As you sit down today to write are you filled with a sense of dread? We're nearly two-thirds of the way through NaNoWriMo. I always fall behind in my word count by the first weekend, so this point in the month can be rough.
I never get as much done over the weekends that I think I will. I tell myself, “This weekend I will catch up. I’ll spend a few extra hours, knuckle down, and catch up to my word count.”
But then my wife tells me about some obligation I neglected to notice on the calendar, or my kids need to be driven places I didn’t foresee, or things break in the house that need to be fixed, and I look up on Sunday and all my writing time is gone, and I’m farther behind than I was before the weekend began.
If that’s you, don’t panic! All is not lost. Many of us have been where you are. There is hope.
An Unhelpful NaNoWriMo Strategy
I’m an intense plotter. When I write the first draft of a book, I have Excel sheets filled with narrative moves, and character sketches, and chapter outlines. I need these things to write. I have to have a road to follow or my story never gets anywhere.
So when I get behind on a deadline or in my NaNoWriMo word count, my instinct is to force my way through the outline. Like a marathon runner on his/her last leg, I put my head down and cover as much ground as I possibly can hoping to catch up.
The problem with this strategy is that it will burn you out. Writing a book is much like a marathon, and you can’t empty your tank right out of the gate or you won’t make it to the end.
The Trick to Writing Lots of Words
Rather than pushing harder, I suggest you go a different way.
If you are behind in your word count, don’t stress out and push yourself to double your count in a day. Instead, smile and write something fun. If you are enjoying what you are writing, you will write it faster and you will be energized at the end of it rather than spent.
(This is also my strategy when I’m stuck in a scene. If a scene I’m writing is going badly and I’m getting discouraged, rather than forcing my way through the scene, I try one of the tricks below.)
If you can also expand your understanding of your protagonist while having a good time writing the scene, then you get bonus points because you’ve not only advanced your word count, you’ve also built your understanding of your main character. That will pay off later when you are writing a tense scene and you have to ask yourself, “What would my character do here?”
Three Scenes That Will Boost Your Word Count
If you are stuck or behind in your word count, here are three scenes I recommend writing that can be fun to write and will increase your word count.
1. A Conversation With a Four-Year-Old
I have five kids. Right around four they all went through a “what-cha-doing?/Why is that?” phase. For a short period of time they become curious little monsters who have a deep need to know why things are the way they are.
“Hey, dad. What-cha-doing?”
“So we can eat tonight.”
“So you won’t have to go to bed hungry.”
“Because you’re the worst when you’re hungry.”
“Hey, dad. What-cha-doing?”
“Daddy’s very stressed. I can’t talk right now.”
“Because it’s only day seven and I’m already 7000 words behind my word count.”
“Because you got sick and threw up five times last night.”
“I suspect it was the piece of trash you picked up and ate off the ground when I wasn’t looking.”
“That was gross.”
“Yes. Yes it was”
“Because we don’t eat trash.”
An innocent voice asking our characters “why” will push us to reveal things about our characters we may not have seen before and can give us the opportunity to have a little fun. Your character doesn’t need to have a child; just have him/her encounter one at an inopportune moment.
If you are writing a spy novel, maybe the child appears in the middle of a mission. If you are writing a romance novel, maybe the child appears as your heroine is about to encounter her love interest. If you are writing a fantasy novel, have the child arrive as your character is trying to hide from something.
2. An Unexpected Conversation With Mom
Another wonderfully distracting but informative scene is an interaction with your protagonist’s mom.
Everyone has a mom, and we are very much defined by them. Who is the woman who made your protagonist who he/she is? Imagine a phone call with her.
Is she overbearing?
“Hello, the protagonist here.”
“Hello, dear. It’s your mother. It’s Monday and I just wanted to make sure you had your shirts starched for this week because, you know, if you don’t have them starched they get that little fold at the buttons and that just looks sloppy.”
Is she passive-aggressive?
“Hello, you’ve got the protagonist.”
“Jimmy, it’s your mother. I thought I’d call and check in. I was talking to Gloria yesterday and she says that Billy calls her twice a week. You remember Billy, right? He’s a doctor now with three beautiful children. Gloria talks all the time about how wonderful it is to see her grandkids on the weekends. But I know you have important work to do and don’t have time for that. I understand.”
Or is she just dysfunctional?
“Hello, it’s the protagonist.”
“Jimmy. It's your mom. We need to talk.”
“What's up, mom?”
“Well, if you can, I need to you give me a quick loan. You see, I was out last night and I accidentally blew out a tire, and I need to get it fixed or I'm not going to be able to get into work, and if I miss too many days, I'm going to get fired. So it shouldn't be too much. Just a couple hundred.”
The true value of the conversation isn't just that we get to know your protagonist's mother—it's that we see how your protagonist responds to her.
Is your protagonist submissive? Is she/he irritated? Is she/he trapped in a cycle of guilt, shame, and self-loathing? What does your protagonist's mother bring out of your character?
3. Getting Hit On
When we are placed in uncomfortable situations, often new sides to our personalities are revealed. Throwing your protagonist into that kind of situation can help you understand how they will react in more difficult encounters.
We are looking for a scene that is annoying, fun to write, but not high stakes. Imagine your protagonist walks into a room and is approached by a B-character who begins flirting. What kind of advance would make your protagonist the most uneasy?
Maybe the B-character comes on confident in his own appearance like Joey Tribbiani from Friends.
“How you do'in?”
Or maybe the B-character has a more cartoonish approach, like Steve Martin's Vinnie in My Blue Heaven.
“Excuse me, miss.”
“It's dangerous for you to be in the frozen foods section. I'm sorry, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Because you could melt all this stuff.”
Or maybe the B-character is shy and slow to get to the point.
“Um, excuse me. Miss?”
“Well, um. I was wondering if…”
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah. I'm sorry. I'm blowing this. I was just . . . I never do this. I'm sorry.”
“It's okay. I'm just not sure . . .”
“Well, I was wondering, if you didn't have one already, if I could possibly buy you a drink?”
As with the mother scene, the value of this scene doesn't just come in writing a fun interaction. How your protagonist responds to the B-character's advance will tell us a lot about your protagonist.
Is she sharp and can't be bothered? Is he confused but honored? Is she impatient but polite?
This is a moment that can reveal to readers who your character is.
Here's The Point: When You Fall Behind, Have Fun
Whichever scene you choose to write, the key to catching up isn't pushing harder. It's to have a good time writing something fun. You will write faster if you enjoy the scene you are writing. If you can learn something about your character in the process, then it's a double win.
Don't stress. Don't try to make up two lost days in one night. Just smile and write something entertaining.
Even if you don't keep it after your first edit, you will have built out the character and the world you are writing in.
What tricks do you use to make up for lost time? Let me know in the comments.
Pick one of the three scenes above and spend fifteen minutes writing it. Don't worry about how it falls within your existing plot. Just write it and have fun. When you are done, post your work in the comments and leave feedback for your fellow writers.