NaNoWriMo: Feel the fear and do it anyway

It's only 50,000 words, what are you afraid of?

By now some of you may have gathered that the advice I dish out and some of you have very kindly said is helpful, is often written for myself.

I’m afraid. Of NaNoWriMo. Of wanting to be a writer and not properly getting round to do it. Of striving and never getting a novel published. Of having an idea and not being able to elucidate it in a manner even remotely to what I imagined it could be. Of losing life balance while chasing impossible dreams.

The title of my newly completed short story collection is Random Acts of Optimism. Life isn’t straightforward even at the best of times. It does not unroll easily. It’s like cling film – bits tear off when you don’t want them to. You can’t get a clear run (Ha!). If you stop to think about it, life can be scary, all the things that can happen, that will happen to people. You have to be crazy to be optimistic and yet we do, we get up, we go to work, we try to raise decent kids, we hope for health, fulfillment, a peaceful retirement. When things don’t work out we get up again, take comfort from small things and keep going mostly.

NaNoWriMo is just one of the challenges we are up against. And it’s one we’ve set ourselves. That (like choosing to have children for example) doesn’t make it easier. It’s a tough call and we may not be up to it. While we are writing during NaNoWriMo, these are some of the fears we might face:

  • I’m not going to make it to the end
  • I’m not really a writer, this is my first novel, what if I find out here that I shouldn’t be writing at all?
  • This idea isn’t as good as I thought it was, this novel isn’t going to work
  • I’m stuck and can’t find a way out of it
  • I don’t have the stamina or the inspiration, I’m going to fail

When I did my first NaNoWriMo last year I opened a document which I called MetaNano. In it I kept track of my daily progress but also included stray thoughts as I went along and any niggles or queries relating to the story. So I would jot down if I thought that the connections between scenes weren’t good or if a character was being inconsistent or a situation didn’t quite ring true. I also wrote down any negative and positive thoughts about the process. For example on day 4 (day 4!) ‘Already beginning to feel weary about this.’ And later ‘my time today curtailed and I’m sitting here distracted, thinking about other things’. On the positive side ‘3040 in one very domestically arduous day. Goddess.’ and ‘Bashing the gremlins on the head with heavy mallets’. 

By writing my fears, dips and areas where I wasn’t fully happy with the novel into a seperate document I acknowledged them and was able to proceed on with just getting writing down in whatever manner possible. I was also able to monitor my energy levels. Exhaustion is the friend of fear. I made this observation. Start off in flying form. What time does the dip occur. After about 40 mins. What to do, star jumps, break away?

If you can judge when you are at your most vital, positive and productive. You can guard against fear. Take breaks. Revive. Break your daily wordcount mountain into bite-sized manageable chunks. (Have you ever tried eating a mountain?)

Using some of the suggestions here will also help you keep your ideas coming. If you have ideas you have impetus and that dispels fear. But fear doesn’t go away, it’s always there, you just have to look the other way or you just have to remind yourself that you’ve always wanted to bungee jump and if you don’t you’ll regret it.

I’m not dying!

The power of fiction. I just (because of a kind message) realised that I had posted a fictional piece about someone with a short time to live without the #fridayflash hashtag. It was late and obvious to me that it was fiction. But for those of you signed up to emailed posts, please be assured that I am hale and hearty.

#Fridayflash A life in books

Books I always thought I would read before I died: War and Peace, Rembrance of things Past, Ulysses.

Then they told me I was going to die.

How long does it take to read a book? I wondered.

I tried to read Ulysses once but I found I couldn’t. There had been too much hype and I couldn’t see through it. I wish I had found it years ago when my brain was elastic and plastic. I wish I had found it before I knew, on some train station bench, dog eared and lovingly thumbed. I would have put it in my bag and gone home and laid down on my stomach on my single bed and forgotton to eat. Ate of lexicon’s bread. But as a young man it might have been beyond me, now it’s far behind.

It’s in middle age that death catches up with you, taps you on the shoulder. It’s not that you ignore it before, it just doesn’t occur to you in your twenties, in your thirties you catch it in the periphery but there’s plenty else to distract you, the trajetory of your career, of your clothes in a black bag after the affair has been found out and in your forties it is at your side, after that it stares you in the face from behind the mirror.

