In which I accidentally abandoned my blog…

It seems to be an increasingly common thing. So many blogging friends from years ago have likewise let their blogs slip away into the swirling blogosphere, some to never reconnect and others to one day salvage their old creative venue and perhaps turn it into something new. 

It happens to us for a variety of reasons. It would be too easy for me to say that I abandoned mine due to the stress of moving back to Australia after a couple of years in Sweden. That may well be a contributing factor, but I feel like I had run out of steam on the blog as well. Heck, I didn’t even do NaNoWriMo last year (the first time since I started in 2009). I just ran out of steam in so many ways and life had too many other priorities.

Now a year has passed. We’re living in a beautiful apartment literally on the waterfront, with a bay of water, mountains and boats in front of our place. The sun sets over the mountains and leaves behind sparkling light over the water each evening – the closest we can get to sunset over sea on an eastern coastline. I’m back teaching again, and after a year and a half of being married to the love of my life we have never been happier.

I’m about to tackle NaNoWriMo again this year, returning for my 7th round and hopefully 7th win. All this thought of writing again has reminded me of my blogging days (over 400 posts in total) and now I find myself wondering: will I blog again? And if so, will I blog here or start anew? Will I refocus my blog or just ramble on more than ever? And will I ever find Waldo? Oh, there he is…

Anyway. I have much to think about. But if any of you have had similar experiences I’d love to hear from you! Meanwhile here’s a nice picture I took recently of my home.

Lessons learned from my sixth NaNoWriMo

Winner-2014-Square-ButtonAround the world, NaNoWriMo, the event in which over 300 000 participants attempt to write a 50 000 word novel in 30 days, is about to come to a close. Here in Europe there is a little over 28 (edit: 26 hours, because Sleepless in Seattle is on television and I haven’t seen this movie as a grown adult before) hours left; back in Australia where I completed my first 5 NaNo novels, there is just over 16 hours left. Some people will scramble to perform catch ups of the most epic nature in this time, while others will decide to be content with what they have. And whether or not you have written 10 words or 1 million words, whether you are aiming to write 10 000 words on your last day or you’re kicking back with a nice glass of wine and laughing in the face of the very concept of writing on this last day, there is one important thing to matter:

  1. You’re already a winner.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. You gave it a shot. You hopefully learned something from it all. If you got to your goals, that’s a nice bonus, but the main point of it all is that you sat down and wrote something towards some kind of a novel or similar creative project. You wrote something which you might not have otherwise written and that is a victory. I think it is so important to remember that in these final hours.

As for me, I have indeed notched my sixth consecutive NaNoWriMo win, jumping over the 50 000 word hurdle on the 21st of the month (which may be my quickest so far because I tend to procrastinate a lot in the early parts of the month). I was aiming for 100 000 words, and I had a lot of reasons for it too. The last two years’ attempts at NaNoWriMo have felt a little forced and lacklustre – thanks to a bit of routine reaching 50 000 was almost too easy, a bit like I’ve done it all before (which to be fair I have). So I wanted to see what would happen when I aimed higher, without a plan, to see what might come out of my own head.

I stopped a few days ago, at 67 000 words. I did write harder and faster than ever before, and I came up with some frankly bizarre but interesting things in my story. I learned a lot about keeping my story funny more consistently (I was trying comedy yet again) and I learned just how complex I can make my plots without even trying. But at this point, a little behind schedule, I realised that I had no idea where to take the story to finish it. While I enjoyed writing it and being silly, while I learned a lot, I felt no personal attachment to my story this time. If I continued, I’d only be stubborn as if I were trying to prove a point that no longer needed to be proved. So I decided to stop and to be honest I am not only glad I’m did, but I’m a little bit proud that for once I didn’t let my ambition drive me into the ground as it so often can.

