Louise O’Neill

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Feature - Louise O’ Neill is the au­thor of Only Ever Yours, Ask­ing For It, Al­most Love, and The Sur­face Breaks

It’s Novem­ber, which means it’s Na­tional Novel Writ­ing Month. NaNoWriMo is the brain­child of Chris Baty, a free­lance writer based in San Francisco. The project started in July 1999 with only 21 par­tic­i­pants, be­fore mov­ing to Novem­ber the fol­low­ing year to “take ad­van­tage of the mis­er­able weather”.

The chal­lenge is sim­ple, or not so sim­ple, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive. Par­tic­i­pants in NaNoWriMo at­tempt to write a 50,000-word novel be­tween Novem­ber 1 and Novem­ber 30, re­ly­ing on an on­line com­mu­nity of fel­low Wri­mos for sup­port. This year, more than 400,000 peo­ple across the world are set to take part, de­scrib­ing is as “a shot of caf­feine for the cre­ative life”. At least 10% are likely to com­plete the chal­lenge.

I must con­fess that I am not a NaNoWriMo alumna, al­though I have been tempted. The short­est of my nov­els, Al­most Love, was around 63,000 words and I was work­ing on that full-time for the best part of a year. I haven’t felt this lazy since I found out that John Boyne wrote the first draft of The Boy

in the Striped Py­ja­mas in TWO DAYS. “The idea came to me on a Tues­day evening,” said Boyne, “and I be­gan writ­ing on Wed­nes­day morn­ing and con­tin­ued for 60 hours with only short breaks, not sleep­ing on Wed­nes­day or Thurs­day nights and fin­ish­ing the first draft by Fri­day lunchtime.”

While I live in hope that some­day I’ll write a book that sells mil­lions of copies for two days’ work, for now I’ve ac­cepted that my pace is best de­scribed as slow and steady. I only have a fi­nite amount of cre­ative en­ergy to ex­pend ev­ery day, and it seems to dis­si­pate af­ter roughly 1,000 words.

That be­ing said, I do think that NaNoWriMo is a good idea for as­pir­ing au­thors. Firstly, it takes away any pres­sure for the first draft to be ‘good’. As the apoc­ryphal say­ing goes, “the first draft of ev­ery­thing is shit” and what I like about NaNoWriMo is that it em­pha­sises quan­tity over qual­ity.

In The Artist’s Way by Ju­lia Cameron and Writ­ing Down the Bones by Na­talie Gold­berg, both women en­cour­age their stu­dents to do the same — fill the pages, get to the end, and worry about the qual­ity af­ter­wards. This is one of the big­gest prob­lems that be­gin­ners face. They have a half-com­pleted man­u­script on their lap­top for years, and they de­velop a men­tal block about their abil­ity to fin­ish the en­tire novel. I liken it to the idea of the four-minute mile. For years, ex­perts be­lieved the hu­man body was in­ca­pable of run­ning a mile un­der four min­utes un­til Roger Bannister did so in 1954. Barely a year af­ter he did so, some­one else broke the four-minute bar­rier as well, swiftly fol­lowed by many oth­ers.

In book terms, if you get the first draft com­pleted, you have bro­ken the four-minute mile. You have done it once, there­fore you know that you can do it again. You will have to edit af­ter­wards, yes, go deeper and ex­pand, write and re­write and re­write some more. But you can’t edit a blank page. You must keep go­ing un­til you write those two won­der­ful words: The End.

There is a sense of accountability with NaNoWriMo which is use­ful, par- tic­u­larly as you re­quire quite a lot of self-mo­ti­va­tion and willpower to write a novel, but my favourite thing about the chal­lenge is how it democra­tises writ­ing. When­ever I give talks to school stu­dents, I am quick to tell them there is noth­ing spe­cial about me that made me des­tined to be­come a writer.

While art can be mag­i­cal, there is no great mys­tery at­tached to the cre­ation of it and the myth that there is can be enough to put peo­ple off try­ing to cre­ate some­thing of their own. I love writ­ing and I feel very lucky to call it my job, but it is just a job. And as with all jobs, tal­ent is im­por­tant, of course, but a good work ethic is even more so.

There is no se­cret trick to writ­ing a novel: It’s get­ting your bum on the seat, day af­ter day, writ­ing word af­ter word. That’s it.

If you want to make this Novem­ber the month you write that long dreamt of novel, Nanowrimo.org has ex­cel­lent tips for get­ting started. It also up­loads pep-talks from well-known au­thors to en­cour­age you to stay mo­ti­vated.

If I was to of­fer you any ad­vice? I al­ways say tar­gets are im­por­tant. Set your­self a daily word count and a dead­line so you feel as if you have a def­i­nite

‘Don’t buy into the myth of writer’s block. Just keep writ­ing. If that day’s work is ter­ri­ble, you can delete it later down the line

goal to work to­wards. Don’t buy into the myth of writer’s block. Just keep writ­ing. If that day’s work is ter­ri­ble, you can delete it later down the line, but some­how the sim­ple act of writ­ing en­cour­ages more writ­ing. The work is the only way through. Don’t cop out and say you don’t have enough time. How much tele­vi­sion or Net­flix do you watch? How long do you spend on so­cial me­dia? Even if it’s just an hour a day, use it for some­thing you ac­tu­ally care about. It’s not self­ish for you to take that time for your­self, re­gard­less of chil­dren, work obli­ga­tions, or other obli­ga­tions. There’s a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween some­one who idly won­ders if they might have a story in them and some­one who burns with an in­sa­tiable need to tell those sto­ries. If you’re the lat­ter, the need won’t go away. It will only in­ten­sify, call­ing to you, beg­ging for some relief.

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