There are less than 24 hours until National Novel Writing Month 2022, and I still have no idea—not really—of what I’m going to write.
I’ve done this every year since 2011—I think?—and properly since 2012, when I started involving myself with the community and going to the write-ins. And I’ve had a pretty decent win rate: 5 wins out of 11 attempts.
(I have not got around to editing any of them. Not yet.)
In the hope that inspiration strikes, I’m going to use this weeknote to go over my NaNoWriMo projects from the last decade—over a third of my life!—and hopefully it’ll at least give some kind of insight into the way my mind works, or rather, the way it works under a deadline when whacking together 50,000 words for “fun” in what’s already usually a busy month.
2011: Chasing Trains
You can tell this one was written when I’d come off 2 years of commuting by train every day and was coming into a few years of being a broke student, and had yet to sate any level of wanderlust. In short: a space itinerant worker travelling between human colonies at sub-light speed (a ‘starhopper’) comes home to find Earth has completely disappeared in some enormous cataclysm, and his long-term partner has not shown up. We follow him as he lives out his days on the Moon doing drudge work and researching what happened to her.
How far I got: 4,093 words. (It wasn’t a serious attempt.)
Why did it crash and burn? Because I didn’t really have a plot or any kind of characters—and I was also adjusting to being a full time student away from home. I was also chronically under-read.
Where is it now? Lost on some external hard drive somewhere, in a LaTeX or LyX document because I was that kind of nerd at the time.
What did I learn? I re-used the starhopper concept in a short story, THE SPACEHOPPER, a few years later. It’s not great but I’ve written much worse. The idea of living on the moon and seeing the debris of some kind of giant earth-destroying silver bullet stuck around, and formed the basis for EXSURRECTION, a much more successful NaNo project in 2019.
2012: A View from the Overlook
There’s some kind of office worker commutes from his home in Forest Gate to a space station (à la the one in 2001 A Space Odyssey) every day. His girlfriend is a ghost hunter. There’s some kind of digital ghost thing that happens. He walks into a lake and drowns.
How far I got: 20,513 words.
Why did it crash and burn? Because I had no real plot and the world building details weren’t fully fleshed out, plus it was probably some kind of techno-horror when I was (and still am) not especially well-read in the horror genre. The characters were also awful people and I literally didn’t have the conviction to write horrible deaths for all of them.
Where is it now? In a Scrivener file in my iCloud documents folder that was too old to be opened by the current version of Scrivener for iOS. It opens on my Mac. (It wasn’t worth opening it up.)
What did I learn? I don’t really get along with Scrivener. (I still don’t. There is a long running project I’ve been using Scrivener for that’s been going for over 9 years at this rate.)
2013 & 2014: The Knights of Her/His Majesty
This came out of an idea—I forget where—asking what would happen if ceremonial knights and dames (e.g. Sir Bruce Forsyth, Sir Terry Wogan etc.) were called up for military service. So we follow a squad of conscripted British celebrities, led by Olympic runner Captain Dame Marina Hassan, fighting in an attempt to quell a civil war on Mars. I tried writing it as a short story, but it quickly outgrew that format, so I repurposed it for NaNoWriMo.
Captain Hassan’s squadmates include a former porn star whose fitness has lapsed (and nearly dies during training), an evil chat show host (“Sandy Nederlander”—a kind of unholy amalgam of Alan Carr, Richard Madeley, and Jeremy Kyle) and Alfred, the future King of the United Kingdom, who then falls in love with the (male) former porn star causing a succession crisis (particularly when his mother, Queen Victoria II, dies in battle on Mars.)
How far I got: 52,444 words in 2013 (my first win!) in a comfortable win that mostly tracked along with par, but by 50k and the end of November I was nowhere near the end of the novel. Part 2 was 52,483 words—with more uneven progress but recovered by a 4.3k word day on 28th November—and that still wasn’t the end of the novel (because I write action scenes in a way that’s much too verbose.) I carried on working to the end of the year and eventually Knights, draft 1, topped out at 136,992 words. I choose to blame a long commute (with plenty of time to write), having a shit time at my industrial placement, and a bloody-minded inability to be concise for this ridiculous word count. (This isn’t even counting the ridiculous story bible I wrote, which is 14,000 words in itself.)
How does it hold up? Not great. I still like the characters, but it was written in the soup of 100-years-since-World-War-II jingoism, and before I’d really started to seriously examine colonialism or how empire works. The character voices are all over the place, I didn’t really commit to some of their backstories, and I didn’t really interrogate why (eg) the King decided to abdicate at the end having had a change of heart about the whole monarchy thing.
Where is it now? It was the first thing I wrote in Ulysses, an app I still love and use for all my writing. At some point an iCloud migration jumbled all the sheets up—but there’s still a PDF backup of it in its ‘final’ state (as of New Year’s Eve 2014) on my hard drive. I should give it another read.
