Writing as its own reward (a few thoughts on NaNoWriMo)

It’s November, so it’s time for NaNoWriMo.

NaNoIf this means nothing to you, let me explain. National Novel Writing Month is basically a challenge to write 50,000 words over the month of November. Anyone can sign up, regardless of what they write or their previous writing experience. As well as world-wide forums and support groups, there are local communities, along with physical meet-ups for real-world encouragement. There are badges that can be earned, for all kinds of things‌—‌seven days of consecutive writing, reaching 10,000 words, attending a meet-up, and so on.

When NaNoWriMo started, back in 1999, there were 21 participants. Last year, over 400,000 took part‌—‌and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more people ‘doing NaNo’ this year.

Of course, not everyone reaches that 50,000 word goal. The stats show yearly success rates between 10 and 15 percent. But that doesn’t matter. Some people who take part year after year never reach 50,000, and many never finishing their novel over November. Some of them probably work on the same novel each year.

And this doesn’t matter because, at its heart, NaNo is not about producing finished novels. Its aim isn’t to help create thousands (millions?) of new books for people to buy. It’s not about commercial success.

NaNoWriMo is all about writing.

Yes, those of us who write want to finish our stories. We want them to be the best they can, and we want others to read them. We want to earn money from our writing, too.

But it all starts with the actual writing. People who write purely to make money generally don’t last very long before trying another route to financial success. And those who earn a decent living from their writing usually only do so after many years of struggling at the keyboard. Every ‘overnight’ success comes on the back of countless abandoned projects, the novels that should never see the light of day, the millions of words of practice.

See, writing is both easy and hard. All it consists of is placing one word after another‌—‌but there’s an art to this placement. There’s a skill in selecting the perfect word.

writing-427527_640Writing takes time and effort, and the process is punctuated by moments of doubt‌—‌the story doesn’t work, the characters feel flat, the dialogue is stilted. We don’t know where the story’s going, or how to fix all the oh-so-apparent problems in the earlier parts of the draft.

But we persevere‌—‌not because of the possible rewards at the end, but because the act of writing is a reward in itself.

In a world where we are encouraged to consume so much media, it’s vitally important that we also create. Creation is a part of what makes us human. For some, this means learning an instrument. Others take up painting, or sculpture, or flower arranging. Some get their creative fix through gardening or cooking, through fixing cars or mending furniture.

And then there are the writers. We don’t need to learn an instrument. We don’t need a workshop, or a kitchen. All we need is a laptop, or a notepad and pen, or a smartphone. We can write anywhere, at any time of the day. We can even dictate our stories now, writing while walking or driving or doing the ironing.

In writing, we create whole worlds. We develop characters, and throw them into confounding situations. In writing, we let our imaginations flow free. And when it all comes together, when the words flow, there’s nothing like it. There are times my fingers can’t move fast enough as the descriptions, the dialogue and the interplay between characters surges forth. There’s an excitement about discovering what happens next, even when the story has already been planned‌—‌because the characters always take on a life of their own, or a phrase comes to mind that casts things in a brand-new light.

Writing is a journey of discovery, whether the story has been previously plotted in detail or is being created on the fly. Writing is transportation to other places. It is the opportunity to live other lives, to be who we want to be, or to experience those we’d detest in real life. In writing we get to play the hero and the villain, and everything in between. We get to sit back and see where things lead, and to be the master of our own domain.

Terry Pratchett once said that writing is the most fun it’s possible to have on your own. There’s a great deal of truth in this. Writing is a special form of creation.

And it’s this that NaNoWriMo encourages. It’s not about writing ‘a book’. It’s not even about beating a certain word-count. It’s about writing. NaNo aims to help people discover the joys that come from writing. It aims to instill a writing habit that enables those who have previously struggled to find the time to enjoy the activity.

NaNoWriMo is to be celebrated and encouraged, for helping so many people see how writing can be its own reward.

