Surviving a National Novel Writing Apocalypse

To start, news! I have a new short story out this week!  Don’t expect this kind of treatment regularly, but I wrote a thing about supervillains at a bar, and it’s in the first issue of Uncanny Magazine, the rest of which is also worth reading!  Now, on to your regularly scheduled bloviating.

National Novel Writing Month is here!  If you’re not a dual-class writer / internet person this may not mean much to you, so here’s the skinny: every November, people around the world sign up to write 50,000 words over the course of the calendar month.  This is a large number of words to write.  For participant, especially those who haven’t done it before, NaNoWriMo may feel like a constant sprint against a voracious and ever-advancing wordcount target.  1,667 words every single day.  Weekends.  Holidays.

The Target does not stop.  The Target does not sleep.  The Target doesn’t care about your nervous breakdown.  Tired?  Wrists hurt?  Out of coffee?  Tough.  The Target still shambles forward, rotten teeth jutting jagged from rotten gums.  Run as fast as you can, look back, and you’ll find the Target behind you—always just behind you somehow, over your shoulder, down that alley.  Rest and it will find you.  The Target has no sympathy.  The Target feels no pain.  The Target doesn’t feel anything, really, not even hunger.  Feelings are a distraction.  The Target eats.  The Target follows.  The Target’s behind you right now.  You could feel its breath on your neck, if it breathed.  The air stinks of rot and typewriter ribbon.

I live the fight against the Target.  I lived it long before I stumbled into this neat, terrifying place where I fight the Target full-time.  If this is your first time through, or, hell, if this is your fifth time through but you still feel that fear, if you wake some nights drowning in the stink of rot and typewriter ribbon—I’m here to offer you some pieces of advice I hope will be worth the time you’re even now thinking you could have, should have, spent running, fighting, building barricades.  I hope—this will help you.  Because it’s a vicious world out there.

Don’t Panic (Though it will get bad.)  The Target knows your fear.  It’s not smart, understand—but it uses your own smarts against you, instinctively.  Our great-great-a-billion-times-great grandmas were little rats quivering under leaves as monstrous feathered lizards prowled for a snack—we’re built to freeze under pressure, or to run.  The Target’s dumb, but thorough.  If you remain in place, it will devour you.  And the closer it gets (or the further ahead it gets!) the more a little voice will whisper in your ear: freeze.  Don’t trust that voice.  The Target won’t get you if you run, and keep running.  And on that note…

Don’t Sprint (Unless You’re Almost Safe.)  If you want to rely on sprinting, you should have been born a cheetah.  There’s good evidence humans evolved to jog after animals across the savannah until they died from exhaustion and fright.  You remember the bit in Butch and Sundance where they go: “Who are these guys?”  That’s us, in the animal kingdom.  That’s humans.  I know a woman who accidentally killed her friend’s dog while taking it for a run—she’s an ultramarathonner, and turns out dogs aren’t built to run marathons.  That’s the human race right there.  We can sprint, when we need to, but that’s not how we’re built.   Write ten thousand words in a day and your wrists will cringe, your back will seize, your scavenger’s mind will yearn to do anything else.  Which is fine if you’ve just made it to that Last Redoubt called The End.  It’s a problem if you’re in the middle of Act III with 40,000 words left and Target closing in.  If you’re behind, if you’re in Target-held territory, figure out how to extricate yourself smoothly and dependably.  Yes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in a couple weeks on a single roll of butcher paper, but (1) you’re not Jack Kerouac, (2) he was on a disgusting amount of Benzedrine, and (3) you’re still not Jack Kerouac.  Oh, and (4), he’d written three test drafts of the novel before he sat down with the butcher paper.  So:

Trust Your Plan (Most of the time.)  Stress makes human beings good at lots of stuff, but it shoots our reasoning abilities in the gut.  Literally!  Your body doesn’t know the difference between “oh god oh god tiger gonna eat me” and “this is a minor career setback that can be overcome with reasonable effort.”  So when you smell that rot and typewriter ribbon, you’ll manufacture all sorts of crazy ideas.  What the hell am I doing?  I should set fire to this whole manuscript.  I should set fire to this whole coffee shop.  Most insidious: this plan, these ideas I wrote back when I was safe, before the world began to burn, they’re all shit and I’m shit and oh my god we’ve been on the wrong path this entire time, let’s run left into the forest!  Which isn’t bad in itself, but odds are you don’t know how to navigate the forest, and there are actual honest-to-god tigers out there.  But sometimes you have to…

Listen to Your Gut (When it’s right.)  Yeah, I know, I just said don’t do this, but if this was a science we’d be on PhDComics and I’d have better job security.  Here’s the flip side of “trust your plan”—you made your plan before you met the Target.  You made your plan based on a Google Earth map of the territory you’d be running through, without setting foot on the ground.  Maybe that route you charted is uphill.  Maybe Google Earth was wrong (shock! horror!) and the route’s actually a dead end.  Maybe Godzilla smashed the Golden Gate Bridge, and you needed that bridge.  Yeah, your plan made sense when you drew it, but you know, now, that you’ve taken a wrong turn.  Here’s storytelling’s dirty secret, the ball they hide in those seminars about Aristotle and Freytag: our bodies know stories.  And just so we don’t hide the ball any further: yes, I’m talking about sex.  Just look at this diagram, which is super-industry-standard stuff I pulled from a Gamasutra article I found by googling Story Tension Diagram.  There are roughly a billion of these on the internet.


