One More Foot: How to win NaNo and finally get that novel written

I’m a NaNo veteran, since one battle makes one a veteran, technically. I’m even a successful veteran, because I’ve never lost a NaNo challenge.

In addition to that, I’ve written somewhere around 300,000 words over the last two years, the equivalent of four good-sized novels, in all manner of genres, while holding down 5 (five) jobs that pay enough that I have to declare the income on my taxes. And being father to eight children and the hottest wife on planet earth. Others have done more, there isn’t any doubt, but I put that out there to establish my credentials as someone with a few things going on. And I still write.

This year I’m right on schedule at about 8000 words so far. I’m not worried that I’ll make it, though, because I’ve learned a couple of critical things over the years about how to get the writing done. With the hope that it might help you, here are some of them.

  1. Just start. The hardest thing about writing is the start. This is actually true of most worthwhile endeavors. I refer you to the utterly brilliant War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield, for more on this. You want to write, you love it when you’re writing, the sight of thousands of words on the page fills you with joy. But you don’t sit down and write. Like almost all of us, you like to have written, but writing itself is the very devil. The trick here is to start. Just type SOMETHING (I like “Uh uh, Mr. PoopyPants,” she said). It really, honestly doesn’t matter what it is. Once you’re moving, the resistance breaks and you can get some words in before it comes back.
  2. Get ahead early. This applies specifically to NaNoWriMo, but it holds for other endeavors as well. Writing 50,000 words in a month is something hardly anyone ever pulls off successfully. That’s a TON of words. It’s writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, plus another 10-page paper. If you’ve never written that much that fast, the amount of daily written words necessary will overwhelm you unless you get ahead. Like most projects, when you start them is when you have the most momentum and can make the most hay. It will start to suck soon enough, so get that cushion so that at least one day you can say “heck with it” and not be so far behind that you can’t make it back.
  3. When the slog begins, and it will, have some backup motivation. Look, nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. There are what C.S. Lewis calls “troughs” (I think in Screwtape), and everyone goes through them. For me, I know that somewhere around the 8th of November I’ll look at the calendar and think, “I have more than three weeks of this left” and it will seem like a geologic age. Last time I won, I had motivation in the form of the Winner’s t-shirt. That’s right. I buy the winner’s shirt before the contest starts. Ethically I have my quirks like everyone, but one of them is that I won’t wear that shirt unless I’ve earned it. I respect the winners too much. But I really, really want to wear the shirt. So I’ll do the work to win. It’s not much, but it’s something. This time around I have the winner’s shirt, but I also have this below. NaNo Winner I’m reminded every minute that I have work to do, and that I can do it. I want the wristband to be a positive reminder that I can do hard things, not a reminder of a failure. That will be enough to get me past the blahs.
  4. At the critical moment, just suck it up and WIN. Somewhere in the late innings, there will be a sprint required, a day when you’ll have to write 6,000 words. It always happens. If you’re going to win, someplace in the combat with yourself you’re going to have to go big and wipe out the enemy. Apropos of this is the title of this post, which references Theban general Epaminondas at the battle of Leuctra, which deserves to be as famous as Thermopylae, in my opinion. Epaminondas trained the Thebans to fight the Spartans, who had been whipping everyone for the last couple hundred years. He trained them harder than they’d ever been trained before, but he also laid one sacred promise on them, that when he asked for it, they would give him one foot. Just one foot of push. That’s all. So the battle commenced, and Epaminondas is a genius, so it was going well, but as Boromir says, one does not simply rout the Spartan army. Anyway, they’re straining and grunting and shoving and stabbing in their wall of phalanx, and Epaminondas calls for that one foot. Just one foot, the whole Theban Sacred Band pushed the Spartans back. And that was all it took. The Spartans broke, and were never a power in Greece again. You’ll need that foot. Commit to yourself that when you ask for it, or your writing partners ask, you’ll give it, whatever it takes.

Hope this helps. Only 42,000 words to go.

And no, this 900 words doesn’t count.

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