I won Camp NaNoWriMo 2017! (sort of)

Before this July, I had never done Camp NaNoWriMo. I’d done NaNoWriMo, in November, twice, and won once. I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year because I thought the motivation of a concrete goal would be very helpful in my attempt to write the first draft of a novel over this summer – I’d found the same motivation helpful before, so why not now?

The thing I didn’t realise about Camp NaNoWriMo before starting that I absolutely loved is that you set your own goal. In my case, I set it to 30,000 words, and began. Then, once I got my work schedule through, and it got towards the end of the month, I decreased this to 15,000 words to keep me motivated. What happened when I did NaNoWriMo the year before last is that the month got away from me, and halfway through November, I only had 6,000 words, and no feeling that I would be able to achieve the 50,000 word goal, so I gave up. With an editable goal, this is not the case. The only issue with this is that as the month draws to a close, you might be tempted to edit your goal down to what you already have and call it a day. You’ve just got to have the self-discipline not to do that.

The key thing that I took away from this is clear: having a goal kept me motivated. Through writer’s block, through tiredness, through procrastination, through lows, and through sheer laziness, I had a goal to work towards, and so I did. And though I may not have a full novel, I have certainly worked out a lot about the world of it that I hadn’t already thought of through simply having to essentially live in it for a month. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone – at the price of free, it provides the motivation that anyone like me so desparately needs to get your butt into gear and write that novel that’s been sitting in your head all this time. And, if you’re like me, work out quite a few teething issues with your story along the way!

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer: Riordan’s humour and wit take on the Norse gods

When my mum asked me several years ago if I wanted to go and see a film directed by the same director that directed one of the Harry Potter films, featuring Greek mythology (a topic I had loved for years), I jumped at the chance. As soon as I came out of the screening of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I realised I had to buy the book. Once I had read it, I disowned the film of course, seeing how it paled in comparison to the book (and I don’t mean in a pretentious ‘the-book-is-always-better’ kind of way, I mean it in the sense that they took a great concept and storyline and twisted it into a shadow of its former self). I loved the original Percy Jackson series, I loved the Heroes of Olympus series, and so Rick Riordan secured himself in my list of authors whose every book I read.

I have read the first book by Riordan in the Kane Chronicles, which are based around the Egyptian gods, and didn’t love it as much as I didn’t feel attached to the characters. Despite having heard good things about Riordan’s take on the Norse gods, I was slightly dubious when it came to Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer. I needn’t have been.

From the opening, I loved this book. Riordan creates another sarcastic, funny protagonist, and yet somehow Magnus is different enough from Percy that he doesn’t just seem like a copy of the character that so many readers know and love. Riordan retains the hilarious chapter titles that made me laugh out loud just flicking through the contents page, all as original as the ones seen throughout his previous books. There is a great connection to the Percy Jackson series in that, as can be guessed from Magnus’ surname being Chase, he is the cousin of Annabeth Chase, Percy’s girlfriend. This link could have felt forced and an attempt to endear the readers to Magnus, but instead it felt very natural and worked well.

I was slightly nervous that I would not understand this book as well due to not knowing much about the Norse gods, but instead the book serves as a great introduction to them. With a glossary of terms and important figures in the back, and you learning everything along with Magnus, it is very easy to pick up on Norse mythology. A lot of the traditional mythology is interspersed with modern twists – for example, one of the highlights of the novel for me was Thor’s use of his hammer, Mjölnir, to watch tv shows such as Game of Thrones.

One of the other great things about this book is that there is explicit representation. The Valkyrie who saves Magnus, called Sam, is a Muslim teenage girl with a majic hijab that can camoflauge up to two people at a time, and through her character various topics, including arranged marriage and Islamophobia, are explored. One of Magnus’ two protectors, Hearth, is a deaf elf, and his deafness is the only reason that the characters survive the final battle of the book. The characterisation within this book generally speaking as well is fantastic, with a vast array of unique and interesting characters, including a talking sword and two talking goats, and I am left interested to know how these characters develop as the series continues.

With the first chapter of the sequel that was in my copy of the book, I am very intrigued to read the next installment in this series, and any more than follow, and see how Riordan further develops this world that he has created.

Reflecting on my first year at uni

Having just finished my first year at university, I thought it might be good to reflect on it and share some of my tips for people who are in the position that I was last year – terrified, excited, and almost completely clueless as to what they’re going to face come September.

