Writing a novel in one of the busiest months of my life

NaNoWriMo take 2

How I got on writing my second novel during one of the busiest months of my life. Spoiler: it was quite a journey…

Some Hero II

For the second time in three years I took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – an initiative designed to coax a novel out of anyone who always wanted to write one but never got round to it. The aim is to write 50,000 words in November and not worry about perfection, safe in the knowledge that editing will come later but the hardest part is first getting an initial draft down on paper.

Week 1 – A difficult start

This was always going to be a much tougher challenge than in 2014. Back then I was in between jobs and only working part time, the only real battle was against procrastination and that time I accidentally deleted a whole chapter like a mug. This was a whole other level.

Every weekday I woke for work at 5:30am and didn’t get home until around 7pm. My weekends were already full with trips to Mexico and São Paulo and work parties. Just finding the strength and mental energy to write in the evenings was a struggle, let alone putting myself in the mindset to write about a love scene in Paris or a murder in Detroit when all l I could think about was work. As a Project Manager on the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, I was at this stage working in a warehouse helping manage the prepping and sending of thousands of items of Games furniture and equipment to clients. As jobs go, it’s brilliant and rewarding but by this stage of the process (after ten gruelling operational months on site) it is about as physically and mentally exhausting as it gets. In short: not conducive with writing a novel. Nobody in their right mind would attempt it in such a situation, and yet, and yet, I felt ready to write again, knew my characters had another story in them, had spent all year editing my debut novel and was up for a heck of a challenge to prove to myself I could do it regardless of the circumstances. (That or I just enjoyed punishing myself).

Just like in 2014, my opening chapter was a monster. Without giving the plot away too much, I had (nearly) all my main characters attend a wedding at the very start in order for them to get together and lightly recap the events of book one whilst sowing some seeds for the events of book two. I wrote this on a plane back from Mexico and finished it the following day at São Paulo airport having not slept. We’ll see come the editing process how much of an effect that had! I also wrote part of chapter two of my novel which – just like two years ago – is 25 chapters long. Whilst editing my first novel throughout 2016 one of the things I enjoyed about it was the structure so I more or less stuck with the same for the sequel.

Then it was back to work, I was moving flat, it was super full on, I was exhausted from my trip and I didn’t write for two days. At the weekend, I unpacked, did all my boring life admin and (perhaps foolishly) spent most of my free time writing a blog, uploading pics and making an awesome video of my Mexico trip. Two more days had slipped by – a weekend, no less, an open goal – and I had written… nothing. From being ahead with my word count in the race to 50,000, I was now slipping worryingly behind (my 2014 count ended up at 61,000 for reference – I wrote more than I anticipated that year as the novel was to my surprise bigger on the inside). The calendar wasn’t my friend either – upcoming potential writing days in November were almost all full already with aforementioned events.

So on Monday night when I got home, exhausted and grumpy, I made myself write. My flatmate even checked on me periodically to see how many words I’d done. Note: having someone motivate you like that really helps. Between 9 and 10pm I polished off chapter two. I only added 1,400 words that night – not quite the 1,700 I required by this point to hit the fabled 50,000 – but damn it was better than nothing. I figured I could improve, I just needed to get into the rhythm of writing every night.

Week 2 – Slipping further behind

By this time I had realised that a key to success could be writing notes to myself on my phone during rare down periods during the day. I then slotted these into my plan in the evenings, which was a lot more sophisticated than in 2014, when it was just a list of chapters with three sub paragraphs for each describing the plot outline. This time I had a vast spreadsheet with quotes, columns for all the main characters, rows for each chapter and columns for when each chapter is set. Having everything in one place was so helpful once the plan got colossal. I’d spent most of October finding images online of people who looked like my characters so I had thumbnails of them on my Mac desktop to refer to, as well as constructing character family trees, character histories and answers to key mysteries from book one. All of this set me up well and boy did I need all the help I could get. Timehop was mocking me by informing me how much I had done at the same stage in 2014, I was still stuck in the editing mindset rather than the get-on-and-write mindset (there’s something refreshing and liberating about abandoning the editing until the first draft is complete but it took a while to get used to this approach again), and I needed to dig deeper than ever. The more tired I was the more I relied on a detailed plan in lieu of inspiration. With so few hours in the week available there wasn’t the luxury of time for overthinking, or competing in word sprints with other NaNo-ers like I had in 2014 (where writers challenge each other to see how many words they can write in a short time period), or writer’s block…

The second week started well, but with a trip to São Paulo at the end of it, I was always going to slip further behind. I was already 29,000 words (about half a book) behind where I was at at the same stage in 2014…

Week 3 – Operation catch-up

Just like after Mexico, when I returned from São Paulo I spent a day making an epic video and blog of my Brazilian GP experience. Fortunately the Tuesday was a feriado (holiday) in Brazil and I used it to smash 7,777 words or three chapters, my most productive day yet, bringing me over the 19,000 word mark at the halfway stage of the month. Still, Timehop was revelling in telling me that two years prior I had written over double that amount at the same stage. But I had to be positive and believe the momentum was back. I was certainly far more efficient than in 2014 and spent less time worrying about the best writing software to use, whose NaNo pep talks to listen to and what word sprints to partake in online. Instead, for the whole, I just wrote, and it was liberating. The plan was helping me more and more – I had kept it as a massive but simple spreadsheet and having everything in one place really helped. I initially downloaded Scrivener on free trial as I had done in 2014, but by then I was comfortable with just a Pages document for each of my 25 chapters. The only minor inconvenience was manually calculating the word count to update on the NaNo website each day but overall life was easier. I had been editing the first novel all year using separate documents for each chapter and didn’t feel I had time nor was it necessary to re-adapt to different software.

