Columns > Published on November 14th, 2013

Don’t You Dare Stop! – 5 Bullshit Reasons for Giving Up on NaNoWriMo

Your plants are unwatered. Your hamster unfed. Despite Leah Dearborn’s exhortations to the contrary, your relatives have filed a missing persons report and you went to work in your slippers. NaNoWriMo has not only taken over your life, it has mushed your face slap bang against the harsh realities of writing fiction for a living.

Unwashed, emotional, you break out in a rash every time you look at your PC. You’re thinking of giving up. You have your excuses lined up.

And every single one of those excuses is bullshit.

Bullshit excuse #1: I don’t have time

No one ever has time to write. And in a strange twist of physics known as the Law of Procrastination, those people who have the least time to write have the most time to spend on social media. Where they like to spend time explaining why they don’t have time to write.

But it’s facile to pretend that we all have hours and hours free, just begging to be filled with authorship. Many of us don’t. So if you’re busy – with work, with kids, with the process of living – remember that writing doesn’t only have to happen in front of your PC.

Unlike many activities, writing mostly happens in your head. You can write while you are driving to work. You can write while Smithers from Accounts takes you through the quarterly paper clip returns. You can write while watching The Magical Toaster Goes to Mars with your toaster-besotted five year old. You can’t write connected prose this way, but you can develop characters, iron out plot twists, explore motivations and build worlds. Keep a notebook (electronic or otherwise) to hand and you can even record some of your conclusions (though obviously not while you are driving). Do this ‘writing’ while you are not writing and when you do have the time to sit down at the keyboard, you’ll be ready to let your imagination fly.

Bullshit excuse #2: Even when I do have time, I can’t get started

Mental preparation helps, but it isn’t a magic wand. The challenge of a blank screen, cursor blinking impatiently, is capable of erecting a mental word block the size of the Hoover dam in even the most experienced wordsmith.

Let me share a secret with you. Never start with a blank page. Never finish a writing session with a chapter end. Always leave your work heading downhill, preferably in the middle of a piece of action: as the zombie horde breaks down the last door, or the jaws close, or he finally tells her that they can never be together.

Yes, this is hard. The temptation to write until the action has played out is strong, but if you force yourself to stop, getting back into the story will be effortless. And you will be gagging to finish, suddenly immune to all the distractions you normally find so tempting. If you’ve hit a quiet patch, and action is thin on the ground, leave your work mid-sentence. As a last resort, if you find yourself at a chapter end and almost at the end of your writing time, begin the next chapter. Just a paragraph of scene setting will make getting started next time much easier.

Bullshit excuse #3: I haven’t stuck to the synopsis and now I’m not sure what’s going to happen next

At least you wrote a synopsis. Some writers claim to be able to concoct a story without the help of an outline, but those same people probably also think that navigating the Alaska wilderness equipped with a dowsing rod and half a Granola bar would make a fun vacation.

For those of us who prefer not to be eaten by bears, a synopsis or outline is a useful form of narrative GPS. But as writing is an act of the imagination, we often find that at some point along our carefully blazed trail, some leafy side path looks worth exploring. Before long, we have wandered from Middle Earth into Narnia, and are wondering where all the Hobbits are and what that lion is doing talking to those kids.

Primary advice at this point is don’t turn back. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in pressing on, not retreat. Consult your writing plan and choose the next major action point to head for: she tells him she’s leaving, he tells her he’s gay, the zombie horde learns not to alert everyone to their presence with that noise like a cat sicking up a furball. Write towards that point, or if the jungle is too thick to slash through, write from that point onwards. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to connect the dots afterwards.

Bullshit excuse #4: I hate all my characters and my writing sucks and my plot is lame

If you feel this way about your NaNoWriMo project then the chances are you have a case of mid-manuscript blues. Once the excitement of getting started is past, but the grand finale is still only a speck on the horizon, a desperate sense of ennui often sets in.

The middle of a story is the hardest part to tell, generally because this is when the action ebbs. This is also the point at which plot holes loom and you start to wonder why it is when you have a vocabulary of around 30,000 words, you seem to be stuck with using the same twenty, over and over again.

If you find yourself reading what you produced the day before with a mounting sense of horror, resist the urge to retreat to your armchair with a large snifter of brandy and the latest episode of Project Runway to ease your pain. This is a first draft. First drafts suck, even ones produced by experienced writers. Later drafts are when you remove the suckitude, but to state the blindingly obvious, you can’t write a second draft without completing the first one. Second drafts are when you fix the plot and also when you add all the little devices that smooth the story out and build the sense of drama – foreshadowing, red herrings, small pieces of explanation. As for clunky prose, lyricism happens in the third and fourth drafts, so despite what the prose-Nazis claim, using adverbs or even (shudder) speech tags will not summon Beelzebub and all his gibbering hordes, ready to condemn you to the pit of Hanging Prepositions for all eternity. So what if every single one of your minor characters is called Bob? Chill out, plough on and save fixing the small stuff for later.

Bullshit excuse #5: I’m way behind on my target and all my friends have bigger word counts than me

Yes, NaNoWriMo is a numbers game. To get the certificate at the end, you need to submit 50,000 words. As the site itself says, targets and deadlines are great motivators. So long as you are on track to meet them. Start to slide and those same targets can become dead weights, especially if everyone else appears to be charging Chariots of Fire style for the finishing tape, Vangelis throbbing on the sound track (da dee dee dee DAH DAH), while you’re limping along a mile behind, purple in the face and nursing a bad case of athlete’s foot.

Certificates are nice. Certificates are also only pieces of paper. The word count is a simple way to monitor your progress and (if all is going well) to allow you to indulge in a little gentle bragging. But the point of NaNoWriMo is not the piece of paper, or the sense of achievement said piece of paper generates. The point of NaNoWriMo is forming the habit of writing – getting over the excuses and the blocks and the frustration at the gap between aspiration and result. NaNoWriMo is like running a marathon: the medal at the end makes a nice keepsake, but the true benefit comes from the hours of training.

Or to look at it another way, if NaNoWriMo was just about word count, you could get your piece of paper by typing the word ‘crap’ into a Word document 50,000 times*. You’d have the piece of paper. But would you be a better writer?

So soldier on, people. Fight the good fight. And remember, if every journey begins with a first step, the two sweetest words you will ever write are ‘THE END’.


*No, I have not tried this, but I’m sure someone somewhere has.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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