Novel Tips for a Sustainable #NaNoWriMo

IMG_3476 NaNoWriMo is the phenomenon that encourages people to put 50,000 words on the page in the month of November. I’ve completed it before and blogged about it. (I’ll post some links at the end) My experiences have ranged from joyful completion and the ultimate self-publishing of a comedy feelgood novel about saving the universe to a frantic splurging of words for a more literary novel that led to a subsequent year of forensic untangling to make the story coherent. I have learned that

·       deadlines and quotas help me actually put fingers to keyboard (pen to paper had a much nicer ring to it!) and write all those thoughts down – thoughts that otherwise float away on the wind unrecorded

·        (to use a mining analogy) if I can hit upon a seam rich with material/access memories, the subconscious, something I’m passionate about, a vivid place or character, the words can come very quickly

·        I have very little idea how to hit upon the seam other than ideas here about taking time out to fuel your imagination, doing the counter intuitive thing of not writing, going on a walk, reading a book etc. Or put it another way writing is not usually like turning on a tap so don’t beat yourself up.

·        Every project is different and you have to respect that. One will be closer to your heart/have had more preparation/be technically easier to do/require more or less research than another

·        a sustainable approach may work best and is the one I am favouring this year

What is sustainable approach for NaNoWriMo? What I have learned this year is that I am very good at doing everything that is not NaNoWriMo. For example, here I am writing a blogpost, I have also checked on the US election count (who hasn’t), gone for a walk, made a dental appointment, planned some fruit pies and found out how to renew my driver’s licence online. I have also completed the third workout in the couch to 5k challenge that my workplace is organising. This year is also different in that, every other year, I’ve been very rule-bound about getting the 1667 words on the page each day. This year I am already well behind and some days I haven’t written anything. After wresting with ‘shoulds’ and questioning my entire identity as a writer and whether I ‘should’ give up trying to write books, I decided to put things into perspective and show some self-compassion and self-respect. I decided that I needed to balance out the desire to ‘produce’ and ‘succeed’ with an acknowledgment and acceptance of my circumstances (family and work alongside writing) and  the true stage and state of my project. This is where the sustainable comes in. I want to be true to my values and circumstances . This means I want this project to be feasible, possible, not to cause harm, not to deplete my resources, not to make life hard, not to be about suffering and self-flagellation but about finding the joy in the book, being true to what I want to say, producing only writing that is satisfying to the project and not just thrown down to make the wordcount. (That is not to say that some work will turn out not to be right and will be cut later and I’m not saying that I can’t take flights of fancy or try out sections/characters/plots just for the hell of it). I want to go at the pace for which I’m able while building up my momentum and resources. I’ve learned a few key lessons from completing the couch to 5k exercise challenge before and renewing it now: Achieving small goals and building up strength and stamina over time works brilliantly and a sense of camaraderie and connection with others doing the challenge can be very motivating. For me, sustainable means working within my current limits and taking time to develop and stretch myself without overdoing it.

·        It means building up the structure first – warming up, thinking, daydreaming, writing a scene list, reading an article or book related to the project.

·        It means starting with lower wordcounts and not fretting over it.

·        It means writing sections that I’m more sure about first and working from there

·        It means staying true to the shape of the project and what is needed to bring it forward whether that means more research, more daydreaming, spending time on character and story development and plotting (you CAN ‘cheat’ and add this explorative work to your wordcount if you wish)

·        It means getting enough rest, minding my physical and mental health through other activities

·        It means planning to fail if failing means not ‘winning’ NaNoWriMo but winning my true aim of writing something that means a lot to me and that I’m happy with.

I think this is a lesson for modern times. How can we live in a way that nurtures ourselves, our loved ones, the world? Instead of producing for the sake of it, consuming and disposing, how can we create work that is meaningful, entertaining, enriching and is made with love and joy rather than worry and angst?

Is NaNoWriMo for you?

I look at the Monumental Challenge of NaNoWriMo and give pointers as to whether this challenge is right for you at this time in your Writing life.

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

This very popular post from the archive gives you tips and tricks to help your productivity and rally support when your life is really too busy to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Ten Ways to Ace NaNoWriMo

Ten sure-fire ways to keep yourself motivated and productive during your 50,000 word marathon.

