National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where writers attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days, is almost at the halfway point. While some writers might be breezing through this writing marathon, others are starting to feel the strain on their creativity. We talked to James Strickland and Simon Haynes, two science fiction authors who have not only successfully completed NaNoWriMo, but have had the fruits of their labor published. They offer plenty of insight into how to finish that first draft in 30 days and survive the month with your sanity intact.When we spoke to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty about the project, he mentioned that 27 novels composed during NaNoWriMo have been published in print. James Strickland's first published novel was his NaNoWriMo cyberpunk novel Looking Glass, which he followed up this year with Irreconcilable Differences. Simon Haynes (who answered questions via email) also published his NaNoWriMo novel Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch, the fourth installment of his Hal Spacejock series. We spoke with both authors about how they approach novel-writing, their experiences with NaNoWriMo, and their advice for aspiring novelists who find themselves in a creative jam. What made you decide to participate in NaNoWriMo and try to write a novel in this way?
James Strickland: Well this is actually, I think, the sixth time I've done it, I'd have to check. But I did 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006. So it'd actually be the fifth time. And actually, what happened was in 2002, I'd been playing online role playing games a lot typing a lot, and I finally reached a point where I was starting to pull back from that. And I wanted to create some characters and had some interesting things that directly involved a role playing game. Plus, you know, I had a degree in writing and it always annoyed me that it had never actually earned me a dime. So I signed up for NaNoWriMo as soon as I heard about it and gave me a shot.
Simon Haynes: Initially it was the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month. I'm a procrastinator, and even with a publishing contract under my belt and a publisher keen for more of my novels, I still find it hard to settle down to write. This is because I'd rather settle down and tinker with all my software programs. Initially it was the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month. I'm a procrastinator, and even with a publishing contract under my belt and a publisher keen for more of my novels, I still find it hard to settle down to write. This is because I'd rather settle down and tinker with all my software programs.
Do you go into NaNoWriMo with any sort of set plan or do you tend to go in cold?
James Strickland: No, I'm one of those writers who jumped in cold, basically starts writing and gets the narrator – I write in the first person almost exclusively – so I jump in get the narrator to talk to me. Normally for NaNo I wait until about a week in and I start writing an aimless roadmap of where I want the plot to go so I don't get myself into corners. But no, normally I start with a blank page and somebody talking to me.
Is it easier for you to work with that deadline?
James Strickland: Yeah, it's easier to bash the content out. Now, whether you're going to get good content out is another matter. The NaNo novel that I've published took about another four or five months of work to polish it up and make it really sellable, because you know, it's only half the length of a normal novel when you come out of NaNo, and there's a lot of stuff in there that's just…you're in a hurry.
But do you come out with a better sense of where the story is going?
James Strickland: Yeah, as a first draft it's great. It gives, at least for me, by the time I'm done with the NaNo novel, I've met all or most of my characters, have a general idea of the plot, a general idea of the emotional ebb and flow of the story, and it also nails down the world a great deal for me.
(To Simon Haynes) Your published NaNoWriMo novel features Hal Spacejock, a character from your previous books. Did you find that having that deadline changed the way you wrote about him? Did it change his world in any way? Was it more difficult to write a Hal Spacejock book with a 30-day deadline?
Simon Haynes: I'd say it's easier to get started, because I don't have to worry about the first chapter or so. My plot outline for chapters one and two can usually be described as 'Hal or Clunk makes a trivial mistake, with huge consequences' Then I spent the rest of the book torturing them with the consequences. However, each Hal Spacejock novel is about 2/3 Hal and Clunk, and 1/3 someone else entirely. That someone else might be the antagonist who is trying to achieve some plan of their own, which inevitable leads to their crossing swords with our hero, or sometimes the other 1/3 of the book is written from the POV of another character with a major problem. I believe that's what keeps the Hal books fresh. It's not just Hal-Hal-Hal…sometimes he's just background material for the real plot.
How long was the process from finishing the NaNoWriMo draft to publication?
Simon Haynes: Hal Spacejock No Free Lunch (released in June this year) was the first novel based on my NanoWrimo efforts. My novels evolve as I write them, so I can't point to Hal 4 and say 'I remember writing that section during November 2006' because it's likely only traces of DNA remain. I can say that I wrote and edited the novel between November 2006 and October 2007. (Yes, I handed it in last year and three days later I started on NanoWrimo again!)
Do you find that you get stuck while writing?
James Strickland: All the time. And I got a piece of advice from a panel that Connie Willis did once where she said, "Torture your characters." If you find that you're having a hard time going forward with a plot, torture the characters some more. Random bad things can always happen. In my first novel, Looking Glass, I got stuck because I sent the character to California to resolve the story. She got there about halfway through the NaNo draft. If she got there and started resolving…first of all, I had no way to connect her to the plot there yet. I mean, she knew what was there, but she didn't have any contacts there. And I also would have resolved the story in about the third week of November, which would have been way too soon, with too few words. So I had the nemesis of the thing, which she actually isn't completely aware of yet, basically steal her identity. So it stole her identity when she's on the train to California. So when she gets there and tries to use her credit cards, she gets arrested. And that precipitated a whole other change in the story, because the only person she knew well enough in California to bail her out of jail was a character who didn't even have a name. I mean, he was in the story from the beginning, but he didn't have a name. He was just so-and-so's boyfriend. But he's the only person she knows who isn't directly connected to the company that she's trying to investigate/fight against. So she calls him, and they talk, and next thing I know they're going to bed together. And I'm like, "Wait! Wait! What are you guys doing?" I mean, this is the kind of thing you get when you take every opportunity to twist the knife on your characters. I don't like it much, but they do interesting things.
