Reflections on a month of writing

Tracking my writing progress over the course of November 2022.

And so my first attempt at #NaNoWriMo draws to a close.

For those who are not familiar with concept, hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe commit all their free time and then some to sitting in front of their computers, typing, attempting to write 50,000 words of a new novel. Natalie Pithers of Curious Descendants had the bright idea of turning this into a family history writing challenge, encouraging us all to write more by sending daily prompts.

That’s a great idea I thought, it’ll encourage me to get more of my research off the tree and into a readable format. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll count the words in any blog I publish this month plus any decent paragraphs I write in response to the daily prompts which might form a blog in future. 50,000 words doesn’t sound that hard.

The first few days went smoothly enough. Two shorter blogs were quickly rattled off and I’d also made progress on a few more. Then on the 8 November I joined a co-working session with fellow Curious Descendants. Two hours later, I’d written just 800 words. Admittedly there’s always a good catch up at the beginning and end of the session, but that meant I’d need to commit three hours a day, every day, just to write 50,000 words. Then there was the editing, sourcing of photos, additional research and finally uploading it all to my blog all of which could easily double or more the time taken. Natalie kindly suggested I develop a more realistic goal. But no, I was convinced that once I reduced my target once I’d be all too willing to reduce it again. I was only 9,000 words behind.

Initially I shared each blog I wrote with all my family & friends on facebook but I soon realised there was a limit to the number of words even my mother might be willing to read. Sharing would better be done over time.

Then came a week where I had no time for writing. I started to revise my goal. If I could reach 25,000 words published with another 5,000 words well written ready to integrate into other stories, I would be happy.

All thoughts of applying for new jobs went out the window, as did the garden which desperately needs some attention. I wore the same dress for days in a row. I started checking my phone for Natalie’s daily prompt as soon as I woke up so as to start mulling on what I would write as I showered. I drafted sentences in my head as I cooked and ate and reviewed what I knew of an ancestor just before I went to sleep in the desperate hope that I would dream up some inspiration.

The total slowly rose but ultimately 50,000 words is a lot for someone who nearly failed her economics A-level because she couldn’t write essays. The C-grade was almost entirely down to the multiple-choice section. I even thought about just publishing my Grandma’s memoirs as they stood. 34,000 words in one go. But that would have done my Grandma a disservice. I intend to annotate and illustrate before publishing, maybe that can be next November’s goal.

The word count dropped and motivation too, meaning the word count fell further behind until I reached out to my fellow curious descendants, one of whom advised me to “mind you don’t end up not worrying about the quality but feeling the width.” It was time for the final sprint. If I wasn’t going to reach 50,000 words, what was it that would make me proud of this month?

A couple of days later, Vu, the author of my favourite non-profit blog, shared his weekly missive entitled “18 tips to help you become a badass writer!” including two perfect pieces of advice for the last sprint: “Writing is a lot like cooking or water puppetry: the more you practice at it, the better you get” and “You can publish first and edit later.”

I set out to write up our family history to ensure it was both accessible and better preserved, but I also wanted to improve the quality and speed of my writing more generally. I had also set myself a goal about eighteen months ago to complete short biographies of each of our sixteen great great great Grandparent couples. There were seven left at the start of the month and just three left at this stage all involving a woman called Elizabeth, two of whom were married to a man called Thomas. They were also, invariably, ones where I had doubts or questions about the research. I realised I needed to stop prevaricating and find a way to write what I knew.

Now, as the clock counts down to midnight, it’s time to take stock.

First, advice to my future self, should I choose to do this again.

  • Have a goal beyond the words. When all else failed those great great great Grandparents biographies just had to be finished.
  • An extensive stock of research is a prerequisite. The quickest stories to write were those where I had already collated all available evidence, the slowest those where I to wait for various certificates to arrive.  Which basically means spending the month before writing looking for gaps.
  • As are ideas for stories with relevant links to content. I thought I had this, but most of the ideas needed a lot more research than I had time to devote to them. On the flip side, I was able to finish a number of stories which I had already explored in detail.
  • Consistency is key. On the days I wrote, I averaged over 2,000 words.
  • Find a cohort to provide ideas and motivation when both are slowing. Thank you, Curious Descendants!
  • And finally, wine is a mixed blessing, the words flow at night, the editing is harder the next day

Ultimately, I didn’t write fifty thousand words. In the month of November, I wrote 30,500 words including 25,792 which are now live online in twenty different blogs. 61% of the total, higher than I’ve been all month – that last sprint made such a difference. More importantly I’ve completed my goal of writing up the stories of all sixteen of my great great great grandparent couple biographies with half of them written this month. Two further blogs stand out. The first is the story behind an 1899 divorce of two Wellock cousins, an astonishing story of domestic cruelty and the courage Ellen needed to free herself from it. The second “the death of a farmer” is much more personal as although it is the tale of death of my great grandmother’s uncle, the circumstances so exactly mirror those of my father one hundred and one years later, it has taken me a while to get it right. And I’m not out of ideas yet. As well as my Grandma’s memoirs, I’m also mulling on a series of annotated maps linking the stories geographically.

So yes, it really was worth it and I am proud but with Christmas rapidly approaching, I may just down my pen for a while!

Cracking open the bubbly. Photo from 2018. As neither 2020 (lockdown) nor 2021 (poorly) family Christmasses happened I am looking forward to this one! Sharon’s photo.

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