Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012: Preparation

As of tomorrow, I'll be taking part in Nanowrimo. To prepare, I have done the following:

1) Read through the existing manuscript
As previously mentioned, my Nano challenge this year is to finish my incomplete novel, at least in first draft. In an attempt to try and remember what on earth was going on in the story, I recently skimmed through everything I had written so far. Surprisingly, I didn't hate it. I didn't exactly love it either, but that's okay.

2) Made a plan
I love planning. If I could get a job plotting books and not writing them, that would be marvellous. Recently, my Geneva writers' group indulged this perversion of mine by promising we could have a 'structure clinic' at some point in the near future, whereby we all help one another put our stories into some sort of order. For me, this is painfully exciting - sort of like a literary Christmas - although I have realised I should probably make a plan for my own Nano project, if I'm going to be bossy about everyone else's.

3) Signed up
Nano has an excellent website, featuring lots of tips and banter, where you can design yourself a fancy profile, with pictures and a novel synopsis and everything. Mine is now up and running here. My favourite thing by far on the Nano website is the Bar Chart of Joy. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than watching the bar chart of my word count go up and up during the month of November - just as nothing fills me with as much dread as getting behind and watching the projected word count get further and further out of reach.

My Novel profile as of 01/11/12 - featuring the Bar Chart of Joy
4) Spread the word
During previous Nanos, I've found it best to tell my nearest and dearest that I'm attempting a novel in thirty days, just so they know why I look so hollow-eyed/unwashed/confused by reality. Better yet is to get them to do it as well. Long ago (May) I made a pact with Miss Joely Badger that we would both do Nano this year. And then there's my Geneva writers' group, some of whom may be attempting it too. As I said in my previous post on collaborative writing: share the writing burden!

5) Tidied my flat
I am notoriously messy and will neglect housework for weeks and weeks on end if I can get away with it (considering my 'studio apartment' in Geneva is probably only slightly larger than a shoe box, this is rather shaming). But when one is in the throes of novel-writing, scrubbing the bathroom often begins to look like an appealing alternative to writing, so that particular procrastination path has been nipped in the bud.

6) Bought a lot of food
The 'Inspiration Station'
- complete with novelty lighting
I work long hours and the aforementioned minuscule apartment has a kitchen which is literally inside a cupboard. This makes me a very lazy cook. I don't even really try: pasta and pesto has become my go-to supper (and believe me, I go to it a lot). However, novelists need nourishment - and Nano novelists cannot afford to be wasting time wandering the supermarket aisles every day. Therefore I have bought myself all sorts of healthy food: smoothies! Bananas! Broccoli! I can't remember the last time I ate broccoli, and I'm not convinced I can recall what to do with it.

7) Bought a lot of booze
As above, but more so.

8) Got in the mood
I've been working on my poor nameless novel for a long time now. Almost five years, in fact. As such, I have a pretty good idea of who will star in the inevitable film adaptation (Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Julianne Moore), what the soundtrack will feature (Israel 'Iz' Kamakawiwo'Ole's Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Portishead's Numb, among others) and have even built up an 'Inspiration Station' of random pictures vaguely connected to the story, so I can't accidentally forget I'm supposed to be writing it. In addition to reading through the manuscript, I have revisited these bookish bonus features - and am now officially In The Mood To Write.

Soundtrack music: Israel 'Iz' Kamakawiwo'Ole's 
version of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'

Friday, October 19, 2012

Collaborative Writing

When I was younger, I imagined writers to be Beatrix Potter figures, holed up in country cottages with animals crawling and hopping (though curiously never defecating) over their work. Throughout my teenage years, my ideal authorial figure became the café-bound JK Rowling (aside from my brief flirtation with Ewan McGregor’s absinthe-soaked scribbler from Moulin Rouge - be still my adolescent heart). But whether they reside in mansions or garden sheds, work with quills or Macs, most people’s image of a writer will have at least one thing in common: they are alone.

Ewan McGregor: making writers look
good since 2001
Obviously there are exceptions, especially in screenwriting, but I think it’s fair to say that most writers are solitary sorts. For many, this is one of the best aspects of the profession, and indeed I have often wondered whether I feel compelled to write because I am a huge control freak/megalomaniac, and it’s far easier to get made up people to do what you want than real ones. And of course, two people sitting in front of a computer/notebook/artfully-battered typewriter are always going to take about eight times longer to produce something because everything needs to be discussed (if I sound disparaging here, seriously - try it and get back to me).

So writing – and by that, I mean the actual typing out/inking down of the words - is mainly a solitary activity, agreed? But the thing is, everything around it - the writing process, if you will - really shouldn't be.

During my Creative Writing Masters in Edinburgh we had to attend a weekly workshop where we both presented our own work for feedback and provided feedback for others in the group. It seems strange to think back on it, two writers' groups down the line, but ahead of that first session back in 2007 I was terrified. Before then, although I hadn't been completely secretive about my work, I hadn't always been entirely willing to share it either. In fact, the whole idea of the workshop was so daunting, I even resubmitted the story I had used for my MSc application, figuring that if my tutors had let me on the course, it can't have been that bad.

