NaNoWriMo: Let’s Pro/Con this Shit

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is an event that happens every November. Writers all over the world (It really ought to be called International Novel Writing Month) hunker down with vast quantities of their preferred stimulant, and attempt to crank out 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo three times and hit the 50,000 word target twice. On one occasion, the short novel I wrote led to me getting an agent. On another occasion, I almost had a nervous breakdown. My experiences of NaNoWriMo are so varied that I feel the need to make a list of pros and cons to decide whether I’ll ever try it again.

Pros

  1. It forces you to write. I’ve lost count of the number of times would-be writers have told me that they don’t have time to write. When you’re doing NaNoWriMo, that excuse flies out the window. No more squeezing your writing in around the edges – if you’re going to write 50,000 words, you need to aim for over 1,600 words a day. There’s no way of getting it done without devoting big, generous chunks of time to your craft.

 

  1. It discourages perfectionism. Perfectionism is the enemy of the first draft. It slows you down, causes you to go over and over the same paragraph until you loathe it, and suffocates you with self-doubt. When you have no choice but to write quickly, you’re much more likely to switch off that inner editor and get words on the page, where they need to be.

 

  1. You can make valuable connections. NaNoWriMo is surprisingly sociable. You can use the forums on the NaNoWriMo website to connect with potential beta readers, or people who share your interest in a particular genre.

 

  1. You will hopefully end up with the beginnings of a novel. 50,000 words is generally considered too short for a novel aimed at adults. But depending on what you’re writing, when you hit that target you might only be 10,000 or 20,000 words away from a completed first draft (no problem for someone who’s just written 50,000 in a month), or you might be about halfway through. There’s still a long way to go before you have a finished product on your hands, but a huge amount of the work is already done.

 

  1. The sense of achievement is fantastic. There’s a reason why hitting the 50,000 word target is referred to as “winning” rather than “completing”. It really does feel like a victory. It gives you bragging rights, an excuse to go out for drinks or dinner, and something to put on your CV. It can also really strengthen your identity as a writer.

 

Cons

  1. Not hitting the target can be very discouraging. While hitting that all-important 50,000 word target can do your self-esteem the world of good, not hitting it can be hugely disappointing. It can even make you feel like all that hard work was for nothing. On the year when I didn’t manage it (I wrote about 40,000 words), I really did feel like I’d let myself down. In retrospect, this was ridiculous. 40,000 words in a month is brilliant!

 

  1. You may find that you don’t have enough story for 50,000 words. Some stories aren’t actually meant to be novels. Most of the time, if you find that the plot you’ve outlined won’t provide enough “meat” for a novel-length work, it’s easy enough to rework it into a novella. But with NaNoWriMo’s intense focus on word count, it can be tempting to keep stretching that story out, focussing on quantity rather than quality. This is definitely something to avoid. Like my Nan always said “Stories are like penises. Length doesn’t matter, it’s how it makes you feel that’s important.”*

 

  1. Focussing too much on word count may screw up your pacing. Once again, the pressure to write a certain number of words in a certain amount of time causes problems. If you are behind on your word count, you may find yourself padding out your writing with unnecessary description, boring internal monologues or random dream sequences (I’ll admit to doing all these things) in an attempt to catch up easily. This can really slow the pace of your novel.

 

  1. Stress! Attempting NaNoWriMo may cause any of the following side-effects: Anxiety, frustration, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, overeating, relationship break-down, a belief that a true artist must be forever alone, shouting at pets and a determination never to write again.

 

  1. Sacrifices. NaNoWriMo is challenging, but it’s do-able. What isn’t do-able is NaNoWriMo, plus work, plus taking care of loved ones, plus a vibrant social life, plus a spotlessly clean house. Something’s gotta go, whether it’s going out with friends or ironing your clothes. Be warned that people may have a hard time accepting that you’re prioritising your writing over spending time with them.

