I fought November, and November won

Winner-2014-Web-BannerThat was, it has to be said, a stupid idea. I knew full well that November was going to be a nightmare month at work, and yet I decided to commit to NaNoWriMo. Stupid. Work turned out to be far more stressful than I had actually foreseen, and getting across that finish line was like trying to drink sand. But I did it, hence the shiny winners image you can see looming over these very words. 50,008, in the end, with those last 8 words there purely for show-boating reasons, as I danced naked astride my own satisfaction at crossing the finish line. So what did I get out of it? Well, I’ve got the first 50k of a first draft for a second Blood on the Motorway book (try saying that five times drunk), and an immense relief that those words don’t seem to have been a colossal waste of time. The story seems to be pretty robust, if lacking a clear ending yet, the new characters seem reasonably interesting and the amount of peril I have all my characters going through is enough to rival the entire Nightmare on Elm Street movie series. So that’s fun. I reckon there’s another 30-40k left in the first draft, and that the final book will probably be a bit longer than its predecessor will shake out at.

At the end of the month, what with all the being on the brink of total mental collapse, I decided to take December off from writing. Next year should be a pretty big year for my writing, seeing as I’m planning to launch a business and three full length books at the end of it, all while getting married and getting fit, so I thought it might not be a bad idea to ease off a bit at the end of 2014, take stock, and plan the year ahead.

I’ve not really stopped though, when you take into account the planning bit. I’m actually really excited for next year, and having made the decision to go down the ‘indie author’ route (I’m no longer calling it self-publishing because of that wrinkled up face of concern at my mental well-being that so often follows it) I’ve been planning out the various milestones I need to hit in order to achieve that. I now have a google calendar set up with all the different things we need to plan next year put on. If I can say I’ve learnt anything from my job, it’s the value of project planning. So for the next few weeks I’m going to be enjoying the whole Christmas malarkey, but I’ll also be gearing up, getting myself in the right mental frame of mind to spring into action in the new year.

Wanted: A plot

With only a few days left before I actually start writing the sequel to Blood on the Motorway I thought it might be an idea to start on the process of plotting it out, or at least working out some of what I’m going to be writing about, so that I don’t find myself writing all my characters down a dead end. This is, however, proving slightly harder than anticipated, although I have managed to come up with a working title that made me chuckle: Blood on the Motorway 2: Motorway Harder. Oh how I chuckled to myself. The reason I wanted to press ahead with a sequel instead of a new story was fairly simple. I know the characters and I know the world, so given both of these things I should be able to get back into things a lot quicker than if I was creating a world from scratch. I also came up with an idea for an opening chapter that had a real kick to it and should get it going really well. The problem though, is that this is not enough.

Sure, I have my characters. I know them pretty well by now, and know how they’d react in a crisis, having put them all through a fair few of those in the first book. I’ve got a couple of new characters in mind, and plans to expand a few of the characters from the first book. That’s fine.

I’ve also got the setting. Blood on the Motorway is set in a pretty specific version of the apocalypse, so any world-building is limited to seeing how the situation has deteriorated since we left the characters. The first book is supposed to be a fairly breathless page turner so I’m aiming to let things breathe a little more here as the characters come to grips with the new reality they’re in. So that’s also fine.

What I don’t have, however, is the story. I have a world, I have people, but I have no idea what the driving force of this story will be. What are our characters up against? What is their goal? I am really really stumped on this and aside from a few chapters of getting to know you again kind of stuff, I’ve got nothing. So I go into NaNoWrimo in three days with a very big question mark over my head.

I need to answer the question of what kind of story it is. The first book is apocalyptic, yes, but it’s also a horror story, and a crime story. But robbed of the antagonist from that tale, what am I going to do with my characters this time around, save for having them stand around talking about where the next meal is coming from for 80,000 words? I mean, I know Cormac McCarthy did that, but he was able to do that because he’s Cormac McCarthy. I most definitely am not, no matter how much I wish I was.

The first book was a very purposeful melding of genres, so that’s something I’d like to do again with the second (and the third, which I do kind of have a direction for), but I don’t really want to re-tread the ground covered in the first book. I also don’t want to take it in a direction that betrays the first book entirely. I’ve had some vaguely science fiction-y ideas for what could happen in this book, but each one of them would feel like a bit of betrayal of the grounded reality of the first one. I could very easily find myself pole vaulting the shark if I go down that road.

I think that as much as I didn’t want to, I’m going to have to ‘pants’ this one, and just start it and see what happens, unless inspiration hits me in the next few days.

Countdown

We’re heading into the last few days of October, which means that unlike most of the internet I’m not endlessly googling pictures of skeletons, but instead panicking about my decision to attempt NaNoWriMo again. I don’t seem able to shake the plague that my children have ever so kindly bestowed upon me (I don’t have proof it was them, but I’m assuming it was, with their shifty little plotting eyes, always trying to find my weakness), and I realised that I’ve invited my parents to visit this weekend. This means that rather than getting a hefty start under my belt with the fortuitous placement of a weekend at the start of the month, I’ll be heading into day three with probably zero words, and a working week that’s looking more and more stress-laden with every day. Oh, and I’ve done precisely zero plotting work on it due to the aforementioned deathly plague. Basically I’m screwed.

I went to a local NaNo group kick off party yesterday, however, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling these levels of dread. I turned up two hours late, made everyone feel uncomfortable for a bit, burnt my mouth on my coffee due to my social anxiety and then tried to convince everyone there that I must be a representative of Scrivener by blathering on about it for twenty minutes. But it was nice to meet some more fellow authors; perhaps next time I’ll arrive on time for it and get to speak to people better.

Deep breath. I can do this.

Getting to hate 1667 all over again

nanowrimo_logov101 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.