Tag: NaNoWriMo

On Making The Trash Words

I have written a lot of books.

At the last count, the total stood at 21 completed first drafts, at least two that passed 50k but were never actually finished, and several more that never got that far. A number of those books were subsequently edited, going through there or five or nine drafts before I set them aside or moved on to another project. If I had to estimate how many words of fiction I’ve written in the past 12 years, it would be in the millions before we even got to the redrafts, and that’s excluding collaborations, short fiction, fanfic, poetry, or anything that doesn’t fall into the category of “solo novels”.

A screenshot of the NaNoWriMo website, showing the profile of user "delorfinde". The header displays a "words written" count of "1,884,385". The visible project is called "To A Candle Flame", and the progress bar is at 131,338 words of 50,000.
I’ve written nearly 2 million words just for NaNoWriMo projects, although some of these were redrafts. (I should note that To A Candle Flame was not 131k in total. I worked on two books during last year’s NaNoWriMo.)

The book that went somewhere, that got me into Author Mentor Match and found me my agent, was — as far as I can work out when I’m not certain of all the chronology — my fifteenth novel. Drafted in 2014, nearly 5 years after completing my first novel. Possibly the first “good” book I wrote, even if took six years of editing to get it there.

Because, you see, many of these books were bad. Some are “not worth rereading let alone editing” bad. Some are “could be fixed but I don’t care enough to put the effort in” bad. Some are “has redeeming features but it would be years of effort to unearth them” bad.

I often say that I learned how to write by doing it wrong — a lot. I don’t have a creative writing degree and I’ve never done a novel-writing course. I’ve never even taken a creative writing class, unless you count when I used to help out with the after school club for year 7s and 8s while I was doing my Duke of Edinburgh award. I wrote a lot and I wrote badly as part of the process of figuring out how to do it better, and while it was a crucial part of that process, it also feels like it was… the most labour-intensive way of doing that.

And sometimes I get frustrated, thinking about how much time it took. I wrote literally millions of words as a teenager, and it still took me ten years to figure out that the motivations of secondary characters are a crucial part of making a plot hang together? I mean, I think on some level I knew that all along, but I definitely wasn’t acting on it. I treated characters, particularly antagonists, like chess pieces: they’d be where I wanted them to be for plot reasons, with no sense that there was much going on in their heads.

I’m grateful to every beta reader, critique partner, and mentor who said, “But why?” about certain scenes. Because it turns out, “Because he’s being an edgy bitch,” wasn’t enough of an answer. “For the drama” was not an answer. When a character is about to make an irreversible decision, we need to know why they’re doing it. For someone who spends so much time overanalysing their own thoughts and has never made a snap decision in their life, it sure took me a long time to figure that out.

Trying to figure out character motivations at the kitchen table in 2018.

I know the platitudes: “no work is ever wasted”, “every novel taught you something”, “it was part of the process”, “you have to make the trash words before you make the flash words” (thanks to my friend Menna for that last one). I know they’re true, even if it’s hard to believe it. But sometimes, when I encounter other writers who were agented with their first or second novel, who sold the first book they ever wrote, who seemed to streamline the whole process — I think, What were all those words for? Why did it take me so long to figure out what I was doing?

I can’t tell if it makes it better or worse that my early novels have different flaws. True, weak plotting and antagonists are a common theme, and true, my prose has been pretty solid from a reasonably early stage, although my third novel does contain the phrase, “All-consuming death spree” and somehow still takes itself seriously. But it’s not like I did the same thing wrong in every book, so I could be confident that by fixing that flaw, I would guarantee not to do it again. They just… failed. For different reasons.

Some of them I was invested in a final scene and twisted the end of the book to fit that scene, even when the plot had diverged and it no longer made sense. Some needed historical research and didn’t get it. Some ran out of plot halfway through and I just muddled through until I found my way back, sacrificing meaningful character arcs in the process. Some were derivative and owed too much to the YA paranormal romances that were popular c.2010 to ever stand alone as originals.

Some of them, the very premise was flawed. The book I mentioned last week was flawed because not only did I find the ideology of the group my characters joined abhorrent (not, in and of itself, a problem: writers =/= characters, morally speaking), but the other views and ideals my characters expressed meant that they would too. As a result, none of their actions made any sense. That flaw existed because I was fifteen and politically ignorant when I started it, and while I tried to address it in later drafts once I recognised the problem, it undermined the entire book on a level that didn’t seem fixable.

