The Dark Side: NaNoEdMo

Tomorrow is the start of National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a movement that started in the US and aims to get would-be novelists up and writing. The aim is to produce 50,000 words in the month – I think it works out as 1,700 a day – and for many published writers, it’s been the boost they need to get published. As I said in my last post, I fully endorse the ‘just write’ approach of NaNoWriMo – just writing first and not worrying about editing is probably the single best thing you can do to become a writer.


But what happens when you’ve done it? The writing, sadly, isn’t the end of it. So for those who, like me, have two further books written but in no way finished, I’d like to suggest: NaNoEdMo. Yes, it’s time for National Novel-Editing Month! After all, as someone once said (please Google, I’m too busy editing), Writing is re-writing. Here’s how I suggest you spend NaNoEdMo:


November 1st: Stare at your novel.


2nd Stare some more.


3rd Do a search for how many times you’ve used the word ‘fungible’. 0 times.


4th Stare some more. Tap your fingers.


5th Throw a tantrum and cry, ‘I can’t do this! Don’t make me!’


6th Burst of energy. Write ten-page summary of your novel and all the issues you need to fix.


7th Eat some biscuits.


8th Laboriously line-edit your first three pages. Feeling smug, eat some more biscuits.


9th Accompanied by biscuits and seventeen cups of tea, you edit an entire story arc. Hob-Nobs all round!


10th Self-doubt returns. Back to staring at the screen, tapping fingers, and biscuits. This time they are the biscuits of shame.


11th Deep breath. Crack knuckles. Review character development.


12th Rewrite your opening.


13th Re-rewrite your opening. Add Prologue.


14th Addicted to the thrilling titillation of the Prologue. Add another.


15th Realise two prologues is probably excessive. Cut one and feel bereft.


16th Realise you need some more action in the middle. Invent a new character to fix the problem. ‘Finbar’ is a gay astronaut who likes water-skiing. You’re charmed with him and write a whole character back-story.


17th Realise Finbar has no function and probably no place in your historical novel set in Constantinople. Cut him and feel bereft.


18th Another attack of self-doubt. Don’t get a lot done as you stare, drink tea, and eat biscuits.


19th Delete 1,000 words


20th Delete 2,000 words


21st Delete 3,000. Realise you’ve gone a bit cursor-happy.


22nd Weigh self; realise you’ve put on five pounds. Switch from biscuits to celery.


23rd Another burst of energy. Break your plot down into post-its and put your scheme up on the wall.


24th Revise character arcs.


25th Revise sub-plots. Go through and add clues and hints to the ending.


26th Make the ending stronger and more poignant.


27th Go back and re-re-rewrite the start. This time it’s much better as you’ve been through the rest of the book.


28th  Keep going.


29th Have a cry. Find the biscuits from where you’ve hidden them in the salad drawer. Eat biscuits. Keep going.


30th Spend an hour trying to delete a comma before realising it’s dirt on the screen. Keep going. Finish at 3am. Cry some more. Eat biscuits. Collapse.


There you have it. After the joy of creation, comes the pain of editing. It is the ying to NaNoWriMo’s yang, the hard graft of re-writing versus the joy of writing. It is the Dark Side of the Force. But you’ll feel so happy once you’ve finished your book that you won’t even mind– and you’ll be many steps closer to the possibility of getting published. Now, where are those custard creams?





Milestones in writing


During the week a major milestone occurred – I held a copy of my own book in my hands. OK, it was a proof, but it looks like a book, and feels like a book, and on sniffing I can confirm it smells like a book. It’s one of those moments  you dream about when you’re an aspiring writer, along with seeing it in the shops, and getting ‘the’ phone call. And like other milestones I’ve experienced so far, it’s not exactly how I thought it would be. It’s brilliant, of course – I almost cried for a moment – but you soon assimilate. I imagine it’s the same for multi-bestseller writers. ‘Oh, I’m number 1 AGAIN – that’s nice. I wonder if there’s any more biscuits.’

I know that sounds strange. But I think it’s part of human nature to get used to anything, and once you’ve achieved your dreams, to very quickly move on to the next one. Sad, but true. It’s why I consciously try to enjoy every moment of this, and remind myself how desperately I wanted a publishing deal just this time last year.