Simon Haynes: If I get stuck on a scene (or more likely, can't be bothered writing it) I just leave it blank and add a short description stating what the scene is supposed to cover. I use yWriter [a freeware novel writing tool which Haynes created] to manage my novels, which makes it much easier to skip ahead, backwards and sideways without losing sight of the whole. Sometimes, if my manuscript is already 85000-95000 words, I never do end up writing those missing scenes. I just start the next one with 'After ...' followed by a brief description of the events. After all, if I can't drum up enough enthusiasm to write the scene, how interesting would it really be for the reader?
Do you always write in the science fiction genre? What do you particularly like about writing in the genre?
James Strickland: Always science fiction. Almost everything I've ever written, even going back to high school, I wrote science fiction. What it lets you do is it lets you amplify things about modern societies that are otherwise hard to see. You can project the technology into the future and its effect on society. And you can then see that in sharp relief and you can play with it. The novel that I'm working on right now that isn't part of NaNo, it's the one I was working on before I started NaNo this year, you don't really ever think too much about time, because we all go through time at the same speed: one second per second. But if you are dealing with a story with a time dilation, you travel through space and it's a month for you and a hundred years around you, it changes your relationship with the people who you left behind and it changes your relationship with the society and it changes your relationship with technology. It affects a lot of things without that technological MacGuffin, if you like, of near light speed travel and time dilation. You don't see it you don't get a sharp relief of it, and writing science fiction let's you do that.
Simon Haynes: I like to explore different genres within each novel, keeping them all within the future populated galaxy I've gradually outlined in the books. For example, Hal 1 was a buddy movie book, with a fair bit of undergraduate humour. Hal 2 involved alien technology and immigration woes, Hal 3 was secret agents and conspiracies, and Hal 4 was equal parts (deep breath) police work, romance, horror, mystery and revenge. (I wasn't sure whether it was going to be the last one, so I really loaded 'er up.)
Is science fiction conducive to NaNoWriMo? Is it especially helpful for science fiction writers?
Simon Haynes: I think it can make things a little more difficult, because you have to invent an entire world, or galaxy, before you can write about it. Transport systems, communications, computers, etc, etc. You can't just write SF in a vacuum. (Hah!)
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? What are you working on?
James Strickland: Yes. I'm working on a novel. It's another science fiction novel. Almost everything I have published is cyberpunk, so it's another cyberpunk novel. It's set in the same world as my other two published novels. And as far as I can tell – I'm still figuring it's out – it's about a guy who works for the police in a fairly oppressive religious nation, where it's a serious surveillance society. And he winds up with a case that someone's thrown this light plane into a building and it's his job to find out why and who. And as he starts digging then, of course, you run into – oh, here's this huge conspiracy that is trying to cover up everything that's involved with it. And they're part of the government, but they're at war with – I don't know if you've read about this Anonymous that's going after the Church of Scientology? This conspiracy organization is, in turn, having a war waged on them by an organization like that, except it's not non-violent. So I went into the plot with the idea of I'd really like to see how this stand-alone complex would do against a classic Illuminati. But that's the level I have the plot on. I didn't know the characters until I started writing and I didn't know how the plot was going to express. Now I'm starting to get a better idea.
Simon Haynes: Yes, I'm in there typing away. This time I'm writing Hal Spacejock book 5, which my publisher wants to release in November 2009. I'm hoping to get half the novel done this month (in a very basic first draft kind of way), and then finish it off over Jan-Mar next year.
So, would you recommend this process to others?
James Strickland: Yeah, I would recommend it a lot to people who say, "I want to write a novel someday." It's like, "Well, how does November strike you?" I would recommend it to people it like that. I would recommend it to people who are again caught editing a book forever. Do NaNo. Start over start a brand new book. Get your confidence back, because you really don't have to sit, micromanage, edit. And one of the things I learned in writing class is that you don't want to edit while you're in the middle of creation, because you don't want to stifle the creativity.
What advice would you give to folks who are stuck right now?
James Strickland: Torture the character. Find something bad that's going to happen to them in the current circumstance and let them react to it. And that will usually get you going again. It may take the novel in places you didn't plan, but if you have a roadmap you can then take it in a new direction that's useful to you. But torture the characters. Any opportunity for bad things to happen with these people – killing them makes your story kind of short – is fine.
Simon Haynes: Easy. Write in 500 word chunks, one per hour. Don't sit down thinking 'I have to write 1800 words today to catch up', just sit and write 500 words. 15, 20, 30 minutes later, take the rest of the hour off. Then do another 500 words. This year I'm trying to do 4 x 500 word chunks a day, which is three chunks for my word count and one extra for luck. I'm several thousand words ahead of my goal, and I don't feel like I've really sat down and written hard all month.