What I learnt from doing NaNo in a week

home-office-336378_1280At the start of November, I posted about how I wasn’t taking part in NaNoWriMo because I wasn’t ready to start writing a new draft (and you can read that post here). Instead, I set myself the challenge of completing the first round of editing Dominions 4 by the end of the month.

That went better than I expected. By the 20th of the month, I had the first edit finished. There’s still work to do, but I’ve sorted out the structure of the story, and I’m far happier with it. I need to let it sit for a while, then do another pass.

So I needed something else to do. As a breather, I re-read something I’d written before I started work on the Dominions series, just to see what I now thought of it. And I was pleasantly surprised. The story needed tweaking, but it was a good start, and I liked the characters. But the writing itself was pretty poor. Although I only wrote it a couple of years ago, I’ve learnt a great deal in that time.

I decided this story needed a re-write, and so I made notes of things I wanted to change, and off I went. It flowed well, at least initially, and I found myself getting words down at a fair pace.

I looked at the calendar, and I wondered‌—‌it was Wednesday 23rd of November when I started, a little over a week before the end of the month. Before the end of NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words.

Could I manage it?

I know some people write more than this in a week. Some people have managed to complete the NaNo challenge in 24 hours (I don’t think I can even type that fast!). So doing NaNo in a week should be feasible. Even with a full-time job, and a family. Maybe.

I honestly didn’t think I’d manage it when I started, but I found more writing time. I didn’t read as much in the evenings. I got up early both days over the weekend, instead of just one. I put headphones on to escape, and I wrote. And, as the week progressed, it looked more and more possible.

By the end of Tuesday 29th, I had 51,000 words. I’d (unofficially) managed NaNo in a week.

I started to do the maths. 50k in a week meant 100k in a fortnight. This would need editing, so maybe add a couple more weeks on top of this. These people who manage to write a book a month‌—‌I could see how that might be possible.

Only, for me, I know it isn’t. The maths doesn’t work like that. I might have managed 50,000 words in a week, but that was an anomaly.

I learnt a lot from that week.

There’s always time.clock-1634185_640

When I first wrote this story I was managing a couple of hours writing a week. I’ve pushed myself since then, settling into a routine that works for me, and am probably now averaging ten to fifteen hours. And now, within this final week in November, I found about thirty hours for writing.

The time is there. I just had to prioritise the writing over other things, like browsing the internet, or listening to music, or all the other things that seem to suck time.

And this is useful to know for the future. I can push myself to find more hours, if I’m determined. When I dream of getting something done my a certain time, I know that I can work at it. I can find the time.

But there’s another side to this…

push-150175_640Constant pushing is not good.

I like doing exercise. I do a couple of sessions on a bike each week, and I try to push myself hard. It feels good, but it feels even better to stop at the end.

Writing’s a bit like that. I’ve proved that I can push myself. But, once that week was over, I needed a rest. Once December arrived, I found myself lagging. I needed time to do other stuff‌—‌not only as a physical break, but also to let my mind go elsewhere. I needed to read, or to lounge about and listen to a bit of music. I needed to switch off.

At first, this did surprise me. I enjoy writing, so surely doing more of what I enjoy would be good?

But, as with the exercise, rest is just as important.

And there was another reason I wanted to slow down…

sloth-1531577_640Speed does not necessarily mean good writing.

This is an argument that is often levelled at NaNo, and all those authors who write books fast. But there is a counter-argument, that writing fast helps get the ideas down. If the story is planned, and you are ‘in the zone’, then it is good to let the words come. Besides, this is only the first draft. There will be time to edit later.

I subscribe to this idea. I have so far found writing the first draft to be the quickest, and most enjoyable, part of the writing process.

Yet I started questioning that for this story. As I neared 40,000 words I felt myself questioning what I was writing. I’d strayed from the original story a few times, and I’d struggled to get it back on track. Characters were doing things that made the continuing story awkward‌—‌not bad things, and some of the scenes worked well. But not in context of the story.

I was conscious of needing to pull things together as I wrote, but I was also racing that 50,000 word target, and I didn’t want to stop.

At about 60,000, a few days into December, I did stop. And I realised the story had derailed. I wasn’t as sure of it any more. I needed a rethink.

I see now that it would have made more sense to stop over the weekend and reassess. I needed to go back to my planning and re-work it. But if I’d done that I wouldn’t have completed the challenge.

And this is stupid. Who cares how many words I manage in a week? Anyone reading my books is only interested in how good the story and the writing is. They don’t want‌—‌and don’t deserve‌—‌second-rate work that was done in a race.

mark-516277_640Focusing on one thing means ignoring others.

