NaNoWriMo – A November of Novel Adventuring


Yes, it’s that time of the year again.


And I do appear to have signed up, partly because I can’t bear not to, and partly because I do have a new book project waiting and raring to go. It’s exciting to browse the forums again, reading about everyone prepping for the long month of madcap novel writing to come. It may not work out this year – things are a touch up in the air for me, in several ways – but I think I’m going to be there at the start line at least, fingerless gloves and cheap Halloween sweets in hand.


I’ve participated in Nano for the last four years. In my first (2008, I think) I wrote a short children’s book called Bird and Tower. Next up came Ink for Thieves, a book I still love and hope to find a home for, followed by Dead Zoo Shuffle, a book I’m not that massively keen on these days but isn’t entirely hopeless. Last year I did the Beta month of Camp Nanowrimo, and followed that up by doing the official month too, managing to write the entirety of The Snake House in two months, which was something of a record for me.


And as everyone starts to get excited, there’s usually a wave of cynicism about Nano too, and I’ve seen the first trickles of this. All those amateurs, moan the weary cynics, thinking they can write. 50,000 words isn’t even really a book, and they’ve never even heard of editing…


Sod that, I say. Yes, a lot of young people take part in Nanowrimo, and yes, lots of them might be writing some rather familiar re-hashes of boy wizards, angsty vampires, and demon-hunting hotties, but so what? It’s very easy to sneer at these things (and at fanfiction, although perhaps that is unwise – fanfic led to the biggest publishing hoo-ha of this year, after all) but I’d much rather see people (particularly young people) getting excited and making things, than, say, the umpteenth wannabe farting Wannabe by the Spice Girls on Britain’s Got Talent. Or maybe that’s just me.


Besides which, Nano teaches you all sorts of important stuff if writing is where your soul rests. So the first book you harass into life via Nano might not be that great – it might even suck the big one – 50,000 words will still show you all sorts of wonders you’d never even have guessed at on November the 1st. Plus, Nano shows you (albeit in a slightly extreme way) that it is entirely possible to fit writing into your life, and that is often a wonderful and life changing thing to learn. It certainly changed mine.


So come, mighty Nano Vikings, with your cups of coffee and writing mascots, let’s go kick November up the plot bunny!

(and while you’re here, tell me how you prepare for Nano)


No Giant Worms

Looking back through the last few entries, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a blog entirely about video games, or my unhealthy obsession with certain sprites. So as a reminder that I do also occasionally write stuff, here is a quick round up of my progress on “stuff that doesn’t involve the Xbox”.


1) Ink for Thieves has edged into that strange, twilight country known as “I’m a real book now almost, will someone please give me a home?”


2) I’ve just finished my first read-through of The Steel Walk since I finished the first draft, oh, ages ago. I think your writing style evolves over time, so reading back over it is a weirdly frustrating experience in places, as everything seems slightly off and a little wonky. However, with a lot of hacking and slashing (very appropriate for that book) I may well have something readable by the end of it.


3) The Copper Promise, which is the working title of my tentative ebook serial project, is happening in fits and starts at the moment. The current plan is to finish the first part (roughly 20,000 – 25,000 words) by the end of October, and take on parts 2 and 3 during Nanonwrimo, with the goal of getting the first bit out there for people to read by Christmas. All while re-drafting The Steel Walk… hmm.


4) Short story-wise, I seem to have fallen into a natural break. I have two stories not currently on submission anywhere, but in truth I am not altogether sure where to send them, as they’re both a bit… well, weird. For the time being I’m going to keep hold of the pair and see if something suitable occurs to me.


And that’s that! I’m sure you won’t have to wait long for me to be blogging about aliens and big guns again…

On Finishing The Snake House and the Nature of Evil


With all the stuff that’s been happening lately I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about finishing The Snake House. It’s interesting for me (if no one else) to look back on a project afterwards, especially one as fast-paced as this one, and have a think about what I learned from the experience and what I’ll take with me into the next book.

