With the creeping chill in the air, it can no longer be denied that fall is upon us. For those of you in northern climates, this heralds soon to come snowman-making and hot chocolate and snow tires. For those of us in the south, it means getting to wear pants instead of shorts, and maybe a windbreaker. On Christmas. Before noon. Anyway, regardless of how the weather impacts you, there are two events cresting the horizon which span the globe. Maybe. Actually, probably not. But they’re still big events around here: Halloween and NaNoWriMo.
Now I’m not going to tell you how to do Halloween, because whether it’s drinking in costume with friends, or drinking in costume with strangers, there’s really no wrong way to do Halloween. NaNoWriMo is a bit more complicated though. Year after year (that’s all, I’ve done it for two years) I see folks fall short of their word count, some even flaming out within the first week. This year will be a tough one for me as well, since I’m going to try and do the project without losing my SP buffer. So, as a review for myself, and on the off chance this might help a person or two, here are some of the tips I’ve picked up for completing NaNoWriMo
1. Picking a Project
Now, depending on the kind of writer you are, this might be a pretty easy or tough part of the process. Some authors have one idea in mind that they keep fleshing out until the book is basically written in their head, and all they need to do is find the right language to capture it. For them, there’s no call to make. NaNoWriMo is the kick in the ass they need to get writing. Other folks, like myself, have four to five projects in some phase of development at any given time. I personally blame this issue on sugar and undiagnosed ADHD for myself, but that’s neither here nor there. For us, we have to choose an idea to try and pin down and write out in only a month, and it can be tough.
The first thing to do is figure out how big this story will be. I’m basically the poster boy for fucking this up. SP Year 1 was, in conception, originally going to be 60k, tops. Final tally was north of 200k, thus it would have been a pretty shitty NaNoWriMo project. Pears and Perils came in at over 60k, which meant once NaNoWriMo was done I still had 10k to write. This was, at least, closer to the goal. I’m not saying you have to hit the 50k mark dead-on, but the truth is that after 30 straight days of writing at that pace, most of you will want a break. It feels good to sit back and look at a finished project, it feels like you accomplished something. If NaNoWriMo ends and all you can see is miles of work remaining, it will instead seem like you just pissed away 30 days on an incomplete manuscript. Sometimes it’s hard to come back to a piece when you leave with that taste in your mouth.
Next thing to ask yourself: Will I enjoy writing this work? Much as we love our art, I don’t know any author who hasn’t hit a point in a book where they just groan out loud because they’ve written themselves into a place where they have to do something they hate, like thousands of words of diplomatic dialogue before the robot velociraptors burst into the scene. Really look at the story you’re considering, how much fun are you going to have doing it? In normal books, you can trudge through the parts that are less exciting, but still necessary, at your own pace. In NaNo, it has to get done. Sure, you can jump ahead to write the climactic battle between the robot raptors and Mecha-Cthulu, however you’ve left yourself with nothing to look forward to. What do you think the odds are of you going back to finish out that dialogue now? I’m not saying it has to be non-stop adrenaline, just that there need to be enough bright spots for you, as the author, to want to write bad enough that it keeps you motivated.
Lastly, if this is your first NaNoWriMo and you’ve never written a full novel before, maybe don’t pick the project you’ve been obsessing over for several years (yes, I know allllll about it Mwahahahaha!). Your first book is a learning experience, and that’s okay. You’re going to come back later on and see lots of ways to improve what you did, which is natural. The first book probably won’t be the best you ever write, and if you try and start off with the things closest to your heart, it can get really discouraging when you reread what you’ve done and fine it not quite up to snuff. Instead pick an idea you like but aren’t determined will be your opus, because it will lead to discouragement, and discouragement is the enemy, because:
2. You Will Hate Everything You Write
I have, at this moment, three novels sitting in the range of 30-40k on wordcount. These weren’t NaNoWriMo projects, these were things I did on my own time in hopes of publishing. I did do them NaNoWriMo style, though, as in written in large chunks over consecutive days. Over time, however, I discovered that right around the 30,000 word mark, everything I wrote was shit. Not good until 30,000 and then shit forward. No, retroactively everything I’d written up to that point was now shit as well. I don’t know if everyone gets this burnout, but I’m aware of enough folks that it seems like an issue worth discussing.
Perhaps it comes from being too down deep in the nitty gritty of it all, maybe it’s because when you write one work straight through its all you can think about. Look, I love rib-eye steaks, but if you made me eat nothing but that for 30 days, I’d probably be ready to punch someone for an eggroll. After a while you can just get so worn out of the same characters that everything seems stupid. The dialogue is wooden, the plot cliché, the triceratop ninja clan’s betrayal plot-twist hackneyed as fuck. In truth, things probably aren’t as bad as you’re making them out to be. It’s just that you’re so worn out on this project that you hate everything associated with it, and can’t appreciate the good spots when you see them.
