Battling to the End: How to Keep Your Focus the Last Week of NaNo
Greetings Word Warriors!
If you’ve made it here to the final stretch of NaNoWriMo, I salute you. On the other hand, if you’re reading an article about the last week of a NaNo rather than writing your novel, you’re probably looking for more than a cheerleader.
Perhaps you’re simply feeling tapped out after so many days of weaving your magic by the seat of your pants. That much spontaneous creativity takes a lot of energy! Or maybe you’re more like me, and by now you’ve reached the limit of what you “knew” about your story. You’ve hit the part of your outline where the words become vague, the questions marks more numerous. And if you’re behind on your word count goals, this can seem a good time to just surrender.
So, as a NaNoWriMo veteran, here is my absolute, 100% most important tip for making it to the end: Cheat.
I don’t mean you should lie about your numbers. But when things look bleak, every good gladiator knows that sometimes you need to grab some sand and use it to blind your nemesis. Lost your sword? Grab another weapon off of the rack. And sometimes, the best thing to do is a to retreat and draw the enemy into your clutches.
A Fistful of Sand
Somewhere along the way, we’ve internalized the idea that we must approach our writing in a linear fashion. Pantsers start at the beginning and let the story carry them to the end. Even if plotters have the entire book figured out from the start, they more than likely start writing from the same point as their pantser brethren. Humans have an innate sense of linear time that dictates our thought processes. We start at the start, and we go until the end.
As you have been working with your story, I’m sure you’ve already thought about scenes still to come. Maybe there is a great death scene coming, or a chance for those star-crossed lovers to finally embrace. Perhaps there is a setting that has got you really excited, but your intrepid space travelers haven’t made it there yet. The huge naval battle is waiting just beyond the horizon. Whatever it is, we all have these scenes that we can “see” more clearly than others. And I am here to give you permission to write them, even if they aren’t “next in line.”
When I sat down to do NaNo last year, I had some very clear snapshots in my brain. These images drove the entire story. I knew this scene had to come late in the narrative, so if I stayed the course, it wouldn’t be written until after November. It was a moment that I knew I had to work toward, though I hadn’t figured out all the details yet. But the moment itself, the outcome, was crystal clear.
So, when I found myself stuck somewhere in the middle, I jumped ahead 20 chapters and wrote the scene that was already in my head. Not only did I get my word count goal for the day, I now also had something to work backward from. I didn’t have to only think about pushing forward, I could also use the conversation between my characters to influence the events leading up to that moment now that it existed. This rejuvenated me for the next day, and helped to define my approach between these two characters.
Of course, it would need to be rewritten once I had more of the details worked out. Then again, everything is subject to rewrites.
The more I write long-form fiction, the more useful I find abstracts to be. They kind of act like summaries, but for pre-writing. In an academic paper, an abstract comes at the beginning to tell you the highlights of what you are about to read. Their purpose is to act as a shorthand for scholars so they know the thesis, cursory arguments and the conclusions before they ever decide to read the paper.
For fiction writers, they can serve a similar purpose. It feels great to be lost to the “creative flow,” but well-constructed chapters should have a beginning, middle, and end just like a story. There has to be a purpose to everything that goes into your novel, and hopefully you can even weave multiple purposes into each scene. The point could be to advance the plot, get to know a character better, add to the worldbuilding, raise the stakes, mark an epiphany, or any number of other things. But the point is that there should be a point.
Writing an abstract before you start your next chapter can help you organize your thoughts. Knowing what you are driving at can work wonders for keeping you motivated to get there. Abstracts are a form of brainstorming that can also help organize your thoughts. Sometimes, my abstracts are full paragraphs. Other times, I just use bullet points. Either way, it gives you a chance to write out and organize your thoughts before you ever begin.
And guess what? Those abstracts COUNT! Those are words you are generating to facilitate your story. Just like the scaffolding approach (see below), this can be a great exercise when you are feeling burnt out. Writing an abstract for what you plan to write the next day can give you an extra couple hundred words. Plus, it puts you on the right path before you even realize you’re awake the next morning!
You may even find you like writing abstracts so much, you write several in a row. Nowadays, I often write abstracts for five or more chapters all in a cluster. This is a great way to decide how and when to reveal information to your reader. If a character is making a decision, you may be able to figure out exactly which steps lead them to it. Abstracts are an intermediary step between your outline and your finished book.
Best of all, they help you stay organized, which helps you stay focused all the way to the end of the fight!
Build on Your Strengths
At this point, you’ve got at least several thousand words under your stylish yet sensible belt. When it comes to actually putting words on paper, there are going to be parts we each find easier to do. And though it may feel like “cheating” to only do the “fun” parts of a chapter, there is nothing wrong with making it easy on yourself. As long as you are willing to go back and do the hard work of editing, anything you put on the page at this point is golden.
The Scaffolding Approach
One of my personal strengths is dialog. If I have a scene where characters are talking, I generate words much faster than when I am doing any other sort of writing. At the same time, all that punctuation and worrying about varying my sentence structure slows me down. Plus, there’s all those pesky action tags that can get in the way of my flow. This was especially true at the end of a day when I’d already put out tons of energy.
My solution was to write out the conversation, but use placeholder words anywhere I didn’t feel like making a decision yet. This way, I could use the actual dialog to build a scaffold, which I used to build the rest of the scene.
For instance, here’s a bit of scaffolding from working on a collaborative novel, Army of Brass. The placeholder words are in red. I’ve added in the dialog punctuation to help you follow, but as I was writing, I didn’t bother with the quotation marks. Two characters are scaling a cliff face, and one is having trouble.