            In terms of prep, this time round I wrote a big old plan over three pieces of A4 paper (I wrote most of it while on holiday in Conwy, scribbling away, huddled under a blanket- Wales is cold, yo), made some character notes, and then dived straight in at the beginning of July. In the end, I wrote the entire novel (around 100,000 words) in two months, which is definitely something of a record for me. The story wandered away from the set course a few times, and various nasty scenes I wasn’t expecting popped up here and there, which was nice (Snake House is a horror novel, after all) but mostly it went according to plan. I think what I will remember from this noveling experience – other than the faint squealing of my sanity as I raced to finish before the end of August – is how I was trying to consciously say something with this story.

Most of the time, themes and meanings grow with a book organically, and often I only notice them on the second read-through; Ink for Thieves is about change and responsibility, I realise now, and Bird and Tower is about growing up. These issues, for me, are usually bubbling under, to be brought out further in re-writes and edits, but this last book was slightly different.

            The Snake House is asking questions about the nature of evil- whether it is a real, malevolent presence in human lives, or an absence of something that leaves the human animal easy prey to horrendous appetites (blimey, that’s a bit much. It’s something like that, anyway). When doing my research for TSH I inevitably had to read a lot about serial killers, and aside from being generally depressing and wildly unpleasant, such reading leads you to a number of uncomfortable questions. What makes these people kill repeatedly? Is such behaviour always born of a childhood of abuse, or do they come in to the world that way? Where can you draw the line that divides the sane from the insane in cases like this? Jeffrey Dahmer was thought by some to be experiencing severe psychotic episodes when he was torturing his victims, and maybe it’s easier to think of Ted Bundy as a monster possessed by a demonic presence, yet this was a man willing to drive for hours in a calm and rational state to spend the night with the bodies of the women he murdered.

            Obviously I have no answers to these questions – perhaps no one does, or will – but when I started writing The Snake House those were the issues I wanted to explore; it is undoubtedly my darkest book, and in lots of ways it was the hardest to write. I grew up on Stephen King books, so you’d think I’d be fairly immune to the wibblies at this stage, yet there were times where I questioned whether I even wanted to carry on with the story. It seems that reading a book that deals with monsters, and inviting monsters to come and play in your head, are two very different things.


Editing, the Second Draft and Serious Business

So the second draft of Ink for Thieves is finally finished. I’ll probably need to give it one more read through before I pass it on to my brave and wily beta reading team, but for now the big chunk of work is done. At least, on that book it is. The next couple of months will see more pulling out of hair and knuckle chewing as I read my way through the rough draft of Dead Zoo Shuffle and realise exactly how much delicate surgery that book needs before it’s readable- along with plenty of merry hacking, amputating and other bloody works.


Last night I remembered something Stephen King mentions in his book, On Writing. He said, (I may be paraphrasing slightly here) that you “shouldn’t come lightly to the page”. The first time I read that I don’t think I really understood what he was talking about. I thought perhaps he was suggesting that writing, real writing, was always hard work and could never be fun, which clearly wasn’t true at all. Now, having slogged my way through my first novel-length edit and emerged with what is, hopefully, a much shinier and sexier book, I think I’m starting to understand.


I think he’s talking about an acceptance of the sheer work involved. Yes, it’s fun and there are moments when the story suddenly comes together and the characters wander off to do what they want, and then the writing is exhilarating, but what you are doing is serious business. It is art. And you may well have to write this damn book over and over again until it is any good, and that thought is daunting, but no one ever said this was going to be a walk in the park, where gnomes massage your toesies and butterflies waft their secret songs into your ear holes. Much of the time in fact it’s rather more like heaving a giant dung ball on your back (that may or may not have a diamond secreted in it somewhere) and hauling it to the top of an impossibly tall mountain while goats with sarcastic eyebrows frown at you in a judgemental manner. But that’s alright because this is hardcore, this is SRS BSNS.


At least, I think that’s what he was talking about.

