National Novel Writing Month is once again knocking on our door, and I travelled to London to mingle with this year’s participants. Meet the people who are courageously (and madly) diving into this year’s novel writing marathon – some veterans who know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, and some newcomers who don’t yet know what to expect…
My tummy tumbles nervously as I pace across Blackfriars Bridge in the sudden October chill. I’m heading for The Mad Hatter Hotel, which is hosting this year’s NaNoWriMo London kick-off party. The past two years I have shut my eyes and covered my ears during the month of November, terrified to my core to commit to anything so mad as writing fifty thousand words in a month, not to mention getting involved with the NaNo community, attending write-ins and being held responsible (such a dirty word) by online accountability buddies.
Well, this year I am fully ready to commit. I have joined the forum and announced my novel, and connected with two ‘Buddies’ whose watchful eyes will help keep my fingers glued to the keys. I’ll be hosting write-ins in my dear Canterbury, and look forward to getting stuck in and meeting other writers and NaNo enthusiasts from Kent and beyond. Still, I feel nervous and clumsily clutch my camera bag as I shuffle over to the signs that holler “NaNoWriMo kick-off – welcome, writers!”
My jitters subside somewhat when I am warmly greeted by the Municipal Liaisons (MLs), and I soon realise there’s nothing to fear. Veteran or newbie, everyone is full of kindness and good intentions. After all, each of us has chosen to spend a month cosying up with our writing demons, forcing thousands upon thousands of words onto the dreaded blank page – clearly, we all share a certain degree of insanity.
I spoke to participants and MLs about their writing process, their NaNo writer types, and their love affairs with NaNo. Whether you’re in it for kicks or hoping to get published, whether you’re a Planner or a Pantser, whether you’re an enthusiastic rookie or a jaded old-timer, you’re sure to find like-minded souls and kinship in this motley bunch of eager writers.
Now, come and meet your colleagues…
The Level-headed Neuroscientist
Name: Robyn Law
NaNo writer type: The Juggler
Favourite procrastination activity: Making endless cups of tea and cleaning the bathroom (“…which my housemates appreciate!”)
Robyn first tried NaNo five years ago, at age sixteen with a group of friends. She scraped together 37,000 words, but never got round to editing her draft. “The base plot was quite good, but I kept going on tangents to fit in my word count, so it would be such a mess to edit,” she tells me. “I’m hoping this year to have a bit more maturity and structure.”
Robyn is writing a near-future sci-fi novel about the woman who discovers how to upload the human mind to a database, so that people can live forever in the Cloud. She hopes to explore the psychological and sociological side of it.
During her NaNo prep, she has focused mostly on world-building and character development. She doesn’t like to plan her plot too much and spoil the element of surprise.
“I don’t plan all my plot or the writing gets boring, because you already know what’s going to happen. It’s nice to be a bit creative and spontaneous.”
Juggling novel writing with a neuroscience degree and being on her hockey team’s committee, Robyn says she’s not sure she’ll get to 50,000 words. But she’s not worried about it.
“I’ve failed before, so I know it’s not the end of the world,” she says coolly. “Just getting more involved with the writing community, and getting back to writing, that’s a success for me.”
She would like to be traditionally published one day, but she’s totally fine if that never happens. “I’ll still write, because I enjoy it. And it’s about the social side for me, too.”
To follow Robyn’s progress, check out her Twitter.
The NaNo Veteran
Name: Sophie Green (Municipal Liaison)
NaNo writer type: The Cheerleader
Favourite procrastination activity: “I once tried to write a book about procrastination but I kept putting it off.”
Sophie is in her twelfth year of NaNoWriMo, having pounded out a mind-boggling 1.1 million words in the 11 years prior. “My highest total is 200,000 words, back in 2012,” Sophie tells me, and my jaw drops to the table. “Yeah,” she laughs, “that was tough.” I don’t doubt it.
“This year I’m doing 12 interlinked short stories. They’re all going to be set on New Year’s Eve. The umbrella title is called The Last Day. I know roughly how they’re going to be linked, I just need to work out what each individual story is going to be.”