A method for getting through this problem is adding in an element that makes you laugh. A hidden theme, a humorous character, anything that makes you, the writer, happy to sneak in there. It might not make it to final draft, but if it keeps your spirits lifted enough to finish then it has still served the story.
I’ve slowly learned I can combat this by shifting projects. Now I usually write two or three things at a time, because when I start to feel burned out on one, I can switch over and tackle something totally new. Not easy to do that with a NaNoWriMo word goal. All I can say is that don’t worry about it being good or not when you get into those funks. Good comes a solid concept and writing, great comes from endless revision. If you had enough faith in the idea to choose it, then it’s probably good. There’s time for great once November has passed. Try to remember this point, because it will come up again in dealing with:
3. Fucking Writer’s Block
Writer’s block is like a Batman villain: no matter how many times you throw that fucker in Arkham, he’s going to pop back up again at the least convenient time. In our case, NaNoWriMo is definitely the least convenient time. Now, if you’re the type who fastidiously outlines every detail of their book before they start writing, then I don’t see you hitting any genuine plot obstacles. That means you’ve got the scene, you know what needs to happen, you’re just having trouble putting it on paper. This is also an issue that can strike even those of us who play a bit free and looser with their outlining procedure (cough, me, cough). These moments, in my humble opinion, stem from fear of botching an important scene, or having entered the “everything is shit” mode we discussed earlier. Essentially, you know what has to come next, the only thing stopping you is terror that you’ll be putting down crap.
The solution is, as above: Write it anyway. Robert Brockway of Cracked.com gave the excellent advice of just writing through those scenes even if you know they suck. That’s fine, sucking is part of writing. You can always come back and fix it, tweak it, find ways to make it work. If you’re staring at a blank page, however, it’s always going to be just as scary. It never magically clicks and you just know how to make the scene perfect. No, you trudge through, word vomit on the page, and start sifting through the chunks in hopes of finding a gem or two in the bile. Heck, you might get lucky and find your first try wasn’t all that bad. In the end, that doesn’t matter, though. Putting something down is the real victory.
The other type of writer’s block is the kind where you’ve gotten your characters to a point in the story and have no idea what comes next. Sure, you know they have to find the ancient power-armor of the T-Rex and enter the final time-cataclysm battle, but right now they’re at a Denny’s in Pittsburg and you’re still only 20,000 words in. How the hell do you get them from A to B?
This is a more abstract one to tackle, because I don’t know if anyone has a right answer. Plowing ahead can work, but it doesn’t mean you’ll always end up with the ending you were planning on. Sometimes that’s a good thing, you went in to write a historical romance and instead made a sci-fi dinosaur epic. That’s way less important than the ultimate question “Is it good?” which is what really matters. My favorite method for dealing with a plot-hump (as I, in my eternal classiness, call these types of blocks) is to go do an activity that lets my mind wander. Usually it’s running. With music blaring and nothing for my mind to do, it will wander, and if I let it daydream about my characters sometimes I get random scenes or ideas that are usable. Other times I get nada except blisters on my feet. It’s not an exact science.
One last trick I know is to scene jump. Yes, I said not to before, but that was when you knew what was coming and just wanted to avoid it. Here, you genuinely are not sure what to write next, so go write a part you’re set on. In the course of it, you might find the characters needs items or experiences to happen earlier in the piece so they can come up again in the scene you’re writing. This tells you stuff you need to set-up and instances that have to be fore-shadowed. Sometimes that is enough to get you out of your stuck place. If not, well, running shoes aren’t too expensive.
4. Finish Strong
The end of NaNoWriMo is always the hardest. Thanksgiving eats one to three of your days, Christmas shopping has begun to intrude on your time, and you’re just plain sick of this crap. In this part, I have no fun trick to offer, save the knowledge that you are not alone. Every other NaNoWriMo person still writing is going through it too. Hell, regular authors go through this just when finishing up a book on their own time. The end is scary, and hard, and it’s where the pressure hits you the greatest.
All you can do is plod forward one word at a time. And if you get discouraged, look back at all you’re done. Don’t read it, that way lies madness, but just skim the pages. See that shit? Forty thousand words crafted by your own hand. You did that. You’re in the home stretch. You’ve got this. Just keep pushing through. And once it’s done, you can sit back and bask in the glowing light of your accomplishment.
Until it’s time to revise.