I guess that’s the main lesson I have learned this year. I need to have the correct motivation behind my writing, especially once I clear that NaNoWriMo baseline of 50 000 words. Often I have motivations beyond my own story ideas and writing too. Almost every year since I began I’ve had other writers who I am competing against or helping egg along to their first victory. Last year it was a very young student (who kicked my butt), this year it was a good friend who I cheered on (well…nagged) on various social media until she suddenly also kicked my butt and reached the goal in just 15 days (yes, you know who you are if you read this). So I think that also gives me a reason to do this crazy thing each year. Seeing somebody else I know reach that goal for the first time is one of the best feelings I know.

I for one am looking forward to returning to writing in other forms, like my blogs (yes, that food blog is starting up very soon) but also my short stories and poetry. I’m also looking forward to reading A LOT in December! BUT if you are still scrambling to finish you novels, I wish you lots of luck! It is always amazing what you can do with that final-day pressure! Just sit down and do your best, and whatever happens will happen. Whatever happens, be proud of it!

NaNoWriMo tips from a madman

Participant-2014-Square-ButtonI meant to write this before the last day of October, mere hours away from the beginning of NaNoWriMo (Australia and New Zealand have already started, while the rest of us around the world eagerly count down). But typically I found myself suddenly busy this month so finding time to blog was a bit trickier than I thought. Which, um, bodes well for NaNoWriMo, right?

Still. I have slayed this beast for the last five years, so apparently I’m doing something right even if I don’t know for sure what it is. Last year I wrote a list of tips as well, but then last year’s event for me was a bit of a let down – I reached the word count but was totally uninspired by my own writing, which is a shame after the amount of planning I put into it. And that perhaps leads me to tip number 1…

  1. Don’t worry TOO much about the planning. I’m not saying “don’t plan” nor am I saying “you must plan every scene or else doom will befall you!” What I am saying is don’t worry too much about it either way. Some of you will be pantsers, running into it with no real planning year after year, and for many of you this works great. For some of you, the thought of not planning terrifies you – it’s perfectly fine to be an articulate planner too if that helps you to write. But either way, at this point just go with what you have. You’d be surprised how it can come together regardless.
  2. Stock up on coffee/tea/cola/something caffeinated. I really feel this one is self-explanatory, but I can tell you there will be times where you just want to go for a little sleep instead of writing. If you pep yourself back up, sometimes those moments can be your best moments of writing.
  3. Tell everybody you’re doing it! I think I said this last year, actually. Anyway, the more people you tell, the more people you’ll have to nag encourage you to keep at it. Of course, if you think this kind of pressure won’t help you, maybe just tell a few people. But I know personally I like to shout it out from the rooftops while live streaming the whole thing!*
  4. Expect your story to not follow your orders. No, I’m being serious. Once you start writing, your story will take on a life of its own which you are only trying to control. But, like any loving creator, you can only control it so much. Sometimes you’ll write a scene or kill off a character or something dramatic and think to yourself “wait a minute, I wasn’t supposed to do that!” Do you keep this twist that even you, the author, didn’t expect? Well, that’s the part you control. Sometimes a sudden new direction can be refreshing, but you won’t know if you don’t try.
  5. Don’t have six subplots. Probably not even five. I’m saying this because last year I rather ambitiously aimed for six but my story became more tangled than the world championships of Twister (the board game, not the destructive weather event). For a novel at least one is usually needed, but two or three are probably manageable if you can think of a way of tying them altogether.
  6. Remember it’s a first draft. A very first draft. Don’t get too caught up on it being perfect – you’re just trying to get the story out of your head and onto the page at this point (albeit at an insane speed). The thing is, nobody writes a great first draft of a story regardless of the speed at which you write it (and if you think you do you’re either a freak genius or deeply disillusioned). So don’t judge yourself too much – that’s for December.
  7. Remove the backspace/delete buttons from your keyboard. Or, you know, pretend they aren’t there if you’re a bit more normal. The point is, don’t delete what you’ve written. Don’t even read it. Again, deletions are for December.
  8. If you can find some friendly competition, use it to your advantage. Maybe someone in your local writing group wants to race you? Go for it. Maybe you find the word sprints in the forums and on social media help you? Use them. A little competitive spirit never hurt, but please please please be nice to one another when you do this! On the odd occasion I’ve seen this turn into fighting and that’s not what this whole event is about.**
  9. If you fall behind, it’s not the end of the world. My favourite novels I’ve written so far for NaNoWriMo were the ones where I had to catch up massively towards the end (I think my record was writing 11k in one day, 19k over the final 3 days). Last year I stayed on track the whole month and my writing was bore galore! Obviously this isn’t the case for everybody, but either way don’t panic – it’s not over until it’s over, as they say.
  10. HAVE FUN! Because this is so vital to the whole thing. Yes, part of this is about the challenge, about pushing yourself with your writing to see what you can come up with. But it should also be about having fun, meeting new writers, sharing your experiences. No matter whether you get to 1k, 10k or 50k, you’ve written something this month and that is still an achievement!

