Hurt Your Paragons

Three things NOT to do with characters

It’s a character kind of month, I suppose. I’ve been sunk in a particularly complex and knotty revision, a series full of characters I understand but I would never want to be, or even be in the same room with.

So! Last week we went over three things to do with your characters. Today, let’s talk about things NOT to do with your imaginary head-people. This will be a short and not at all comprehensive list.

I’ve got to keep something in reserve to write about, after all.

It ain’t you, babe.

Oh, you know what I’m talking about—when you pick up a book (or a piece for critique in your local writer’s group/workshop) and notice the main character just happens to be a writer of the same gender, age, socioeconomic class, and general appearance as the author. (I’m gonna say it: Bill Denborough, even though he’s a redhead... and who could forget Ben Mears?)

Wish fulfillment and authorial self-insertion aren’t always overwhelmingly bad things. I’ve slid a minor character or two into a book or a short story, mostly to poke fun at myself. I’ve never wanted to be any of my main characters—their problems are horrendous, their coping mechanism largely unsatisfactory, and I get far more pleasure out of being the vengeful goddess of their tiny universe, anyway.

Self-insertions have even, once or twice, been the basis for truly great art—with the amount of times writers have shoved themselves into prose and agitated back and forth, I suppose the odds were in favor of a few reaching or birthing celestial heights of skill and meaning. But the vast mass are deadly boring, and give the reader the uncomfortable, squidgy sensation of paging through someone else’s masturbatory manual besides.

It’s one thing to page through your own. It’s quite another to have someone else’s (ugh) in your hands.

The odds are most definitely not in favor of your self-insertion being a fully rounded or even a baseline-interesting character. Oh, sure, there are wish-fulfillment fics which have done quite well financially— Twilight springs to mind, and Fifty Shades which started as fanfic for it—but the odds of your particular wish-fulfillment or authorial self-insertion fiction triggering a cascade of dollars are roughly analogous to winning the lottery or having an airplane part fall out of the clear blue sky onto your head.

At the same time, a lot of early works do have a lot of wish-fulfillment or authorial self-insertion, because the highly focused, critical empathy needed to build characters diametrically or even slightly opposed to one’s own personal stances and thoughts is a skill that needs practice. So if you find aspects of either in your work or your characters, don’t despair! (Remember, there’s always revision.)

But it leads us to another error new writers often make.

Paragons are boring.

So your character is the best at what they do, and is universally beloved too. They’re also kind, overwhelmingly attractive, know exactly what to say at any given moment, and have great hair! Others just can’t believe how amazing your main character is, and those who don’t fall in love with them are just jealous and evil.

In other words, this character is boring as fuck, and makes your story likewise. Paragons might do well in the specific instances of allegory and Greek tragedy, but out here writing one-dimensional tyros without blood, flesh, or bad breath should be avoided unless employing them for comic effect.

I’m not saying a character can’t be heroic. I’m saying a perfect person doesn’t exist, and if you’re going to write one, you’d better be prepared to have something else of interest to keep your reader from wandering away in disgust. Plenty of wish-fulfillment fics (but not all) center on paragons; the other name for it is a Gary Stu or Mary Sue. (Plenty of paragons are also authorial self-insertions. FUCK YOU, NATHAN FROM SCHOOL!)

There’s a Venn diagram of authorial self-insertions, paragons, and wish-fulfillment somewhere, I bet. For right now, we’ll just have to imagine it.

The big argument against paragons is not that they’re lazy writing, because they don’t have to be. You can most often use them to lampoon other characters and give the audience a grin—Ace Rimmer springs to mind—and many classical and historical writers made their patrons paragons because it was a good way to get paid. (We’ve all got to get paid—yes, even Shakespeare the Tudor Apologist.) No, the biggest reason not to use Gary Stus is that, unless they’re in the hands of a master and serving a specific purpose within the work, they’re utterly boring.

Even the most interesting story can be drained of life, love, and laughter by the appearance of a joyless, blemish-free, lecturing character whom everyone unaccountably worships or is stupidly jealous of. Give your protagonist some warts—give them coping mechanisms that don’t work, give them short tempers or a habit of assuming things about other people. Hell, give them your own worst personality features—and if you’re a writer, you should absolutely know what those are, since you’re the first, best, and cheapest object for human research available.

Know thyself is not just a Pythagorean dictum.

You’re telling stories about human beings, and there’s no such thing as a perfect one. Use this fact to your advantage—we can all see other people’s flaws much better than our own.

Don’t coddle them.

Finally, we come to my favorite piece of advice.

Of course you’re a reasonable human being and you don’t want to hurt anyone. Of course you’re a lovely person with a great deal of empathy and would never dream of hurting even a fly!

