NaNoWriMo 2016 – update.

It’s been just over a week since NaNoWriMo ended and I did it – I wrote 50,000 words of my work in progress despite a falling a long way behind at one point but I pulled it back. It took some days with target word counts that I doubted were possible for me, so again NaNo took what I thought I was capable of and showed me I’d underestimated myself.

So why did I fall behind so badly? Mostly it was complacency. Last year I won’t say it was easy but I was surprised that I won and it felt like I did it without the expected difficulty. It was like when you win a notorious boss fight first try. I still had to take a few health potions and pulled out the wrong weapon at one point but still, the big boss turned out not to be quite the liver eating monster I expected. So this year I didn’t plan quite enough, I didn’t clear my calender of enough distractions and I didn’t set up the surrounding support systems as carefully. Lessons learnt. Bring on NaNo 2017!

 

Spooky Stories in the Hills

Last week I was tucked away into a fold of the countryside near Hebden Bridge at a writer’s retreat run by the Arvon Foundation called ‘Fiction With A Gothic Twist’. While I was there I started my NaNo16 project which just happens to be a gothic crime mystery novel.

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The view from Lumb Bank

When I first saw the schedule it looked pretty chilled out. A workshop in the morning followed by lunch prepared by the centre staff, then the afternoon free to write or for one-on-one tutorials, then dinner made by a rota of the attendees and then an evening session of readings by the tutors, a guest or, on the last day, by us the attendees. What this actually boiled down to was writing, thinking about writing, being taught about writing or talking about writing from about 7am to 10pm each day. Turns out that’s pretty intense.

Some of that intensity comes from the fact writing is a personal and emotional thing, especially for the new writer who doesn’t yet have the gnarled carapace that comes from the wounds of the editor’s pen and undeserved (or worse, deserved) one star reviews. So you turn up, say hello to a bunch of strangers, and then open up your innards to them. It was fantastic but also quite terrifying.

I learnt so much and it feels like I learnt it very quickly. My writing was better on day two than on day one, and better on day three than day two. This is largely thanks to the fantastic tutors we had – Diane Setterfield and James Friel were really very helpful and generous with their time. I was also lucky in my fellow attendees who were all lovely and very good writers too.

If you’re considering going on a retreat, thinking about scraping the cash together, wondering if it’s worth it, the answer is Yes! Do it! It was inspiring, interesting, challenging and helpful. I don’t know that you can ask more from a writing retreat.

 

Books and Podcasts in the runup to NaNo

I’m setting my next book in the 1880’s and so I’ve been researching the Victorians, their lives and times. I’m taking an approach to research that was recommended by the historical crime panel at the Killer Women Festival. Before writing I’m just doing enough to give me an accurate sense of the time, feed my plot and make sure there are no huge plot killing anachronisms, then I’ll write the first draft, and then I’ll do more detailed research on the nitty-gritty. I don’t need to know the exact details of my characters’ underwear before I write but if it comes up in the story I can check the details when I am rewriting. This is really the only approach I could take given I’m starting writing on Tuesday and I had this idea about a month ago. There simply hasn’t been time for really detailed research.

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I probably should note here that I’ve read plenty of victorian novels over the years and have seen and listened to relevant documentaries and read about the period so my broad knowledge about the Victorian period is pretty good already. I don’t have intimate knowledge of the details but that will come later. For now I’m refreshing my memory of the basic history and bringing to the fore my sense of the later victorian period and the gothic.

Victorian Britain by the Great Courses (audiobook) narrated by Prof. P.N. Allitt. This is a really good overview of the Victorian period. Listening to books is a great way for me to work on my writing while I work at my day job (as a gardener I can listen while mowing or weeding without it interfering with the work) and Prof. Allitt’s narration style was very good; interesting and entertaining without being superficial.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. This is a great book, focussing on the day-to-day lives of everday people. I heartily recommend it (and its Tudor counterpart – I hope she writes more). She’s a living history researcher and often has insights about how things actually feel which can be missing from a drier book. For example she tells us what it’s actually like to wear Victorian sanitary protection while menstruating and how the corsets support her back when doing a job like weeding, all details that can really bring a story to life.

