All you need to know about NaNoWriMo!
Serene Conneeley’s fascination with history, travel, herbal healing, magic and myths comes through in all her novels and non-fiction, starting with one of my all-time favourites, Seven Sacred Sites: magical journeys that will change your life. Since then she’s written several other non-fiction books, including Witchy Magic, Faery Magic and Mermaid Magic when not busy at her day job as editor of several pre-school magazines. Serene’s venture into fiction came about through taking part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and a magical trilogy set in Glastonbury is the result. She’s kindly agreed to share her experience on my blog, and I’m sure will inspire many of you to give NaNoWriMo a go, if you haven’t tried it already! Serene also has some double passes to give away for Sydney’s Book Expo, so read on!
Q: What prompted you to think about taking up the NaNoWriMo challenge?
A: I first heard about NaNoWriMo several years ago, and was intrigued, but I always had book launches and festivals (and pre-Christmas deadlines at my day job in kids mags) in November, and didn’t think I could commit to it properly. But in 2012 I launched a book in September, so I figured that year was as good a time as any and signed up.
I had no idea what I was going to write about or whether I could hit the 50,000-word target, let alone if I could even write fiction – my first five books were non-fiction. But I thought this would be a great way to find out. And if the answer was no, I’d only have sacrificed a month. So I took a deep breath and jumped in…
My first NaNoWriMo experience was awesome and scary and fun and frustrating and intense and exhausting and wonderful and terrifying, all at once. I had no expectations that year – I just figured it would be a great writing exercise, and a great challenge (and I always love a challenge!), and that it didn’t matter what came of it, whether I made it to 50,000 words or not (although I was determined to finish it), or whether the story was good or not – I was fully prepared to discover that I was terrible at fiction and that it would stay in my bottom drawer forever.
Yet by the end of the month I had a story I really liked, and which people have loved reading. Of course there were days I hated it and wanted to quit, many days when I struggled to force myself to write, many days when I thought my story was crap and not even worth completing. And I must admit, even after eight books, those moments of self-doubt never go away, and in some ways they actually increase the more books I finish. But there were also days when I surprised myself, and really liked how the story was unfolding, and they made it worth it and kept me going.
Q: Will you tell us something about the process of writing that first novel?
A: Into the Mists, was pretty much written in that month. Of course I spent months after that rewriting, adding, cutting, polishing etc, but Carlie’s story was definitely born in that month, going from a vague idea that a young girl would be sent to stay with her grandmother and would find a cottage which may or may not be real, into a fully formed novel that ended up spawning two sequels and at least two upcoming books from within the same world.
Q: So a first book led to a second novel. How did that go?
A: My second attempt, in 2013, was more challenging, as my husband and I went to Scotland for a month. We’d planned to go in October, but he couldn’t get time off work then, so it ended up being from November 1 to 30 – every single day of NanoWriMo 🙂 A lot of people told me not to bother writing while I was away, but I believe you can find time for anything if you really want to, so I took a crappy little laptop with me and managed to hit my 50,000 words by the time we flew home at the end of the month. It was hard, as some days there was a lot of driving or whatever, but I compensated by occasionally writing 4000 words in a day to catch up 🙂
There was more pressure the second time – a lot of people had loved my first story, and I’d announced I was writing book two of the series to keep myself accountable, so there was pressure to finish it, and pressure for it to be as good as the first one (which I was prepared to concede might have been a fluke!), and to come up with a storyline that was strong enough on its own and also worked with the first book.
Q: Do you need to do much work on your mss after you’ve completed those first drafts at NaNoWriMo?
A: The premise and the characters in the second novel, Into the Dark, were much more complex, and a lot of what I wrote in November didn’t actually end up making it into the final story, because after November I changed a few major plot points and cut a character altogether, so ended up ditching several chapters of my NaNo draft and writing completely new ones. But it worked out in the end, and Into the Dark came out in May 2014.
I was even more nervous about NaNoWriMo 2014 – I’d stated that Into the Dark was book two of a trilogy, and announced the title and the publication date of the third one, yet I had absolutely no idea what would happen in it. I just had to trust that I’d be able to write it out again, and that by putting pen to paper and forcing myself to scribble every day, the story would eventually emerge. And it did – Into the Light came out in May this year, finishing the trilogy, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response.
Q: Would you recommend NaNoWriMo to other writers?
A: Yes, absolutely! I think this is the beauty of NaNoWriMo – you end up with a first draft, and even if you change it a lot later, as I did for books two and three, the bones of the story are there, and can be refined and worked on. Because Jodi Picoult is right, you can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank one.
For me, the freedom of writing without editing as I went was also very liberating and very productive. To hit 1667 words a day, you can’t labour over a sentence for hours or rewrite a passage you don’t like, or wait for inspiration to hit. You just have to write, and write madly, almost without conscious thought. And the more you write, the more your story reveals itself to you. It’s a kind of magic I think, the way the words spill out, and allow what you hadn’t been consciously aware of to become tangible.
It also really helped me to write long hand, in a notebook, rather than typing onto a screen. There have been interesting studies about this, and it seemed to me that I could somehow express myself more easily and connect with my imagination much better when using a pen. It did mean I had to type it in later, which was a little annoying, but most days I was prepared to do that because I seemed more inspired when scrawling it out by hand.