In a way perhaps it’s healthy. Holding the book, I felt proud and happy, but also detached from it. I’ve finished with this one, and thank God – imagine if you couldn’t switch off your ‘edit’ brain for a book that was printed and on the shelves. I’m now preoccupied with the next thing – writing my next book, editing my ‘real’ first book (ie the bottom-drawer book), and having a go at screenwriting. Your work has to change and evolve. The long lead-times of publishing mean that by the time one book comes out, you’ve probably moved on to writing not even the next, but the one after that. Having just handed in a book that’s scheduled for publication in 2013, I understand that feeling.

So I’ve decided it’s a good thing to detach yourself from the product of all that sweat and angst and work. Let the little book go out in the world and make its way, like a baby turtle hatched on a beach. Of course, most of them get eaten before they reach open water, so it’s maybe not the best metaphor (or is it?) Keep looking ahead to the next one, and the next. Because if you’re going to survive sitting in front of a screen every day, you have to live for the process of writing, not just the results, however enjoyable and pleasant they may be.

In that spirit, I’m thinking ahead to National Novel-Writing Month in November. I’ve never actually done this myself, but I think I channelled its spirit when writing The Fall. I was definitely churning out 1,000+ words a day, not editing at all, and I tend to recommend this approach with an almost evangelical zeal. Especially for your first book, it’s so easy to get discouraged and bogged down, either because you think you’re writing’s not good enough, or you don’t know what happens, or you worry you’ll never get published. All those things may be true, but here’s one thing I know – you will never get better, or finish the book, or get published, if you don’t even try. So my writing advice tends to boil down to. 1 – start the book. Keep going. Try to do 1,000 words a day – you’ll be surprised how quickly you can write if you never look back. 2 – finish the book. The day I finished my first book was a real milestone for me – and one that meant every bit as much as I’d imagined. It wasn’t until that I day that I knew I could even write a book, or that I understood what it was like to structure a whole plot in my head.

And you know what? You do get better. If you keep going for a year, putting down words, listening to feedback, reading widely, you will get better. I’ve just gone back to my first book, which a year ago I was tearing my hair out over. I knew it was flawed, but had no idea how to fix it. Now I find I can easily identify what’s wrong, and want to rewrite so many sentences for style.  So keep going, and you’ll get there. Like walking a very long road, the mile-markers will show you your progress, and as you pass each one, you’ll start looking ahead to next.


I was a teenage do-gooder

Last week I was lucky enough to go to the Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards. It was a great night, not least because of the thrill of seeing authors up there with celebrities and film-stars. It reminded me that, despite all the woes and worry we’re always hearing about publishing, books and writers are still incredibly important to many people. Even if things aren’t as good as they used to be (but doesn’t the past always seem better?), we’re accorded the enormous privilege of being able to make money by telling stories. And the fact that our society supports a fair few people in this rarefied role shows to me we still honour writers at some basic level.

When I was little I didn’t dream of being on Top of the Pops or getting an Oscar. I dreamt about winning the Booker Prize (I was a strange child). I suspect I’m not the only one. Why did I do that? I suppose I felt that winning an award would show I was valued, that my work meant something to people. However, as I grew up and realised I’d have to do something else in the meantime, or if the writing never happened, my innate social guilt kicked in and I started working in charities.

I did this for six years. It was the same as any other job – meetings, documents, computers – but with the vaguely comforting sense that no matter how frustrating it got, your daily toil was hopefully going towards the greater good. At least, I thought so at the start. As time went on, I started to realise it’s not enough just to have vague good intentions. To make a difference you have to have the resources and the skills to get things done. Compassion can make you clumsy. I was left with the unsettling feeling that I wanted to help, but I wasn’t sure I knew how to, or that I really had the deep passion for the work that was needed. Because really I wanted to do something else – write.

Now I don’t do charity work anymore, and most of my waking moments are taken up with books, writing, and words. This sometimes leaves me with lingering guilt that I should be doing ‘something’ to help the world. But what that is, I have no idea. I do feel working with books is a more benign occupation than, say, organising arms fairs. However, sometimes I question if being a writer, or involved in culture generally, really justifies my sense of ‘not being evil’ (to paraphrase Google).

