The story goes that Peter Cook was at a party in the 1980s when a friend came up to him and declared that he was writing a novel. “Oh really?” the comedian replied. “Neither am I.” Many of us think we have a novel inside us, if only we had the time to write it without work, childcare and Wikipedia articles about the world’s most unusual deaths getting in the way. Some of us even give it a go: painstakingly crafting 600 words or so, before tweaking it repeatedly, fiddling with the font for a bit and then throwing the laptop out of the window.
That person was me. I could never get beyond a few hundred words because whenever I read back the faux-literary waffle I’d put on the page I’d think, “Well, that’s clearly not as good as Cormac McCarthy,” and give up. Earlier this year I took a sabbatical from work and decided to use that time to write a novel, seriously this time. I was amazed by how much I got done: I cleared out the cellar, sorted the garden and watched two seasons of Succession. But the novel never got beyond the planning stage. Clearly, I needed a kick up the arse.
That came when I heard about National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). Every November, aspiring writers are invited to try to write 50,000 words in just 30 days: it works out as 1,667 words every day. NaNoWriMo has been going since 1999 when San Francisco writer Chris Baty decided he wanted some company while he tried to bash out a book as quickly as possible. Of the 21 participants he rounded up, six managed to hit the total, and so it became an annual event. Last year more than half a million writers took part. It’s rumoured that some agents have started to dread the deluge of terrible manuscripts that arrive in its wake. But among the inevitable dross have been remarkable success stories: The Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern credits NaNoWriMo with getting her into writing seriously: “I used to write a few pages and hate them so I’d stop. Having peer pressure and a deadline worked wonders.”
Budding novelists are advised not to edit, or even look back at their work; instead they should just keep moving forward with a whopping word-count as their main goal. This “quantity not quality” approach is not entirely dissimilar to the advice writers such as Stephen King give: just get the damn thing on the page and worry about making it good later.
Now I am about to become a debut novelist, I decide to plan it in depth as soon as I’ve taken my two children swimming, sorted the food shop, found my mum a birthday present … oh god, it’s 1 November already …
When I tell my colleagues I’m about to write a novel one of them lights up at the possibilities: “You could write about anything,” she says. “It could be about a ninth-century monk in Japan!” Hmm, yes it could, but I might run out of things to talk about once they’d gazed at Mount Fuji and, umm, eaten some rice.
I sign up to the NaNoWriMo website, which asks if I’m a Planner (spend days plotting everything methodically) or a Pantser (fly by the seat of your pants). I’m definitely in Pantser mode, spending an hour at most sketching out the bare bones of my story – it’s to be about a group of old ravers reuniting for a big night out in their 40s, told via flashbacks to their younger days. Graham Swift’s Last Orders for the chemical generation, I tell myself.
The website asks me to pick a genre and I’m immediately stumped. Science fiction? Definitely not. Action? Not really. Erotic? Jesus Christ no. I decide that I should aim high and tick “literary”. Then I change the status from “planning” to “in prep” and off I go!
I don’t, it has to be said, have the idyllic writer’s set up. No oak desk, vintage typewriter or noise-cancelling headphones for me. Instead I am on a laptop at the kitchen table. My day starts at 6am when my son and daughter get up, and ends at around 11pm when I go to sleep – with a full working day in between. That leaves precious little time for writing.
Unsurprisingly, day one is a real slog: 67 words, 93 words, 128 words … I’ve never checked a word count so often. Mercifully, work is quiet today so I get some done in spare moments. By around 5pm I arrive at 1,000 and spend the evening forcing out some turgid prose until it creeps over the daily minimum 1,667 mark. Phew. It feels good but it had better get easier than this.
I don’t know exactly what my novel is going to be yet, but I already know it won’t be literary. I mournfully untick that box.
What hits me, somewhat naively, is how much stuff you have to invent … literally everything! Every minor character’s appearance, every venue’s decor, every person’s dialect. At one point I find myself Googling “popular Latvian women’s names” because I don’t know any. I also don’t know why the character is Latvian but there is no time to question these things. Onwards I go.
But the questions keep coming. Why is it a cold day in this scene? Why is a helicopter circling overhead? Why does that character enjoy a relatively large degree of financial stability? There are so many decisions to make on the hoof. When one of my characters is at the doctors’ he walks out having been prescribed antidepressants. Which is fine until that fact starts interfering with bits of my story later on. I should really go back and change it but I simply refuse to lose 237 words, so the poor chap stays on his meds.
Something exciting happens around the 8,000 mark. I was worried my narrative might collapse into dust around this point, but instead I hit my stride. I can see the story stretched out ahead of me and it seems to fit the rough pacing of a novel. I start to know my characters a bit better and when they interact with each other it can result in wild bursts of speed-writing.
By following the NaNoWriMo mantras – stop overthinking! Banish your inner editor! Ignore the terrible prose! – the process of writing becomes genuinely liberating. Subtext, symbolism, or even consistency in a character’s backstory can be fiddled with later. The whole point is to get your story down: all your self-conscious hang-ups are forced aside.
I start to think about my characters when I’m out and about, doing the school run or commuting. The project becomes all-consuming. And NaNoWriMo helps make it that way by gamifying the whole process: little badges light up when you hit 5,000 words for three days in a row. I resolve never to skip a single day’s writing simply so I can one day see the “update your work every day” badge light up.
