E is for End

Surviving a month of wordcount, Part IV

It’s here! The fourth and final week of NaNo. You know what else is here? A huge American holiday (dedicated to colonizers, of course, because how very US) and concomitant drains upon a poor frazzled writer’s time, energy, and commitment.

Because we couldn’t just do this the easy way and pick a month where nothing happens. That’s just not how writers roll.

If Week Three didn’t break you, Week Four’s going to do its best. I wish I had something nicer to say about the last week of November, but… I don’t. I never have.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Get out your card.

Remember waaaaay back in Week Two, when I shared the 3x5 Card Hack? It’s time to get out that card daily twice daily—or whenever you sit down to steal a few minutes with your beloved work-in-progress, your choice.

If NaNo is the writing-a-novel progress compressed into a single month, Week Four is the slide to the finish. The main push is behind you, the doldrums have turned into a hurricane, and now your aching fingers, threadbare nerves, and spasming back muscles are begging you to just slow down a bit, even though you’re so close to the end you can taste it. The story, however, wants to slide out on a tide of blood and muck, and you’re stick in the middle.

You might think that because you’re near the end, you don’t have to look up at the rest of your route (to continue beating the mountain-climbing analogy to death) or remind yourself of why you’re doing this. Danger, Will Robinson! It’s even more critical now than when you were slogging through the damn doldrums.

This is a different kind of endurance race. Consider it the last leg of the triathlon—you could stop and feel good about what you’ve accomplished, certainly, but how much better will you feel when you finally write THE END?

Zeno’s Paradox Finish.

I mention this because plenty of books are deceptive little bastards. If you have an outline, the actual book has more than likely veered off course a week and a half ago. If you’re a pantser, you can sense the ending and you know where it is, but you’re groping for a light switch in a dark room with carnivorous furniture—and that light switch is moving.

It never fails. The closer I get to the end of a book, the more that ending seems to recede into mist. In order to make the tapestry hang correctly, more pegs and lines need to be hammered into the wall. I think I can finish it in two scenes, but two become three, three become five, and it feels like I’m doomed to forever be writing the end of the goddamn story.

Why does this happen? Part of it is just that the map—the outline, that sense of the story inside your head—is never the territory. Part of it is that the branching web of aesthetic choices necessary in the act of creation makes some land or sensed things impossible and opens up unforeseen avenues at the same time. But mostly, it’s about the book in your head versus the book you’ve actually written.

This difference between the book in your head and the book your fingers have brought to bear is torment for many a writer. I hear that visual artists have a similar gap between the image in their head and what ends up being executed. The good news is, this feeling is common, you can understand it’s a trap, and it doesn’t have to stop you. The book in your head will never match the book your fingers have brought out, but you can’t get real feedback or revise the one that resides solely in your head, and—more importantly—you can’t sell your imaginary book to a publisher or to eager readers. All the imaginary book does at this point is sit there like a tumor, bleeding off necessary resources for finishing the damn project.

So what do you do? Keep going, and…

Kill the messenger.

The bad news is, the disjoint between Imaginary Book and Real Book is deep, disconsolate, and does its best to make you stop writing. Which means you need to kill it before it can spread.

After all, if you don’t have it written, you can think about what you wanted the book to be, and you don’t ever have to spend the hard work on finishing it. It’s akin to claiming “writer’s block” and getting tea and sympathy, when really what’s needed is to figure out what’s draining the creative energy requisite to finishing—fear, toxic surroundings, laziness, angst, control freakery over the story wanting to go a different direction, or what-have-you—hunting said enemy down, and dispatching it posthaste so you can get the damn quest done.

It’s ever and always more seductive to talk about writing than it is to actually write. It’s akin to people who mistake the effort of just reading self-help books to the real work of actually putting any of the suggestions into practice.

That’s why the index card(s)—tangible reminders of why you started this damn thing and what it will be—are so powerful. They refocus your attention on what needs to be done to pull off that shiny idea you had, which kicks the Imaginary Book right in the pants.

And let’s face it, that asshole needs kicking so you can get shit done.

So let’s say you started strong in Week One, prepped well in Week Two, you made it through the doldrums of Week Three, and you’ve raced for the finish in Week Four. And let’s say you actually finish.

What comes next?


Get high, get fucked, get a day off—do something nice for yourself, and for yourself only. After all, you did all the goddam work, and you accomplished something. Many people call themselves writers, a subset of them actually write, a subset of those finish a novel, a subset of those finish more than one. You’re in a tiny sliver of a population, and you got there entirely by your own efforts. Feel good about it! Celebrate—and be ready for it to hurt.

