I started writing a novel when I was around 19/20 years old, back when I was doing my BA in Film Studies. Having become disenchanted by the process of film-making thanks to the lecturers who presided over the practical aspect of the degree, I decided to write a stage play for my final dissertation piece. During the process of writing I came upon a few ideas for a book and started writing them down and putting them to one side in order to concentrate on them after I finished my degree. By the time I finished the degree my focus had drifted towards music production almost completely and, encouraged by the success of getting my music released on various labels, the writing was pushed onto the back-burner. Over the years I’ve done bits and pieces on the novel, but it has never been my primary focus; lately that has changed somewhat and, for whatever reason, I’ve been massively consumed by the urge to really invest significant time and energy on writing. For anyone interested, the word count is now around 17,000 and I feel like I’ve moved somewhere towards the end of the beginning, but none of this is really related to the content of this post.
When I was writing my stage-play I was doing so within the structure of a regular scriptwriting class, which meant I was encouraged to carry out various activities which I, as the clueless student know-all I probably was to some degree, initially questioned the value of. This didn’t last long. I found that, despite my trepidation, any and every bit of assistance I could find to spur me on in my writing and force me to ask questions of my work and my characters helped immensely. Fast forward a decade and a half and I have none of the support a regimented writing class offers, but I do have two things now which I didn’t have then:
1) The internet;
2) Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘WONDERBOOK: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction’
It’s pointless trying to sum up what WONDERBOOK offers, so I won’t be bothering. Instead, allow me to point you towards the absolutely superb accompanying website, Wonderbooknow.com and to quote the piece Jeff Vandermeer wrote for the NaNoWriMo website (which is itself an excellent resource, irrespective if whether you want to write your novel in a month or, as I clearly opted for, over a couple of decades). The above image is from Scott Eagle’s blog (also it appears on his tumblr site) and shows one of the pieces he did for the book. It’s a pretty good indicator of how seriously it takes the “illustrated” part of the subtitle.
Genuinely, I can’t recommend WONDERBOOK highly enough. There are a load of excellent resources for writers of all types around and I’m not suggesting that I’ve done some kind of exhaustive study of them, I just picked this up because: I have a lot of time for Vandermeer as an author; it includes excellent input from the likes of Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin etc.; it’s a truly beautiful piece of work.
As I said, attempting to write a novel in a month is something I’m unlikely to be able to manage, but the following advice is still absolutely relevant to me and I figured it was was well worth sharing:
Pep Talk from Jeff VanderMeer
Writing a novel in a short period of time requires patience, balance, and tenacity. Examining your work process and maximizing your productivity while also making sure you have time to think about your fiction—the creative daydreaming you need to keep the novel alive in your head—will make success more likely. In keeping with that goal, consider these tips:
Give yourself permission to work on what is most pleasurable in the moment. If you’re inspired to write a scene out of order, do it. The scene may change later, but what you lose in rewriting time you gain in positive reinforcement and better energy on the page. This also applies to getting the essence of a scene down. For example, if you’re writing a scene that’s a conversation and it’s just the dialogue that inspires you, write it like a transcript and add description later.
During writing sessions where you are flat-out frozen, pick a different vantage point. Choose a non-viewpoint character and write part of an existing scene from that perspective. Or go back over what you’ve written already and change a decision; turn a character’s yes to no, or vice versa. You might only discover a few details about your characters, but something is better than nothing.
Take a moment when you reach the midway or two-thirds point to list each scene you’ve written in book order. Then detail, under each scene heading, every major action or moment of emotional resonance in that scene. Make sure what you have seems sound, and try to then either adjust your existing outline for the remaining scenes or, if there is no existing outline, map them out.
Don’t Panic. Part of not panicking is to focus on the day’s work—and that requires having a sense the night before of what you plan to work on the next day. Priming your subconscious for that task may mean you have more answers when you wake up, too. Early on in the month, get a firm sense of what you can reasonably expect to finish on an average day and don’t over-commit—which leads to disappointment and then to panic.
Capture inspiration as it comes to you. Always write down ideas immediately, and allow yourself to run with them, even if you wind up filling lots of pages. You may find that you’ve already done some of the hard work in the notebook, through the scene fragments, bits of dialogue, and description that you wrote in these short bursts.
Finally, position yourself to succeed by doing the other things in your life that rejuvenate you. Some form of exercise, for example, in combination with eating chocolate, or taking time off to watch part of a TV show. You can create little islands of time away from your novel that will help preserve your balance. Exhaustion will affect both your writing’s quality and your productivity toward the end of the month.
NaNoWriMo may seem like a sprint, but four weeks can be an eternity, if you prep properly. Sometimes, the only difference between success and failure is the set-up—and here that means making sure your conscious and subconscious minds have every opportunity to be of use to your writing. Good luck!
(originally published at nanowrimo.org)