Friend of Libro (and of Liz), Linda Gillard has been an actress, journalist and teacher and is the author of five novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award (for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape). Her most recent novels, HOUSE OF SILENCE and UNTYING THE KNOT are Kindle bestsellers. To find out more about Linda and her work, do visit www.lindagillard.co.uk
Linda is passionate about helping other people to write; she has regularly offered masterclasses at BookCrossing Unconventions and is Writer in Residence for Durham University’s “Celebrating Science” initiative.
November saw NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a hugely popular highlight in the writing year – and a lot of people will have “won” by getting the requisite number of words down. And that’s great – well done! But what if you didn’t – does that mean you should give up. Let’s hear what Linda has to say, in a special guest blog post she’s written for Libro.
The Right Time To Write
Do you have writer’s cramp? Or typist’s tremor? Did you enter the annual November writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo? (National Novel Writing Month). And if you did, did you finish, or did you give up exhausted half-way through the month?
I’m a professional writer with five published novels on my CV and I’m about to finish a sixth. I write full-time, so I’m not your typical WriMo-er but, encouraged by the buzz and some enthusiastic writing friends, I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first (and probably last) time in 2010.
It was an illuminating experience and taught me a lot about how I write. I gave up half-way through the month with a word count of 26,000. I didn’t abandon my novel, I simply stopped beating myself up about speed and resumed my normal writing pace and methods. I’d discovered that NaNoWriMo was not for me. I’m about to finish that novel which means, like most of my books, it’s taken me a bit more than a year to write.
I made a good start even though I’d not done lot of planning. (I don’t plan my novels very much anyway, so this wasn’t raising the bar for me.) Producing quantities of words isn’t difficult for me, but writing at NaNo speed confirmed for me what I’ve always thought about novel-writing: finding time to write a novel isn’t nearly as difficult as finding time to think a novel.
And that’s what was missing from my NaNo experience. Time to think. I wasn’t day-dreaming, hypothesizing, re-thinking or revising – all those processes that, for me, are what novel-writing is about. I was just producing an impressive daily word count.
My set-up was promising. The writing was competent. Then at 18,000 words things started to get tough. Artistic decisions had to be made and I wanted to slow down and reflect on what I’d produced so far. I knew I needed to get to know my characters better. In short, I wanted my novel-in-progress to develop and mature. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. It’s about “getting all your ideas down”, that and the big confidence boost of actually finishing a draft.
It’s my view that anyone with a love of writing, a vivid imagination, some spare time and some determination can produce a quarter of a novel. Many novels – even those begun by seasoned professionals – are abandoned around the 25,000-word mark. Writers hit a wall. I think it’s because by then, we’ve finished setting up, we’ve created the characters and their environment. What comes next is the hard part: the development and careful structuring of the story so it moves towards the necessary climaxes and resolution. I believe writers only move beyond this point if they really, really want to tell their story (or if they’re contracted to tell it and have a deadline.)
The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said, “There is no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to say there’s no point, but I will say, if you aren’t being paid to write, you’re unlikely to finish your novel unless you feel this way.
NaNoWriMo is brilliant as an inspiring, sociable and creative exercise. It’s great for producing a very rough draft of the novel you’ve been brewing up for months or years. But it worries me the way NaNo has “failure” built in for so many participants – and not just failure to achieve the 50,000 word count. Last year during NaNo month I read many complaints on Facebook from writers suffering RSI-related pain, yet their well-meaning fellow participants encouraged them to push on through the pain, thereby risking the possibility of serious damage to the delicate tendons of the hand. This isn’t writing, it’s masochism! Producing a novel is a test of stamina. It shouldn’t be a test of endurance.
I question the wisdom of producing fiction in a state of caffeine-fuelled exhaustion and pain. It might be possible to write like this, but it’s unlikely to produce your best work.(It certainly didn’t produce mine and despite a great deal of editing, I still have reservations about the early chapters of my NaNo novel.)
I’m not trying to knock NaNoWriMo, I’m just making a plea for balance. I’d like to challenge the idea that churning out verbiage for an entire month has to be good. I’d like to extol the virtues of a more thoughtful approach, especially to those who withdrew defeated from the NaNo marathon and to them I’d like to say, there’s a reason why professional novelists don’t produce a book in a month.
Last year when I was struggling to stay in the NaNo game, I wearied of people claiming on FB that “everything can be fixed once you have a draft”. I don’t believe it can. The prolific Nora Roberts said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” It is important to get your ideas down on paper and drafts are there to be edited into something better. What worries me about NaNoWriMo is not the fast writing it requires, but the fast thinking, the decision-making that story-telling requires. Quick thinking can lead to the quick-fix and the quick-fix can lead to predictability, stereotype and cliché.
When my children were young and asked to watch films and TV programmes that I thought might frighten them, I refused and warned them that once you’ve seen something, you can never un-see it (which they discovered to their cost when they had months of nightmares inspired by RETURN TO OZ.) I believe it can be the same with writing. You can of course un-write stuff, but you can’t un-think it or un-hear it. Writing is decision-making, word by painstaking word. If you’re concerned about the quality of your fiction and not just the quantity, I think there’s a lot to be said for remaining alert, receptive and poised for that moment of inspiration, the right time to write. If you ask me, that’s the really hard part about novel-writing: the waiting. Waiting until you’re ready to write. Knowing when you’re ready.
If you didn’t finish NaNo this year, don’t be too despondent and please don’t think you “failed”. Maybe you weren’t ready to write. Writing is the end product of a process of thinking and feeling. Maybe you had more thinking to do. Maybe you just aren’t a fast writer. I’m a professional and I failed to produce 50,000 words in thirty days – or rather, I decided that to do so would be counter-creative, because for me it’s not about the word count, it’s about how much my words count.