What did I learn? That the monarchy should be abolished on humanitarian grounds for everyone. And—that yes, I can finish a first draft of a novel, even if I go round the houses to get there.
2015: The Batman Fan Fiction
What it says on the tin. Frustrated by the noise around Batman vs Superman, and by watching Arrow on the train (which is amazingly terrible) I set out to write a detective thriller novel that shook up the Batman mythos a bit. What was going through my head was “Batman, in the style of The Killing and Broadchurch”—but still with some of the campy element that comes with the absurd premise of a grown man dressing up as a bat to beat up petty criminals.
Bruce Wayne would’ve been bisexual, and a Black adoptee of the Wayne family; he would’ve lost all his money at the start of the story in a boardroom coup led by an associate of the Penguin (styled after Donald Trump); Robin would’ve been a transgender child at “Martha’s House,” a children’s home funded by Bruce; the finale would’ve involved Batman landing a plane on a suspension bridge with a broken arm, a chase involving a bus and a public hire bicycle, and Robin beating the shit out of the Joker with a crowbar. Oh, and Alfred the butler became Alfre Pennyworth, a nanny-turned-caregiver-turned assistant to Bruce originally from Manchester, and she sometimes put on the suit and went out as Batman whenever Commissioner Gordon wanted to meet.
How far I got: 15,211 words.
Why did it crash and burn? Another commute got in the way of it—also, detective novels, it turn out, require quite a bit of plotting. I also realised from this point onwards that if I find myself around the 10th of November writing a very long scene at the start of the novel, that’s usually an indicator that I’m not hitting 50k that year.
How does it hold up? Eh. The 2022 The Batman film did the ‘make it a detective movie’ thing rather effectively. I didn’t really get far enough in my version to see how it would fall together. And besides—it’s just fan fiction. Where would I post it? AO3 among seventeen hundred Deathstroke x Batman omegaverse fics?
2016: Return to Sender
An attempt to do something ‘hopeful’ in the year of Brexit, with the US election imminent. Opened with a statement from US President Beyoncé Knowles greenlighting a first contact space probe mission: the “Sally” spacecraft which is supposed to function like a postcard to alien civilisations from Earth—as our near future becomes all the more turbulent with rising populism, fascism, resource shortages, refugee crises, and war. Meanwhile, 1000 years in the future, the president of humanity, Barbro Savadogo, fights off political challengers as she rushes to identify the source of a mysterious space probe coming from outside the solar system—a first contact scenario.
How far I got: 13,403 words
Why it crashed and burned: Where do I start? No real plot, trying to write in the voice of an AI onboard a small spacecraft (which is surprisingly tough), and a punishing commute.
Plus: some other things happened in November 2016. I went to New York for a weekend—the weekend after November 8th. I’d booked it a few months in advance, thinking “of course Hillary’s going to win!” (She did—but not in the way that matters for the US’s arcane electoral system.) Add that to a trip to Switzerland for work—and while I did have a lot of time to write, I was too tired and stressed by all the travel to actually have the wherewithal to complete the story.
Where is it now? In disordered pieces in Ulysses on my iCloud account. I did, however, re-use the character of Barbro Savadogo the following year, in my first winning project in three years…
2017: The Maximal Hang
Inspired by the buckwild 2017 general election in the UK, plus increasing polarisation in politics around the world. The Maximal Hang is about an election on a human colony on the Moon, where each candidate gets exactly the same number of votes; the result is an immediate deadlock. We follow Barbro Savadogo, Secretary-General of the United Nations, dealing with the ensuing political crisis being stoked by fascist candidate Milo Månsson; Isidore Mackintosh, a systems engineer who accidentally deletes the log files that would validate the election result; and Tanya Fowler, a superannuated quiz champion whose quiz event is targeted by a suicide bomber; she ends up in a coma, dreaming of taking part in quizzes and so deducing who detonated the bomb. An open, and grim ending.
How far I got: 50,144 words. I took the last 2 days of November off and wrote 8,271 words on the 30th. I seem to remember hitting 50k with minutes to go.
How well does it hold up: Not great. It’s clearly a first draft. It’s held back by incomplete world building and a lack of focus. I think the idea of doing deductions in a coma whilst dreaming of being on a quiz show is good, though—I might re-use that.
Where is it now? This is when I started to get into the habit of printing my drafts. So now I have a physical copy—even if Apple gets bought out by Elon Musk and all my computers explode, I still have The Maximal Hang in dead tree form.
What did I learn? I can still finish one of these things given the right idea and a clear day at the end of the month.
Inspired by a cycle touring holiday in the Netherlands and Britain’s increasing isolationism, this is the one that I think has the most legs on it. It’s maybe a few decades in the future, and England has disintegrated into warring, barren county-states; their borders are secured on entry and exit by ‘smart gas’, containing nano-bots that incinerate you if your papers aren’t in order. We follow “Kees,” now a bicycle courier in a waterlogged and low-powered Netherlands, trying to reach his ex, who is still in London—except not all is as it seems.
