Yes, Murder Most Unladylike started life as a NaNoWriMo novel. NaNoWriMo, for those who haven't heard of it before, is a project that aims to get aspiring authors/nutcases to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. To achieve your target, you must write 1,667 words each day, every day, without fail, even if your dog just threw up right in front of you and you have pneumonia and you've worked a 12-hour shift . . .
Basically, NaNoWriMo is self-inflicted literary torture, but people are supposed to do it FOR FUN.
I've written before about my very mixed emotions regarding the use and worth of NaNo. The idea of it is wonderful, and it truly works for many people. A lot of very good and very beloved novels began as NaNo projects, and I'd be a big liar if I didn't acknowledge its role in my own book's creation.
|NaNoWriMo class of 2005|
So, did NaNoWriMo help me write a book? Yes. Did it help me write a good book? Er, no. And that's (at least partly) because NaNo's most basic flaw is that it values sheer quantity of words produced over quality. Writing at speed can produce amazing results, but what it usually produces is a pile of utter pants that needs to be mercilessly reworked before it is ready to show to other human beings.
My NaNo draft of Murder Most Unladylike (and I can't stress this enough) was HORRIBLE. It was AWFUL. I knew about Daisy, and Hazel, and I knew who the murderer was (I wrote their name down on the first page of my notebook and then felt proud because I had Created A Plot), but I had no idea how my detectives were going to end up solving the mystery, or even what the mystery actually was. Basically, I had no understanding of the world I was creating or the story I was telling - which, when I look back on this now, makes me feel a bit wobbly.
Last week I went to a Holly Black event where someone asked a question about writers' block. Writers' block, Holly replied, shouldn't be seen as a problem in itself. What it is is a symptom, and so instead of behaving like you have been struck down by the black spot and there is nothing to be done but despair (she didn't say this, I'm paraphrasing), you should use your feeling of writers' block to diagnose the deeper plot issues you're having.
|NaNoWriMo class of 2011|
But, see, I don't know if I'd have discovered that if I hadn't had full and shocking experience of what happens when I don't know my story. I learned that I do need structure, and I do need to plan (and then I discovered colour-coded plotting on huge spreadsheets,but that's another story). So in a way, NaNo's big problem gave me a very big revelation that I've been using ever since.
NaNo also gave me a big wake-up call about output. Those 1,667 words a day taught me that writing a sentence doesn't need to take twenty minutes. It can take that long, and sometimes it needs to, and that's OK, but the way I pre-plan scenes (I watch them in my head, like puppet-shows, several times over) means that when I come to actually write I am capable of turning out 1,000 words in an hour without breaking a sweat. Actually, if I try, I can do a lot better than that. I recently finished work on the first draft of something totally non-Daisy and Hazel related, and I think I must have written the last 10,000 words in about five inspired hours one afternoon. Afterwards my brain felt like someone had cleaned it out with a stick, and I am absolutely sure that those 10,000 words will need an enormous edit, but again that's OK, because re-writing is the part of the writing process that I really love. And that's another thing that I've learned about myself since my first NaNo effort.
So what I think I'm saying is this: all writing exercises are incredibly valuable, even if what you get out of them initially feels more negative than positive. Projects like NaNoWriMo can help you kickstart yourself as a writer, and I'd advise all aspiring novelists to have a go. I'd even advise you to stick at it all the way to the end of the month, even if you're hating it and not making wordcount. But what I wouldn't advise is for you to do it again, if you gave it a real go and still discovered that it doesn't work for you. Writing isn't school (thank goodness) - there's no 'correct' way to make a book. Try everything, and then ignore what doesn't work (no matter how popular it is) and just do what feels fun and right for you. Because, seriously, the only writing advice that will actually help you is this:
KEEP WRITING THE BOOK UNTIL IT IS FINISHED. And then go back to the beginning and write it again.