Any massive physical (typing 50K+ words is hard on the wrists, back, core, legs, and beck), psychic, emotional, and mental effort is going to leave one with a quasi-hangover. I call it “snapback”, and you need something pleasant to get you through it. A celebration can look like anything you want it to—dinner in a nice restaurant, a bottle of your favorite libation, a session with a massage therapist, a long walk, a small item bought. You know best how to reward yourself. Do it. You deserve it.

But… what if you didn’t get there yet?

…wait, what if I’m behind?

It’s okay.

No, really. It’s okay. It’s just fine to be behind. The Chihuahua of Real Life humps many an ankle daily, and if it’s been up on yours, it is perfectly fine.

Being behind is okay. Quitting is not.

Yeah, yeah, sure, you can decide the book is irretrievably broken and decide to shift your efforts to one that isn’t. That happens. But that’s not what we’re talking about here; that’s an entirely different series on this ol’ Substack, one I’ll probably bring out when it’s subscription-based. (But I digress.)

If you’re behind, look at when you can reasonably expect to finish the damn book. Adjust your deadline accordingly. Put the deadline on your calendar, keep your index card, and keep plugging away.

Simple. Exquisitely, terrifyingly simple.

What, you thought it would be easy? Nope. If this were an easy job everyone would be doing it instead of talking about it, my cherub.

It’s going to be difficult, because you won’t have the built-in community of NaNo urging you on. It may be a little easier in some respects because you won’t have other people’s wordcount to lambast yourself with. Give yourself credit for what you’ve done so far, get yourself a tiny prize for that, take a deep breath, and on December 1, sit down for about ten minutes and plan our your amended deadline.

And then…

Let it go.

If you’ve finished, great! Celebrate, and then put the messy, lumpen, threadbare in some places and terribly overwrought in others mess that is a finished zero draft in a drawer or a folder, and let it go.

If you haven’t, wallow in self-doubt and misery for a discrete period of time. (I find about twenty minutes is my max. What, you thought timers were only for writing sessions?) Then give yourself one more small prize for coming this far, and let the misery go. You can’t work productively with one hand occupied in self-flagellation. (I’m going to gloss over the extremely abundant jokes about wanking here, but we can all pretend I’ve made them and chuckle.)

Do an Elsa, and let that shit go.

Finished drafts need a little time to sit and steam, so you can go back to them later with fresh eyes and actually see the forest for the trees. The unfinished brute you didn’t manage to slay during NaNo will go down a lot easier if you aren’t stabbing yourself at the same time you’re swinging at it.

Either way, this week you’re going to have to let some things go. Do yourself a favor and choose the right ones.

I’ve… sort of finished?

Some of you will no doubt be saying, “I have my fifty thousand words but the book isn’t done, oh my God what have I done, HALP!”

Relax. Fifty thousand words is a benchmark; it’s actually low on the wordcount required for an actual no-foolin’ novel. You’re almost there. Go back up to the “what if I’m behind?” section, get mad, set a new deadline, and keep stabbing the story. You’re going to make it.

After all, you’ve produced fifty thousand words, which is nothing to sneeze at. Quitting at this point would be a waste, right? Imagine all the people who said you couldn’t do it.

Now imagine punching them in their silly faces with the news that you did, in fact, Do It. (Figuratively. Figuratively. Do not actually punch their faces. That leads to assault charges and paperwork, and we all hate paperwork.)

You survived.

Regardless of whether you “finished” according to NaNo’s benchmarks, you’ve accomplished something amazing. There’s bad news—you only learn how to write the novel you’re writing now, revision is a whole different beast, and publishing is a crazy goddamn ratfuck of an industry even at the best of times.

But the good news is, you made it through November. You proved that you can do something, whether it’s finish a novel in 50k, write 50k of a novel you’re goddamn well going to finish by your new deadline, or kept the faith and produced a sizable chunk of wordcount despite the best November (always a dreadful month because of the holiday looming Scylla-and-Charybdis at its end) could throw at you.

You’ve done well. Revel in it.

Thus endeth my four-part series on NaNoWriMo. I’m going to take next week off—I need it desperately—and then I’ll be back with some thoughts on revision, deadlines, and what to do now that you have a chunk of rough wordage in a novel-sized shape.

Not all at once, mind you. But if this is your cuppa, go ahead and subscribe, and I’ll see you on December 10.

