The matter of writing
Colleague spotlight | Dr Rachel Connor
Course Director of English and Creative Writing, Rachel Connor, offers insight into the phenomenon on NaNoWriMo, a writing challenge undertaken by thousands of people across the globe to write a novel in 30 days. Rachel herself is a novelist, short story writer and a dramatist for stage and radio. She has an interest in the intersections between fields of knowledge, especially between those of the creative and the literary critical.
What is NaNoWriMo?
Ask anyone about NaNoWriMo and they will say the same thing: it’s a creativity bootcamp. Typically undertaken in the month of November, people set themselves a challenge a producing a draft novel (target length 50,000 words) in thirty days.
Why do so many people take part in NaNoWriMo?
Everyone has a different motivation for taking part and setting themselves the challenge but generally speaking, it’s a way to provide structure to something creative and fun. Being aware of why you want to write it is a huge help.
How do you teach creative writing skills at Leeds Beckett?
We are very firmly of the view that creativity needs to be nurtured and that writing is best done when being part of a community. NaNoWriMo is a community of sorts, with writers connecting online to stay motivated. At Leeds Beckett, the workshop is a central part of our method. You’ll be given inspirational writing prompts, time to ‘freewrite’ (that is, write ideas down fast and furiously, without any need to edit or correct) and you’ll have your peers to bounce ideas off.
Over the journey of the BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing course, writers go from writing short pieces and grow in confidence to produce longer pieces at the end of their degree. So we embrace the idea of progressing in ‘baby steps’ to produce something innovative and creative.
Whether I’m starting my own creative writing project, or taking on the challenge of NaNoWriMo, what tips do you have for creative writing success?
‘Every story matters’: this ethos is the cornerstone of NaNoWriMo. Matter equates with significance, of course, but it also relates to ‘material’ – the things we need to bring a thing into being, to give it concrete form. The main materials you need are your ideas. Set aside time well before November to explore these: sketch possible plotlines; play with characters. At Leeds Beckett, we encourage our final year creative writing students to come up with three proposals for their end of course portfolio before they even begin writing. They test their ideas with tutors and on each other before committing to one. Allow yourself to dream and doodle – digitally or on paper, on post-it notes, shopping lists or the back of an envelope…
Writing, says American novelist Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life, is like digging. It is a process of laying out a line of words that creates a path. Dig in and don’t be afraid to get mud under your fingernails. You don’t have time to prettify sentences. You need to be able to live with a messy draft, which you can come back to (after November is over) to edit. This muck-raking is the hard bit. Think of it as needing to turn over the solidified earth in the whole garden before you can refine the soil in one isolated patch.
Procrastination can be a big obstacle in a challenge like NaNoWriMo. Sometimes it’s best to work in micro-sessions. For example, you might be better to achieve your daily word count by writing in two sittings rather than in one go. Set smaller goals and think of them as contributing incrementally towards your end outcome. For Zoe, this ‘chunking’ is a helpful psychological trick: ‘I have now started setting myself smaller goals, because achieving them makes me more motivated to attempt another smaller goal.’
Gardeners have potting sheds as a place to care for plants. Sheds work for writers too (check out #shedwriting on social media). But you don’t need a shed to take part in NaNoWriMo. Writers like Zoe who do Camp NaNoWriMo can be part of a ‘cabin’, a supportive online space populated by other participants to whom you can share experiences, track your word count and be each other’s cheerleaders. ‘My group used accountability partners and daily check-ins on our chat to keep people motivated,’ Zoe says. ‘We even did an evening a week where we would dedicate a full hour to a group write in.’
The writing process, as Annie Dillard suggests, is a climbing steadily and ‘doing your job in the dark’, with your feet feeling ‘the step ladder’s balance’ and feeling the ache in the thigh muscles. Whatever the outcome at the end of November, take time to celebrate your efforts. You may not have hit your 50,000 word target (consider doing Camp NaNoWriMo instead, where you can choose your own word count). But you’ve made a start with a significant project.
Any final words of advice?
Focus on your motivation for NaNoWriMo as a way to keep going with it. Write down your intention; post it up wherever you do your writing. Remind yourself of this intention every day.
In a writing challenge, watching your writing unfurl before your eyes can feel like flying. Absorb the feeling and enjoy it, for all its pain and dizzy exhilaration. Your job, as Dillard suggests, is to hold your breath and capture the magic.
Leeds Beckett BA English with Creative Writing student, Zoe Tempest-Mitchell, used a NaNoWriMo-type activity to lend structure to her days during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
Course Director for Creative Writing, Rachel is a novelist, short story writer and a dramatist for stage and radio. She has an interest in the intersections between fields of knowledge, especially between those of the creative and the literary critical.