Is writing in some way a moral act? One thing that’s surprised me, as I’ve entered the world of books, is that many writers aren’t as happy as you might think to have secured the dream of a publishing deal. Once it happens, you don’t spend the rest of your life being stunned with gratitude. Maybe this is inevitable. There’s always new dreams, and there’s always someone doing better. For every super-seller with beach houses in Malibu, there are thousands of writers toiling away, consumed with fear about shrinking advances, the death of the mid-list, and the rise of e-book piracy (among other bogey-men). And when writers fall out, the cat-fights are spectacular. I suppose it’s because writing tends to attract cerebral, introverted people, and the nature of it means sitting alone for hours in a room, with lots of time to brood.  And also because they know how to form a well-crafted insult.

So, just the act of putting down words on paper doesn’t make you a good person. And being able to empathise with your characters does not necessarily fill you with a terrible tenderness to the world and all that’s in it. You remember that bit in American Beauty where he says, ‘….And I am filled with gratitude for every single moment of my sad little life. You don’t know what I’m talking about – but don’t worry….you will.’ If you felt like this all the time, it would destroy you. So writers can be just as selfish, cruel, and short-sighted as everyone else –often at the same time as they’re creating works of such empathy, they could make you weep.

If just writing isn’t enough to make up a life well-lived, what else is there? I’ve learned after several frustrating years that it isn’t enough to just want to be good. You can’t fake your passion, and if books are what you truly obsess over, nothing else will ever really do. How do you live a good writing life? Refuse to do bad reviews of your peers, because they’ll be upset? (see this article for more Pretend you love every book you read? Encourage and support other writers? Join charities like PEN or Amnesty which protect writers overseas? Give advice to anyone who approaches you for it (until you realise there just isn’t time)? Write books about important issues that may provoke a change in society? Write books that entertain people and make them happy? Answers on a postcard please. I do think it’s a privilege to be able to make a living doing something that (hopefully) gives people pleasure. That’s why we have awards, and accolades, and admiration. I’d love to know what I can do to show I’m grateful for it.

Second-book syndrome

I’ve been trying to blog for a while, and struggling to work out what it is I wanted to say. I’m still not sure what it was, or why I’m finding it hard. Perhaps as I get closer to publication, I’m more aware of what it means to have a public profile, however modest. In the meantime, things have been moving on. It’s suddenly gone from being eight months to publication, to less than four. Bound proofs are going out. People are reading the book. It’s all getting quite real.

Last week I also handed in my second book, currently due to be published in 2013. It turns out that ‘difficult second book’ syndrome is very real indeed. When I signed the contract back in March, I felt quite smug about making the October delivery date for book two, as I had already written most of it. No problem, I thought, mentally buffing my ‘Super-productive writer’ badge.

How wrong I was.  When I wrote The Fall I scribbled away in pleasing ignorance, no idea that I was even writing crime, or if anyone would want to publish it. I just had a story I wanted to tell. When it was bought, there was work to do, but at least I knew they’d read and liked it. The second book is very different, as I found out. A second book is jittery-making, because chances are it’s been sold on a one-page outline, when you weren’t entirely surely what was going to happen. You don’t know if anyone’s going to like it. It might sprout off in unintended directions. It might develop Excess Plot Syndrome or Prologue-orrhea (mine had two at one point). And if you’ve written a lot of the book before (as you probably need to in order to make the delivery dates), it’s likely your writing style has changed and improved. To me, re-working old material is like pouring hot water into cooling tea– never quite right. Even the awareness of writing in genre proved problematic, as I found the plot twisting and turning like an out-of-control rosebush.

In the end, with a good dose of hard work, plus advice from my agent, editor, and kind other writers, I did finish it, and it’s gone off. We have a lot of time, and I’m sure the editing shears will be wielded. My advice is, if you’re trying to get published, think ahead to the next book. It comes around more quickly than you’d think. Now I have time to think about what I’ll write next, and dip my toes in the waters of other genres, other forms. The six months since getting my book deal have been fascinating so far, and in a strange way I look forward to the next few, before everything changes and I become what I always wanted to be: a published writer.