 

To find out more, visit nanowrimo.org. It’s never too late to start!

New short story – ‘To Serve’

This story I originally wrote some years ago, before I wrote my first Dominions novel. I’ve improved a lot since then, so that original 5000 word story was pretty poor‌—‌sentences that I probably thought sounded good at the time, lots of superfluous information, and nowhere near as much subtlety as I imagined.

But I liked the general idea, so I reworked it‌—‌tightened the writing, made the back-story less obvious, and cut a whole section concerning a dog (an often-repeated piece of writing advice‌—‌never have a main character harming a dog. They can to whatever they want to people, but very few readers will forgive violence towards dogs).

I also shortened the title (it was originally To Serve The Community). I’m pleased with this new version.

You can read To Serve by clicking here. I’d love to hear what you think‌—‌just add a comment below the story.

Rogue Wolf now available for pre-order

It feels like this book has taken ages to write (can’t remember how many times I re-wrote the first draft), but it’s finally finished, and is now up for pre-order on all the usual ebook stores, at a limited low price of 99p/99c.

Dom5_small(Hi_res)He does what needs to be done. He’s cheated death a hundred times, and he has the scars to prove it.

But Rodin’s put all that behind him. He’s no longer an assassin for hire, or a pawn in the fight against Authority.

At least, that’s what he tells himself. But when a favour brings him close to the infamous Factory‌—‌a prison in all but name‌—‌and a chance encounter forces him to rethink, can he still do what needs to be done?

Facing death is one thing, but can Rodin face a life of imprisonment in the Factory?

Click here to see where you can pre-order Rogue Wolf.

New novella now available

Errant (A Dominions Story)Errant (A Dominions Story) has been available for free to newsletter subscribers for some time, but it’s now available to buy from all the usual ebook stores too.

(If you still want a free copy, it’s still for download through the mailing list for a few more weeks, so sign up now.)

This novella (about 80 pages) is a bit of a departure from the usual Dominions stories, with a more gentle approach (although the darkness is still there!) If this sounds intriguing, read more here, or click here to see where it can be purchased.

(Alternatively, join my mailing list to get the book for free, along with another couple of exclusive novellas)

Books in a changing media landscape

Amongst all the rides, attractions and eateries in Disneyland Paris, there are many, many stores. They sell all kinds of merchandising‌—‌toys, clothing, bags, jewelry, and so on. But one thing struck me by its absence.

Media.

There were no Disney DVDs for sale, no CDs of film soundtracks, and no books. In short, there was nothing for sale that actually told any kind of story‌—‌and this seemed strange for a company that had built itself up on story, from simple five-minute Mickey Mouse cartoons through retellings of classic fairy tales to their own original stories.

It’s not as if there were no opportunities to incorporate books into the park. In Beauty And The Beast, Belle loves reading, so why not have a Belle-themed bookshop, with library ladders and dusty hidden corners?

Admittedly, Disneyland Paris have to cope with visitors from a wide range of countries, and although French and English seem to be the predominant languages utilised in the park, each title would need to be stocked in different languages, with different covers and so on. And why stock music and film anyway, when the trend is now for streaming?

This (like so much in the park) got me thinking.

children-403582_640There are always stories about the death of reading, and how nobody reads anymore. Why read, when it’s easier to turn on the TV or switch on Netflix or pop onto YouTube? There are figures suggesting that cinema is struggling, as home viewing utilises ever-growing size of screens, in increasing resolution, with high-quality sound-systems. Why bother leaving the house, queueing, paying for over-priced snacks and drinks, and having to cope with other people, when high-quality entertainment can be enjoyed in comfort at home?

And how can books‌—‌simple text on a flat, unmoving surface‌—‌compete with such incredibly immersive effects on the big screen (be that in a cinema or at home), or with the snappy dialogue and surrounding sound design?

