NaNoWriMo – The Fast and Furious Guide

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We’ve been having a conversation on WhatsApp about how to do NaNoWriMo. Here is my Fast and Furious Guide. It defies all the laws of good writing, but it may help you clock up your 50,000 words, and once you have those, you have the first draft of your book.

About plans

So first, sketch out a rough plan. Spend five minutes on this. Don’t agonize over it.

Next, write a one- or two-line premise to remind yourself what you are writing about. Ask yourself, ‘Whose story is it? What happens?’ That’s the absolute basic.

Now, expand on that. Ask questions of your story. Add the answers to these questions to your premise or synopsis and allow it to expand and expand. When you wake up in the morning, your brain will tell you what’s going to happen next. This is the bit that non-writers have a hard time understanding. The founder of NaNoWriMo understood very well that it is only by total immersion in your work-in-progress that you will come to be a part of it and live it. Day by day, this intimate contact with your story and its characters will show you the way. If you do not believe and you do not commit, this won’t happen for you.

About scenes

So, you have in front of you your expanding story outline. Now write the scene that first comes into your mind. You can write your scenes in any order, and then put them in order after NaNoWriMo. For now, just throw words down on the page.

If you already have a synopsis, that’s brilliant. Roughly divide it into three sections following the traditional Three-Act structure that we have talked about in the past. Do this not because it is the solution to plotting, but because it will give you a quick plan to work to. Remember always that your plan is organic. New ideas will come to you in the writing of your story, and you need to be flexible enough to accommodate these ideas.

Divide your first section or Act into scenes. Start writing the scenes in any order. As mentioned before, editing comes later.

Trick your mind

Do not share. Otherwise you will want your work to be perfect. It will be a first draft so it won’t be perfect and, because it is not perfect, you will stop writing. You will be paralyzed. This is why you should just write, and not blather on to other people about what you have written.

The setting up of your novel on the NaNoWriMo site means nothing. It is for you, psychologically, to know that your novel exists and that what you have outlined there on the site is roughly what you are going to write. I say ‘roughly’ because it is your book and you can change anything you like.

The technical stuff

During NaNoWriMo you actually write your story on your own laptop, or computer, or in your notebook. You are not required to upload anything else. You will need to type your work into a Word document because at the end, when you have come to the 30th day, or have finished the first draft, you have to copy and past your text into the NaNoWriMo word counter. On the basis of this you are issued with your ‘winning’ certificate. Your manuscript is not checked for content, grammar, spelling, or anything else. It is not printed or published anywhere. The upload is merely to check that you have in fact written 50,000 words or more.

About first drafts

Working towards a first draft and not stopping to edit pushes you towards reaching your desired word count. Many people get blocked because they feel dissatisfied with a sentence or a word that they have written and, because of this, they never move on. You can go back and tweak a bit here and there if it makes you feel better, but NaNoWriMo is a quirky kind of event, the aim of which is to get you unstuck about always thinking about writing that book and never ever doing it. It also tests whether you have the staying power to engage with a long piece of writing. Most people don’t. It takes stamina and seat glue. You have to say ‘no’ to invitations during the month of November, you have to live and breathe the writing. Won’t you do that for yourself for just one month?

Expanding your plan

So, your plan is roughly divided into three sections or Acts. You need to aim for three sets of scenes. As you work through some of your early scenes, the later scenes will come to mind, and as they do, you add them – the outline of them – as they appear, so that by the time you move on to the next section, your scenes, or most of them, are already in place.

As I said before, your story is organic. The synopsis, plan, scenes are in place to keep you on track. You elaborate these as you go along. You must write down ALL your ideas in the same document. It’s all part of your word count. At a later stage, when you have substantial material in a particular section, you can divide that text into chapters, but this is not essential since that would really just be cosmetic. Editing, and the division into chapters can come after NaNoWriMo when you begin the real work, and when you have found out what your book is really about. Your plan is there so that you don’t lose the plot. Follow the plan, but as a guide only.