The Tasty Joy of Finishing the First Draft

So, I finished the first draft of Dead Zoo Shuffle a couple of days ago. The last few chapters took a little longer than I anticipated, although so far every single book has been the same; you think you’ve got the ending all figured out, and then it throws up a few little surprises just when you’re convinced you’re on the home stretch.

This book has been an interesting journey. It was my first attempt at crime (er, as a genre, I didn’t do any actual bank robbing) and  my first attempt at novel length first-person narrative. It was the first book I planned chapter by chapter and my first real experiment with the trappings of science-fiction. And I think the risks paid off, at least in terms of how much I enjoyed the writing. In many ways I feel like I found my voice with this story, or the beginnings of it.

There’s an awful lot of work still to be done, of course, with the editing and redrafting already looking to be a big job, and there’s plenty of stuff I know needs to be tightened, or added, or cut entirely. Unusually though I’m looking forward to it (remind me of this when I actually come to edit the thing, I’m sure I’ll be less enthusiastic then).

So now I’m putting Dead Zoo Shuffle aside for a short time while I finish polishing Ink for Thieves. I’m also starting to put together notes on a potential fantasy/steampunk novel called The Iron-Haunted Heart, a project that’s been bouncing down my mental rapids for a while now (no, I don’t know either) and fiddling about with a couple of short stories. I said in January that this would be the year for editing and submitting, didn’t I?  So as much as I might like writing books and then putting them in a drawer to forget about, I do believe it is time to embrace the red pen…

Post-its and Planning

So I completely forgot to update last week. I can’t even remember why now, but let’s just pretend it was due to a flurry of productivity on my part, and not just huge laziness, which is more likely but less heroic.

The Steel Walk is edging towards 100,000 words now and alarmingly enough, shows no particular signs of being near the end. At least I am well into the third act and having fun with the story; Eri is angrily traipsing through the swamps of the Green Jenny Council while evil things are afoot in all corners of Ferrum, and Saul has some difficult choices to make. I may even have some clue as to how the whole thing ends.

Writing The Steel Walk has been an education in the process of how to put a book together, although I’m not sure I’m any closer to figuring out the best way of doing it. So far each book has been approached differently, and I have learnt different lessons.

Bad Apple Bone- Started writing it before I even knew it was a book, and consequently I only had a vague idea of the plot by around the 30,000 words mark. An exciting if agonising way to put a novel together, it did however all fall together with surprising neatness. I’m sure this was a fluke, and unlikely to ever be repeated.

Bird and Tower- When I started this one for NaNoWriMo, I was very clear on the beginning and the end, and had a vague structure for the middle (“Quint searches for other siblings, hijinks ensue”) but what with the fabulous by-the-seat-of-your-leg-hats* approach of NaNo, if I did any more planning than that I don’t remember it. A joy to write, quite honestly, even if I kept forgetting one of the characters existed.

A Boy of Blood and Clay- A lesson in how it is wise to have, you know, even the slightest clue of how the plot will develop and who your characters are. Not sure what I was thinking with this one (I still believe that when it’s finished, it might be the best thing I’ve written)

Ink for Thieves- This book was a return to a vague plot outline and detailed character notes, and thanks again to the backside-wallop of NaNo, largely quite fun to write. It had it’s moments of “I have shamed myself and my ancestors with this book” but the characters came to life for me and behaved in naughty ways, the plot headache of the Embers resolved itself and I got to the end of it. After A Boy of Blood and Clay, that was a big relief.

So, what have I learnt? Mostly, that no planning is bad, except when it works, and over planning is good, except where it doesn’t. Does that make sense? I had detailed character notes for Eri and Saul before I started The Steel Walk, but they still went merrily ahead and behaved in all sorts of unexpected ways anyway, and Alice, a character who barely existed at the planning stage, has come to impact on the plot in all sorts of drastic ways.

The next, as yet unnamed project, is a sort-of-science-fiction first person narrative with strong crime elements (and a girl called Zootsi) so I think I have no choice; planning will be done, notes will be made, and post-its will be wasted, until I can go into NaNoWriMo this year knowing that I just have to fill in the fun bits. I may restrain myself from drawing a map though.