Personal experience

Running for my writing Life. The ups and downs during the 2009 NaNoWriMo session

NaNoWriMo – Now it’s all over would I do it again?

Realistic pluses and minuses of using NaNoWriMo to work on your novel


Creative resilience in the face of chaos

During lockdown I saw things in the garden much closer than before.

In the past this blog has focussed on how to keep going in difficult times during periods of upheaval, overload, uncertainty, loss and grief and in 2020 during the time of the Covid19 pandemic we have all these together. If we have not lost a loved one, we know of someone who has, we have seen the devastation on our screens and in the daily reports. Across all occupations and in the arts and culture sector outlets and earnings are severely curtailed. Some of us may have been gifted time along with the burden of uncertainty or guilt.

For writers, what does anything mean anymore? What is going to happen to the publishing industry. Isn’t the book we were just about to pitch completely out of touch now? How can we write without referencing what is happening? Should we? Isn’t the skin of self-doubt we have always worn since we decided we have to write just a petty arrogance in the face of real problems?

To the latter question, the answer is Yes, and No. For the writer the aim, beyond fashioning words and sentences for their own sake, there is usually a further calling – to amuse, entertain, inform, console, touch, inspire, create a common human feeling. Surely these aims are just as important now, than ever? And when everything is called into question, when everything is meaningless and horror abides, isn’t it the choices we make (as put forward so touchingly by Edith Egar and Victor Frankl) and the ways we make meaning and enhance the lives of others through writing more important than ever.

Be on your own side

So many of us struggle with self-belief, self-esteem, even basic self-respect. We vilify ourselves with our critical self talk. As writers we beat ourselves up about the opportunities lost, wrong choices, lack of productivity, lack of progress, lack of publication. Yet when we hear of our writing colleagues getting a break after years of trying or a small success along the way we cheer. Because we know what it took, we can empathise with how hard they worked, how they wanted it. Yet we do not afford ourselves the same cheer leading. I’ve benefited hugely in the past couple of years from the work of Rick Hanson whose message ‘Be on your own side’ tells us how important it is to be a friend to ourselves, to visualise ourselves and put a hand on our own shoulder, to have genuine delight in our own achievements, to have pride and joy in our efforts and aims. When we treat ourselves with compassion we allow ourselves to stop panicking about panicking, to stop being afraid of being afraid. Everything I say to you I struggle to do myself but I know that the moment I soften and enjoy the fact that I have written 500 words today instead of getting fraught that I wasted 3 hours, I feed myself more energy for my next attempt rather than taking the ground from under my own feet.


I will explore all of these ideas more in the coming weeks but I think one of the things that we can do especially in these times of uncertainty whether in the writing or arts arena in general is to use any spaces or bestowed time to listen to how we want to respond to our situation, our creative situation and what are the things we want to say. Mindfulness practice is one way that has been extremely beneficial for me in creating equanimity – not filling my mind with the rush of frustration, anger, confusion and so on. Jotting down early morning phone notes or journaling have also been ways of collecting those interesting fragments and juxtapositions of ideas that have arisen both generally and in these ever-changing times. Ideas are everywhere and in chaos even more so. And adversity is a fire that can forge these ideas and allow us to shape and utilise them.

Accept where you’ve come from and where you are

In my next post I will focus specifically on perfectionism and self-doubt and how we can discover the creative potential of our limitations. The broad point I want to make here is that yes, we all do have limitations and blind spots, we all came from certain backgrounds and cultures, we have certain educations and upbringings, we have financial security or we have none. We can see right now that there is a huge impetus in society to break down so many prejudices and barriers and open opportunities to wider groups but it’s also true that people have never been so judgmental. We have also never been as exposed to so many (quantum) possibilities against which we can judge our own progress or path. You may have a physical or mental health challenge, be a carer, be discriminated against, be exhausted, or nervous, or not fit into the profile of the bright young star or the critically acclaimed author or artist. You may never ‘make it’ because of these issues but, personally, I know it helps to shine your light as brightly from where you are, especially if that place is dark. We have all felt helpless or frustrated in the face of barriers of time, finances, visibility, market forces etc but we can only work from now, sometimes in the smallest of ways. Tara Brach’s work on Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion has been hugely helpful to many. Sometimes it’s right to rest, recoup, take a realistic appraisal of our chances but it’s also a testament to the human spirit to keep trying, to look for opportunities, to create, submit, use the mulch of our difficult experiences as a way to enrich our writing and reach others. It is when we accept ourselves and our circumstances that we, as so many have done in this crisis,that we can begin to be endlessly innovative and creative.

