NaNoWhatNow? Three Tactics for Getting Un-Stuck

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Renlund

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Renlund

One of the reasons I LOVE NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November) is it gives new writers a glimpse of a professional pace. It teaches discipline, writing no matter what, how we feel or whether or not we’re inspired. Writing is a profession, not a playpen. I remember when I was new thinking that 500 words a day was such a BIG DEAL. 

Now? I generally have 1200 words written before breakfast. My daily average can range from 1000-6000 words, depending on what I’m doing, how many projects I have going, etc.

I also love NaNoWriMo because it employs one of my favorite techniques, Fast Draft. Wear out the inner editor and the subconscious can come up with some pretty amazing stuff. This technique isn’t for everyone, but I do recommend trying a little of everything when we’re in the beginning stages of our career. Eventually, if we stick with it, we’ll find out what works. I LOVE Fast Draft because I’m, at heart, an editor.

I can nitpick until the prose screams and taps out.

Perfect prose is wonderful (though imaginary—-someone will always hate it). But, the world doesn’t reward perfection; it rewards finishers. So if you took the NaNo challenge (or even did a Fast Draft on your own) odds are you might find yourself stuck. It happens to us all.

WANA, Kristen Lamb, We Are Not Alone, WANA International, how to be successful writer

Image via Marie Loughin WANA Commons

I finally finished my mystery-thriller. I fast-drafted it and finished it in a month—70,000 words. I wrote it right after I fast-drafted my NF and newest best-selling book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World. NF is left-brain. Left-brain was tired and needed time to marinate over what I’d written. Right-brain was bored and coloring on the walls and eating Play-Doh. So, while left-brain was resting and contemplating its belly-button, I put right-brain to work.

This gave me time to subconsciously ponder the NF while plowing through the fiction. Change is great. Get out of the house and out of your head and many times roadblocks will melt away. Read other books, watch movies, read some NF to feed and refresh your subconscious. In time? You’ll see what magic it can create ;).

Then I had to travel all spring and summer and finish and publish ROM, so I set the fiction down. Then we had WANACon and then my world went KABLOOEY personally, but all of that was fine, because I was still working on the fiction, rolling it over in my mind. I’d written four different endings and they were “good” but not “good enough.” Something was missing.

Maybe you finished the 50,000 words. Odds are, you hit somewhere between 20,000-35-000 and were stuck like a Ford Fiesta in icy mud. This is one of the reasons I recommend at least getting the log-line and basic plot points before beginning any fast-draft. If we don’t, we might find it hard to locate our literary butt with a literary flashlight.

But, I’ve been stuck and here are some tips.

Take a Break

Too many people dive into revisions right away. Take at least two days. Two weeks is better. Two months? Might take that long. Write your blog posts for the next week or month. Let the fiction simmer for a while and often problems will become clearer. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Get away. Start plotting/fast-drafting the next novel. The human mind is an amazing thing. It will still be working on the other book, so expect some weird dreams.

Take a Different Path

Find a place where your character/story hit a wall? Nothing is happening? Back up. Can the protagonist make a different decision? As writers, we must guard against sanity. Sanity is our enemy. Great fiction comes from dumb, bad, miscalculated choices. If our protagonist is so evolved that he/she always has the right answers? Never makes emotional decisions guided more by baggage than logic? SNOOZE FEST.


You might even find yourself resistant to a certain direction. Why? Because it’s the correct path. It’s the uncomfortable path.

Discomfort=Dramatic Tension

Readers crave resolution. All humans do. We don’t like unresolved problems. This is how we get readers to turn pages faster and put our next book on their wish-list (if we have a series).

In my novel that I finally finished yesterday, the protagonist’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. She sees the best in people and tends to ignore her gut when red flags go up. She has to grow. Why I didn’t like those four other endings was they all had an HEA (Happily Ever After). But, that didn’t work with this book as much as I tried. There was only ONE ending that would satisfy. It’s dark, heart-wrenching…but (hopefully) satisfying. It was the ONE ending I didn’t want to write, but it was the only ending that tied up all loose threads in the mystery and demonstrated true character arc.

Take a Different POV/Recast

I’ve won multiple awards for short fiction, but have struggled when it comes to writing a full-length novel (though I can plot and edit them all day for others). Why? Because I LIKE strong female characters. Ah, but the trick is how to make a woman strong, and not be viewed as a b!*&%. Originally, I wrote virtually the same story as the one I just finished, but in close third. Everyone LOVED my supporting characters…and hated my protagonist.

No matter how many times I rewrote it? People did not like my protagonist  (which is a problem). What did I do? I changed POV. I switched out deep third for first-person and this infused more of my humor I naturally use in blogging. Also, instead of a female war vet, I chose a disgraced salesperson who’d been blackballed by her fiancé who’d stolen billions of dollars and left her as the FBI’s prime suspect.

