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Nanowrimo - Pacing the Marathon

Updated on November 9, 2009

Attractive Distractions

Everything else you ever do to enjoy yourself starts to become almost irresistibly tempting during a writing marathon...
Everything else you ever do to enjoy yourself starts to become almost irresistibly tempting during a writing marathon...


You have plenty of time ahead of you at the start of a writing marathon like Nanowrimo -- -- and there are others at other times of year on different writing sites. Several romance writer online groups host "novel in a week" events, there's the Three Day Novel Contest, and the small writing group I founded in 2004, SFFmuse, is going to be doing several of them at different times of year with self-set goals. The one thing all of these have in common is social support.

Instead of just hearing how you spend way too much time at the computer and ought to spend more time with the family in front of the TV or taking up yoga or doing chores and favors for them or anything else other people would rather you were doing than being alone and selfishly working on your novel, you have support from other writers. They do not think you're crazy if you cry over killing a character or get the jitters after writing the scary scene. They don't tell you "Nobody makes a living on writing" when demonstrably every year a few of the marathoners start to and the pep talks often come from those successes who are now doing it full time and enjoying it much more than working for a bank or in a store.

Does anyone actually tell people who like to play tennis "Nobody ever makes a living playing tennis" when they're just starting out as a beginner and think it might be a cool thing to do on weekends? If someone starts scrapbooking or painting ceramic figurines, no one goes saying "You'll never be any good at that, you're just not talented." Because it sounds stupid. 

In the UK there's a long standing tradition of leisure painters. Often they become as good as professional painters and remain leisure painters only because they don't want to deal with the trouble of handling the business end of being career artists, or they like their actual careers as something else and painting is something they do just for the joy of it. Nanowrimo is starting to create an interesting tradition of leisure writers who are enjoying themselves immensely, may or may not casually share the dream of someday selling a novel to a pro publisher but are often just as happy to self publish and consider it a success when it makes a profit -- and that is a genuine success.

If you self publish your book and then it earns out all the money you spent on the Print On Demand Package, what you do on weekends has turned into a trickle income rather than a money sink even if you bought some fancy software and lots of writing books and a really good fountain pen for doing book signings or longhand first draft. Most of the arts will sustain themselves at the "paying hobby" level. That makes a difference when times are tight.

It means that you don't have to cut your leisure and entertainment right out of your life when money's in a pinch. It may mean you could step up your efforts in your hobby area to use it as a fallback when there's gaps in employment. Having some of what you need is tons better than having nothing. And of course that pinch actually could lead to buckling down to turn it into an actual career and telling the uncertain job market to shove off.

So you get into a writing marathon. You sign up for Nanowrimo at and charge in on your first day full of energy, or get stuck thinking of an idea. You fall behind or pull ahead. This year I pulled ahead early. I've been doing this for nine years now and know that a strong start is the best way to tackle any writing marathon. The more I get done on the first day I do it, the easier it is to take it in stride when Life Happens and it gets interrupted.

For me what interrupts it most is sick days. I've got chronic fatigue and so far other than day one, every Odd Number Day has been a day of collapse sleeping longer than my cat does and staring dully at the computer screen prodding my mail. I wind up spending four hours on a short email to a friend, not realizing I blanked out and dozed for twenty minutes between two sentences. Things like that eat time. Before I know it, I look up and it's crawling toward midnight and I have zero word count on the book.

Don't beat yourself up on things like that.

If you're not living with a chronic pain/fatigue condition, other things in your life can have the same effect. Hey. You might be in love. Being in love can be just as bad.

You look up at the end of a starry-eyed day of being glued at the hip to the most wonderful woman you've ever met in your entire life and you realize that you spent most of it telling her your life story and listening to hers. You sat beside her making cat noises and bumping your hips and giggling for an hour, this was not an hour that any writing got done and unless you're researching a novel with cat protagonists, not even related to it. Or you walked in the rain. Or you went to the movies and paid for a ticket to something you'd never have looked at otherwise so that you could ignore the movie and hold her hand and snuggle for an hour or two.

You might have a job.