“I just have fun writing,” she says. “The events are fun, too. There’s a good community in London, and I’ve made lots of friends over the years.”
“Try to enjoy the writing! It shouldn’t be a chore, it shouldn’t feel like work or a task. It should be enjoyable.”
Sophie loves being an ML and cheering people on. “If, at the end of the month, you’ve “only” done 10,000 words, that’s still 10,000 words more than you had at the start of the month.”
Her top tip to newcomers, and anyone who wants to make the most of NaNo, is to go to the write-ins. “When you’re in a room with lots of people who are getting down to it and writing in silence for 45 minutes, you can’t help but write. Many people swear by the write-ins and say they would never have won were it not for the write-ins.”
It’s also important to get into the habit of writing every day, Sophie urges. “And try to enjoy it!”
For more of Sophie, head on over to her Twitter.
The One Who Means Business
Name: Sarah Johnson
NaNo writer type: The Juggler
Favourite procrastination activity: YouTube rabbit holes
This is Sarah’s fourth year doing NaNo. The first year she hit 10,000, and had a good time with it. But now she’s getting more serious. “The book I wrote last year is the first in a series, and I’ve just sent it out to beta readers.” It’s a high fantasy novel about a group of people who can speak to ghosts, and it ends with the succession of a throne. This year, Sarah plans to write the sequel in which she’ll explore the fall-out of the first book.
Sarah means business. She’s hoping to query her first book before the end of the year, and if her NaNo goes well, by then she’ll be a good way into the sequel. “It’ll be my second year winning, hopefully, so I just want to carry on that streak.”
She has a vague plot outline, but doesn’t want to overplan.
“I know the plot points that I want to get to. Anything in between, we’ll see what happens.”
Sarah does worry that she’ll get stuck, that she’ll get to a plot point and not know how to move it forward. “If that happens, I’ll probably use the NaNo website’s writing prompts.”
She leaves me with one piece of advice. “Book in a slot for writing every day.” She usually runs around between different things, but with her writing she is strictly regular. “Every hour and a half before sleep is my writing time, when I just try to reach the word count for the day.”
You can find Sarah on her Twitter.
The First-Time Pantser
Name: Jonathan S. Cromie
NaNo writer type: The Social Butterfly (with pinches of Well-Equipped, Easily Distracted, and Procrastinator)
Favourite procrastination activity: Live cricket updates and Nintendo games
Jonathan is entering his sixth year of NaNo. Having previously over-planned with disappointing results, this year he’s trying a different strategy. “I have too much going on in November, anyway, so I’m planning to write 50,000 words of unsalvageable gubbins. Should be good fun.”
Sure enough, on his NaNo profile, his latest novel is entitled 50k+ Words of Utter Gubbins. “It’ll be my first year pantsing.” Pantsing is a NaNo term, meaning someone who doesn’t plan, or plans very little. “In the past, I knew what I was going to do every hour of every day, and I came up with an utter pile of bollocks.” Jonathan shakes his head, smiling. “I’ve still got it saved away somewhere as a cautionary tale for myself,” he laughs.
Jonathan intially joined NaNo following a bad breakup, when he went searching for a new social circle. “I knew that my ex did some writing thing during November, and I thought I should probably find out whether that goes on in London,” Jonathan recollects.
“I thought NaNoWriMo seemed like a good place to meet fellow nerds.”
And he sure got a taste for it. “After that, I’ve gone to all the events, and was ML for two years. I’ve met a lot of really interesting people, some of whom I’m still really good friends with.”
Jonathan is not concerned about meeting the word target this year. “I think it’s relatively easy to write that much gubbins,” he smirks. Instead, he worries that he won’t go back and edit what he writes. “I’ve done a new thing every year for six years – I’ve never gone back and developed it.”
“It certainly is a challenge the first time you do NaNo, but after six years you get fairly used to it – you’ve got your own methods and they work. But writing something good, and going back and editing something good, that’s a whole different story.”
Jonathan urges NaNo noobs to go to the write-ins. “Go to the events, because they’re fun – but if you can only make one event a week, make it a write-in. You will get more words done than if you’re sitting around on your own, because there will be peer pressure around you to work.”