Since this is going to be a crime novel I’ve re-listened to my audiobook of Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid. This is great stuff whether you’re writing a modern crime novel or historical since she delves into the past of each forensic discipline before bringing it up to date. There are real case studies, including some where the forensic experts were misled in one way or another.

I’ve been relistening to the darker Sherlock Holmes stories – the Speckled Band, the Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. They’re available on audible as the Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan-Doyle. It cost me a single audible credit and I’ve listened to the whole thing time after time (I have up to ten hours of listening time every day – it’d quickly get a bit pricey if I didn’t relisten to my favourites) so it really has proved excellent value.

Since I need to improve my writing I’ve also been listening to the Story Grid podcast and reading the accompanying book (Story Grid by Shawn Coyne). It’s thrown up lots of useful things to think about but it’s a really heavily analytical approach, breaking down each act, chapter and scene in a very detailed way. I’m a moderately detailed planner but I can’t see the full system working to plot a book in advance (for me, no doubt it would for others) although it might prove a useful diagnostic tool for finding the faults in a full draft. Nevertheless the podcasts have made for very interesting listening and I’d recommend them.

As an alternate system for planning a novel I’ve found Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker very useful. The tone is really casual and chatty which I found a little irritating but the actual techniques have really helped with the outline I’m still working on. It helps you to anchor the plot in the character arc or in multiple character arcs if the story has more than one viewpoint character. With this new perspective I’m looking back on the last book I wrote and I can see why I struggled with it so much – I was trying to fix it by trying to fix the writing when the problem was with the weak relationship between the plot and the characters.

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I’m planning on further feeding the gothic part of my mind throughout the month, first with Dracula as I already have it on audiobook (it’s one of those well worn favourites I mentioned) and then seeing what else of that ilk is available as audiobooks such as Turn of the Screw, the Yellow Wallpaper, Dorian Grey, some Poe and others. It’s such a hardship to have to force yourself to re-read or listen to such books. Spare a thought for me in my plight. Woe is me.

A note on audiobooks; they’re great but it can get pricey when you listen a lot. Libravox is an excellent resource for free audiobooks; the free ones are out of copyright books so the ‘classics’ are usually available, sometimes in multiple versions. The books are narrated by enthusiastic amateurs so do listen to the sample as the quality varies substantially.

 

A retreat, a new idea and fifty thousand words.

A Retreat

A week on Monday I’ll be on a train, humming towards a writer’s retreat with the Arvon Foundation. I’ll have a week buried in the Penines to write and to improve my writing. The course is on writing gothic fiction since my writing always seems to veer in that direction even when I think I’m writing something else. I’m anticipating a really valuable and enjoyable retreat; the Arvon Foundation’s courses have a great reputation.

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A New Idea

I have an idea for a Victorian gothic mystery which could make for a good series and my fantasy crime novel (now at the rewrite/editing stage) has been put aside while I investigate this idea further. The new idea feels good, it feels like it will have a wider appeal than the fantasy crime novel. Not only that but there are lessons I’ve learnt writing the fantasy crime novel which I will be able to apply to the gothic mystery novel and presumably there’ll be more to learn while I write the gothic mystery which I’ll be able to apply when I return to the earlier idea. I’ve had a rummage in my brain to check this isn’t a manifestation of the fear of finishing and, insofar as I can ever be sure of anything with my mind, I’m pretty sure it’s not.

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Fifty Thousand Words

I’m planning on going full steam ahead with this new idea by writing the first 50,000 words of it for NaNoWriMo2016. However, I’m going to be starting this while on my writer’s retreat and it may not be possible to work on it there; if that’s the case I’ll reduce my target word count to 40,000. If you’re NaNoing this year then feel free to add me as a buddy – I’m Maytheweed. I don’t use the forums there much and I do most of my NaNo chatting on the Absolute Write Water Cooler forums. Having said that, I won’t have internet on the retreat so I won’t be doing any chatting or registering word counts anywhere for the first week.

To those of you who are also taking part in NaNo – good luck!

Killer Women Festival

On Saturday the 15th of October there was a sinister gathering in Shoreditch Town Hall. Groups of women stood huddled discussing blood splatter patterns, weapon characteristics and publishing schedules. Also, whether the basement tea stand had run out of hot water.