Let me know how you have found these past months in terms of creativity, has your head been buzzing with everything but you’ve struggled to produce writing? Have you managed to focus even for a short time on putting down your thoughts? Have you been working on an existing project that has enabled you to leave the current chaos and focus on another narrative? I would love to hear from you.

The long writing road to a finished novel (Eat!)

alison on road
A long time ago in Death Valley.

When I finish this post I will start work on some final edits and tweaks to my novel Eat! I’ve just begun to submit (very systematically this time) to agents and this is my blurb.

Consumption becomes medicine for Anise Fish from the Big House who – feeling responsible for her mother’s death – runs through a manic, 2008 boom-time town eating unusual, inedible things. The town’s inhabitants grapple with strange new cravings and Benedict – a would-be cannibal – creates dubious recipes. As the Doctor with the help of philosophical police detectives tries to unravel the case histories of the afflicted he must face his own culpability in the origins of this strange and disconsolate contagion.

Eat! explores the relationship between Anise Fish, a boy trapped inside by illness, the children she au pairs, her grief-stricken father and the Doctor who tries to save her. Eat! is a musing on grief, guilt, nature and nurture, crime and responsibility, how people make up for losses in twisted ways and how relationships and nature can heal.

Now I know some people can write a novel in days and I know that every project is different. Our writing production exists within a particular set of circumstances each time. How crystallised is the project in our minds or are we just feeling our way? Do we have confidence, mental and physical reserves? How is our life? Full of chaos and complication or running relatively smooth? Have we had to cope with transition or loss? Have we had mental and physical space or have we had to carve out niches?

Here is a social media post about Eat! from 2014

About 2 years ago (in May) I was gripped with the feeling for a book but made myself knuckle down and finish the projects in between. With two other novels finished it’s finally time. I have 40,000 words of notes, an excerpt (flash fiction) coming out in the Stinging Fly, now I would like to lock myself in a garret somewhere and do the rest. If it’s no trouble world, thanks a mill.

stinging fly cover
Flash fiction Eat! is published in The Stinging Fly Spring 2014

I was invited to read the piece at the launch at the Irish Writers Centre. I’d read it before at a Big Smoke Writing flash fiction event and it got a great response from the audience. When I went to read at the Irish Writers Centre, the lighting was much more ‘atmospheric’ and I realised with horror that – as part of the sacrifice we writers make – I had killed my eyes. I struggled to see my own printout but muddled my way through the reading, hesitantly this time.

2019-02-15 (1)

The next few years were in a word challenging; loss, grief, financial and other severe family difficulties with no support from relevant institutions. I created swathes of Eat! from participation in the NaNoWriMo writing challenge (write 50,000 words in a month). I got the words on the page. The story ranged round a cast of characters who emerged out of this unstructured mining of the imagination and concerns from the subconscious. It’s not autobiographical but I saw later certain truths about my own life arrive out of my writing. I had a mass of words in the end (over 144,000) and then I needed to make sense of it all. For this book, this process – coming out of the slivers of mental space available and out of the wide scale the book seemed to take – involved an extended period of time (about a year) in just putting the material in the order it needed to go. It was a laborious, painstaking (painful!) process that I had to do without knowing if it would pay off. Has it paid off? We await the verdict.

(Adding to the original post, say whatever you like about Facebook, it does act as diary sometimes, allowing you to mark out feelings and events at a point in time – here is a further entry re: the book in February 2017)

So much more work to do, four years from the initial idea, three years from the Stinging Fly flash vignette, 145,000 words (so must be pared down) but I finally have a rough first draft of my next book. I CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT A RELIEF IT IS. Going to print it out now and let it sit. Yippee!