*for an explanation of leg-hats, please go and listen to The Soldiers of Tangent, the fab new comedy podcast from those behemoths of audio genius, Danny “The Accent” Davies and Marty “Churlish” Perrett.

The Joy of Big Fat Books

I’m feeling vaguely accomplished today for two reasons, and as this doesn’t happen very often I will dwell on it a bit (I think it was Alan Bennett who once said something about how writers never feel like writers unless they’re physically writing; the rest of the time they feel like frauds).

I have the first draft of Bad Apple Bone sitting in front of me, in glorious chunky paper form. It’s the first time I’ve seen it printed out, and it looks ginormous. It’s lovely, to feel the heft of it, to see all those words collected together in one place, and to flick through to read random bits; grimacing at some, laughing at others. There will be lots of problems with it, because I started writing the book without any idea what I was doing, or indeed any idea I was writing a book, and no doubt I’ll have made lots of terrible, first-time-writer mistakes, but I think I’m going to enjoying reading it again nonetheless.

Secondly, after four mouths and a scattering of days, I have finished the rough draft of Ink for Thieves. I struggled over the line at the weekend, so toasts were made and Snoopy dances were danced, and I saw my characters off into the sunset with a tear in my eye.
It’s been an interesting experience, this one. It started as a novella for NaNoWriMo, but grew quickly into a larger book within the first week of writing, and I realised this one had a bigger story to tell. Coming just after a bit of a cock up with A Boy of Blood and Clay, which fatally stalled at 63,000 words, it was a relief to know I could still do big stories. Around about halfway through a minor tangent turned into a major story arc, and by and large, Ink for Thieves was a joy to write. It certainly had it’s difficult moments, particularly when I realised I was three quarters of the way through and still had no real idea how the Big Bad was going to be resolved, or getting too bogged down in the detail of a city that only appeared in the first chapter, but for the most part I had a lot of fun. The characters really did have a life of their own this time round, and I was amazed (and slightly annoyed) that I could not put any of them in a situation together without there being a blazing argument; their actions often surprised me, and showed me parts of the story I hadn’t been aware of. Following where the characters lead has been an interesting journey, almost as interesting as Guido’s dangerous and frantic journey across the Embers.

It’s that time of year again…

Oh 2009, how shall we judge you?

Annoyingly, I am something of an optimist and normally reluctant to judge a year based on perhaps the last six months or so; if that were not the case, I would merrily tell 2009 to take a running jump off a prickly cliff. But I’m always looking for the silver lining in the dark clouds (or the smarties in the dog turd) so I shy away from condemning it completely. It’s time to look, perhaps, at what I hoped to do in 2009 and what I actually did, as awkward and slightly embarrassing as it may be:

By the end of this year I wanted to have finished Bad Apple Bone, written an entirely new novel, and a novella during November (which would also be finished).

What I actually did: Well, I did finish Bad Apple Bone (when was that? May? I think it may even have been on Star Wars day…), which was a major achievement I suppose, after two years writing the bugger. It was my first book, and my first real attempt at writing anything, and remains the truest thing I have written, I think.

I did start writing an entirely new book, A Boy of Blood and Clay, and even got 61,000 words into it, but made the rather silly error of mistaking research for planning, and found myself halfway through the book with only the slightest inkling of what was happening. Plus, I really loathed one of the main characters, and wanted to kill her off. Except she was already dead. Oh.
So that book remains at rest currently, “composting” as my favourite art tutor would put it. And the NaNoWriMo novella? Well that little bugger turned into an actual full length book, full of dirt and ooze and I’m-Not-Even-Sure-What-Happens-Next mystery, which made it brilliant fun to write, even as it grows in scope by the minute and I have no chance of finishing it this year.

In conclusion then, I have one finished novel, and two unfinished full length books; not exactly where I wanted to be, but, I have to look the bright side (or the Skittles in the dog plop); this year I have written, not including finishing Bad Apple Bone or any short stories that popped into existence, around 120,000 words. And I can’t really complain about that.