And lastly, I shouldn’t have to point this out but I’m going to anyway. As many of you know I often encourage as many people as I can to give NaNoWriMo a go. I think it’s a lot of fun and most people who have tried it tend to agree with me. But if you don’t like it, if you think this sort of writing isn’t for you, that’s absolutely fine. It’s not for everybody. Some people just don’t and can’t write like that, and that doesn’t make them a lesser writer either. I guess it comes back to what I mentioned in point 8 – be respectful to everyone, those writers participating and those who are not. We’re all writers here, people!

For those of you who are joining in, I wish you luck! If you want to add me as a buddy on NaNo, let me know in the comments!

I have to go think about how I’m going to write something that will last 100 000 words starting tomorrow!***

You can do it, everyone!

 

*Not really. But I do tell everybody I know.

**If that’s what you’re after you probably want to try NaNoFiMo – National Novel Fighting Month.

***Oh yeah, did I even tell you guys that? I’m aiming for 100 000 words this year. No idea why. I’m a lunatic I suspect.

NaNoWriMo beckons once more…

NaNoWriMo LogoWell, that sounded a bit ominous! Anyway, those who have followed my blog the past few years probably know all about NaNoWriMo, because I babble about it every year around October and November. Newer followers might also know about it because, well, it’s a pretty massive event (about 300 000 participants globally last year).

But first, let’s refresh our memories on what this lunacy actually is (or perhaps even learn about it for the first time)! NaNoWriMo is an event in which participants from all walks of life attempt to write a 50 000 word (or more) novel entirely in the space of November. This sounds like a crazy challenge, and it really is, but the idea behind it is quite an important one. We all know the old saying that everybody has a book in them (as in one they want to write, not literally a book they are digesting because they mistook War and Peace for an apple). A lot of people often say that they want to write a novel, but they don’t have the time. This is where NaNoWriMo comes in – by forcing yourself to write the story at great speed (an average of 1667 words a day) you’ll get that book written within a month. Sure, it’ll be a bit rough around the edges. But, from my experience at least, it’ll have some gems in there too. Just the act of finishing a draft is a big step for any budding writer, published or unpublished, and no matter how hard it sounds once you get the momentum going it’s pretty hard to stop. Also, a huge community to encourage you and share all your trials and tribulations always helps – with hundreds of regions all around the world organising online and physical meet-ups, it can become quite a social event too.

For me personally, my NaNoWriMo story goes right back to 2009. I discovered the event at the last minute, with a couple of days to spare if my memory serves me correct. I remember thinking that first time “this is ludicrous, I have no idea what to write, I don’t have time to do this with university assignments due and my work and blah blah blah” and then I attempted it. That first year was filled with setbacks – at one point I was 20 000 words behind, while right at the end of the month a friend died which shook up my friends and I no end (as you’d expect) – but somehow I pulled through and hit the 50 000 words.

