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.
I have written about winning NaNoWriMo before. But on the off chance that you’re looking for some actual tips, and not just line after line of my whining, here is this post.
For those of you not in the know — and I expect that’s probably no one, given you are currently here for tips — NaNoWriMo (henceforth Nano) is when a bunch of people around the place spend 30 days trying to find the laxative that will send a novel careening from their writer intestine. More specifically, it is when people who hate themselves and each other write 50,000 words in the month of November.
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I am waist-deep in structural edits at the moment, which is to say that I’ve bought every colour of Post-It in existence, watched three movies about writing (Stuck in Love, The Words, Being Flynn), sent quite a few emails to my dad and “tried” the new Cadbury Strawberries & Creme flavour. Constantly.
Before I wrote a book, and before I had clever clogs to tell me what happens when you do that, I didn’t know that there were different kinds of edits. The only one I really knew of was the Make It Better Edit, and I’ve written before about how I kind of just assumed that was about word choice. You know, look at a sentence, think about which words are good, take out the ones that aren’t, voila! book.
Because you are savvier than me, you won’t be surprised to know that’s not how it works. Or that after rewriting a book three times, there is still work to do.
1. Don’t beat yourself up about it
Here’s what happens.
After a manuscript has been contracted to be published, some poor bastard has to figure out how it can be better. Then, this poor bastard has to go back to the elated, joyous author and tell her where she’s veered off the road. And maybe she’s just hit a pothole and can get right back on, or maybe she has plummeted into a ravine and killed everyone she loves.
The author then takes this information and beats herself into a kind of pulpy mess, after which she lies in a ditch and hopes that someone will find her and that they have a defibrillator.
Having been revived and taped into some semblance of her former self, the author sits in front of her manuscript and does this:
This is normal. Or, someone will lie to you and tell you this is normal.
But: unless your editor has been assigned to you because of revenge killing, he or she wants your book to be the very best book you can put out. Give yourself a few days to think about giving up writing forever, and then find the constructive bits that sing to you.
2. It’s not prescriptive
I have the most lovely editor, and she says the most lovely things. I got her notes back and asked someone else to read them in case I had gone blind and was just reading the inside of my ruined corneas. But even so, even with constructive feedback and great ideas and very kind words, you open your computer and there is this document staring back at you and if you’re honest, you can barely remember writing it.
I have never much liked the middle of my book. It sort of reads as though I went to the set of The Bold and the Beautiful, spiked their drinks with downers, told them their mothers had died and then made it into a Vine. It is weak in parts, rushed in others, and it ends in a climax that is neither believable nor especially profound.
What the structural edit notes have given me is not a solution for my saggy middle, but suggestions for how the story overall might be improved. My job is to apply the suggestions that resonate with me to these extra winter kilos and come out with a stronger story.
A structural edit is (mostly) not someone telling you how to fix your book. It might have broad suggestions, and it might have specific suggestions, but it will probably not say “you have to take out this person because her hair is bad.” I suppose maybe if it’s a kind of hairdressing sub-genre.
3. They are a two-way conversation
After I had digested my edit notes, turned my manuscript into an illegible rainbow and bought sixteen pastries, I had a phone conversation with my editor. I asked these kinds of questions:
- What if character X did this instead?
- Could it work if I took this character out all together?
- What if the weather was better?
- Can I make this character fall in love with this one?
- Will I get in trouble if I take out the 20,000 words in the middle?
The last one was important for me to know. I had imagined being sent to the publisher’s office for a lashing, because I’d changed the story and now they hated the story and also I would be condemned to The Author Blacklist.
Turns out, that’s not how it works. I mean, if you drop werewolves in where previously there were none, then maybe. But — and this is the craziest thing — the author writes the book. So you can take out your chapters and smash in your characters’ heads and send the thing through the shredder and that’s okay. That’s what a structural edit is for.
You don’t have to go away with your notes and not come back until you have a fully revised book. If you’re not sure about an idea you’re having, you can ask. I know!
4. Don’t force it
I mean, force it a little bit. You’re probably working to a deadline, after all. But in my experience, staring at the words while punching yourself in the face is not the way to draw out your best work. Let it sit with you a while. Romance it. Invite it in. You’ve got time.
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You know as well as I do that this post will start with “When I was a little girl.”
When I was a little girl, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I am so very lucky to have parents who spent the first eighteen years of my life insisting that I could be anything I wanted. “You can be a supreme court judge! You can be a bus driver! You can be a metaphysicist!” They never told me I could be a digital strategist, but I’m sure if such a thing had existed then, they would have.
The fact is, I can only ever remember wanting to be one thing. The specifics changed as I got older, but I have been fundamentally and perhaps unhealthily attached to one distinct goal since 1985, when I developed independent thought.
I wanted to be a writer.
