Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NaNoWriMo Prep I: The Mountain

The UpHill Battle

No matter where you are with your work, the prospect of writing a novel can be very intimidating. For one thing, it's a big project. And a mean one. A book-length story can be a demanding harpy from hell who is never, ever satisfied. Hundreds of blank pages, waiting to be filled; all those words that have to be written. And collectively the book has to be original, interesting, correct, logical, creative -- and that's simply to make it readable. If we're talking major-house publishable, then up the wattage to dazzling, inventive, jaded-editor-stunning . . .

Before you even approach the book mountain, you first have to wade through every failed story, every abandoned partial manuscript, every single page you ripped out of the printer and crumpled or tore to pieces. You have to get past the sneering effigy of every person who has ever told you that you can't do it, or that you'll do it badly, or that as a writer you suck, or otherwise kicked you in the story cods.

Okay, so somehow you find the courage to fight through all that (probably because like me, you’re just that stubborn) and you're finally standing at the mountain's base, and you're ready to climb. Only you can't stop looking at how far it is to get to the top, and you're already tired and worried and scared. You're convinced that it's never going to be the way you see it in your head. So why put yourself through this?

Stop Looking at the Damn Mountain

I think the biggest obstacle to writing a book is thinking “Hey, I’m writing a book. Oh, God, I'm writing a book.” Actually, you’re not. No one, no matter how fast they are, can write an entire book all at once. The book happens in stages. At any stage of creation you will be writing words, sentences, and paragraphs that are part of a book. During one session you may write a page, a scene or an entire chapter; if you're very lucky you'll write multiple pages, scenes, maybe two or three chapters.

That’s what I suggest you think about every time you sit down to write. Not the whole book, not the mountain, not the enormity of what you're hoping to accomplish in thirty days for NaNoWriMo. Today's session, the stage you can manage to do now, is where your head needs to be.

To figure out what that is, I suggest setting a daily writing goal or quota. You don’t have to, but it helps to keep track of what you need to do and what you've already done. If you're joining in NaNoWriMo, your preset goal is to write at least 50,000 words in 30 days. That would make your daily goal approximately 1667 words, or about seven double-spaced manuscript pages (and I know all of you are not going to be writing daily, so adjust that quota to whatever your writing schedule will be for the month.)

If NaNoWriMo were a mountain to be climbed, it would be 50,000 feet high. Fortunately if you write every day in November, you have only 1667 feet to climb per day.

Jinxing the Climb

As you're heading up the book mountain there will be things that try to kick you back down to the bottom. Everyone has their own set of writing jinxes, but there are a few that I think are pretty universal.

Uncertainty over the writing seems to make writers do two things: go silent, or talk too much about it. I'm of the go silent and not share anything with others mentality, primarily because I've tried the talk about it too much method and it's always jinxed me (which is also why I rarely if ever discuss a book I'm actively writing with anyone but the agent or the editor.) I think for me it's because I have enough of my own doubt to deal with; I don't need additional contributions from outside sources. Also, I've been derailed in the past by well-intentioned but bad advice; one time it almost cost me a three-book contract. I recommend not talking about too much. Exception: if you have a wonderful reader or writer friend, critique partner or family member who is always genuinely helpful to you as a sounding board, this may actually help your climb.

Judging the writing before the book is done is another common climbing jinx. It usually happens in the middle of chapter three, when you suddenly suspect everything you've written is complete crap. This is like being ten thousand feet up the mountain and deciding that all the climbing you've done sucks, so naturally you can't climb any higher. Sounds stupid, right? Well, it is. No one is born knowing how to climb a mountain or write a book. You have to learn how to do it, and the only way I know is to do it over and over until you get it right.

More often than not this judging jinx comes from your own doubts and fears, which will certainly knock you off the mountain if they can. You can stop, fall down, start over, give up, or you can agree with your doubt 100% but keep writing. Just stop worrying about what you've already climbed and keep going up. Why should you do that? Because you can always edit and rewrite whatever you don't like later.

The final jinx I want to mention is a malady among writers commonly referred to as writer's block. Or, you just can't write. For a long time I didn't believe in it, but I've watched too many writer friends suffer from it to doubt it's real.

