No matter how bad things get in life, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, since 2007 November always brings me back to NaNoWriMo. It’s almost like a reset now. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t written for ages, if I’m stuck on something, or if I’m dropping thousands of words on another project; as soon as November 1st appears on a calendar it’s 30 days to write 50,000 brand new words.
LUCKY NUMBER 13
My ex has spent a lot of this last year getting into running as something she likes to do. She does a group run on a Wednesday, goes out on random evenings when she feels like it, and does charity runs too.
I couldn’t be prouder of her and what I’ve watched her accomplish. As the ‘proper’ running clothes began to appear, along with a smart watch, there then followed the certificates and medals. And then the distances she was able to push herself to, and the pride that showed on her own face at each step.
When she started doing well at it, I’ll admit I felt a little inferior. Sure, she might feel that she’s let herself down occasionally when an illness or injury stops her from hitting a target, but she’s just been non-stop with those stats.
But wait! No one likes stats more than me.
I watched her always pushing herself to go further, to go faster, and it began to dawn on me that I use stats to write my best stuff. Hell, using stats just gets me to write stuff, period. I can sit around for eleven months of the year, moaning that I don’t know what to write, moaning that I don’t like what I write, moaning that it all needs to be rewritten.
So how come when that November rears it’s head and calls out to me, I can stop everything and write 50,000 words in a single month?
Seriously; what’s up with that?
And yes, to you observant ones out there that notice all my past NaNoWriMo novels only exist on a couple of thumb drives, and no-one other than me has ever read them, well spotted.
But I write them. They still exist. 9 novels in at least first draft form.
So while this year will be the 13th time that I’ve sat down and started writing a novel in November . . .
. . . will it be the 10th time that I get to that sweet finish line?
WHAT HAS COME BEFORE
Every year I like to reminisce over the first drafts of NaNo past before talking about NaNo present. And this post will be no different. Though for my return I’ve made an effort to spruce up the article; no cut and past for 2019. This is a mostly rewritten article.
So, lets look back over the almost-failed, the did-failed, the winners, and the record breakers.
Brian Creek . . . this is you (NaNoWriMo) life!
I’ve always enjoyed writing.
When I was a kid, I used to write my dreams down. As I gained a few years, I started writing all kinds of things, taking what I’d watched on TV and read in books and mashing all my favourite bits together. Sure, most of it was blatant copyright infringement, but it was my way of finding my feet, of expressing myself on paper.
When I got to collage, it was all about the movies and so I switched to screenplays. I was into the whole indie scene around then, so the killer dolls and spaceships of my teenage years faded away, and instead I took inspiration from GOOD WILL HUNTING, BUFFALO ’66, and all those kind of films; real people going through real pain.
And then, as winter turns to summer, my screenplays turned back to novels.
It was while working on an idea about a normal guy who hated his job and was friends with a grim reaper that I discovered an article online about this writing movement born out of San Francisco. It revolved around silencing your inner editor and just writing shit down.
It sounded like exactly what I needed.
2007 - DEATH IS JUST A DAY JOB
Upon visiting www.nanowrimo.org and finding out what they were about, I didn’t waste more time and signed up to their website.
I didn’t have the concept back then of what 50,000 words was gonna feel like to write. I judged books that I read visually; a book was thin, thick, or a Stephen King doorstop. I either thought that is wasn’t that many words so this shouldn’t be too difficult, or the more positive version where 50,000 words was a doorstop and I was gonna write an epic novel.
When I write in November, there are two types of projects; ones that I make up specifically for NaNoWriMo, and ones that I’ve struggled at some point during the other eleven months of the year and am getting nowhere with.
As I mentioned, this first one was a story I’d been moulding in some form or other for a few months but was getting nowhere after the first ten pages. In some versions the guy was meeting the Reaper for the first time. In others they were long time buddies. But I had no plot, no antagonist, no other characters. Just a scene and a pair of outsiders.
Despite choosing the idea as my project, other than those basics, I planned nothing else for the November 1st start date. I went full Pantster. All I had was ‘a guy’ is friends with ‘a Grim Reaper’ and that it be set in my hometown. It had disaster written all over it.
