How to keep going in the face of an insurmountable word count…
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
Oh NaNoWriMo….how I love and hate you so!
As you all know, I’ve signed on to NaNoWriMo and, as such, am supposed to finish a 50,000 word novel by November 30th. I knew I was signing on for what would most likely be a fool’s errand. I made the decision impulsively, based only on my previous disappointments when I’d failed to remember November’s special literary status until after the fact – this time, I wanted to be a part of it all…the wonder….the excitement…the challenge!
Oh but now I’m rounding out a week and I’m already so far behind. The goal was to hit 10,000 words by Monday – I’m barely over 4000. And so far this week, I just haven’t had the wherewithal to turn away from election coverage and the latest episode of The Walking Dead and actually sit down and right.
So I am ever so thankful for Charlie Jane Anders’ post over at i09, “Strategies to Make Sure You Actually Finish That Novel.” Looking over the list, there seem to be some likely contenders that will (hopefully) get me back on track.
First off, Anders suggests beginning with the end. Even though you may never end up getting there – characters tend to stubbornly stick to their own agenda, which they often keep close to their vest (and you thought authors were in control of their stories – silly rabbit!) – writing that last line can make you at least feel like you’re headed in the right direction.
A variation on the “begin at the end” theme involves penning a horrible, no-good, terrible denoument. Anders is quick to clarify that the bad ending is not related to the “write-now-edit-later” ethos of NaNoWriMo. Instead, he suggests, “go one step further and creat a really ludicsouly bad ending for your novel, either in advance or when you’re reaching the end.” Why will this help, because an over-the-top, melodrama-heavy finale can help you kill tow birds with one stone, explains Anders.
“First, you’ve already written an ending, albeait a terrible one. Second, you may find it liberating to imaging the wrost way your book could end, and you may even get some ideas from it.”
What works about this suggestion for me is that it mirrors the advice my fighter-pilot, ex-marine boss gave me once – decide where you want to end up, then work backwards to figure out your first step. As he explained, in the Marines, many times a mission begins with deciding what you hope to accomplish, and then ticking off each action that will get you there – and that’s how strategy is developed. Plus, as Anders points out, once you write the worst-ending-ever, you can let go of any anxiety that you’re going to “ruin the whole thing” and get back to writing the best ending you can.
You can also recraft the chronology of your narrative so that you’re books beginning becomes its final act. More specifically, you revisit your introduction and use it as a blueprint for the conclusion. As Anders notes, many novels start off with a narrow focus, and then begin “telescoping bigger and bigger until it gets huge – and then the pieces start coming back together towards the end.”
What you end up with is a full-circle journey – one where the events that set it all in motion replay to resettle the dust and bring resolution to the characters. You can begin by listing everything that happens in those first few pages, then rewriting it all in reverse order. It can be a trick proposition , and Anders warns that “this will probably result in something even worse than idea #2.”
“But you never know,” he continues, “it might help you think about the ending in a new way, and let you feel as though you already wrote an ending.”
Another strategy – one I’ve heard from other writers – involves appealing to your inner storyteller with an incentive. But not just any incentive, you need something that will recharge your story and give you a sense of urgency and energy. “Fuck Candy,” writes Anders, “I’m talking about the kind of treat that actually gives you a lasting rush: write a fucken great moment.”
You know what he’s talking about – those scenes you’ve been excited to get too all along. Maybe it’s that moment when the two characters finally reveal their love for each other. Or their mutual betrayals. Maybe the murder is revealed. Or the heist is completed. Maybe the dog gets run over or the ghost makes an entrance. Maybe it’s when the alieans arrives. Whatever it is, it is “that scene you’re dying to write.” Even better – make it the last scene in your book, and don’t let yourself even contemplate it until you’ve finished everything else that comes before.
You can also use reverse psychology by denying yourself an ending. Anders suggests throwing yourself a huge curve or unexpected twist that derails your whole plot and makes your preconceived ending impossible. Then you can either rise to the occasion and draft something completely unexpected, or rebel against the entire rigmarole and finish the novel just to spite yourself.
A few quick tips. Take a long walk and talk the story out to yourself (it’s up to you whether you want to risk looking like a maniac by talking to yourself in public – me, I’m all about inner dialogue). Write your whole novel as a short story so that you can get it all straight in your head. Try writing the whole thing from a secondary character’s point of view – maybe the villain has something interesting to add.
I like Anders idea (that he freely admits he stole from someone else) to use placeholders and IOUs. When you hit a block, just write out very quicklywhat is supposed to happen. Something along the lines of “This here will be a fantastic scene where my main characters figure out that they’ve been using the heart probe all this time, when they were meant to be using the mind probe…” This trick can help you move on with the narrative, help you still meet your NaNoWriMO daily wordcount goals, and help you decide later if the scene is necessary at all or can just be chucked into that “lousy plot twist” dustbin.
I love Anders suggestion that one way to move your story along, to help it “pick up steam” is for everything to go wrong. “The more mistakes your characters make,” writes Anders, “the more thing go horrible wrong, the faster they’ll have to keep moving to stay ahead of the shit landslide.”
Stories can stagnate if the characters aren’t being challenged. “If you’re bogged down, chances are youre making things too pleasant for these misbegotten people,” warns Anders. Shake things up. Apply Murphy’s Law. Make sure the gun misfires. The car won’t start. The babysitter doesn’t show up or the money runs out. Don’t treat your characters with kid gloves – bland people going through bland motions never sparked anyone’s imagination. But a guy that started out on his morning jog with nothing more on his mind than remember to pick up milk at the corner store and ends up in the middle of a hostage standoff. Still wearing his running shorts and heart monitor. That guy I want to know more about.
Anders last two pieces of advice really involve getting out of your own way. First, remind yourself why you started this endeavor in the first place. Reconnect with the real-life experiences and emotional moments that inspired you to tell this story. “Reconnect with that stuff,” writes Anders, “because it’s your fuel and it’s also probably what makes your novel different from a million other novels about mind-probe mercenaries or whatnot….Keep coming back to your source, whatever it was.”
Finally, Anders recommends employing a technique called retcon. With retcon, you don’t worry about fixing the problems you’ve created with a new plot development – you just keep moving forward. In Anders’ example, he explains how deciding that a character actually died in chapter five, doesn’t mean he’s going to back to write that death scene now that he’s knee-deep in chapter 20. He just makes a note to go back and get that done later.
Anders writes, “Don’t get stuck on trying to fix problems you’ve built up, when you can just pretend you wrote something different originally. Sure, this will make the revision process harder, but so will just about any strategy to get a complete first draft. And it’s almost impossible to understate the value and power of having a complete first draft, including an ending that works.”
And one last little pep talk from Anders – don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun. Cultivate a sense of playfulness.
“The first draft is just you playing a wacky game with yourself. It’s the fifth or tenth draft that actually ahs to be all grown-up and dressed to go over to strangers’ houses.”
So yeah….I’m going to try to find a the joyful part of this process. I’m heading over to my NaNoWriMo manuscript right now…wish me luck!
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