Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Home Stretch

At this point, there’s a week and a day left to NaNo (or just a week for my friends down under)–how’s it going? Are you absolutely insane yet? Ready to tear out your hair or chuck your computer (or whatever you write upon) out the window?

Hopefully you haven’t crumbled under the pressure. Hopefully you’ve managed to keep up enough of a pace so that hitting the magic 50K mark is feasible. More importantly, I hope the experience has been a positive, no matter where you stand on the word count curve. Today, I want to talk a little about something I’ve touched on before, but I think it’s important to remember, especially for any of you who may be in NaNo for the first time: Finishing, and what it means.

When I did NaNo for the first time back in 2010 (wow, it’s really been three years), I got caught up in the ideas of ‘winning.’ What does that mean? Well, looking at the NaNo site now, it simply says, “Write a novel in a month!” Digging further into the website, more specifically it says, “On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m. on November 30.” Now, I am guilty on a regular basis of taking things quite literally. For me, a cigar is almost always a cigar. So when I read “write a 50,000 word novel in a month” my brain says, “OK, that’s a complete novel in a month.” This sort of literal thinking played havoc with me as I headed into that final week.

On November 26 I had a 145-page document with a Word word count of 35,000, and I went into panic mode. Panic mode because I had 4 days to finish, 4 days to crank out 15,000 words, 4 days to finish my novel. How the hell was I going to do that?

As a Wingman, I had no real idea of what my story was when I started. I had a beginning, and a broad idea of what happens: slacker type ends up in county jail for a short sentence stemming from a combination of traffic accident (leaving the scene) and insurance (driving without). Further, I knew he was going to get in trouble because of an unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions–he was always blaming someone else for his troubles (in this case, it was a turtle, of all things). But as a Wingman, I can only see so far ahead, and as this was also my first attempt at writing, I was jumbled and out of sorts. I wrote the story very much out of sequence. In fact, I had the beginning, and by this day in 2010 I also had the end in mind (and mostly written). What I was missing was a crucial piece of connective tissue that hooked the middle up to the end. And I had four days and 15,000 words left to put it together. In my obsession to win, I did something quite bad: I shoehorned. Like the Prince’s servant trying to squeeze Drusilla’s foot into Cinderella’s glass shoe, I did everything in my power to not only hit the 50K mark, but to ALSO make the two ends of the story fit nicely and neatly.

I’ll make it fit!

On November 30 I wrote my final words on my NaNo project. It clocked in around 52,000 words, beginning, middle and end. I had won, and I felt good about it, but at the same time, I knew it was not quite right. As inexperienced as I was in the art of novel writing, I knew this untitled work didn’t fit together quite right. But I was done, by God! I had slain the NaNo dragon! I could proudly claim the nifty little badge they offered and put it…well, I didn’t know where, I didn’t have a blog or anything at the time, so I didn’t do anything with it, really, but I was damn proud to have it.

Looking back, I see where I went wrong, and I encourage any of you who are staring at the calendar, and staring at your NaNos, and thinking, “How can I wrap this up in around 50,000 words?” to do this: don’t. As far as I know, there’s no requirement to conclude your novel in or close to 50K. Your story might be bigger than that. It might need 60, 70, 90,000 words to be told properly. It might need another month of writing to hit that point, or 2 or 3. Keep working away at it, let it take the time it needs, but don’t grab the shoehorn. Aim for 50,000 by next Saturday, by all means (but don’t abandon your family for all of Thanksgiving, you American types, you), but don’t wind it up with a sudden, “And then the deus ex machina arrived and saved them all and they lived happily ever after until the sequel or I have time to write this properly, the end.”

That’s all I’ve got for today. I hope you’re enjoying your NaNo process, or your revision work, or whatever you’re working on. Have a great weekend!

12 Responses

  1. I agree here. A novel is a novel whether it's 50k (a rather short novel) or 100k. It will be what it wants to be. If you reach 50k in a month then you've slain that Nano dragon regardless of whether it's finished. I have a friend who's reached 135k. Far too much time on his hands…lol

  2. I'm with Melissa. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, not slapped onto the page with zero forethought or finesse because of a time limit. But I understand there are people who get a lot out of it … even if they end up throwing most of it out in revisions.

  3. I've never made the one moth 50,000 word count. But I still do Nano because it helps put me in a mode to write as much as I can on a deadline and this year it helped me start a novel I did nada on last year.

  4. Yeah, 50k would only be half a novel for me, which is only one of the reasons NaNo isn't my cuppa. Plus I am still a wing…er…woman and I tend to find my way forward through research and logic, both of which take me a long time to discover. :))

  5. That's the thing. I allowed myself to get caught up in the wrong thing, but in the end, it was a good experience for me. I revisited the novel a little over a year later and started improving it, but the new shiny came along that has consumed me for way too much time.

  6. That's great, Sheena-kay. I think so long as you don't get too caught up on the wrong aspect of NaNo, it can be a terrific experience. I'm glad it helped you out on a project.

  7. I think I'd be a little disappointed with myself if my first draft for this NaNo project was actually complete at the 50K mark. I've already hit that mark, but the story is nowhere near finished. NaNo should be seen as a way of getting started, not necessarily completing your novel. Thanks for the pep talk, JeffO! I hope revisions are going well 🙂

  8. You summed it up very nicely there, Bonnee: It's a way to get started. Completion is great if it happens in those 30 days/50,000 words, but is certainly not the end of the world. Congrats on your word count achievement!

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