This time last year, possibly against my better judgement, I wrote a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days – a task so intense it involved me working nights, ignoring my children and being so desperate to hit my daily word count that I would find myself typing in carparks, dentist’s waiting rooms and, on one occasion, during a medical procedure.
Afterwards, I tried to put the whole experience behind me – until, 12 months on, I decided to do the one thing more gruelling than actually writing the book. Reader, I read it.
You see, ever since completing my debut novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – an annual event that encourages amateur writers to crank out a book, or at least a decent chunk of one, during the 30 days of November – it hasn’t exactly been attracting the attention of agents and publishers. Instead, it has sat on my bookshelf, unloved and unread, largely because the person who wrote it assumed it was a pile of old bobbins.
But I didn’t actually know that. The novel was bashed out at such a fast pace – 1,667 words a day, every day, to hit the NaNaWriMo quotient – that there was never any time to go back and read it. Each day I was forced to accept whatever I’d written and just plough on forwards. Believe it or not, it was a cathartic experience. There was no time for self-consciousness or getting bogged down in plot tangles. And that meant that, even though I started November 2021 without even a loose idea for a story, I somehow managed to end the month as an (unpublished) author.
My memory of what was in the novel, however, was sketchy. On the handful of occasions I’d had a peek at the pages, it was like reading the work of a complete stranger. In a way this is a good thing. Stephen King advises that writers step away from their manuscripts for at least a few weeks after completing them, in order to give their brains some time away from the story.
Well, it’s been a year since NaNoWriMo. Could this book really be as bad as I imagined? Amazingly, the answer is no.
It is much, much worse.
I had held out hope that the opening two chapters might stand up, before I became totally exhausted by the exercise. But it turns out they are excruciatingly bad. Cringeworthy dialogue, tedious “action”, characters you’d cross the street to avoid. The best thing I can say about the opening scene, in which two characters wait on a quiet street for a drug dealer to turn up, is that it faithfully recreates that experience: it’s incredibly boring.
A character in a car kills the engine. Then they kill the lights. Then the engine again. At this point I could kill the author
Later, a character gets in a car and the driver kills the engine. Then they kill the lights. Then they drive forward, stop again, and kill the engine again. At this point I would happily kill all the characters, as well as the author of such drivel. Even worse are the appalling attempts at wit made by the characters, not just because they’re patently un-witty, but because they are always – always – followed up by me telling the reader how everyone laughed. And she laughed; And they both laughed; And they all laughed.
Much of this can be blamed on my deadline, and could be fixed with a brutal edit. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for other aspects of the manuscript.
The story is about a group of old university friends who have lost touch and meet up to recreate one of their hedonistic nights out. I loved Graham Swift’s Last Orders and the way it skipped between present and past in order to tell the story. Swift did this so that he could gradually reveal more about the complex web of guilt and betrayal among apparently close friends. I seem to have done it for no reason at all other than to say, “This is a bit like Last Orders.” In fact, some of the early clues I plant for big reveals later on I clearly forget about. One conversation alludes to a character’s upcoming trial for something potentially awful … what could it be? Sadly, the reader will never know.
I almost give up reading a quarter of the way in. But I am (sort of) pleased that I didn’t. Because the novel does improve. While the bits I thought might be OK were depressingly poor, the parts I was dreading weren’t always as bad as I’d imagined. Even the sex scenes – some of which were written hastily and shamefully, with my mother-in-law in the same room – were bearable, and certainly no more awful than many I’ve read from proper authors. My worry that the plot seemed to progress by people just randomly bumping into each other didn’t really matter – maybe all books do this! There were even brief occasions when I hit some sort of stride, where the story suddenly picked up pace, I latched on to an authentic voice and the exploration of masculinity in the 90s seemed vaguely engaging. Sometimes this lasts for an entire page.
One thing I’ve learned from reading the novel back is that I will never let anyone read it again, including myself. Another is that if I’d ever had time to read this back while I was writing it, I would never have got beyond the first chapter (essentially, this is the whole point of NaNoWriMo: it forces you to get something on the page).
But I have also made peace with the terrible novel that has sat on my shelf for a year, making me feel a bit depressed whenever I spot it. It might be a pile of old crap. But I feel confident that if I ever hit on an interesting idea in future, at least I know I can get the words out on to the page. Even if it takes longer than 30 days.