By Chris Mandeville
You’re down to the wire. The deadline for NaNoWriMo (or another writing project) looms on the horizon. But you’re behind. You’re afraid you’re not going to make it. You simply don’t have enough time to write the requisite number of words at your typical writing pace. Or the words just won’t come. Or both. What’s a writer to do?
Don’t worry. Below are my top ten tips and tools to help you meet that deadline despite lack of time or inspiration.
Time is a writer’s most precious commodity.
Lack of time seems to be the biggest challenge facing writers. WriMos in particular find that there simply aren’t enough hours in November. We need more time! Unfortunately we can’t create it out of thin air. We have to take it from somewhere else or make more of the time we have. The first five in this top ten list help you do just that.
- The sick day. If you have a day job (or a night job, or a volunteer job, or any other kind of job), calling in sick will buy you hours of writing time that you would not have otherwise. Even if you don’t have a “job,” you can call in sick to just about any responsibility. You may think you’re indispensible to those depending on you, but if you were really, truly, genuinely ill and unable to function, what would they do? They’d find a way to get by without you. So if you’re the carpool driver, what would the other parents do if you had a broken foot and were unable to drive? If you read to the elderly at the nursing home every Wednesday, can they find a way to get by without you this week? If you are responsible for a child or parent, is there someone who can fill in for you? Of course taking a sick day is not a tool you can use long-term, but it can be a lifesaver when you’re approaching a deadline and need a little more time.
- Take out. Everyone has to eat. But purchasing and preparing food is time consuming, not to mention the clean-up afterward. You can gain an extra half hour or more by letting someone else do the cooking and the dishes. So swing by the local grocery, deli, food truck, or restaurant and pick up your next few meals, along with disposable dishware and utensils. Or eliminate transit-time and order in. Then be sure not to squander those found moments—put them to good use and bump up your word count.
- The cavalry. Call them. You’re out of clean socks? The dog needs walking? Your car is out of gas? Who can you call to take care of it? Think hard—who owes you big-time? Who can you ask for a favor? Who can you hire? Whatever essential tasks you can farm out, do so. If I save ten minutes by having my husband fill up my car with gas, that may not seem like much, but I can write 200 words in that time. And those minutes and words add up. So look around for tasks you can delegate, call in some favors, and gather up those extra minutes.
- Theft. Steal from Peter to pay Paul. In this case Paul is your writing project, and Peter is any area where you can spend less time. Can you sleep for an hour less every night? Can you shower every other day (or every third day) rather than every day? Can you work out for twenty minutes instead of forty, or skip it altogether? Can you eat brunch instead of breakfast and lunch? Whatever tasks you can shorten or eliminate, do so and take those stolen moments for your writing. It’s not for forever—just until you meet your deadline. So steal away!
- Sprint. Go faster! This can mean you run to work instead of walking, or that you sprint from your desk to the fridge instead of strolling, but that’s not really what I mean here. A great tool for making the most of the writing time you have available is the “word sprint” where you take a designated amount of time (usually thirty minutes for me) and write as fast as you can. I’ve been known to write over 1300 words in that amount of time. Now I’m not saying they’re good words, but that’s not really the NaNo-point, is it. Word sprints are particularly effective when you’re “competing” with other writers, so join a NaNo Word War on Twitter, or tag some writer-friends on Facebook.
For my own sprints, I prefer to compete with my critique group members, and we do it via group-text because it keeps us away from the temptation of social media.
When the designated sprint time arrives, start your timer and crank out as many words as you can. Whether you have the top wordcount in your group or not doesn’t matter—everyone wins in this game.
Inspiration—or lack of it—seems to be the other main challenge for writers trying to meet a deadline.
Inspiration, where are you when I need you?
The next five tips and tools are methods for jump-starting your writing when you’re truly blocked or simply not “feeling it.”
- GMC. Goal, Motivation and Conflict, or GMC, is a deceptively simple method for figuring out what a character wants, why he wants it, and what’s in the way of him getting it. It’s also a great way to nail down the overall plot arc of your novel. If you haven’t done GMC for your current project, doing it now is a great way to focus your sights on the endgame and light a fire under your writing. If you initially did GMC for this project, revisiting it now can help you re-focus and find that spark of inspiration that re-ignites your passion for the project and propels you to the finish line. For a quick primer on GMC, click here. For the full explanation, check out Debra Dixon’s book GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Every writer’s library needs a copy.