Your supervisor or manager might wind up letting you know at the last minute that you need to sub for someone who's not coming in and work a double shift. Or there were just a zillion customers and the work's not done at the end of the day. Or there were a lot of meetings and the work didn't even get started till it was late in the day and wow, you look up at the clock and realize you are still at the office and haven't opened your novel.

In relation to working on your novel, that's exactly the same effect as my sick days. All that overtime might actually inch you ahead on your bills or get you the means to something you want, but in the mean time, there was a day in November that had no word count. Ow ow ow.

The way to fight that is to seize the day when you do have time or energy or your lover's taking a bath or anything at the time that you can focus on writing. To get ahead then, when you have the energy and enthusiasm. Momentum counts for a lot. Liking the book counts for a lot too. 

While I'm in the mood that says "OMG this is the greatest thing I've ever written and I'm dead certain when it hits print it'll bang up and down on the NYT bestseller list better than the Da Vinci Code, this is gold, this is so freaking perfect I can't believe I'm the one writing it" the writing goes fast. I'm turning the page wanting to know what happens next. I'm engaged with my characters. I care about them. My own real cat can crawl into my lap and I type over his back paying attention to fictional cats that he justifiably gets jealous of.

When I hit the mood of "This is pure dreck, it's cliche, it's derivative crud written so poorly I wouldn't turn it in for a high school assignment, maybe in grade school it would've passed because it has sentences and paragraphs but it's not a story, it's a whiny rant about child abuse and it's totally unrealistic, ew my character's creepy, oh no my character is so boring, who is going to want to read about the adventures of eight week old kittens anyway?" it's very hard to keep pushing it.

Here is something I discovered about myself after writing more than one novel. It may well be true of you. It may well be hideously common in fact.

Those moods have nothing to do with the actual quality of the prose I just wrote.

Either of those moods can hit in the middle of a normal chapter at my average quality of writing, which is much closer correlated to how much practice I've put in and what habits of good prose I've managed to internalize from editing sessions and critiquing other writers. If there is one thing in the real world that improves my own writing, it is doing crits for other writers.

I'll see my mistakes in their story, make high-handed sounds-easy cheery suggestions on how to fix it and realize that I've just flagged a minor example of my own worst habits.

When I go back to editing my own past novels, it's easier to see my run-on sentences.

So if you are worried about whether your writing is Any Good, don't. November is not the month to worry about whether it's Any Good. You can turn it into Good. You can turn it into Brilliant Works Of Genius No One Else Could Even Conceive if you put in enough time after it's done critiquing your serious friends' stories and novels in a writing group and incidentally make a lot of friends that way. Commonly, writing groups have a hard time getting people to do critiques. Post something for help and you will give about four of them to get one back in most groups.

That's fine. I learned more from doing the critiques than from posting my stuff, so I joined a tough writing group with high "must critique every month" requirements and have yet to post even one chapter of anything I've written to it. But I'm learning a lot from giving advice to people who share my common prose problems and so I'm getting a lot out of it.

So the trick to Nanowrimo is to almost self-hypnotize myself into believing in the happy-high-manic version of it. This is the greatest book I've ever written. Its premise is awesome. Everyone is going to want to read it. Publishers will be drooling at it. Some high-power agent is going to seize it just on the one-sentence pitch and auction it for millions of dollars establishing me right up with Dan Brown and Stephen King as one of these people who not only makes a living but gets classed with actors and Presidents as someone that a lot of people he doesn't know think that he's their bestest friend because the characters I made up were so cool.

I just accept that's a delusion and enjoy it.

When I'm in the "It is worthless crud and I'd be better off writing anything else, or maybe just drooling and chewing on pencils" the thing to remember is that all bestsellers started as a ludicrous piece of ugly crud that no editor or reader would look at twice. Rough draft novels are sort of like baby birds. They're misshapen, featherless, wet, gawking things with bulging eyes and weak necks and flappy little stumps for wings. They're rough drafts. Write bad novels. Write self indulgent bad novels. 