Despite this pissing into the wind attitude I’d adopted, it started well. I’d sit at my work desk and write ideas down between menial tasks, then take it all home, boot up the PC in the back room, and hide myself away as it all clustered together on the screen into something resembling a story, only leaving the keyboard for basic things like food and toilet breaks.
I picked up a new habit after a few days when I hit a roadblock in the story. I was starting to see further out in the plot, have an idea where I was headed, but there were still holes or missteps. So what I did was just step over them. It was a first draft and these things could get fixed later. I learnt very, very early on that momentum is the key.
And sure, this led to some hilarious moments and real head scratchers in the first read through in the December, the most memorable being a character who was killed off and three chapters or so later was just in a scene minding her own business, very much not dead.
I did hit the most infamous of roadblocks around the halfway mark when I made the stupid decision to by a new games console. Present day Brian would have set the Xbox up as a reward, something I now do each year too. But back then I was new to NaNo and didn’t foresee how my new toy would derail me.
And derail me it did. It very nearly destroyed all progress.
But as well as finding some negatives about my writing that first attempt, I also found some real positives. Like how, when I really knuckle down, I can write a lot if the game close to being lost. With three days to go I, I realised what was a stack, stopped the video games, and knuckled down for two nights of intense into-the-early-hours writing sessions, and went from expecting to fail my first NaNo, to crossing the finish line on November 29th.
Every ‘win’ feels amazing. I always slump back exhausted, grin like the Joker, and maybe give a quick little fist pump if no one is looking. But that first one, that was real special and I’ll never quite get as close to the same feeling again, no matter how many times I do this.
Of all the things I have written or will write, DEATH IS JUST A DAY JOB will always be the piece I’m most proud of. While it still lingers in first draft limbo, I’m determined to dust it off one day and release it into the wild.
2008 - THE ADVENTURES OF MAXWELL COOPER
After November 2007, I thought I had finally found my mojo and the novels that had sat unfinished in my brain for the last decade would now just flow onto bookshelves. I mean, thanks NaNoWriMo, but I’m not waiting eleven months to go again. I got this.
Except I didn’t. Editing DEATH IS JUST A DAY JOB came to a halt, and any new projects I started just fell into the same issues as before; loss of interest or a complete block.
I began to think that my first NaNo win would be my only, that it had been a fluke. I definitely went in with more fear than the last time. I knew what it would take. I knew that I was my own worst enemy.
So, as November 2008 loomed in the distance, I knuckled down and tried to come up with a way to get a second win.
My solution was to right short stories that combined to make a bigger one. Bite size should mean less technical hitches over a linger piece. So I looked back through my binders at everything I’d worked on and abandoned and I found one little story that I thought would fit my requirements; THE ADVENTURES OF MAXWELL COOPER.
Like the previous years’ work, it was an idea that had a worked and reworked opening 20 pages but no more. The first chapters had changed over and over again so much, as had the style and genre. But as November 2008 stepped up, I settled on a YA fantasy that was designed to be built of five different adventures across one single quest. It sees the titular character stuck in the world of his favourite novels and travelling backwards trough the series. I thought I could write it bite sized and get through it a little easier.
I didn’t make it past day one.
I’m not sure exactly why, but I’d guess that life was doing things and when that first day rolled around, I was distracted, and my heart wasn’t in it.
Thankfully that wasn’t the end of me and NaNo.
2009 - JUSTICE
I was even more anxious going into 2009. One win, and one no show. What was gonna happen this time?
I continued the theme of taking stories that I had started over and over again, and with Marvel kicking off the golden age of Superhero cinema, I took my love of the films and comics and decided it was time for me to write something I was really passionate about.
I had pictures and stories and characters from my collage attempts at my own comic book, and it was from here that I mined everything I might need.
Originally titled WHAT A HERO WANTS, I wanted to tell an origin story with a twist. Unlike heroes that stumble into powers, or are forced into situations where they finally become the hero, my main character wanted nothing more than to be a superhero and was close to realising his dream when a dramatic moment forces him to turn his back. From hero to zero.
The love of the subject matter showed in how easy I found the story to write. I never had to work around anything, I never got lost or stumped, and I found the ending when I needed to. I like all the characters and where they ended up. I saw room to improve and enlarge the story. And as I wrote, my mind showed other stories in the same universe. A nice big playground to explore. I never found myself stumped and went straight from beginning to end in a nice, cohesive manner. Probably the smoothest NaNoWriMo project to date.
