In November three years ago I sat down to attempt the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in a month. I had heard of the National Novel Writing Month before but dismissed it as a gimmick. In the event it turned out to be a surprisingly positive experience, especially for a writer like myself who has a tendency to go back over stuff until that opening chapter is absolutely perfect.

The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it keeps you moving forwards all the time, even if like me you have no idea where your novel is heading. All I had was a character, Prudence, best friend of the subject of another novel I had written, set in 1920s England, about a woman discovering the joys of sex in her fifties. (I wrote about Claudia for Books for Women back in 2016 – At the end of the month I hadn’t quite achieved the 50,000 words but my novel, or rather my character, had taken me to all sorts of totally unexpected places, including espionage in World War I, the suffragists, the Bloomsbury set and all sorts.

But there was a problem: having set my character up as a free-thinking woman who as a result of an inattentive upbringing breezed through life without rules, boundaries, plans or purpose, I realised my novel did not have a story. That’s to stay a well-structured beginning-middle-and-ending, with an inciting incident that set off rising action to a climax and back down again to resolution; where the main character goes on a journey and ends up other than where she started. In other words, along with my protagonist, the novel itself had no purpose.

I wracked my brains to come up with an Idea, but I soon realised it’s not something you can do in retrospect. That’s like being able to add the crucial ingredient to a cake after you’ve baked it. So in the end I did the only thing I could think of – I made a virtue out of what could be regarded as a drawback: I made the lack of purpose a feature of the book, I even used it in the title – The Purpose of Prudence de Vere.

If you google the word purposelessness, which I did in order to look for quotes for the book, you will find it is invariably regarded as A Bad Thing. A life or a person without purpose is not worth a pin. And yet my novel is a happy thing and my purposeless central character is – if you think of it in these terms – a model of mindfulness. She lives in the moment. She is open to surprise. She is open, period. She lives her life spontaneously, according to whim and happenstance. She is a lot happier than I am. To tell the truth I’d rather like to be like her.

Would more of us be happier if we took life as it comes? If we were not driven, often blinkered, by some purpose that we’ve invented for ourselves in order to have a reason to get up in the morning?


© Patsy Trench

This article first appeared in

When your characters run away from you

In life I’m a bit of a control freak, but when it comes to creating characters in fiction I don’t seem to be able to have any kind of power over anything they do.

Controlling your characters.jpg
(sketch by Anna de Polnay)

This is annoying for a dyed-in-the-wool planner. As an example in my current oeuvre my central character – a woman in her forties whose husband, who was a spy in WW1, died under mysterious circumstances – has just decided that rather than accepting an invitation to visit Lady Ottoline Morrell in her mansion in Garsington (both of which I have researched industriously) she is going to embark on a quest to find out exactly how her husband died.

This not only alters the trajectory of my book, it threatens to turn what was meant to be a cheerful memoir of a free-thinking woman of the 1920s into a spy thriller. Now I have to down tools and make trips to the Imperial War Museum and read up on what spies did in WW1, mindful of the fact that everything to do with the secret service in the war was by definition secret, which means the answer isn’t going to come easily, if at all. (Though one joyful discovery: it turns out they – both spies and spy-masters – really were known by letters rather than names, as in ‘C’ and ‘R’ and so on.)

Imperial War Museum (2)
Imperial War Museum

How does any writer plan a book so he or she knows what’s going to happen in the end? I guess if you’re writing thrillers, or anything where plot is paramount, it’s easier to manipulate your characters to fit the story; though they are still people, with wills and desires and temperaments and a natural human instinct for disobedience. Or if they’re not they probably won’t be that interesting.

This really all came about as a result of NaNoWriMo (for those not in the know, this is an annual scheme to encourage writers to try to write the best part of a novel in one month, November). When you have to get your 2000 words a day down and you simply don’t have time to go back on things or to change your mind, let alone to research something, you find yourself making decisions on the spot that may come back to haunt you later. Hence the fact that my character married a spy. (Where did that come from?)

Writing books with recalcitrant people in them certainly keeps you on your toes, and it teaches you something else. I know a lot more about WW1 than I ever did, and even a fair bit about spying. Maybe my next book will be a spy novel.

Imperial War Museum Somerset Maugham
Did you know Somerset Maugham was a spy in WW1? (photo in Imperial War Museum)

NaNoWriMo 2

It is now nearing the end of the NaNoWri month, and no doubt many clever and tremendously hard-working writers out there are about to complete and submit their 50,000 words.

I am not one of them, though at around 33,000, which is maybe half a novel, I’m feeling relatively pleased with myself.


Has it been worthwhile?


Partly for the reasons explained in my last blog, and partly because

  • there have been many times I’ve come to a complete halt and while I would normally have shoved what I’ve done into a bottom drawer (figurately) to get back to later (or not), on this occasion I have ploughed on.
  • there’ve been several times I’ve needed to research something – WW1, the Suffragists, spying in the 19th century – but rather than nipping out to spend several hours or days in a library I’ve done a quick flip through my history books (and yes, Google) and ploughed on. Research and adjustment can come later.
  • not allowing myself to go back on stuff means I’m not getting as sick of re-reading my own writing as I usually am.

Will the end result constitute a viable novel? Maybe, maybe not. Once it’s done, all 70,000 or so words of it, that’s the time for the bottom drawer.

CONGRATULATIONS to everyone who has kept at it throughout the month, whether or not you’ve achieved your 50,000 words. As the NaNoWriMo website keeps telling us: WE ARE AMAZING.