But in fiction, well… where’s the story (or the fun) in that?

Hurt your characters. Just when they think things are going well, open the pod bay doors—or refuse to. Let the villain win a battle, even though you know the war’s going to be won by your bumbling, nasty-tempered heroes. Let things work out badly for a character; let them learn a lesson the way you did in life—by hard, painful experience. Beat them up, knock them about. Let their reactions to the punishment they take show who they really are deep down.

So often I see new writers unwilling to truly hurt their characters, and as a result shying away from amazing aspects of the story and situation they’ve set up. Consider this: Neither a doctor nor a monster he’s created get what they want; both of them have to pay for what they’ve done and furthermore for the “sin” of being born into an imperfect world. That’s part of the enduring appeal of a certain novelall of us have, at one time or another, messed up but good, whether innocently or because we thought we were doing something grand, great, or right.

Now imagine what Frankenstein would be if Mary Shelley had made Victor a paragon instead of a selfish glory-hungry cad. (She probably did base some of his less appetizing traits on Byron or even her sainted husband, a fact which just makes me love her more.) Imagine if the monster hadn’t committed the errors he did, well-meaning, instinctive, or vengeful. We can analyze the flaws in that book and its author, certainly, but a refusal to hurt the characters or look away from the choices they made certainly wasn’t among them.

Characters make choices, those choices have consequences, some of those consequences will be painful. If they aren’t, why bother writing the damn book? Where’s the story if everything works out all right for the paragon-characters, or if the writer falls in love with the monster they’ve created (Hannibal, Joe Goldberg, the list goes on…) and won’t let them suffer any adverse consequences that matter? I’ll tell you where—it’s vanished into the Land of Boredom, which is a place the writer wishes to avoid at all cost.

Part of the joy of writing—only part, mind you—comes from stepping into another person’s skin in a relatively low-risk way. A writer can try out what it means to be a small person given a task upon which the fate of the world depends (Frodo Baggins) or a sailor watching an irresistible force meeting a not-so-immovable object (Call me Ishmael…) or a child lost in a fairytale land (Dorothy Gale, Lucy Pevensie) or a collection of lives in a rotting tradition-bound castle (Steerpike, the Groans, Prunesquallor) or a self-centered doctor who shouldn’t be given the knowledge he seeks (Victor Frankenstein) or a young monk watching a tragedy play out (Adso of Melk) or Death himself (The Book Thief, or Tales of the Flat Earth) or a woman caught in Tam Lin’s ballad (Janet Carter, by way of Pamela Dean) or or or—but you get the idea, right?

With that smorgasbord available, who would want to remain their stodgy old daytime self in fiction? We have access to a shapeshifter’s paradise, never mind that corners of it are probably like Mombi’s walk-in closet full of heads. Let your characters open up all those secret inner worlds to you, let them be as gloriously messy and imperfect as your own divine authorly self.

I promise the rewards are fantastic; not least among them is avoiding the danger of boring your readers past tears and into indifference. Let your characters be different people, let them be imperfect, and don’t be afraid to hurt them. Above all, as always…

…keep writing.

Please note: In the very near future, one writing post a month will be free and the rest, as well as an open thread on a to-be-determined weekday, will be for paid subscribers. Don't worry, I’ll let you know when this happens! It’s looking like we might start in February, so stay tuned.

Interviews, Difference, And Water Glasses

Three things about building characters

Well, we survived NaNo and 2019, I think that calls for a celebration. Or at least a deep breath before we have to pull our blasters and get back to work.

So, today let’s talk about… characters!

Having imaginary people live in your head is disorienting sometimes, especially when they start behaving in ways you didn’t expect and quite frankly don’t like or agree with. (See: Dru Anderson’s Southern upbringing, Japhrimel’s non-human views on “truth”, Tristan d’Arcenne’s assault on his beloved Vianne, anything to do with Perry—the list goes on and on.)

So here’s three things that, while they may not make having imaginary people in your head easier, they certainly help with the magical feat of writing them into life.

What’s the glass of water?

Stuck on a character’s actions? Does this imaginary person seem flat and lifeless? Fear not, my friend, there’s a simple way to inject life into even the most moribund character-corpse.

Figure out their glass of water.

All right, I’ll back up a second. Every character in a story, as Vonnegut famously observed, has to want something, even if it’s something as simple as a glass of water. Ask yourself this: what does this imaginary person want more than anything? What is their overarching desire, and what’s their desire in this scene? Listing what each character in a scene wants is a great way to discover where the narrative tension should be situated, and keeping “this person wants X, that person says they want Y but really wants Z and will kill to get it” in the back of your head while revising can help you cut extraneous matters and get right to the emotional heart of a scene.

