Writers’ Wednesday

Welcome to Writers’ Wednesday, a new weekly guest spot for my author friends who have been invited to come and talk about anything they fancy. All readers like to see how their favourite authors tick, me included, and so to launch Writers’ Wednesday I am very pleased to welcome my favourite author of September, Tricia Heighway. As followers of this blog will know, Tricia wrote the novel Paddytum, released less than two weeks ago, which has quickly become my favourite book this year. She’s here to tell us a little about the origins of Paddytum as well as introduce us to something called NaMoWriMo…


How I Wrote (most of) My Novel in a Month

by Tricia Heighway

Have you heard of NaNoWriMo?  Two years ago I hadn’t either.  Well, I won’t go into detail, because you can find out all about it by visiting the site, or looking on Wikipedia.

I’ve completed (or won, as we ‘Wrimos’ are supposed to say) NaNoWriMo for the past two years.  Without it, I doubt I would have one completed novel, never mind four.

I did NaNo for the first time in 2008, using it to write the Young Adult novel I’d had in my head for a few months. I finished that in sixteen days, and, having told everyone I’d be novel-writing for the whole of November, decided to use the remaining fourteen days to write another one, this time without any preparation.

Last year, I managed fewer words (well, TWO 50,000 word pieces of fiction is pushing it), but my murder mystery story (which I have never even looked at since because I hated the thing) came to nearly 70,000 words.

So, when Paddytum was accepted for publication by Hirst Publishing in January this year, I knew I had a daunting task ahead: Paddytum, at the time, stood at 11,000 words, and I knew that I had to extend it by at least another 60K to turn it into a decent-length book. But, I had the training and the tools to do that, thanks to NaNoWriMo!

Paddytum started life on a brilliant Canadian-based collaborative fiction site called Protagonize.   I wrote the first chapter or two as a bit of fun, and as a collaborative story. The trouble was, nobody wanted to collaborate. People kept coming along and reading it and saying; ‘We like this – add some more!’ And over the next two years, that’s what I did – very, very slowly.  It was only eight chapters long when Hirst agreed to publish it, and I had absolutely no idea where it was going or how it would end.  I did know what the ‘big secret’ was, however, and I was starting to have an idea or two how I’d develop it.

So, I started planning ‘PerPadWriMo’ (Personal Paddytum Writing Month).  PerPadWriMo was to take place in March, and I set a target of 62K words, just 2,000 words a day. Easy!  I would use the rest of January and all of February for thinking up a plot, write it in March, and ‘rest’ the book for two months, coming back to it in June and July to revise, re-write, edit and polish it.

Phase One: Planning and Pre-writing.

I had my beginning. I still needed a middle and an end. I had already decided that my main character was going to be a happier chappie at the end of the story than at the beginning, so I just had to decide how to get him there.  I bought a couple of new notebooks. (I had dozens of notebooks already, but I never need much of an excuse to buy stationery.)  One was A4, for my notes and planning, and a second A5 one, which I called ‘The Paddytum Diaries’, in which I decided to write every day, for ‘thinking aloud’ about the plot.  For six weeks, I thought about the story, wrote ideas for scenes and characters, plot twists, either in my head or in one of the notebooks.  In the last week of February, I sat on my bed with a big piece of cardboard and a pad of Post-it notes, and jotted down a scene on each post-it – just a couple of words or a sentence – referring to my notebooks. When I’d run out of scenes, I arranged all the post-its on the cardboard, until I had them in the correct chronological order. When I was happy with the sequence, I wrote the scenes down as a list in my A4 book, so that I could cross them off as I wrote them.  The final stage was to rewrite my existing eight chapters, ready to start the ‘new’ writing on March 1st. I’d also taken my ‘proper’ diary, and noted against each date in March a running total of my prospective word-count for each day, so that I could track my progress and see whether I was on target.

Phase Two: Writing it.

I did the majority of the writing in the mornings, starting as soon as my children left for school, and carrying on until around lunchtime, with an option to continue in the afternoon if I hadn’t done my word-count for that day.  I began, always, by doing some more ‘thinking-aloud’ in the Paddytum Diary, not just about the writing itself, but also about my mood, how I was feeling about the whole thing. If something from ‘real life’ was on my mind, I got that out of my system before I started to write. There are a good few rants in the Paddytum Diary!

One of the most important things I’d learned from NaNoWriMo was ‘Don’t Look Back’.  Once the writing was done, I forbade myself from looking back at a single word of it, not even to correct a single typo.  This is vital!  Once you start looking back over what you’ve written, you’re on the slippery slope to self-doubt, which leads straight to the lake of ‘Why Am I Even Bothering When I’m Such a Crap Writer?’  Don’t do it!  You’ll just end up with an abandoned novel.  Looking back is the main cause of failure during NaNoWriMo.  Rule One is: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’  There’s plenty of time afterwards to get it right, and I’d allowed myself two months to do that.  That’s why it was so useful to write in the diary, because it helped me to focus on the process without being tempted to look back at my work.

At the end of each session, I filled in my word-count, in both diaries, and worked out the surplus or the deficit.  I fell behind a bit during the first week; I hadn’t got into my stride yet – but from day 10 onwards I was ahead, managing an average of 2,200 words a day.

Sometimes, I found myself deviating from the plot and the scenes listed in my notebook, when the characters took me off in a completely new direction. When that happened, I kept writing, following the lead of my subconscious, but I still carried on as if I hadn’t been sidetracked at the next session, writing the scenes in my planning notebook but not getting rid of the deviations, confident (well, sort of) that I could tie everything together during the rewrite.  One of the amazing things about writing is that something that doesn’t make sense when you’re writing it makes perfect sense when you come back to it.  I knew there’d be plot holes, and I knew there’d be things I’d have to cut and things I’d have to add in order to patch the holes. But during the writing stage is not the time to discriminate.

At the end of March, I had written 68,510 words, exceeding my target by over 6,000. Job done.  Well, not quite.

Phase Three: The Edit

In April and May I did other things, leaving Paddytum well alone.  I spent June editing, concentrating on a different aspect on each ‘pass’. The first edit was for typos, the second for grammar and punctuation. I went through it about ten times in all, gradually trimming scenes, cutting, and sometimes adding. The word-count went down, and then up, and then down again.  At the end of June I was told I could launch my book in September if I had it ready by mid-July, and I felt that this was possible, as I was sure I was almost there.  On the next read-through, I decided it didn’t have enough conflict, so I added two new characters and a few more scenes.  The finished manuscript was around 87,000 words when I sent it to my publisher, feeling somewhat bereft now that it was out of my hands (and my control).

Now the book is out there, and people are beginning to ask about the next one.  Eek! The logical thing would be to dust off one of my three NaNoWriMo novels, except that I don’t much like them.  I think of them as my ‘practice’ novels. Starting something brand new would be far more exciting.  And this year’s NaNoWriMo begins in 33 days time. Bring it on!

Text © 2010 Tricia Heighway
Photographs © 2010 Lucy & Tricia Heighway, All Rights Reserved