Some people argue that they can’t. They point to the collapse of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble. They talk of dwindling revenue for those who write‌—‌while big-name authors (King, Rowling, Patterson and so on) still earn fortunes, mid-list authors are forced to take on other work to supplement their writing careers.

Yet still, people read.

There’s a good chance that you’re one of those people who enjoy books, so you’ll instinctively know some of the reasons for this. You know the pleasure that comes from sinking into a story. You’ve experienced the transformation of words on a page into living images within your own imagination. You’ve felt the pull of a book, the yearning to get back to the story, and the way a tale lives on long after you’ve turned over the final page.

Maybe you value the solitude of reading, or how time can fly by when you’re deep in a great story. Maybe you love how reading can be done anywhere‌—‌on a chair, in bed, in the bath, on an exercise bike, on a bus, or how it can take over hours in an evening or be squeezed into a few minutes in a supermarket queue.

With technology, ways of reading are growing. Twenty years ago there were books. You either bought them or borrowed them from a library (or from friends). Sometimes it was hard to find the book you wanted‌—‌either it was too popular at the library, or too obscure for book stores to stock. You had to order the book, and wait weeks for it to be delivered to the book-store. But now, we have ebooks and print-on-demand. We might wait a couple of days for a physical book to arrive, but an ebook can be delivered within minutes.

And with ebooks, we’re no longer tied to a physical book. We have the ability to carry a whole library in an e-reader, or on a smart-phone. We need never be without a collection of books.

Technology increases the potential for inclusion, too. On-screen text size can be altered to suit individual needs and preferences, as can colour and brightness. Different interface systems‌—‌switches, voice control and even eye tracking‌—‌allow those with reduced physical ability to turn pages.

audiobook-3106985_640Then there are audiobooks. Yes, they’ve been around for years, first on cassettes and then on CDs‌—‌but with mp3, fast downloading and now streaming, audiobooks don’t require us to buy bulky physical copies. We’re not tied to large hi-fi equipment either. With our smart-phones, we can enjoy audiobooks wherever we are, whatever we are doing‌—‌driving, exercising, cleaning, gardening, resting. No longer are audiobooks only for those who struggle with physical reading, or those with long drives ahead of them. Now, they are open to anyone.

So is reading losing out to films and TV? I don’t think so. Film companies seem to rely on a small number of big-budget movies each year, so going to the cinema is becoming an occasional treat for many (and maybe it always was). And while TV shows increase in both number and (according to many) quality, with streaming this is becoming a more personal activity‌—‌we can watch on a big screen, or on a laptop or phone, with headphones plugged in.

If entertainment is becoming more personal, and more solitary, then why not reading? It is easier than ever to access book, and with the growth of independent publishing there are more books available than ever. And while the increase in ‘readers’ might not be huge, many of us who already read are doing so more often. I know that my reading has increased since getting an e-reader.

It’s worth considering the origins of film and TV stories, too. Many of these come from pre-existing stories in the form of books‌—‌and for the film and TV companies, this makes sense. If a story proves popular as a book, then it must ‘work’, and it’s arguably easier to adapt a pre-existing idea (that has shown itself to be popular) than to risk developing something new.

Think Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit. Think Birdbox, or The Martian. So many good films come from books.

Also, consider franchises. Star Wars might have started with one film, but as the franchise grew, fans demanded more stories. Yes, there were more films, but they take a long time to develop. It’s quicker to produce books, and there are close to four hundred novels related to the Star Wars universe. And as more stories are developed, the fans become increasingly immersed in the whole franchise, and then demand even more stories.

Times change, and technology advances. People have more access to all kinds of media, and this is only going to increase. But there will always be readers, and there will always be books in one form or another.

Reading isn’t going away.

How did you get into reading?

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. As a child I loved books, and that’s carried on into my adult life.

I’m not alone in this, and I’m sure many of you reading this are the same. There are those who get the reading bug later in life, and there are many stories of reluctant readers becoming enamoured with the Harry Potter books, but for most of us, reading is a habit picked up early in life.

