National novel writing month is nearly here and for the first time since I heard about it three years ago I have a book to write, children at school and nothing else in the diary. 50,000 words in a month is a hefty challenge for any writer and I’m not convinced I can do it. If NanoWriMo is a marathon then I’m the kind of runner who clocks up roughly 5-10K a month using a run/walk technique that occasionally puts my knee out. It’s got me thinking about more generally about my writing technique. Do I even want to write 50,000 words without time to pause and edit?
There is a commonly accepted theory that you should write first and edit later. Getting words – any words – down on paper is your best bet. Just keep going and don’t stress the details. Write drunk and edit sober, Ernest Hemingway said. Kill your darlings, added William Faulkner. Stephen King was even more prescriptive in his memoir On Writing, quoting a formula written by an editor on a rejected submission: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. He says this rule transformed how he wrote forever, but then he also described himself as ‘a natural putter inner’. I have a suspicion that NanoWriMo is perfectly suited to just this kind of writer. The ones who write too much; who can let themselves loose on a page and grow a story like wild brambles, pruning it into fruit-bearing submission only when it’s reached full height. It’s a great way to write and works perfectly for many, but what about those writers who prefer to be frugal with words or whose progress is more two-steps-forward-one-step-back – the natural ‘put it down and come back later’ers.
I’ve always edited as I’ve gone along, writing up to a point where I feel my mind becomes muddy and I need to go back and clean up, print it out, read it through, correct, tinker, add and subtract. To me it’s like getting the foundations on a house right. If something’s amiss and you build on regardless you risk the whole lot going askew. I edit when I’m finished too, don’t get me wrong. Stephen King’s formula is some of the best advice I’ve ever read and my first draft can easily become a tenth draft after the event, so why can’t I resist the urge to wait? Am I just making life harder for myself?
Unlike Stephen King I also leave out rather than put in. I like to keep concentrating on advancing the story with the bare minimum of lengthy description. It’s only later that I’ll look back and realise there’s no sense of place or character description. I may cut down my sentences Stephen King-style but my second drafts are often my first drafts + 15%!
Of course there’s no right or wrong way to write a novel. The best advice is surely to write in whatever way works for you. My only worry when I apply this to NanoWriMo is that perhaps my way is not compatible with the challenge. How can I tinker and still end up averaging 1,700 a day? Having said all this I’m still determined to give it a go. I have two novels sketched out that I’m desperate to get my teeth into and as I can’t write them both at the same time what better way to tackle them than to blast my way through one? It’s too tempting an idea to pass up. I’m still learning all the time and I’m sure I’ll gain insight into my writing by challenging techniques and trying something new. I may not reach the giddy heights of 50,000 words, I may not be able to resist a tinker every now and then, but a more focused approach might just help – even if it simply means I spend less time on Twitter (ahem). I’m going to enjoy finding out how it works for me and following those of you who are also giving it a go – especially if you’re a tinkerer. Let me know how you’re getting on with resisting the urge and good luck! x