Forget Ulysses, life itself is a stream of consciousness if you ever have time to get out of the stream and take a look at it. And there’s nothing that gets you out of the stream like a short sharp shock. They gave me six months, then they said it could be any day from now. There’s nothing like a death sentence to make you want to be a character out of a Marquez novel. Like that dubious protagonist out of Memories of my Melancholy Whores, he wants to ravish a sixteen year old girl and then cannot out of tenderness. Sexual congress with youth as an elixir is a cliche as old as they make them and I cannot sign up to lazy living.

Sitting is as good as doing as long as the sun is out. Watching footsteps of light tap forward and back on the living room floor, watching plant’s chlorophyllic heaving, listening to the wash of traffic on the nearby arterial, turning the pages of a novel that took three years to write and a day, like this, to read, all that time crammed in. So in the sweet acrid pages is the smell of optimism, rage and decline, the hush of crushed leaves, the spill of endeavour. And the man found the spiritual in Steinbeck’s ‘To a God Unknown’ in the cathedral vaults of that ancient, ubiquitous forest, light in beams like a UFO enthusiasts dream. Steinbeck and Spielburg juxtaposed in the elevations of the soul. Or if I could go like Howard’s elderly folk in the movie ‘Cocoon’ to the alien world of the neverending. Or if I could sit by the rockpools of my youth and search for anenomes, prise limpets and cockles off the black rocks, trail seaweed along the long strand, leap along the cliff edges. If I could stay out between breakfast and supper and fold time into those little ridges that you see at the shore where the sand is wet before my mother called me in for tea. If I could shake her out of the blanket she used to tuck me in with, she never seems gone far. If my life was still unknowable like a great ocean like it is when you look forward from the start. If I could set out on Lewis’ Dawn Treader to the world’s end and come to something. I make a quiet ending. I could bungee jump into oblivion. I could visit the remaining wonders of the world before they fade. I could gaze upon Machu Picchu or the Old Mountain and I could gasp, as I will gasp my last. I could shout out loud.

But instead I will make a honeycomb of my humanity. Everything inside, in my head, time, love, memory interlocking. I will not do, I will read. I will read until my eyes fade and through resonance will recollect everything I loved about being alive. I am deciduous. I will tear out the lines that speak to me, sing and scatter them about my failing feet and fade into the whispers of books.

Launch of Crannog 25

Last Friday night I went along to read at the celebratory launch of issue 25 of the well-regarded Irish literary magazine Crannog in the Crane Bar, Galway. And what a great night. It was my first time in the Crane Bar, an intimate, authentic, homely venue on Sea Road in Galway. There was a real buzz and about 40 people had gathered to hear the readings of poetry and fiction from the new edition.

I spent the evening with my Galway cousins who showed up to cheer me on but also with my pals Hennessy shortlisted Kate Dempsey and Alice Redmond who read their contributions to the anthology. I also met the poet Kevin Higgins and writer Hugo Kelly and chatted to editors Tony O’ Dwyer and Geraldine Burke.

Des Kenny opened the evening and made the official launch. He commented on the consistency of feeling that ran through the anthology, a testiment to the skill and ethos of the editorial team. Edith Pieperhoff explained the process of securing artwork for the ecletic but resonant front covers.

The highlight of the evening was Patricia Burke Brogan’s fantastic memoir piece ‘Thorntree‘. The author of the worldwide acclaimed play ‘Eclipsed’ about the Magadelen laundries wrote about her teaching days after leaving the novitiate and her run-ins with the Cigaire (school inspector). Her performance was terrific and she even incorporated the sounds of the street and the room into her tale. Her quality of writing is superb.

I also tremendously enjoyed the performances of Kate Dempsey with poem ‘Slow Poison’, Alice Redmond with story By a Thread and also Tom Matthew’s reading his poem More Light, Patricia McAdoo’s ‘A tribute to Leonard Cohen’ was very entertaining and poets Pete Mullineaux and Ciaran Parkes really struck a chord with their poems ‘Singing Gate’ and ‘Plastic Bags’. Fiona O’ Connor made the trip back to her roots in Galway from London and it was great to see her there to perform her story Co-ordinates.