Despite constructing the plan in October, it evolved all the way through November. I would clarify plot lines and enhance character histories, as well as peppering running themes throughout the chapters. I also tweaked timelines to attempt to ensure that the plot followed at least a quasi three part structure, with key decisions made by the lead character at roughly the beginning, middle and end of the second act (very loosely anyway). For a lot of my time at work I was completing mundane tasks over and over, which gave my brain time to flesh out the story structure. I was focussed now, spending a lot of my time thinking about how to improve the plot and details to add. I had reached the mindset of ‘just write’ rather than worrying, knowing I would edit properly later. I wasn’t (very) tempted to revisit completed chapters and I even self plagiarised my own travel blogs when it came to describing places. There are a lot of global settings for my story so this helped; I like to think of my work as location-driven literature.

My Plan quickly became colossal and I depended on it a lot

My Plan quickly became colossal and I depended on it a lot

I wrote more and more each day and slowly clawed back the massive deficit. Having said that, getting home from work filthy and mentally and physically drained to the point of exhaustion and then making myself write for 1-2 hours proved super challenging. My plan by now was a creaking behemoth itself sitting at 13,500 words and I just needed to somehow filter all those ideas onto the page each night. Just like in 2014, Hans Zimmer often provided the soundtrack that motivated me to enter into that world of adventure that is writing, although I worked more in silence than last time, finding I wrote quicker without any distractions whatsoever.

On the 20th of November my progress bar on the NaNo website went green – I was finally averaging enough to hit 50,000 words in the month of November. It seemed I was writing another novel that was ‘bigger on the inside’ though, so had to be smart and not include too many new ideas as I still had half my chapters to write in just ten days. The 20th is also the first day each year when it is possible to upload and verify the word count of a novel on NaNo, so this felt like a real ‘beginning of the end’ moment. I figured by this point if I wrote a chapter every weekday and two chapters per day at weekends, I would be fine, although this was immediately challenging as my chapters seemed to be getting potentially bigger if anything!

At times I wished I had the luxury of the free time I had in 2014, but I realised I tend to be like water poured into a container and taking the shape of it. If I have six hours to write a chapter, I will tend to take six hours. If I have one hour, I rise to the pressure and write it in one hour, but only if that is a necessity. What was similar to 2014 was that the first half of the book contained lengthier chapters but as the project went on I realised I was running out of time and needed to be leaner, thus the pace of the action accelerates naturally to a conclusion, which I quite like. You need time at the beginning to set the scene, grow the characters and sow plot seeds, but as the story progresses parallel strands should start to converge more and more rapidly. This is the fun bit. I get less descriptive with my writing and focus more on a story I now know inside out, having been thinking about it for around seven weeks. I know exactly where I’m heading but the reader doesn’t, and there is an enormous amount of fun to be had as a result at this stage as all my hard groundwork building a base starts to pay off.

Week 4 – Fight to the finish

By week four my plot threads were orbiting each other, reeling themselves in like bubbles dancing towards the plug hole after a bath. While work took up a huge amount of my time, it was also good to have more friends/colleagues around than in 2014 to ask me how the novel was going. The satisfaction of reporting having written two chapters the night before spurred me on to repeat such feats.  Also, being at work meant I was exposed to Brazilians with exactly the kind of challenges in their lives that my characters had, so having this fresh in my mind each night made my characters more authentic, particularly in the idiosyncrasies of social interaction that working class Brazilians employ in day to day life.

I was more exhausted than ever by now and had a nasty sickness bug for some of the week (as I did at this phase in 2014, oddly, despite it being summer and not flu season this time – it was probably brought on by exhaustion). Yet somehow I made myself write every day, knowing that there was no time for catch up in the schedule if I was to complete all 25 chapters in November.

By the end of the week, the weather was bizarrely affecting my chances. Had the last Sunday in November been rainy I would probably have spent the day writing rather than by the beach but given that I was soon to leave Rio it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss being outside.

Thus the pressure was certainly on heading into the final days. It looked like being the second time in a row when I would be rushing to finish minutes before midnight on the 30th.  I had almost caught up with my 2014 rate, though, having this time done the bulk of the work in the second half of the month, unlike then. By the 28th in 2014 I had done 51,000 words with five chapters to go, and in 2016 I had done 47,000 words with six chapters to go. Two chapters per day in the last three days (all working weekdays with only evenings in which to write) was a lot but it was doable – just. I needed to be more focussed that ever. When that little voice said I was tired, that I’d done enough, I needed to say ‘no buddy, not this time’. One tactic I found to help speed up the process when time was short was pasting the notes from my plan below my text in the document so I didn’t have to keep referring back to the plan.