As I said last week, I think I figured out how I would rewrite it to keep some elements and characters I enjoyed, while transforming it into a new book where those ideological tensions are an asset, not a flaw. It’s a book that could be rescued, or at least, it’s a book I can dismantle brick by brick and use to build something new. So: not wasted work. I wrote the trash words, maybe one day I can write the flash words.

And yet — five or six drafts, a dozen or so queries sent, a new title, two printed copies of the draft to annotate while editing, numerous beta readers, a trip to the place where it’s set to research details, a bunch of research. Hundreds of thousands of words and hours of my life. Just to create something I might one day pull apart and rework. Was that worth it?

I don’t know.

But I know this: the majority of those novels I wrote as a teenager were the product of an unselfconscious writer who knew their books were bad and didn’t care because they were doing it for the sake of writing. Yes, sometimes I planned to “fix it in edits”, but sometimes I realised halfway through that I was going to shelve a book and I kept writing it anyway. Because I didn’t write them because I wanted to have written a book, I wrote them because I wanted to write.

A blurry image of a messy desk. In the centre is a laptop, open but turned off. It's illuminated by a desk lamp. On the right are papers and junk, including a purse and a water bottle. On the left is a red box file, with more papers on top of it, as well as a plastic coat hanger.
My desk in 2010. Can confirm it’s still usually a mess, but these days it’s a mess with better ergonomics. The box on the left contained all my notes and drafts for the book I was working on at the time.

I spent my lunchtimes in the school library writing; I took the early bus so I could write before school; I neglected homework so I could spend more hours hammering out books. Not so that I could Be A Writer, somebody who has completed a book, but because… I wanted to. Because I loved it. Because I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t writing. Because writing was fun.

I wrote books in half a dozen different genres not to figure out what it was that I wanted to do forever or find my “brand” as an author, but because it was fun. I wrote books in first person, third person, second person. Past tense. Present tense. Epistolary. (That one was a collaborative novel, written in the form of blog posts.) I wrote books with romance and books without. Books with tragic endings and books with — okay, I’d be pushed to say I’ve written many books with a happy ending, although I’m getting better at that as an adult. Teen me was a depressed emo kid who thought tragedy was the best genre, so most of them tended to be a huge bummer, or at least bittersweet.

It wasn’t wasted work. It was part of the process of learning to write, and the importance of that can’t be understated, but that’s also not why it mattered.

It mattered because I enjoyed it.

It mattered because writing was how I made friends on the internet. It mattered because it gave me an outlet for my teenage angst. It mattered because there was a huge sense of achievement in every completed NaNoWriMo and every The End on the final page of a document. It mattered because writing helped me explore who I was, often without realising I was doing it, and process those identity crises in a way that felt safe. It mattered because every book that I created was a part of creating myself.

A selfie of me and my friend Caspian standing in front of the "Lisdoonvarna" sign in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare. We are both wearing raincoats and are clearly soaked to the skin, but we're smiling triumphantly.
Soaked through after an extremely rainy walk in the Burren (Co. Clare) with my friend Caspian, in 2016. We met on the writing website Protagonize in 2009.

Most of those first 14 books aren’t worth editing, and will never be read by anyone except me and the poor beta readers on whom I inflicted them. Some of the 7 after that might one day be Real Books. (One of them’s been shelved, and one’s dubious, but the other five I feel pretty positive about.) And yes, I hope that having written them means the next time I sit down to write a book, what comes out will be flash words.

But the trash words, in their own way, meant everything.

So here’s to A Sky Full of Stars. To Legacy and Memory and the middle book in that trilogy, which I never wrote. Here’s to Beneath the Branches, Figurehead, Weapons of Chaos, and Recall, all NaNoWriMo projects that will probably never see the sun. To Watching, Destroying and Returning, the larval stage of the Death and Fairies series, whose characters I’ve kept even while yeeting the books themselves. To Forget My Wings and A Single Soul, two thoroughly depressing products of my seventeen-year- old self, who in fairness, was having a really rough time of it. Here’s to The Knight Shift, which I might one day save, and to Bard and Lie Down Below, my (probably doomed) forays into sci-fi.