But that first NaNo novel, in the genre of dystopian fantasy, was awful and I’ve promised myself never to look at it again. The second year I attempted historical fiction and discovered the challenge of trying to fit 200 000 words of story into a quarter as much with far too little research. I also had a car crash that month so writing wasn’t exactly the most comfortable thing. The third year, in 2011, was my first year of being a teacher, so not only did I have to juggle novel writing with report writing and teaching, but I also stupidly decided to aim for 75 000 words. Despite overloading on caffeine repeatedly (at one point I drank 14 coffee in about 7 or 8 hours, and then oddly had an afternoon nap), the psychological thriller I wrote that year has been the only story thus far that I actually kind of liked (I intend on rewriting it soon). The next two years I attempted comedy and literary fiction, and while I found hitting the word goal easier than ever I ended up deeply disappointed with my stories.

So now, in 2014, I face my sixth consecutive NaNoWriMo going for a sixth consecutive win. A lot has changed for me this year, as I migrated from Australia to Sweden back in January, and I have a feeling my new surroundings and my experiences over this year will have some influence over my story. I am going to tackle comedy a second time, and earlier this year I wrote some comedy short stories that I actually liked and in which I think I started to find my own style of humorous writing. I am playing around with different ideas (time travel and bathtubs seem to be key themes at the moment, thanks to a certain friend on Twitter (you know who you are…)), but I hope to write something a bit more coherent than my comedy novel from 2012. I also plan on tapping into my influences more, from my general British comedy influences (especially Monty Python) but also all my writing influences from both now (both comedic and serious) and from my childhood (especially Roald Dahl). We’ll see what I come up with, I guess, in a few weeks time.

But enough about me! The NaNoWriMo website is running a little bit late in rebooting for this year’s event (it’s going up next week apparently), but now is the time to decide whether or not you’re going to attempt it, and if you are, to consider planning it (unless you like to write by the seat of your pants, which statistically speaking I do about 60% of the time so far). But, some things to consider:

  • If you’ve never done this before but love writing stories, you absolutely should give this a go – it is way more fun that you might think and it will definitely help you grow as a writer.
  • If you’ve tried this before but didn’t make the 50 000 word goal – try it again! Maybe a different story and different circumstances will enable you to reach it this time, and even if you still don’t you might get a lot written and that’s never a bad thing.
  • If you’ve won this before, whether it’s once or many times, do it again! After five wins, one thing I am certain of is that every year I do NaNoWriMo my writing improves and I learn more about my own writing abilities and style.

I’ll probably do another “tips on surviving” type post a little later in the month (don’t expect any profound advice other than to drink coffee though), but in the meantime I’d love to hear from you if you are doing NaNoWriMo or even if you’re just considering it. Also if you want to add me as a writing buddy on there, let me know.

23 days to go and counting!

Who signed me up to Camp NaNoWriMo again? Oh, me.

2014 Camp Nano-Participant-Vertical-BannerI really enjoyed Camp NaNoWriMo in April, as I wrote 30 000 words across 6 short stories and finally created a collection of humorous stories which were actually vaguely funny. It was exhausting but I thoroughly enjoyed writing them and I promised myself if time permitted I would continue them in July, or at least write more short stories of some kind (that might not be connected to the April ones).

It’s the last week of June now. I’ve committed myself to several things that are going to keep me quite busy these next couple of months. I am also going on a road trip for a couple of weeks across Sweden in the middle of July. All signs are pointing toward the fact that July is really quite booked up, and I definitely don’t have time for another 30 000 words of frantic short story writing.

So anyway I signed up this afternoon and I feel like I should be suffering from some kind of pre-apocalyptic fear of “what have I done”-itis but here I am feeling remarkably calm, as I always am before undergoing some intense writing challenge. I think I had so much fun last time that I just want to experience that again, though I know I am swimming in dangerous waters here and having an expectation like that might lead to disappointment. But it might not. And I want to find out, I guess.

So the only thing I have left to decide is this – do I continue with the stories I was really enjoying writing (where each story had new characters but the setting and general premise was the same, and all were connected by a few specific characters) or do I just try something entirely new to see where my mind takes me?

Did any of you participate in the April Camp and are also taking part in the July one? What is your approach this time around?