The evening was well complimented by refreshments and excellent bluegrass music to finish. It was my first public reading (if you don’t count my first Kerryman short story success in 1982!) of my fiction and it was a great experience. The evening was recorded so when the relevant clips become available, I’ll add a link to the site.

Crannog is a wonderful blend of literary fiction that is heartfelt, acutely observed and very often funny. It is possible to sign up for a yearly subscription to this worthwhile publication or buy individual copies. This 25th celebratory issue consists of 12 stories and 22 poems, including the exquisite and resonant story The Future Husband by AJ Ashworth. It’s well worth a read.

Buy Crannog 25.

All the options: One Stop Self-Publishing Conference

I attended the One Stop Self Publishing Conference on Sat Oct 17th at the Fitzpatrick Killiney hotel Dublin. It was organised and facilitated by Vanessa O’ Loughlin of Inkwell and Eoin Purcell of Green Lamp Media. As a fiction writer I was interested in interested in exploring the self-publishing option as one of the many possible avenues in the currently transforming publishing industry. The conference was well attended by people with both a fiction and non-fiction writing background as well as general industry interest.

What was particularly evident in this jam-packed but well sequenced and executed conference, was the calibre of the speakers. The information delivered was relevant, concrete, practical and well presented.

Informative and engaging were John Manning’s overview of Gill and McMillan’s distribution service and David Jones on his books to print business. Freelance designer Claire McVeigh’s talk on cover design and typesetting was eye-opening and useful as was Adrian White on what book sellers want. Benjii Bennett, a self-publisher of children’s picture books was inspiring with regard to motivation. Sarah Franklin and Patricia O’ Reilly gave important insights into the process of editing and self-publishing.

There were several highlights for me. AJ Healy‘s not-to-be-missed talk on how he brought his children’s book Tommy Storm to publication was remarkable and practically comprehensive, from the initial decision to diverge from his agent to self-publish his story out to the business like manner in which he approached publicity and distribution. Sarah Franklin’s excellent case study of a marketing and publicity campaign she undertook with one of her authors on his Joyce inspired novel emphasized how self publishing writers need to plan and time their media engagements and have a clear idea of their own story as well as their book’s key message. Catherine Ryan Howard’s presentation on Social Media and Online Marketing was well delivered and revelationary for much of the audience. Ryan Howard self-published her non-fiction book Mousetrapped using the online service CreateSpace. She has successfully used online media and strategies such as contests and Amazon Associates to generate sales and revenue. Her e-book version has been highly successful. Of particular interest to me and great practical value was Eoin Purcell’s presentation on Digital self-publishing. He discussed digital formats, digital publishing options like Amazon’s Digital Text Publishing and Smashwords and useful digital publishing tools such as Storyist.

As a writer looking to inform herself of the various publishing options available this excellent conference far exceeded my expectations. For those with a particular self-publishing project in mind it was invaluable. If you are serious about writing and publishing, put next year’s conference in your diary now.

How to do NaNoWrimo when you don’t have the time

I didn't have the time but I was a NaNoWriMo winner last year

Er well….NaNoWriMo. A 50,000 word novel in 30 days? Are we ready, confident, rearing to go? Or are we standing on the edge of a bungee jump saying ‘why did I sign up for this? I really can’t do this and it’s not just the fear of it, it’s actually a physcial impossibility, I don’t have the time.’

None of us do, no really. I have four young kids including a toddler, extended family commitments, my husband runs his own business. I’m building a writing career to (hopefully) include paid gigs. You may be similar, have a full time job or jobs, have a job and a part time college course, be involved in the community, coaching, volunteering, doing all the worthwhile things that make us human.

You’ve got to write, you do it whenever you can. But this Nano thing. I mean 50,000 words in one month, you’re lucky if you do a thousand in a week, let alone in a day.

