November approaches, and once again I’ve decided to throw my hat into that rather bizarre ring marked ‘NaNoWriMo’ in large blue letters. This will be my fourth attempt at the ever-popular writing contest, which I’ll be undertaking again despite the relative failures of the first three attempts.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, ‘NaNoWriMo’ is contorted internet terminology for National Novel Writing Month, a yearly challenge in which people pit themselves against a 50,000 word goal to achieve over the course of the dullest month of the year. This represents the bulk of a first draft, and the lofty ideals of the competition are that it engages hundreds of thousands of wannabe novel writers to get past the awkward first draft stage by blasting through it at a rate of knots, quality be damned. (That’s for the second draft)

Detractors of the competition argue that it leads to a sudden and inexorable outpouring of pure literary bilge, far too much of which is dumped into the self-publishing market without so much as a quick and dirty fondle by an editor. They’re probably right (I can certainly speak to the bilge part) but at the same time, hey, it’s a lot of fun and an awful lot of writers find it a useful tool to getting them on the road to having a proper, finished book. So go fudge yourself, haters. *does some kind of hand gesture to back up point*

My own personal history with the competition is chequered. My first entry came when the competition was quite young, a tale of a psychic boy and a serial killer that was, as far as I can remember, quite good. Unfortunately I wrote it on my then-girlfriend’s laptop, it waited for me to finish the whole 50,000 words and then promptly died, taking the manuscript and quite a large collection of illegally downloaded mp3’s with it. That was a fun day.

My second attempt actually provided some of what ends up in Blood on the Motorway today, but not really, because it’s now a completely different book. That first attempt was awful, as evidenced by the fact that it’s taken me the best part of a decade and at least three complete re-writes to salvage a book out of it. It started out as a road novel attempting to dissect the death of youth culture in Britain, but then I realised that youth culture hadn’t died, I’d just gotten older (awkward) so now it’s an apocalyptic tale of murder, because realising the death of my own youth compelled me to write the end of mankind.

The third book was quite a good idea, which I’ll probably try and return to one day, a sci fi horror hybrid set on the ice moon of Europa. But if the idea was half decent the execution was utterly horrible, to the point that when I hit 50,000 words in the middle of a chapter (with a good few chapters to go) I just stopped, verified my winner’s status and moved it into a folder which I will never open again.

And now I’m taking another bite at the apple. Sure, I should have learnt my lesson by now, but clearly I haven’t. Hopefully things will be a bit better this time around. Now, I’m writing a sequel rather than original story, so I’m working within a world I’m much more familiar with, and with characters I know pretty well by now. Also, I’m attempting this now as someone who has learnt an awful lot about how to write a book through the good, old fashioned method of trial and error. And error. And error.

My big mistake with the two that didn’t work was relying too much on ‘pantsing’ my way through the plot, without giving due care an attention to the concepts of plot vs concept vs setting. I might have my setting, and I’ll leave my plot to work itself out, but I definitely need to work on my concept before I start. I have my characters but what is it they’re doing in this story? What are they fighting against? What do they need to overcome? In short, what is the tension. I have two weeks to work that out, but it’s something I’ll definitely aim to have sorted by the time I sit down on the 1st to start writing.

Still, I’m pretty excited. It seems like there’s a lot more to NaNo than there was last time I did it. Then there was a local group but it was quite small and I was too skint to go to spend an afternoon in a coffee shop so I was mainly tackling it on my own. Now it seems like there’s a pretty large local support group I can go write with, but I also have my online writers group, an entire shedload of whom are doing NaNo this year.

So November will (hopefully) be insanely productive and a hell of a lot of fun, if I can just get through the thing without developing a rash every time I see the number 1667.

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