As I mentioned the other day I’m going to do Nanowrimo this year, and I’m intending to use it to produce a short story collection on a theme. Competitions are very often for a themed collection and I have so many disparate stories I struggle to bring them together, so this is an opportunity to rectify that.The theme will ostensibly be Brexit but with a very big twist. I won’t say more at the moment, just tap my nose mysteriously and remain enigmatic. Right now I’m producing notes and ideas and writing them in a special notebook. I’ve also registered on the official Nanowrimo site andjoined a Leicestershire Facebook group. So we’re on the way.
To most non-writers, 50,000 words sounds like a lot – and so it is. But in fact it’s a short novel by normal standards, almost a novella.For comparison, War and Peace is ten times that length, weighing in at 585,000 and The Colour Purple comes in at66,000. Most novels in the UK are between 80-100,000 and this is considered a good length by publishers. Too short and it makes a very slim volume; too long and it could be off-putting.No such qualms for Proust – ‘A la Recherche’ weighs in at 1,267,000 words, making it one of the longest books in the world (though to be fair it is six books in one).
If you want an idea of the work involved, try filling three sides of A4 (or three pages on a word processor, double spaced.) That gives you around 1000 words. Then multiply by fifty and you’re there. Simple, ain’t it?
I shall as always be setting myself a daily target of 2,380 (50,000 divided by the number of working days in November.) Which is basically 7 pages a day.
At this time of year all aspiring writers of fiction gear up for the first of November when Nanowrimo starts. Nanowrimo is short for National Novel-writing Month and has spawned a number of spin-offs such as National Poetry Writing Month (Napowrimo) and Nablopomo which sounds like a member of the Soviet Politburo but is to do with blog posting. With Nanowrimo the idea is to produce a novel of 50,000 words in a month. If this sounds a tall order, that’s because it is; if you write every day including weekends you’d have to produce over a thousand words (or three pages of A4) a day. If that doesn’t seem like much just sit down and try it – and if you don’t know what 50,000 words looks like, it’s a short novel or a longish novella (or a Russian short story.)
I had already decided not to do Nano this year, seeing as how I’ve just finished a novel, but now a brilliant idea has occurred to me. What about a short story collection! There are often competitions for themed short story collections and I usually struggle to fit my disparate stories under one umbrella, so what if I were to write a collection that was themed from the start? November 1st is (in theory) the first day of our brand new bright Brexit tomorrow, so what better theme than Brexit Britain?
Del Boy’s dreams (in ‘Only Fools and Horses’) always used to end with him saying confidently, ‘this time next year we’ll be millionaires.’ Well I can’t look at my blog post for this time next year but I can look back to last year and see where I was at. And lo! I was here: https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/can-i-be-novel/
Just goes to show what a difference a year makes.
Still no baby – but then again it’s not due for five days.
You know how computer programmers say the first 95% takes 95% of the time? And the last 5% also takes 95% of the time? I can so relate to that because that’s exactly how a novel is; the first draft takes 95% of the time – then the rewrites also take 95% of the time. Even so, I have a huge sense of achievement in being able to say that I have finished!!! the first draft of my novel Tapestry (working title) whose chapters are based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers.
The idea came from hearing that the Bayeux Tapestry (see above) was about to come to Britain. Around the same time someone lent me a book from a Grayson Perry exhibition, also of tapestries – and the two came together. I don’t know where the Fibonacci idea came in but it just seemed to work on so many levels. So there we are, and 84,000 words later (gulp!) the first draft is done.
The first chapters came easily, being only a thousand words each. After that it got more complicated and when I reached Chapter 21 (21,000 words) I began to set myself a daily word challenge. I would write 700 words a day and then stop. If I was still in the flow after 700 words, that was all to the good, I could pick it up again the next day – if not, it didn’t matter. It was amazing how the sense of slow and steady progress built, week after week; finishing Chapter 21 and starting on the dauntingly lengthy Chapter 34 (34,000 words) but I got there. You’ll be pleased to know that Chapter 55 is deliberately unfinished as the narrator dies (I think a 55,000-word chapter is asking too much of any reader – I’m not Proust.)
So there we have it. This week I shall be mostly… getting stuff ready to send to publishers and winding down ready for August, a month of No Work.