I did Nano for the first time last year and I made it to the finish line and now have a completed novel to show for it. One of the key things I discovered is that it’s possible to write 1667 words even on the craziest, busiest, pain in the neck kind of days. Here are some ideas of how to expidite and create a decent first draft in 30 days.

Prepare the structure in advance

You have an idea, right? You have themes, so you know what it’s about. But what’s going to happen in your novel? I’m a panster (a seat of the pants writer rather than a meticulous planner) but I still need to know the main thrust of the journey so I can set out on a path to somewhere. The snowflaking model is highly popular and has the beauty of going from the very high level overview (a one line summary) down to what the characterst like to eat for breakfast. You may want to save the breakfast details as an expose in your novel but an overall ‘scaffolding’ will save you time in those frantic nano days. You can place yourself in an overall picture to which you add fine detail later. What I have found personally useful is jotting down the titles of ‘episodes’ that occur to me as I think about the story. These titles alone will serve as triggers and help ensure that I can get writing straight away. Ideally I would have 30 or so of these episodes so it would be like a flash  fiction and a bit, each day. This is less daunting and will guard against the paralysis of panic/block.

Get in character

There are probably going to be people in your novel, right? Do you know who they are? Are there enough of them? Why are they together, how do they know each other, what do they really think of each other? What do they like for breakfast or are they just pretending. Who do they look like? The woman who works at your corner shop? The bus driver? The striking self-possessed girl walking down the main street? While there is time left, while you travel to work, bring the kids to school, go to the football match or the  nursing home, take notice of those around you, the little quirks of behaviour that interest you, the blast of white hairy eyebrows, the way the businessman examines his shoes. Think about the past and future of your characters. Knowing your characters gives you more to go on.

Schedule in a swim in the subconscious

We’re worried about not having time to complete 50,000 words in the available time and now I’m going to ask you to schedule time out of Nano, perhaps a whole day off along the way, or a day when you write just 500 words instead of 1667. There comes a time later in the month when you slip behind, so you need to be aiming for the 1800 mark in the early stages just to give you a breather later on. Musing on your story and characters before you begin is creating a well of associations and references on which you can draw whi le writing. This will help save time because the details and relationships between place, object and people will come thick and fast when you go to write, you won’t have to spend time making things up, you will be tapping in to associations already made. Later in the month though the well will begin to run dry, you will begin to burn out. So you need to make space for the subconscious to beaver away again whether its a day out walking or a cultural event, you need to take a relaxed swim in the subconscious and refill with further associations you can draw on.

Don’t be afraid of mushrooms

Getting to the practical aspect of writing; getting the required words down each day, you need, in my opinion, to leave your hang ups about chronology and linearity behind. You can always keep an overall structure scribbled or printed in front of you and you will surely have big decisions to make about chronology and reveal when you go to revise. But Nano isn’t about that, its  about getting it down as quickly as possible. So you take one of your core scene ideas, explore and write out all the details you associate with it, how the characters are involved. Lke accessing memory, it will trigger connections with objects people, time or space. So a story element or idea emerges out of the subconcious, like a mushroom out of the dark. Let these mushrooms emerge, singularly or in clusters and when you’ve delved all you can in that area, move onto another. There may be gaps between scenes or the chronology may be all over the place but those connecting details will emerge later. Don’t waste times on trying to fill the gaps, just concentrate on the mushrooms.

Attack in short bursts and forget grammar

Today, for example has been a madly busy day and I’ve been writing this post in tiny increments whenever I had the chance. When doing Nano it’s probably better if  you don’t set yourself up for a 1667 stint in one go. Try doing 15-30mins three or four times a day and really going for it. It’s possible to write (at a very fast pace) 500 words in 15 mins, so if you are really stuck for time you could have your wordcount wrapped in 1 hour throughout the day. If you have to go that fast you can’t think about spelling or grammar but you have plenty of revising time when Nano is over. And you know what will help you if you really need to fly? – your scene headings, you can even think about a scene while you make the dinner or walk to the office, record your thought or phrases and type them out later.

