S for Still Shiny
Surviving a month of wordcount, Part II
|Lilith Saintcrow||Nov 12, 2019|
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.
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.
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.