They bring us the survivors: the Moth trilogy with its plethora of working titles; D&F book 1, which has gone eight years and three drafts without a title; To Run With the Hound, my sad gay Táin retelling; and The Wolf and His King, a retelling of Bisclavret. And they bring us the incomplete novels and the outlines and the half-imagined books that exist only in notes on my phone and the books I haven’t yet even imagined. These books are built on foundations made of millions of bad words.

And, more importantly, so am I.

A photo of my room. On the left is a white desk with a desktop PC and an ergonomic keyboard.
My desk in 2021… immediately after having been tidied. No, it did not stay like that for long.

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Writing For Myself

Blogging about NaNoWriMo as though the US election isn’t looming over all of us — yes, even those of us who aren’t American — feels strange. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it’s that there’s absolutely no point waiting for things to be normal again. Because something is always happening, and that something is usually terrible.

(Also, I feel like if we press pause on everything not-terrible while something potentially-terrible is happening, that means everything on the internet is about the potentially-terrible things, and nobody gets a break or a chance to think about anything else. Which doesn’t seem to benefit anybody. I can’t speak for others, but a lot of the time these days I very much want to read about things that don’t matter at all.)

So let’s talk about National Novel Writing Month instead.

My participation in NaNoWriMo every year is beginning to feel like a foregone conclusion. This is my twelfth year, and honestly, if I were going to take a break it should’ve been after the tenth, because at least that was a nice round number, but last year‘s queer werewolf novel crept up on me. Now I feel like I’d be betraying something if I skipped a year, despite the fact that literally nobody cares who isn’t me.

Actually, I did consider not participating this year. I mean, I don’t need NaNo to help me get the words on the page — writing fifty thousand words in a month is, if anything, slightly slower than my normal writing speed for first drafts — and I’ve got an MA demanding my attention, a newly rediscovered interest in blogging to feed, and videos to make. But… well. Here we are. I guess I can’t resist.

It’s a strange year for NaNo, because there are no in-person events, though most regions have terrifyingly active Discord servers (if the Ireland regions are anything to go by), so the community continues to thrive. On the plus side, not having any in-person events means less pressure to explain what my book is about, which is good, because describing this book is essentially a huge spoiler for the ones that went before it.

You see, this year my project’s an unusually self-indulgent one. Not that I’m not always first and foremost writing the books I want to read, but I’m usually aiming them at an audience too. This one, though, this one’s for me, because I have absolutely no idea whether anybody else will ever read it. It’s a sequel, you see. Well, actually, the third book in a trilogy.

The first book is Butterfly of Night, which is, with any luck, due to go on sub soon (‘on submission’ — being sent to editors at publishing houses in the hope that they will love it a lot, give me vast amounts of money, and publish it with great fanfare. Or indeed, give me small amounts of money and publish it at all). Most people don’t recommend writing sequels when the first book hasn’t sold, in case it doesn’t sell and you end up shelving multiple books rather than just one, but… that’s not advice I’ve ever listened to.

The thing about Butterfly of Night is that I never conceived of it as a standalone, as I explained in the post linked above. It works well enough as one (I worked hard to make sure of that), but it’s always been a trilogy in my head. Still, while I drafted the first two books back-to-back in the summer of 2014, book three (working title To A Candle Flame) has always… eluded me.

I’m not sure why it’s always proved so difficult to write. I’ve started it multiple times. At one point I had a bunch of disconnected scenes in Scrivener in the hope that eventually I’d figure out how they joined up. I started writing it again earlier this year, but gave up after 14,000 words because I wasn’t in the right headspace for it.

Is it because it’s the last book? Because I’m trying to follow through on promises I made to myself and brings things to a pleasing conclusion? Maybe it’s just that emotionally, it’s a challenging book: I put my protagonist Isabel through a lot in the first two, and book three is when she really deals with the psychological fall-out of that.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s hard to write the third book in a trilogy when the first book hasn’t sold, the second book needs major edits to make it work, and you don’t know whether it will see the light of day.

So this year, what NaNoWriMo means to me is the permission to write something that might not ever see the light of day. That could end up being just for me. A scruffy first draft written not for publication but because I want to see for myself how this story ends. I want to follow my character through to the end of the line. I want to know what happens. She’s lived in my head for six years: I want to complete this obligation I feel to her story.

