Writer Be Free

Writer Be Free

2014 is here! Time to make good on the promises I’ve been making myself and follow-through on my grand exit from my job in November. If I’m not going to be a lawyer, what am I going to be? That’s a difficult question which I’m content to leave unresolved for now. In the meantime, if I can’t figure out what I’m going to be, I can at least focus on the marginally less daunting question of what I am going to do this month. This will be my first project as an un/self-employed, newly freed workerbee, so I want to make it a good one.

After much thought (I gave myself 6 weeks of “holiday” to think about this after all!) I’ve decided to set myself a huge challenge for January: I am going to write a novel. In a month.

This is an outrageous and foolhardy endeavour. Ambitious, unrealistic and a bit crazy. And there’s an outside chance I just might pull it off.

Why write a novel?

Why have I chosen to write a novel, instead of making or doing something else as my first project? The short answer is: it feels right. It’s the right time.

The longer answer strays into the land of cliché. It’s said that everyone has at least one book in them (although Christopher Hitchens is quoted as adding “in most cases that’s where it should stay”). The truth is that I have had this book in me, and for quite a while. In fact it’s been almost a decade since I first had the idea in my final year at university. Whenever I’ve found myself in moments of complete calm, and particularly when I’ve been far removed from my daily life — swinging in hammock on a beach in Ghana, watching a storm roll in over Loch Eriboll in the highlands of Scotland, gazing at the sun setting over the Pacific in Big Sur — this story has come back to me, rippling and pulsing and seeking me out through the years, and morphing as the idea has solidified and matured.

Now is the right time for many reasons, one of which is that my writing confidence has received an enormous boost from the amazing feedback I’ve had for this blog. The kind words from friends — close and not-so-close — and support from strangers who have started following my writing have been emboldening.

It’s worth pondering for a moment the magnitude of this challenge as it may not be immediately apparent to the casual observer. When my sister Melissa signed up for the London marathon last year there was no question that this was huge. She is an obsessive runner so the challenge didn’t come from needing the discipline to train — although having the immovable deadline of the marathon date must have surely focussed her mind — rather it came from pushing her ability far beyond her comfort zone. Writing a novel falls into this category for me. Although I have written almost every day, for work and study, for the last 11 years, I’ve never written fiction. I’ve also never written in this volume; I think the longest piece I have ever written would probably be on the order of 20,000 words. This is my version of a marathon. This is my Everest.

Why only a month?

There are different schools of thought when it comes to writing and deadlines. Although many great novels have been written in a short space of time — my aunt-in-law gives Jekyll & Hyde as an example; Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it in less than a week — it’s likely that many literary works, the ones we come back to time and time again, the ones that grow richer with each re-reading, have benefitted from being given sufficient time for their messages and themes to evolve and expand. Like any good idea, a story needs time to brew, for the disparate threads to mingle and infuse and for the characters to become enriched in detail. Ideally I would pack up and move to a remote island so that I can work undisturbed for several months, tapping away at an old-school typewriter with only cats and seagulls for company, and allowing my “art” to flourish. Realistically, though, it’s not going to happen.

It’s also important that I be honest with myself about who I am and how I work. I like deadlines. I’m goal oriented. I can be highly motivated when I have a tightly defined task at hand. As evidenced by the 9 years in which I have let my story languish untouched, having no deadline pretty much means that I won’t get around to doing it. Yet again I come back to the adage “done is better than perfect”. I want to get this thing done.

But why 1 month? Why not 2 or 3? I first got the idea when reading The Happiness Project. The author, Gretchen Rubin, who takes up various resolutions over the course of one year with the aim of increasing the level of happiness in her life, commits to writing the first draft of a novel in a month. She writes about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which takes place in November, and the method that people use, which basically boils down to “Write lots. Every single day”. I then came across Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt which detailed exactly how to approach the project. It was given by my sister-in-law to my mother-in-law and I broke all Christmas present etiquette by reading her present before she had a chance to do so herself. [Sorry!]

Can I do it?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m motivated, I have time, and I have the desire to complete the project, so I have those things working for me. Against me is the sheer scale of it and the fact that life will inevitably try to get in the way. Publicly announcing my goal on this blog is part of creating a system of accountability which I hope will add to my drive (nothing like a bit of self-imposed peer pressure!). If you see me around then please ask me how my novel is going. Add as much skepticism and doubt into your voice as you can muster! The more unconvinced you sound, the better.

I’ve never done anything like this and there is a distinct possibility I will fail. But I’m selectively choosing to ignore this and instead choosing to believe that it can be done, and that I can do it.

So what’s the novel about?

The story that has been haunting me since 2004 is about a possible future where everybody’s lives have been mapped out in detail using advanced statistical analyses. I wanted to explore how society would work under these circumstances and how the human spirit would react to being so channeled and confined.

The idea came to me when I was taking a course in Philosophy of Religion as part of my undergrad degree. I’m not religious but I am fascinated by religion as a social phenomenon and as an intellectual exercise. The course was taught by our college chaplain, Simon Oliver, now Head of Theology at University of Nottingham, which added to the interest — he was the ultimate person with whom to debate the existence of god since his vocation spoke to his strongly held beliefs.

As part of the core of the course we studied the various proofs for the existence of god which have been put forward over the centuries. One of these is known as the Teleological argument, or the argument from intelligent design. It essentially seeks to prove the existence of god by taking the inescapable sense of order in the world — the uniformity of the laws of physics, the Earth’s life-supporting features, etc — as evidence that the world must have had an intelligent designer. The analogy provided by William Paley is that if you see the complex workings of a watch it is self-evident that there must have been a watchmaker; and so too with our world.

I wanted to think about what the world would be like if this became the dominant belief in society. One logical conclusion would be that “playing god” would be any act that could potentially mess with god’s design or order. I imagined that eventually technology would reach a level of sophistication and advancement that would allow the detailed plotting of each person’s life course such that it would be possible to discern god’s design and prevent anyone from altering it.

Of course I didn’t appreciate at the time that such technology was hardly science fiction but in fact almost within our grasp. In the intervening period the internet and social media have exploded and my idea has been completely reframed with the rise of Big Data. What happens when our data gets into the wrong hands and can be used to control us?

What next?

I have to start writing! I’m aiming to come up with the outline by the end of the week.

The theme for my book is not new — 1984, Brave New World and Minority Report immediately spring to mind — and I believe it has been recently dealt with by David Eggers in The Circle. After much internal debate I’ve decided not to read The Circle before writing my story, for fear of conscious or sub-conscious adoption of ideas or even plagiarism. I am however re-reading Harry Potter and Hunger Games since I’m aiming my book at young adults and I wanted to see how these books deal with introducing readers to a new world. This is one of the main perks of quitting my job — I get to read fun books and call it “work”.

I’ll be posting updates of my progress on this blog and will also be asking for help when I run into difficulties. With only a month to write it (and we’re already on Day 3 – urgh!) I’m going to need all the help I can get.


Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are some internet bits to put this article in context:

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

See my last post for more on the Happiness Project.

For more on NaNoWriMo click here. See also Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.

See here for more on the Teleological argument.

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