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.