How far I got: 50,000 words exactly. That never happens! (It took a fair bit of work. 4,655 words on the 29th, 9,555 words on the 30th: another photo finish.)
How does it hold up? The opening is one of the best things I’ve ever written (and would probably work reasonably well as its own short story—I might post it on this site sometime.) The overall narrative? A bit ‘eh.’ I wasn’t aggressive enough in my criticism of the tech industry, for a supposed technothriller. The character work is also very lacking. But the core idea is definitely something I’m pleased I came up with.
What did I learn? Fears about the way the world is going can produce some terrifying sci-fi concepts.
This was a kind of riff on the ideas from CHASING TRAINS and RETURN TO SENDER. An alien invasion (or Judgment Day?) story in reverse: after the Earth is destroyed in some kind of giant, near-light-speed impact, an entity—might be alien, might be God—helps to stage a revolution on the Moon, now governed by a disaster-capitalist government who are very keen on racial purity. Our heroes are Ly’ro (ge/gem/ger—pronounced with a fricative like a Dutch ‘g’), an erstwhile activist and a worker in a refugee centre; Ranz, ger nephew, a linguist; Mercury VII, a four-handed blue-skinned regenerating Uranian supersoldier who is secretly turning into a pacifist more interested in sex than war; and Aurvandil, a mysterious figure who foretells the arrival of her “Mother.”
How far I got: 51,506 words. A lot smoother this time: the most I wrote in a day was on the 30th, but this time it was only 5,645 words (and even then only because I was very close to finishing the story.)
How does it hold up? Reasonably strongly, but it was under-plotted for the number of things I wanted to do with the story and say about living under the sword of Damocles and being screwed by the ultra-rich (as it seems like everyone in the West is used to doing.) It needs another pass with more details about how the revolution plays out. I did, however, manage to re-use two characters from THE KNIGHTS OF HER MAJESTY: the abdicated King Alfred and his husband Greg, who now live on a colony planet some 17,000 years in the future.
Inspired by a pre-lockdown visit to the London Mithrareum, and the mysterious cult of Mithras; also by a burgeoning of queer-friendly media in 2020 (the movie The Old Guard, the game Hades, etc.) We would follow a mysterious god-like figure—maybe Mithras, maybe someone else—helping Tom, a first-year student in London from a homophobic family in America, who is slowly learning what it means to be gay and trans in London. (We’d also commune through dreams with gay men in the past and the future, including Achilles and Patroclus.)
How far I got: 22,086 words. It all petered out around November 9th. By the end of November I’d given up and was just playing Hades instead of writing.
Why did it crash and burn? Because, frankly, I didn’t have the range. (Also, I hadn’t really given any thought to the historical/future characters we’d be communing with other than ‘Achilles and Patroclus and maybe David and Jonathan.’) The scope was massive, and much too big for NaNo without some serious planning.
2021: The Pink Island
A response to homonationalism and rainbow capitalism/pinkwashing in a verité fantasy thriller format. Mancunian lorry driver Roy (who has an unfortunate full name—let’s just say people shout “say what you see!” at him on the street) falls in love with a resident of a microstate for gay men on an island in the Atlantic, which rose out of the sea, as if by magic, about 20 years ago. Meanwhile, Az—a spirit of fire or djinn born from an ancient meteor strike in the Atlas Mountains, who had a one-night stand with Roy in Berlin 20 years ago—is being imprisoned by men with modified vacuum cleaners. Just why is the Pink Island so warm?
This was heavily inspired by the Daevabad Trilogy, which I’d read earlier in the year; by watching various online communities flay themselves apart with discourse and callouts; and by an uptake in vacuous corporate Pride celebrations against the backdrop of increasing political homophobia and transphobia.
How far I got: 20,047 words. I fell behind par on November 4th and never really recovered.
What caused it to crash and burn: Similar situation to the Batman fanfic, I think—an incredibly detailed scene that was a slog to get through, and by the time I was done I’d thrown off all the pacing.
How does it hold up? I like a lot of it. I tried doing some NK Jemisin style switches of grammatical person, and I think the overall vibe is great. I just need to nail down the plot.
2022: Who Knows?
Maybe I can finish The Pink Island for this year’s NaNoWriMo. (Well, actually write most of the plot rather than getting caught in long, detailed descriptions.)
There are other ideas floating around in my head, too. I talk about them with friends sometimes. I try to write them down in the Notes app on my phone, but the ideas are not always especially coherent. One note reads: “Idea Navigators: Opinion Path Not Found. Time travel but through opinions? Ships are kinda lumps being flung through opinion space.” This means literally nothing and I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote this down.
I will have to write something. I will think of something. Will it be any good? Who knows. But getting a draft done is what’s important.
By the way, if you do tolerate my writing (which I assume you do, since you got to the end of this Weeknote) I posted two fun things this week: a photo blog from our stopover in Milano on the way to Venice, and a mammoth review of season 1 of the Halo TV series, which I absolutely hated.