Until then, my best beloveds, you know what to do. Celebrate, take a break, take a breath.

Then—you guessed it—get back to writing.

B for Behind

Surviving a month of wordcount, Part III

Welcome to the third week of NaNoWriMo, my friends. If you’re having a ball, entirely on target, and feeling fine…

…how in the hell are you doing that, and where do I get what you’re on?

One of the things about NaNo is that it tends to compress the usual novel-writing stages into week-long chunks. Which puts Week 3 right in the dreaded doldrums—that time when the original shiny, juicy newness of the idea you were all hot under the collar for has vanished in a cloud of aching carpels, physical and emotional exhaustion, imposter syndrome, the hellish suspicion that you might not be cut out for this writing gig, and a whole lot of other un-fun.

It’s a wonder anyone ever finishes a novel at all, isn’t it. Let’s get to work.

The Dreaded Behind

Every time I talk about this I giggle, because I’m twelve inside. But I also laugh because it’s too painful not to. Gallows humor might be ugly, but it also helps keep one sane.

Even if you’re completely on time and on target at this point, you’re more than likely feeling like you’re not. This is usually when all the insecurities pop up rank and foul, ready to crowd into your cerebellum and drown you. Stress and the ever-popular imposter syndrome (that fucking liar) are a lead belt just when you need buoyancy most.

How do you handle the Dreaded Behind when you’re actually, well, behind? What if you’ve reached Week 3 and the wordcount meter is staring vengefully at you, and in order to “win” you’ve got to hork up some ungodly number of words per day based on a (pretty arbitrary) deadline? How do you answer the weasels of guilt and self-doubt that start yelling I knew you couldn’t do it, how could you think you were cut out for this, you’re a failure, everyone hates you and it’s easy to see why, you couldn’t even keep up with this?

If that last bit sounds familiar, no, I’m not reading your mind. I’m simply reciting what my own internal demons start screaming every time the doldrums hit. Every book I’ve ever finished has given me those thoughts when I hit the dreaded Non-Shiny Point and the ending recedes like a mirage.

It’s even worse when you look at, say, a NaNo word counter or your writing buddies, and everyone seems to be further along than you. The doubtweasels grab onto that perceived lack, that perceived failure with both hands, and use it to bludgeon you.

I could pat your hand or your head and try to come up with a ringing declaration of your innate worth, but if you don’t believe it, how in the hell am I going to make a dent in the disbelief? So, I’m not gonna.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about the most wonderful weapon in the world, the thermonuclear BFG that is the only thing I’ve ever found big enough, bad enough, and bastard enough to burn those thoughts.

Are you ready? It’s…

Spite. Yes, spite.

I can repeat affirmations to myself all day and not make a dent. I can do all the meditation in the world, read all the Minestrone or Whatever for the Soul, dig up all the posts on loving and forgiving myself and others, on and on and on, and the only thing I’ll have to show for it is a headache and the persistent feeling that some critical piece of forgiveness or ruth is missing from my genetic makeup.

If it helps you, great! But it doesn’t help me. It’s wasted time, and worse, wasted effort. Instead, I get angry.

I get flat-out pissed. And I get to work.

Perhaps it’s because I was told from a very young age I wasn’t good enough for anything. Over and over, I wasn’t valuable enough to be treated kindly, I was stupid, worthless, head in the clouds, worthless, dreamy, maybe book-smart but not street-smart, silly, and did I mention worthless? Those voices, dripping like water, have worn away at me all my goddamn life.

I know intellectually that they’re wrong. But when you’re fighting a manuscript with both hands, you don’t have the wherewithal to grab the doubtweasels by the throat. You need an ally, preferably one with a cannon, an eyepatch, and a mean temper.

Look, the world is full of people who want to make you feel shitty. Whether it’s because they get off on your pain, or they need to drag you in order to paper over their own inadequacies, or just because they’re addicted to shit-stirring doesn’t matter, the end result is the same.

And so is the cure. Take a deep breath, and get mad.

Feeling good about myself is never easy. But being utterly, spitefully determined to spit in the eye of whoever’s ragging on me now? Oh, that’s like sliding a light sled on greased runners. It’s damn near effortless.

So far, my ability and propensity to say Motherfuckers, I am going to prove you wrong has fueled sixty-odd books, fifty-plus of them published and on shelves. It’s gotten me out of two bad marriages, dragged me through the darkest times of my life when even therapy wasn’t cutting it, pulled me back from the brink of self-destruction, and given me a few chuckles along the way.

