Tuesday, 26 October 2010

What happens in November

This year I am doing NaNoWriMo.  The first rule of NaNoWriMo is, you must talk about NaNoWriMo.  Actually the first rule is that you have to write a 50 000 word novel from scratch over the course of November.  So talking about it is probably the second rule.  Anyway, the idea is that if you tell everyone you've signed up then it will be that much harder to give up in the ten days in when you realise that you're half killing yourself to produce big piles of garbage.  Not many people read this blog, but I know it has readers to whom I would be embarrassed to admit that I had failed.  I've made peace with the fact that what I write will be rubbish, but I still think it will be pretty cool if I can leave November with a large amount of stuff written.

Scary things about it: there are tons of 17 year-olds out there who have won for the last four years, etc; just think how many unpublished novels there are in the world!; plus it's a huge amount to get written in one of the year's shorter months.  I've got various bits of freelance work to do at the same time, of course, and an article to revise, so although it's not quite the same as working full-time and trying to write it, I do have several competing demands on my organisational energy.  It's not just the work, it's the work of making myself work.

I'm trying to plot it out in advance to give myself the best chance possible.  It's an historical murder mystery with lots of real people in it, so I'm doing quite a bit of research, and getting frustrated with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  I usually love the ODNB; and I suppose that really it's a strength that different scholars' accounts of related people vary so much in what they lay down as fact.  And because I'm writing a novel I can just choose what I prefer.  Still I'm trying to keep a sense in my own mind of what is actual historical material and what I've made up to fill in the gaps with plausible factoids.  And I'm reading Augustine on the Donatists partly because I'm trying to write from a point of view about holiness which I don't quite understand, but mostly because I think it's quite cool to read Augustinian theology as preparation for a cheapish murder mystery.

So much for my November.  I know at least one man who is participating in Movember, the first rule of which is that you grow a moustache for the whole of November and get sponsored for research into prostate cancer.  You can read James's Warren's blog post about it here, and it has a link to where you can sponsor him, or sign up yourself.  Prostate cancer is not one of the really big name cancers, so I expect it's harder to raise money for research into it, and therefore it ought correspondingly to be supported.  It killed my Grandad when it metastasised, and although he was 80 we did really need him.  I think it killed my Grandpa too, but that side of my family is very reserved and it seemed like it would have been impolite to ask exactly what was killing him.  Anyway even if those deaths weren't the case it's clear that it's a very good cause.  Plus moustaches are great.  Go Movemberers!  I feel slightly guilty that my NaNoWriMo is just self-indulgence and not to contribute to the bettering of the world.

A Cambridge friend mentioned in an e-mail that she thinks it's great that there's several men of our acquaintance doing Movember, and several women doing NaNoWriMo.  I suppose moustache-growing is intrinsically a male activity -- though I did get something approaching a Christopher Marlowe-style fluff going when I was an angry feminist sixth-former, making a point which now escapes me -- and you could argue that novel-writing, or at least a certain sort of humility towards novel-writing, is quite a female thing.  When I was a kid I used to get annoyed by the song we sung at Sunday School which went "Jesus loves the Rownhams girls / some with straight hair, some with curls / and he loves the Rownhams boys / even though they MAKE A NOISE".  (You substitute your own town or village for Rownhams.)  It irritated me that the boys got to do things while the girls were just looked at.  Of course as a child I could never explain why I disliked it, because one of the terrible things about childhood is how dumb you are to explain what you mean.  So it's nice to see us all disregarding the gender stereotypes of the 80s.  I think this is probably a really inane thing to say, and perhaps I ought to get past noticing these things.

Anyway the implication was that there are more Movemberers out there, and more NaNoWriMoers among my acquaintance!  If anyone reading this is doing Movember and would like me to sponsor them, or is doing NaNoWriMo and would like to be my NaNoWriMo writing buddy, then please identify yourselves.  I would love to have some mutual NaNoWriMo support.  I'm really rather apprehensive.


  1. Thanks for the plug. And good luck with the novel.

  2. I heard about NaNoWriMo just this morning actually, and I'm considering giving it a go. Unfortunately I've no ideas for a plot and I'm also not sure whether I'm willing to commit to writing 50,000 words of prose that probably nobody would ever read (including myself!). Then again, I've been feeling for a while that I ought to do something about my writing, and there's nothing for it but practice. (Since I stopped writing long(ish) pieces of prose---a few years ago---I've found it increasingly difficult to come out with "acceptable" turns of phrase, at least without an effort that in some ways feels foreign to me. Contrast this with a friend of mine, who can churn out wreams of succinct, organised text in what seems like mere minutes (and does so on a regular basis) and I wonder if I'm desperately in need of some solid practice. Of course, this has to do with structures of thought as well as mere verbal facility, especially since I'm thinking of non-fiction in his case, but it's a good point nevertheless. And I can't think of any other field or skill where I would countenance the suggestion that one could improve one's ability without actually practising.) What happened to that 750-words-a-day thing you mentioned a while ago? How did that turn out for you?