What’s that look like to you?  Really?  To me it looks like an excellent night in.  There’s a writing prompt here, but I try to keep this site pg-13.

But, and this is crucial, there is a difference between the voice in your gut that’s right and the voice that’s wrong.  That’s hard to learn.  You learn it on the ground, in unfamiliar territory, with Target closing in.  Some guidelines that work for me: the voice that says “this project is horrible, you’re horrible” is generally wrong.  The voice that says, “woah, wait a second, I’m really not into this” is often right.  For me, and feel free to disregard because I’m verging on Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo here, if I’m paying attention I can even tell where those voices are coming from.  The first sits behind and above my shoulders, pressing down and forward.  The second is a hole just in front of my spine, below the belly button, about where taiji folks will place the dan-t’ien.  Done with Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo for the moment.  Trust your gut.  Trust your plan.  You won’t survive without both.

Find Friends who Know the Target. This is a lonely fight.  It’s terrifying.  People lose all the time.  You will freeze, you will dive into the woods, you will hew to a plan when the landscape on which the plan was based lies in a million shattered pieces at your feet.  You need friends.  You need people who understand.  It’s best if they’ve been here before, if they’ve run from the Target, if they’re running now—but really, if you scratch the surface, everyone has a Target.  They might not realize it, but they do.  Find friends.  Lower your shields against one another so you can present a shield wall against the Target.  Beat an orderly retreat together.

Trust the Time Machine.  There’s a time machine in the Last Redoubt, and once you reach it, you can go back.  Those weird sentences you know you wrote?  You can fix them.  That unnecessary chapter?  Make it necessary, or cut it out.  That scene which starts too soon, or too late, you can start it on time.  Don’t flounder on the road, dreaming about the time machine.  Once you reach the Last Redoubt, you’ll have all the time in the world.  For now, you have to keep moving—so long as you know what direction you’re moving in.  This is especially true while the Target’s chasing you.  There’s no time for Joycean line-by-line angst.  Run.  Move.  Breathe.  Make mistakes.  If they are mistakes, you can fix them later.  But sometimes they aren’t mistakes.  Sometimes they’re bigger than that.  Sometimes they’re big enough to be genius.

It’s not about the Target.  Betrayal! you cry.  Treachery!  Treason!  Hogwash, I say: the target does not matter.   Repeat that.  If the Target matters, you will lose.  The Target is death, the Target is implacable, the Target is the mechanical pacing rabbit.  Don’t settle for surviving the Target.  Have something to live for.  Know what you want at the end of the race.  Know your Last Redoubt.  Know the friend you’ll rescue in the knick of time.  Aim for that swordfight, that first kiss, the final joke you’ve spent the whole book setting up.  Remember why you’re here—remember why you decided to write this book.  Justice?  Love?  Rebellion?  Taste it.  Smell it.  That’s what will pull you forward, through all the connective tissue, through all the wrong turns, through the jungle, through the stench of rot and ribbon.  Go there.  Take your reader with you.

I’m Writing this for You, and for Me.  There’s a reason I don’t do writing advice on this blog often.  Storytelling is the big human project.  We’ve been doing it for thousands of years—exploring its possibilities, developing forms and techniques, trying new things and rehearsing old schemes.  We tell stories about gods and we tell stories about atoms and we tell stories about people, who are even weirder than gods and atoms.  Storytelling is complicated, is what I’m saying.  I’ve thought about this stuff for a long time.  I’ve written way more than my 10,000 hours.  I still lose my way.  I come from schools of martial arts where teaching is what a master gives you, or a coach.  Senior students know what works for them—but they might not know enough to know that their advice only works in a certain context.  A fencer might feel he’s winning for one reason but might actually be winning for another reason altogether.  It’s mad.

And I’m no master.  I’ve published books.  I’ve been nominated for awards.  I write quickly, and well, and dependably.  And still I just finished a 12,500 word story—took me four days to write, and in the process I had every problem I’ve listed here, and more besides.  This is a letter to my future self as much as it is to you.  Maybe this will all come off as presumptive and weird.  But…

I started bouldering this year.  And one of the things I love about it is: there’s no master.  Just you and the wall.  And if you’re having trouble, one thing you can do is turn to the guy or gal next to you and say, “Damn, I’m having a hard time with this.  Any ideas?”  Their ideas might not work.  They might.  But either way they give you something new to take to the wall.

So that’s what I have for you this week: a bit of advice from someone else staring up the wall.

Go climb.  Kick ass.  Build something awesome.

The world needs more of that.

2 Responses to “Surviving a National Novel Writing Apocalypse”

  1. November | En udda verklighet

    […] Resten av november innehåller också NaNoWriMo, som vanligt, och jag kommer inte att göra den precis som man ska, som vanligt. Det är månaden då det finns folk över hela världen som försöker få ihop 50 000 ord på 30 dagar, helst i form av en roman. För min del blir det att jobba vidare på en redan befintlig roman men försöka följa med i det sug som alla de andras ansträngning ger. Och för dem av er som också är med i skrivdraget så finns här ett par tankar kring att ha 1667 ord flåsande en i nacken varje dag, från Max Gladstone som vet va…. […]


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