Sure, it might be a terrible book, but it won’t be a terrible, unfinished book. Sure, I’m behind, but that just makes me more determined to eventually finish this bastard book. Yeah, So-and-so hates my work, but I’m gonna publish more and laugh in their fucking face because I am a juggernaut of spite and that gives me the strength to carry on like Celine Dion singing heartbreak, baby.

Notice that this spite, this anger, this rage isn’t openly directed at anyone else. It’s not I’m gonna break So-and-so’s legs, even though So-and-so might need a good beat-down. Christ knows they generally do, but leave that shit to karma, because you’ve got books to finish and going to prison will put a crimp in that. Get your spite together and pour it into the fuel tank instead, my friend.

You might not want to finish your NaNo project on your own account, especially if you might miss the deadline or your wordcount’s dropped because the Chihuahua of Real Life is humping your leg. But I’ll bet hard cash that you can scrape up some energy and throw a punch or two you get good and fucking spiteful over it.

You don’t think so? All right. That’s fine.

Prove me wrong.

Self Care

Now, spite’s all well and good. It’s a fuel that keeps on giving. But you also have to take care of yourself. Fifty thousand words is hard on the delicate structures of the fingers and wrists, not to mention your upper (and lower) back.

Find some stretches to do and perform them religiously. Look into icing your forearms. Do whatever it takes to make your working station comfortable enough that you don’t shred your entire body getting to the finish line. It doesn’t matter what kind of stretching you do, just do something.

And along with that is our lesson from Week One about protecting your time. It’s not just your time you’re looking out for, but your emotional and mental well-being. Writing a novel takes physical and emotional energy.

Just like there are people who will shit all over you for their own purposes, there are people who want to bleed off your precious emotional and mental energy to pour into the black holes masquerading as their narcissistic little souls. It isn’t an unkindness to make them look for prey elsewhere. On the contrary, it is a very real and necessary kindness to yourself. You deserve at least as much consideration as the people who want to suck you dry as a discarded orange slice, don’t you?

Or, perhaps—I know this is a hard thought—maybe you deserve more consideration after all? Just… sit with that idea for a moment. Try it on, see how it suits you.

And now, let’s talk about…

The Last Gauntlet

The doldrums are terrible. The end of the book seems just as far away no matter how much you write. Your body aches, your soul withers, your head’s tender—all the bad parts of a terrible hangover without the fun bits, frankly.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Why? Because, much like a rejection that has a personal note or some feedback attached, it’s a sign that you’re enduring the very last gauntlet before you win.

Plenty of writers stop in the doldrums. The book isn’t shiny anymore, talking about writing is more pleasant and publicly fulfilling than actually writing, and anyway, the end is a shimmering mirage that won’t ever be as good as the picture you had in your head. No wonder so many of us pack it in when the climb becomes a grueling endurance contest. Even spite may not be enough to get you through, though I swear by all my gods it’ll get you far indeed.

If, however, you can shift your viewpoint a little bit—just the slightest fraction, just a touch—and remind yourself that this is the last awful hill before you cross the finish line and feel that glorious, orgasmic, and utterly exhausted release of typing the end or finis or rocks fell and everyone died (your mileage may vary), it might give you that last crucial bit of stubbornness you need to kick sand in the face of everyone who said you couldn’t do it, everyone who told you that you were worthless and stupid and couldn’t finish a hot dog, let alone something like a novel.

The doldrums are the last gate you run through before the slide downhill to the finish, wherever that finish is, whatever it looks like. It’s a terrifying gate, and it looks endless. It looks like it will eat you whole and leave nothing to show you ever existed but a momentary scar on a wave’s trough. It can swallow you, if you let it.

Or you can stick in its throat like a fish strangling the bird that tries to eat it. Your choice.

You’re almost there. Don’t stop now, even if you’re behind. (What, did you think I’d forgotten?) You’ve come this far; if you don’t finish by 11:59PM on the last day of the month it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t matter if you sneak in after that deadline.

It matters that you finish, not when you finish. You’ve got all these words, even if you’re struggling and can’t see making it by the end of the month. It’d be a shame to waste ‘em, right? Keep going.

If you need someone to get good and mad at, you can buddy me on NaNo, check out my Discord Writing Sprints War Room, and just generally seethe at me for telling you all this bullshit. I can take it.

Just please, my friend, you’ve made it this far.

Don’t stop writing.

S for Still Shiny

Surviving a month of wordcount, Part II

I was going to title these posts to spell NANO when we were done, but I decided that might strain my already-creaking creativity a touch too far. (I suck at acronyms, sad but true.) It is, after all, the second week of NaNoWriMo, and that means things are still shiny but the pace is beginning to tell.

