How NaNoWriMo helped me finish my novel

Guest Post by Helen Ellwood

Send your inner critic into another room to play with some crayons

I don’t know about you, but I’m a complete stationery freak, so in preparation for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2015, I bought a new notebook. The cover was dusky blue, decorated with ghostly palm trees and spooky clouds – just right for my new weird fiction novel, The Girl, the Boy and the Breadfruit Tree. I usually write my first draft in long-hand because my brain seems to flow better that way. I then use my voice recognition software to transfer the words from my notebook onto my Mac.

Helen Ellwood writer NaNoWriMoHaving bought some coloured pens, I was ready to start. I found the weekly NaNoWriMo sessions inspiring and encouraging. We enjoyed a healthy bit of ‘writerly’ procrastination over coffee and cake, followed by the bouncing of ideas, the sharing of plots and a couple of hours of solid writing.

I didn’t manage 50,000 words that month, but taking part in something collective and focused helped me make a really good start on my book. I continued to write throughout the rest of the year and managed to complete my first draft by late summer.

Call your inner critic away from its crayons and allow it to edit as many drafts as you need to create something that shines.

I let the book rest for a while, and when the next NaNoWriMo came round, I used the time to do a thorough edit. As before, I used my trusty notebook, now filled with multicoloured highlights and doodles, to gather up potentially discarded ideas and try new ones. The first draft really is just the skeleton. The next rewrite adds flesh and muscles. Each rewrite after that makes the story stronger, more dynamic and more publishable.

As Ernest Hemingway says, “The only kind of writing is rewriting”. He’s said to have rewritten the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. My castaway memoir, (Message in a Bottle, longlisted for the 2014 Mslexia Memoir Competition) was completely rewritten four times, which is quite mild by Hemingway standards.

Read it aloud to your cat, dog or budgie. This will help you feel the pace and flow of the words.

There obviously comes a point at which continuing to edit begins to destroy the book, but I knew my NaNoWriMo weird fiction story needed to be tightened further. I spent the rest of that year editing and honing it, hoping to enter the Mslexia Novel Competition this year (2017). I knew the ending was a little flabby and that the beginning if told from another character’s point of view, could have been more zesty and exciting, but unfortunately, I ran out of time. But I sent it in any way.

This time, I didn’t get longlisted. That’s okay. Knowing that people all over the country are writing alongside me every November makes the process of being a novelist less isolating. As I look through my dusky blue notebook with its ghostly palm trees, I feel inspired to push myself further and to polish my words until they shine. 

Top ten tips for writing a great novel:

1. Indulge in a new notebook for each project and carry it around wherever you go. You can jot down plot/character ideas and juicy eavesdropped sentences whenever they occur to you.

2. Send your inner critic into another room to play with some crayons while you write your first draft. Just Write. Don’t aim for perfect prose at this point. Let the story flow.

3. Finish a writing session in the middle of a phrase or idea. Begin your next writing session from this point of inspiration. This will mean you have some words to write as soon as you sit down and you’re less likely to get blocked.

4. Some stories are plotted carefully, some are character led. Whatever type of writer you are, allow things to unfold. Don’t be too rigid trying to fit your story into your original concept. Sometimes stories like to squidge sideways like vanilla slices.

5. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. This is when the writing process really gets tough. Call your inner critic away from its crayons and allow it to edit as many drafts as you need to create something that shines. Any bits that you’re proud of, but that don’t work in their current situation, can be snipped out and placed in a folder for future use in other projects. There’s no need to throw good writing away.

6. When you feel satisfied that you’ve done your best, put your project in a ‘drawer’ for a month at least and do something else. Eat that chocolate cake you’ve been looking at. Howl at the moon. Lie in the bath surrounded by candles. Whatever you like. You could even write some short stories.

7. Get your story out of the drawer. Read it aloud to your cat, dog or budgie. This will help you feel the pace and flow of the words.

8. Have your PC or Kindle read the story out loud to you. Close your eyes and listen. Can you truly see your story unfold in your mind

9. Ask someone else to read your book. Not someone who loves you, who is bound to say “it’s fantastic”, but someone who reads and writes in the same genre as you and who is able to give constructive criticism.

10. It’s time to proofread your book. When you’ve done that, get it proofed by someone else, better yet, a professional. It’s almost impossible to pick up every single one of your own errors, especially when you’ve been working on it so closely.

And finally, give your novel a hug, tell it you love it, and send it on its way. Good luck! 

Helen Ellwood - Writer advice for NaNoWriMoHelen Ellwood is a writer, artist and occupational therapist, with training in psychotherapy and mindfulness. She is interested in the subtle dividing line between fantasy and reality, and in the fluid nature of experience. She has had three plays staged, has been a member of the scriptwriting team for two BBC funded docudramas, has had short stories broadcast by BBC Radio Derby and has been published in short story anthologies.

In 2014 her memoir, Message in a Bottle was long-listed for the Mslexia Memoir Competition. She is currently working on a weird fiction romance novel, The Girl, the Boy and the Breadfruit Tree.

Twitter:     @helenellwood

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Nici West Freelance Copywriter LondonI’m Nici, a freelance copywriter and editor based in London. I love writing about making writing accessible, mental health issues, art careers and tips to run your business better. And I LOVE editing full-length novels. Contact me here. 

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I’m a freelance content writer, copywriter and editor living in London, UK. I'm climate curious, run baby-friendly writing workshops and publishing writing from women at Boudicca Press.

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