I’ve had the pleasure these past years of being involved in a real world writing group. These are lovely people and accomplished writers – widely published and shortlisted for many awards including the Hennessy New Irish Writing. They have given me feedback, criticism, suggestions and encouragement on many projects including Eat! It was they, who, sometime last year, encouraged me to submit Eat!  to the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. So we come full circle again. The books first words spoken at the centre, then this January I got the news that Eat! had come highly commended in the Novel Fair. I’m part of a second group of 12 who will get our submissions critiqued. (The winners will pitch to agents and publishers around now at an agent fair.)

You know, as writers, how hard it is to keep the faith and especially with a long project, to dedicate the time (years!) to writing a book that might never see the light (Eimear McBride’s terrific A Girl is a Half-formed thing took ten years to be published once it was done.) To get positive feedback in terms of being longlisted means a lot.

aw-hwah-cover-front-midI’ve written three other novels (and a couple of other attempts). One of these is the heart warming Housewife with a Half-Life that publishers were interested in but wondered about the ‘genre’ (domestic comedy sci-fi?) (I believe now in 2019 that cross-genre is no longer such an issue and I have a sequel to the book planned in any case.) Another two novels have been submitted but perhaps not with the necessary gusto. As I finish my own edits of Eat! (knowing that in case of possible publication more work may be called to be done) I’m giving the book the best chance by doing my research carefully and contacting agents.

A new phase is about to arise in life. After a long stint of caring for children (my eldest has now become a man) I’ve been offered a library job. This blog has been all about finding the resilience and headspace to be creative in the midst of what life is offering at any one time. Now my challenge is, while enjoying the new perspective and connections a full-time job will offer me is to find ways to maintain the focus and forward momentum on new writing projects and to keep doing this writing thing that I know I love and is so important to me.

I’ve written short stories and worked on other projects during the long incubation, writing and creation of this book. I’m yet to hear from agents whether they want to see more. It has been very difficult keeping the faith in my writing even with this feedback and other positive comments (from the editors on the Writing Workshop now Jericho Writers Self-Editing course). Mine is just one story of persistence. I hope you have been able to find ways of keeping going along your own long road and that you might find comfort in knowing there are many along the same path.


Publication and pondering: There’s a café in this story


Dear reader,

I’m knee deep, waist deep, actually head under water in my monster novel of 140,000 words. No – as I keep saying – not an actual novel about monsters but the more I say that the more I want to write a novel about monsters. My novel is based on a flash fiction published in the Stinging Fly in – was it 2014? – quite a while back anyhow and it’s about a girl with pica running about eating the world to shore up her own loss (a mother dead in childbirth, an emotionally absent father) but it’s really an allegory for the 2000s boom hysteria, so everyone ends up eating the world (consumption see) and everyone’s out to shore up their loss (bad relationships, the spectre of the Famine in Irish society, feeling inadequate) and there’s a guy who wants to be a cannibal. So typical run of he mill stuff really. So I’ve been untangling years of notes and scenes and then going to Mia Gallagher’s workshops and now working on an online Self-Editing course run by the Writer’s Workshop and putting other pet projects aside for what seems forever. So I haven’t written many short stories recently but was so pleased to have one printed in the fabulous Welsh based The Lonely Crowd back in July.

As part of the publication we were encouraged to submit a piece on how we wrote the story submitted, or what was the crux of the story. As a man begins to become emotionally attached to a woman he meets in a café the narrative he tells himself about the state of his life, the feelings he feels he has for the woman and where his wife fits into the picture are key in how the story – an the ultimate conclusion will play out. However I wanted also to think about how, each time, we as writers set out to try to conjure up a story out of a slim idea, a visual, an anecdote, a phrase or a rough sketch of a character, we set out to make some kind of reality out of nothing and how this must always fail in some way (more on that in the next post.)

The writer tries to construct a whole that will, as the sum of its imperfect parts provide some epiphany or at least a satisfying sense of recognition, a consoling (or disquieting) feeling of common humanity or experience.

I talk about how with every version something is left out – something we need to become more aware of in this era of fake news

“As a young college student taking a module in media studies in the early 1990s, I remember the astounding realisation that news was not just news, it could be partisan, that parts of a story could be left out. And in this era of fake news and endless rhetoric, the watering down and frowning on any absolute moral stance, it is often implied that all views are equal. With the narratives we make of our own lives on social media, in our own heads, in the frenetic, consumerist, production-centred world we live in, we have never been more aware that all stories are a version.”

