It’s likely that this blog will go quiet for a bit as of tomorrow, because for the first time in a few years I’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo. This is a project where you write a novella (50 000 words) in a month, specifically November. People seem to find writing fifty thousand words in a month a challenge, but I dream of being able to write as few as that. I once proposed NaNoNoWriMo, which was a month during which one aimed to reduce one’s writing output by fifty thousand words. That is, one starts out with a first draft which is too long, and edits it over the month, perhaps rewriting, until it’s shorter by that number of words. One thing that bothers me about the project is that it seems to encourage verbosity, and that’s already a serious problem for me. I think of myself as exhibiting hypergraphia, which is the compulsion to write or draw and is sometimes considered part of a psychiatric syndrome. This has already been covered on this blog, and in fact this blog is one outlet for my hypergraphia. However, I wouldn’t medicalise it. I see it as a bad habit I could probably break myself of, but it’s been going on since at least 17th July 1975, so maybe I only think I can. Just as I wouldn’t medicalise nose-picking. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t photograph the contents of my nose and display them regularly on a blog, and now I’m tempted to Google for that, though I’d regret it were I successful.
I did do NaNo last year, but didn’t take it very seriously. Back in the early ‘eighties, I filled a page of a school exercise book with alternating “BLUE” and “ULBE”, which I attempted to arrange into a chessboard-style arrangement so that they alternated across a line but also in columns. This attracted the attention of a classmate, who asked me “Did I just see a whole page with nothing but ‘BLUE’ written on it over and over again?”, to which my technically honest answer was “no”. This formed the basis of my 2019 NaNo project, which I completed, of course, on the first day. It’s easy to automate most of this process. “Blue” is one word. Select all and copy-paste and you have two. Do the same a further fifteen times and the result is 65 536 instances of the word “Blue”. This turned out to be a little more fiddly than expected because the word processor I was using didn’t seem to be set up to copy-paste such large blocks of text, which is odd because block transfer was implemented in the Z80 processor in 1976 as a single instruction, I think in order to facilitate word processing apps, so at this point it ought to be a cinch. Anyway, this meant I had technically achieved the target and then some on the first day.
Of course, tens of thousands of instances of the word “BLUE” may not be very interesting or sell particularly well, but there is something you can do with it which could make it more productive and worthwhile. Cliff Richard brought out an album in 1967 called “Good News”, whose cover was set out like a newspaper with his photo on it, a banner reading “Good News” and text in columns consisting of nothing but the words “Good News” repeated over and over again. To some extent this was the inspiration for my 2019 project. If you stare at this album cover for long enough, it unsurprisingly starts to do strange things to you and the words “good” and “news” begin to look weird and cease to be English so much as part of some strange new language with a vocabulary of only two words. You might start to see patterns in the words like a Magic Eye picture of a dolphin with a thousand screaming faces, and of course dolphins are often blue so this could be quite relevant to my novel. Likewise, looking at something like ten dozen pages of the word “Blue” printed over and over again might lead to you imagining something. Perhaps a motorhome made of marshmallow and toffee driving across a park at a music festival or a shop that only sells stepladders made of newspaper, but something, although those are perhaps more inspired by a non-Cliff Richard album released the same year. And this is how you might approach novel writing.
I think it was Michelangelo who once said that the key to sculpture was to start with a block of stone and chip away everything that wasn’t, say, David. In producing two to the sixteenth instances of the word “blue”, one has in a sense created an uncarved block of words. Staring at that block could lead one to see patterns which aren’t yet there and one can then proceed to chip away at that block of text to remove everything in it which isn’t one’s novel. If one does this in a fairly economical manner, one might end up with a story which focusses quite strongly on the colour blue in one way or another. I did start to do this. I had a character go into a shop which sold tubes of blue lube, all of slightly different shades. Another approach I took was to type anagrams of the word as I had written previously. A typical sequence might be “Blue ulbe bleu uleb lube bleu uelb uebl eulb eubl”, and this turned out to be quite fruitful as it provided a setting of an English speaker in a French-speaking country attempting to buy a tube of blue lube. It’s also possible to take a mathematical approach at this point by noting that there are two dozen possible arrangements of the letters in the word and 620 448 401 733 239 439 360 000 of those twenty-four words, which when multiplied by twelve takes one beyond one’s target word count. At this point it starts to resemble the Library Of Babel. One could perhaps write a story about someone trapped in a vast library which is not Borges’s library but merely consists of books listing all permutations of those two dozen four-letter “words” and perhaps their search for meaning in such an environment combined with their sadness and frustration at not having the good fortune to be trapped in a library of meaningful books. Assuming these books each had a thousand words on each double page and two thousand pages, and were to be arranged into a cuboid, it would be almost two and a half million volumes in each direction, including height, and assuming each book was lying down and five centimetres thick, that would make the stack one hundred and twenty-five kilometres high, which means it would officially extend into space. My point being that there is in fact something you can do with this exercise which provokes the imagination and provides a readable novel.
