NaNoWriMo: are you lost?


It’s day ten of NaNoWriMo, and if you are keeping to the ideal daily word count of 50,000/30=1670, you will be approaching the 20k mark. If so, congratulations!

I started my first two novels with NaNo, and have sped each of the others on in November. Sadly, I’m not doing it this year – I’ve just handed in the second draft of my next one and really need to have a bit of a brain defrag before I embark on the next project. But can I please offer some advice to those of you who are on it this year?

You need to gird your loins, because you are just about to embark on the difficult middle section. You have burned into the initial enthusiasm for your idea, you have laid down your parameters, got your story engines fired up, found your setting, established your characters, what they want and, most likely, what is stopping them getting what they want. And that’s great!

But now you have to keep all that going, and grow it and nurture it all the way through to the ending. If you find this prospect daunting, you are not alone. If you are tempted to throw it on the fire and take the car down town because you think it’s all a pile of unmitigated bollocks and what ever possessed you to write anything at all, not to mention this story and all its unpromising premises – take a breath – then you are in very good company.

It may come as a bit of a blow if you like being unique, but this angst has been felt by almost every single person who ever wrote a novel, and it generally tends to strike around this mid section.

And it’s not just the pantsers who get into this state. You may have drawn up a detailed outline and now, with what you have discovered in your beginning pages, you may be looking at it and wondering what on earth possessed you to put together such a rubbish, sterile, unpromising story. (If you still think it is brilliant and marvellous and the best idea anyone came up with ever, can I have some of what you’re having?).

So how do you overcome this?

If you are a full time, professional writer, working to deadline, that very deadline, plus the knowledge that you have been here before, ridden the awfulness and beaten it down, are the main motivators through the novel doldrums. But the tactics you employ will be very much the same as those useful for a first timer on NaNoWriMo.

  1. If your story is growing in a different direction to how you had envisaged either in your outline or your pantsing dreams, this is invariably a good sign. It has started breathing for itself. Let it go for a while, let it canter off in the direction your characters and situations are pointing it. Go back to look at your outline if you must, but be prepared to be flexible. There are no rules, least of all those you wrote for yourself a couple of weeks ago.
  2. If your story is stagnating, introduce some tension. Make things harder for your characters. Then make them harder again.
  3. Keep writing, even if your heart is sinking. You have the world of possibility at your fingertips. Any marks you make will be a carving out of something from nothing. Think of Michelangelo’s Captives and how many hammer blows it took him/his assistants to release those forms from the blocks of stone.
  4. A mistake/wrong turning is a good thing – it teaches/shows you what not to do.
  5. Go into a long description of a setting or a character, just to keep writing. It may well loosen something up, help you discover what’s lacking. If it amounts to a page of meandering tosh, it can hit the cutting room floor in the second draft.
  6. Believe you can get to the end, because you can. Anne Lamott in her inspirational book Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life speaks of ‘shitty first drafts’, one of the most helpful of all writing advice I have considered over the past ten years. Give yourself permission to get it out there and not worry too much about the quality, or consistency.
  7. No one will see this draft unless you choose to show it to them. And my advice is DON’T DO THAT.
  8. Call it draft zero. It’s incredibly liberating.
  9. You can go back and fix it all later. Make a note in the margin if you are not sure about something. Make your first draft a conversation with yourself, your characters, your story.

But the main thing to remember is that EVERY SINGLE NOVELIST has been at this stuck, heart sinking, what-the-hell-am-I-doing? phase.

And if they say they haven’t? Well, they are just making stuff up.


5 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: are you lost?

  1. This rings so true for me. I’m on my second novel, and have to keep reminding myself that I thought the first one was completely terrible when I was on the first draft, but now it is good and has a publisher. Then I get scared that I knew how to write back then and I’ve lost the knack. Then I remember to breathe. All I need to do is keep writing, and then I will be able to edit. And I know editing is something I do well. Time to add more difficulties for my characters and keep on pushing through.

    1. Yep – it’s a feat of memory, isn’t it, getting through a novel? with a touch of bloody-mindedness. I once asked a couple of crime writers which was the hardest (I was on my third at the time). Sophie Hannah said the ninth. Val McDermid said the 21st was the real bastard…

      It never gets easier. But the upside is that each novel is a journey of discovery, and each time you will learn something about writing, stories and, possibly, yourself.

      But, seriously, no wonder so many writers drink…

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