 

So there you have it. I’ve laid out the pros and cons of NaNoWriMo but the final decision of whether or not to participate is, of course, a very personal one. Some people don’t work well under that kind of pressure, while others thrive under it. If you’re participating this year, I’d like to wish you the very best of luck. As for me, I’m enjoying my year off! But perhaps I’ll get back on the horse next year.

 

*To be honest, I don’t actually remember who said that. It wasn’t my Nan, she was super-Catholic.

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Poem – Ask Your Nurse About Goodness

I wrote this poem during a long, sleepless night in hospital with my mum, after she was suddenly taken ill. She’s fine now, luckily. There was a poster on the wall that said “Ask your nurse about goodness”, which seemed like a strange and poetic phrase, so I built a poem around it.

 

Ask Your Nurse About Goodness

Get sick nice and loud, you know

women die of discretion.

Take themselves off to choke quietly,

to suffer like cats

birthing kittens in the airing cupboard.

Ask your nurse questions.

Ask the how of blood and the why of nerves.

Don’t mumble your pain.

Ask your nurse about goodness,

stash a little inside your gown.

Grown or borrowed, it’s all good,

It’s the same midnight snack

to crunch on quiet nights in the hospital.

Ten Tips for Writing Asexual Characters

Since Asexual Awareness Week is coming up (22-28 October), it feels like a good time to blog about writing asexual characters, and offer some tips. I’m asexual myself – I don’t experience sexual attraction – and this post is aimed at allosexual writers.

“Allosexual” means someone who does experience sexual attraction, whether that’s directed at men, women, both, or any person regardless of gender. Yes, “allosexual” is a strange word, but I’ve been informed that “people who like to do weird shit with their genitals” could be considered offensive.

 

1. You don’t need a reason to write an asexual character. I’m aware this could be a controversial opinion, but I’m very much in favour of allosexual writers (carefully) writing asexual characters.

Granted, if a story is highly focussed on asexuality – for example, a YA novel that centres on the protagonist discovering and exploring their orientation – then an ace writer will give this story extra authenticity. But what about stories where one or more characters just happen to be asexual? Why not have an urban fantasy novel with an ace witch, or a series of mysteries with an ace detective?

Unfortunately, a significant number of people don’t like this kind of thing. They say stuff like “If it’s not essential to the story, what’s the point in making a character asexual?” Err, the point is that ace people exist in the real world, without needing a reason to exist. We should be given the same consideration in fiction.

2. Your character doesn’t need a reason to be asexual. A common misconception about asexuality is that unlike other sexual orientations, it must be caused by something. An ace person must have experienced abuse or trauma, or they must be repressed, or have a specific reason for avoiding or disliking sex.

If you ask an ace person why they are ace, the most likely response is a shrug and some variation of “I just am.” Although some asexuals have experienced abuse or trauma, or have been raised in a sex-negative environment, this is equally true of allosexuals. Take this into account when crafting an ace character’s backstory.

3. Asexual and aromantic are not the same thing. Asexual=lack of sexual attraction. Aromantic=lack of romantic attraction. They are not the same thing, and the two don’t always go together. An asexual character could be aromantic, or they could be bi-, hetero-, homo- or panromantic.

4. Asexuality and autism/Asperger syndrome are not the same thing. There aren’t many ace characters in mainstream media. For a long time, the closest we had were characters such as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory – nerdy, eccentric, emotionally unavailable characters who were clueless about sex.

This kind of stock character is not a good representation of asexuality, or of autism or Asperger syndrome. Also, it unnecessarily mixes up the two. Though some asexual people are autistic, the majority are not. And the majority of people with autism or Asperger syndrome are not asexual.

5. Don’t emphasise your asexual character’s “otherness”. Sorry sci-fi writers, but I’m not convinced that an asexual alien or an asexual android counts as an ace character. All this does is reinforce the idea that sexual attraction is an essential part of being human, and ace people are inherently “different” (i.e. weird). Try to create ace characters who are relatable.

