50,000 words in 30 days?

Three years ago I was alerted to the challenge, via National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), of writing at least 50,000 words within the thirty days of November. This works out at just under 1700 words a day, which felt like a very cleverly chosen goal: high enough to feel a real challenge yet low enough to seem just about possible. I decided to go for it. I have attempted to meet this challenge each year since.

In that first year my theme was a man, on his own, in a box – maybe not the best choice for getting a wide enough plot and a sufficient range of characters to generate lots of words. Whilst I was writing I tried to give quite a bit of consideration to the quality of what I was writing rather than bashing out rubbish. I lightly edited as I went along. At the end of that November I had my 50,000+ words, in more or less the right order, with virtually no repetition or inconsistencies. It still needing some deletion of weak parts. I had read that some writers sit and type large amounts of text one day and, in editing later, chop out around 25% of what they had written. I was quite pleased only to lose a couple of thousand words of weak parts during my December final editing. Continuing the writing in a more leisurely way during early 2011 got the word count back up to more than 56,000. With further editing and a final polishing this text was then ready for converting to an ebook format and uploading onto the Amazon Kindle site. It is up there under the title ‘Another Glorious Day’. Details of this (and my other ebooks) can be found at http://thewordsthething.org.uk/?p=181

Last year I was kinder to myself and worked with five characters in a more open setting. Four men from different backgrounds ended up together in a small hospital ward in a late 1950s Manchester hospital. Each brought their own personality and their own history. Each man looked back at their lives; they interacted in the present; and each had their own future to think about. (The fifth character was someone who had died in the past). I found getting to 50,000 words just as much of a challenge as before but again achieved it with not too much heavy editing to do. Because of all the looking back/being in the present structure the editing that needed to be done after the end-November deadline was mostly one of checking tenses. This text is still in the process of being edited slowly, in between other writings. One part of my ‘delivery plan’ is to have this completed and up on Amazon Kindle before the end of March 2013.

November 2012: NaNoWriMo time again. I had already decided to test myself by going for a different genre, or a different kind of character. Just as November 1st was almost upon me I set aside an hour in my usual coffee shop and thought out what this might mean. I settled on an overall style that might be nearer to ‘young adult fiction’ than I normally wrote, with a thirteen year old girl as narrator, set in 2097.

I wasn’t sure about whether I would be able to manage, and maintain, thinking like an average female teenager in the future. Nor was I sure that I could write in a language and style that matched any ideas of young adult readability (if such a things exists). Setting it 85 years in the future was a deliberate choice. Life would be different from how it is now but would still contain much that was the same. This wasn’t some Science Fiction; it was Future Fiction. Since developments tend to speed up as time goes on, 85 years in the future would probably be as different from today as maybe 140 years ago was from now. Thinking of the changes over the period from the 1870s to today, we might expect at least the same degree of social and technological change by 2097.

Whilst writing it, during November, I drew on what I already knew of various trends in society and projected each one forward to try to get a sense of what that future might be like. Each day brought the same challenge: Remembering that I was in the year 2097 and not inadvertently assuming that I was still in 2012. Some of the things in the story may seem a bit far-fetched but each has its roots in things that are already being developed or invented today.

November started and the writing set off a a fair pace but very soon the daily volume of writing became erratic. The realities of life kept intruding in ways that couldn’t be ignored so the neat 1800 words a day became much more ragged with times when I was quite a way behind schedule and needing, in the later parts of the month, to write more like 5,000 words each day. The start of the last day of November saw me needing 10,000 more words to reach the target for the month. At the end of that day I dragged myself, a bit bleary eyed, over the 50,000 word finishing line.

I have to say that I enjoyed writing this particular challenge. The storyline worked out fairly well. It reached the word total without rushing out lots of gibberish just to get there. Yes, it will need fairly substantial editing but it is in my plan to get it polished sufficiently to put it up as an ebook by the end of March 2013. At the moment, though, I am happy to have got there and plead ‘Can I have my life back now please? – Well, at least until next November’.

What did I learn this time round? There were several things:

  • No matter how important the writing seems, and no matter how far off schedule it drifts, there are some things that are more important.
  • At the end of the day, sheer determination can be enough to carry you through to the deadline.
  • A target is only a target. There is no value in hitting a numerical figure by devious means or by compromising on values; better to be happy with quality/authentic content and fall short of the target.
  • Going into new territory can be daunting yet stimulating.
  • Internal consistencies matter a great deal. In the enthusiasm of writing inconsistencies may not be spotted but they are sure to jump out at readers later on.
  • It is possible to have an editing perspective whilst writing, but it will exert a control. Too much control and the creative drives of the writing will not be able to carry it along; too little control and there could be the inefficiency of writing whole paragraphs that simply get deleted later.
  • Having got the main body of text in place, time then spent editing is as important as the time spent writing – and can be just as challenging and just as much fun.
  • An annual challenge like this is a good way to get writing started.
  • 50,000 words is a challenge to write but produces something of a size appropriate to many readers.

More things may occur to me as I reflect further on this November’s experience – but meanwhile I have a good body body of text that needs some reshaping and minor editing to get it into a final form that is likely to be around 55,000-60,000 words. This is substantial enough to carry several ideas and, hopefully, be of interest to a variety of readers.

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