Nanowrimo Done

Did I win Nanowrimo? Yes, yesterday at about 10:30 am. I kept at it today just so I could get the badge for writing 30 days in a row. I am a sucker for gamification. Once I set out to collect badges, the completist in me keeps niggling away until I get as many as possible.


Do I have a novel written? No. Nothing like it. I have 50960 words in a collection of scenes arranged in a structure that bears some resemblance to that of a novel. It has a beginning and a middle, but as yet it has no end. It is certainly going to turn out to be longer than fifty thousand words which is the goal of Nanowrimo.

I think many of the individual scenes are great, and the order they are placed in suggests a narrative of sorts. But I have a long way to go before the first draft is finished, let alone the novel completed and edited.

Am I happy with what I have written? Strangely, yes. It is rough, but it is the core of a good book. It did not turn out quite as I expected it. What novel ever does? In this case, things deviated even further from my rough outline than usual, but that does not trouble me. I found answers to questions I did not know I had.

Enough of the question and answer format. I learned some things this Nanowrimo, as I usually do when I sit down to write, and as I all too often forget mere weeks after that writing is done.

The main thing is that sprints work for me. No matter how sick I was, and I was plenty sick this November, with vertigo and flu and RSI, I was never so sick that I could not set a timer for 10 minutes and write till the alarm sounded.

After the first sprint, it became easier to do the next one. Many a day, it would take me ages to set that timer. Once I did, I forced myself to write anywhere between 300 and 500 words.

Once it was done, I could talk myself into going for a second one. After that, I assured myself, I could give up for the day if I really wanted to.

But, by the end of the second timer, I was usually well on my way to a thousand words. I could probably achieve it in less than ten minutes, so let’s just set the timer again and start.

And I would hit one thousand words before the timer went, so why not keep on going until the end? At that point, it was only another four hundred words or so to hit the Nanowrimo daily goal of 1666 words, so why not just set that last timer and try for it?

Some mornings, once I hit the daily average, I was in spitting distance of two thousand words, which would give me a nice cushion against future failure. And so it went. On the worst days, there might be half an hour breaks between ten-minute sprints, but I still managed them in the end.

The main thing was simply showing up and doing the work. I think the structure of Nanowrimo, the daily badges, the charts that show your progress, the rewards for hitting milestones all helped motivate me on days when I otherwise might just have stayed in bed. There was also the social pressure of not wanting to admit failure having publically announced my participation.

To get all touchy-feely for a moment, even the fact that I knew I was participating in a once-a-year global event helped. People I know here in Prague were also involved in the project. I even attended a write-in. I am sure the fact that humans are social animals had something to do with my making progress.

In all of these ways Nanowrimo was useful and I cheerfully donated my money to the cause. (It did not hurt that I got another badge too, and a tasteful halo around my author picture on their site.)

Downsides? There were days when I was writing filler. I did the words just to boost my count, and I will most likely have to cut such scenes out when the edit comes. One or two will probably be distilled down into paragraphs. Others will go completely.

That said, there were days when I sat down to write scenes and I had no idea what was going to come out of them. Some of these scenes were pure gold. Characters would reveal their motivation. Huge plot points would be resolved in sentences of revelatory dialogue. Things that changed the direction of the whole book ambushed me. I would never have found these things if I had not just sat down and written.

In general, I tend to be an exploratory writer. Often things only become clear to me once the writing is under way. I often start with detailed outlines but still things mutate and change. Sometimes, I don’t know what I am really writing about until the book is well under way and something happens that brings everything into focus.

Scrivener helps. It makes it easy to write in scenes and shuffle those scenes into a new order with a drag and a drop.

Speech recognition helps when the RSI gets bad, but I ended up using it less than I expected. I am most comfortable at a keyboard I guess. The habits of more than thirty years are hard to change. Sometimes, for a change of pace, I used the Freewrite or speech recognition or Byword on the Mac. Shaking things up helps when you’re stuck or lacking motivation.

So here’s my formula for Nanowrimo. Use a timer. Work a little every day, usually in sprints. Use whatever text editor is at hand. Have a plan of sorts. Keep everything together in Scrivener. Cut and paste it in by the end of the day. Track your word count.

Oh and don’t trust the word counter in Scrivener, Byword, Ulysses or Microsoft Word. All of them came up long. I had a count that was over 50K in all of them. When I cut and pasted my text into Nanowrimo’s verifier, the total came up fourty-nine thousand and something words. Aim to write a few hundred words over 50000 in any of those text editors. Lesson learned. And that’s it, until next year.