You can read the full version of my musings on The Lonely Crowd website here and I would be grateful if you do.  Issue 7 of The Lonely Crowd with my story and stories from Danielle McLaughlin, June Caldwell and many more can be ordered from the website.

How are you doing? Are you working on more than one project at a time? Do you feel bereft of the shorter stuff when working on novels? Listening to Nuala O’ Connor/Nuala Ni Chonchuir at the Bray Literary Festival recently she said she was bereft of her poetry in particular since her focus has been taken up by novels. I thought a between version lull in my novel would allow me to go back to another project but with the editing course it hasn’t turned out that way.

Blogging apparently is dead since I started this blog many years ago. That said I hope to be back here a little more regularly to connect with whoever passes this way.

Ever ask yourself if you should give up writing?

Writing is an endurance test, especially where the novel is concerned and it requires sacrifice and a great deal of time and effort. In the face of the publishing industry’s vagaries, conflicts between the time we need and what we can do alongside our other responsibilities and in light of our own lack of confidence, we can really begin to wonder if dedicating ourselves to writing and a dream of publication is the right choice.

For a variety of reasons it’s been a very difficult few years and when energy is low, deciding whether it’s right to spend that precious energy and a huge proportion of time on a pursuit that often makes you question yourself is an important consideration. Like so many writers I have wailed and moaned that the writing is not going well, or should I even bother. This is especially relevant on my current project which is a monster of a thing (now at 140,000 words, woohoo!) requiring intense dedication.

In this article I look at how we can decide whether or at what level to pursue the writing endeavour if you’d like to read it.  Please share with me here the difficult or challenging choices you have made in either choosing to write or in leaving it behind. I would be grateful to hear how people have made these decisions.

Honour your writing and what it means to you.


Having lost many of our artistic touchstones in 2016 and with world events taking a sinister and dispiriting turn, it’s all the more necessary to identify what it is important and valuable to us and to take steps to honour those values. While we need to turn outward and support and encourage each other, we also need to honour our own values and talents. This new article I’ve written for talks about the ways we can assert ourselves as writers during 2017 and find ways of developing our writing talent.

31 Ways to Keep your Head above Water

In 2013 I wrote a post a day in January with various topics for enhancing creativity. There are some great tips and ideas for you to try out. Just click into the posts of your choice!

Head Above Water

CillrialaigdawnGOOD INTENTIONS

Jan 1st 2013. We get out of bed and we want to do things better this year even though we might just slide back into the old ways, we’re starting with resolve and a heightened optimism. As we stare out the window and think, yes, i should get out there we know that we need to galvanise that wish into something more focussed. Our minds are wimps really, they need goals and encouragement and a kick up the…

As I writer I’m well aware of the swings between enthusiasm and doubt, as a parent of young children, one of whom has aspergers, I know about trying, about joys, failures, frustrations, exhaustion, delight, about getting up from setbacks over and over and keeping going. Across the world the recession has hit families badly and here in Ireland a harsh budget will bring massive trials and difficulties to already stretched…

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The Evangelical Writer: Why you need to believe in yourself

I thought this post from the archives could do with another outing. Personally speaking I’ve struggled with confidence as I get back into a difficult writing project after a gap.

Head Above Water

Be your own crusader

Evangelism. It can be scary. It can put you off a nice walk in the park. It can make you squirm uncomfortably at the front door. Or it can be fascinating and illuminating to see how the power of belief can make someone turn their life around, dedicate themselves absolutely to what they believe in. At its worst it can become fanaticism, extremism, terrorism. At its best it can be selfless dedication to a philanthropic cause.

Evangelism is like being possessed by a virus of belief. You want to spread the word to everybody, you want them to feel as you do. I felt that way recently when I joined twitter and after the first self-conscious new kid on the block feeling, (tagging onto people and hoping they would be nice about it) I began to discover what a wonderful place it was. As a writers forum it is invaluable…

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Cozy or cool – writers, what do you wear?

felted glove.jpgDear writers, if you’re in the Northern Hemiphere you are probably trying to keep warm as you tap away on your keyboard or scratch out an account of your life from your attic room. On my blog I’m asking writers to share the details of what they wear when behind closed doors doing their writing thing? Is comfort the main factor or do writers dress for the office? How many layers is acceptable and what about accessories, lap blanket, hot water bottle, foot warmer. Just what does it take to keep that bestselling endeavour on the road.

