I can’t believe I haven’t written anything in this blog about NaNoWriMo! Maybe in one of the earlier iterations of my blog? But I don’t know.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s an Internet event which takes place every November, when aspiring novelists challenge themselves to write 50,000 words of fiction in the 30 days of the month. That’s 1,667 words a day. You’re not competing against anyone else, just against that (hopefully nearing) target. And you ‘win’ NaNoWriMo by reaching that target.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo 8 times, and won 8 times. I find the challenge gives me a great incentive to actually get some long-form writing done. It gives me the opportunity to be truly creative, and that has always been an almost mystical experience. I can start the project with hardly any idea of where it’s going, and then something magical happens. It’s like going out into the Wild Wood and ‘finding’ Story that is already there, meeting Story that comes towards you and embraces you like a fairy lover. Or whatever other image appeals to you. It makes me believe.

Of course, real writers sniff at a mere 50,000 words – that doesn’t make a real novel, they say. At best you might call it a novella. But I rather like the discipline of making a story and bringing it to a conclusion within that length. So here are the titles of my works over the years:

Dark Messiah – 2005

My first NaNo, which I wrote the month after Dad died, partly as a kind of grief work. It’s a fictional telling of the life of the biblical King Saul, told by 12 of the people who knew him.

A Month of Living Vicariously – 2011

This may be my favourite of all time. It concerns librarian Adrian Burrows, and takes the form of his diary during the month that he is doing NaNoWriMo. The research he does for his Excellent Plot results in three people trying to kill him, his conversion to Christianity, and his falling in love with his boss. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found it very funny. It still makes me laugh.

(Spoiler alert: Adrian doesn’t win NaNo. But he does get the girl.)

A Book of Changes – 2016

My Esperanto novella, written out of my anger over the Brexit vote, and what I believed would be the downfall of civilization as we know it. Our hero Joseph gets out of England while he still can, and embarks on a picaresque journey across Europe which leads to the discovery of the true heir of the Emperor Charlemagne, and the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. The evil media mogul and would-be world dominator Marduk is defeated, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Blood Will Out – 2017

What happens if you are convinced your blood is tainted, that your genes are fated to produce generation after generation of evildoers? This fantasy history of the last half of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st describes the age-old battle of Good vs Evil, and the final (?) triumph.

This is the only one of my completed novellas which has been ‘published’, because I wanted to learn how to produce a Kindle book. I did it! Though I wouldn’t be able to remember how. And it is available for purchase either as a Kindle book, or a print-on-demand paperback.

Latinitas – 2018

What if the Roman Empire had never fallen, and still ruled the world in the 20th century? Told by a Celtic British young man, Marcus Trinovantius Faber, this recounts how he is recruited by the Roman secret service but becomes part of a plot to overthrow the Empire, free the slaves, and make Christianity a legal religion.

Telling My Beads – 2019

Not a novel at all, but a memoir of my life and faith, and what I believe(d) – at the time. I haven’t revisited it recently to see if I still do believe it.

The Mild-Mannered Librarian Returns – 2020

Adrian Burrows has married his lovely boss and they are still working together at the library. There they discover a plot to use the powers of magic and the occult to overthrow the governments of major world countries and take control for their own secret organization.

Sadly, this is the only one of my NaNos that I never finished. I ‘won’ all right – it’s over 50,000 words long – but I couldn’t think of a way to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. So as far as I know the plot to overthrow the world’s governments and install autocratic dictatorships is still operational. You’d never think so, would you?

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones – 2022

Why are there so many religions? What was God thinking of? This is the story of the heavenly Watchers appointed by God to observe, and possibly even steer, the different world faiths. At the beginning of the 21st century, when religion seems to have become toxic, and is perceived by many as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, this story provides some answers.

I’m quite pleased with this one too, but wonder if it may be too controversial to publish.

You might have noticed that all of them are about God in some way. I just can’t keep God out of it! (The strapline of my blog may give you a clue why.)

The Meaning of Life

[Just a taster of my #NaNoWriMo effort this year.]

How fortunate we are to live in times when, faced with difficult questions, we can turn to our digital friends and helpers.

Siri, what is the meaning of life?

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

OK Google, what is the meaning of life?

“The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life’s meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question…”

(Oh, come off it, Google, you’re just reading from Wikipedia!)

Alexa, what is the meaning of life?


(Make what you will of these differences between different operating systems, MacOS, Google and Amazon.)

