Bisous, Tilly

It’s that time of year again – Camp NaNoWriMo! I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo challenges in various forms for nearly ten years now (pause for a slight age-related scream of horror) and my last couple of efforts haven’t exactly gone to plan. My writing in general has hit a bit of a stall – I’m brimming with story ideas, but finding very little connection to the characters I’m coming up with, making writing from their points of view very difficult. So, for Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I’m not setting myself a strict wordcount challenge: instead I’m going back to a story I’ve been writing on and off for even longer than I’ve been attempting NaNoWriMo, and I’m pledging to get it finished once and for all. That novel has gone through several titles, but is currently known as… ‘Bisous, Tilly’.

I’ve been writing this novel for so long now, I know its main character, the eponymous Tilly, better than I know myself.

I know, I know, that sounds totally trite and cliché as all hell. But it’s true. I barely know which way is up in my own life at the moment, but Tilly? I know her inside and out, every inch.

You’ll have heard me talk about this book under its various titles throughout the years. It’s spent most of its time as ‘Etouffé’, but I thought ‘Bisous, Tilly’ might be a bit more appropriate. It’s the journal of a sixteen-year-old French girl as she’s uprooted from her cosmopolitan life in central Paris, and moved into her new stepmother’s house in the depths of the English countryside. Tilly has to deal with the major culture shock of suddenly being surrounded by horses, dogs, and wholesome blonde step-siblings, while navigating a posh new sixth form and the uncovering of some unpleasant family secrets.

I started writing in a fit of temper while I was an aupair in France – the house was attached to a riding school in the middle of the countryside, and the adorable blonde children I was supposed to be taking care of were tiny hellions, determined to get in the workshed and find a saw or a drill to play with. To a lazy teenager fresh off her first year of uni, aching for adventure, the idyllic countryside was a stifling trap that smelled like manure.

Over the years, the story evolved from just a direct self-insert rant, albeit one that had swapped countries and situations, into an actual plot. I kept thinking to myself, ‘what if?’. More and more situations kept being added onto Tilly’s life, and more and more characters. I did bits and pieces on and off, then did a radical rewrite for the 2014 Camp NaNoWriMo that got it to nearly 100,000 words.

Since then, I’ve been adding and adding to it, and now (after some brutal edits and a concerted effort alongside another unfinished novel for the November NaNoWriMo 2014) it’s hovering around the 150,000 word mark and I can finally see the end. My target for this Camp?

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NaNoWriMo 2014

Once again NaNoWriMo is over. November has been my favourite month of the year ever since I found out that National Novel Writing Month exists – 50,000 words (at least) of a new novel, being done in thirty days… 30 days hunched over my laptop, pounding out words while surrounded by buckets and buckets of coffee. Absolute bliss. No matter what else is going on in my life, I always, always make time for NaNoWriMo.

I was a little bit of a rebel this year. I’d already written 10,000 words of this year’s novel, my young adult epistolary story, Étouffé. I ended up reaching 94,581 words, not including those first 10,000 – I’m counting that as a success. Actually, it’s one of my best years ever.

The story is, of course, nowhere near finished. Halfway through at the very most.

The idea for Étouffé came to me years ago. Actually it was… oh, bloody hell, it was six years ago. Now that makes me feel elderly. I was working in France over the summer as an au pair for three tiny children whose parents ran a riding school. It was the furthest I’d ever been into the middle of nowhere, and I quickly came to realise quite how much I hated the countryside, I hated horses, I hated everything about the farming life. Everyone was so wholesome. To my not-quite-nineteen year old mind, it was horrifying.

What’s more, I had no laptop, no internet, and an ancient phone that could just about manage to text, but nothing more. I did think I’d come prepared for the summer, dragging an entire suitcase of books with me on the train through France, but it wasn’t enough.

I started to take out my frustrations in writing, creating a teenage character not unlike myself, thrust into country living. I decided it would be the other way round from me, though – a haughty Parisian beauty dragged to the English countryside to move in with her new step family.

That’s about as far as I got, though, in a bright green exercise book with squared paper, bought from the only supermarket I’d seen in about a fifty mile radius. I scribbled furiously while my charges were asleep, hiding in my bedroom from a giant, slobbery dog called Basil whose one mission in life seemed to be to lick me to death.

Of course, very little of that first few thousand words has survived. The main premise is still there, and the basis of the characters, and my narrator’s somewhat traumatic backstory (of which she is mostly unaware). But over the years I’ve come up with a decent plot and structure, and a cast of characters who have really come to life in my head.

I’ve got to say, this project has had the highest level of planning of anything I’ve ever written before. I had 20,000 words of plotting, characterisation, settings and timelines before I even started. I got so immersed in Tilly, my main character, that I even started to act like her. Not a good thing – she’s a selfish, self-centred bitch for at least a third of the novel. All this crazy planning meant that right from day 1 of NaNoWriMo, I was powering out of the gate; for the first time in years, my stats graph isn’t littered with big blocks of nothingness, followed by the occasional spurt. This time it was steady, but still leading to almost double the 50,000 word target. In fact, I think I would have got to well over 100,000 words if the last few days hadn’t fallen at the start of one of my most stressful weeks of work since I moved to Manchester.

I’m going to credit part of my success this November to having an actual physical writing buddy – my friend Sara happens to be in Manchester for uni for a few months, and we could actually have our own little write-ins in the best Costa in Manchester. It’s awesome to actually have company, to be able to bounce ideas off one another, to laugh about our occasionally dimwitted moments of sentence construction and plot idiocies. So thanks, Sara!

Now might be a good time to actually throw in the typical stats-graph picture…

NaNoWriMo 2014

Look! A steady incline! Makes a welcome change from years past…

So that’s my NaNoWriMo 2014 story… with so much going on in my life at the moment, I have no idea what my 2015 November will hold. I’ve put aside Étouffé for now, purely because I have other things that should be a priority, writing-wise. But it’s been a lot of fun writing this first half (or third, or whatever) of it, and I feel it’s going to be one of my most entertaining novels.

In case you haven’t heard my spiel yet, I’d recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who thinks they might have a book in them. With the support from the forums and the healthy competition between friends, it’s the best way to churn out that first draft; maybe it won’t be perfect, but you’ll end the month with 50,000 more words than you started it. The other eleven months of the year can be for the whole perfection part: November is for your brain dump. If I can manage to sit down for an hour or so every day and churn out 3000 words at a time, then anyone with two fingers and a computer is more than capable.