Thursday, 29 November 2012

NaNoWriMo and Beyond - the Secrets of Success Part 2

So, here we are with one day of National Novel Writing Month to go. How's it been for you? Are you sitting under the glitterball of success as I mentioned in my previous post or has your forehead been in contact with your desk so often there's a dent in it (the desk, that is)?

Well, I've entered NaNo for three successive years now and I haven't hit the 50,000 word target once. And I'm totally fine with that - because I never intended to hit that target in the first place. For me, NaNo is all about cultivating the habit of writing every single day, because that's what works best, not some notional 1667 word goal. The thing to bear in mind about NaNo - as I also said in my previous post - is that it's your NaNo, not anybody else's.

Two years ago, when I entered for the first time, I wrote 36,228 words - which gave me such a thrill as I'd surpassed my self-set target of 35,000 words. I'd broken through the log-jam and created a significant body of work which simply hadn't existed 30 days previously. It was a great feeling.

Last year I entered again and I totally screwed up. I was in a bad place with my writing and was torn between projects. I even named two on my author detail page on NaNo, a sure sign there was trouble ahead. I swithered (a good Scots word for dotting to and fro in an undecided manner) anxiously between  the two and was master of neither. My confidence took a battering and I felt I'd never see my way clear again.

This year, the situation is different once again. This year I feel I've got a grip on my writing in the sense that I am now working lucidly on a project for which I have a strong passion. Yes, there are frustrations, doubts, episodes of sturm und drang - but at a deep level I have faith in this story and am relishing exploring its possibilities, even when there are so many possibilities I despair of ever managing them all!

This project began with a short story. The story was long-listed in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize, which was very gratifying, of course. Then I had an epiphany: this story had the potential to be More, Much More! It was a complete rush of blood to the head. The Muse, who'd been off on a gap year, suddenly was knocking on my door with every intention of staying for more than a day or two.

The project is a historical novel. I signed up for the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September (you'll have seen my five reports about the conference last month). The conference, apart from being hugely enjoyable in its own right, provided me with a Goal and a Deadline, for I was going to see how much I could write by the end of September - I was going to pitch to an agent while there.

On 14th July I started. I vowed I'd write every day, right up to the Conference. And I did. Yup, I'm bemused by that myself! I went to London with 67000 words under my belt. Damn, it felt good!

After positive encouragement, I prepared to take a month off from writing in October, so that I could reinforce my story with some necessary research. This didn't work out according to plan: real life barged in with work demands and so on - and I ended up neither researching very much nor writing anything. I dreaded all my hard work and enthusiasm fizzling out - it's happened before. I'm sure we've all been there. New ideas and projects are no problem - its keeping the momentum going that's the challenge.

So we come to NaNo. I knew I wouldn't be able to write anywhere near 50,000 words, because my Fictionfire work demands have been pressing this month. I also knew that if another month went by without my first draft making any forward progress I'd start to lose faith in it - and in myself.

So I set my target: 20,000 words. This, I felt, was doable. This could mean 300 words one night, 1200 words the next - whatever I felt capable of, as long as 20,000 words were produced by the end of the month.

Not only do I set an overall target, but here's the greatest secret of success for me, and it's one I discovered in 2010 - and it's thanks to Jerry Seinfeld! Here's what you do: you take a sheet from a calendar and on every writing day you put a big red cross on it to show you wrote something that day. It couldn't be simpler! What happens is that the line of crosses spreads across the page and it would be horrible to see a blank box interrupt that sweet line of success! Doesn't matter if the word count is low - the main thing is that something was produced. All those crosses line up, all those daily word counts start to rack up and they amount to a lot more than a hill of beans when you're done!

I also record on the calendar what the word count that day was, and my running totals for the month and for the project as a whole. I've had to write in the middle of the night, so I go to bed anything between 2.00 and 4.00 a.m. I've literally fallen asleep on occasion - and my fingers have kept typing! I often don't know the next day what it was I wrote the previous night, so am eager to read it! Every night I start with blankness and force myself - really force myself to get going. Most times it gets better once the first sentence or so is down. Some nights it doesn't get better at all, but I keep grinding on.