There’s a neat little graph on the NaNoWriMo site that plots your progress against where you need to be. Incredibly I’ve pulled ahead of schedule by 3,000 words. I am on fire! The new Jack Kerouac and I didn’t even need amphetamine! But there is a problem, which has been slowly brewing in my story for a couple of days now: I can’t help but notice that two of my characters are, to put it in literary terms, destined to bang. Could I fudge that in some incredibly coy way? That’s not really the spirit of NaNoWriMo, is it?
If I had to deliver one piece of advice about writing a sex scene it would be this: don’t do it while your mother-in-law has come to stay. Sadly, when you’re doing NaNoWriMo all time is precious and so my characters are forced to get it on while my daughter is jumping on her grandma’s lap about three feet away. I try to block them out, write as quickly as I can and then slam the laptop shut, feeling rather sordid and promising myself that nobody will ever read this ever again, including me.
The weekends are where I’m struggling the most – there are pre-planned social events and I’m knackered from writing during every spare minute I have (the time it takes to boil the kids’ pasta becomes a valuable 10-minute slot). I write in a doctors’ waiting room. I write in the car while waiting for my daughter to finish gymnastics. But my 3,000 word head start has vanished.
By 25,000 words I start to really struggle. At first it was exhilarating to throw off the shackles and plough forward with a stream of nonsense trailing behind me. But now I’m starting to forget what’s even happened before: have these characters met already? Did this father have two boys or two girls? Is this guy the one with the Latvian-for-no-reason girlfriend?
I make the mistake of glancing back at what I’ve written so far, which, no matter where I land, always seems like a bit of a shitshow. The lack of proper planning is showing now: the characters all speak with virtually the same voice (mine), or change personalities halfway through. The book is based in Leeds but it could be literally anywhere – Plymouth, Hong Kong, the moon – given how little description I’ve used.
I’m truly fed up of Google searches for things like “90s slang” or “Brickwork in Chapeltown circa 1998” or, embarrassingly, “How to make your characters likable”. (FYI, the latter request says get them to pet an animal early on, which is a relief as one of my characters does rescue an injured bird).
My writing hours are 9am-10am and then 9pm-11pm, which is pretty full-on after three weeks, but the end is in sight now. I realise that, barring some major disaster, I am going to get to 50,000 words. I have grave reservations about my book. But the simple style of writing has worked in one way: there is an actual story on the page that at least makes some kind of sense. This feels like an achievement. And a revelation about how much is actually possible if you make it happen.
A creative flurry sees me over the line with a whole day to spare. I can’t lie, it feels good! I’ve somehow written 50,107 words. Tomorrow, I will add a couple hundred more to make that extra shiny badge light up. And then I will have a lie down.
Stephen King advises that you take a few weeks off before you read what you’ve written. Before I get to that stage I promise to finish off the story, which I think should come in at around 80,000 words. I sense what I have is quite bad, but just how bad I honestly won’t know until I go back to it.
It’s been a slog, I can’t lie, but there are positives that outweigh that. The features I write for the Guardian when I’m not cosplaying as Graham Swift now seem to come together much quicker than they did before. I’d also been struggling, since about six months into the pandemic, with a strange malaise that had been hard to shake. This project, which I doubted I had the time or energy for, helped shake me out of it. My mental health got a significant boost.
Best of all, though, is simply the achievement that – good or bad – I have written (most of) a novel. Not everyone can say that. And if I bumped into Peter Cook at an 80s party to tell him I was writing one he would be forced to say: “That’s extremely impressive Tim, well done you … although why is there a Latvian woman in chapter one for no reason?”
Opening of Chapter One
From across the road, Sam took the opportunity to examine his friend. Robert Hunter was waiting for a break in the traffic, lurching from left to right, as if seriously contemplating leaping through the gap between trailing cars. He’d come straight from work: shiny brown brogues, a patterned shirt and waistcoat, hair slicked back. It made Sam think of a conversation he’d caught a snippet of at work: “Why does she keep setting me up with boys in bootcuts and pointy shoes?” What she’d been wary of was men like Hunter, and with good reason.
An agent’s view
by Karolina Sutton of Curtis Brown, whose clients include Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami
Well done, Tim! You’ve completed a first draft and that’s no mean feat. I have been given as little time to read it as NaNoWriMo has allowed you to write it, the clock ticking in the background for both of us
The novel is set in a university friendship group: a recollection followed by a reunion, all inspired by a group photograph.
University friendship groups have always fascinated first-time novelists. The boarding school or university experience closely follow a natural rhythm of a story with transformation and initiation written into its fabric. Throwing characters into a new group dynamic, taking away their safety net, making them step into adulthood and at the same time thwarting their journeys with reckless distractions are all tropes that have served writers well for centuries.
With little notice and a crushing deadline, Tim followed a good instinct of working his story into a classic Bildungsroman. It’s an atmospheric and deeply felt novel committed to reconstructing an authentic 90s experience and it certainly succeeds on those terms. I liked its honest study of masculinity, specific to that decade, but although it felt authentic, I wanted it to be more surprising. For me, where the novel faltered was in its heavy use of predictable tropes: infatuations, friendships, drugs and a death that felt far too familiar. If, as a novelist, you follow a well-trodden path, your readers’ expectations for an original take, be it a voice or a plot twist, will be propelled sky high. I would say to Tim: if you want this story to fly then you need to bring something uniquely yours to it, a real point of difference.
As for the writing itself, I feel Tim showed an excellent instinct for individual scenes, but I would advise him to pay more attention to pacing between them. Some changes in point of view felt a bit ad hoc and the novel’s first half was noticeably more developed than the rest, but that’s only natural when writing to an impossibly tight deadline.