6. Don’t be afraid of the A word. If your character is asexual, don’t be afraid of making this explicit to the reader. Aces and their allies will appreciate it. Straight people who get pissy because “there are just too many made-up labels these days” will survive.

7. Don’t overuse the B word. If you’re writing a character who isn’t yet comfortable with their asexuality, there may be angsty times ahead. Tread carefully here, and be wary of the language you use to describe experiences that are not your own.

In my opinion, the word “broken” is often overused when describing the feelings of an ace person coming to terms with their sexuality. Even when used in a positive way (e.g. a character telling an ace character “You’re not broken!”) the word is still hammering home the same old heteronormative message. Use sparingly, if at all.

8. Don’t assume that asexual characters can’t have relationships. If you write romance, or any genre that focuses on relationships, you may assume that asexual characters are not for you. However, many real-life aces have romantic relationships, and aromantic aces often have platonic partners.

You may find it challenging to write about characters expressing love, passion or intimacy without sex. Talk to aces in relationships (without asking icky, intrusive questions) to get ideas, and use your imagination!

9. Never “fix” asexuality. It’s okay for an asexual character to have sex – many aces do. It’s okay for an asexual character to enjoy sex under the right circumstances – many aces can. It’s neither okay, nor realistic, for a character’s asexuality to be “fixed” by good sex. An ace person is an ace person, not a problem to be solved.

10. Do your research. Asexuality is relatively rare (though it’s more common than mainstream media would have you believe) and you may not know any openly asexual people. If this is the case, it’s hugely important to do your research.

The AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) website is a good place to start, and there’s also a big asexual community on Tumblr. Look around, get to know asexual people and ask what’s important to them in terms of ace representation in books.

 

There are many young aces growing up without role models, and older aces who may be struggling with their identity. Representation is badly needed and even one writer, one book, or one character can make a huge difference to somebody’s life.

Top Ten Tuesday – Authors I’d Love to Meet

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Authors I’d Love to Meet

(Let’s pretend they’re all still alive, shall we?)

How could anyone resist the enigma of Emily Brontë? Because of her reclusiveness, most of what we know about her comes from other people such as her older sister Charlotte, who spoke of her as an untamed child of nature. Supposedly, Emily preferred animals to humans, and loved sparingly but intensely. I doubt she’d be interested in meeting me, but maybe I could bribe her with a baby hare or something.

My first Raymond Chandler was a second-hand, slightly beaten-up copy of “The Big Sleep”, which I fell madly in love with. The previous owner had doodled all over Raymond’s photo on the back cover and made him look like a badass drag queen. I’d love to meet him so I could find out if he’s as cool and hardboiled as his stories. Though I don’t know if I’d recognise him without big hair, lipstick and a beauty mark.

Roald Dahl was such a huge part of my childhood, there’s no way I could pass up the chance to meet him.

This 86-year-old writer of spy novels has probably given me more sleepless nights than any other man. I guess that’s just my type. He has also led an interesting life, working for MI6 before becoming a full-time author. He would probably be tight-lipped about his career, but a girl can dream.

The poet, playwright and famous wit is on everyone’s list of fantasy dinner party guests, isn’t he? Also, I lived in Reading for three years and he spent a year and a half in Reading Gaol because gay was illegal in those days. So that’s a conversation topic to awkwardly skirt around.

This is purely because she seems like a lovely person. Follow her on Twitter and you won’t regret it. She’s full of excellent, down-to-earth advice and good humour.

Everyone who knows which Hogwarts house they belong to (Ravenclaw for life) owes a debt of gratitude to good old J.K. Other people who owe her a debt of gratitude include parents of reluctant readers, the British tourism industry, brainy girls with frizzy hair who needed Hermione Granger for a role model, and everyone who enjoys seeing her troll Donald Trump. I’d just like to thank her for everything.