I don't get what I'd call writer's block. I get tired of writing, I don't feel like writing, or something gets between me and the page that stops me from writing. Publishing is the #1 cause of this. Distractions are #2. Depression is #3. I deal with the causes as quickly and efficiently as I can. I do everything I can to keep Publishing out of my writing space, from unplugging from the internet to turning off the phone. Since Publishing in general has absolutely no respect for my writing time, I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about kicking it out of my writing space when necessary. As for distractions, I remove them, or remove myself to a distraction-free writing space. If they have one, I highly recommend the quiet room at your local public library.

Depression is what it is, and there's no easy way around it. I'm particularly fortunate in that no matter how I feel, I'm an insomniac who hates television and can't stand sitting around and doing nothing. Thus if I'm so depressed that I can't write, I go fold laundry, or vacuum the living room, or mop the kitchen until I feel better. Cleaning helps me work out a lot of frustrations and negative energy, and afterward my house looks great and I feel good about that. I also walk the dogs, play ball with them, garden, quilt, cook, or do anything that naturally helps lighten my mood. For me the key to fighting depression is to do something else besides feeling depressed. So try getting active. Do something physical. If the weather permits, go outside, commune with Nature. Or do something that you really love other than writing.

Next up: I'll discuss the gang you can take with you on your climb -- your story's characters -- and what you can do to make them outstanding. But in the meantime, anyone have any questions? Please post them in comments.

Book Mountain Climbing Tools: Another Little Progress Meter ~ NaNoWriMo Word Meter ~ Word Count Tool ~ WordFlood 1.2 freeware ~ Writertopia's Progress Meters

Image credit: © Emmanuel Lacoste | Dreamstime.com


  1. Kris S.1:27 AM

    Once again, you write something I need to see and keep close.

    Perfect analogies for writing a book that resonated with me at a time when writing has become so difficult.

    I'm going to point some friends this way (if they haven't already seen it) and have them enjoy the wisdom you have shared.

    Thank you!

  2. No questions, just a huge thank you. I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this year and it's my first year - this post has reassured me that 'climbing the mountain' can be done. Think I may bookmark the post and return on those days in November when the momentous task appears too much in order to take your advice on board again. Thanks!

  3. Add my thanks to your pile. I especially appreciate your analogy about being critical of earlier work and having already climbed 10m feet up the mountain. That's a great way to look at the situation, and I'm going to make a Post-It of that analogy and attach it to the corner of my computer screen. Of course you're not going to climb back down after only 10m feet just because you don't like how you did the first part.

    I'm looking forward to this week full of your great advice. Again, thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  4. I completely agree with Cat. I'm getting nervous and starting to fret about not having enough of a plan, but after reading this post I feel so much calmer and I'll certainly have to come back to it in the next weeks to remind me that I joined NaNo for the fun of it and not as a punishment. I've never backed away from climbing a real mountain yet, no matter how horribly low my fitness level, so I'm not going to start now. Thank you!

  5. Thank you for the timely article.

    I'm twenty thousand words into my first detective novel, and am at the stage where I'm thinking everything I've written is crap. I'm going to keep going until the end, then take another look at the 'crap' and will probably find out it's relatively okay for a first draft.

    Thank you. :-)

  6. Yes, this is very true to what goes on when writing a book. I loved how you painted this picture but you made me feel a bit guilty for hanging around here rather than getting over that peak already :-)

  7. It usually happens in the middle of chapter three, when you suddenly suspect everything you've written is complete crap.

    That would be me. That and the depression I also suffer from. It makes me just not want to do anything at all.

    I kept this article. Are you considering putting them all together and posting them somewhere here? Because you should. ;o)

  8. Thank you for this post. I had to smile at the 'crap' part. My NaNoWriMo region is a very active and one thing our ML and all the veterans stress is to 'embrace the crap'. Ever since someone finished a writing sprint one evening, sat back and said 'well that was total crap', we have a battle cry that someone just couldn't help but say at the time. 'Yay Crap!' It's so much fun to watch a group of 15 or so adults in a public location suddenly say that out loud, in sync. Never fails to make the stressed newbie smile and go back to their story just a tiny bit renewed.