We’re not quite at the point where we’ve found out our destination no longer exists, but Week 2 is when a lot of writers fall off the war rig. It’s not quite the doldrums—those are coming, never fear—but this is generally when the full realization of the task one’s attempting begins to sink in, and the concomitant “oh, hell” rises from a writer’s throat like the rusted squeak from the hinges of hell’s gates.

Time is short. Let’s get to it.

Still Shiny

This is, in many ways, my favorite part of the process. The idea that got me all excited is still juicy, I’m still chortling with glee each time I think about it, and the game of stopping a scene inside my head, moving the camera angle, and messing with the lighting still delights instead of frustrates me.

And yet by now, after fifty-plus finished books shepherded through the publication process and a few more sitting in trunks or vegetating on my hard drive’s graveyard, I know what’s coming.

Some stories don’t survive the collision with hard cold reality that’s on its way. Fortunately, you can plan for that train and stay off the tracks as it barrels by. I’m not saying you should begin dreading Week Three just yet; I am saying what I wish someone would have told me starting out in this crazyass business.

Enjoy when the story is shiny, because very soon you’re going to hate it. And that’s completely normal. You are actually in very good company if you’re starting to resent the way this book, this story, is taking over your life. If you’re beginning to suspect that all this effort is merely building a sand castle as the tide rushes in, congratulations—you’re a little ahead of the curve, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wring every last drop of enjoyment out of the shiny bit.

Look Up

It’s a good idea to start reminding yourself at the beginning of every writing session—while setting your kitchen timer or looking over the previous day’s work to catch the rhythm so you can dive in—of why you started this. You’re climbing the mountain, remember, and the beginning or middle of NaNo’s Week 2 is a good time to glance up and see the route again.

I like a little cognitive behavioral hack I learned from a therapist, lo these many moons ago: Make a list on a 3x5 index card of a few big reasons why you want to finish this goddamn thing, whether it’s a book, a class, or a Big Life Change.

Did you want to write this book as a thought experiment? Did you just think it was cool? Do you want to prove to yourself you can do it? Do you want to kick sand in the eyes of everyone who says you can’t? (More on that next week, my dears.) Have these characters been squatting in your head like vengeful toads, refusing to leave you alone until you take their dictation? Is this story what you wish your own life would be like? Does it make you feel good, does it have a beat, can you dance to it?

All these reasons are good and valid. Whatever reasons you have are good and valid, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. Fuck anyone else’s reasons, write down your own and hold them close. You don’t have to show this card to anyone else, but do keep it handy. Why?

Physically writing these things down engages your brain and your hands a way little else does. It also tells your internal gremlins that you’re serious, you’re spending effort on this thing, and they’d better watch out or they’ll get steamrollered.

This card is a Sekrit Weapon—like a golf club, ideal for home defense. This is the card you’re going to whip out like a Junior G-Man when the going gets tough. Human beings suck at choosing long-term goals over short-term pleasures, partly because we’re luminous beings inhabiting crude matter (thanks, Yoda) and partly because our nervous systems are wired for that sweet, sweet dopamine. Reading that card again and again can remind you of why you started in the first place, and give you a tiny, crucial boost.

Don’t wait until you need the boost, get it prepped and in place now so you have it later. Why?

The Doldrums Are Coming

At some point—two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through your book—you’re going to open the file (or take a look at the stack of typed/handwritten pages) and think, very clearly, I don’t want to do this any more.

You’re going to think how in the hell did I get into this, and why did I think I could do this, and this is bullshit, and I hate this story, and various other things. I could list them all, but then I’d write nothing else for the rest of my life.

I call it the doldrums. It’s when the wind dies and your ship is becalmed, when even the small efforts you make day to day seem like spitting in the face of a hurricane.

Perversely, this is when you’re so close to breaking free and finishing. It’s the last gauntlet to run, but so many writers stop during, so many stories die so close to fruition. It’s seductive to think I’ll just work on something else; it’s seductive not to have to risk your ego, your time, and your dreams with actually finishing.

I’m not telling you this to dissuade you. I’m telling you this so you’re prepared, and so you have the tools you need in order to kick this giant chainsaw-massacre masked bastard feeling in the pants and run towards the end credits like the lone survivor of a horror movie massacre. Plan for the doldrums now, so you aren’t caught in the outhouse when the monster decides it’s your turn for an axe in the neck.