Unsurprisingly, I quickly relaxed about it all and, over the course of the MSc, came to learn that giving and receiving feedback was not only very useful, it could even be enjoyable. Sharing the burden of a story is actually a huge relief, and trusted readers can offer a completely different perspective on a tale that has, until very recently, only existed in your head: This idea works, but needs expanding on. That minor character is really interesting - why not give her more to do? If you tone down the description here, it'll make the image more effective. And so on.

I'll save the debate on how useful doing a Masters in Creative Writing is for another day, but I don't think there's any doubt that the workshop experience was invaluable. It inspired me to start my Edinburgh writers' group, WOW (Writers on Wine), which threw booze into the mix, thus making the whole feedback process far easier - and more likely to descend into giggles. In turn, WOW's success prompted me to start my Geneva writers' group, which is currently in its fledgling stages...

So, in summary: writing alone in a garret without surfacing for company is all well and romantic (thanks, Ewan!) but I'm not sure how helpful it is, creatively. Perhaps it doesn't need to be through anything as official as a workshop, but I've found entrusting respected, writerly friends with my initial ideas, my first drafts, my eighth drafts (and having them trust me with their writing in return) is not only far more useful than doing it alone - it's far more fun too.

WOW: Lizzie, Cheryl, Hannah, Cat and me
(don't judge, it was our Christmas meeting)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Novel November

It's all Joss Whedon's fault.

I was just minding my own business on twitter last week, when up popped ‘Ten Writing Tips from Joss Whedon.' Now normally, I take these sorts of lists with a large pinch of salt - especially since I recently read one from a very respected publication that advised ‘always write short stories in the first person.’ Really? Always? However, Joss is different: Joss is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (if you’re eye-rolling, you know nothing and must order your boxset immediately), and Buffy taught me a hell of a lot about telling stories – not to mention fighting the forces of darkness – during my teenage years. So Joss, I would listen to.*

Eagerly, I clicked on the link. This was the first thing I read:
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
I got no further through the list, as by this point I was experiencing a horrible gnawing sensation in my stomach: guilt. For although Joss was primarily advising screenwriters, I could not help but think of my own novel, languishing in a forgotten folder somewhere on my computer, so near yet frustratingly so far from being a complete manuscript. And the more I thought about it, that hateful work that I had banished from my mind for six months or more, the more I... Well, I kind of... missed it.

Oh, I admit it. I wanted it back. For a second, my subconscious went soft and ached to write it, to finish it - and that second was enough for the more businesslike side of my brain to seize upon its counterpart's weakness and go, "haha! Then write it and finish it, you wastrel!"

A timeline of 'the novel' (I hate calling it that, but all my working titles are, frankly, crap):
  • Sometime in 2006: thinking idly about the lack of modern stories featuring fathers and daughters (as opposed to fairy tales, where they're all over the place), I come up with a vague idea about a teenage girl's madcap weekend in London with her estranged, unstable father. 
  • April 2008: during my final term of the MSc, I decide it is an excellent idea to pen this emotionally complex plot - now set in my new home city of Edinburgh - as a novella in three months. Incidentally, it isn't a good idea and there are many tears. 
  • November 2009: due to the MSc trauma, I don't look at the story again for over a year. Then for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I decided to rewrite the whole thing as a full-blown novel. In a month. Somewhat surprisingly, I achieve this - although because a 'Nano' novel is only 50,000 words, the manuscript is unfinished. 
  • September 2010 - June 2011: I workshop a good chunk of the incomplete draft with my Edinburgh writers' group, WOW, until I move to Geneva.
But Joss is right, isn't he? Of course he is. I need closure. How can I edit the early part of the story if the end isn't even written? I need to finish it - and not just for the sake of it, but because over the years it's developed into a story I truly want - and think it's important - to tell:
Fifteen year-old Ruby Chase is devoted to her estranged father, the carefree and reckless Leo. But over the course of one weekend in Edinburgh, they are torn apart by his inability to control his bipolar disorder, and her inability to understand it.
Five years later, they are reunited at Ruby's grandmother’s funeral. The now medicated Leo is desperate to make amends for what happened in Edinburgh, but Ruby struggles to forgive him, caught now between the two Leos: the stable stranger who is offering her a father once more, and the adored, troubled dad she loved and lost.
Looking back at that timeline, it seems I've progressed the most with the novel under pressure: the MSc, Nano and WOW (acronyms seem to help). I was going to do Nano again with a new novel this November, but really what's the point when I have one already 70% finished? So instead, I've decided to come up with my own Nano-inspired challenge whereby I finish my novel in first/second draft. Then at least I'll have a manuscript. At least I'll be able to print it out, flick through it whilst laughing wildly, and scribble this is awful - cut, cut, CUT! all over it in green pen

So yes, exactly one month from today, it's not so much National Novel Writing Month as National Novel Finishing Month (NaNoFiMo? Sounds like some sort of Plasticine challenge). It's going to be difficult and it's going to be liberating. There will almost certainly be more tears.

And it's all Joss Whedon's fault.

Joss is Boss.

*If you need further proof of Joss' genius, watch the above and don't even try not to fist-pump.