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This was the first Killer Women Festival, a crime writing festival aimed at supporting women crime writers and as a newbie writer I found it interesting, helpful and fun. Chatting to other attendees it was clear that both readers and more experienced writers also found the programme enjoyable and useful. There were workshops on writing and publishing, panel discussions on interesting topics like historical crime and getting into the mind of a killer, there was a debate on mysogyny in crime fiction, both Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid were interviewed on stage…It’s exhausting just thinking about the programme (you can see the whole programme here) and I’d have needed to clone myself twice to attend all the sessions that were of interest to me.

In the end I made the difficult choice to miss seeing the giants of crime writing in favour of focusing on things I thought would help my own writing. I’ve come away with some new perspectives and ideas, some new writing acquaintances, a goodie bag full of delightful snippets of killer women’s writing which will no doubt lure me into buying their books (oh the horror) and also a smidgen more confidence in my own ideas (of which more soon). I will definitely be going back next year and would recommend it to anyone who reads or writes crime fiction.

(Image copyright Killer Women)

So how did NaNo go?

Well. Despite my expectations to the contrary I did it; I wrote over 50,000 words in a month. Huzzah! Jolly good show and all that.

The deadline was over a week ago now and, having reached a little over 2/3 of the way through the novel, in that week I’ve forgotten everything about it because I haven’t touched it.

So what did I learn?

  • By supporting other people going through it I realised that what I said to them applied to me too. Things like ‘all progress is good, you don’t fail by only writing 20,000 words’, ‘one bad day doesn’t mean tomorrow has to be bad too’ etc etc, it all seems rather obvious stuff but it’s the stuff my brain usually insists is only true for other people.
  • I can write about 1.7k words in an hour and a half. 3.5k on a weekend day is doable even with quite a lot of Fallout 4 in between times.
  • I can write even if I’m not really feeling it. Yeah the stuff will need even more beating with a stick than the stuff written when the juices were flowing freely but it’ll largely make sense. It might be a totally irrelevant scene which will be edited down to a sentence. A sentence fragment, even. But it can be done, forward momentum can be maintained, even if it does feel like my little 1.3 litre car on a steep hill stuck in 3rd gear.
  • Planning is essential. If I know what I’m going to write when I sit down, then I can bloody well write it. The problems come when I’m unsure about what’s going to happen and then it’s like my car, on a hill, in 3rd gear in ice, and fog so bad I can’t see the road. And it’s dark and there might be rabid mole-rats in my back seat. This meant I needed periodic ‘plot reset’ sessions because I’d written my way out of my plan, usually only by a little but it was enough to make things feel like icy, foggy, mole-rat driving.
  • Fallout 4 is not a particularly good break. Usually it’s best to do something that doesn’t involve a screen or reading like knitting or even (oh ye gods) housework.
  • I’m not half as shit as I thought I was. Maybe only 33.33% as shit as I thought I was.

Right. I’d better bugger off and write the last 1/3 of the book and then spend six years editing it. See you in 2021.

No NaNo? Yes NaNo!

Oh shit what am I thinking?

So I’m going to give NaNoWriMo a try this year. Everything I wrote in my No NaNo post last year still applies; I’m still working hard at the day job, I still don’t have much time and I’m still hyper critical of myself so what changed?

Well, I happen to have a story ready to go. I’ve got the world, the characters and the plot and I’m just filling in the holes in those things at the moment. I was planning on starting writing in December and then the thought dawned, like Cthulhu emerging from the mists over a city skyline, ‘well, if you get moving on the prep you could be ready to start for NaNo.’ So it’s as good a time as any to give it a try. I may well fail, but every word I write that I wouldn’t have otherwise written is still progress.

This is a quick and dirty blurb for the story I plan on writing:

Cria is Truthseeker of Blackstone City. She is intelligent, principled and more than a little rigid and, alongside her bodyguard and assistant Lana, she investigates crimes and puzzles in the city. When a young peasant dies at the Great Temple, apparently while stealing some of the famous inlaid stonework, she isn’t satisfied. A thief girl with a strange tattoo is apprehended by the guards and then disappears back into the Lower City streets. The stories of these two young people lead Cria and her friends into the darkest corners of the high society of Blackstone City.

It’s set in the same world as my short story The Hanged Man and ultimately I’m aiming to write a series in this world with these characters. Wish me luck!

So are you NaNo-ing?