That would, then, be a first draft, and a genuine one at that. Fifty thousand instances of the word “blue” which need a bit of editing and processing, but it’s an honest and authentic first draft even if it’s unorthodox. It’s silly, in a way, but it does provide raw material to work with and deserves to be taken a bit more seriously than it might at first appear.
That, then, was my 2019 approach to NaNoWriMo and I stand by what I did. Part of my point was sarcasm of course. It’s easy to write fifty thousand words. I once defined a FORTH word which wrote endless nonsense words in Finnish, and I presume some of those would’ve made sense to a Finn. If I’d let it run long enough, and I probably did, it would’ve output fifty thousand words and achieved NaNoWriMo years before the first time it happened. There is a very small sense of achievement in writing what amounted to a pretty simple piece of computer code which did that. Writing a somewhat more sophisticated piece of code could lead one to producing a novel-writing program, and to some extent this has been tried through AI, and writers such as George Orwell and Roald Dahl have used that in their stories. Actually producing that code, which would usually consist of a series of words and other symbols in English, is in a sense NaNoWriMo. At one end there’s my Finnish nonsense word program or “FOR I=1 TO 50000: PRINT”BLUE “;:NEXT I”, and at the other is software which would make Earnest Hemingway redundant. There is in fact a peculiar series of books available from Amazon which are all written by machine. Philip M Parker has written eight hundred thousand books, all available from there, using a patented method of his own, including ‘The 2007 Import and Export Market for Thiourea Resins in Primary Forms and Urea Resins in Netherlands’, cost £82, and the £795 ‘The 2021-2026 World Outlook for Manufacturing Lime from Calcitic Limestone, Dolomitic Limestone, Coral, Shells, Chalk or Other Calcareous Materials’. I don’t understand why they cost so much and I presume he’s only sold a few of any of them, and that practically all of them haven’t sold a single copy, but they do exist. It’s all a bit depressing though. He has considered writing romance novels by this method, and although I’ve never read one I suspect this would be relatively easy. It also reminds me of J G Ballard’s apocalyptic novels written in the early ‘sixties which are self-consciously formulaic.
Having said all that, none of it bears much resemblance to my project this year. Although I’m expecting it to flow quite easily, it’s very much a conventional sci-fi novel including ideas taken from my actually published by someone else novel ‘Replicas’ and also my much earlier NaNo project ‘Unspeakable’. It hasn’t yet got a title, but it goes roughly as follows: Michael is a nerdy closeted gay teenager growing up in 1960s Letchworth who has a pretend girlfriend but a crush on his best friend, and is into astronomy, ‘Doctor Who’, the Beatles, amateur radio and hobbyist electronics. There’s a mysterious windowless concrete building in the town centre which is kept locked and only a couple of people go in and out of it. At the age of eighteen, everyone in the town has special classes and nobody is allowed to say what they are. He finds some surprising stuff in the attic, and hears his mother singing songs he’s never heard before which are later broadcast on Radio Luxembourg. He and his parents (he’s an only child) go on holiday to Hayling Island in a train whose carriages have boarded up windows. When he reaches adulthood, the shocking truth about his life is revealed to him and he resolves to run away from home. I can’t really say more without giving stuff away.