Even just articulating what each character wants quietly to yourself will work wonders for the clarity and rhythm of your writing. Take a few seconds—or minutes—to figure out what the glass of water is—yes, even for the secondary characters.

Let them be different.

You are not your characters. Sure, you can draw on your own life experience (and, let’s face it, that of everyone around you because writers are giant maws, everything feeds the work) or use a character as a way of doing something you never would in real life (see: gun battles and punching assholes at random) or even use a character/story to work out your own psychological issues or wish fulfillment. (See: Twilight.)

But really, it’s a lot more complex, challenging, and fun when you let your characters be who they are. It’s an exercise in focused, critical empathy, and it’s particularly useful in the case of villains. A villain or antagonist isn’t simply a means of letting one’s id or one’s particular hobbyhorses run riot; first and foremost they must serve the story, not you.

So let your characters be different than your own sweet self. Let them do things you would never dream of, let them, like children, be true to themselves instead of what you think they should be. Your work will be much richer if you don’t stick to recycling your own tired self-insertions; let your heroes be people you don’t necessarily think are heroic and let your villains be people you don’t necessarily think are bad.

And when reviewers make the mistake of attributing a protagonist’s views or upbringing or a villain’s hatreds to your own sweet self, hold your tongue and go back to work. Their issues (and their need to stir shit on the internet) are not your problem.

Shit-stirrers gonna shit-stir. You’re a writer and have writing to do.

Interview them. With a time limit.

Characters, like real people, love to talk about themselves. Just like one of the best things you can do for your grasp of dialogue is eavesdrop with a notebook in a public place (mall, bar, library) and one of the best things you can do for your understanding of a subject/career is find an expert, buy them a beverage, and listen to them, the best way to get to know a character is to interview them.

Make a list of questions—what was your childhood like, why are you so in love with X, why did you do Y, how do you feel about Z, what’s your favorite colour—and listen to their answers. Write them down and refer to them later when you want to get back into writing this particular person’s viewpoint or actions.

The critical second piece to this is set a time limit. I find a twenty-minute character interview works wonders. It’s just long enough for me to get a sense of who this person is, but not so long that I waste time and mistake the effort of what is, in essence, a mental trick (I might almost say “mental masturbation in service to a good cause”) for the effort of actually writing the damn story.

There are always those writers who get so involved with building a world that they forget to actually, well, write. Part of that is that it’s easy to say “I’m still doing worldbuilding/research” and you still get the pat on the head and the cookie while not having to risk anything on writing a story that can, after all, be critiqued or rejected. A writer can fool themselves into thinking it’s safer to do character interviews/sheets and settings vignettes than actually write the damn story/play/novel, and get caught in what I call the Self Help Loop—again, mistaking the small effort of reading or faffing about for the larger, less sexy, and sometimes numbing effort of actually doing the damn work.

So set your timer and ask your character your questions. They’ll be absolutely brimming with the desire to speak—or if they’re not, think about why until the timer rings.

And then, get back to writing.

Of course any character, like any story, might hold a few specific authorly hallmarks. After all, you’re the filter/sieve/grinder this story is coming through; it stands to reason it will take the particular shape of your filter/sieve/grinder/obsessions. Certain kinds of characters will be easier for you to write than others. Certain stories and characters will appeal to you more. And that’s okay—after all, the stories lined up in your head chose you, out of everyone on earth, because they want your hands on the keyboard.

Let them be who they are, and I promise you’ll reap the rewards. Above all (say it with me)…

…keep writing.

Please note: In the very near future, one writing post a month will be free and the rest, as well as an open thread on a to-be-determined weekday, will be for paid subscribers. Don't worry, I’ll let you know when this happens!

From Zero to First

Get the corpse ready for viewing

Hey, we survived NaNo! Awesome!

Now we have, let’s see… a hangover. And a chunk of… text. Great.

So, you’ve finished a zero draft. You made it to the end, you celebrated, you let the dust and noise die down and the inside of your head feels a little less like a cement corral packed with a herd of very loud, very stinky chimeras. (Or maybe I’m projecting, that’s how I feel after a zero.) Now you have a chunk of mess chock-full of notes to yourself, plot holes, repetition, passive voice, and assorted other sins against art, good taste, and reader comprehension.

Don’t panic. This is entirely normal.

The good news is, the old canard all good writing is rewriting is largely true. You might find some nice passages or scenes that fell out of your head pretty much whole, when you’re in the zone and everything’s working at peak. The bad news is, well, even those beautiful bits are few and far between, and what separates a great many published writers from the unpublished is the willingness to take this raw diamond you’ve wrested from the bowels of a monster and polish it into a gem.