Other writers do things properly. Other writers plan; in fact more than one writer has put in their guidelines ‘plan, plan and plan again.’ I don’t even plan once. Sure, I throw a few random ideas into a notebook; perhaps a few diagrams, maybe even a paragraph or two. A tablespoon of characters, maybe a slew of dominant colours – but that’s all. If I were to plan a novel so that I knew what was going to be in each chapter I’d be so bored by the end of it that I’d lose all interest in writing the damned thing. A novel has to come as a surprise to me otherwise I can’t be bothered.
None of this means I don’t have a broad outline or an overarching idea. All of my novels have begun with a concept: a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker (Seven Days) gender dysphoria (The Trans Woman’s Wife) or the one I’m working on now which is based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers.
I have an idea about writing, taken from Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife (or it might be The Amber Spyglass). There’s a knife which cuts between worlds and someone tells Will, the knife-bearer, ‘when you cut you have intentions. But the knife has intentions too.’ And I think writing’s like that: you start out with intentions (this poem is about…) but the poem has intentions too – and if you are wise you’ll follow those.
‘Following the Intentions of the Novel’ – that sounds like a good title for a writing course, doesn’t it? And here, just for fun, is a quote on writing:
I wish I hadn’t put ‘…a Little Bit Rock’n’Roll’ in the title of the last post because every time I read it I think of this song. Anodyne and sickly as the Osmonds were, there’s nothing worse than them also pretending to be rock’n’roll.Which means I have to write another post, and that’s hard because I’m in a fallow phase. You know your brain’s getting stuck when you get a song going round inside it; in the last few days I’ve had the Gentleman Jack theme song followed by this one, which I don’t even like.In my experience when the mind goes round like a record on repeat it’s trying to make sense of something and the best thing is to leave it alone. Get on with something else. So that is what I shall do.
As far as work goes I’ve finished Chapter 34 of the Tapestry novel. Chapter 34 is the ninth chapter and will be followed by the tenth, Chapter 55 which in theory should be 55,000 words long but won’t be (if you’re confused, imagine how I feel.) Not wishing to try the patience of the reader the final chapter will be fragmented just as our world is fragmented, with pieces tailing off, unravelling, lost…
The novel aims to be a portrait of modern Britain centring on Brexit. It’s a book of voices, everyone giving their own account of themselves, their thoughts and experiences. From the Queen to a homeless man, from a refugee to Tommy Robinson and including some famous ghosts, these voices make up the Tapestry of Britain today.
And that’s me up to date. Today I shall be mostly… tinkering with things, going for coffee and catching up with the weeds which are always one step ahead…
I’m back on the yoga philosophy trail again and I caught myself wondering this morning as I hovered on the edge of discipline looking into the chasm of dreariness, where does healthy self-control end and Professor Gradgrind take over? I know it happens but I can’t quite figure out how.
The yoga term for self-discipline – I was living in Spain when I discovered this and it seemed highly amusing – is tapas. This is an individual process rather than something imposed from outside, though external disciplines can help. When I was living in the yoga centre I learned a great deal about myself, particularly that I was not good at getting up at six a m. Then again, getting up at six did help me to push the boundaries of my life. That was a good discipline. On the other hand asana sessions always began with several rounds of sun salutations which at that time I found utterly crippling. Had I been given some modifications I might have found a way into this practice; as it is, even today I still have a mental block about it.That was not a good discipline.
Discipline from outside is a double-edged sword; you have to know what is enough and what is too much. Over the years I’ve learned to take what helps me and ignore the rest, because in the end what matters is self-discipline. If you can’t control yourself you’re in deep trouble– or everyone else is: look at Trump.But here’s the rub: how much discipline is enough?
When I began writing full-time like most people I had trouble getting into a routine. So I imposed one and made myself work from nine till five with timed breaks for tea and lunch. That was fine initially but after a while it exhausted me because that inflexible routine ignored the real patterns of creativity. Sometimes I need to sit in the garden and think. Sometimes I need to read or go for a walk; some days I must finish early or go mad. Then again there are afternoons when I write, oblivious of time, until I’m called for dinner (I know – lucky me not having to cook.)*
Routine is a good servant but a bad master; in the end you have to follow the river of art no matter where it leads.
*Every woman at some point has to stop writing and put the dinner on. That is her tragedy. No man does: that is his.