Writing in company or in secret

By all means, find yourself a ‘writing buddy,’ but just for support and encouragement. Don’t start philosophizing about what you are doing or it will never happen.

There is nothing to stop you from signing up and using a pseudonym. Do your writing in secret and don’t tell anyone, but try to challenge yourself by keeping up your word count. If you fail miserably no one will ever know. There is no money to be spent, there is no one telling you what you should or shouldn’t write. This is actually just you challenging yourself and showing yourself that you can clock up a large number of words that tell – in the form of a rough draft – the story you want to elaborate.

Why?

People who do NaNoWriMo realize that the real work of the writer comes later when they build the bricks and the sand and the miscellaneous rubble into a designer house. That happens after NaNoWriMo. If you have no materials to work with, you cannot redraft, rewrite, elaborate, and you cannot produce anything worthwhile.

Focus and trust

So, during the 30 days of NaNoWriMo, keep a notebook by your side all through the day and write down any thoughts, lines, descriptions, scenes that relate to your story. If you’re focusing, and doing this right, the story will come to you and you will never be staring at a blank page.

Let me know if you are encountering any problems and what the nature of those problems is. I may be able to suggest a solution. Keep writing, especially this month.

 

 

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Ghost Writers

If someone is a member of fifty activity groups, the chances of him or her coming to a writers’ workshop and sitting still long enough to write a story are pretty slim.

The writers’ group I founded in Abu Dhabi back in June 2015 now has 1,952 members. A group of these writer-members meets weekly, and out of around sixteen who sign up on the Meetup site for our free workshop sessions, usually about eight turn up to take their places in the café where we meet. What happens each week to the other eight, one can only guess. One assumes they were abducted on their way to the workshop. Sometimes we never ever hear from them again.

RIP

Many of our would-be attendees have plenty to say for themselves. Some send messages to say that they ‘really want to come’ to our workshop, and ‘definitely intend to come,’ but they are ‘just so busy at the moment.’ Well, with those fifty other groups to attend, they would be, wouldn’t they?

Some say they would indeed come if I could only move the group into the centre of town, or if I could change the meeting time, or if I could shift the day of meeting. Of course, call their bluff and change the location and the timings, and not only do those people not show up, but they vanish from the face of the earth. This is why we now refer to them as… ghost writers.

I sometimes wonder if analyzing the nature of the other groups chosen by these writers would give me a profile of the type of people who sign up for a writers’ group that they most likely won’t attend. Meetups much loved by our ghost writers include: the Abu Dhabi Blockchain & Cryptocurrency Meetup, the Abu Dhabi Agile Scrum Exchange, The Abu Dhabi Bucket Listers, The Abu Dhabi Corniche Boot Camp, The Abu Dhabi Dance Lessons Meetup, the Abu Dhabi Civil Engineering Meetup, and the Abu Dhabi Meditation group.Meet Up Logo

I like to keep an open mind. Many of our best writers have come not from the English departments of schools and universities, but from oil companies and IT departments. I also tell myself that I should be very happy when those who are expected do not show up. It must mean that the group has served its purpose of giving them a sense of community and motivation and, as a result, they are comfortably ensconced at their desks hammering out the ideas that will make up the next chapter of their book.

I mean… they won’t be in a shopping mall or at the cinema, will they?

The Write Stuff: short stories

In case you’re wondering if any good comes out of being part of a writers’ group… well, it does. This month sees the publication of The Write Stuff, a collection of stories by members of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. These are all writers who stuck with the group, read, listened, discussed, and wrote their socks off.

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Of the 14 whose work appears in the anthology, at least four are first-time authors who thought that the chance of ever getting published was either impossible or remote. But today, they are in print and on the path to future writing successes.

My formula for becoming a writer: read a lot, write a lot, re-write a lot, read some more. Don’t rush through books just to clock up numbers. You’re a writer, so read in order to learn how others write.

The Write Stuff is available now on amazon.com, on amazon.co.uk, and on Kindle.