2010 will be the year I learn to give up my time properly to this fabulous craft, and start treating it like I really intend other people to read it some day. This year is The Year of Writing Dangerously.

On winning NaNoWriMo and then failing for a bit.

I did it!

Which you probably all know by now. It’s been a week after all, and goodness know I think I posted about it pretty much everywhere when I finished. I actually got to 50,000 words on the Sunday, mainly because I didn’t want to leave the vital last couple of thousand words for the last couple of hours and partly because we were going out on Monday night. There was much rejoicing, and like last year, a sense of extreme tiredness.

As I predicted, Ink for Thieves isn’t anywhere near actually being finished, and is in fact only about halfway through. This is okay. It turned out that the story had a direction it wanted to go in and I was unable to stop it, or even steer it vaguely back onto the path I had originally expected. I think most writers will recognise this lack of control; normally it means things are going well, believe it or not.

In a similar vein, a friend of mine has been ribbing me lately on my choice of name for my main character, Guido Foss. He rightly pointed out that a) it’s a man’s name, b) it’s a bit silly, and c) it’s slang for a thug in certain parts of the world. This is all true, and I’ve no idea where the name really came from (unless it’s because that was my favourite Samurai Pizza Cat). It came to me randomly one day and stuck, even though I knew the main character was female, and the truth of the matter is… I’ve no more control over what the character is called than I have over where the story is going- I’m currently writing a very long section, for example, that I had no inkling was in the book at all when I started it. As often with these things, I was still considering whether or not I should include it at all when I realised I was already writing the bloody thing! Stories are sneaky like that.

Guido Foss is now Guido Foss to me, no matter how ludicrous the name. At 50,000 words in, I just can’t change stuff that is so established, because in the end, the important thing is that I get the story out; the bumps and kinks in the road can be sorted out later. NaNoWriMo creates an odd situation really, because it encourages you to put up pieces of your writing while you’re still working on them, and normally during the writing process you wouldn’t do that.

In short, I’m following the story where it will take me, whether that means silly names or unexpected diversions in the desert. The polishing comes later. :)

“Stab them in the face!”

And indeed, the rest of November went as quickly as the first week!

Much to my own surprise, I am still on schedule with NaNoWriMo; up to 37,000 words today, and I’m hoping to squeeze in a bit more later too, so I can go into this week slightly ahead (exciting social things happening on Thursday, and then a day off for a hangover on Friday). I did mean to update the blog around about halfway through, but free time shrinks down to miniscule status during November, and every time I found space to write the thing, it was about 1am. So as a short round up, here are some things I have learnt so far this month:

It is perfectly possible to write 2,000 words a day. Yep. It’s just that I have to put the time aside for it. Part of where I was going wrong with A Boy of Blood and Clay was that I was trying to fit the writing time around other things, so I would only get a few hundred words out here and there. I wasn’t dedicating a chunk of time to it, but rather writing it in between other commitments. What this left me with was a story that was stilted, choppy and very difficult to get back into each day.

It’s difficult, because the only time I have is in the evenings, and what I really like to do in the evening is read, have a snuggle with my bloke, and fart about on the internet. The fact remains though, if I want to get these books finished, I have to write everyday, and I have to write a decent amount.

I’ve also learnt that Ink for Thieves has a life of its own, and my chances of actually finishing the story at 50,000 words are very slim indeed. I have now accepted the fact that I’ll be working on it into the next month, and have a new vague sort of deadline of the 13th December. This is the end of my week off in December, and I’m hoping to get a lot done (in between the hideousness of christmas shopping, of course. Argh)

And now it’s time for a gravy dinner. :) Guido Foss waits for me, covered in bug juices and about to discover that the Embers have even more unpleasant surprises for her.

ps) I put an extract of the novel up on my NaNo profile (it’s under Novel Info). It’s very rough of course, but it was a passage that made me laugh, and I think you should only put up extracts that don’t give too much away.