Most writers are faced with a difficult decision as October draws to an end – whether to take part in NaNoWriMo (more details below). I’ve never managed it myself and having tried and failed to write a novel when I was younger the thought brings me out in a cold sweat.
So for the next in the Clear-Minded Creative Types series I looked to local writer Ali George for advice and more info on what drives her to work so hard.
As well as being a NaNo veteran, the level of output she maintains on her own blogs and in a variety of other outlets is hugely impressive, and oh yeah, there’s that small challenge she set herself for 2011 – writing a book every month. I hadn’t even realised that she is also an illustrator.
Hi Ali! Please can you tell us what you’re up to at the moment?
I am a 26-year-old writer, journalist and occasional illustrator based in Edinburgh, and this year I have mostly been writing first drafts of 12 books in 12 months and blogging about it along the way.
The idea for 12 books came from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which I completed for the first time in November 2010. You’re supposed to write the first 50,000 words of a novel before midnight on November 30th, which is a bit daunting but is also a great way to kick start yourself into actually writing, because it doesn’t allow you to procrastinate. Or edit. Or stop to think…
When I’m not writing fiction I also do arts and community journalism stuff for various different websites including Ten Tracks, IdeasTap, The Edinburgh Reporter and The Broughton Spurtle. I draw comics too – December’s book is going to be a Graphic Novel.
Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?
I’ve wanted to be a writer of some description since I was eight or nine. I have quite a clear memory of deciding when I was in Primary Six that when I grew up I’d be an actress, author or artist. Then at fifteen I decided to get real and be a journalist (!). That was because nobody makes a living from solely being an author till they are at least 40, so journalism seemed a more practical way of making a living from my writing skills.
There was a crisis of confidence around 20 where I decided I wasn’t good enough to be a hack either, but I never stopped writing – I blogged and wrote for the student press throughout university and by the time I finished had delusions of going into communications in the Arts sector. With no practical experience, during the recession. You can imagine how that panned out…
Still, on the plus side, my six months struggling to find work of any description at all did give me the opportunity to learn how to knit. Swings and roundabouts, eh. Now the goal is to combine the two types of writing to generate enough income to make a living. I am at a stage where I’m fairly confident I am good enough – I’ve certainly put in a lot of practice.
Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?
I quit my job to pursue freelance journalism, although that wasn’t a sacrifice as such – it was permanent and secure, so in the current financial climate it might have seemed silly to leave, but it was never what I wanted to do long term.
Since then I’ve been working part time for a temp agency whilst I try to establish myself as a freelance writer, which is obviously less secure, but it suits me OK just now. And the first job the agency got me was four months as a graphic artist, which was quite cool.
Other than that I suppose I live comparatively frugally, I generally walk everywhere and I can’t really afford to go on holidays and stuff like that… but it’s not like I’m the only one living that way just now. And anyway it’s better for the environment!
How do you define success?
Being happy, both in my work and personal life. My ultimate idea of career success is making a living from writing – a proper living that might one day enable me to think about doing grown up things like having a mortgage, or a family I can feed and clothe.
Looking at the changing state of the journalism and publishing industries I think it’s still just about possible to sneak in and do this if I embrace loads of different bits and pieces. I think I’m starting to piece it all together, but it’ll be a few years yet before I can quit temping and only do the creative things I want to.
What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?
In terms of creating, I don’t know what I’d do without my tech. I have an iPhone which is great because if I think of a story idea I can start writing it on there wherever I am and then email it to myself.
When I get an idea I need to get it down immediately, so I have a tendency to write things down on the nearest available surface. In the past this has included receipts, post it notes, the backs of envelopes… thousands of teeny tiny pieces of paper which I instantly lose.
The other bit of tech I have which I love is a really good graphics tablet, which cuts out a lot of in-between stages of making a comic. Rather than pencilling and inking and then scanning it in, I can just draw straight onto the computer.
I love Twitter for promoting stuff, although I worry sometimes that I’m constantly spamming people with links to the 12 books blog… But judging by my site stats it’s one of the best ways to get people to have a look. And in turn blogging is a good way to get your message out there.
There are a couple of negatives too though. A good internet connection is great for helping conduct research, but it makes procrastination much easier too because you can convince yourself that reading all these links counts as work.
I also find using a laptop a bit tricky because I tend to have it on my knees when in the living room with the telly on, and I think I’m being very clever by working on something and socialising with flatmates at the same time, but I’m not really engaging with either of them properly. I definitely think it’s important to make a conscious effort to have some quality non-tech time in your day!
Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?
I’ve collaborated in the sense of putting together magazines and stuff at uni, but I’ve yet to write with anybody else. I’d definitely be up for giving it a go, though. Then with my drawing I’ve signed up to do some art for a comic book being written by some friends from university so that’s collaborative in a way, although I don’t have any say over the story, I’m pretty much drawing what I’m told to.
Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?
Yes, it is. I have an amazing network of friends and family and I couldn’t do what I do without them – the fact they are supportive and take my schemes (writing a book a month has had one or two social minor social ramifications) in their stride is so important.
The online community in Edinburgh has been massively supportive of my writing too, I’ve been really touched and surprised by that at times. From Michael Macleod including me in his Guardian Local literary blogosphere – at a time when I wasn’t doing a lot of fiction, and certainly nothing I would have described as literary! – to STV and Informed Edinburgh running articles to support the launch of the 12 books project, to local Twitterati like Emily Dodd, Ruth Dawkins and Peggy Hughes agreeing to give up their time to do guest posts for the blog, to yourself and Phyllis at The Edinburgh Reporter keeping up the momentum… People have been amazing. I guess in essence, community helps keep me going.
I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – do you have any advice for me and anyone else with this problem?
Depends on your definition of consistency! In terms of writing, I knew I wanted to do it in some form so started my first blog about a decade ago with the intention of making it a regular habit. Sometimes I updated daily and sometimes once in two months, but I always went back to it.
There were only about five people who knew the URL so I was writing mainly for myself, into an internet abyss. But I was learning, and I was enjoying myself. You have to enjoy what you’re doing – what’s the point of learning a craft if you don’t have fun with it and don’t intend to use it?
So my advice would be only do it if you want to, and do not stress yourself out by thinking you must do it every day or else you’re a failure. Obviously it helps to practice daily, but who really has the time?
It takes years to hone your craft in any creative discipline; you don’t wake up one day suddenly amazing at playing oboe or able to write a prize winning novel, there’s trial and error involved, and sometimes you don’t have the time or the inclination to practice. That might mean you’re a bit rusty when you go back to it, but if you accept that you can work past it.
Having said that I’m not suggesting you should be so relaxed you never do anything at all. Getting good at something does require work, so if it’s been six months and you’ve done nothing, maybe have a think about why that is… Then sign up for NaNoWriMo to get the creative juices flowing again.
Bonus question: Seeing as you’re outrageously prolific any tips for people about to take part in NaNoWriMo on how to get the work done/pace themselves?
I owe a lot to NaNo – I first heard about it in 2009 at a point when I had sort of stopped writing fiction for a few years – I did nonsense stories on the blog but that was about it. I was focussing on journalistic stuff and harbouring a secret hope someone would one day give me a column (that’s still a goal incidentally so if you know of any columnist jobs going, let me know).
I think the key to finishing is having an outline. My main struggle with writing the 12 books has been lack of planning time – I keep jumping in thinking it’ll be OK but it’s so much easier if you know what you’re going to do first.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be really involved, a notion of what you want to happen in the beginning, middle and end is fine. It’s more than likely to change beyond all recognition by the end of the month anyway, but it’s good to have it because when you sit down on day 13 and go ‘urgh, I can’t be bothered to write today,’ you can glance over your plan and plough through till you reach your daily word count because you know what you have to do.
I would also say definitely try to write every day – it makes it much more manageable to break it down into chunks. It depends on your WPM but I reckon you only really need to give it an hour a day to get 1500 words or so down. Then if it’s making you want to cry you can stop and leave it till tomorrow, whereas if you’re on a roll you can carry on a while.
Incidentally I’m saying this as someone who categorically has not done that this year, but should have! I’m always harking back to the good old days of November 2010 when I got in an hour a day and finished the challenge two days early.
And, again, I think it’s crucial not to worry too much. The point of NaNo isn’t really ‘winning’ – the 50k is a pretty arbitrary number, which the organisers point out on the website – it’s more about having a go. Which is something I would encourage everyone to do.
Thanks Ali. Impressed? Why not leave a comment below!
So are there any other brave writers out there amongst you who are up for the NaNoWriMo challenge? What me? NoNo. Well I would, but I’m still working on the first ever Clear-Minded Creative manifesto, and that’s not even going to be close to 50,000 words. Maybe though, just maybe, I’ll finish it by the end of the November – that would be good. Ali is definitely an inspiration to try harder.