 

Why you should stop exposing your clunky writing to the world

If you have the time, I strongly urge you to listen at least to the first half of this podcast from The Guardian newspaper of an interview with two traditionally published first-time authors.

What we learn, amongst other things, is how long it took these authors to write their books and the process they went through in the editing of them. One author spent three years on her book, the other seven years. One spent three months just doing a line edit of her novel, going painstakingly through the text with a ruler under each line, re-reading, correcting and adjusting. ‘Writers’ often hand me stories that they proudly tell me they finished just the night before… and, of course, it shows.

Another interesting piece of information from this podcast concerns the results of the last ALCS survey on author earnings in the UK. The average amount they earned was 11,000 GBP per year. This leads us to reflect on why we write and what we want from our writing. From talking to many would-be authors, I find that there is still a desire for and a belief in overnight success. Publication, they believe, will bring them the kind of glory and recognition that they are unlikely to find in other fields of work. What they do not put into the mix is that, for experienced critics and the discerning reader, the faults of their work will be on display for all to see. So, instead of showcasing their remarkable imagination and insights, they may well, through haste, and careless or the absence of editing, simply be demonstrating their ignorance and incompetence.

Everyone who can think can write, but not everyone who can write can produce work of quality. My advice for anyone publishing or hoping to publish traditionally or by self-publishing is 1) keep writing, 2) put in the work, 3) learn from your mistakes, 4) read books that have been professionally edited in order to learn, and 5) build your life around your writing, not your writing around your life.

Learning from other writers

A few days ago I mentioned Ben East’s excellent interview in The National with Fiona Mozley, the author of Elmet. Learning about another writer’s sources of inspiration is always helpful and enlightening. Here we learn that Mozley saw Elmet as a ‘Yorkshire western.’ She saw parallels between her story of a land dispute in England and the ‘traditional arc of a western.’ To identify this arc, she drew upon films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven.

Once upon a time in the West

These kinds of western battles and the showdowns go back through cinematic history to movies like High Noon, Shane and The Magnificent Seven, but also to films like The Seven Samurai.Seven SamuraiTheme

In our workshop, when discussing story ideas, I often ask participants. ‘What’s it about?’ Mozley answers this question in the article: ‘ the question of the individual versus society; how people battle the natural world and their landscape.’

We don’t really know what we are writing until we discover our themes. Do you know yours?

Making words count

Cinema or television, then, can be one source of inspiration. Another is, of course, other books. Mozley tells us she has drawn inspiration from southern American gothic literature and, in particular, the work of Cormac McCarthy, from books such as No Country for Old Men and The Road.

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Her close reading of McCarthy ties in – rather spookily – with what I had planned for our workshop this week. A few words of explanation about this directly from Mozley: ‘McCarthy made me think about every single sentence, how I needed to make every word count.”

Last week we discussed ‘overwriting’ and ‘redundancy,’ abundant examples of which we can find in our own first drafts. The purpose of re-writing is to remove what is not needed and ‘make every word count.’

So, when you lift your fingers from the keyboard and say, ‘It’s done!’ what happens next?

Lighting the blue touch paper

Once upon a time, when I thought of coaches, I thought of this:

Then, when I got a little older and anyone mentioned coach, I thought of this:

However I soon realised that actually a coach was one of these:

And then I discovered In Treatment and decided that a coach must be a person … someone very much like Gabriel Byrne:

But that’s not right either, is it? Gabriel is not a coach. He’s a psychotherapist, and he does a lot of analysing. He says things like:

‘Don’t you think that the feelings you’re having are linked to your dog’s rejection of you when you were just five years old … when, after licking your hand, your dog threw up … and after that you found that you could never relate to puppies … so, when your fiance brought you a present of a cute little puppy all dressed up with a blue satin ribbon, you saw this as an act of aggression …’

With apologies to any psychotherapists reading this – definitely no offence intended. But no, this is not what coaches say as I now know very well after spending time in the company of a very fine group of coaches this summer, courtesy of our sponsors NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) and the Arvon Foundation, and our trainers Deb Barnard (Relational Dynamics 1st) and Anne Caldwell (NAWE).

