NaNoWriMo didn’t ‘lie’: I had a novel. I had triplets

You’ve heard about National Novel Writing Month. You’re tempted. It’s not too late to put a desk in the shed and buy some stuffed pasta


My friend says she wants to make a writing shed. But don’t let a lack of shed stop you! Commandeer the kitchen table. Everyone can eat dinner on the stairs

I’ve seen blogposts that seem pretty annoyed with National Novel-Writing Month for ‘promising’ that participants will end up with a 50,000 word novel at the end of November. For me, the promise was fulfilled: in triplicate. I have material for three novels. It came seemingly out of nowhere, and I’ve had a riot the last year separating out what belongs in my ‘novel’ draft, and what is potentially another book. And another.

So if you’ve fancied trying this write-a-novel-in-a-month online extravaganza, then I can only encourage you to get ready and start next week. It’s not too late to get ready and go for it. You don’t need ideas, you just need to clear away a few distractions and warn your family that your cooking quality is about to plummet.

What was the result?

I wrote a lot of words. A lot of them will deservedly remain unpublished. But I found the whole experience delightful; freeing in so many ways; and the experiment it proposed for my creative process has had a resonant effect on the experiment of shaping my whole lifestyle too.

Because it taught me about planning: not planning the creative process, but planning all the little things around it to make it successful (like how to cook and clean/go to your day job, or whatever your daily obligations are, and still carve out a few hours for writing). And that kind of planning is the essence of habit change, and eventually helped me to lose weight.

But what happened to the draft?

Oh yes. I did end up with material for a novel too – which a year later I’m still editing and am pencilled in to complete by next February. And material for two more novels, too – who knows if I’ll ever write those! And since I didn’t worry if it was any good, I also messed about with style and form in a way that was naughty, impractical, and genuinely experimental.

What happened in my novel was unexpected. I didn’t map out my plot. It’s very reassuring to find that you don’t already know all the ideas you have.

How do you fit it in?

Busy life, yes? I wrote last year while my baby daughter napped. That’s it. Three or four hours a day. And I’d get up early too. And do a half-hour here and there too, since once you begin, if you last wrote recently and don’t need to reread it to remember what you were doing, you can just jump in where you left off and churn out a few more hundred words.

And I also held a write-in in my house and met a bunch of nice, shy, gothic teenagers who were mainly writing fantasy novels/urban shamanism/manga fan fiction. Which was wholly unexpected, and what I lost in the anguish of other people’s Patchouli aroma I gained in the form of dialogue challenges, and I’ve never looked back.

Don’t you just write a pile of crazy nonsense?

Yes, yes, and no, not nearly enough.

My Dad said to me after I’d finished it: “Are you happy with it?”. I said “God no!”. But editing it was very satisfying, since it was so easy to improve it by about 100% with a few smooth edits later.

I wish I could write even crazier nonsense. I watched the film Ted the other day and thought: I bet someone didn’t sit down and coolly and calculatingly write a plot about a talking teddy bear with a terrible weak spot for getting stoned. I bet they somehow amused themselves, and got on a roll. Later, someone else said: “It shouldn’t work, but it really does”.

So, how crazy could your nonsense get, if you let it?

Likewise, although nobody ever reads what you write on NaNoWriMo, you can see the titles. So when I notice that someone’s writing Butt Snork Part 3, I shake my head in wonderment and say a little prayer to Jim Morrison that one day I’ll release my own expectations of myself so fully that I’ll truly let my creative process rip unbounded wherever my sense of fun and self-amusement take me.

I haven’t tried the plan-it-properly-and-come-out-with-something-closer-to-finished approach. That’s a valid creative creative experiment too, and I may try that one day if my impatience forces me to. Or if I’m threatened in some way. Or if I have an idea I feel sure of. Or if I think I can beat the market…

How should I get ready? Do I have to rustle up a whole plot? 

  • You only need half an idea to get started. Even beginning with a character will do, and committing to what their flat is like and the make of their car and what’s in their CD collection. Since characters-taking-action=plot, it’s just nice to have someone up your sleeve you’d like to spend a month with. Hopefully, when the moment comes for them to act, they’ll do something that entertains you.
  • If you have a couple of hours before bed, get the highly readable No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty. Since it’s very entertaining, and makes the whole thing sound like a riot, and as the name suggests is full of the reassurance that you don’t need all the answers. He suggests you begin by making a list of things you like in a novel – and that’s sensible, since it’s easy to look at your list of ‘likes’ and say: “Oh! It looks like I’m writing about a female character who swears like a sailor, is very funny, and travels to a far-away country and has a powerful and unlikely love affair!” and “Oh good! I’m definitely not going to write a heavily-researched academic/historical ‘novel’ with a lot of family trees and weighty correspondence in it”.
  • Do a few practical things. Clear the desk where you’re going to write, cook a few meals to put in the freezer, explain to your family what you’re doing, create a bit of order in your life so you’ve minimised the stuff that’s bugging and distracting you (NB You can never fully clear the decks of other chores, I’ve found, just accept the imperfection of this scenario).

How many hours a day do I need? 

About 3, to hit the word count. You could do a couple of Saturday blitzes, or attend one of the NaNoWriMo writing sessions (look online for the ones near you) and boost up your word count that way, and then have more days off to see your friends.

Does NaNoWriMo help you edit, and publish a novel? 

Nope! Nobody reads it. You don’t have to make it a best-seller. They do send you encouraging pep talks, point you in the direction of advice-giving industry specialists, talk about pitching, and provide a community though.

But that aside, you might just want these advantages:

  • Getting the feel of what writing 50,000 words is like
  • Watching your characters do things that surprise you
  • Tackling some parts of writing that bother you – for example, I was pretty scared of dialogue and it forced me to try it
  • Playing with form and genre in ways that would be unacceptable if you were thinking about ‘the market’
  • Trying a different structure to your creative process that might make you rethink how your creativity works
  • Seeing a big chunk of writing through to the end
  • Doing something with no end result in mind. Just for the hell of it, just for the experience. It doesn’t have to be a success, this time, you could write your second or third novel as the absolute blinder. Allow yourself this one, for free, for practise, and you never never know.
  • An excuse to go to cafes.


But if you want to, later, you’ll have something to work with. For NaNoWriMo, don’t worry about any of that! You’ll have your whole life to edit and I’m sure your critical faculties aren’t the ones that need more practise – Believe me, they are well-formed: so well-formed, perhaps, that without the speed of NaNoWriMo you might not ever be allowed out to play by them.

Let it rip. Do what you enjoy. Be amused. Meet strangers. Have a big experience in a short time. Assimilate it later.