Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Breaking the rules

I discovered NaNoWriMo a few days before November 2005. Until then, I hadn’t considered writing a full-length novel because it seemed such a huge undertaking. I estimated it would take several years and, even if I did manage to complete a novel, there was no guarantee that anyone would want to look at it, let alone publish it.

Writing 50,000 words in one month seemed impossible, but a little voice was saying, Why not give it a try? The worst you’ll do is waste 30 days.

Because I’d never done it before, I looked to Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, for guidance. His one rule is that there are no rules. So, on the first of November, I sat down with a blank mind and stared at a blank computer screen.

Panic! I had to write something. But what?

I needed a character and grabbed a name – Judith – that floated up from who-knows-where. Who was she? I had a look round her house. I asked her about her past. I met her husband, children and best friend. I gave her a job and followed her to see what she did there. And all the time, because it was NaNoWriMo and not ‘proper’ writing, I found I was bashing out the words faster than I’d ever done before.

It wasn’t until I reached about 30,000 words, that I noticed what was wrong. My ‘novel’ had no plot. I knew the characters inside out but they had no story. What were they going to do? I gave Judith a problem to solve and stopped. It was the end of the month and I’d run out of ideas.

I’d failed to reach 50,000 words. I hadn’t produced anything resembling a novel. But I had enjoyed the experience, and it certainly helped me to write faster.

I saved what I’d written, but didn’t look at it again until a year or so later. I could see then that most of it was rubbish, but Judith leapt off the page at me. It was like meeting an old friend again. I remembered everything about her. I revisited her a few more times over the years and gradually re-wrote the first three chapters. I gave her some more problems to cope with and discovered what she was going to do at the end of the story, but there were still big gaps in the plot that I didn’t know how to fill.

In the meantime, I tackled NaNoWriMo several more times, using it to explore other story ideas and new characters. That’s what I would have done this year, if Judith hadn’t kept popping up to tell me it was time to tell her story. But to do that, I needed some rules.

Before NaNoWriMo 2014 started, I wrote a one-page summary of the novel I wanted to write, just mentioning the main plot points to keep me on track. Then, I spent the first two days of NaNoWriMo working out a more detailed plan for each chapter. This went better than I’d dared to hope because writing in NaNoWriMo mode meant I didn’t have time to explore all the possibilities. I wrote the first thing that came into my head and most of those first thoughts made perfect sense – to me at least!

So far, so good, except that now I’m working on the novel itself my writing rate has slowed right down and I’m well behind my word count target. My inner editor is having hissy fits. I have to keep reminding her it’s NaNoWriMo, so it doesn’t matter if I haven’t chosen exactly the right word or have spelt (spelled?) something wrong.

But I am getting better. Yesterday, I noticed a typo, went back to correct it and – left it! Naughty, but so exciting!

Do you have any writing rules you love to break?