She’s strong because she came from the trailer park and grew up in a family straight from The Jerry Springer Show…not because she was a soldier. She ran away to go to college, knowing it was her escape from The Cactus Flower Trailer Park…only to have to go home because she’s out of money and options. She has to face the demons of her past and new demons she never knew existed.

Suddenly? Beta readers were in love. Final version of The Devil’s Dance (working title) is 97,000 words (which is square in the ballpark for a mystery-thriller’s word count). Will cut some away, but overall? I am VERY happy with the story.

I can apparently write likable/believable male military characters, but the female? Yeah….

I had to redefine what a STRONG female was. Did she have to be a former MP when a Waffle House waitress who works the drunks at 2:00 a.m. might be more relatable and interesting?

Cool thing is, I now have an option. I can go back and rewrite the same book in close third and then see if just changing perspective removed the coldness readers were feeling in the first go-round. If not? Then maybe first-person is my thing. Try switching POVs and see if that doesn’t fix the problem.

Have you been stuck? Are you stuck? Any tips? Advice? War stories?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

I hope you will check out my newest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World onAmazon or even Barnes and Noble.

Also, here is a list of WANA International classes and Christmas specials.



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  1. I’m pasting “the world doesn’t reward perfection; it rewards finishers” to my computer screen. Truth.

    1. Seriously, that little tidbit is pure gold.

  2. OMG, I swear you are talking to me. Seriously, how do you do that? I finished NaNo (made the goal) and blogged about my experience and you nailed it with what I personally learned. I also, just rewrote my first three chapters of my ms in first person present tense (I like this, but apparently only kids and young adults do, too), then first person past tense and then third person past tense–out to beta readers for feedback! It’s exciting! Best of luck with your novel, it sounds cool and thanks again for reading my mind and distilling my jumbled thoughts into useful advice!

  3. I would sign under every word you said Kristen! Before NaNo 500 words a day felt like a big accomplishment. Now my single session goal is 600. And I try to get two or three of them during the day.

  4. Excellent post. And it’s true…putting a manuscript down for a few days really does help. I put mine down for 5 years…lol… that wasn’t necessarily by choice but because of having a child and life getting in the way of my writing… but now I’m writing again and I finally (just yesterday) picked up an old PB manuscript and I was soooo ready to revise! I no longer had any of those ‘personal attatchments’ that refused to change certain things 5 years ago… of course, I wouldn’t recommend putting manuscripts down for 5 years… but it worked for me! 😉 hehe

  5. I think you have given some excellent advice in your article, and I plan on trying it to see if it makes a difference in my writing. Thanks for the practical guidelines and I’m going to reblog this to share with others.

    • Tabula Rasa on December 10, 2013 at 10:57 am
    • Reply

    This is so applicable to me right now. I finished my novella at 35K words, technically failing nanowrimo but at least finishing something and the reason it is only 35K words is because I couldn’t get the ending right. I got stuck and just drove through it rather than analyzing why since there was a time limit.

    I love fast drafts too. I love typing the end its what to do after that puzzles me. Thank you for talking about this today. I’ve been struggling creatively since Nano ended and this post really spoke to me.

  6. Reblogged this on Romance eBooks ~ R. Lynn Archie and commented:
    Reblogged – Kristen Lamb’s Blog

  7. I loved this post, that’s all I had to say, thank you for this.

    • Sam on December 10, 2013 at 11:05 am
    • Reply

    I loved doing the Fast Draft during NaNo but now I’m afraid of all the editing my draft needs. Any suggestion on where to start?

  8. Reblogged this on Echoshadow and commented:
    Everybody read this, it is inspirational, way better than that lane stuff I wrote.

  9. Thanks for the tips here. I also LOVE stories with strong female leads, but I also find that many people tend to think that strength = b$%^&; and that’s not true, so I feel you there. As a female vet, I constantly get asked why I don’t write a story about being in the military, and I find that it’s just really hard for me to put all of that down….I’m not sure. Does that make any sense?

  10. Kristen – I loved your quote. I also thought of another one we used in my weight loss class from Woody Allen. “80% of success is showing up.” Maybe, one of these times, I might send you 20 pages. Thanks – Silent

  11. I’m having the same problem with my protagonist, she’s just not that likeable. I’ve written in close third…I *thought* about first person, but I just can’t seem to do it. But maybe I should try at least one scene, to see how it works…

    • Dellah on December 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm
    • Reply

    Interesting that you mention that about your female character. I see WAY too many women on the internet running on about “strong female characters” when what they are really describing is “female character who does typically masculine things”. There is a hugely narrow-minded view of what makes a women strong circulating and I’m afraid of how detrimental it can be. I’m glad you were able to rethink your character and make her strong on her own terms, not just in terms comparable to male characters! (Not that there’s anything wrong with female vets! I respect them all IMMENSELY. And I do enjoy a badass action girl just as much as the rest of us.) YES women can fight! But they shouldn’t have to in order to be considered strong. 🙂 (And of course, neither should men.)