2010 - I AM BROKEN
One of the things people find difficult about NaNoWriMo is finding the time to write. When something comes up any other time of the year it isn’t too bad to miss a day. But under the time constraint, missing a day forces you to find somewhen else to write 1667 (or more words to make up for the loss.
That year I once again went into NaNo with an old beginning that I’d rewritten and rejigged several times over the years (seriously, I have a cellar full of these), but this time I had something else, something that meant I had no excuse to fail.
None. At. All.
In September of 2010 I was made redundant and put on Garden Leave. No work, but still getting paid. So when NaNoWriMo coasted up 32 days later, I had all the time in the world.
I didn’t have the normal thirty days with work taking up a massive chunk of change. I had from when I woke to when I went to bed to write as much as I could. I was a gift and I was determined not to waste it.
In fact, I was so optimistic, I upped my required work count from the standard 50,000 to 60,000.
I AM BROKEN was hard to write. Not physically. I wrote every day, set personal bests, and managed to be across 50,000 by November 30th. But it was a big story, bigger than anything I’d ever written before. And I don’t mean work count, though the 57,000 I made it too was impressive in my eyes. No, it was big because it was filled to the brim with characters and ideas and plot. I was layer and complicated. And things just kept adding.
If everything I’d written before was ‘Carrie’ sized in its length, this thing was my ‘Stand’.
One thing that I found really helped, and it’s something I’ve used to assist me every year ever since, is writing to movie soundtracks. It really helped me write to a certain style and build the story cinematic in my mind. In 2010 I picked one specific soundtrack and played it on a loop as I wrote.
Thirty days later I was done. At I didn’t make it to the 60,000, this was the most I’d managed to date, and I only had one lull around the two thirds mark. I crossed 50,000 on the 24th and just kept going. The only thing that makes me sad is that I never got to the end, even to this day, and that part of the story is still sat in my head.
One day I will get it onto paper. One day.
2011 - THE ADVENTURES OF MAXWELL COOPER
As my fifth year of NaNo rolled around, I was beginning to feel quite confident in my taking part. Only one misstep out of four tries, and with a record-breaking previous win, I stepped up like I owned NaNo.
Of course, I had a job at this point, so that would be no all-hours-of-the-day writing.
I changed my game and decided to fill the hole in the current collection by going back and fixing my one failure. Months before November I started planning THE ADVENTURES OF MAXWELL COOPER in more detail, ironing out all the kinks and making sure I knew exactly where I was going.
Once again, this story beat me. Again, I found myself distracted, and the story drifted away. My daily word counts were poor and the finish line moved further and further away. I tried to relight the spark gave me the idea all those years ago, but after two weeks, and only managing 15,000 words, I knew I was dragging a dead novel beside me and I decided to let go.
One day I will finish Maxwell’s story.
2012 - DEAD DOLLARS
If 2011 was bad, this one was much worse. I don’t like excuses, but for this one time I think you’ll agree that failing wasn’t much of a choice. With another idea from the cellar, I dived into DEAD DOLLARS, a zombie western inspired by the scene from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.
I say dived in but, due to the circumstances surrounding November 2012, I’m surprised I even thought about trying to write anything at all.
The wife and I had chosen to move in with her father while she was pregnant, and were looking for a bigger place to live. The space we had in my father-in-law’s bungalow was limited as was TalkTalk’s excuse for Broadband. This is in itself would have been a challenge for most NaNoWriMo participants but for me it was just the tip of the iceberg.
Add that to another redundancy in less than 2 years, and suddenly writing a zombie western didn’t seem like a priority in life. As November approached, I kept flicking between wanting to take part and thinking it would be crazy to add more stress, but in the end I knew NaNo was good for me and figured I needed something positive to keep me going.
So I began. It was as tough as I thought with limited internet access and nowhere to sit down and write comfortably. I’ll never know if I would have gotten to the end of the story as our son, who was due at Christmas of that year, decided he wanted out sooner. Right in the middle of November.
Needless to say, DEAD DOLLARS didn’t get much further.
(to be continued . . . )