It’s hard to believe November’s almost over, and NaNoWriMo with it. By now you’ve ideally got somewhere around 40,000 words under your belt. Take a moment to feel really good about whatever you’ve accomplished writing-wise so far this month. Those words exist because you brought them into existence. That’s amazing! Congratulations.
NaNo is specifically and deliberately about quantity over quality, but as the quantity stacks up, it’s hard not to look back at it and start to fret about the quality. If you’re feeling the urge to go back and fix (or despair over) what you’ve written already, and if it’s getting in the way of powering on toward your goal and your deadline, this post is for you.
I thought long and hard about how to title this post. Shushing Your Inner Critic? Negotiating with Your Inner Critic? In my experience, pushing back so directly will only rebound onto you. The inner critic is a creature made of anxiety and ego, and saying “Stop worrying!” to an anxious person has never, ever worked in the history of ever. Also, you don’t actually want to get rid of the inner critic, because you’ll need them when you do revisions. You just want them to step back and let you get on with writing between now and December 1st. The best way to do that is to address the underlying concerns that make analysis and revision feel so important that they take priority even when you’re on deadline.
Here are some things that your inner critic might want, and some ways to reassure them without sacrificing your wordcount to the tempting, distracting lure of revisions.
- Stress relief through avoidance. November 30th isn’t far away and that deadline pressure might be getting to you. Maybe you can just… pretend it’s not there for a bit. The inner critic suggests that rereading and revising will be a great distraction and still let you feel like you’re making progress toward your goal.
Address this urge with other stressbusters. Take naps and hot baths, go for walks, listen to soothing music, take anxiolytics, snuggle a pet or a loved one, and otherwise address your stress. That way, when you sit down to write, you can handle the deadline pressure instead of buckling under the weight of it, and you can take the risks inherent in creative work without feeling like it’s more than you can handle. Just make sure the stressbusting doesn’t cut into your writing time.
- A sense of control. This far into a rapidly written rough draft, your book is probably doing all sorts of bananapants things that you have no idea how to cope with. Plot threads are showing up or disappearing or refusing to resolve themselves, relationships are going off the rails, you’re at the point in your outline (or vague mental concept of the book) that says “EMOTIONAL CLIMAX/GIANT BATTLE GOES HERE,” and you just killed off one of your favorite characters and don’t even know why. In the midst of that chaos, revisions beckon as a way of reasserting order.
An orthogonal approach is good here too. Find other ways to scratch the anti-chaos itch. I get an amazing amount of emotional and psychological mileage out of doing laundry. Maybe your thing is washing dishes or tidying your room or organizing your library by color or playing Planarity or scrolling through Things Organized Neatly or listening to Bach’s solo cello suites. Whatever it is, take a few minutes to reorder your frantic brain. Then do a quick five-minute bullet-point outline of the next scene you want to write—Rachel Aaron has a great description of how to do this—and give it your best shot.
You can also try going entirely through this worry and out the other side by reveling in the loss of control. Writing is much safer than other traditional ways of experimenting with a lack of control, such as jumping out of an airplane or getting out the fuzzy handcuffs. In fact, it’s the safest way to not be in control that I know of, because it involves no other people at all. So go ahead and be uncontrolled. Let the bananapants things be bananapants. Listen to your writerly instincts, kill off that character, and trust that at some point you’ll figure out what story purpose that serves. Trust your intuition and your gut. Have some fun. If it gets too wild for you and you need to safeword, you can close the file or put the notebook down and take a break, or go back to outlining, or sharpen all your pencils to the same length. But you might find that you and the chaos get along better than you expected.
- Reassurance about your writing skill. If you’ve reread your rough draft, you’re painfully aware of how rough it is. The inner critic suggests that polishing it might give you more confidence as a writer and make the rest of the writing easier.
Trying to directly counter this with “Well I DO believe I’m a good writer!” will probably get you mired in an inner back-and-forth between your confidence and your doubt. Instead, remind your inner critic that it’s okay to write badly because you’ll fix it in revisions—when the book is done. You can’t revise a book that’s not done.
Take a few minutes to make a revision plan, even if it’s just “put it in a drawer until after finals and revise it over winter break” or “wait until March and do National Novel Editing Month with community support.” That little bit of planning for revising later will do wonders for letting you get on with writing now.
- The comforting familiarity of feeling bad. If you’ve learned through unpleasant experience that feeling good about your work (or yourself) is dangerous, and feeling bad about your work (or yourself) is safe, it’s incredibly difficult to take the ongoing risk of writing a book and persisting in writing it all the way to the end. You might start to value yourself and think you’ve done something well. You might start to see yourself as a success, someone capable of real accomplishment. And then, your inner critic claims, bad things will happen. Giving up altogether would be safest, but rereading and revising is a good second-best.
This one is hard. Sometimes it’s years-in-therapy levels of hard. But you don’t have years to make your NaNo goal; you have less than a week. So as a quick fix to get you through that week, focus on writing discipline, determination, safety, and love.
Writing discipline is butt-in-chair, write-until-wordcount stuff. Ideally NaNo has given you some practice with this; use it, and use whatever other tricks you’ve employed in the past to write school papers or make work deadlines (as long as they don’t rely on shame, guilt, or yelling at yourself). Working toward a defined, quantifiable goal is inherently intellectual and factual, and spending time in that space will help you get out of the terrified self-negating space. You don’t need to have feelings about your daily goal, or your progress toward it. You just need to keep writing until you achieve it. Think of yourself as a word-generating robot if that’s what will help you shake the fear of success. I definitely do not recommend being a robot all the time; you will eventually need to grapple with those feelings. But for a short time, in pursuit of a goal that will broadly benefit your mental health, a little deliberate temporary roboticization is probably fine. If your inner critic insists that you need to feel bad, explain that you can feel bad later, in December. Right now is for writing.
Determination means returning to why you set this goal for yourself in the first place, and why you decided to write this particular book. If the book directly or indirectly counters self-denigration or the people who taught it to you, so much the better. Get yourself all fired up and excited about your project, and stoke your intention to make this novel a reality. Get up in your inner critic’s face with your determination or sweep it up in your enthusiasm.
Safety is both physical and emotional. This week, play everything as safe as possible. Cross at the crosswalk and wait for the light to turn green. Hold off on that potentially difficult or awkward conversation with a partner, friend, or supervisor. Don’t have even a little bit of that food you might be allergic to. Spend time with people who are kind to you and don’t make your spidey-sense tingle. Reread and rewatch media that you already know you’ll enjoy. Save up all your risk-tolerance for facing the blank page. If your inner critic frets that you’re in danger, reassure them that you’re taking the best possible care of yourself.
Love is love of all kinds. Spend some time with people who want the best for you and believe in you. Pet your pets. Be gentle and kind to yourself. The time you spend expressing or receiving sincere and genuine love will help you believe that it’s okay for you to feel good and achieve things. And if you can, try to love your inner critic too. They’re anxious and sad and could use a hug. They might even hug you back.
You can do this. You will do this. If you don’t complete your manuscript or hit the 50k mark by the end of November, you’ll keep plugging away until you do. And then you will satisfy your inner critic with plenty of delicious, delicious revisions—of your finished book. What an amazing thing.
Keep going! You’re almost there!