Writing my Third Novel in 28 Days

As I did in 2014 and 2016, I challenged myself to write a novel this year during the month of November, as part of the NaNoWriMo initiative. I’ve explained lots about NaNoWriMo in my previous years’ blogs which I encourage you to check out, but for now here is how I got in 2017, presented through a series of my thoughts as the month progressed:

Week 1 – Into The Unknown

After nearly a month of planning a brand new story with brand new characters, my head was spinning with excited thoughts to begin with:

Man, why do I keep calling my main character by the similar name of the main character from my previous books?!

I always have man flu in November, even though it’s been 30 degrees plus for the last two in Brazil and Dubai!

This is my first year where I am working at a computer all day. I thought it would be easier than working at a warehouse but despite being less physically tired, the last thing I want to do mentally when I get home is turn on another computer.

I feel less prepared than ever – my plan is significantly shorter than last year’s behemoth.

This is my first time ever writing when someone has read my previous work. Two people have now read my two previous novels.

This year I have more chapters planned but less content, less complexity although complex premise. Maybe that’s good as I got some feedback saying that it can be tricky to keep track of all the characters and plots in my previous novel.

New characters, new story, new world, new time, but I clearly have a style, a voice. It sounds like me. Can’t decide if that is good or bad!

I tried to create a different structure but ended up with something very similar, even though the way the story is constructed is different. Maybe this is because I’m designing a novel to be written in 30 days?

Why am I always so slow at the beginning. It’s like pulling teeth! I need to get more confidence!

This is my first story all from one character’s perspective, not alternating fast between an ensemble. I wonder how that will affect things…

Week 2 – Already 48 Hours Behind Schedule

I like how I begin aiming for 50,000 each year, obsessively tracking that bar to see if it lights up green to show I’m on target. But then each year my book ends up ‘bigger on the inside’ and I cruise onwards, touching down at around 60,000 in each of the previous two years. I wonder if this year will be the same.

I love Courier 12 point font. It feels like home after three years, reminding me of chilly autumnal days in London 2014, and being exhausted in Rio after a long warehouse day in 2016.

I seem inefficient this year. It takes me ages to write a chapter – a whole evening, when at the end of last year’s attempt, when the pressure was really on and catching up looked like a laughably impossible feat, I smashed a couple of chapters a night every day in the last week. And that was when I was getting back late after 14 hours gruelling Work and commute.

Location-driven literature is a thing. I have no idea what my November 2018 story (my fourth novel) will be about but I know three locations I will probably set it already. I always pick locations I’ve visited since I wrote the last novel so they are new and relatively fresh in my mind.

Holy Motown I think chapter six is the longest chapter I’ve ever written! I checked – it seems to be the longest chapter I’ve written since the very first chapter of my very first novel, three years ago.

Despite my predictions, this book – like my others – seems to be bigger on the inside. Once I get writing, the word count per chapter is higher than I anticipated.

Way too much life admin just now. Despite not having any big trips in the first half of the month like São Paulo and Mexico last year, I’m tracking at a similar rate and struggling to stay on pace.

Super busy at work which leaves me either brain dead or still working in evenings and weekends. Difficult to switch off and re focus on another activity which requires more staring at a computer screen.

My first novel was set over a period of several weeks, my second over a period of several months, and this one over a period of many years.

Now cool enough to work on my balcony in evenings.

Week 3 – 20,000 words at the half way point

Need discipline and strategy to ensure I have enough time to write in remaining days of November. Pushing non essential tasks on my to do list to December to ensure I am maximising my potential writing time. Looking ahead on the calendar it will be tight and I need every hour I can get.

Keep slipping behind but then bouncing back to almost par. Just bubbling along beneath the target line on the word count graph on the NaNo website. Can remember similar nerves of a year ago so well.

Thought it was all over when I’d only reached chapter 11 at the end of a big writing day on the 18th. With five extra chapters this year – 30 vs 25 from previous two attempts – I needed to write an average of a chapter a day. But then I remembered that the end of chapter 11 is a major turning point in the novel (not that the reader may realise it until later) and thus speeding up my writing style and lowering the chapter word counts actually made a lot of sense. This realisation brought with it a renewed effort.

Also the novel gets darker and bleaker as it freefalls towards the end of chapter eleven, after which it bounces back with a new optimism and intrigue. I genuinely think writing such a dark narrative arc in the first half of the book had an impact on me. I felt freer and happier writing once I passed that crucial ‘rock bottom’ point. Although I must say, this bouncing plot trajectory is hella fun to write. It’s almost an inversion if the typical novel structure and allows me to be so much more playful and inventive.

I love throwing in subtle references and nods to mythology to allow the reader to suspect the truth early on whilst never quite being spoonfed all the answers. I do hope each reader has a slightly different experience and a differing interpretation of what is really happening. This is my first foray with what one might describe as a less than reliable narrator.

Each year the 20th is when people can start ‘winning’ NaNo by verifying their 50,000 word count. For me the 20th is the start of the final run in each year, when things get very serious. I’m usually behind at this point and the task ahead seems daunting.

An observation: My three novels have been written on three different continents.

Day 20 is the biggest word haul yet, a whopping five chapters that tops 6,000 words. For the second year in a row, Day 20 is the day the bar goes that sweet shade of green to indicate I’m on track to hit my 50,000 word count goal by the end of November. Final push – let’s do this.

Back ahead of last year’s progress now. I think I over complicated the plan last year. This year I feared not planning enough but it’s worked well. I like leaving gaps and then just filling them as I go along and letting the story flow naturally rather than forcing it from one plot milestone to another to another and so on. It’s nice to give the novel space to breathe. I also get overwhelmed if I have a million plot points to achieve in one chapter, or I force myself to top 2,000 words in a chapter. It makes me just go through the motions rather than bringing the novel to life. I want a story not a list of loosely connected bullet points. I think shorter chapters is the way forward, I work better at that quick pace. How well that reads, well that’s not for me to worry about now. Rule number one – no editing in November!