Prime the Pump

There’s one more weapon in our arsenal I want to talk about today, my dears. It’s a stupid-simple hack, and I stumbled on it by accident lo these many years ago when I was just a tender, naive baby writer.

Prime your pump.

If you’ve finished a chapter or a scene, great! Revel in the feeling, get that dopamine hit (however small), and pat yourself on the back. You might be tempted to get up, get a drink of water, relieve the pressure in your bladder, take the rest of your kitchen-timer-ticking off.

Don’t, though. At least, not yet.

Do not walk away from the story at the end of a chapter or scene. It bleeds off precious momentum, much as placing a scene break on a non-cliffhanger lets a reader put your book down and walk away. You don’t want that, you want your trussed, gagged captive—I mean, uh, your dear reader—interested and engaged, wanting to find out what happens next, right?

Instead, put a sentence or two down after the chapter or scene break. I call these “throwaway lines.” You don’t have to keep them when you come back, but they’ll make getting back into the rhythm ninety-nine percent easier. It can be something as simple as “this next scene involves defenestration” or even “And now, Character X will Y their Z.”

Then you can stagger to the loo or the kitchen, or deal with whatever’s caught on fire while you’ve been taking dictation from the imaginary people in your head, secure in the knowledge that you can pick up the story a thousand times more easily when you come back.

You’ve made it to Week 2. Give yourself a pat on the back—gently, of course, and stretch out your wrists and fingers. Typing and longhand are both hard on those small, delicate structures. We’ll talk more about that next week, along with how to survive the doldrums.

Preparation doesn’t make them easier, I’m afraid. It just gives you a better chance of surviving. Still, it’s something. Next week we’ll talk about getting spiteful, self-care, and the Dreaded Behind. (Yes, I’m twelve inside, that last bit is exactly the sort of joke you’d expect from me.)

In the meantime, you can buddy me on NaNo and check out my Discord Writing Sprints War Room. You’re not alone, though it might start to feel like it soon. Get your secret weapons prepped and your snacks stashed; keep your timer handy, your time guarded, and your boundaries strong.

Above all, keep writing. I’ll see you next week.

N for Novel-writing

Surviving a month of wordcount

Remember, remember, the fifth of November… it means NaNoWriMo is upon us, my friends. (That, and it’s time to re-watch V for Vendetta again. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.)

To that end, since I’ve been around the NaNo block (and, let’s face it, a few other blocks as well) once or twice, here’s the first in a series full of advice for surviving this most wonderful, dazzling, terrifying time of the year.


“A novel in a month, fifty thousands words, and you’re telling me to relax?” Yes, chickadees, I am. Take a deep breath.

This is a huge task, but staring at the whole thing is bound to give you a good case of vapor-lock. The only time you should look at the whole mountain is when you’re deciding what route to climb it with. (And, at pre-appointed times, glancing up to make sure rocks aren’t going to fall on your head. We’ll cover that next Tuesday.) Afterwards, it’s better to focus on what’s right in front of you—daily wordcount, the next handhold on the cliff face, the next jolt of coffee to get you to that outcropping, the next character you have to kill.

Ahem. So to speak.

Breaking up huge tasks into smaller, more do-able ones is a skill, and like all skills, it takes practice before you find the method that works for you. Maybe you’re nodding along while reading this because you’ve already found yours—in which case, great! If you haven’t, there’s a few (novel-writing specific) things that might help. We’ll start that most dreaded of words, an outline.

The map isn’t the territory.

If you did some pregaming last month amid candy wrappers and face paint, congrats! (If you didn’t, congrats as well, join the club.) Some writers list important plot points on index cards, some get out whiteboards or rolls of craft paper and plot the arc of the story. Some (yours truly included) go down the Word, Scrivener, or other document putting highlights and scene notes [[inside brackets]], which has the added utility of stopping the eye during rereading.

Plus you can search for any leftover brackets when you go into revision, always a bonus.

All these things are great, and break up “writing a novel” into “this is the route I’m taking to the top of the mountain.” But—fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you ask—a map isn’t the actual climb.

In other words, shit happens.

I used to be a complete pantser, keeping every plot twist, every neologism, every tiny detail inside my brain. This provided a lot of fun nightmares and daydreams, but eventually I had to offload some data because of the sheer amount of work I was producing was overwhelming my circuits. I stumbled on the bracket outline and have used it ever since, with one important caveat.