I'm delighted to say that I hit my 20,000 word target on November 23rd and tonight I'll be reaching 90,000 words for the project as a whole. There's a long long way to go. After that, the thing may never sell. I'm a realist.

But I'm also a writer - and feel I can say that, when sometimes in the past I haven't felt I deserved that label. If you've been doing NaNo, you're a writer - whether you wrote 50,000 words or 5,000. If you didn't do NaNo this year, consider it next year - or choose any month for your own personal NaNo. Make it your own. Try the chain of red crosses. Set achievable goals. Have faith!

Here are the links to my posts on NaNo back in 2010:
NaNo with a Twist
Post-NaNo Post: How to Keep Writing!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Day 2012

I read today that we are now as far in time from Passchendaele as Passchendaele was from Waterloo. A salutary thought on this, the day devoted to remembrance. All the cliches of communal mourning are aired once more - yet so terrible was that conflict that its horrors maintain their capacity to shock. I'm reposting two previous entries here: the first, from last year, is on Owen, Sassoon and First World War poetry; the second, from 2008, is about Harry Patch the much-loved First World War veteran, still alive at that time, who fought in the mud of Passchendaele.

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Wilfred Owen
I'm writing this a few minutes after 11.11.11 - and like many others, feeling the need to acknowledge the significance of the day and the hour. I'm currently teaching Wilfred Owen's poetry and remember as a fifteen year old schoolgirl encountering war poetry for the first time. I reacted as we all do to the absurd hubristic nonsense of human aggression and its justifications. The poem that struck me then more than any other was Owen's 'Futility'. More than the visceral horrors of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' or the plaintive Keatsian melancholy of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', 'Futility', in its simplicity, brought home that essential message of WWI. The waste. Owen said that his subject was war and the pity of war, that the poetry was in the pity: well, it's here, in a poem that questions the purpose and meaning of individuals coming into the world, being nurtured to maturity - only to be slaughtered. He even questions the cosmic purpose of the sun in warming a planet into organic life - if all that results is pointless destruction.

Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France.
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

Owen's poetry is famous for its superbly shocking images: the soldier floundering in the 'green sea' of gas, the sentry reeling from the blast, his eyes 'huge-bulged like squids'', the God's eye view of the battlefield where lines of men are like 'caterpillars' and he sees how they 'ramped' on one another. His sensory language is muscular and gripping: the gassed soldier is 'guttering, choking, drowning', the weapons of war are spiteful and gleeful - 'How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood:/Blue with all malice'. The sounds of blast and gunfire echo over the decades to us with their 'rapid rattle' and 'whizz-bangs' through the 'shrieking air'. In 'Exposure' he shares with us the bone-aching cold and long suspense, waiting for the signal for battle:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us ...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent ...
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient ...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
     But nothing happens. 

He haunts us, as he was haunted, in the halls of hell in 'Strange Meeting', where he encounters the dead German he has killed and listens to the lesson we hear now, and every year, and yet never act upon:

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

He also, like his mentor Sassoon, lets us know how angered and bitter he feels, how nothing back in Blighty can match the camaraderie of the Front, how no immature concepts of romantic love and fleeting beauty can compare with the fellowship he has found: in 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo' he lists the paradoxes of finding exultation in the berserkr mood of battle, the 'passion of oblation' on the faces of his fellow soldiers, how he:

heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share 
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.

It's ironic that when he died, one week before the Armistice, he was little known (ironic, but not unusual - so many times the long trajectory of fame only starts to climb after the artist's death) - and Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke would have been better known back then. Nowadays, it's Wilfred who is the poster boy for the Great War - it's his words that are most familiar to us. This should not devalue them. I've taught these poems so many times but still somehow there's the shock of the new.