They become good novels once edited and the more of them edited, the more I can distinguish the editing that's "fix the artifacts of process" from "Learn how to do this thing." Artifacts of process include leaving out important bits of backstory because I know them by heart and on some level assume the reader does too. Put that in during the edit, the reader does not have my backstory notes because I never wrote them down. I just know the story by heart.

Artifacts of process include things like firing a machine gun loaded with periods at a sentence that was a perfectly good paragraph. All the words are there, but all the punctuation is commas with a period when it's time to start a new paragraph.

I write very fast. In spoken English, you end a sentence pretty much when you breathe. I type faster than I talk. So I end sentences when I breathe. Uhhh... that means I get out about three or four of them before I end the sentence. Reading the rough draft aloud restores a human pace of punctuation versus the fast-typist pace.

Learned tricks include things like putting in action tags. When I get bored writing "He said" and want to mention that Jerry is the one who said it, I'll mention that Jerry scratched his nose or looked soulfully at his girlfriend or shuflfed his feet. This is great. It lets the characters emote, it turns them into good actors rather than radio script readers. 

It is also my best trick if I haven't made my word count goal but I've hit the end of the book. Go back in, look at all the dialogue, revisit the movie in my head of that scene and start describing facial expressions and body language. No wasted words, but, wow, the word count does rise.

If I do a bit of that while actually writing the rough draft, it keeps pushing it forward.

But the biggest part of it especially around week two is getting up at the top of the day and pushing myself to work on the book again. When there is a lot of it done, the book either has momentum or inertia. If I have stopped for some reason, any reason, then momentum diminishes and it's easier to ramble into another project than to take a deep breath and go back to that heavy unfinished thing and try to shove some more words into it.

If I just finished a great exciting part of it and have ginormous word count, thinking of what comes next is usually momentum. I want to find out what happens next and I care about the characters. 

So I have some tricks for picking it up again after a gap. 

One is to read over the bit I just wrote last, go back far enough that I'll find out what's going on and remember why I care about these cats and their human pets. I'll fix typos along the way and casually add body language to the dialogues because I can see good lines. If I delete any word I'll add more description, dialogue and those relevant bits of backstory that otherwise leave readers confused.

No, it's not midnight. It's sunny noon and the presence of the evil spirit feels like a damp and icky moonless lonely midnight. Make sure to tell the reader that clearly. "It was hot high noon that felt like it was a cold wet midnight." So the emotion is all in the head and the reader sees high noon with someone shivering. 

I run into bits I liked. I get engaged again. I get to where I left off and keep going.

If the interruption is more than a day or had anything more interesting than sleeping a lot and doing mail in it, then I may have to go back to the beginning of the book and read it all in order to catch up and fully immerse in it. This is easy in the early chapters. This can take two days on a large book toward the end. This is why there are half finished novels in my hard drive that got interrupted by things like interstate moves that have sat there for years.

It helps to rearrange things so that all the other things I enjoy doing are a little harder to get out. Put away things like good books from other writers altogether. Put my good art supplies on the shelf and not out in easy reach. Stack several things in front of that handy tempting pastels box. Leave out the colored Pitt Artist Pens because scribbling notes in color on paper is part of writing process too. 

Set things up with every writing prompt handy in easy reach ready to turn on or grab. Make sure the paper notepad from the Kick-Off Party and the ballpoint is on top of the stack of art supplies stuff, in case I need to jot notes on my unrelated next novel that are interrupting this one. Open my browser to the Nanowrimo site and leave WetCanvas closed until I'm done with the day's first chapter. Don't even click on the Weekend Drawing Event because that could wind up soaking all weekend and they're bound to post better reference photos this month than any weekend that I'd really rather be drawing.

It takes will power.

I also give myself a little pat on the back, a moment's pride in my grit and determination anytime I do anything remotely moving me in the direction of working on the novel. 

Actually, this isn't a Week Two state of mind. I'm doing three novels this year, going out for my High Goal of doing what I could have done in 2004 if I hadn't gotten new roommates interrupting it. I'm sitting here looking at 67,886 words of an 80,000 word book and I want it done by the tenth, so this is much closer to that last push at the end of the month for anyone who isn't a multi-book overachiever.

