Student Blog | "How hard is it to just write words?"

As we come towards the end of the year and the busy period of Christmas approaches, our Student Ambassador Graham Dorrance explores the topics of focus, creativity, and productivity! “How hard is it to just write words?” How about 50,000 words in only one month?

Graham is in his third year studying Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands. He joined UHI North, West, and Hebrides over the pandemic, he studies remotely from the Isle of Uist and is currently one of our Student Ambassadors. 

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"How hard can writing a novel be? I’m not ‘new’ new to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve even won before, and I already did a challenge earlier this year – at the end of my second year – where I wrote over one hundred thousand in three months.

        So, NaNoWriMo should be easy. I only have to up my word count slightly from where I was at the start of the year and I’d fly through it.

        Why not set a challenge?

        Let’s do NaNoWriMo the way it was meant to be done.

        Let’s just write one novel. All these other words – essays, short stories, press releases, everything else I was writing for my course – don’t count. The only thing we care about is getting a novel out there. Once I have my novel, I’ll be able to focus on my coursework that’s all about marketing that novel and I’ll be able to start pitching it to agents. Learning how to do these things is no small part of our course and I already felt pretty behind in my second year that I didn’t already have a book published that I was able to market. I chalked it up to my failure to sit down and concentrate on one thing rather than many and the major mistake of working a zero-hour job that thought it was a fifty-hour job.

      I just need to have a novel and then I will be a writer.

##Day 1

The first day of November, I came running in with maybe three days done out of Preptober (preparing in October) and ran straight into the fact of ‘Oh yeah, I still have classes.’

      Worse than that.

       It’s my third year and I have a research project to do. I need to spend the rest of the month looking for people relevant to my project, e-mailing them, sitting on an empty inbox, rinse and repeat until some of them respond.

       Four hours of class. One to two hours of e-mailing. Three hours for stress? Depends on the day, but that’s a problem for future me.

       Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo and I’ll write 1945 words. The most productive way I can think to do this is to set up a call with some friends and we’ll do twenty-five minutes of writing, five minutes of talking, then repeat. We may get a bit wrapped up in talking, but it will only take three or four of those twenty-five minute sprints to get me over the goal for the day. Best of all, I technically have a secret first draft already that I scrapped, so I know where this part is going. Bad news is that secret first draft is only two-thousand words. Once I’m passed that, I’m on my own.

       For now, I’m working on a straightforward plan, I’ve already got myself a little bit of leeway to take breaks later. I just need to keep building that up and I’ll be able to redeem that word count for some off days when I need them.

Notebook full of writing

##Day 5

Remember how I mentioned class and the responsibilities of going to it didn’t magically disappear at the start of November? Well, the same can be said for work. I may not have a zero-hour/fifty-hour contract anymore, but I do have to make money and that means working events for friends’ works.

      Of course, all these events are in Glasgow and I’m on an island. That means I must travel down one day, do all the work the next, then travel back the day after that.

      This was the day I travelled back.

       It sucked. I’d spent the first couple days of NaNoWriMo building up my word count knowing that day four would be one of those days I needed to redeem that spare word count. I hadn’t been ready for day three, where my phone and laptop died about seven hours from where I’d be able to charge them. I’d had to cut back on my luggage, so I’d foolishly left the analogue alternatives for writing behind. ‘My work is on the cloud,’ you are a fool. I don’t have a better alternative that would have saved me in this situation (well, perhaps if I’d handwrote the entire thing) but I was still a fool for trusting technology in such a way.

     Though, thinking on it, I’d gotten an ad for a 640-page notebook right before NaNoWriMo started. Perhaps it had been a sign.

      Then, of course, I’d been working with friends and when working with friends you have to dedicate time to being social. It would be rude not to, right? Wrong. There is a novel on the line! Your word count! Your university!

      With travel back included, I managed to write 1025 words, bringing me to a measly 5311 when I should have been at 8333.

      That’s fine. I just needed to do a hard sprint of 3000 words, and I’d be caught up. As it happens, one of the lecturers hosts a co-working event on Monday mornings for NaNoWriMo. If I got in there, I could focus during that, and we’d be right back on track.

       I would, of course, oversleep.

##Day 10

Despite everything, I’m almost caught back up. I’ll only write 777 words today, but I’m at 14,568 of 16,667. That is, of course, only about a thousand words regained from my previous fall behind. What’s two-thousand words though? Why, it’s only a little more than I’m expected to write in a day anyway. I just need to pick it up and double my work (and not write 777 words instead of 1667) then I’ll be right back on track.

      Only, a couple of things are starting to crop up again.

      I almost forgot I have an assignment due.

       Well, it’s portfolio pieces. I just need to write some new short stories and submit them. They’re only five-hundred words each and with three of them that’s one-thousand-five-hundred words to add onto…

      Don’t look back up there. Don’t scroll back up. Don’t read that challenge.

      You’ll allow me one-thousand-five-hundred words won’t you? It’s practically what I need to catch up.

      My novel is almost at the end of act one.

      You know, when we sat in class, and they explained all these steps in writing a plot. There are all these points that writers have come up with that your story is expected to hit and that’s the way books are. Sometimes, if you do the maths, you can get the exact page something – a plot point, a new character, a theme – is introduced or changes in a book. They’re almost formulaic.