Q: What would you say is the ‘secret’ of succeeding at NaNoWriMo?
A: Although it’s boring, I’d say it is just making time for it – I would scribble down 900 words on the bus to work in the morning, and that again coming home, and was often more productive on work days than weekends… I kept a pen and paper with me at all times, so if I was waiting to meet someone I could scrawl out a section, or if an idea came to me I could write it down. NaNoWriMo is a challenge for sure, but it’s definitely doable if you really want to do it.
Q: Will you be doing NaNoWriMo this year?
A: Yes, I’ll be launching into a new book this November, and hoping the story will reveal itself to me again. Threads are already starting to weave themselves together, so I’m looking forward to being able to pour it all out.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in having a go?
A: Tell people you’re doing it, to make yourself accountable. I posted my word count on Facebook each day, and I would have been embarrassed if I’d given up – which is partly why I publicly stated that I was doing it 🙂 I also had a few friends who were doing it, and that definitely encouraged me to keep going. Not that I would have quit – I’m pretty stubborn – but seeing other people’s word counts in my buddies list definitely spurred me on (I discovered a competitive streak I didn’t know I had), and I know that me posting about my progress (and the triumphs and challenges and frustrations and joys) kept other people inspired too.
And, don’t despair if you don’t finish – no matter what happens, you’ll still have a lot more of a book written than you otherwise would have. Three of our group of ten got to 50,000 words (and beyond) by November 30 – which is higher than the overall average – another two passed 20,000 words, and everyone else made an awesome start, and had the beginnings of a tale for next year. My second and third years had similar stats.
Don’t be discouraged, and don’t be afraid of the blank page. I absolutely love the process of NaNoWriMo – my first time I started with just the vaguest wisp of an idea – that a girl goes to stay with her grandma in England and finds a cottage in the mists she’s not sure really exists… That was it, and each day when I started writing, I didn’t know what was going to happen – I’d just start writing, without stopping, scrawling sentences one after the other, and words would just flow out of me, and a whole story eventually emerged.
Q: And what’s your best tip?
A: Be fearless! I had to stop worrying about how good what I was writing was, and just write. With my non-fiction books, if I had a migraine or felt uninspired I would do some research, or edit previous chapters, or do something else related to the project that didn’t involve writing. But with the knowledge that I had to rack up 1667 words each day (and more if I’d slacked off a bit in previous days), I didn’t have that luxury – I just had to write. And that was really freeing. My inner editor was switched off, and I wrote without thinking, almost stream of consciousness, and I never looked back at what I’d written either, I just kept going forward. And I was surprised (and happy) when I realised that by just continuing to write, I’d eventually figure out how to get from one scene to another. Each day I’d start with no idea of what would happen, yet by the end of that session I’d worked out how to progress the plot. Writing so regularly helped too, because I was thinking about the story all the time, and I’d often solve a problem in the shower or while working out, when my mind was free to wander.
I loved writing long hand too – even though it was annoying to have to type it in at night, it somehow seemed to flow better using pen and paper rather than a keyboard… I’m often asked what the secret to writing a book is, and they’re always disappointed with my answer – but it’s true. To write a book, you just have to sit down and write it. Day after day after day. Seems obvious I know, but people always hope for a magic spell, a shortcut of some kind, but it doesn’t exist.
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A: Some people plan meticulously before they start writing, plotting the storyline and fleshing out chapter outlines and character bios, which I very much admire. I had planned to do a lot of planning – but it hasn’t worked out that way. The first year I’d thought I would have all of October to spend on plotting and planning, but I didn’t end up finishing the launch and promotion and website for my previous book until October 31, so the next day I just started writing furiously and discovering what the plot was as it poured out onto the page.
The same thing happened the following two years, and looks set to reoccur this year, so I guess I’m a make-it-up-as-I-go-along type – a pantser flying by the seat of my pants. I find the process of different writers fascinating – some plan meticulously, and I really admire that, while others don’t plan at all, which can be stressful (believe me!). After three years of NaNo, I realise that I’m firmly in the latter category, which makes sense I guess, since I’m a bit impatient, but I’ve also discovered that I really love seeing where the writing takes me, watching it unfold as I go and not knowing what will happen in the end. There’s a certain alchemy to the journey that I love, so although I always say I’ll plan next time, maybe I never will.
I also really love the forced nature of NaNoWriMo – I could have started a new book already, and tried to find time to write it amongst the rest of my life, but part of me thinks it would take much longer that way, that my day job would get in the way, that I would procrastinate too much, and second guess myself, and get bogged down in editing as I go, and wait until inspiration hits – which is never a guaranteed thing. So I think I’ll be the most productive if I just wait until November 1 and write it all then. Of course I’ll spend months afterwards editing and revising and rewriting and the rest of it, but there’s nothing like the pressure of a November deadline to force you to bang out a first draft!
If anyone would like to join my online community, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can become NaNoWriMo buddies…
I also have two double passes to give away for Sydney’s Book Expo (www.bookexpoaustralia.com) the weekend of October 17 and 18, so email me at email@example.com if you’re interested and I’ll give the first two people to contact me the code…
For book purchases and to find out more about Serene visit her website: SereneConneeley.com. Serene’s blog is at: serenesblessedbee.wordpress.com.