Hopefully he could teach me a bit about ships. I adore his books, especially the Aubrey – Maturin novels set in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. However, I often find myself reading several paragraphs and all I get from them is “The ship did a thing and now the British are winning, hooray!”

If someone can write accessible atheistic philosophy and a damn good adventure story, all in one neat little trilogy, they are probably interesting to talk to.

Obviously it would be great to talk to her about the creation of Frankenstein, but frankly I want to get her tipsy and ask her intrusive questions. I’d like to find out if Shelley was as much of a douche as people on the internet say he was. I’d like to ask her if she really lost her virginity on her mother’s grave. Y’know, just girl talk.

So there’s my list. Whilst writing it, I realised it was mostly made up of dead white guys (and a couple of dead white girls) so if you have any ideas for making it a little more diverse, feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

How Not to Be a Dick at a Writers’ Group

This post is for anyone who is a member of a writers’ group, or thinking of joining one, and is anxious about accidentally being a dick. Critiquing other people’s work can be a minefield, especially if (like me) you’re prone to verbal clumsiness.

It’s worth making a little effort here, because being a dick to other writers is definitely something to avoid. You don’t want to discourage inexperienced writers, and you don’t want to end up cast as the villain in someone’s novel.

I’ve been a part of two writers’ groups, and examples of dickish behaviour were thankfully few and far between. Other writers haven’t been so lucky, and of course any writer who gets their critique from the internet is potentially in for a world of pain. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Feel free to passive-aggressively pass these tips on to anyone who could benefit from them.

Remember ABC

Always Be Constructive.

There’s no point in tearing into someone’s work (no matter how bad it is) without helping them improve it. Keep your criticism specific. For example, don’t just say a piece of writing is boring – work out why it failed to hold your interest and help the writer ramp up the tension and intrigue.

You should also think carefully about the language you use. Writers tend to be much more receptive to “I think the dialogue needs some work. It’s a little stilted in places.” than “What the hell? Nobody talks like that!”

Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t like to sugar coat things. Maybe you enjoy doling out tough love. Fair enough, but believe me – tough love isn’t always welcome at a writers’ group. Like it or not, most writers are delicate little teacups who pour their heart and soul into their work and don’t enjoy having it trashed. Just … be nice, okay?

Know when to shut up

You can make a really positive contribution to a writer’s group by knowing when to speak up. Is there a plot hole that nobody else has noticed? Is the “genius” protagonist making stupid mistakes? Is the only female character a pretty face with zero personality behind it? By all means, raise your voice. But it’s equally important to know when to shut up.

At one of the writers’ groups I attended, a new guy arrived with a chapter of his work-in-progress. Someone pointed out a small flaw, and instead of discussing it briefly and then moving on, we proceeded to analyse it from every angle, while he squirmed uncomfortably. Understandably, we never saw him again. Moral of the story? Don’t get fixated on little flaws.

Respect all writers and all genres

Everyone at a writers’ group deserves thoughtful feedback. Whether they’re a published author with decades of experience, or a newbie poet who writes like a teenager and uses the word “soul” too much, they’ve had the guts to share their work and they deserve a useful critique.

Unless you join a very specialised writers’ group, it’s likely that you’ll be exposed to a range of different genres, and not all of them will be your cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to be sniffy about them.

At one of my writers’ groups, there was a woman who wrote vampire romance. There was also a man who, whenever she read a chapter of her vampire romance, would say he didn’t understand why the hero had to be a vampire. I wish I’d explained to him that this is a daft question. Kind of like “Why is there magic in your fantasy novel?” or “Why do people keep getting killed in your murder mystery?”

Don’t tell anyone to write a different story

If a fellow writer is struggling with the plot of their story, there are all kinds of ways you can help. You can offer ideas for introducing conflict and jeopardy. You can help them fix a plot that’s unrealistic, or confusing. You can help trim back the tangle of superfluous sub-plots. One thing you shouldn’t do is tell them to write a different story.

