backdrop of Heather’s turbulent upbringing with a mother whose brain misfired.
It sounds like depression soup. But I promise that it isn’t. There is a lot of lightness in shared grief.
I’ve continued writing since I reached 50,000 words, and my plan is now to keep writing over the Christmas break, and have this draft finished by January 31st.
To my surprise, I am still writing to the curve.
It feels strange, day after day. Every morning thinking this is the day I’ll stop writing it, but being pushed on by that brown line. I’m competitive, even with myself. Especially with myself.
Sometimes the story comes together in pockets, and I sit back and go, “Aha! That’s what it’s about!” and then two hundred words go by and I have no idea again. I am equally enchanted by my characters and also feeling like they’re bits of paper in the wind. Writing intensely makes me feel so close to the story that I’m pushed out the other side, typing with my hands behind my back and sneaking a look every so often to see if I can see the story in there somewhere.
On the whole, Nano is making me feel rather more introspective than I’d like. I’m an extroverted gal. If I spend too long without people around me, I go a little (more) nuts. But right now I feel like I’m taking myself awfully seriously, and doing a lot of Very Deep Thinking, which isn’t even interesting for me, let alone the poor sods who have to live with me.
At any rate, here is an excerpt.
Noel took me into his home, which was, as best I could determine in the dark, a kind of windowless brick chamber, one-roomed and smelling faintly of faeces. It was poorly lit, but where there was light, it fell from above in distinct blue rays, and as he moved under them his body flickered in and out of focus. In the far corner he had a makeshift kitchen—a ceramic pot wearing mildew, a clean towel hanging from the edge of it, a plate and a spoon positioned neatly in parallel. Facing that, something I assumed was his bedroom—torn blankets and flat leaves and a knitted hat stuffed with some type of foliage.
‘This is home,’ he said, and I said, ‘I see,’ but I didn’t. ‘Cup of tea?’ There were no obvious tea making facilities. ‘No, thanks,’ I said.
He told me about his wife—Clara? Claudia? Claire?—and the trips they had been on before they started their family. Driving east to west along Route 66 in a car they had stolen from a New York sidewalk, of hiking the snow-bitten mountains in Mongolia, four days in a Somali prison without food or water. Clara, he said, was a journalist, and the more they risked, the higher her price. They sailed a boat, completely inexperienced, from Port Morseby to Wellington; she wrote about the danger and the sleeplessness, and he took photos of sea birds, wingspans the size of a small car, and when they got to New Zealand they sold the lot to National Geographic and went out for pizza.
‘What do you do?’ he said, face flushed.
‘Nothing,’ I said.
‘You must do something. How do you fill up your days?’
I tried to remember. ‘Sometimes I draw.’
‘Oh, an artist!’ The word punched me in the throat.
‘No, not an artist. Just someone who draws sometimes.’
He asked me about my drawings—what materials did I use? had I tried gouache? it wasn’t that hard, painting was easy if you knew what the shapes looked like? did I have anything I could show him? had I ever had an exhibition? did anyone buy my work?
‘No,’ I said again. ‘I just draw for myself. Only me.’
He sipped on the tea that he had conjured from nowhere and looked me up and down (my skin burned and hissed, but it didn’t hurt). His eyes seemed iridescent, their own light source; I wasn’t sure whether I was looking directly at him. The tea cup disappeared into his bony hands and he stopped, cracked his knuckles, frowned.
In a bluestone cottage at the end of a sweeping gravel road, mum and I hung her paintings from sharp hooks. She had painted women knitting in armchairs, and men pulling dogs back from the road, and two girls running naked through a river. I hooked them all, admiring my handiwork as I went, and she followed behind me and realigned them, swapped them, changed them. Her eyes blazed, her fingers shook. When we had hung all of the paintings, we sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor with our backs together and looked at the exhibition, and she said, This is going to be amazing. But nobody came. At the end of the week she went back up to the bluestone cottage with her roll of red stickers and took down every painting, and left them in the back of her car for three months while she read New Idea and cried into her hands.
‘Oh,’ said Noel. And then he might have said, you are not your mother, or maybe I just heard an echo of the hundreds of other people who had said it.
‘I should go,’ I said. When the door closed behind me, it disappeared into the undergrowth.