At some point—mostly around two-thirds of the way through the story—my entire body and soul goes into rebellion and I toss the outline away. (No, I don’t delete the leftover bracketed bits; I stick them in a separate section or document titled “[[BOOK TITLE]] bits and bobs”, just in case I need it later.) This is analogous to getting two-thirds into your climb and finding out a rockfall has gone across your planned route. There are still ways to get to the top of the mountain, and since you’ve taken a look at the whole lump of stone you know where the top is—but you’re going to get there a different way.

Here’s something I wish someone would have told me: Don’t worry about going back and ret-conning the rest of the book at that point. Not only will it rob you of momentum, but it will also get in the way of the whole point, finishing the damn thing. As I so often remark, get the whole corpse out on the table before you start trimming and tucking to make it beautiful.

Protect your time.

The people you love are wonderful—that’s why you love them, right? But sometimes, they can be a little upset that you’re spending time in imaginary worlds and not on them. Even the most supportive of spouses, parents, siblings, or roommates will push against your boundaries. And then there are the not-so-supportive people, who like you kept firmly under a thumb, preferably theirs.

You’ve decided writing a novel is worth doing. That alone makes it important enough to set a little time aside and protect your investment.

The first publishing contract I ever got, way back in the early noughts, was a triumph. I thought I’d never feel so good ever again, never have such a crowning achievement. It was the culmination of years of desperate work refining my craft and being willing to learn anything anyone would teach me.

It was a tiny fractional victory, but it felt huge.

And it cost me people I thought were friends, because my success—small though it was—cut right to the heart of their perceived place in the order of the universe. In other words, I was supposed to be a failure to make them feel better, and they were emotionally invested in keeping me there.

There are friends—and family—who are invested in you being a failure, for whatever sick emotional reason. You don’t have to love them less, but you do have to protect yourself, your new writing habits, and your fragile being-written novel from them. You have an absolute right to do so. That protection might look like shutting your bedroom door or not engaging in adrenaline-fueled dramatics, it might look like not dropping everything and running when someone you know is a drama hound starts to bay. It might look different, and that’s okay.

The point is, it’s going to be tough because you’re unlearning habits and training that have been in place for a long time, quite possibly years. But I am here to tell you it is one hundred percent worth it.

Kitchen timers are your friend.

You have a day job or two, you have people you care for, you have chores to do and events to attend. Somehow, all these things have to be shoehorned into a finite amount of time, and now, so does writing.

Enter the timer, my friends.

I used to set an old, cheap, white kitchen timer for ridiculously small amounts of time. Ten minutes here, ten minutes there, and during those chunks, I was Unavailable For Everything Other Than Writing. With two toddlers running around and a husband who was heading into “unhelpful” territory, I needed a way to train everyone into taking my time seriously.

While the timer was ticking, the kids would play quietly with approved activities and I would ignore said husband’s attempts to regain my attention. Little did I know that I was also training myself to switch brainwaves almost on command; all I wanted was ten goddamn minutes to do what I had to in order to save us all. (Said husband wouldn’t hold a job, and with the price of childcare, I had limited work options available.)

Our days are screamingly busy, but no day is so busy you don’t have a ten minute chunk. Give yourself the gift of those ten minutes with a timer, and put your fingers on the keyboard.

A funny thing happens after a little while practicing with a timer, of the kitchen, phone, desktop, or other variety. The timer rings and you decide maybe another five or ten, because you’ve some momentum built up. Eventually, you look up, blinking, and you have a chunk of text. You may also have to pee like a racehorse, cook dinner, or get to work (or back to work) on time, but you now have those words you didn’t before.

The timer not only tricks you into working and primes the word-pump, but it can also train non-toxic friends and family to respect your writing time. And that is damn near priceless.

We’ve had some advice about physically breaking up this ginormous task. Now, let’s talk about mentally and emotionally.

Get ready to fail.

Just… hear me out here, okay?

Life is not perfect. It is messy, sometimes cruel, and inevitably fatal. Very little works the way we would prefer.

Some days the wordcount doesn’t happen. Some days there are emergencies and you fall so far behind the urge to throw up your hands and be done with the whole damn deal is well-nigh irresistible. Some days you find out people you thought were loving and caring are really, really invested in being shitty. Some days the laptop tanks, the boss is a screaming incompetent, traffic is bad, and you go to bed without having written a word. Some NaNos you end up failing.

It’s going to happen. Make your peace with it now. But do not, under any circumstances, give up.

Failure is seen as an overwhelming defeat. I’m not gonna lie, it often is. But if you’re still breathing, the defeat may be overwhelming, but it is not final.