This is a difficult line to walk, because only the writer (if anyone) will know what the “essence” of a story is. If you want to advise a writer to change a major component of their story, now is the time to ask plenty of questions.

Ask who their target readers are. Ask what kind of tone or mood or message they are trying to convey. Get as much information as you can and use it to tailor your advice, so that you are helping the writer tell the story they want to tell, rather than the story you, personally, want to read.

Listen

Everything I’ve written so far has been about giving feedback to other writers, but if you’re attending a writers’ group, you’re presumably there to get feedback for your own work too. Be prepared for this to be a less than ecstatic process.

Some people won’t “get” what you’ve written. Some people will “get” it all too well, and spot half a dozen genuine flaws. It’s easy to get more interested in defending your work than improving it.

Stay calm, and try not to battle everyone’s advice. It’s a good idea to note down the feedback that people are offering, so you can look at it later and ask yourself whether you honestly agree with it.

 

If you have tips you’d like to share, or a memorable writers’ group experience to get off your chest, feel free to comment!

 

Poem – The Hunger

For me, writing poetry is usually a much quicker and messier process than writing prose. I write poems in a mad rush, then have to do an awful lot of editing. This one, however, I wrote slowly and made only a few changes during editing. I don’t quite trust it.

 

The Hunger

I can feel the last blackberries withering

in the shrinking of my own, bird-pecked flesh.

At summer’s end, they were fit for a queen’s fingers,

dark jewels that cut our lips bloody.

We ate them like savages.

 

As a child, digging for potatoes

had its own magic. Mining for dirt-covered gems,

for gold nuggets the size of a fist.

These days, it’s muddy marbles, poor specks

of nourishment. Everything shrinking.

 

At night, the winter wind screams

and my stomach screams back.

I rise, unsteady, meet the winter air

at the door. I will fight bird or beast

for the last blackberries.

Should Books Have Age Ratings? The Case for Yes

 

A friend recently told me an anecdote about her mum, who is adorably clueless. Apparently she was tidying the bedroom of my friend’s thirteen-year-old sister, and was shocked to find a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in a drawer in her bedside table. She was also very confused as to why anyone would keep their electric toothbrush in a drawer instead of in the bathroom.

I thought this was funny at first, but then I started to feel uneasy. I doubt my friend’s sister is the only thirteen-year-old girl with a copy of FSOG and an electric toothbrush in her drawer. Internet controls can (at least in theory) prevent kids accessing online porn, but there’s nothing to stop them buying erotic literature.

Is this a problem? My first memory of a “dirty” book is when, at the age of eleven, a girl in my class showed me a scene in a Catherine Cookson novel(!) in which a man and a woman shag in a field. Remembering things like this, it’s easy to dismiss the issue. Books are harmless, right?

Wrong. The content of popular (and unpopular) books can be just as questionable as any carefully rated Hollywood blockbuster. Going back to Fifty Shades, here’s a link to a blog post listing fifty examples of abusive behaviour in the best-selling “romance” trilogy. The blogger only got halfway through the second book before reaching fifty examples.

There is also the issue of mature content in children’s and Young Adult literature. A parent might want to encourage their child’s interest in reading, and buy them a book without having any real idea of the amount of swearing, murder, etc. They may assume, for example, that if the first Harry Potter book is fine for their eight-year-old, the last one is too.

Perhaps the lack of age ratings for books highlights a double standard. Visual media, such as movies, video games and comics, have always been more subject to censorship. This may be because visual media has a more immediate impact, but I suspect there is also an element of elitism at play.

Books are traditionally seen as being written and read by fairly educated people, whereas visual media such as movies are supposedly designed for mass consumption. Perhaps there is an implicit classist assumption that educated people don’t need protecting from potentially harmful content, because their minds are less likely to be corrupted.

It may be time to put aside outdated notions about literature and stop giving books an easy ride. If you believe in the power of the written word, then it makes sense to acknowledge that books can harm as well as help, and to minimise the harm in order to maximise the benefits.