Of course, at such a young age our role models tend to be our close family, so it seem likely that most readers were first introduced to the love of books by parents.

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I have vivid memories of visiting our local library as a child. Sometimes our mum would take us, but at the weekend it was more likely to be our dad, and my recollection is that he’d often borrow books too.

He’s always been methodical, and I remember him having lists of books by authors he enjoyed (Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Clive Cussler, Dick Francis), and as he read each book he’d cross it off. He’d also add other titles as the writers wrote more books.

And I copied him. Some of our lists were the same, but I added my own favourite authors‌—‌Stephen King, James Herbert, Isaac Asimov. I think I still used this list when I got into Terry Pratchett, too.

My dad (at least, in my memory) read on the train on his commute, and I’d read in the back-seat of our car on long journeys. On family holidays, he’d sit in the shade by the pool and read‌—‌and when I wasn’t playing in the water, I’d read while laying in the sun.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t conscious, on either my part or his. But he was my dad, and therefore someone to copy.

I don’t remember my mum reading as much, except on holiday, but she always had a book by her beside. Draw your own conclusions from this, but my sister isn’t anywhere near as avid a reader as I am.

I think it took me a while to understand that other children didn’t read, but by the time I worked in education it was clear that many of those in my classes would do anything other than read for their entertainment.

Over the years there have been many schemes to encourage schoolchildren to read. There are adventure tales told in simplistic language that aimed to bring in teenage boys. There are simple non-fiction titles, little more than pamphlets, designed to engage those who aren’t interested in stories.

Studies show a correlation between books and exam results‌—‌students who come from households with a high number of books generally perform better in exams. From this were developed schemes to get more books into homes, on the assumption that this would boosting exam results and performance in school.

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These schemes didn’t work.

Correlation is not causality. If I wear shorts when it’s hot, that doesn’t mean the act of wearing shorts increases the temperature. If a cock crows every day at dawn, that isn’t sufficient evidence to argue that the crowing cock causes the sun to rise. Likewise, owning a large number of books does not automatically make someone more intelligent (although it might give that impression).

The real value in books lies not in their physical presence, but in the words within their pages. To be of benefit, books have to be read.

Another memory from my childhood might be apposite here.

In one of our weekly assemblies at school, we were given a talk by someone from Gideons, and afterwards this person presented every student in our year with a small New Testament. The aim was surely to encourage us to explore our faith in the hope that we’d become proper Christians (or something like that).

These New Testaments were small, about three inches by two, and the pages were very thin. They were bound in such a way that the pages were almost perforated, and could easily be torn out. One of my classmates said they would make great papers for roll-ups.

I doubt he used every page for this, but I’m sure he smoked a fair bit of that New Testament. Not what the man from Gideons envisaged.

So, if having books doesn’t directly lead to increased intelligence, better exam results and all the rest of it, why is there a clear correlation?

With a bit of thinking, it’s obvious.

Return to what I said earlier, about young children being strongly influenced by their close family. If a child’s parents have a decent book collection, it’s probably because they value and enjoy reading. These values are then passed on to their children. This might be through conscious effort (reading time before bed, buying books as presents, showing an interest in the books their children are reading, trips to the library, and so on). But it might also be unconscious, through things such as being seen reading a book, or showing an interest in books when shops.

Reading develops and builds many skills‌—‌concentration, analysis, empathy, self-direction and so on. And it is these skills that benefit a child in school and when taking exams. So there is a correlation, but the connection between books and better school performance is tied up in the act of reading those books.

Of course, it’s never too late to enjoy books (and with the rise of audiobooks, failing eyesight and difficulties in holding books are no longer issues). But, as with so many things, an early start is better.

I was fortunate in growing up in a house with books, and having parents who encouraged me to read, both consciously and unconsciously. Without books‌—‌without the worlds they contain, the things I’ve learnt from them and the skills reading has helped me develop‌—‌my life would be so much poorer.