I had considered writing chapters out of sequence this year but decided to write them in order because the plot is complex and I needed to ensure that there were no logical mistakes like a reference to an event that was yet to happen. This way I also have a better feel for what the reader has experienced prior to reading a particular chapter, so I know what they are expecting, how to satisfy those expectations (hopefully) and how to skilfully mislead the reader (again, hopefully).

By this point the notes I wrote myself during the daytime were full paragraphs of past tense dialogue that I could lift straight into my text, to assist my tired brain in the evenings.

The night of the 28th I smashed through the 50,000 word target for November, ending on over 51,000 words with four of the 25 chapters to go. This felt like a massive achievement given the month I had had and I might have celebrated had I not just killed off so many characters in the epic chapter 21. I knew that of the remaining four chapters only chapter 24 would be as big so I felt tantalisingly close to completing my novel in November.

Week 5 – Greatness awaits

Exhausted and delirious, I entered Week 5 feeling that all the self punishment was starting to turn into satisfaction and reward.

With two days to go, the chess pieces of my plot were all moving tactically around the board towards my dramatic conclusion. The action was quicker in pace and darker in tone; I was almost completely out of planning mode and just trusting in the plot.

The way the plot was coming together by now – seemingly by itself as I had already laid all the groundwork – was even more satisfying than I had hoped. Such intricately planned art is almost a science and was certainly a thing of beauty when it unfolded into life in a way better than I had expected. It was genuinely sad to think that I would be saying goodbye to this book and the universe I had created after pouring so much thought and energy into it.

It’s amazing how disciplined and determined you have to be to complete a challenge like this when you have so little free time. The fight against procrastination and of course other people’s (often quite reasonable) demands on your time is tough. Because of all of this I had sort of assumed all along that I would fail, yet I had never stopped pushing. The setbacks had been huge and the mountain seemed too high and too steep on many separate occasions but each time the thought of letting all my work and planning go to waste drove me forward. I never allowed finishing in December to be an option, I knew that would make it far less likely that I would ever complete the project. You can’t self-prescribe the feeling of achieving something great and nor can anyone give it to you – you have to earn it. Only you know if you honestly feel proud of something major you have accomplished. Others might not acknowledge or understand it but that doesn’t matter. It’s a very personal thing and hard to come by, but when you get that feeling of having worked and sweated for something that truly matters to you, it’s a sweet moment and nobody can take it away from you. That was the light that I could now see at the end of the tunnel.

I entered the final day of the project with much more momentum than I had had in 2014, when during the second half of the month my progress had slowed up to almost nothing in the final week. This year was the opposite: after a tough start to November my progress had been solid throughout the second half of the month. Indeed, in the sixteen days from the 15th to the 30th I wrote every single day bar one. This little and often approach does wonders psychologically. Even just two days earlier when I had had six chapters to write in three days, the task had seemed unwieldy. But by breaking that down into two chapters per day, and then actually achieving that for the first two of those days, I was able to enter the last day with only two chapters to do that night, knowing that I had achieved exactly that in each of the last two nights. It was all about momentum and belief in the final write night, the epic denouement. The clock was ticking and that race-to-midnight feeing while writing definitely injected an urgency into my final pages. The New Year’s Eve style midnight celebration moment was coming and nothing I could do would buy me extra time to write now. It was time to slay words fast in a St Andrew’s Day Massacre. I remembered from my last minute panic in 2014 that it was important to leave sufficient time before midnight to compile all 25 chapters into one document in order to submit the word count on the NaNo website.

It was a frantic fight to the finish but with minutes to go I uploaded my entire novel to the NaNoWriMo website. My final two chapters were breathless and it was quite tough to write them at times but being against the clock I ploughed through. The feeling of completion was so satisfying, especially with the cool video the awesome guys at NaNo put up for when you win. The NaNo certificate for winning is super cool, too. I wrote 59,556 words in total, a pretty epic effort.

My 2014 word count by day...

My 2014 word count by day…

...and my 2016 word count by day. Same project, two very different approaches - most of the work was done in the second half of the month this time around.

…and my 2016 word count by day. Same project, two very different approaches – most of the work was done in the second half of the month this time around.

Stats 2016

Stats 2016

I’m proud of what the book has become and in particular how it portrays the good and the bad of Brazil. Living here for a year before writing certainly aided the authenticity. It was amazing to look back on how far the story had progressed in just a few weeks. I often wonder if I should have planned out a multiple-book series arc before beginning the first novel but I really enjoyed taking it project by project and solving mysteries from the first book while planning the second. I’ve no idea if I will write a third and make it a trilogy – let’s wait a year or two and allow the dust from this one to settle. After all, I’ve got a book to edit first…

JP logo


One thought on “Writing a novel in one of the busiest months of my life

  1. Pingback: Writing my Third Novel in 28 Days | Whaddup JP

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Why not leave a comment?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s