Get up early, stay up late,  be prepared

Of course there are plenty of practical things you can do now, make stacks of pre-cooked meals for the freezer, enthuse family and friends about this challenge that is, after all, only for 30days. And it does have an impact on your nearest and dearest, so if possible get up early and do an hour of writing before the day begins or night owls get cracking when it’s quiet. You don’t want to be guilty and frantic but you want to give yourself the best chance possible to nail this remarkable achievement. Good luck!

Update: This post is from last year. I subsequently went on to ‘win’ Nanowrimo again in 2010, completing the 50,000 words. I am currently working on last years Nanowrimo novel. It’s not easy but it’s a major achievement and a fantastic learning experience. I have an idea for this year and if I have come to a satisfactory stage in my current WIP I will jump in to Nanowrimo again this time. Is this your first time or have you done Nanowrimo before? If you are a veteran, what are your experiences?

Related: NaNoWriMo Feel the fear and do it anyway

‘A Pint and a Haircut’ (True Irish Stories) for Haiti

A ‘Pint and a Haircut’ is a collection of true Irish stories collated by Garret Pearse. The collection is raising money to be used by the aid agency Concern in Haiti. I heard about it through my online friends Jane Travers, Barbara Scully and Maria Duffy who all have pieces included in the book. Please read all about it and support this cause. One for the Christmas stockings and for friends/family in Ireland or with Irish connections abroad I think!

Garret Pearse tells us more about this great project:

What’s your background and how did you come up with the idea of ‘A Pint and a Haircut’ for Haiti?

My background is a long way from publishing books!  I work as an IT consultant and while I love reading books of all kinds, I’d never taken on a project like this before.

The idea for the book itself came from a book edited by the US author Paul Auster called ‘True Tales of American Lives’.  It was a collection of true American stories submitted to a show on National Public Radio.  When the Haiti earthquake happened, I thought it might be interesting to do an Irish equivalent to raise money for Haiti.

Is this your first charity venture and why did you choose this particular cause?

I’ve done the odd fun run and triathlon to raise money for charity but this is the first charity venture I’ve organised myself.  I’d worked with quite a few Haitians when I lived in the US for some time back in the ‘90s so I was particularly affected when I heard of the awful earthquake.

Can you describe the book for us, what’s included?

The book is a collection of 71 short true Irish stories.  The stories are about anything and everything.  There’s funny stories, strange stories and some very sad stories but I think that makes it a true reflection of the diversity of Irish life.  The subject matter ranges from a granny rescuing her grandchild from the top of a tree to a man buying a hat (actually two hats) in New Orleans!

Was it difficult to get the project off the ground?

It was very easy to get the project up and running.  I had an email account and website set up within an hour.  I then sent out an email to all my friends and sat back while the stories flooded in… Well, maybe not ‘flooded in’, more like trickled in while I pleaded and cajoled anyone and everyone to send in a story.  I got some great help in the end from Eimear Rigby in Concern who got me lots of local media coverage to get the word out.

How long was it between idea conception and publication?

In all, it’s taken about 8 months. We possibly could have had the book out sooner but the goal was to have it out for the build up to the Christmas market (aaaagh, is it nearly Christmas already?!)

Why do you think the book will have broad appeal?

I think the sheer diversity of the stories means that there’ll be stories for everyone in the book.  I’ve told anyone I’ve talked to that they’ll love some, like some and probably hate a couple as well.  I also think the fact that all the stories are true makes them have a certain resonance – hopefully people will identify with many of the stories.

What are you most proud of in relation to the project?

I’ll be most proud when I’ve sold the print run of 2,000!  Other than that, I think the fact that it is such a completely Irish project.  Most of the stories are Irish, the cover painting is by an Irish painter, the publisher is Irish and it was printed in Dublin.  In these troubled times, I think everyone involved should be very proud of that.

How will the proceeds help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti?

Even 9 months on, people in Concern is still helping people get settled into basic accommodation.  Money raised from sales of the book will go towards this essential ongoing work.  There’s still a lot to do so its vital we continue to help Concern help the people of Haiti.

How and where can we buy the book?

The book should be available in all good book shops throughout Ireland.  It is being distributed by Argosy and Easons Wholesalers.

It is also available to buy online direct from the publisher, Londubh at