This article is reposted from The Guardian. Happy #NaNoWriMo!
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. It’s for anyone thinking about writing a novel. To take part all you need to do is commit to writing 50,000 words of your novel in the 30 days of November. There’s a website where you set up a profile, with incentives in the form of badges, and a supportive social media community to cheer you on as you strive to meet your daily word targets. And some great novels have started as NaNoWriMo projects, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, to name but two.
For the past two years I’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo, although I cannot claim to have ever “won”: that is, achieve the full 50,000 words. I think it’s great. If only for the fact that if you write every single day you’ll develop a positive habit and your writing will improve. I wish I’d known about it when I was writing my first book, because developing the habit of writing every day didn’t come easily.
This is pretty much how every conversation went in the period between me having the idea for my book, Beetle Boy, and me actually sitting down to write it.
“How’s the book coming along?”
“Um, you know… work’s full-on right now, and I seem to spend my weekends standing by the side of a football pitch. We’re doing the secondary school choosing thing at the minute; it’s stressful. Oh, and don’t get me started on the stuff we need to do to the house.’
I – like everybody else – have a truck-load of distractions that makes it impossible to find the time to write a book. Nevertheless, I had a burning desire to tell a story I had growing in my head, about a thoughtful boy called Darkus Cuttle and the staggering array of beetles we share the planet with.
Maya Angelou once said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And I came to know this to be true. The longer I didn’t write my book the more miserable and frustrated I became. I wrote Maya Angelou’s words on the inside of my notebook. I had to write my story, but when?
I looked for the spare moments in the day in which I could write. I would get up, get myself, and my son, dressed, we’d wolf down breakfast, I’d rush him to school, then commute to work. I’d do my days work, dash back to the school, bring him home, make dinner, put him to bed, and right at the end of the day, once the house was quiet, I’d sit down and try to write. But I was knackered, my brain was fatigued and my body exhausted. All I really wanted was a large glass of red wine and to watch some crap tele. I rarely got down more than a sentence or two.
Writing felt like the hardest thing in the world.
Then it occurred to me; I was trying to write when I was tired. In fact “I’m tired” is the most common thing I say. I had never considered how sharp your mental faculties needed to be to write well. I decided that I would try and write at the beginning of the day, before my son woke up. So I set my alarm for five o’clock in the morning.
At five, I’d get up, make a cup of tea and a hot water bottle, – it’s cold at that time of day – and sit down in front of my laptop, and, finally, I began to write my book.
I only had one hour to write, so I set myself some rules:
- Write every day
If you can write 1000 words a day, that’s 5000 words in a week. The average children’s book is 55,000 words long; that’s 11 weeks of writing.
2. Carve out a time and place for writing.
You need to develop writing as a habit that fits into your daily routine. I wrote at 5am in a freezing lean-to conservatory, but it was my special time of the day where I did something truly for myself, and I loved it.
3. Treat writing your book as work
This is not a hobby, or an indulgence, but a serious piece of work that you expect to be paid for one day. If you don’t treat your writing as work, then the people around you won’t take it seriously either. You need them to respect your writing time.
4. Write as many words as possible
The first draft is all about getting it written. The second draft is about getting it right.
5. Do not read back anything you’ve written
You must not look back. You must only progress forward. You are Orpheus in the underworld, and your novel Eurydice. If you look back you will never drag your novel out of hell and into the land of the living.
6. You are not allowed to edit your first draft
Resist all urges to tinker, improve or amend your first draft. If you start meddling you will never get to the end.
7. Give yourself a break
Remember, writing is a job, do it Monday to Friday. Give yourself weekends off. Weekends are for lie-ins, family and having fun. You brain will use the down time to process problems and brew-up ideas.
8. Don’t talk about or let anyone read your book, until its finished
If you can’t talk about what you are writing, or let anyone read it, then you eliminate doubt and insecurity from the process of writing. Other people’s reactions to your work can make you question everything, including why you’re doing it in the first place. Writing a book can be as intoxicating as having an affair, all day your head will be full of your story, the characters, things they say to one another, and if you keep it secret, you’ll be desperate to get to your keyboard, because secrets want to be shared. It may sound crazy but keeping it a secret creates momentum and helps keep you going through the tough times.
It took me just over five months to write all the way to the end of my story. I had written 120,000 words of messy prose, but my story was out of my head and on the page. I felt elated. I had something to work with, to improve upon. I had written a book.
That first book eventually became Beetle Boy, and was snapped up by Barry Cunningham, the man who believed in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, and it will be published by Chicken House in March 2016. I still have to pinch myself when I think about it.
The best advice I can give anyone wanting to write a book, is to write every day. With your first book, this is an act of blind faith. But I promise, if you write every day eventually you will have written a book.