That 35k NaNoWriMo Despair

I’m at that point again.

The point where I hate my current novel-in-progress. The point where I think almost all of my characters are vapid and the love story won’t sell itself and the plot is pointless and the world-building is too thin. The point where I think, Oh, lord, I have to write another 100,000 words of this stupid, pointless novel?

Yep. It’s the dreaded 35k Despair.

Neil Gaiman wrote a great NaNoWriMo Pep Talk several years ago about the middle-of-the-novel despair. I’ve discovered that for me, it happens somewhere between 30,000 – 35,000 words.

I have a spreadsheet where I keep my word count progress for all of the thirteen years I’ve done NaNoWriMo.My NaNoWriMo Word Counts By Year

  • In 2004 I stalled at 33,000 words, then got past that and powered from 33,900 to 40,000 in one day. I hit 50k on November 20 and kept going until I finished the novel at 76,208 on November 29.
  • In 2009 I actually stalled a bit early, at 27,378 words; after nine days stuck there, I realized I was in research hell, and on November 27 I officially decided to quit writing at 36,000 words.
  • In 2010 I stalled at 31,964, then in four days I went from 31,964 to winning at 51,130.
  • In 2011 I stalled at 30,183, and only a desperate surge in Week Four got me past 50k.
  • In 2013 I stalled twice: once at 26,010 and once at 30,067. After that second stall, I managed to make steady progress to winning.
  • This year I stalled at 32,393 and then made it to 34,497 and stalled again.

I don’t stall every year, though.

  • The first year I did NaNo was 2003, and I had never plotted before, nor had I ever written urban fantasy before. I was trying two completely new things that year, and I made steady progress despite working over 40 hours a week. I validated at 54k on November 28.
  • In 2005 I wrote a third novel in that same urban fantasy series, and again I hit 50,000 on November 20. I finished the novel at 79,058 on November 30.
  • Last year I was lucky enough to be on a week-long writer’s retreat in Texas, and I won NaNo in 20 days.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from this, except that, while my writing has matured a lot over the past twelve years, my writing process might not have done the same. Stalling doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to hate the novel when I finish it. It doesn’t even necessarily mean I’m going to crawl the rest of the way through the first draft. It just means I’m in that middle-of-the-novel despair.

Here’s my favorite bit from Neil’s Pep Talk:

…when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

Isn’t that awesome? Even amazing novelists like Neil Gaiman feel this way. (Read the rest here.) Now, in general, I believe it’s best not to judge our success by comparing ourselves to other writers. But in this case, it’s good to know that a pro, an award-winning, best-selling, awesome-story-telling pro, is having the same emotions and problems that I have.

So how do we deal with the 35k Despair?

Here’s what I’m doing this year.

1. I’m revisiting my plot alongside a beat sheet.

Jami Gold provides several excellent beat sheet Excel templates, and she even has some Scrivener templates that go along with them. I’m not an expert at beat sheets, but fortunately she has some great explanations at her website, too. The main thing is, these are good tools for me to explore where I am and see how far I’ve come. Today I realized that I’m just about ready for an event that forces my characters to make a choice. That means I get to plot something fun and write it today!

2. I’m giving myself permission to slow down.

So I’m not making my 1,667-words-a-day quota. First of all, I was ahead of par until yesterday, so I haven’t lost much ground. But even if I had lost a lot of ground, I know I still have nine days including today. I can come back from this. I only have 15,503 words left to win, which works out to 1,722 words per day until then. Totally doable.

3. I’m surrounding myself with encouragers.

In my case, that means I’m haunting the #NovWritingChallenge hashtag on Twitter, where all my Monthly Twitter Writing Challenge buddies hang out. There’s so much positivity there, it’s impossible not to be encouraged. I’m also reporting my word count to fellow NaNoers, who are giving me all kinds of encouragement.

4. I’m rewarding myself for hitting little goals.

I’ve written before about my positive reinforcement (R+) methods. For every 250 words I write, I get a Hershey Kiss. Since 9 Kisses equal a serving, I have to write 2,250 words if I want my daily dose of chocolate. Maybe I can’t write that many. But if I can at least write 1,000 words, I still get 4 Kisses.

5. I’m using a timer to do short word sprints.

As soon as I finish this blog post, I’m going to turn off all distractions and turn on the timer on my phone. I’ll set it for 15 minutes and see how many words I can crank out in that time. Then I’ll get up, grab more caffeine, and start the timer at another 15 minutes. Usually by the time I’ve done a couple of 15-minute warmup sprints, I’m ready to set the timer for half an hour or even an hour and keep writing.

So those are a few of my methods. What about you? Do you feel the 35k Despair? If so, what do you do to cope?


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