In my kitchen I found an assortment of strange and wonderful food. Dave had stocked up on tea bags, ginger biscuits shaped like flowers, tiny fish in brine. They all went into a sandwich and I took my plate and my sketchbook to the balcony, where the charcoal blew away as soon as I touched it to paper. I drew petunias wearing striped pyjamas, and the pink trumpets of Linnaeus’ Heath, and a blue man standing in front of an invisible house.
Today I am sick and hiding in my office with the window open, trying to cool my skin, which is on fire. I’ve written just over 10,000 words, which was par for yesterday, but I’ve not written anything today. I might, just to see what kind of strange fevered stuff comes out. In the meantime, here is a wee excerpt from chapter three, for your interest/to fill the gap.
There were days when we had lived at the beach (a plasterboard monstrosity with a wrought iron balcony that kind of slipped away into the sea) when there was harmony. Dad was at home a lot then, washed ashore from the mines in a little green boat, and he was everywhere in the house. On Friday nights he wore a kitsch apron—the exact wording on which escapes me—and we all stood around the Webber until the chicken was charcoal. Mum, too; just the breath of her, blonde and milky with her back to the water. In those months we were cohesive; four; a third of a dozen. At night the southerly winds beat against the windows and I was afraid, but only the normal amount. I was afraid enough to climb between my parents, hands over my eyes, but not so afraid that my lungs had closed over.
And they were in love, I was sure of it. I would sit in the hallway and watch them in secret—their reflection in the Ken Done painting he had bought for her fortieth. He held her around her waist and she rested her head on his shoulder, and everything they said was in whispers and glances. ‘Perv,’ Fleur said. Her boyfriend was James—Jimmy—Pavel, nose the size of a mandarin, and I knew that was why she didn’t understand love. ‘What would you know?’ she said, and punched me in the arm.
The air moved in electric currents around my parents. She wore white dresses with lace keyholes, and he wore shirts with the top three buttons undone, and they always stared right into each other. When she cried, he didn’t tell her it was okay, to be quiet, to get a grip. ‘I wish I could trade places,’ he said. ‘I wish I could take it away. Half of it. A quarter. Any of it.’ And then he would kiss every part of her face, his big hands in her hair and on her shoulders, until the shaking stopped. Sometimes she smiled afterward. Sometimes her eyes were dark. He didn’t mind either way; just held her hand the same as he always did.
Sirens in the distance.
Sometimes I wanted to call the ambulance just in case. A preemptive call. Hello, I think something bad might happen so I was wondering if you could just hang around nearby in case because I’ve heard on the news that sometimes it takes you quite a long time to arrive and you just never know.
But I didn’t. I just watched them in their easy silence, waiting to see who would leave first.
Sometimes life calls for a summary post. It’s not always easy to make the words come out in the right order, especially if you’ve been giving them to NaNoWriMo instead.
Six months ago we went to Georgia’s teacher in desperation, to have a go at figuring out why she’s lonely and sad. Last week we got the results of the school’s monitoring and subsequent assessment. Now we have a list of new people to go and see and ask the same questions to. In the meantime, Lily outstrips her in all social and creative endeavours, whilst Georgia’s various neuroses seem to be overwhelming her (and me).
I have some. Now I’m going through the rigmarole of specialists and blood tests and ultrasounds and I don’t recommend it very much at all.
I’ve slowed to a halt on NaNo, but I have 18,000 words I didn’t have before, and now I’m investing that energy into a 10 month intensive first drafting course. Hopefully this time next year I will have something of substance. I think you’ll like my main character. She’s insane.
Sam Simmons on Ramsay Street
I finally launched this! It took a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears, and this is the first episode in a series of ten. They get more hilarious and absurd as they go on. I think you’ll like* it.
Now that you’re up to date, go and see what amazing things Eden is doing in India and then make this creme brulee cheesecake because I did and it is like a spiritual awakening disguised as a cake.
I struggle with tenses. I like the way past tense reads, but I feel like I can represent emotions better in present tense. So the idea I’m kind of working on is to have the first part of the book (about 50,000 words) in past tense, with the story unfolding in a narrative way (though a little fantastical), and then have the second part of the book (about 20,000 words) more like a stream of consciousness.
Clear as mud, right? If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them (on the tenses, not on how bollocks I am at first drafts!).