Siegfried Sassoon
I want to include in this post, however, one of my other favourite WWI poems - Sassoon's 'The General'. It's a wonderfully spiky little verse, dealing with one of the themes of the literature of war - that soldiers are 'lions led by donkeys':

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

In our current conflicts, conflicts which we neither seem to understand nor see a way out of once embroiled, conflicts where all sorts of moral muddiness is stirred up in what seemed to be the clear pool of heroism,  the poets of nearly a century ago still have much to say. And it's sad that they still have to say it.

Harry Patch
Here's a link to the post I wrote in 2008 about the wonderful Harry Patch, who was one of the last survivors of the Great War. Now Claude Choules, who had emigrated to Australia, is gone too - and there's no one left to bear witness with living breath to what was done and seen and lost. But we have archive film and audio recordings and the printed word.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.

The Last Fighting Tommy - 21 November 2008

Well, you could argue that, as with all anniversaries the media lock onto, we've had overload - over the past few weeks the First World War has featured everywhere. It's certainly been useful to me professionally, as I'm currently teaching it as a literature topic. During the week I've been collecting The Guardian's series of booklets on the war and they've been fascinating. I paid more attention than usual to Sunday's Remembrance service and was so moved by the three surviving veterans, Bill Stone (108), Henry Allingham (112) and Harry Patch (110), visiting the Cenotaph on Tuesday with their wreaths of poppies. On Sunday I watched the programmes about Wilfred Owen and about Vera Brittain, who lost all the men she loved during the war, including her brother Edward, towards the very end of it. On PoemRelish, my other blog, I mentioned her memoir, 'Testament of Youth' among other books worth reading about WW1. On Sunday I found myself wondering why, among this plethora of 1914-18 nostalgia and analysis, the Beeb wasn't repeating the excellent serial version of 'Testament of Youth' first broadcast in the 1970s. It starred Cheryl Campbell as Vera and it was a truly powerful and poignant piece of television drama which brought me to the book, before I ever had to teach it. Now I've found out that, apparently, they're remaking it, so that's why the original was not shown. Hmn. Mixed feelings: it's good in a way that they are, as hopefully it will bring more people to awareness (and we have to rely on the TV screen more than the written word for this these days). There's no reason to assume they won't make a good job of it second time round. But on the other hand, there's that old saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The original was brilliant - why not just re-show it?

I've just finished reading 'The Last Fighting Tommy', the biography of Harry Patch, who is the last man in Britain who actually fought in the trenches. He fought - and was wounded - at Passchendaele. Harry Patch featured on the BBC a few years back and has become famous for his longevity and his memories; his fame has grown as the number of survivors has declined and we all find ourselves unnerved at the prospect of the First World War sliding inevitably out of living memory. He is a man of immense spirit, who didn't really talk about his experiences until he was in his nineties. His eyes still fill with tears when he recalls what he saw and felt. At first I felt a slight disappointment with the book as the war experience (the thing that, essentially, is used to sell the book) doesn't take up all that much space. He undergoes training, he goes over there, he sees the bad stuff, he's wounded by shrapnel, he's invalided home, all in a matter of months. Is that it, then? Well, no. It dawned on me that that's the point: this is the story of an immensely old man, on whom those few months made a great and terrible and lasting impression. His memories lurked within him all through the decades that followed and they have never left him, though all the friends and fellow soldiers, two wives, two sons, and a whole way of life have departed. The book is worth reading because not only does it tell you about that war, it tells you of a century of British life and culture. Harry's childhood was Edwardian: no running water, little awareness of the outside world, little material wealth, harmony with nature. He was a child for whom news of the sinking of the Titanic was of little interest - it took place beyond the narrow limits of his West Country life. After the First World War and during the Second, where he served as a member of the local fire crew during the bombing of Bath, Harry was the sort of Englishman who just got on with life: he is and was, essentially, a decent man, uncomplaining, raising his family, going to work to earn his crust as a plumber, a man who believed in a right way of doing things, who has no patience with pretentiousness or self-indulgence. Bless you, Harry, and even longer life to you: we don't want to lose you, our twentieth century Everyman.