Like I said, self-indulgent. But I’m a fast writer, so if it gets shelved, it’s okay. At least I got that closure for myself; I haven’t poured years of my life into polishing the prose of a forgotten Word document. Just a rough draft in search of some answers.

And yes, writing an entire novel for the sake of figuring out how things end — especially when I’ve arguably already done that in the outline — is no small amount of work. But my brain needs something creative to distract me, especially when reality is so anxiety-inducing; a way of letting off steam.

Self-indulgent sadly doesn’t mean easy, and now that I’ve already left behind those early chapters that were reworkings of previous attempts and struck out into the brave new world of actually drafting, I immediately hate everything I’ve written. But at least this time I did make an attempt at plotting the book, refining my ideas, so maybe this time it won’t fizzle out so quickly for want of direction.

Self-indulgent also doesn’t mean happy — but unlike those early attempts at the book from 2015 and 2016, this book is no longer as profoundly depressing as it used to be. It starts out sad (it’s very much a story about grief and recovery), but the aim is that it’s ultimately hopeful. Unlike my younger self, who couldn’t see a way out for this character that felt real, I’ve come to realise that happy endings — or at least, optimistic ones — aren’t childish, but brave. It’s easy to write bleak stories, and I’ve sure done it a lot, but trying to find space in those narratives for hope is far more satisfying, in the long run.

This is a book that hopes to reconcile the violence of the earlier books with my own pacifism. It’s a book about culpability and guilt and choices and the idea of forgiveness as a radical act. It’s asking the same question as several other things I’ve written: is there any such thing as beyond redemption?

And it’s about grief. It is very much about grief.

I think that’s why I couldn’t write it earlier this year. Since last week had me sitting on my sofa sobbing uncontrollably with zero warning at the memory of loss, I was worried when November 1st ticked around that I wouldn’t be able to write it now, either. But… I don’t know. So far I’ve been able to. Who knows, maybe it’ll help. At least I can always tell myself that no matter how bad I am at dealing with my feelings, I can’t be as bad as Isabel.

That bar is low, though.

So that’s what I’m writing this year. Because I want to. Writing for the sheer sake of writing, for the love of the story. Feels like a while since I’ve done that.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What are you writing? And if not, what are your go-to ways to distract yourself from reality these days?


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Eleven Novembers

November again. It seems to come around so quickly.

I think I’ve forgotten how to blog. I sat down with my lovely, empty site, and the knowledge that I could write whatever I wanted, in whatever style, and not feel like I was breaking with any kind of tradition. A new start! A clean page! And absolutely no ideas as to where to begin!

But hey, that’s kind of in keeping with the whole National Novel Writing Month thing, really. Start a brand new novel. Try and write 50k of it in thirty days. Ignore the inner editor and the self-doubt and the writer’s block and just give in to the sheer joy of creation — that’s what it’s meant to be about. And I’m usually pretty good at that. Writing fast is my entire modus operandi, and the only reason I’ve ever finished anything.

It’s just that apparently that doesn’t work on blog posts.

But in an effort to circumvent that particular kind of block, I borrowed these tag questions from Lorna @ Gin and Lemonade, and I’m going to give them a go.

1. How many times have you participated in NaNoWriMo? How many times have you won?

This will be my eleventh year tackling this particular challenge. I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo ten times, as well as a handful of Camp NaNos (a mid-year, set-your-own-goal more flexible NaNo challenge) and, back in the day, I even did Script Frenzy a couple of times. I’ve yet to ‘lose’ NaNo.

2. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I am absolutely a pantser. My first year doing NaNo was also the first time I’d ever written a novel in my life. I sat down on November 7th (having just heard about it, a week late) and began, despite having no characters, no plot, no genre — and no idea how to write a novel. Still hit 50k, with several days to spare. I’m obnoxious like that.

This year, I’m working on a retelling, so much of the plot is already done for me. But I’m winding it back a few years and exploring some of the backstory to the original story before I dive in, which means I still have to figure out some of it for myself. I did a bit of planning on October 31st, mapped out an approximate outline for that part of the novel… and have already deviated from it.