You can read more, with links to more fun articles on personal grooming etiquette and braving freezing conditions on my blog here (Writer, Bare All – What is your writing Uniform?).

Writing,ie is a fantastic resource of how to articles and personal stories, competitions and new release info, so you can log in to comment. If you’d rather, leave your comments here! See if your weird and wonderful habits are share by your fellow writers. It would be great to hear from writers from other climates (other than the cold, damp and dismal.)

Depression: Tightrope walking with a friend

January: Bleurgh, endless white skies and here, rain, news, it appears, of death upon death, for those suffering from SAD or other depressive tendencies in the Northern Hemisphere, January is perhaps the last slog on a upward climb that hopefully will open up to a plateau of hope when Spring begins. But depression is not weather dependent, it can hit at any time, come from trauma or trial or seemingly from nowhere at all. It may be chemically based, genetically predisposed. It is a combination of temperament and circumstance and how society is set up. There seems to be, at this current time of technological change, dissipating boundaries, an individualistic culture, separation from nature, social media and always on personas, ways in which the vulnerable can be knocked into self-doubt, anxiety, paralysis. There appears to be a surge in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties and there are the age old problems of personal and relationship breakdown.

In the challenges I have faced over the past number of years in family life, one thing has made more of a difference than anything else – the discovery that I am not alone in my journey, that others share similar difficulties and that within myself and my band of comrades we find together a sense of resilience, a broadening of the mind and compassion for others through adversity and a huge capacity for kindness and humour which we share with each other.

It is in this vein that I share with you a publication, Depression and the Art of Tightrope walking written by a friend of mine, Vivienne Tuffnell who in her generous blog always shares her experiences and consolations on the subject of depression. She charts a course (a tightrope, she calls it) through the undeniable reality of depression (a study I read as a student asserted that depressed people do not used the same tactics as people without depression, tactics that can sometimes fool us into believing things are better than they really are – thus depressives are more realistic!) while taking solace and sustenance from elements in life such as nature and creativity. This is a journey through experience, there is no cure, no, as she puts it “no final answer about anything. That’s the joy and the sorrow of it.”

Depression and the Art of Tightrope walking collates several of her blog posts on depression. This is how she describes the book:

“I’m a writer and poet and a long-term sufferer of depressive illness. I try to keep smiling but sometimes I fail. I love the natural world, and am a great fan of the vagaries of the English weather.” These words were the first attempts to define what my blog was about when I began it in February 2009. From these first tentative steps into blogging, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking has expanded into a wide-ranging and eclectic exploratory journey into what it means to live with depression. There are many posts on the subject now, and I decided to collect together the ones I felt were potentially most helpful to others affected by mental and emotional distress. They’re not intended as classic self-help or as a replacement for treatment but rather as a commentary from one person’s experience. Sometimes it can help simply knowing we are not alone in a journey, even when it feels that way. I’ve enjoyed the whole concept of the Zen koan, a short question that usually has no answer but is intended to provoke more questions and more thinking. Think of the classic one: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Most of my posts are written with this aim in mind; I just lack the compactness of a koan. I try to look at the world from another angle. I like (like? not sure I like it but I am inwardly compelled to do it) to ask questions, sometimes awkward ones. There is no final answer about anything. That’s the joy and the sorrow of it. Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking contains twenty essays from the original blog and includes a foreword from Suzie Grogan, author of Shell Shocked Britain-The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health and editor of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days (Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety).

It’s available here in both paperback and kindle formats.

Vivienne’s book is realistic, reflective and informative and shares an honest experience of how she lives with depression as part of the fabric of her life but also explores the ways she finds to live more fully alongside it, to find meaning and joy, light alongside darkness. This honest account will make you realise that the human experience may feel a lonely one but there is always someone travelling a similar path, that there is no final answer but that the steps we take in challenging terrain is the true story.