LOUISE O'NEILL: There is no secret trick to writing a novel

It’s November, which means it’s National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is the brainchild of Chris Baty, a freelance writer based in San Francisco. The project started in July 1999 with only 21 participants, before moving to November the following year to “take advantage of the miserable weather”.

The challenge is simple, or not so simple, depending on your perspective. Participants in NaNoWriMo attempt to write a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30, relying on an online community of fellow Wrimos for support. 

This year, more than 400,000 people across the world are set to take part, describing is as “a shot of caffeine for the creative life”. At least 10% are likely to complete the challenge.

I must confess that I am not a NaNoWriMo alumna, although I have been tempted. The shortest of my novels, Almost Love, was around 63,000 words and I was working on that full-time for the best part of a year. I haven’t felt this lazy since I found out that John Boyne wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in TWO DAYS.

The idea came to me on a Tuesday evening,” said Boyne, “and I began writing on Wednesday morning and continued for 60 hours with only short breaks, not sleeping on Wednesday or Thursday nights and finishing the first draft by Friday lunchtime.

While I live in hope that someday I’ll write a book that sells millions of copies for two days’ work, for now I’ve accepted that my pace is best described as slow and steady. I only have a finite amount of creative energy to expend every day, and it seems to dissipate after roughly 1,000 words.

That being said, I do think that NaNoWriMo is a good idea for aspiring authors. Firstly, it takes away any pressure for the first draft to be ‘good’. As the apocryphal saying goes, “the first draft of everything is shit” and what I like about NaNoWriMo is that it emphasises quantity over quality.

In The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, both women encourage their students to do the same — fill the pages, get to the end, and worry about the quality afterwards. 

This is one of the biggest problems that beginners face. They have a half-completed manuscript on their laptop for years, and they develop a mental block about their ability to finish the entire novel. I liken it to the idea of the four-minute mile. 

For years, experts believed the human body was incapable of running a mile under four minutes until Roger Bannister did so in 1954. Barely a year after he did so, someone else broke the four-minute barrier as well, swiftly followed by many others.

In book terms, if you get the first draft completed, you have broken the four-minute mile. You have done it once, therefore you know that you can do it again. 

You will have to edit afterwards, yes, go deeper and expand, write and rewrite and rewrite some more. But you can’t edit a blank page. You must keep going until you write those two wonderful words: The End.

There is a sense of accountability with NaNoWriMo which is useful, particularly as you require quite a lot of self-motivation and willpower to write a novel, but my favourite thing about the challenge is how it democratises writing. Whenever I give talks to school students, I am quick to tell them there is nothing special about me that made me destined to become a writer.

While art can be magical, there is no great mystery attached to the creation of it and the myth that there is can be enough to put people off trying to create something of their own. I love writing and I feel very lucky to call it my job, but it is just a job. And as with all jobs, talent is important, of course, but a good work ethic is even more so.

There is no secret trick to writing a novel: It’s getting your bum on the seat, day after day, writing word after word. That’s it.

If you want to make this November the month you write that long dreamt of novel, Nanowrimo.org has excellent tips for getting started. It also uploads pep-talks from well-known authors to encourage you to stay motivated.

If I was to offer you any advice? I always say targets are important. 

Set yourself a daily word count and a deadline so you feel as if you have a definite goal to work towards. Don’t buy into the myth of writer’s block. Just keep writing. 

If that day’s work is terrible, you can delete it later down the line, but somehow the simple act of writing encourages more writing. The work is the only way through.

Don’t cop out and say you don’t have enough time. How much television or Netflix do you watch? How long do you spend on social media? 

Even if it’s just an hour a day, use it for something you actually care about. It’s not selfish for you to take that time for yourself, regardless of children, work obligations, or other obligations. 

There’s a huge difference between someone who idly wonders if they might have a story in them and someone who burns with an insatiable need to tell those stories. If you’re the latter, the need won’t go away. It will only intensify, calling to you, begging for some relief.

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