From draft zero to published author, Julia Crouch wrote her first novel during National Novel Writing Month. She shares her life-changing experience and offers advice on how to find the time to start writing, and most importantly, how to finish your novel.
Julia Crouch was working as a self-employed website and graphic designer but dreamed of becoming a full-time novelist. However, with a hectic home life, she never seemed to have the time to write. She’d just completed an Open University creative writing course when her tutor, poet and memoirist John O’Donoghue, mentioned NaNoWriMo. “I’d really enjoyed writing short stories as part of my course, and I was interested in seeing if I could stretch to a novel, but didn’t like the idea of spending a year finding out that I couldn’t!” she said.
NaNoWriMo – the magical power of deadlines
Julia signed up to NaNoWriMo in November 2007. National Novel Writing Month is the brain child of Chris Baty. It started in 1999 with 21 participants – by 2013 there were over half a million writers taking part.
“The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambition is not a lack of talent. It’s the lack of a deadline.” Chris Baty
The goal is to write 1,667 words a day to complete 50,000 words by the end of November; it can be either a finished novel or the first 50,000 words of a novel. The words need to be original – you can use notes but not any pre-written material – and in any genre or language.
NaNoWriMo harnesses the magical power of deadlines to tell stories. As Chris Baty believes: “The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambition is not a lack of talent. It’s the lack of a deadline.”
A crazy month
There’s a never a good time to write and that November was no different for Julia. “It was crazy – at the time I had two teenagers and an 8 year old, my actor husband was away almost the entire month and I was looking after a very elderly friend, visiting her every day.”
Julia focussed on finding an hour or two each day to write. The best slots were 6-7am and late at night when there were fewer distractions. She made decisions about what to stop doing, and it wasn’t hard giving up her early morning run. One reason NaNoWriMo takes place is November is to take advantage of the miserable weather, so avoiding running in the cold dark mornings seemed a wise trade for writing time.
Finding the time is important, however once you’ve made the commitment to write 1,667 words a day, you need to stick to it and not make any excuses. Julia wrote every day, regardless of what else was planned. “The first weekend, one of my oldest friends was getting civil partnered at his farm in Cornwall. It was a weekend of champagne and dancing, but I still wrote my words before going to bed. It was quite a surprise to read what I turned out of my mind at that hour, in that state.”
Super-fast first draft
The only way to write the first draft of a novel is to actually write it and Julia found it helps to do it fast, “I wrote really quickly, and that’s a habit I have held on to. I always use the NaNoWriMo approach when writing my first draft. For me, the great thing about the process is the way it gets you past the fear and doubt. I have discovered that, however many novels you write, unfortunately those two obstacles never get out of the way.”
“the great thing about the process is the way it gets you past the fear and doubt.”
Julia likes Chris Baty’s suggestions of calling your NaNoWriMo story ‘draft zero’. No one ever needs to see it, so it’s allowed to be rubbish, or as Julia says “pants”.
From draft zero to publishing deal
On her second NaNoWriMo, Julia wrote Cuckoo. It took a further year to rewrite and edit, then she sent it off to an agent. Soon she had a three-book deal, and Cuckoo appeared in hardback in March 2011.
Julia has published three more novels – Every Vow You Break, Tarnished and The Long Fall. All her books are psychological thrillers in a genre she describes as Domestic Noir. “They are about the things people do to one another under the cover of love, friendship and family, about how there is no such thing as an ordinary person, and the mythologies we build to explain ourselves to ourselves and the outside world.”
Her latest book, The Long Fall, came from Julia wondering how a person goes on to live a life after doing the worst possible thing you could ever do to a human being. It’s told partly through the diary of Emma, an eighteen year old English girl travelling around Europe on her own in 1980. Julia took inspiration from her own teenage diaries, “I have a pile of old diaries from when I was eighteen and backpacking on my own around Europe in 1980. Some of the passages have even been lifted verbatim– though I have to stress that the actual events are all fiction!”
The other part of the story is set in the present day and is the story of Kate, who lives a sort of bird-in-a-gilded-cage existence as the anorexic wife of a wealthy banker and figurehead of a charity. Someone from her past turns up with news that will change her world forever. I must admit I’m hooked already – I love the idea for the novel and Julia had great fun writing it.
“I loved writing the book. The best part for me was that I set parts of it on the Greek island of Ikaria. According to mythology, it’s where Daedalus buried his son Icarus after his wax wings melted and he fell from the sky – perfect setting for a book called The Long Fall. Not having ever been there, I had to spend a spring week on the island, researching. I had a little room overlooking the sea and spent mornings writing, afternoons exploring and evenings back at my desk.”
The importance of setting, and adjusting, your writing goals
Julia still writes her initial drafts quickly and set herself goals. “When I am on draft zero I make myself write 2,000 words a day. Sometimes this just takes a couple of hours, sometimes it takes all day. If I fall behind in the week, I work the weekend to catch up.”
“Getting a novel written is all about breaking the massive, unwieldy whole into achievable units – scenes, chapters, word counts.”
She explains her approach of setting micro targets, “Getting a novel written is all about breaking the massive, unwieldy whole into achievable units – scenes, chapters, word counts. At different stages I’ll set myself different targets and try to stick to them. I usually fail, so I am constantly adjusting the goals.”
Once the novel is written, structuring and editing take centre stage and Julia sets herself daily targets based around scenes. “I’m currently on this with novel number 5: write three new scenes and edit one old one every day. Again, I have weekends to catch up if I fall behind.”
Julia has to hand in her new novel at the end of October and her goal is to finish the first draft before she goes on holiday in August, “but I know I will be getting up early and writing when I’m away. I just can’t stop myself.”
What Julia learnt from NaNoWriMo – and what she misses
Julia says that NaNoWriMo changed her life and helped her become a published author. She organised a pilgrimage to its head office – The Office of Letters and Light in Berkeley – where she met Chris Baty. They’ve since become friends and he even came to stay with her in England.
There’s always a place in her heart for National Novel Writing Month, “the main thing I miss not writing in November is being part of the bigger thing – I used the message boards a lot, and I love the sense of energy that you get from everyone else doing it as well all around the world. The local meetups were fun, too!”
Advice for time-starved novelists
“Set yourself a target every day – word count or time – and put it in your diary and stick to it.”
I asked Julia for her top tip for everyone who dreams of writing a novel.
“You do have the time! Set yourself a target every day – word count or time – and put it in your diary and stick to it. Even if you are only writing 250 words a day, it soon builds up. In little over a year, you’d have 100,000 words!”