3. What are the titles of the projects that you have attempted/completed for past NaNos?

Oh, man, this is quite a list:

  • A Sky Full Of Stars (2009)
  • Beneath the Branches (2010)
  • Figurehead (2010); I wrote two novels that year
  • The Quiet Ones (2011); later retitled The Knight Shift after substantial edits
  • Weapons of Chaos (2012)
  • Recall (2013)
  • Bloodied Wings (2014); a redraft and the sequel to Butterfly of Night, which I’ve recently been editing
  • Folk Stories (2015); a series of short stories based on folk songs
  • Happy Gay Magical Novel (2016); never got a real title, never got a plot, never got to the end despite hitting 50k
  • Lie Down Below (2017)
  • To Run With The Hound (2018)

There were also a couple of years, like 2012, where I wrote half of a couple of other novels after hitting 50k early, like the overachiever that I am.

4. What are you working on for NaNo this year?

A retelling of ‘Bisclavret’, a lai by Marie de France. It’s a homoerotic werewolf story from an Anglo-Norman writer and I’ve been meaning to do a queer fantasy retelling of it for years, but somehow never got around to it. Since NaNo has apparently become the month where I write queer medieval retellings that I’ve been procrastinating on (or at least, that’s also what I did last year), it seemed like a good one to tackle.

It doesn’t have a title yet, so it’s on the NaNo site as werewolves & gay yearning. That’s more or less a summary, too.

5. What is one tip that you’d give to someone else that is participating in NaNo?

If you have ten minutes to write, write for ten minutes.

Waiting around for a chunk of sacrosanct writing time or the perfect conditions is only going to make things harder. You don’t have to do your day’s 1,667 words in one go if it makes more sense for you to do them in bits and pieces wherever you can squeeze in a minute. Give yourself that flexibility.

This goes for writing at any time, not just during NaNo. If you make it into A Thing that you have to do in big chunks, it becomes intimidating and hard to work into your daily routine. But it doesn’t have to be a big deal.

6. What was the inspiration for this novel? Do you remember when the inspiration hit you?

I don’t remember exactly when I decided that Bisclavret needed to be a novel, but I do remember getting set an essay on queer readings of Marie de France for a medieval French supervision with Blake Gutt (shoutout to Blake, who is still off doing cool medieval queer theory things), which was my first actual exposure to queer theory, especially in medieval contexts. My essay was over 4,000 words long and got increasingly sarcastic as it went on, as some of the critical articles I was reading were… very frustrating. But it lit some kind of spark.

7. Share the first sentence from your NaNo novel last year.

“He wasn’t a hero when we met.”

And hey, since it’s the second of November already so I’ve started writing, have this year’s first line:

“He isn’t a knight.”

Hmm, I’m sensing a theme…

8. What do you plan to do with your manuscript after NaNo?

Send it to a couple of betas, then leave it to moulder on my hard drive for a few months while I work on other things. I’m meant to be querying Butterfly of Night soon, and I want to edit To Run With The Hound early next year if I can, so those are going to take precedence over editing this one.

9. Are you prepared for NaNo? Are you nervous?

We’ve already started, but no, I’m not particularly prepared. I did a bit of planning on the 31st, as I mentioned, which helped; before that, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and felt like I’d maybe made a mistake to sign up this year. I just finished editing the latest draft of BoN on Monday, so I’m somewhat creatively exhausted. This happened last year as well, though; I finished something else right before NaNo and then dived straight in. Apparently I’ve never heard of taking a break.

Not particularly nervous, though. 50k isn’t an unattainable target for me; it’s actually slightly slower than my average writing speed when first-drafting, as long as I don’t have a lot of external stuff going on. But I feel less prepared than usual this year, and it’s my first time balancing NaNo with a full-time job, so part of me remains slightly nervous that I’ll break that winning streak.

But I need the creative outlet, especially as I’m off dance with an injury and have been for a couple of months, with no change on that front in my immediate future. I’m hoping this will be the distraction my brain needs.


Thanks for helping me past my blogging block, Lorna (and Natalia, with whom I think the questions originated). Blogging is a strange medium these days, when there are so many other forms of social media each with their own unique traits, and I’m still trying to get my head around how to tackle it. But I’ll get there.

In the meantime:

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Tell me about a project you’re working on, whether for NaNo or otherwise.