Let's remember my end-of-book strategies. 

I don't care if it's the worst thing I ever wrote, it's too big to throw away.

It's so close to being done that I might as well finish it.

I know it's scary and it hurts to even think about doing that to those characters I love, but that's what makes them heroes and that's what makes it a good book.

I'm not depressed. One of my characters is mourning dead parents. Those are her feelings, not mine.

If I push a little harder I'll get the rush and it'll feel good again.

The process of pushing when the writing's not going well is one of internal effort and also of figuring out just what's blocking it. Some pauses are rumination. Sometimes I really do have to think about what comes next -- and when it comes, it's better than what I thought would have come next when I was hesitating on it.

I can only recognize that after the fact though. 

I run through a physical checklist for things I may have been ignoring. Did I eat? Did I drink coffee? Have I slept? Did I actually take my pills or did I skip them because I got distracted? Even without chronic pain/fatigue, blood sugar crashes can wreck a writing session, so it's good to have snacks in reach and recognize the points when you're starting to feel tired.

Writing is mental effort and to my immense surprise, that does demand calories. Extreme concentration demands you fuel the brain. A lot of the reason human beings eat meat is to support that enormous novelwriting-sized brain, so when you do a marathon effort day in and out, this is going to affect your body in some ways like doing a thirty day running marathon. It's not quite as good for burning off the calories and keeping you slim, but it can mess you up if you don't stay hydrated and take in enough protein.

Peanut butter is a good source of protein that doesn't take stopping the book to cook a meal. So is jerky. These things are a little better than sugar-candy for it because even if they take a little longer to sink in, they are what goes right to the brain and sustains the long term effort. But candy is good for a quick pick-up if you're really crashing.

The biggest tip is the last one I posted in that string of bold and italic tips.

If I make myself put down something, anything, even just the book's working title and my name and the chapter number, that sets off the habits of writing. If I write in some inane bit of dialogue because I don't know what happens next, two lines into the lovers cooing, something will either come up between them to start a fight or something will interrupt their too-sweet starry-eyed mutual worship and remind them they have a really nasty supernatural enemy. The cats will meow for attention in that demanding way that means you need to fill the bowl NOW.

If I get back on it and make the file for the next chapter, I have won something. I have won my own internal conflict against sluggish laziness and procrastination. I can build on that and type in the first sentence of the chapter -- and then I've got count. A paragraph in, I'll start to feel like it's going somewhere. A page into it will start giving me the rush and I'll feel really good, it'll be a wonderful day, I can start turning the pages again on a book I really like.

I'm writing it my way, to my tastes. I want to see these cats win. I want to bring back all the rich experiences of New Orleans in its supernatural sense, of what it's like hanging out with the psychics and weirdos and pagans and listening to quasi-paranoid descriptions of hauntings and malign influences and sacred spots and how important all those things are. I want the reader to share that suspension of disbelief and be there in a world where these things have bigger, more tangible consequences... and see those characters overcome the problems that are so social and so nonsupernatural that readers have them whether they live in New Orleans or not. See them stumble past the first razor-edged cruel words that come out early on in a relationship and either destroy it or make it stronger.

They're young and dumb talking about marriage within 48 hours of when they met and clinging to each other half as the symbol of their dreams. But they're cool and they're good people, both of them, neither is normal but normal doesn't exist.

I'm going back to it. Maybe you should be going back to yours, it's probably better than mine. It's your style, your exact favorite flavor, it has everything you ever loved in a novel done exactly to your taste like a home-cooked dinner on a weekend that you had a bigger than usual grocery budget and enough time to play in the kitchen that was clean when you started. Go for it. 


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    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you! I hope you're right about my writing style. I'll know when I start sending Vaumuru out for publication. Wish me luck!

    • Paradise7 profile image


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      What a good writing style you've developed. I'm not surpised you're going for it. Much luck to you. I am working on a novel, but at a much slower pace--one chapter per week, and I'm posting it on HubPages. One day, after a year or so, I'll pull it together into a novel, and fictionalize it.

      My hat's off to you for overcoming your difficulties and sticking with it. That's what wins, in the end.


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