This is National Novel Writing Month. The goal for well over a third of a million writers, worldwide, is to write 50,000 words of at least basically comprehensible narrative by the end of the month. Most of us do better than that and have pretty good prose; many of us actually meet the finish line on November 30, which we all know is right after Thanksgiving.
That’s only three weeks from now. Three weeks and, 33,600 words from last Thursday, meaning that we should be 17,000 words into this project. I am not. I am not even close. But I haven’t given up. And neither should you.
The best advice I have—and for any writer who is working hard to simply “get stuff out,” is to follow one of Satchel Paige’s “Six Maxims for Life”: “Don’t look back—something could be gaining on you.”
I am a sentence writer. I take time. I revise as I write; I go back and adjust and adjust again. This is sometimes painful. Like Flaubert, who reported on a day’s work as “spending the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it,” I sometimes find writing torturous. I have many friends, too, who take time, who think, who consider one sentence or phrase at a time. “I like giving the ideas time to percolate and develop, going away from things and coming back,” worried one friend who just joined the NaNoWriMo ranks.
My response: “Settle in for the ride. This will very frustrating . . . for a while. It's a good exercise, though, and you'll find your mind and your writing wandering. The trick is to leave it alone. You'll take silly risks; you'll have loopy sentences; you'll write bizarrely un-supportable ideas into the heads of your characters.
You'll also find bits and pieces of genius—in December.
The NaNoWriMo project will cure you of being too careful—it's a great exercise in constantly moving ahead. When you are stalled, here are some suggestions:
Write description: Cover every detail of a place—a room, a landscape, a cityscape. A puddle, the side of a house, a napping cat. Describe, describe. Describe a character: tell your reader what he eats, drinks, wears. Tell your reader what kind of toilet tissue he uses, where he buys his ties; show your reader how a character sleeps—side or back, or snoring or drooling, and how much of either—where she buys her canned foods, what she pays for her vanilla, and does she buy real vanilla or vanilla flavoring? Write down everything.
Create dialogue: Hear what Mr. Toilet Tissue is saying to the vanilla-flavoring woman in the car on their way back to the house. Continue the dialogue. Let them argue. Take time for them to be silent, and write about what sounds are left in the car.
But don’t look back: Don’t review more than your last sentence, and don’t dwell on that; don’t check what you wrote yesterday or the day before; don’t revise—not yet. Check your spelling, yes; check your grammar, if you have to, but don’t dwell on that, either—at least, not now. Keep moving, or something will be gaining on you. Even if you know you had Ms. Vanilla Flavoring wearing two different dresses in the same store, leave the *%*#@ dresses alone. Leave them alone, or they will grow legs and gain on you.
Go back in December. Better, yet, return to your work in the spring.
And with Thanksgiving certain to derail you, here are two more of Satchel Paige’s maxims that are as necessary for writers as they are for baseball players and everyone else: “Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood” and "If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.”