Monday, November 18, 2013

The Five Insurmountable Problems of NaNoWriMo

By DeAnna Knippling


So you’re thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year for the first time. Or you’re thinking about doing better this year. Or you’re partially through NaNo and you’re stuck and you hate life and you’re reading NaNo blogs because you just like to punish yourself for not being good enough as a writer.

Um, yeah.

NaNoWriMo is a kind of hothouse of writing. It brings up all kinds of ugly things that encapsulate our failures as writers - or at least the failures as we see them.

So let’s get past that, not by treating NaNoWriMo as a kind of writers’ resolution, (”This year, I will write 50,000 words, mostly by...I don’t know, just forcing myself!”) but by looking at the root causes.

Here’s my premise: anything that stops you from writing is a bad writing technique.

1. I don’t know what to write.

Tip: Pick the first memorable person you think of, drop them in a memorable setting (it’s easier if you know the setting reasonably well), and give them a problem they can’t solve using their normal M.O. (that is, don’t give a firefighter a fire to put out--give them a parent with cancer).

It’s not that we don’t know what to write. It’s that we get hung up on finding the perfect thing to write. Why is that? Because we’re secretly convinced that stories aren’t about how the story’s told, but about the idea that sets them off.

And yet. Everybody who’s ever admitted to being a writer in public has heard this: “I have this great idea for a book. Why don’t you write it for me - I’ll even give you a percentage of the profits. Fifty-fifty!” As though the idea was worth half the work in the book. You’d laugh at that person...if it wasn’t you.

If you’re held up on the idea, then coming up with the perfect idea has got to go. Because anything that stops you from writing is a bad writing technique.

2. I have no time to write.

Tip: Give up Facebook and Twitter for November. If you want to get really extreme, give up all non-job reading and entertainment for the month...no reading, no games, no going out, no socializing...but them’s desperate measures.

You have time to write. I’m sorry, you do. It’s not about time, it’s about fear.

I had a talk with my daughter yesterday about math class, which she normally likes and finds easy. This year, she has a math teacher who throws things at her faster than she’s comfortable with. I could have a talk with the teacher about slowing things down for her or helping her somehow. Maybe getting her a tutor (well, other than me). Instead my daughter and I discussed learning and what it feels like, and how easy it is to run away from feeling like that. I told her that part of a good teacher’s job is to unsettle you, to get you used to and over the terror of learning.

I told her it’s okay to take breaks from your homework, but she can’t run away.

You have time to write; it’s just easier to justify cooking healthy meals and spending some extra time with the kids and doing laundry and Dr. Who and even puttering around on Facebook than it is to face learning something new. If you have fifteen minutes, you can have a page of fiction.

Yes. You can. When you’re not screwing around like a kid trying to avoid homework. When you’re not paralyzed by fear.

Telling yourself you have no time to write stops you from writing--it’s a bad writing technique.

3. I write nothing but crap.

Tip: Check all the items on this list:
  • Did I drink enough water?
  • Have I eaten? Have I eaten something other than crap during one of my last two meals?
  • Have I had enough sleep?
  • Have I had enough exercise?
  • Have I journaled/stress relieved lately?


Some people are surprised to find out that mental effort is physically draining, and learning something new is even worse. NaNo is a writing marathon, and it will burn energy and other resources faster than you’re used to. When you feel drained and horrible about your writing, first check that your body (or subconscious) isn’t trying to send you a message: I need fuel and/or repairs.

The other part of this issue is the nature of crap.

The bad news is that we all write crap. The good news is that when you know you’re writing crap, it means you’re ahead of the game--seriously. In order to learn something new, you have to be uncomfortable with where you are now. Viscerally. Painfully.

The idea that you have to feel like you're writing well in order to be a good writer sounds logical but it will keep you from writing and improving. It’s a bad writing technique!

4. I wrote for a while, but now I’m stuck and I don’t know what to do.

Tip: Write the next thing. Or maybe back up a paragraph or two, delete that, and then write the next thing.