Normally, I try to do a few things related to writing over the week. I’ll be writing or editing in the mornings, but I’ll be doing stuff connected with marketing in the evenings‌—‌or, at least, this is the plan. I’m a beginner at the whole marketing / business thing, and I know there’s a great deal I need to learn.

Yet for that week at the end of November, I ignored all of this. I only wrote.

And this isn’t healthy. The books are more than the writing. If I want to do them justice, I have to look after them as best I can. I have to look at how I can find readers who might be interested in them. I have to find ways to make readers aware of the world of Dominions. I have to plan other books. I have to learn more about writing, and the craft of storytelling, as well as all this marketing stuff.

Going back to the exercise analogy, if I did nothing but use an exercise bike, I’d be doing myself a disservice. Yes, aerobic exercise is good, and cycling will build up my legs, but what about the rest of me? To get the best out of what I do, I need to have variety. I need to focus on different parts of my body at different times.

It’s the same with writing. If I only focus on getting words onto the page, there’s so much I’m missing. I should be thinking about story, and covers, and product description. I need to look for ways to communicate with (potential) readers. This is as much about marketing as it is about creativity.

Getting words down is only one part of producing books.


So I’ve managed NaNo in a week. I have half a story, and I’m not too happy with how it’s turned out. Can I call this a success?

It depends on how you look at things.

The story’s a mess, but I’ve learnt from this. One of the ways of discovering what works in storytelling is to look at what doesn’t work and change it. Everything can be a positive learning experience. Overall, despite not being sure what I want to do with this story now, I’m pleased I managed this challenge. Sometimes, knowing you can meet a challenge is success in itself.

Besides, I managed my first challenge too. I’ve got an edit of Dominions 4 that I’m pretty pleased with. That alone is good enough for a month.

Now all I need to do it the next edit. And the next.

And work on some other books.

And learn more.

And remember to relax.

After all, I’m doing this because I enjoy it. After a few down days, I’ve got my enthusiasm back for writing.

Time for another challenge.

Where does this writing all start?

So this is it. I’ve got not one book but two almost ready to go (not counting a short story and a novella). It’s official — I’ve started writing.

But this isn’t the start. Of course it’s not. A book doesn’t simply appear (oh, if only it were that simple).

So where did this all start for me?


Maybe it was January 2015. The start of a new year, and the point at which I decided to get serious about writing. I started getting up earlier. I took an idea for a story and planned it out. Then I sat down (I hadn’t sorted out a standing desk at this point) and wrote the thing that was to become Dark Glass, the first Dominions novel. And once I had the first draft of this one completed, I started work on the novella that would eventually be called Control.

But the ideas for Dark Glass had been knocking around before this time. And I’d already been writing. Every so often, in the evening, I would sit down with my laptop and type away. I had a few ideas. I had a start, and I knew the ending, but the middle was still a mystery. Without that route map, and without the dedication to make writing something I did every day, the story went nowhere.

So it that point, the summer of 2014, the start? No, because I already had one story completed by this point. I still have it saved somewhere. It’s about 50,000 words, and it’s pretty rough, but I think some of the ideas aren’t too bad. I might even do more work on it at some point.

But go back further, into the early nineties. At this point, I’m working seasonal jobs, spending most of the year in different places, then returning home in the winter, working shifts in a flour mill. There aren’t many of my old friends around back home now. So I’m filling in my spare time with a couple of exercise books and a pencil. This is in the last millennium. I don’t have a computer, so I write long-hand, starting at the first word and ploughing on until I reach the end.

Is it any good? No. I did edit it a few years later, but it’s a first novel, and like many such writings it deserves to rest in the back of a drawer. But it was a start.

Apart from the stuff that came before even this.

In my late teens, I’d occasionally knock out a short story. As a child I read constantly, and that went hand-in-hand with writing. I remember we had homework to write a story. I think our teacher wanted a minimum of five pages. I filled up two exercise books. And in junior school, a few of us decided to write different stories and put them together into a book. I had even seen somewhere in the town where we could get that done (oh, naive child that I was, not knowing what a Bookmakers really was!).

Probably, if I could go back far enough in my memories, there would be scraps of paper with single-sentence stories scrawled in crayon, with the rest of the page filled with a drawing. Maybe I was always coming up with stories.

So I have a couple of books out now. I’ve worked hard at them, from planning to writing, then on to editing. I’ve hired others to help with their birth. I’ve learnt about creating e-book files, and how to market. I’m treating this seriously, because I want to make something of this. I want to continue writing, putting out more books, coming up with more stories.

It’s something I’ve been doing for ages.

It started before I can even remember.