And of course, you’re highly likely to meet fellow nerds. “Yes, I’m still really good friends with some people I’ve met in NaNo, and that’s the main thing I’m taking away.”
Name: Rohan Sethi
NaNo writer type: The Procrastinator (but once in the zone, the Researcher, Snacker, and Well-Equipped)
Favourite procrastination activity: Jumping onto new projects
This is the first year Rohan has joined NaNo in time. “My friend recommended it to me last year, halfway through November. I tried to catch up, but failed horribly. This year, I’ll be continuing on the project I started then.”
Rohan is writing a hyper-realistic novel based on a true story, about an intimate private school in Hounslow. “I want it to be a hundred percent realistic – like, this is what happens! I love films that focus on the realism of things, that don’t gloss over reality like most movies do.”
Having attended a small private school himself, he found that the close-knit environment encouraged connection and friendships. In joining NaNo, he’s hoping to find something similar. “I want to find a community that’s into writing, but also socialising. I’m finding it hard to stay motivated, and I keep trying new things instead of finishing what I’m working on.”
I’m going to use this new environment as an excuse to actually crack down and start working.
Rohan says he may not reach 50,000 this year, but he’s fine with that. “I’m focusing more on quality. I really want to get this published!”
For more of Rohan, check out his Instagram.
The Jet-setting Volunteer
Name: Charlie Yarwood (Municipal Liaison)
NaNo writer type: All of them, mainly the Snacker and the Cheerleader
Favourite procrastination activity: Dancing around her room with music in her headphones (“That’s also a good cure for writer’s block, so not the worst thing in the world…”)
Charlie first joined NaNo in 2009, and has partaken every year since, bar one when a dissertation took precendence.
To Charlie, the month of October is the NaNo Advent; a time when she eagerly stocks up on pizzas and snacks and prepares to get hot and bothered with her favourite competition.
“As soon as midnight strikes,” she writes in her blog about the first day of November, “the witches and wizards and aliens and heart throbs and everything else come out and the literary abandon begins. We do crazy things like eating pizza for breakfast and staying up all night writing. We forsake our communications with friends, family and other loved ones for a single goal – write the novel.”
Charlie has been an ML for three years. “Supporting other people is what fuels me,” she says. “It’s a nice volunteering experience.” But she writes, too, having won every year except the first, when she “only” reached 22,500 words. “I was gutted, I felt like I had failed. I am a bit of a perfectionist at times.”
Well, she has more than made up for it. And this year, she is taking her NaNo experience even further – 5,351 miles further, to be precise. “I’m going to San Francisco for The Night of Writing Dangerously. It’s an annual write-a-thon event and fundraiser for NaNo and the Young Writer’s Program in America.” Charlie has always had a romantic fascination with San Francisco, and she’s always been curious about the event. The final push came this year when she found out it’s going to be the last one ever. “Unfortunately costs have been rising significantly, so when I found out this was my last chance, I was like, ‘Okay! I’m off to San Francisco!”
Having never flown alone before, she’s getting nervous. “I have an anxiety disorder, and if they had announced it a few weeks earlier I wouldn’t have been able to make the decision to go, since I was in a bad way then.”
Charlie tells me her anxiety disorder informs the way she writes. “Some of my writing is quite dark, if I’m going through a dark period at the time. But it can be really difficult, and sometimes I just need to sit in my bedroom with Gray’s Anatomy and do nothing.”
Writing has always been cathartic, it’s how I work through my struggles.
Charlie encourages people to try writing, despite fears and anxieties. “The process of self-discovery is so important – even if you end up realising that writing is not for you. Knowing something is not your right path, is just as valuable as knowing what is.”
“Don’t try to write from a small, damp room,” she adds. “Go out and experience things; see things, smell things, hear things that can inform your writing. And keep going – whatever you’re writing, at least it won’t be as boring as Catcher in the Rye!”
Since her fellow Municipal Liaisons can’t come along to San Francisco, Charlie will be bringing her purposely crafted mini-figurine doppelganger MLs in their stead. Let’s hope they will behave.
Are you partaking in NaNo this year? What’s your method? What writer type are you? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!