I’ve written before about the process of deciding what kind of writer to be. And you know, writing for magazines and newspapers and the inside of juice lids and websites about nappies is excellent. Every time I reached a milestone as a freelance writer, I felt closer to my goal. I felt my ten-year-old self tugging at my shirt and speaking close to my ear, “We’re going to be a writer! Well, you are. I am stuck here in 1992 and frankly the fashion is miserable.”
The first time I wrote more than 5000 words in a row was NaNoWriMo 2011. It was a genuinely appalling story about a woman who was in love with her best friend, and his wife got cancer, then the best friend got pregnant, and they gave the baby to the dying wife. It was like if they fired all the writers on Home & Away and just let infants bang their fists on keyboards. But I finished it, and that was the first time I knew I could.
I started writing LATKES WITH SYLVIA for NaNoWriMo 2012. I wrote about 18,000 words about a woman who was being haunted by her dead mother-in-law while gestating a baby. It wasn’t awful. It was much, much less awful than the previous year.
He was right, though, it wasn’t as good as hers. Four of us sat around Francesca’s dinner table, eating tasteless mince and watery bechamel from Francesca’s plates, drinking stale red wine from Francesca’s glasses. She sat in the chair in the corner and watched as her brothers and son reminisced: nothing could compare to her panettone, Christmas would never be the same, she was literally a saint from heaven. I grew embarrassed for her, but each time I looked over she just sat there, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixated on Dave. Dave, whose hair was plastered against his drunken forehead in liquorice ribbons; whose swollen eyes hardly blinked, staring out at his empty world like black moons.
‘We should go home soon,’ I said. My hips ached from the hours of wooden stools and hard pews and funeral cars.
‘My mother died,’ he said.
‘I know she did.’ I reached for his hand. ‘But we gotta go home sometime.’
‘We are home,’ he said, and Francesca nodded.
Then I put it in the bin, because Francesca was a drag and I wanted the main character to shut the hell up. But I had written this Dave character, and he came with me to the next iteration. I spent eleven months writing a new story about a woman called Meg who had spent her life thinking her father had died, only to uncover a family secret tied up in her own grief. I worked on that story with my very brilliant Writer’s Victoria mentor. It also wasn’t terrible. I think it was probably some of the best writing I’ve done. But I didn’t know what the story was and I couldn’t find a place to hang up my coat while I was in it, so after 60,000 words I put it in the bin.
My mother wore a pink ribbon the day she took us on a picnic. We all went: dad, Jim, Charlie and me, and Sarah in her pusher. We walked along the Yarra where it thinned and twisted to the north, and when we were halfway to town we threw a blanket on the ground and took out our sandwiches.
Under the branches of the silver gums we could have been a real family. Charlie kicked a footy and the dappled light moved in and around my parents’ linked hands. My mother swayed in time with the breeze but no one talked about the redness of her eyes. It might have been the first time we’d all been together without any screaming. It might have been the only time.
Sarah could walk by then. Maybe she was eighteen months old. Tight blonde ringlets and a face like the renaissance and legs that were rounder than they were long. She loved to be by the river. A pigeon: duck! A magpie: duck! The kind of self-assuredness reserved for the very young and the very rich.
Maybe I did see it. A ripple. When the police came to ask their questions, maybe I lied when I told them I didn’t know.
But I couldn’t have. Her shoes are right here in the hall.
But I kept the house from that story, and the man who lived next door, and I smushed Francesca from the first story into Nina from the second story and came out with Sylvia.
And so I started on this version of the story for NaNoWriMo 2013. I took a couple of thousand words from my story about Meg, changed her name to Heather, and wrote. I wrote and wrote and I thought about the things that had been wrong with the old stories, and wrote different things. I wrote and wrote and dripped in the essence of a man I’d seen at the supermarket and the tree outside the library and I sat at that one desk for the whole month and wrote.
“Finishing the draft” had been my goal for 2013, and I did so at just after 10pm on December 31st, at which point I ate pizza.
I was very fortunate after that. Fortunate to have good friends who were willing and able to help with the next part. Fortunate to have interest from people who were able to make decisions about stuff. Extremely fortunate to somehow trick Sophie Hamley from Cameron Creswell into representing me, and then again when Alex Craig at Picador liked it too. When I got the call that started with, “How are you feeling?” and ended with, “PLEASE CALL ME BACK TOMORROW IN CASE THIS IS IMAGINARY.” I sat on the couch and I cried and cried.
And my ten-year-old self was like, “Yeah! Not long now!” and I went to the bookshop and took a photo of the gap where my book will slot in.
Latkes With Sylvia (title TBC) will be published by Picador sometime in autumn 2015, and my next book (which is about an old man who loses his wife in a shell) will be published in 2016, universe willing.
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Something for the senses.
What is this?
Some folk and I were talking on my Facebook page about flash fiction, and how it is super fun but can be hard to get started.
So, to (hopefully) help your writing brain warm up, I upload a weekly writing prompt. There’s no pressure to share what you write, at all, but if you want to, please do pop a link in the comments!