NaNoWriMo: Journalist Tricks for Writing on Deadline

Dear friends,

By now you have probably fallen behind on your NaNoWriMo writing progress—in my experience, nearly everyone doing NaNo sets initial goals that turn out to be impossible to achieve—and are starting to feel November 30 breathing down your neck. If you’re on target, you’re entering the second half of your book, which is where plots start getting messy, characters start misbehaving, and writers start stressing out. This is not a fun time. And the deadline pressure isn’t making it any more fun.

I spent several years as a medical journalist. Here are some tricks I learned for writing long pieces on tight deadlines without keeling over from stress.

  • Let the past be past. Take a deep breath, forgive yourself for your errors and flaws, and focus on the present and future. You can’t go back in time and make yourself have written more or better. You can only move forward from where you are.
  • Give yourself a day off. Not a day where you mean to write and don’t, but a proper day off that has no writing plans in it at all. If you feel deeply and sincerely motivated to write, just because writing feels good, you are of course allowed to write. Otherwise, take a break, and explicitly adjust your daily wordcount goals to accommodate it. You need to recharge without guilt. Resting your mind will make it easier to face the next writing day.
  • Don’t make yourself feel worse by grimly sticking to an outdated agenda. Scrap your old writing plan and make a new one that takes into account how much progress you’ve made, what you’ve learned about where and when you write best, and what your current goal is (it might not be the same goal you set out with).
  • Stoke your excitement about your project. If you’re sliding toward that three-quarters slump, or you’re feeling a heavy burden of shame over not making as much progress as you’d like, counter it by going back to the spark of inspiration that made you want to spend a month of your life in the company of this book. What is super duper cool about your idea, setting, characters, or story? Try to recapture that zing. (Reminding myself that I was writing about nifty sciencey stuff that could save people’s lives was enough to get me through even the dullest article on advances in anesthesiology.) Or envision your eventual reader having exactly the right reaction to your novel, whatever that reaction is, and then running over to a friend and saying “You have to read this!”
  • Create tangible motivators. As a journalist I was very motivated by getting paid. How can you pay yourself for your work? Even if you just allow yourself to eat an M&M every time you write another 250 words, that may be enough to get you to write 250 words you otherwise wouldn’t have managed.
  • Reach out for support. People talk all the time about writing being a solitary activity, but there can be a very real and significant community aspect to it. You’re doing a challenging thing and it’s totally fine to get help with it. Ask your partner or roommate to take on a few extra chores for November. Connect with other NaNo’ers on message boards or social media. Call a friend and sob on them about how hard this all is. Remember that you are not actually alone in this endeavor.
  • Make writing easy. Do you keep sitting down eager to write and then giving up because your pens are all dried up or your desk chair is uncomfortable? Are you trying to write here and there in the day rather than setting aside writing time? Are you underslept and too tired to focus? Fix those situational issues to make writing as easy as possible. It’s still going to be a challenge, but there’s no reason for it to be torture.
  • Reduce your anxiety. Meditate, avoid caffeine, take long hot baths, or do whatever else soothes you. Anxiety can feel motivating, but it often motivates us in bad directions. You’ll be just as fast and effective a writer if you’re feeling centered and calm, and your intuition will have more room to play.
  • Build on other people’s work. I absolutely don’t mean that you should plagiarize, just to be excruciatingly clear on that. But there are ways to steal like an artist, as Austin Kleon says, and in fact I will just put his good theft/bad theft chart here for your reference. poster-8-500x666For example, when I was writing articles that had to fill a certain amount of space, I’d often conduct interviews and then quote my sources at length. This was perfectly acceptable journalistic practice and also meant I needed to do less actual writing. The equivalent in fiction might be to introduce a minor character who’s transplanted from other media, with a few tweaks to fit properly into your world; to incorporate a plot twist that’s clichéd but easy rather than trying to come up with a completely original one; or to draw on real-world historical or current events, including those in your own life. My post on how to create original work has more on this.
  • Just write a little bit. One of my partners calls this “flossing one tooth.” Don’t sit down with your entire day’s wordcount looming over you; give yourself a tiny goal, a paragraph or even a sentence. If that’s all you write today, it’s still more than nothing, and you can write more tomorrow. And you never know—that one paragraph or sentence might be enough to get the juices flowing.
  • Write until you drop. This is the opposite tactic, and one that is sometimes necessary when the deadlines are really, really tight. Clear your schedule, kick everyone else out of the house, turn off your phone, block all social media sites, and determine that you are going to write all the words with no interruptions and no distractions. Don’t bother setting a wordcount goal; you stop when your body and brain give out. Sprint until your vision is blurry or your hand is cramping, have some water and a protein-heavy snack, and sprint again. We could pretend that there’s an analogy to interval training here, but it’s nothing so healthy. You can’t do this often or you will burn all the way out. However, if you get a kick out of intense pressure, this can be a great way to get yourself into the zone and make the most use of being there. Make sure you set aside the next day for recovery.

I’d love to hear your ideas for how to either beat the deadline stress or let it power you. Feel free to share them in the comments.


Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2016 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!


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