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Nanowrimo Week 3

So it’s Week 3 of National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and I am still plugging away. I’ll be honest, it’s been a lot harder than I expected due to the resurgence of my vertigo. This makes writing on a computer anything but pleasant.

I’ve soldiered on and as of yesterday afternoon I had reached 40657 words. I’ll probably add at least another thousand to that total today so I am still on target to make 50000 words by the end of the month. If things go according to plan,touch wood, I’ll get even further.

I’ve made some discoveries in the last week. When you throw yourself planless and headlong into a new novel, the story can take unexpected twists. Several things about Extinction Event surprised me. One of them came totally out of the blue.

Our hero, Stormtrooper 13, is a sort of cross between Judge Dredd and a starship trooper. He had a chip in his head which records everything so that his memories can be uploaded and stored off-site. They can then downloaded into a clone body in the event of his death. He can also play these memories back in a virtual reality system, experiencing them again if he so chooses.

At one point, he comes across a bookmarked memory of how he met his now permanently dead wife. It was a strange, sad experience quite unlike anything I was expecting to be writing in a military SF novel. It showed the central character in a different light. I don’t know where such scenes come from. They just emerge onto the page.

A second development was the nature of the adversaries. Extinction Event is about the emergence of one of those world-shattering, civilisation-destroying mega-foes. I was expecting something like SkyNet. When our heroes finally encountered the menace, it proved to be something much more Lovecraftian. It turns out that my universe was stranger than I imagined. This will call for some rewriting of the earlier material, of course, but I am happy with it.

I am still finding the sprint is the way to go. I have been setting my timers for between 10 and 15 minutes and then writing as fast as I can.

I broke out the Freewrite at the weekend. There have been a couple of firmware updates that have made it more reliable, and I wanted to put the machine to work. In one way, the excellent keyboard combined with an e-ink screen is a disadvantage. I type faster than the words appear and I often don’t notice mistakes until I am long past them. I find in such cases the best thing to do is just ignore the errors and push on. I can clean up my typos later on something else.

The automatic syncing to Dropbox is a joy for this. It just works. I found with the Freewrite that I didn’t get any more written during my sprints than I would on a normal computer. I did get more words written in a shorter space of time because there were no distractions. I could not check my email or look at a website, so instead I wrote. In this respect, the Freewrite does its job.

On the worst days, when sitting at a computer was not an option, I dictated into my phone. I sat in my flat, spoke in short bursts then watched as my words were uploaded to Dropbox and automatically transcribed by Dragon Naturally Speaking. Once this was done, I cut and pasted the text into Scrivener.

Often for Nanowrimo, the key to progress is just to keep going. I did hit a point where I was stuck. I knew what my ending was, but I could not see how to get from where I was to there. So I did a reverse outline.

I wrote a brief description of the final scene, then asked myself what would be the logical step leading up to this. I wrote that scene and then repeated the process until I had gotten all the way back to where I was stuck. Once I had the outline done it was easy to start making progress again.

There were also times when I did not feel like writing the next scene in my outline. I gave myself permission to skip that scene for now and picked a different one from my reverse outline. I found myself skipping backward and forwards through it adding scenes here and there. This is not something I usually do. Normally I go for linear progress from start to finish with no shortcuts between. Still, needs must when the devil drives.

This did have the advantage of giving me clues as to what needed to happen earlier. Characters would refer to events that had already happened and clue me in on their outcomes. I don’t know why my subconscious found it easier to feed me information in this way, but it did. I could also see who survived the earlier battles by noting who was present in the later scenes.

Looking back at what I wrote last week, I can see that I coped with being stuck then in a similar way. I wrote a mini-outline that moved me forward and interpolated new scenes with old ones. It seems that even when I don’t do detailed outlines for a book and decide to wing it, I end up doing them later. I am sure there is a lesson here somewhere.

So, anyway, the end is in sight now. I have 10K more to do and a week to do it in. I should be able to manage to complete this book in time for the next blog post. That has the sound of famous last words. I guess we will find out.

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Nanowrimo: Halfway Mark

So it’s the 16th of November, and we’ve passed the halfway mark for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). On the 15th I hit 25079 words on Extinction Event, thus keeping me on target. I had hoped to be further along but as they say no plan survives contact with the enemy. In my case, the enemy happens to be a particularly pernicious case of vertigo. It leaves me dizzy a lot of the time and low-level nauseous for most of it. Not the best circumstances to be writing a novel under.

That said, I have soldiered on, relying on that old Nanowrimo standby, the sprint. By this I mean I set a timer for as long as I think I can stand it, sit down and just write my story. There have been times when the timer has been set for as low as two minutes, but here’s the thing– I can still write 100 words or more in two minutes.