So, to clarify, a little bit of information about coaching and how it can be applied to writing. I work as a coach with people from the arts and cultural industries and – in particular – with writers and artists who have to deal with issues such as prioritising, processing negative feedback, dealing with blocks, goal setting, overcoming limiting beliefs, defeating procrastination, dealing with stress, maintaining motivation, completing tasks, and developing confidence in their own abilities. As a writer myself, I have had to face many of these challenges. So, believe me, if you’re a writer too, I know what you go through on a daily basis.

As a Relational Dynamics coach, I help people to see ways of progressing with their work – and also their life – in ways that they may not have thought of. We all have our own answers to the challenges we face in life and work, but very often we don’t know where to look for those answers. I work with writers as well as clients in other fields, helping them to explore their goals, their current reality, their options and what they will commit to in order to achieve their goals … and when they will make that commitment.

Where appropriate I combine my coaching skills with NLP, facilitating the client’s own self-directed learning and development and helping them to gain clarity around what it is that they want: the client already has the answers, but has to find them out through a personal reflective process. In working with students and young people my aim is to help them achieve their full learning potential.

Through the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Studio I offer guidance on how to develop as a writer, think creatively, enhance writing techniques, build writing confidence, and establish and achieve writing goals. Many writers I encounter have side-stepped from successful working lives to take up a new interest and direction in the world of writing. Often their talent has almost gone to waste due to friends and family not taking their efforts seriously, or due to lack of feedback or simply not knowing what to do next. Through a variety of workshop activities, the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Studio supports these writers from the writing stage through to constructive feedback, to redrafting and to submission for publication.

For practising writers who have work in progress, we have … well … the Work In Progress writers’ group, meeting weekly to write, to read and discuss their work and to exchange ideas about the writing life.

For further details about the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Studio and Work In Progress, you can mail me at AllWriteInAbuDhabi@gmail.com

And now, just a final word of clarification. Yes, I am a coach … but I absolutely do not work here:

Though, who knows? It’s probably a very good place to find inspiration. Don’t rule it out.

The Secret Life of Frank Bosco

I am Frank Bosco. Not a lot of people know that.

I invented Frank. He belongs to me. He came into being last April. That was when I entered the Winchester Writers’ Conference Lifewriting competition. I had to come up with a pseudonym and, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I found Frank Bosco. His real name is Francesco Bosco but, since he writes in English, he prefers to be known as Frank. For the competition, I entered the opening pages and a synopsis of my book Veneziano. Frank likes to think of it as Wolf Hall meets The Godfather, but of course he is quite wrong. I ought to know because I am the author.

I was fortunate enough to win a prize for Veneziano in this competition, which was sponsored by The Queen’s English Society and The Joyce Morris Literacy Foundation. When, at the Writers’ Awards Reception on 23rd June , Frank Bosco was called to collect his prize in the University of Winchester Stripe Auditorium, there was some consternation among my fellow writers when I stood up. They were expecting Frank, but they got me. Frank was frankly annoyed since he believed he should have been the one to receive the award and have his picture taken with Dr Bernard Lamb of QES. I did point out to him afterwards that he was, in effect, only a pseudonym and had no real life of his own, which – I suppose –  is a strange irony considering that we are talking here about a Lifewriting competition.

Now, here’s the problem.

In due course, I will receive a cheque for my winning entry. Frank spotted this small item of information in the Winchester Writers’ Conference handbook … and now he expects a cut – 50% if not more. He will not go away. He is delusional and believes himself to be the author of this work and therefore entitled to the prize money.

If other authors have had similar experiences with their pseudonyms, they may like to advise me what to do. Did John Banville come into conflict with Benjamin Black? Did Ruth Rendell have any problems with Barbara Vine? What about Joanna Trollope and Caroline Harvey? I believe it is a common problem. Though clearly I am dealing here with a pseudonym who believes himself to be of more consequence than his creator.