Dear Story Nurse,
I am writing for the November NaNoWriNo, and I’ve done 35,000 words. The goal is 50,000. I am on Part 3 of 4, and getting closer to the climax. The latter half of Part 3, which I am trying to work on now, is supposed to be the build-up for the climax, while also being a flashback of sorts to events that happened earlier in the story. I have been working on this book since Nov. 2, with no breaks. I am ‘running out of steam’ as they say, and the 5,000 for the latter half of Part 3 just isn’t coming to me. I know what happens, but I just can’t seem to write it. Today is sort of a break day, but I want to get some pages done if I can. Any suggestions?
—Tifa Lockheart (they/them)
Dear Tifa Lockheart,
I apologize for taking an entire year to answer this letter! Somehow it slipped past me last November. I’m certain you found your own solution, but I’m responding now in case it helps other readers.
Many people think that NaNoWriMo requires writing every day, but it doesn’t. The only goal is 50k. How you get there is up to you. (And whether you choose your own goal is also up to you, but I have a separate post about that.) If writing every single day doesn’t work for you, don’t do it! Give yourself a break.
Humans need rest. It’s right there on the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s especially vital to creativity and productivity. I was going to say “humans aren’t machines”, but machines need rest too! If you drive your car nonstop, it will break down very quickly. If you drive yourself nonstop, you too will break down very quickly. Your writer’s block is the “check engine” light coming on. Pay attention to it.
The build-up to the climax is also one of the hardest parts of any book to write. Before diving into that, set yourself up to succeed. Do a maintenance round, whatever that looks like and feels like to you. Rest up, fuel up, and make sure you have sufficient supplies and a clear map to where you’re going.
It’s okay if you get nothing done on your break day. It’s also okay if you write a little bit just to keep the momentum going. Different techniques work for different people. But make the break day a real proper break, with some time to rest and some time to do things that actively make you feel happier and more energized and more focused.
The secret secondary goal of NaNo is to learn how you write under pressure. You don’t have to wait until after NaNo is done to take stock (and in fact, I recommend writing down your thoughts about it while still in the midst). You can adjust on the fly if you realize you have an easier time writing 3400 words every two days than 1700 words every day, or if 50k in 30 days turns out to just not be something you can do. And you can absolutely take breaks when you need to, whether you’ve planned them in or not.
A lot of us have baggage around taking care of ourselves, or admitting we have needs. We want to be able to plow right through. We want to be not just machines but imaginary perfect machines that never need fuel or maintenance and run perfectly forever. A high-pressure situation like NaNo will run right up against that baggage and force you to reevaluate it. You must admit you have needs, or you will not be able to meet those needs and make your 50k. You must let go of the guilt, because it takes up time and brainspace that you need for writing.
If you’re going to write like a machine, think about some real-life machines and what they need to do what they do: energy sources, raw materials, regular maintenance. Also consider what they don’t do. Machines don’t feel guilt about having needs. They understand it’s part of existing in this world and being subject to entropy and the laws of physics. They say “battery low” and don’t get embarrassed about needing to be plugged in. They say “disk full” and don’t feel ashamed that the accumulation of files has taken up all the space available. So be that kind of machine, the kind that very matter-of-factly says, “I am not able to complete this operation at this time.” That’s okay! No one can do all the things all the time.
Today I’m your IT tech who says, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” Shut down your writing processes for a bit and let them rest and reset. The words will have a much easier time flowing after that.
Happy writing and good luck with NaNoWriMo!