There’s not much that I can say in terms of workload that hasn’t already been said a million times over – university learning is self motivated. No-one is going to chase you up if you don’t do it, it’s your loss, so discipline is super important – although the occasional nap (or daily in my case) won’t hurt you. At least it won’t if you do a low contact hour subject like I do!

Also, if you do the reading for the lectures, you will understand them far better. Granted, there is some reading that is a little redundant, but it is far better to do it if you have the time to start off with, and then later use your time doing more useful things. Just try to do the reading – you don’t want to be the person that turns up to the first seminar absolutely clueless. Like I said before, university is self-lead teaching to an extent, so get as much out of it as you can by doing the reading.

Realise you’re not necessarily going to get a first. I have a lot of friends who were very high achieving students at school, and they got to uni, got a 2:1 for a piece of work, and were really upset. I’m not saying you’re not going to get a first, you might do, and well done you if you do, but a first is not the be all and end all, and even if you don’t do so well in first year, learn from it. You’re there to learn, after all, so see a lower grade a chance to improve yourself. Go and ask for help if you don’t understand your marker’s comments, and if you need it, ask for help with your essays from the services that are available at your uni. Friends can be invaluable for this, especially with creative writing. Exchanging work and reading through each other’s helps both of you, both in proofreading and in seeing how they responded to the same prompt.

Make sure that you know where you can go if you need help – I have been in the fortunate position not to need any help this year, but knowing where those services are can be really helpful in those times of stress and panic, so you – or someone else – can do something about it.

Here comes another cliché – don’t be afraid to try new things. I started Ballroom and Latin American Dance this year through university, and it has honestly been one of the best experiences of my first year at uni. You don’t have to commit to everything that you sign up for – I signed up for four or five societies after my uni’s societies fair, but I now only regularly attend two of them. And the societies expect this dropout – it’s far better to try these new things and then decide you don’t like them than to not try anything at all and wish that you had come March. Most societies even offer a free trial session, or don’t require you to pay membership until a few weeks in, so you might as well give them a whirl. Societies are also one of the best places to meet people, as you’ll be with people with similar interests to you, and you’ll meet people from across the uni, across departments, across years, postgrads, undergrads… Basically, socieites are great, so sign up for them if you can.

But also remember that it is okay to say no. I was feeling a bit rough the first few weeks of uni, especially in Freshers’ Week, so I went to two quiz nights and one night out. My flatmates asked me if I wanted to go out every night, but as I don’t drink I was quite daunted by the prospect of going out with a large group of complete strangers, so I stayed in my room instead, and I was far happier for it (as was my bank account!). I’m not saying don’t go out, all I’m saying is that if you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to do it. Try to do new things, but if you’re really not feeling it, no-one is going to hate you for saying no. I’m still good friends with my flatmates, so if my experience is anything to go by, there’s nothing to be feared in saying no.

On the topic of flatmates, remember that you need a little give and take, but at the same time you can’t be a doormat. If you have a 9am you have to get to, or like me have to get up at 4am to get ready for a dance competition, and they’re hosting pres, blasting music and yelling at the top of their voices, just go in and talk to them. If they’re decent people, they will offer to move pres (it’s not like there’s likely to be a shortage of accomodation in walking distance that they can use). If they don’t, just remember to make as much noise as you can getting ready in the morning. (I joke, of course). Do your washing up, tidy and clean up after yourself, take the bin out, but don’t let your flatmates leave you to sort the state of the kitchen or any other shared areas in the flat. I was really fortunate with my flatmates, we’re all quite clean and tidy people. I do, however, have friends who live with flatmates who use their stuff and leave it disgustingly dirty, ruin it, or (the worst flatmates I’ve heard of) don’t take out the bin, rather taking out the full bin liner and leaving it on the floor until it spawns maggots. So basically, good luck with flatmates, and try to be a good flatmate yourself.

Chat to people. There is never an easier time to meet people than the first few weeks of uni – everyone is out to make friends, no-one knows each other. I walked up to someone because I saw them wearing a Welcome to Night Vale t-shirt in freshers’ week, and we’re now really good friends. Granted, some people I spoke to in freshers’ week I now only see on occasion when scrolling through Facebook, but I didn’t lose anything in talking to them. And if you aren’t making that many people during Freshers’ Week, it’s not an issue. It becomes so much easier to meet people once term properly starts, and you have lectures and seminars that force you with groups of people.

Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not. The best way to make the best friends is to be yourself, as you’ll end up with friends who are like you. That’s kind of general life advice, but from what I’ve experienced, it’s especially true at uni.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone who isn’t enjoying uni within the first couple of weeks is to at least stick it out until Christmas. What will you lose by staying at uni for a few extra months that you would gain by dropping out after a few weeks? It’s a rollercoaster of emotions – you’ll feel fine for a bit, then you’ll feel a bit wobbly, then awful, and fine again – not necessarily in that order. As I said in my previous post on change, I would quite happily have not gone to university the morning of travelling up, and I would have quite happily gone home many a time during the first few weeks. But now I’m home for the summer, I miss uni terribly. I miss my friends, I miss the city, I even miss my lectures and seminars. So give it your best shot, it can feel really hard at times, but before you know it, it will be the Christmas holidays, and if you don’t feel better by then, then uni probably isn’t for you. Which there is no shame in, uni definitely isn’t for everyone. But at least you would have given it a good go, and you know for sure.

On a more practical note: budget. I sat down with my mum a few weeks before uni started and we worked out what allowance I would need on top of my maintenance loan and the savings I had from working over the summer. I opted for uni accomodation with an en suite, which was expensive, I’m not going to lie (it worked out ~£700 a month, bills included, on an 8 month contract), but I am personally glad I did. I then had to budget a lot, because my loan didn’t even cover my accomodation, so I had to watch my pennies. My recommendation would be to cook as much as you can, if you’re going to be on campus all day, take a packed lunch with you, and find the cheapest place to shop locally. I’m lucky in the sense that I am a vegetarian, and vegetarian food from the supermarket is so much cheaper than meat in my experience. I didn’t go out very much, and when I have gone out I’ve never paid more than £5 for a ticket to get in, and never buy any drinks once I’m out. I also don’t drink alcohol (a personal choice), so I didn’t have that to pay for either. I would add at this point that you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, you can drink occasionally, no-one really cares. I was convinced prior to going to uni that there’s a massive drinking culture at uni, everyone drinks, and you’re considered weird if you don’t drink, and whilst yes, there are a lot of people who like to drink a lot at uni, they don’t care if you drink or not. It’s your business. And, at least at my uni, there are a lot of societies opting for more non-drinking events – laser tag, bowling, and trampolining, to name but a few. So if that’s a concern of yours, don’t worry.

I hope this has helped someone, and I wish everyone going to uni in September the best of luck, and I hope that you enjoy the experience as much as I do!

The differences in planning

One curious thing that I have noticed when talking to other writers about how they write is the amount of planning that goes into their work. Some people plan so much that the story is basically written for them, others start with nothing more than an idea and a blank word document.

A quote on this point comes from Zadie Smith, who famously starts with nothing more than an idea: ‘How does anyone begin a story knowing how it will end?’. I am inclined to side with her slightly on this matter – whilst I do have a general plot planned for everything I write, I change things as I go along, as what sounds well in a plan doesn’t necessarily flow well in the real thing. It’s the reason I have to write in chronological order except in exceptional circumstances – I can’t risk wasting my time on writing pages and pages that may not make sense when I write what preceeds it. I do however know someone who had a 5000 word plan for his novel, and just wrote within that. Which to me sounds crazy.

But my planning has reached another level – I have a page in my bullet journal dedicated to tracking the progress of my ideas, with a checklist of initial concept, characters, developed plot, chapters planned, reception of my ideas by my friends and family, the type of narrative… the list goes on. And I only feel comfortable starting to write when I have all these things ticked off, which presents a potential problem:

Satisfaction.

Many people experience this issue – as soon as someone says that your idea is really cool, or seems excited by it, sometimes you can be satisfied by that and the wind leaves your sails. You don’t have to write it, because by that one person, or multiple people, saying that the idea is cool, you’ve received all the recognition you need and subconciously, you stop. This same thing sometimes happens to me with planning novels. If I, like my friend, wrote a 5000 word plan for a novel, I would stop. To me, it’s basically done by that point, no matter how much that is not the case and the actual novel would be more like 70,000 words long.

So, in short, don’t be guilted by other people in thinking you have to write a long plan like I was. Different things work for different people, and there will always be people that do more than you, and always people who do less. You have to find the rhythm that suits you best, you have to keep that satisfaction at bay until you have finished and you are truly satisfied with what you are written, so ignore everyone else, and get writing!