NaNoWriMo Day 28: Inspiration from TS Eliot

TS Eliot
TS Eliot, thinking about NaNoWriMo by the looks of it

Yesterday was terrible – a day of distraction, procrastination and plot problems.

Today was much better. 2544 good words in the bag, and some really enjoyable scenes. One scene made me cry – I know, I know, I’m overtired!

One of today’s highlights was an unexpected motivational email from a friend, quoting this wonderful poem by TS Eliot about the act of ‘trying to learn to use words’. Great inspiration for the final push towards a possible NaNoWriMo win.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Sublime, isn’t it? And that last line ‘For us, there is only the trying’ – that’s going to be my #NaNoWriMo motto!

Current wordcount in this ill-advised Raid on the Inarticulate: 46,202!

NaNoWriMo-Day28

NaNoWriMo Day Fourteen: why am I doing this?

My eyes are dry and bloodshot. Getting up at 3am every morning for a month is taking its toll. My wordcount is 26,059, which is about where I should be with half of the month gone and half remaining. But it’s taking longer than before. Instead of finishing my words by breakfast time, they hang over me all day. Writing white on white has gone out of the window, and the inner editor is back with a vengeance, mocking every sentence in its sardonic drawl. Whose idea was NaNoWriMo anyway?

NaNoWriMo Day Eight: focus mode

On target so far with NaNoWriMo
On target so far with NaNoWriMo

Yesterday I wrote about the pros and cons of writing white on white.

Today I have good news and bad news.

The good

There is a piece of word processing software which has most of the pros of white-on-white and none of the cons. iA Writer has a focus mode which dims all the words you have previously written, apart from the sentence you are currently working on. I would very much like to use this software for doing first drafts.

The bad

iA Writer is only available for Macs, iPads and other Apple gizmos. There are no plans to release a PC version. So I can’t use it.

In other news

My alarm failed to go off at 3am this morning (I must have disabled it last night by accident). However, my NaNoWriMo guilt instinct woke me at 3.20 and I was able to rack up 1,500 words by breakfast time. All in all, today was a very good writing day: 2,250 words. I wrote a lovely scene involving a potato cannon, which I suspect will survive more or less intact in the final version of the novel. That brings my NaNoWriMo wordcount to 13,800 – more than a quarter of the way there. Hooray, hooray, this is going better than I thought.

The weekend will be a challenge. I don’t write on Sundays, so the pressure is on to stack up a good pile of words on Saturday (tomorrow). I’d better double check that my alarm is set.

NaNoWriMo Day Seven: the minimalist dream of a white font on a white background

white font on white background

Joanne Harris once tweeted this #writetip: Change your font colour to white if you want to write more fluidly.

Brilliant tip, albeit with a few disadvantages!

On the one hand

  • You can get a lot of words written, because you’re not constantly going back to edit.
  • It’s very restful on the old mince pies because you can turn the screen brightness all the way down and can let your eyes go out of focus. If you can touchtype you can even close your eyes – so long as you’re not in danger of falling asleep!
  • A perfectly white page is very zen.

On the other hand

  • There are still potential distractions. The worst are the squiggly red and green lines produced by the background spelling and grammar check (turn them off). There’s also the toolbar across the top of the screen (hide it by using Full Screen Document View).
  • A totally blank screen is a tad boring – a waste of perfectly good pixels.
  • There is something reassuring about seeing the words you are writing. Not just reassuring, but beautiful as well. Words look good. Autumnal. Flugelbinder. Trapeze. Black on white has its uses.

On the other hand

  • You can get a lot of words written.

NaNoWriMo status update: I’m hanging in there – just – at 11,592 words.

NaNoWriMo Day Five – collateral damage

salt in timbuktu

Another early morning, another 2,149 notches on the NaNoblock. I didn’t wake up at first when the alarm went off at 3am, but my wife shook me awake. ‘I’ve been awake for hours,’ she said, ‘and I’d just got back to sleep when your phone went off.’

Novel Writing Collateral Damage (NaNoCoDa?) is a very real phenomenon.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

And I really am.

ZoFaDuBre – Zombie Face During Breakfast – is proving another problematic aspect of November. The urban dictionary defines book hangover as When you’ve finished a book and you suddenly return to the real world, but the real world feels incomplete or surreal because you’re still living in the world of the book.

If it’s true of reading, it’s even truer of writing. After four hours in Salafist-occupied Timbuktu every morning, it is difficult to concentrate at breakfast.

‘Is there salt in the porridge?’ asks my wife.

Salt. Hmm. Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the treasures of wisdom are found in Timbuktu…

‘Did you add salt?’

If a blind man’s salt falls among stones, goes the Fulani proverb, he will lick everything he picks up.

‘Hello? Porridge?’

The Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed ben Amar was in debt to a local merchant, to the tune of three camel-loads of salt. One night in the year 1456 he began to pray earnestly that God would help him repay the debt, and as he prayed, slabs of salt began to fall from the sky. They fell so hard and fast throughout the night that they made a crater in the ground outside his house. You can see that crater in Timbuktu to this very day – the Crater of Takaboundou.

Bertie Wooster’s inimitable manservant Jeeves had an eye-poppingly effective hangover cure made from Worcester sauce, tabasco and raw egg. I wonder what he would whip up for the NaNoWriMo-induced book hangover.

NaNoWriMo Day Four

6004 words down, 43,996 to go. I’m a bit behind where I should be, but that’s because I’m taking Sundays off. Hoping to catch up during the week!