But is it true that contemplating a thing – a blade of grass, a cockroach, a lover’s face – for long enough, will convince you that life has meaning? Without having read his book, I’m attracted by the story of Victor Frankl. He was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, whose experience of some of the worst cruelty and brutality that has ever been inflicted by supposedly civilized human beings upon their fellows, led him to the conclusion that a person’s sanity and even survival in adversity, will depend on their ability to find meaning in their suffering. Man’s Quest for Meaning, he called his book, and with it he developed his concept of logotherapy. In contrast to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure, Frankl bases his theory upon Kierkegaard’s will to meaning: that the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human life, is the need to find meaning. I’m guessing that whether it helps us survive or not, may depend on the value of the meaning we find. “Trying to live in harmony with other people” may work better than “42”. Just sayin’…

NaNoWriMo — How was it for me?

It wasn’t my best ever NaNoWriMo: for that I still think my favourite story ever was 2011’s A Month of Living Vicariously. It cheered me up and made me laugh every time I read it for weeks afterwards. But this year was the most interesting in terms of process.

The plan I started with was to write a fictionalised autobiography. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that writing about how my life might have been, or how I would have liked it to be, was somehow devaluing the life I’ve actually lived. Don’t get me wrong: I go in for wishful thinking, what-ifs and if-onlys as much as anyone. But I’m also feeling pretty good about my life at the moment, which is a good place to be, and one I’m not proud of, because I’ve done nothing to earn it, but just very grateful for.

Instead of the autobiography, it morphed into the life story of someone who has livedthrough much the same historical period as I have (c. 1950 to the present day). (Good idea this, it means there’s less historical research necessary. Though still some: we found ourselves asking, When was the first supermarket introduced in Britain? When did DNA paternity testing become a thing?)

John (good name!) bears a dark inheritance: in every generation of his family there have been evil people, and his parents felt the burden of having to atone for this, or somehow make amends so that the ‘bad blood’ doesn’t continue to wreak havoc through the generations. When John inherited this burden, and discovered the evil twin sister he never knew he had, his story turned into a decades-long struggle between Good and Evil. How can Good triumph, when it is so weak, so powerless in comparison with the monstrous evil that is done?

I still don’t know the answer to that question; so in part this fiction expresses my own wrestling with hope, and faith, and doubt. It reaches some kind of resolution, but I’ll leave it to you to judge how convincing it is. About as convincing as the final victory of Good over Evil, I guess.

But along the way I learned some interesting things about myself, about creativity, and about how I create. Part of the story hinges on the ‘fairy godfathers and godmothers’ who attend John’s christening, grant him gifts and blessings, and help out at key points in the story. To my surprise, two of the godfathers I started out with turned out not to be the right ones, or the ones that were needed later on. Also, I had given away too much about them when they first appeared. So I had to go back, in a partial reworking phase, and both take back what I had given away, and change the identity of the two who were the wrong ones. You may find, if you read carefully, a hint about the identity of one of the original godfathers. Also, that DNA test that would have established beyond doubt the relationship of the twins: I had to think of a workaround there, and I think the workaround turned out to be better than a DNA test would have been. All of this is such fun! It really is as if you set your characters off at the beginning, and find they assume a life of their own, which they then show you, rather than you showing them. It’s almost as if they solve the problems they find themselves in, rather than you having to solve them.

In other ways, this novel is more experimental, more surrealistic, and maybe even more religious, than some of those I’ve written before. I had fun with this, too. And there was a change of title. After having the title Bad Blood all through the writing month, and even when the ‘win’ was registered, when it came to revision that felt too worn-out, and it got changed to Blood Will Out. A phrase which, it turns out, already appeared in the text.

I don’t have any plans to publish it: that all seems too much like hard work. But I would love it if any friends or readers feel like reading it. At 52,000 and some words, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. It’s not like it’s Moby Dick. I’ve put the latest PDF version of it here on Google Drive, and you’re welcome to read it there or download it to your own computer or device. I would love to hear how you get on with it, what you think of it, if you made it to the end or gave up (and why) — in fact any feedback at all.

So, if you have been, thank you for reading!


Writing tips

Isn’t NaNoWriMo fabulous? The magic works again, time after time; it’s working for me today after a shaky start; and here are the writing tips I’ve been relearning.

  1. Write like Trollope. Get a servant to wake you early (in my case, the servant is not supplied, so I have to rely on iPad’s Bedtime feature), then sit down and write.
    This wasn’t working too well for me this morning, I started feeling I didn’t like the story and it wasn’t going anywhere, but I kept writing anyway, and a breakthrough (eventually) came.
  2. Write like Dickens. If you’re stuck, go for a walk! Dickens used to walk from London to Rochester and back, but just round the block will do.

And then here’s one of my favourites — because so many of my fellow NaNoWriMo-ers obsess about plot:

Don’t start with plot! Find the characters, see them, describe them, listen to how they talk. Then let them run, and the story makes itself.

There’s magic. And it’s a lot of fun, too.