So you don’t get the whole 50K in November because “Thanksgiving” kicks your ass. So you fall behind because someone’s in the hospital or at the vet, so you find out some people are shitty or hit the doldrums in the middle of every book and wish you’d never started this bullshit.

It sucks. It’s not fair. It’s stupid. And you can use this defeat as a spur instead of a reason to quit.

Sure, I didn’t make it all the way through by November 30, but I’ve got X many words and I know where the story ends. Sure, I got sucked into X’s drama today, but I have a kitchen timer and ten minutes right now, and that will give me words I didn’t have when I woke up this morning. Sure, I got stuck in traffic with a crying baby, but I figured out X, Y, and Z plot points and I know where the next handholds are.

It’s a brand of aggressive, focused, highly useful Pollyanna-ism. A failure can be a focusing, a lesson, a pin to make you jump. It doesn’t have to be a world-shattering finality.

Get ready to succeed.

So, you type The End at the conclusion of a messy zero draft at 11:59 on November 30. (Or later, I’m not picky.) Now you have a messy, inchoate, hastily written chunk of steaming wordage.

Celebrate. And get ready for an emotional rollercoaster.

It helps to have a prize in mind while you’re working towards the end. Sometimes it’s a leisurely dinner by yourself, an item you’ve been eyeing but can’t justify buying, a dose of the (legal, please) intoxicant of your choice. Whatever it is, physically and specially mark the achievement you just conquered—no matter how small.

First of all, you’re goddamn well worth it. Second, the dopamine hit you get from finishing and being free of the goddamn book that’s been living in your head is nice, but it’s short-term. It helps to have something else to reward yourself with—because, my darlings, you are not done.

Not even close.

If your goal is publication, you’ve just completed the prerequisite for the first step. (That first one, as the cartoons say, is a lulu.) Publication itself, even self-pub, is a whole ‘nother mountain, and you’re going to need another plan and another massive effort to get there. (That is, unless you plan on throwing an unedited pile of crap into Kindle Unlimited and then bitching when the cash doesn’t roll in.)

It would be super easy to get discouraged, right? Unless you rewarded yourself well at the end of this particular mountain, and gave yourself some time to decompress and recover. Then you can get on to the next book.

What, you thought you only had one book in you? Maybe you do, and in that case, congrats, you did it! But I’m willing to bet there’s more lingering inside your wee skull, dear Fellow Writer.

The other price of success is finding out when your success threatens people you trusted, people you thought were solidly in your corner. This, quite frankly, sucks ass. It can be damaging, and I’ve seen people quit writing altogether rather than put up with the bullshit from said toxic (or even well-meaning) jackasses.

That’s not the route I picked. I was lucky to have a few people I could actually count on, and I hope you are too. Just remember, success needs to be planned for just as failure does, and above all, give yourself a damn pre-planned reward.

We’re at the beginning of November now, with the whole month ahead of us. Come by next Tuesday, and we’ll talk about the dreaded Non-Shiny Point, or as it’s also known, What The Hell Am I Fucking Doing, I Was Not Ready For This, No Wonder Writers Drink, How Am I Going to Get Out Of This One?

In the meantime, you can buddy me on NaNo, check out my Discord Writing Sprints War Room, and just generally know you’re not alone in the trenches—though it might feel like you are when the timer’s running and your fingers are on the keyboard.

Oh… and don’t forget to actually write.


Measuring Cups

Soundtrack Monday

I'm not a huge Andrew Bird fan. Some of his stuff is just confusing for the sake of confusion, and that irritates me.

And yet Measuring Cups came across my musical radar just at the right time while I was writing Dru Anderson dealing with the bullshit that is high school, especially for kids who have nonstandard problems. It's what would be playing over a montage of Dru in the halls of a normal high school, dodging jocks and rolling her eyes at teachers.

The teacher Dru inadvertently almost hexes to death is a composite of three separate educational "professionals" I had the bad luck to encounter from middle to high school. Of course, I'm sure I was a treasure myself--too smart for my own good, highly verbal, with a hideous home life and a penchant for both mischief and coming to school hungover.

Anyway, sometimes a song comes along at exactly, but exactly the right moment. And this was one.

I am toying with the idea of a sequel series to Strange Angels, and am waiting to see if my agent wants sample chapters. It might be something I do as a serial if I can't get a publisher to pony up, but that takes planning and my plate's full today.

Still... it's nice to dream. Just as long as you're not dreaming of owls and winged snakes, I guess.

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