     When you look at these guides, they seem to have a lot on them. There are so many beats to hit.

     They’re mostly in act one.

     When you get to act two, it goes from giving you a beat every two-thousand words to giving you one every ten-thousand words.

     You’re about to have to fill ten-thousand words until the next thing happens.

      That’s a lot of words to just make something up.

      That’s a lot of words to hope your characters are landing. That they’re growing in an interesting way. That you stop being attached to the side character and try try try to make your protagonist someone people will want to know.

      You’ve gotten comfortable in your two-thousand words.

      You don’t write another two thousand because that would mean leaving them behind.

      In the end, the assignment word count doesn’t merge with the NaNoWriMo one. The assignment pieces tap into something you’ve gotten from this process.

Notebook full of writing

##Day 15

Interviews done! Thank you to all who made it possible to get this project done well before the due date and for all the fantastic insight you offered. Thank you for making it easy and answering all my questions. Thank you for lifting the weight of one more assignment off my chest so I can focus on my novel.

      My novel.

      I bit the bullet and leapt into act two and landed somewhere I didn’t expect. I’m having to wing a lot of things and the entire make up has changed and a character has a new name.

      I do more writing sprints with friends and have a tab open where I look at expensive bed clothes I try to describe (with enough changes to avoid any copyright on bed clothes).

      So, this must be where the ten-thousand words are meant to come from. Describing bed clothes you didn’t expect to exist.

      Sadly, the writing time with the lecturer didn’t run this week due to technical difficulties (and to save time later, these technical difficulties didn’t clear up for the rest of the month – maybe next year!) but I try to make up for it with friends. It’s a shame though. I’d have liked to spend it with other people on the Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands course. Not a lot of my friends were actually doing NaNoWriMo and it would have been good to be among the similarly suffering.

     Suffering was the word. The bed clothes were making my motivation dwindle.

     801 words today. 20,906 of 25,000.

     When had that gap grown again? I’d had more important things on my mind. In the end, university should come first.

     This was meant to be for university though, so where did that place it? We’re always encouraged to do NaNoWriMo. After all, it’s what writers do.

      Just write a novel. You need to have one or you’re going to fall behind.

      My lecturers never said that, but I felt it.

      How hard is it to just write words?

##Day 20

Today, I’ll write 213 words.

      25, 657 of 33,333.

      My writing has been up and down. Always writing something but never enough.

      I’m halfway there and I doubt every line I have written.

      Who is my main character? I feel like I never had a solid grasp.

      Why am I writing in the style I am? It seemed like a good idea but it’s making everything feel stale.

      I keep changing the spelling of another character’s name. I can’t settle. Too old. Too heavy. Too modern. Doesn’t match. Doesn’t fit.

      Everyone is telling me it’s meant to be hard, and it is but what if I’m not enjoying it?

      What if there’s nothing here?

##Day 25

Today, I will write 72 words. Yesterday, I wrote 0.


##Day 30

Today is the final day. I’m meant to have 50,000 words – enough for a novel. That’s what every writer is meant to have.

     Not really.

     I joined this course because I wanted to be a literary agent. That wasn’t to be, for reasons unrelated to the course.

     I’d thought I’d write a novel, maybe. After all, novels are the main way writers are known. Therefore, every writer must write a novel.

     Novel writing is only part of the course. There are so many other forms of writing. We’ve done poetry so much and I don’t have any ear for it, but I try my best.

     I’m not going to be a poet.

     We’ve done screenwriting and I hear the new students get to do writing for video games.

      I think I would have liked doing that.

      We keep getting classes on doing non-fiction writing.

      I started this course and I went, ‘I can’t stand non-fiction writing’.

      Sure, it’s one thing to read a non-fiction book, but I couldn’t imagine writing one. What would I write about? I don’t know anything about anything. Those are smart books for smart people – specialists in the field. I’m not even an interesting person to write about himself.



      Look what happened.

      The truth is, I didn’t wait for NaNoWriMo to write a book. I simply hadn’t written a novel.

       In June, I wrote a little guidebook off the back of our marketing class. I’d done a report on ‘writing jams’ – they’re kind of like NaNoWriMo but different rules based on who’s running them. At the end of it, I said I’d take part in one.

      I wrote a ten-thousand-word guidebook. That’s something that I thought was meant for smart people but turns out, there’s a gap in the market for non-smart people trying to explain stuff to people who are on the same level as them.

      The event I went to at the start of November was the first time I sold physical copies of that guidebook.

      Yet I still looked at it and went, ‘well, that’s just a silly thing I wrote for fun. It doesn’t count.’

      Maybe it did.

      I don’t think I’m leaving fiction writing behind. I’m serious about wishing I’d gotten to do the game writing class. It would be a lot easier to just show a picture of some bed clothes rather than describe them.

     But I think I write like this now.

      I was told at the start of the course to abandon what kind of writer I thought I was. That I’d learn it later and it would be someone new.

      The truth is, on day 30, I went,

 ‘I can’t wait to write a blog post about how badly I failed this.’

Student Ambassador Graham Dorrance

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