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.