There’s other good news, too! Nobody’s seen this zero draft, it’s still all yours to play with, to shape and sculpt and refine, and since you’ve taken that good advice about letting the zero rest for at least a week you’re seeing the holes in it with clear eyes. You’re ready to get going and turn this zero into somewhat of a hero, or at least less of an embarrassment.

But since it’s always a balance, the bad news is this isn’t the only time you’re going to rewrite this bitch, especially if it goes in for publication. You’re going to be sick of this story before you see it on the shelf, my friends. And it all starts with revisions. So here’s three things that will help you turn a zero into a respectable first draft.

Keep it top-level.

This isn’t the last time you’re going to go through this book. (Not even close, my friend.) So, when you’re going from zero to first, keep your focus on the forest, not the trees. Look for plot holes large enough to drive trucks through, renamed characters, the ever-famous changing hair and eye color, and egregious instances of repeated words.

Every book I’ve ever written has picked a word it likes and tried to sneak it in everywhere. A global search for instances of the word that just wouldn’t leave you alone during the zero phase is a good idea; that’s one of the reasons I finally bit the bullet and started working in Scrivener. (Along with the ease of inserting chapters, when I started writing more structurally complex works.) Being able to look at the histogram of most-used words has been a godsend.

Other things to look for: passive voice, long chains of prepositions, and “that.” I hate the word “that” in text; nine and a half times out of ten, it’s not necessary. When I go through a zero, I step on it wherever I can.

Make notes.

Sometimes I keep a stack of notebook paper handy while doing the first revise, but more often it’s a mess of Post-its and 3x5 cards. It’s a way of loading my short-term memory on paper so I can use that RAM for other things, so to speak.

What type of notes do I make? Hair color, eye color, distinguishing characteristics, timeline notes, foreshadowing that needs to be inserted, plot threads that need to be woven in later. The first revise is the most note-heavy one; later revisions tend to happen all in my head because they move down to the sentence level. (We’ll talk about that, and the Holy Trinity of Sentence Work, later.)

Of course, if you’re truly ambitious, you can also take those notes and type them up into Scrivener or a spreadsheet, but honestly? I never do that. Sometimes I file the notes in a binder, but most often, I (gasp!) throw them away once they’ve served their purpose.

I know, I know. My agent probably goes green every time she thinks about that, and certainly I curse myself for throwing them away when I go back to write other books in a series. I think it’s a holdover from my teenage years, when tossing my diaries into rubbish bins meant they’d be buried in a landfill somewhere, safe from my abusers’ prying eyes. My method of problem solving has always been disconcertingly direct.

Don’t be like me, though. Keep your notes.

Be ruthless and gentle.

Or, to revise and expand, be ruthless with the work and gentle with yourself.

Finishing a zero draft is not easy. Getting it into first-draft shape isn’t easy either. Follow-up drafts, general edits, line edits, copyedits, proofs—by the time the book goes through all these quality control steps, you might be forgiven for wanting to set fire to the whole thing and never write again.

Be absolutely ruthless with your work’s quality. Take the time you need and kill however many darlings you must. But be gentle with yourself—don’t stint on recovery time, and remind yourself that you have, after all, finished a book, which places you in a very small subset of people who call themselves writers. It’s a Considerable Achievement, and one you can be proud of. Each time you get down on yourself because the zero draft isn’t perfect, remember: that was never the point. The point was to get it finished, and then to polish it.

The point of moving from zero to first draft isn’t to make it perfect either. It’s to make it better, and to make it readable. Perfection, while the goal we always shoot for, is not the goal we are ever going to achieve. If you’re not looking at stuff you wrote six months ago and cringing (or, alternately, making a face and thinking huh, let’s just polish this up a bit because it’s a little clunky) it means you’re not growing as a writer, and growing is the name of the game.

It’s fine to aim for perfection. It’s not fine to beat yourself up because you think it’s achievable instead of just a targeting mechanism. Perfection is a moving beast, the best we can hope for is to constantly refine our aim.

There are other things to do in a zero, but these three bits are a good roadmap. Your zero, of course, will require some personalized TLC. Generally, each zero finished doesn’t teach one about writing novels, it only teaches one about how to write the particular novel you’re working on. You have to finish (and revise, revise, revise) a few before the ins and outs of your own personal process start to become clear, like shapes under a sheet. And personal processes are complex things indeed, changing over time and with the shape of each particular project.

What, you thought this was easy? My friends, a zero draft is only the first part. But don’t worry, you’ve got this. Next time (possibly Christmas Eve, if I’m extremely ambitious this upcoming weekend) we’ll talk about characters in a zero draft.

Until then, remember: Just keep writing.

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.

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