The early morning writing session is working well for me. I get up at 3am, have a cup of coffee with Benoit (our night guard) and then start work. This morning I had finished my 2000 words by 7am, just in time for breakfast with the family. It sounds unbearably smug, but I do love the stillness and silence of the early morning, interrupted only by the call to prayer from our local mosque at 5am. And since my new novel is set in Timbuktu, even the prayer call does not jolt me out of the zone. I’m thinking I may carry on the early-morning-writing thing even after NaNoWriMo is finished.

Don’t hold me to that.

The idea of doing most of the day’s writing before breakfast came from this book: daily Rituals: How Artists Work It’s a collection of anecdotes about famous artists (writers, musicians, painters) and their muses. Surprising how often caffeine and early mornings are mentioned!

NaNoWriMo Day One

slogan by moonsword27, poster by pianochick66
slogan by moonsword27, poster by pianochick66

It’s that time of year again. 50,000 words in 30 days. And today is Day One.

I love writing, but I have always struggled with fluency – letting Left Brain loose on the keyboard without suffering constant interruptions and criticism from Right Brain. That’s why NaNoWriMo is so great. It’s all about producing a first draft – a pile of words out of which something beautiful can later be crafted.

When I visit schools I sometimes recommend National Novel Writing Month to students. Writing a novel seems daunting, but NaNoWriMo provides the perfect way to face up to the task in a fun, non-threatening way, in the company of many thousands of other people. I hope that some of the students I’ve met in the last couple of years might take up the challenge this year.

In preparation for NaNoWriMo I have spent a lot of time thinking about the characters and getting to know them. Plot flows from character. If you know your characters well enough, you’ll be able to put them in difficult situations and watch them do and say stuff, and spark off each other in interesting ways.

This morning I set my alarm for 3am, got up and wrote solidly until 6am – 2000 words on one cup of coffee. I set my font colour to white so that I would not be able to see the words I was writing. If you can’t see them, you can’t change them!

Yes, the inner editor was writhing. But the inner creator was glowing with happiness.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Please do leave a note below…

Hampshire ‘Meet the Author’ event

Hampshire’s ‘Meet the Author’ programme aims to support literacy and to inspire reading and writing by giving children the opportunity to meet authors.

My participation in the programme took place last Thursday, first at Berrywood Primary (with visiting pupils from Shambleshurt Primary) and then at the New Forest Academy (with visiting pupils from Blackfield Primary and Wildground Junior School).

In the morning we did silly actions to help us remember the ingredients of a good story. Then Jamie got dressed up as a Saharan camel herder and Anna from Hedge End told a story about a girl who turns things pink wherever she goes (including a classic scene where a strawberry truck collides with a Post Office van and turns the road pink).

In the afternoon we watched some book trailers and talked about what makes a strong concept for an adventure story. One lad suggested ‘donkey on a bus’ – I’m not sure that has the same visceral appeal of ‘snakes on a plane’ but I’d be intrigued to read the story! We looked at pictures of children around the world and chose the girl below to base a story on.

Where children sleep beauty queen

We used the picture as a launch pad for discussing (a) the character of the girl and (b) possible ‘what ifs’ that could kickstart a story.

When you write a story, don’t go straight into describing the action, but take time to think first about your main character. Who is she? What’s she like? Is she loud or quiet, kind or mean, confident or shy? What does she like doing, what does she find hard, what is she afraid of, what are her secrets? And most importantly of all, WHAT DOES SHE WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD?

Don’t go for the obvious. If you’re writing a story about a beauty pageant entrant (like the girl above), throw in some completely unexpected aspects to the character. One student had the idea that this little girl could be a terrorist mastermind. Another suggested that she might be a boy in disguise. Be as strange as you like – just don’t be predictable.

One student suggested that the girl is being entered into beauty pageants by an evil aunt who then steals all the money she wins. The girl longs to escape and travel the world. What might happen if she finally plucked up the courage to do so…?

Many thanks to Hannah at SLS for organizing the Meet the Author events and to Colin Telford at Hayling Island Bookshop for selling lots of lovely books. His is a small independent shop but also one of the most prolific events organizers on the south coast of England. The table cloth he uses for the book signing table has on it the signatures of Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Widdecombe, Ian Whybrow, Kate Mosse, Derek Landy, Chris Ryan, Darren Shan, Louis de Bernieres, Sandi Toksvig, Julian Fellowes, Sir Andrew Motion, Lord Robert Winston, Alan Titchmarsh, Claire Tomalin, Sir Patrick Moore, Sir David Attenborough and many many others.

The purpose of author events such as this is to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. If your school is interested in booking a visit, please see my school visits page.

How I Write

I am still reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and still working on my own new novel THE PRINCE, an action adventure set in an International School in Dakar. Today I reached 12,500 words, which is about a quarter of the way into the book. Each day at 9am I go to the library, sit at the same desk, and write 1,500 words. I stop at noon and go outside to eat my packed lunch. Then I go back in and carry on till 4 or 5. While I write I listen to one of two albums on my headphones: Alice by Tom Waits or Vagabond by Spiers and Boden. The two albums are very different styles of music, but they’re both about storytelling, love and death. I find them inspiring, even after a thousand listens.

Here is something else I found inspiring today – a well-conceived and very personal video by Mark Rober of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has worked on the Curiosity Rover for the last 7 years of his life, and finally got to see the culmination of all that work. Watch and enjoy…