Since 2010, I’ve believed the best thing NaNoWriMo has taught me is to push forward even when the narrative is shaky and unfinished.
This year, I realized the best thing it’s taught me is to write the ending.
10 years ago I signed up for my first NaNoWriMo, not believing for a second I’d win it. But I’d had a year of prolific imagination, and I figured what the hell; at least it’d be an incentive to prioritize the story I was writing. As the days passed, though, I learned something: I can push out a lot of words. Not as many as some (I see people on social media hit 50K in less than a week, every year), but easily the 1,667 a day necessary to make the total in a month.
It became clear after a few weeks that I wasn’t going to finish the story in 50,000 words. Some people draft short; others draft long. My first drafts are consistently 20-50K over the finished product. My 2010 NaNo project, the first full-length thing I’d tried writing in over a decade, had no hope of resembling a finished narrative at 50K.
And then one of NaNoWriMo’s periodic pep talks showed up in my mailbox, with this advice: Skip over the rest and write the ending.
This advice ran counter to every instinct I had. I’d spent my life writing openings and scattered scenes; I’d write, and rewrite, and tweak, and wallow, and eventually get bored and throw the whole thing away. That November I’d written a huge chunk of an actual story. I’d moved it forward, not editing as I went, and although the thing was very much first-draft-y, it also had pacing, structure, and direction. I feared if I broke the narrative and skipped forward, I’d fall into my old pattern, and never finish.
But I never finished anyway, did I? All those years of writing, and I’d finished one piece of fanfic that was probably closer to short story length. What did I have to lose by trying this advice?
So I wrote the end. And instead of a partial draft, I had a finished story.
Now, the story had some holes. An entire climax and denouement’s worth of holes, as it happens. But for the first time I had a place to aim every word I filled in.
Suddenly I knew how to finish a novel.
Is that an oversimplification? Sure it is. That 2010 project eventually got trunked; I got bored with it anyway, and I never did get much past 80K. But the worldbuilding and character work I did there informed my writing moving forward; I cannibalized half a character and a whole setting from that story. My 2011 project got polished and queried; it got folded into my 2012 project and sold to a publisher in 2014 for publication in 2016.
I’m convinced none of that would have happened if I hadn’t skipped forward and written the ending in 2010.
NaNoWriMo’s been a bit fraught for me in recent years, but this year I took a breath and tried something different. I had some vague ideas for a horror novel, and some thinly-sketched characters; why not take November to see what I could do with it?
I’ll be honest: most of the month I really did not like the book. I didn’t know the characters; I didn’t know a lot of the reasons for the things that were happening. I found myself struggling with the line between creepy and gross, and eventually admitting it might not really be a horror story after all. Which didn’t matter in the least, because I figured I’d push through to hit my 50K, and abandon the thing in December.
And then I wrote the ending.
Suddenly I knew my characters. I knew how the events of the story had affected them, how they’d changed, how they hadn’t. I knew where they’d let themselves down, and the things they were proud of doing. I knew their hopes and fears and regrets, and who they would be in the future I would never write for them.
I love the story now, and that’s entirely down to deciding where it was going to land.
Writing advice is deeply frustrating, because absolutely none of it applies to everyone. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that we all process language differently. Telling people how I convince my brain to cough up an entire story doesn’t really tell them anything about how they might do the same.
One common piece of advice is BIC: Butt In Chair. Some see that as too much pressure, and that’s a fair criticism. It’s true in general that if you sit around waiting for the muse, you’ll never write a word, but it’s also true that there are times when forcing the writing just makes things worse. Writer’s block is a real thing, and happens for many reasons; the answer isn’t always a typewriter and ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY.
What is true is that no book is written if you don’t actually sit and write it. It doesn’t need to be every day, and it doesn’t need to be a set number of words; but eventually those words have to come out. We all have to play different games to get to those words, to motivate ourselves to put them down, to revise them, to mold them into something as close to our mental vision as we can.
I suffer from a cloudiness of vision. Stories only become clear as I’m writing them. I’m the worst sort of pantser, the kind who has a vague idea of direction but no practical idea how to proceed. At some point I’m on Heartbreak Hill, feeling like I’ve run forever, knowing I’m only halfway through, wondering if it’s worth it to keep fighting when I’m already spent.
Writing the ending is like seeing the finish line. When I have it in sight, the distance from here to there seems so much less important.
I have fallen in love with a new book. December is going to be a busy month.