One of the big challenges in writing this is that I’m not really writing about what I know but I almost am. Iain M Banks once said “write about what you know” was terrible advice and he clearly didn’t follow it much of the time, and it never did his fiction any harm. I was born in Kent in 1967, so I can just about remember the ‘sixties but have a toddler’s memories of them. My 1960s are like West Sussex. The phrase “hinterland of my life” comes to mind. West Sussex I’d never visited until my forties, long after I’d left Southeastern England. I’m somewhat familiar with East Sussex and of course very familiar indeed with Kent. West Sussex is an odd place to visit because it has features one might expect to find in Kent and East Sussex such as flint walls, chalky soil and therefore chalk streams, and similar climate, but I don’t actually know it at all well, so it’s a stranger wearing a friend’s clothes. I noticed some time ago that to me East Sussex is compressed into a thin strip in my mind labelled “just outside the county”, but which is nevertheless familiar and I know my way around it. Surrey is considerably shadowier. The same applies to the 1960s. The period 1967-69 is my East Sussex to my 1970s Kent, because it’s vaguely familiar, but the earlier part of the decade precedes my birth. That said, the lag in my parents’ lives (we didn’t get a colour telly until 1980 for instance) and the fact that I lived somewhere rural means that I kind of had a ’60s childhood. To me the contrast between the ’60s and the ’70s is epitomised by two human-powered flight vehicles, the Pelican and the Gossamer Condor. At least I think it was called the Pelican. These were, as far as I can remember, pedal-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor being the first successful one to fly around a figure-of-eight shaped test course. I don’t recall the Pelican as such but pictures of it came across to me as almost “modern” but not quite, by contrast with earlier human-powered aircraft which all looked pretty antiquated to me.
One of the most frustrating aspects of my memory of the 1960s is how I remembered pop music. The first number one I remember specifically as that was Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’. This was the last number one of the ’60s and the first of the ’70s, and given revelations since it’s quite unfortunate that I remember it at all. I don’t remember any Beatles number ones although I do remember ‘The Long And Winding Road’, though not the Beatles version – there was another by a very obscure artist whose name I’ve completely forgotten, and apparently there’s an interesting story behind that. I do not remember the Apollo 11 landing but I do remember later Apollo missions, including of course Apollo-Soyuz, which was the subject of the aforementioned 17th July 1975 writing – there’s also a diagram of the airlock in that entry. I can also remember small children’s programmes and first repeats of ’60s TV shows. My very earliest memory of music after my birth is the signature tune to ‘White Horses’ and a vague memory of the programme itself. I also remember decimalisation, ‘Sooty And Sweep’, ‘Tinker and Tucker’, ‘Bill And Ben’, ‘Andy Pandy’, ‘Thunderbirds’ but not ‘Fireball XL5’ or ‘Stingray’. Fashionwise I do remember Afghan coats and bell bottoms, and also teenagers who seemed to be heavily into flowers, peace and misty-looking films. Therefore it’s a case of almost but not quite, and the task I have is to push these memories back so that I am writing about what I know. Fortunately I have the very useful resource of Sarada, who does remember the ’60s, and also the fact that in real life time isn’t really neatly parcelled into boxes labelled ‘The 1960s’, ‘The 1970s’ and so on, and stuff that happens doesn’t just stop dead on 1st January 1970. But what I really don’t want to do is create a tired old clichéed ’60s with hippies and LSD, because for most people that wasn’t at all what the decade was like. Jimmy Savile presenting ‘Top Of The Pops’ with Jonathan King and Rolf Harris records on it provides a better impression, and the apparent sexual liberation of the time was pretty much a blunderbuss, meaning there was a load of sexual objectification and public harassment and even the acceptance of paedophilia as part of an alternative lifestyle. There were also probably rather a lot of women on tranquilisers for their mental health issues confined to domestic tasks, not being taken seriously and regularly getting beaten up and raped by their husbands, and also voting for the party their men voted for just because they saw it as their wifely duty, and that would include Labour as well as the Tories. I want a three-dimensional and convincing picture of the ‘sixties including all the nasty bits, but balancing that with more positive aspects. Jumpers for goalposts maybe.
That, then, is my task for the coming month. I don’t anticipate having any problem producing fifty thousand words by the 1st December and I have a fairly detailed plan in place, particularly of the first third of the novella. I have no idea how readable, engaging or page-turny it’ll be, but the first draft will exist by then and this time it won’t just be sixty-five thousand instances of the word “blue”, so that’s progress.