“This is no time for jokes, Mrs. Gable.” Tag, struggle
“Was I joking?” tag “I can’t always tell these days.” Climbs higher. “What I do know is that I am neither willing nor able to pull you to the top due to obvious discrepancy between your bulk and my upper body strength. Ergo, you shall have to climb, or find some way to derive sustenance from bare—and might I remind you, toxic—stone.”
Narration, wondering what is wrong, tries to move, guilt, vertigo.
“Unless of course you plan to die,” she speculated. “It would seem a rather fitting ending for your legend, as long as the details never made it out.”
“What has gotten into you?”
Action tag, progress. “Think about it. You just told me you lost your ship, the love of Captain Davenport’s life, on a mission to save the king. If you were to die here in the valley, everyone would think you were struck down in the Battle of Brasshaven. Now, that would be one for the storybooks,” dialog action compound, progress, nearing the top. Description of her. Looks down. “Then of course, this discussion is all academic, and the necessity of your moving from that spot is moot. In which case, could you please let go and stop distracting me from climbing? This last part will be tricky.”
I found out I loved ending my writing day this way, because the next morning I would start by fleshing out my scaffolded scene. I could write their conversation without keeping track of exactly how close they had gotten to the top. That meant automatic direction first thing in the morning the next, plus expanding on something that existed generated automatic word count right off the bat. This approach can take advantage of those times when you are tired, but you still have a few of those creative embers burning.
I used it with dialog, but if action is your thing, you can do it in reverse. Feel free to write placeholder dialog that gives an idea of the emotions or facts being exchanged. Then, you can sink your teeth into the action, narration, or description and come back to figure out the details of precisely what was said later. And remember, IT ALL COUNTS. When people say “write a bad rough draft,” that can absolutely include “scaffolded” scenes.
Choose a New Weapon
There are thousands of articles and books about writing. I personally subscribe to at least ten newsletters like Our Write Side (and you should, too!) and regularly browse others. It’s easy to find a tip or technique that works for us, and then we simply stop looking. In truth, you never know when someone else’s insights can give you exactly the inspiration you need. The clock is ticking, but to avoid getting totally burned out on your story, it’s a good idea to approach it from different angles.
No matter what your regular approach, take the time to try something new. Read a book about the craft of writing during your non-NaNo hours. If you’re a notecard user, put them away for a couple of days. Never used notecards, give them a try! I don’t usually look at writing prompts, but one time last year I happened to glance at a list and a scene fell completely into place.
And even if a new trick or technique doesn’t work out in the long run, I guarantee that your brain will thank you for the change of tactic. If you are a pantser, here’s a great article on plotting. Hey, plotters! Check out this advice about letting go of control.
Know When to Retreat
I want you to note, I did not say “surrender.” You’ve made it this far, and you are going to make it to the end. This can mean maintaining a laser-like focus on your goal, but it can also mean giving yourself a chance to lose focus when you choose.
NaNoWriMo is not a single skirmish, it’s a series of daily battles. Some of these battles will take a greater toll than others, and as they stack up, fatigue sets in. A good warrior knows that it’s better to regroup and regain her strength than to lose the war from pushing too hard.
When it comes to writers, a retreat won’t have anything to do with bandaging the wounded. (Or, at least, I hope you’ve made it thus far without injury!) Every once in a while, we have to recharge our creative batteries. The best way to do that is to look at something new. No, I don’t mean starting a new TV show you’ve been dying to binge. I mean real, three-dimensional, actual things out in the world.
In the amazing film, Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson plays a writer who can’t figure out how to kill her main character. We watch her imagine brutal car crashes while gazing at a bridge in the rain. She climbs onto her desk and steps to the end to feel what it’s like to stand on a precipice. She immerses herself in the sensations of the real world, not just her fictional one. And eventually, she has the epiphany she needs to get over her writer’s block. This is research, and perhaps this sort of total immersion might work for you.
But she is also a fictional character! Personally, I find the opposite approach to be even more effective. When I need to let my brain recharge or work out a problem, I aim for total distraction. Like eating that brownie on your “cheat day” for your diet plan.
If I’m writing a book about traveling under the ocean, I’d go to the aquarium for research. But if I want to give my brain a chance to simmer on my sword and sorcery book, I’d go to the aquarium to look at all the pretty fishies. The sensory experience becomes paramount, not the information I might gain from experiencing it. Museums, zoos, parks, nature trails, frisbee golf courses, farmers markets, festivals, amusement parks—these all offer a wealth of beautiful distractions. (AKA “brain candy.”)
Even if you aren’t normally a fan of places with lots of people, your brain will welcome the change of scenery. Not only that, it will ultimately help you stay on task. There is nothing more annoying than when you desperately want to work on something, but you are constantly distracting yourself. By choosing when and how you are going to give in, you gain control over the impulse. When you give your mind a break from your story, it will make it that much hungrier to re-enter the fray.
So, battle on my NaNoWriMo warriors. And don’t forget to cheat!
Do you have strategies for getting through the final stretch? Find a tool at the 11th hour that saved the day? Found your muse at the amusement park? Share your stories in the comments!
Phoebe Darqueling wrote her upcoming novel, No Rest for the Wicked, during NaNoWriMo 2016. You can read teasers every Friday on her author website. After finding out she’d be moving to Germany this Spring, her mind has been full of fairy tale monsters, which inspired her current NaNo book. Follow her on Facebook to find out more about all of her books and appearances.
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