Find myself worrying about reaching 60,000 words just because last two novels were that big. This is stupid. The target is 50,000. I must get it out of my head that that is ‘too short’ to be a proper novel.

It really is so much easier and the words are far more forthcoming when what I’m writing is an optimistic, positive adventure rather than a negative spiral into oblivion. When my main character is happy, I’m happy!

I often do a brain dump for October and the first half of November, scattering the chapters in the plan with random ideas. By the second half of November I begin rejecting ideas that are not part of the wider arc. If I haven’t found a way to fit them in by now then this is not their year. I always write chronologically to ensure I know the story makes sense in a linear direction for the reader. By the time I reach the back end of the book I like the pace to increase and exposition and unnecessary plot points to be dropped. It makes it more fun to write too if the story speeds towards a conclusion once the scene setting and character building of the first half is over.

The first half of the novel jumped around a lot, skipping several years between chapters. I’m finding the smoother flow of the second half of the novel far easier and more enjoyable to write.

It’s definitely easier and goes better having one character that I follow rather than jumping between different characters, different continents and different stories, regardless of how well they all link up at the end.

The final third is always the best to write. It flows now I know where I’m going and I’m starting to get to the bit of the story I’ve been waiting to tell for so long. All the plot threads are connecting and I’m playing with the reader, keeping them turning the page to see what twist comes next.

On days 20 and 21 I wrote nearly 11,000 words over two evenings. Very proud of how I turned it round at the end of week 3. Now well on target to write 50,000 words in November and for the first time I’m on target to write all 30 chapters in November, having written 21 chapters in 21 days. Eight of those were written over just the last two days. I have plans to be in Abu Dhabi for the Grand Prix this weekend which wipes out three of my remaining nine writing days though, so still need to be careful.

Every year it feels like a snowball gathering momentum by this stage. Not so long ago writing 2,000 words felt like a massive challenge and took four hours. Now I can do it in an hour and just keep going. Keeping the faith in myself does pay off and when it does it’s the best feeling ever.

For first half of November I was doing the Dubai 30×30 fitness challenge, whereby one partakes in at least 30 minutes of exercise every day for a month. It was a great initiative I was proud to complete but boy was I glad when it finished and I had extra time in the day to write.

For the first time since 2014 I’m genuinely wondering (whisper it) if I might get this thing finished before the 30th. Doesn’t sound like me not to have a last minute New Year’s Eve still mad rush to midnight on the last day though!

I’m really enjoying my writing evenings. I shall definitely miss them when they are gone, despite spending parts of this month wishing it could be over already! When one takes on such a difficult mission solo, especially in the midst of a busy day to day life, it’s is daunting, lonely, frustrating and tests resolve. I found myself annoyed at my own ambition, wishing I hadn’t committed to this. I also found myself disappointed at my own inefficiency, lack of motivation and inability to ‘just bash out a novel’. Of course I have felt these things every single year I’ve done NaNo and what I forget in those early weeks of November is how exhilarating it is to rush towards the finish and how joyous it is to win.

In the first three weeks I found myself very frustrated at the lack of days off I had to write, and found it very challenging to write in weekday evenings. Eventually I found ways to be efficient in the evenings and pushed back any non essential tasks from my to do list to December (man December is gonna be hectic!) This was a super smart decision because small tasks were taking up all my time and attention. Only when I completely cleared my schedule for an evening did I find the focus to write good, long chunks at a time.

I remember when writing one novel seemed a far off dream I would probably never accomplish, a potential I would never achieve. I’m now days away from completing the first draft of my third novel. Hard work pays off. Like any task worth doing from building fitness to learning a language, it is all about keeping going during those dark hours when it all seems impossible and thankless. There is no such thing as achieving something worthwhile and truly rewarding without first putting a huge effort in.

I’m definitely much better at creating a good plan that I can refer back to and tweak whilst maintaining a coherent structure than I was in 2014. See last year’s notes on how I manage a spreadsheet.

The two most productive days have been the evenings after I have spent a day on a training course at work. Crucially, I have not been staring at a computer all day on these days, meaning I am happy to write for hours when I get home. I also left the office reasonably on time these days meaning I was still fresh when I got home. Both these days I began writing on my balcony. Doing the first chapter of the evening outside in the lovely winter UAE sunshine was a great way to start a session.

I’m convinced that without the rush of a deadline and a challenging project, I would never complete a book. Thank God for NaNoWriMo for coaxing three novels and counting out of me. Long may it last. I hope to one day write so many that I will have to think ‘wait, which one was my third novel again?’

I do worry that I tend to not edit my novels much after the first draft. Sure I correct typos and rephrase the odd sentence but structure and plot wise, nothing moves. Is that bad? Perhaps if and when I get an editor I will find out…

Week 4/5 – manflu and Abu Dhabi

Like last year’s trip to São Paulo, my Abu Dhabi Grand Prix trip was wonderful but left me with eight chapters to write in four days.  By the end of the month it’s all about discipline and watching the plot threads come together almost with a life of their own, as I only hope I can do justice to the payoff of all the hard work I’ve put in putting the pieces in place.

Amazingly, for the first time ever I finished early. Two days early in fact. Despite man flu I smashed nearly 5,000 words and over three chapters on the 28th so for the first time I wasn’t racing to compile my chapters before midnight struck.

In the end I only referred to my main character Jason as James (the protagonist from my previous two novels) twice out of 577 times I wrote his name, which isn’t bad going! Thank goodness for find and replace.

Word Counts over the years

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