According to Writeometer, my last two-minute sprint was for 107 words. If your goal is to hit 1666 words per day, you can do this with 16 two minute sprints. I don’t recommend this for purposes of getting into the flow, but it helps build the word counts.

Perhaps it is the illness, but I slammed into the wall with this book quite hard at the end of last week. I just felt like what I was writing was dull and not worth reading, and I had my doubts about keeping going. Today, looking at it, I can see it is no worse than my usual stuff, but back then I was cursing myself as useless.

It’s a reminder of how much of writing is a mind game. Just keeping yourself going can be a chore sometimes. To be fair to my critical faculties, I can see reasons why I had my doubts. While the individual scenes were readable, the cumulative effect was not achieving the effect I had hoped.

My original outline called for a chaotic multi-sided battle between a number of factions. It was a fight both epic and anarchic, with corporate mercenaries slugging it out with state-sponsored cyborg ninjas, an intervention from an alien hivemind, and our heroes caught in the middle. When I wrote it out scene by scene, it became schematic. I was so busy laying things out so they would be clearly understandable for the reader that I lost the sense of chaos you get in a real battle.

I eventually took myself aside, did a breakdown of what I had written and asked myself what had gone wrong. I then rewrote the sequence starting with an anarchic space drop and progressing to a much more exciting combination of the old scenes and new. I’m not saying it’s the best solution but it was a solution and it got things flowing again. Now the story is racing along again. Complications are piling up nicely, and I think I can see a way forward to the ending I had planned.

When I was younger, there was a good chance I would simply have given up when I started to feel like things were going astray. I had a nasty habit of doing that back then. These days, with a bit more experience under my belt, I know that there’s very little that can’t be fixed if the underlying story is strong. Things can seem hopelessly tangled, but they can pretty much always be untangled if you are prepared to put in the work.

Any other lessons? Yep, as the Bond title goes Never say never again. I swore after my experience stacking up five Kormak novels without releasing them that I would never do that again. Yet here I am working on the second military SF novel in a series without having released the first one.

I did this because I thought I was going to be editing the first one as I wrote the second one. It turns out that for the past week I haven’t had the energy to do both. The momentum of Nanowrimo pushed me to finish what I started in order to avoid the embarrassment of public failure. I have learned some interesting stuff from writing this book that I can feed back into the first book. I can also foreshadow some of the events of the second book in the first one. It’s all useful when you’re building a new universe, as I am with this series.

I am enjoying writing in this Judge Dredd meets Starship Troopers setting. It’s pretty grimdark, but I think it’s also very funny in places. Well, it makes me laugh anyway, and that’s half the battle.

Right, enough of this blogging, it’s time to get back to the actual writing. And that’s another secret of writing success, from the great Stephen King, it’s all about application. The application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Books don’t write themselves, no matter what some people might have you believe.

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

NaNoWriMo Day Five

So here we are at the start of Day Five of the month long novel writing project. This is the first of my promised updates on how things are going.

I dived headlong into NaNoWriMo at midnight on November 1st. I wrote a quick burst of 750 words and then went to bed. Why did I do this? Because the promo email from the good folks at NaNoWriMo suggested I do so. Apparently I am a sucker for not-so-subliminal suggestions.

God alone knows how long it’s been since I tried writing fiction in the wee small hours. Must have been back in the 90s. It was kind of pleasant, tapping away at the keyboard while everybody else is asleep. I can see me doing it again sometime.

When I got up in the morning my neck was a bit sore and my arm a bit numb. I decided to write in bursts of 5 to 15 minutes in the hopes of avoiding a bad attack of RSI. By the end of the day my arm was still numb so I’m not sure how well that worked.

Burst writing was an eye-opener. I am a 9 to 5 sort of writer. I have fixed working hours, mostly during what most people think of as office hours. I tend to work in 25 minute pomodoros. My thinking was that I needed time to settle in and settle down and get my creative juices flowing. Turns out I was wrong. It’s possible for me to sit down for 5 minutes, write 200 words and then wander off and do something else.

It’s a pretty good way of doing things at the moment because I can get some typing done while the toddler is watching cartoons or deep in play. I can sit down in a cafe and drink a cup of coffee and get part of another scene down.

I know this because I spent part of Saturday doing it. It has already made my participation in NaNoWriMo worthwhile as far as I am concerned. It have written at times and in places outside my comfort zone. It has shown me how to eke out extra bits and bobs of productivity.

Saturday ended with me having written 2000 words. It was a pretty good start considering there was a lot of family activity, shopping, a dinner party and various other stuff going on.