    I was also thinking recently about songs we used to sing as children, for quite different reasons. It struck me that in infant school (i.e. up to Year 2) we were always required to learn our hymns (for assembly) off by heart, and indeed we managed (or at least I managed) pretty well. I remember looking forward to moving up to Year 3 so that we could finally enjoy the luxury of reading the words off the OHP, but now I wonder if that was really such a good idea, since memorization must have been an effective form of mental exercise and a skill that with practice will grow stronger but without will surely wither. I was reading recently about the Mingun Sayadaw (a Burmese Buddhist monk) and the Dhammabandagarika examinations in Myanmar, for which candidates have to memorize hundreds of books absolutely verbatim. He, the first person to pass the examination (and one of only a handful who've managed over the past 60 years), apparently recited over 16000 *pages* of Buddhist texts from memory, even pointing out disputed sections and giving alternative versions. After this I challenged myself to learn a sonnet, then realized how far my expectations had fallen since primary school: we often had to learn songs and recitations, and in Year 5 I recall we were given a few sheets of song lyrics (probably five or six songs) and told to come back after summer with them memorized. It seemed a lot to learn, initially, but in fact I managed it without too much difficulty. It's funny how our educational system seems to value memorization less as we move higher, even though we depend on memory in one way or another for all of our thought. I don't think I was ever asked to memorize anything after Year 6. Anyway, I would quite like to hear some of those hymns/songs again; unfortunately at the moment I can only remember vague images of what they were about, not even a fragment that would allow me to track one down, although I'm sure they would come rushing back to me if I heard them.

    Eesh, that was a bit of a digression. Back on topic, I'm considering NaNoWriMo but I'm not committed just yet. You seem to be taking it pretty seriously. I'm so lazy, I'd probably just sit down with no ideas whatsoever and start rambling about whatever comes into my mind. Maybe I'll expend a little thought on the problem this week.

  3. I know just what you mean about NaNoWriMo -- it seems like a lot of trouble for something which is really unlikely to get anywhere. I considered doing it last year, but that's what put me off. I did do the 750 words a day thing (750words.com) for a while and found it really helpful. I would just think of a completely random first sentence and write from there, without worrying if it was stupid. Or write short stories based on random things I'd overheard people saying. I enjoyed it. I gave it up after 23 days because of two problems: first, I was finding it harder and harder to think of random short stories, and they were getting samey in a way that I didn't want to look at too hard in case it told me something about my psyche (self-knowledge wasn't the point of the exercise); and second, I kept driving myself to write more and more quickly. When I started it took me twenty-something minutes, but by the time I stopped I was always doing it in 15, and I found it hard to let go of that and write more slowly, and it became all self-competitive rather than fun. I decided to give it a rest for a while, and I still do it occasionally, but I don't collect the badges. Anyway, I exported what I'd written, which is nearly 20 000 words in total, and rereading it later I actually quite liked some of it. So my hope with the NaNoWriMo is that maybe I'll like about a quarter of it. The 750 words things made me think that I can write quite fast if I let things go.

    A lot of people seem to think that the best way to do NaNoWriMo is to start out with the vaguest ideas, and just wing it. There's a post about in on the NaNoWriMo blog. I think that was the original idea when they started. (The founder has written a book called "No Plot? No Problem!") It sounds like a really appealing idea to me, oddly romantic. But there's a particular murder mystery I've wanted to write for a while, which is why I'm trying to plan this out. With a murder mystery you need to have some definite pieces of information to discover at particular times. If you do decide to do NaNoWriMo then it would be cool to keep in touch about it! I'm trying to screw up courage to go to the NaNoWriMo Exeter kick-off meeting.

    Re: memorising things, we never had to do this at school, except that we had one excellent RE teacher who made us learn Genesis 12:3, God's convenant with Abraham. My church was always big on learning Bible verses but I've forgotten most of them. But as an intense teenager I used to learn poetry, which I find very useful when at the dentist, or giving blood, or otherwise wanting to occupy my mind. I have no idea how people manage to learn entire texts. I suppose it depends how you use your mind. Sometimes I've thought of trying to learn the Psalms, which many educated Anglo-Saxons would have known off by heart, but I don't know what version to use, plus I do think it would probably take me the whole entire rest of my life.