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.