I followed that on Sunday by racking up another 2000 words. This time 750 words were written after 9 pm in the local McDonalds. During the day, I picked up a nice limited edition Lonely Mountain themed paper notebook to keep track of my word counts in. I have inscribed NaNoWriMo: An Unexpected Journey on the title page. My shoulder was now numb and my neck was aching.

Monday is one of the days I am on child-minding duties. It’s a frantic whirl of chasing a toddler around the flat, taking him for walks, keeping him amused and telling him stories.

My new Plantronics microphone arrived from Amazon just as we were returning from our regular trip down the Funicular. (If you are ever in Prague I recommend you try this by the way.) I decided to put it to good use while Will was having his post-lunch nap.

I used DragonDictate on the MacBook. I needed to do some training to set up the new microphone but once that was out of the way I managed an easy 600 words. Speech recognition seemed to work well. Unfortunately, when I returned to using it later in the evening, things did not go quite so well. This flakiness is quite typical of DragonDictate on the Mac. There are times I swear by it and there are times when I swear at it. Still I managed another 2000 words or so. A pattern is emerging here.

Tuesday swung around, my first actual work day of the week. I thought good– I’ll put in a full day and add 5000 words to my total. Ho-bloody-ho! DHL decided there would be customs problems with importing my Roost notebook stand. My MacBook went on the fritz and my arm got really sore. The email program on my Windows PC started to give me gip as well. I spent an hour sorting this. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong.

I buckled down, switched on Dragon Naturally Speaking on my games machine and managed to write 3000 words on the novel. I would probably have managed more but Radka was at home with the baby. I always feel self-conscious dictating fiction when there are other people in the flat.

And what about the writing itself? Going pretty well considering I have only the vaguest of notions as to where I am heading. I started with what I thought was going to be a sinister scene and found that I was writing a comedy. My imagination often pulls such stunts. I’ll just need to drag the story kicking and screaming back on course.

So that was my first four days of NaNoWriMo. I am looking at a current total word count of 9103.

Once, I’ve finished this post, my plan is to devote today to making some progress while waiting for DHL to deliver the Roost. I shall risk of incurring the wrath of the Bad Luck gods and announce I’m aiming to add another 5000 words. Let’s see how that goes. There will probably be an earthquake.

If anybody is looking for a writing buddy, I can be found here.

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

NaNoWriMo, Baby!

We interupt our regularly scheduled lack of programming on this blog to let you know that it’s almost time for National Novel Writing Month. This year I’ve decided to give it a go. I’ll try and give regular updates on my progress.

I know what you’re thinking. This should be a walk in the park for you, Bill. You’re a professional novelist with all the time in the world on your hands. If you can’t do a 50000 word rough draft in a month you should be ashamed of yourself.

Normally I would kinda sorta agree with you. Fortunately for purposes of narrative tension, Mother Nature has taken a hand. My efforts to be the poster boy for bad ergonomics have finally paid off. This last week all my hunching over the laptop was rewarded. Attacks of dizziness and a numbness in my right arm let me know my RSI is working overtime. Work has slowed to a crawl and I’ve been forced to take time away from my desk.

I had intended to stride manfully into NaNoWriMo with a detailed outline for the book. That’s been thrown out the window due to health issues. Instead I’ll be forced to rely on my waypoint method. This does fit neatly with having just over four weeks to write the book. I’ll aim to hit one waypoint at the end of each week.

I’m not flying entirely blind here. The book will be my ninth (how did that happen!) Kormak novel. It’s the third part of a trilogy. The first part is written and the second part is 75% complete. These have tossed up a bunch of questions which will need to be answered.

Will the deadly assassin stalking Kormak succeed? Will our hero uncover who was behind the attempt on the life of Aemon, the saintly but sinister king of Siderea? What will he find when he reaches the origin point of the awesomely powerful supernatural sentient bio-weapon he fought back in Book Seven?

I have some basics for a plot right there. When I was writing Gotrek and Felix such things took on a momentum of their own, and I’m hoping that the same thing will happen here.

I have some ideas for the setting too. Terra Nova is a medieval magical version of Conquistador Mexico, complete with Robert E Howard/ A E Merrit style decadent lost cities.

I even have a few characters. There’s Kormak himself, of course. The lovely merwoman Rhiana and the bounty hunting Captain Zamara have survived four books alongside the veteran monster hunter. The question is whether they will live through this one since it’s the end of a big plot arc.

I’ll be finishing the second book in this sequence and editing the first as I attempt NaNoWriMo. I’ve got a visit to Scotland in the middle of the month as an additional distraction. I’ll also be spending my usual two days a week chasing my hyper-active toddler around the flat. It’s not going to be a cakewalk.

Will I make it? Stay tuned!

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.