- Spring forward/fall back. Sometimes when you’re feeling uninspired, it’s possible you’re not completely stuck but are just hung up on a particular page or scene. Don’t get locked into thinking you have to write the story in order. If you “spring forward” ten pages, ten scenes, or even ten chapters, you may find your rhythm again. Sometimes it can be helpful to skip all the way to the end of the story, then leapfrog your way back through the major plot points to the trouble spot. “Falling back” to a previous point in the novel is another way of regaining your writing momentum. Try returning to a sparsely written scene and fleshing it out. Or add a “missing” scene earlier in the novel. The point is, when you find yourself stalled out or uninspired at a particular point in the story, you don’t have to sit there with your engine idling. You can regain your momentum by falling back or skipping ahead to a different point in the story. Then when you return to the original sticking point, chances are you won’t feel stuck anymore.
- Move. As in, move your body. Yes, I’m suggesting you exercise when you really don’t have time for it. Why? Because it can work miracles when it comes to shaking loose writer’s block or providing inspiration. Activities where you have to count reps, think about where you’re going, or interact with others might interfere with getting in the creative zone, so I suggest exercise that is solitary and monotonous: running on a treadmill, hiking (in a familiar place), using a stair-stepper or elliptical machine, cross country skiing, biking, or swimming. Or the easiest and most popular among writers: simply take a walk.
Exercise. Some of us love it, some of us hate it. I’m among the haters, but I do it when my writing stalls because it almost always sparks inspiration.
So step away from your writing and start moving. If it turns out that exercise doesn’t get your story ideas flowing, at least your blood will be flowing a little faster when you sit back down to write. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
- Go somewhere your character would go. Go there and write. If just being there doesn’t inspire you enough, try walking in your character’s shoes and experiencing the place the way she would. For example: the zoo. What do you smell, hear, and taste? What choices are there to make? Do you turn right to see the hippos or left to see the lemurs? Would your character’s choice be different from yours? What would she be thinking as she passed through this space and time? How would the environment and the experience make her feel emotionally, physically, spiritually? What memories does it conjure? What longings come to mind? What regrets? Alternately, you can walk in your character’s shoes without going anywhere by simply writing a journal entry or a letter as your character. (Bonus: you can count that toward your NaNo wordcount!) Seeing the world through your character’s eyes can change your mindset, help you see your story differently, and start the words flowing again.
- Watch something inspiring. Am I really suggesting you watch a movie during NaNoWriMo? And do I really have the audacity to suggest that doing so can help your productivity? Why, yes, yes I am. I know you’ve watched lots of movies before without any increase in your writing productivity, but I swear this is not a crock. The difference here is in your intent, and also which movie you choose. Select something that is particularly inspiring to you as a writer, like a comedy with such great dialogue that you’re impressed by the writer even after watching it ten times. Or choose one of the seminal movies in your genre. Or a movie that takes place in a setting similar to yours. Then while watching, keep in mind why you’re watching: to be inspired. Pay attention and when you feel the spark of inspiration, immediately hit “pause” and let the inspiration envelop you. Jot down your thoughts, or sit back and let your imagination play with your story ideas, or go right back to writing. CAUTION: if you allow yourself to be swept up in the movie’s story, then all you’re doing is watching a movie instead of writing. That’s what happens to me when I watch episodes of the cancelled TV series Firefly by Joss Whedon. I definitely feel inspired by Whedon’s genius, but Firefly is too good. I get so lost in Whedon’s story, I can’t pull myself away to work on my own. So watch something inspiring, but not engrossing. And remember: the minute you forget why you’re doing this is the minute it stops being helpful.
- The sick day
- Take out
- The cavalry
- Spring forward/fall back
- Go somewhere your character would go
- Watch something inspiring
Because 11 is my lucky number, here’s a bonus:
- Take a shower. You’re on a deadline—you know you need one. But there’s more to be gained from showering than simply getting clean and smelling better. Taking a shower is one of the best tools in my writing toolbox for getting inspired. Something about the rote activity of shampooing my hair gets my creative mind going. Whenever I’m stuck, stalled, stumped, or uninspired, taking a shower never fails to get my story back on track. Be sure to keep a pad of paper and a pen nearby, and use discretion if you’re not at home when you try this one.
What are your favorite time-finding tips and inspirational tools? Please share them in the comments!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her on her website.