Last year I took up knitting as a bucket-list kind of thing. I’d failed miserably at it as a kid - my mom’s right-handed to my leftiness, and she’s no good at explaining things from the other direction. I thought I was doomed. However, then I realized I have the Internet. I must have gone through fifty knitting videos on learning how to get started knitting before I found The One That Made Sense. At one point, I could have watched knitting videos all day. Instead of actually, you know, knitting.

You can, and should, and will do research to find out what works for you. But it has to be based on your personal trial and error, not on other people’s advice. No class, no mentor, no co-author can replace Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard. The only way to get comfortable with writing is to write.

But what if you’re stuck? Seriously stuck? And you can’t write another word?

You can. You must.

During any long writing project, you will more than likely get stuck at some point, especially as you realize you have no idea what you’re doing, what you’ve been doing, or what you’re going to do next. I’ve talked to writers at various levels of experience. As far as I can tell, this feeling never goes away.

So you look up and realize you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Oh, no - there’s no way to get the characters out of this situation! Clearly, it’s time to completely rewrite the entire book. Or just quit writing. FOREVER.

Except there always is a way out of every fictional situation, no matter how bad, because the characters get to destroy the walls and tramp all over the paint. Nuclear bombs? Alien invasion? Falling in love with someone else entirely? That’s what edits are for: rewriting the opening so the ending fits.

When you get stuck, write the next sentence. It might be weird, ungrammatical, awkward, annoying, offensive, etc., etc. Just plain wrong.

It is also yours in a way that the best-planned, structurally pretty sentences will never be. When you have pushed past everything you can think and plan, then you enter into a territory of naked honesty, which is often ugly and just plain wrong.

This is where the art of writing lies. The rest is craft. You need to know craft. I love craft. But this is where the art is, where you go, “I have nothing. I know nothing. I am writing out on a limb, on a one-sided bridge off a cliff with no opposite bank. I am skydiving without a parachute. I am a fake. I am full of crap and so is this.”

But that’s where the good stuff is.

This idea that you’re stuck because you’re at a dead end - it’s a lie, it’s fear talking. It stops you from writing - so it’s gotta' go. You’re stuck because you’re at the edge of the cliff. The next sentence you write must be magic. Not because it was good (although it will be, if you let yourself recognize it), but because you were able to write it at all.

5. Now what?

Tip: Continue to be a pain in the butt and do what’s right for you as a writer.

At some point, you’ll decide that you’ve finished your NaNo novel, or that you’re not going to.

In either case, you’re going to hear some negative things about NaNo authors, or people who don’t finish, or people who do, or new writers in general, or whatever. The people who depend on you will be relieved that it’s over. You will be relieved that it’s over.

You’ll be left dangling. Now what?

People will give you advice. A lot of it will sound really logical.

However, if it makes you want to stop writing, it’s a bad writing technique. No matter how logical it is, no matter how long people have been doing it. It’s bad. If you just want to work on something new and not finish your NaNo project - do that. (If you never want to do NaNo again - then don’t!) If you want to keep writing every day despite the fact that people tell or imply that you suck - then write. If the idea of submitting makes you want to never write again - then don’t submit (yet). If the idea of having to perfect your work before you can submit it makes you want to roll up in a ball - then submit before it’s perfect. If getting too many rejections kills you - then take it slow, or wait until you've written five other things and you don't care whether that old thing gets rejected or not. Work around the problems until they aren’t problems anymore. Learn one thing at a time, not all at once. Be kind to yourself. Keep writing.

Everything else is a bad writing technique.


About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at www.deannaknippling.com or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.


2 comments:

  1. Love this. And I've found that when I get stuck it can help to skip ahead and write a scene I know I'll need later. Or pull a JK Rowling and write the last chapter. Then figure out how to get from the sticky place and the part I've just written.

    Also helps if I'm bogged down because I know a difficult scene is coming up. Just write that scene as quickly as possible to get it over with.

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  2. Yes! I do usually end up rewriting those scenes, but they loosen everything up :)

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