Oh, and if you’re interested in participating in this crazy challenge (you can choose the word goal and type of writing yourself), go visit the Camp NaNoWriMo site here for more information! If you love writing and have never tried this kind of challenge before, this might just be for you!

What music do you listen to when writing?

I have written while listening to a lot of different kinds of music, but lately my writing music is steering towards the highly emotive but often lyricless – if it does have lyrics it has to build up a lot of atmosphere. Whether or not this affects the stories I write I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it does on some level.

One artist in particular I’ve been listening to is Nils Frahm. Rather than tell you about him, just listen to him – I think you’ll see why I like writing to this music. The first song is called Re, the second is called Ambre:

Another band I have discovered recently is Midlake, who have a very folky sound with a slightly prog rock feel too – almost Celtic in places. But while they do sing, they build up a very distinct atmosphere which is nice to write to, as well. This song is called Winter Dies:

So, with Camp NaNoWriMo around the corner (again!), and with so many of my awesome readers writing stories all the time, I ask again what I asked in my title – what music do you listen to when writing? What qualities in the music do you look for?

Finding your writing voice

Quill and inkwellIt’s one of the hardest but most important things that you need to do as a writer, especially as a writer of fiction. There are so many things that contribute to and influence it, but at the same time it has to be uniquely yours somehow. And the truth of the matter is that there is no miracle cure for finding your writing voice – it takes a long time, and a lot of effort.

I’ve been writing for most of my life in one way or another. I turn 28 next week, and I know I was about 8 or 9 years old when I wrote a story around the length of 20 pages that my wonderful teacher at the time typed up and bound – essentially “publishing” it for me. That probably had a lasting effect on me, no matter how silly that story about robots and the end of the universe actually was. Although my writing came and went at different points throughout school and then university, it also came back often with more ferocity.

Then about five or six years ago I started taking my writing more seriously. I started reading more books, better books, harder books that pushed me out of my comfort zone from time to time. I started looking for different styles of writing, started learning what kinds of writing I was drawn to as an adult – something I had not previously assessed consciously. I started writing. A lot. Things like NaNoWriMo helped me with that (I have reached my goal on NaNoWriMo every single year since 2009, something I’m quite proud of actually). I started writing poetry regularly again, tried my hand at script writing, and this year just now I got back into short story writing. To top this off, I’ve been blogging now for almost two and a half years, and have recently put some regularity back into my posting schedule as you might have noticed.

Despite all of this, I feel like only just now with five novel drafts, two novellas, a movie script, hundreds of poems, a bunch of short stories and some 350 blog posts, only now do I feel like my writing voice is starting to shine through. I noticed it when I was writing my short stories last month in particular – I was not only thoroughly enjoying writing them, but I was liking them when I reread them. It’s not that they’re perfect, far from in fact, but there was something about these stories that really felt like me. Yes, my influences in them are quite clear, but I haven’t just copied someone else’s style or idea and then changed it to suit myself, it’s just that my voice has picked up similar traits to these other writers. The characters in the stories were likeable, the language was more sophisticated without becoming cluttered up, and the humour was natural – I didn’t feel like I had to force things to be funny much, because the situations themselves just became funny. Most importantly, the whole feel of the stories was very me – there were elements of me and the way I think permeating so much of the writing, and it’s the first time I’ve ever strongly felt that.

What I am getting at is this: don’t stress if you feel like you’re struggling to develop your own voice, or if you feel like your voice is too similar to the voice of another writer(s) you like. At some point, your own voice will come, something that carries your influences with it but more importantly bursts with elements that are very much who you are at your core. And nothing can magically make that voice appear – all you can and need to do is to just keep reading and keep writing. Read broadly, across a range of genres if possible (even if you only intend to write in one, you can pick up so much from others), and write broadly, across a range of different forms, as you’ll learn lessons from one form you can apply to another.

Keep reading, keep writing, and be patient. You’ll find your writing voice when it’s time. And then nothing will stop you!