So, you’ve written 2,000 words in three weeks… (a pep talk for NaNo London 2011)

Saturday, 26th April 2014

This piece was written as part of a series of 'pep talks' (by various people) for the London region of NaNoWriMo.

When I told my partner that I was writing a pep talk, he laughed heartily for some time. The phrase 'least peppy person alive' may have been mentioned.

And yes, it is indeed a pep talk about crippling self-doubt, which is... conceptually interesting. Nonetheless, I had more than one person say that it encouraged them to keep writing, which makes the whole thing entirely worthwhile.


Hi, I'm Lily, and you may remember me from previous NaNos as 'the one who managed to crash and burn somewhere around Day 2, then pull 40k out of the bag in the last week'.
Or, if you go back all the way to 2004, as 'the girl who wrote eight words in November. Not eight thousand. Not eight hundred. Eight.'

Do not be fooled by this year's steady progression. In every previous year, my stats chart has resembled either a death-defying ski-slope (in winning years) or an altitude survey of the Norfolk Broads (the rest of the time).

However, along the way I've learned a few things that have helped make this year (and hopefully many years to come!) a much better experience:

1. Never underestimate the value of fifteen minutes

The biggest trap that I fall into is thinking that unless you have a great lump of time set aside for writing, there is no point.
'I only have half an hour before I need to head out for the evening,' I think. 'Too late to fire up the ol' netbook, then. There just isn't enough time to get into the swing of things.'

That way leads down a dark path of increasingly questionable excuses: The room is too cold for typing. The story needs to be outlined for the sixteenth time. November is the ideal time to take up practising the clarinet…
(These are all, alas, taken from life. For the record, I still cannot play the clarinet.)

It is also blatantly untrue.

The thing is, the nights that I've devoted to writing are never the wall-to-wall typing-fest that I had in mind. My concentration limit on most days is about twenty-five minutes. After that, chances are I will be staring at the wall.

Getting into the habit of writing whenever a ten-to-twenty minute gap comes along has made a startling difference to my word count, and, even better, has greatly reduced the impact that NaNo has on my free time. Making sure that every minute counts frees up entire evenings for mooching about, which in turn has made for a happier, saner November.

2. When writing is like wading through treacle, the novel is trying to tell you something

…and in my case, often that something is 'you're telling instead of showing again, you idiot'.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working on a scene that at the time, I thought was crucial to the plot because it introduced a lot of key characters and foreshadowed a lot of future events. It was not fun. The plot creaked, the dialogue creaked even more, and so it continued for five thousand tedious words.

After I took a step back from it, I realised that what the scene basically amounted to was this:

'So,' said the detective. 'Tell me about the victim and every conceivable motive for killing him.'
'Funny you should ask,' said the victim's brother. 'Pull up a chair, and I'll explain everything that has happened in my family for the past twenty years...'

The result was boring to read and even more boring to write, and the moment I got away from the gigantic monologue and gave my protagonist something more active to do, the writing positively shot forward.

3. Learning to write is a tricky process, and you don't have to master it all in one go

It has often been argued that you shouldn't throw in anything too wacky, because you won't end up with a coherent novel at the end of it.

This is sound advice, if you are in a place where you're basically moving forward okay and just need to find the time and energy to catch up.

Up till now, I was not in that place.

In 2002-2003, I was so under-confident that an email would take literally hours to draft, and the notion of writing down the novel that seemed so perfect in my head was frankly terrifying.
Forcing myself to sit down and write 50k of *anything* was therefore a major boundary-pushing challenge for me.
The wheels came off the plot early on in both years, but from the tangled mess of subplots I emerged with all sorts of unplanned ideas and characters that were actually much more vivid and interesting than anything I planned.

In 2004-2008, my personal goal shifted to writing something 'good'. The outcome was, on the positive side, brief.

In 2009-2010, I tried to keep to the plots (such as they were), but allowed myself a bit of leeway - okay, a lot of leeway - to throw in random stuff, just to keep the words coming. I didn't end up with anything you'd call a 'novel', but the unplanned tangents got me out of the perfectionist rut, and equally importantly, reminded me that writing fiction can be really, really fun.

The point that I'm trying to make here is that for me, up to now, NaNo has effectively been a front for getting up the nerve to put one word in front of another; which can be pretty depressing in an atmosphere where everyone else seems to have already worked all that stuff out.

However, that 50k target - any 50k will do, nobody needs to ever see it - kept the words coming, and, almost coincidentally, provided the practice I needed to start getting the hang of piecing together a scene.

If you have found yourself miles behind with the plot nowhere in sight, I would therefore recommend one thing: just keep going. Change the scene. Bring in a different viewpoint. Write about the hero's distant ancestors. Just keep going regardless.

Do it for the sake of next year's novel.