    1. Especially the whole “if she can’t fight she’s not powerful” mentality is annoying. If Petyr Littlefinger in Game of Thrones can be awesome without the capability of wielding a sword why can’t a female character? Look at the whole Arya vs. Sansa debate. BOTH characters do nothing yet just because Arya has a sword and is more toomboyish it’s okay.

    2. Hear, hear! There is so much more to strength than just physical force.

  12. Right now I am sitting back and letting my fiction simmer while I work on other projects. For instance, I am working on applying what I learned from your most recent book. I am also working on my father’s memoirs. He died November 19, 2013. I am looking forward to dusting off my fiction after the first of the year.

  13. Without laying out the major story beats (thanks to Jami Gold’s beat sheet from WANACon), I would have stalled in the middle. I have with every novel I have written until I read Story Engineering and used Jami’s awesome spreadsheet. I didn’t lose pace one time during November (though I did have to write around a few scenes while I figured out some cool locks). The novel was 68,000 words and was done by November 23rd.
    What you say about your brain working on the story problem even when you aren’t writing is true for me. In my final book in the series (I am fast drafting the whole thing on the advice of Jedi Master Lamb – book two was my NaNo project), I knew my protagonist had to face down the dragon holding her mother captive. Originally I had five trials with great alliterated names, but I was blank on what they would be. In bed two nights ago, two tests came to me and I realized three trials would be perfect since they connect with the deities in my story.
    And knowing I can write between 2,000 and 5,000 words per day is the best take away (aside from a complete first draft) of NaNoWriMo.

  14. Reblogged this on Charlotte Gerber.

    • S.D. Kreuz on December 10, 2013 at 3:02 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the tips 🙂

  15. When i do first person pov. I often get into monologue rambles. Third person, close, is definitely my fave.
    One thing I find that I miss in literature in general is women being beaten up. Like, in fights. We see men get beaten but women get raped. That’s one of the reasons I really like Winter’s Bone. The female character in THAT story is so inspiring! And she can take a beating, damn.

  16. I’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, but I might in the future. You offer some good advice here along with some amusing analogies. Had a good chuckle. Thanks!

  17. I’m definitely at the ‘Take a break’ phase!

  18. loved this post. Tried nano for first time and got 10.5 words

  19. 10.5k words duh

    1. LOL.

  20. Hi Kristen,

    This is a nice literary kick in the pants! I am am new to writing, but the one thing I’ve learned so far is that there are no shortcuts, no excuses and no exemptions from writing. 1200 words before breakfast! I would starve at this point, but I’ll get there!

  21. I’ve never nano’ed, but thanks for giving me permission to ‘redirect’ for a while! The voice of Duty tells me to stick at one thing only until it is Finished, so I just kept plugging away and ended up with tens of thousands of mostly unusable words. Then I sent most of my characters to the great bit recycle bin in the sky and started again. Sometimes you just need to take a break. And sometimes I need to kick myself in the butt and tell myself to get on with it.

  22. I decided at the last minute to give NaNo a try for the first time. Didn’t get very far though as I had no idea what to write before getting started. Most of my writing time was spent trying to hash out ideas and get a basic outline down.

    I am glad that I started a new WIP though. I needed a break from thinking about the novel I’ve been working on for oh-so-long.

    I realize that writer’s block doesn’t really exist, but what do you think about a creativity block? Because I’ve been feeling like the least creative person on the planet for a while now, and I’m not sure how to remedy that.

    Thanks for another great post 🙂

  23. This is great timing for me. I actually went stale writing-wise in September, when I finished my favorite fast-draft writing session, the three day novel. I was supposed to work on other stories while that one percolated, but I didn’t love any other characters.Though I was writing for my blog. So, I embarked on reading, reading and more reading. And I haven’t regretted any of it. Because I’ve been reading, asking myself why I don’t like certain voice styles, why people insist on starting the story in a scene to go back in time. Weird. But it’s been good. And once the work chaos subsides slightly, I will start to edit the story I can’t wait to get back into. Or just rewrite it, because in 3 days writing sessions, there are shortcuts that need to be taken out.

    • Suzanne Lucero on December 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm
    • Reply

    I seem to be having just the opposite problem, Kristin. My novel’s written in first person but it’s not quite … I dunno. Something’s missing. I’m rewriting it in third-person limited omniscient, I think you’re calling it a close third-person POV, and things are changing. I hope they’ll change enough to get this baby to the finish line.

  24. Reblogged this on Brit Darby and commented:
    Great advice and words of wisdom from author Kristen Lamb.

  25. I had a great nano and finished my first ever first draft at 87k! I was thrilled by my achievement, but the whole thing about bad decisions and letting the subconscious play was maybe not so great. My antagonist went crazy, did some things which would end her up either in prison or the loony bin and were not entirely believable, leading to a farcical climax where she jumped in a canal. Fun to write, sure, but now I have to tone her down in edits to mere bitchiness, not criminal insanity!

  26. I have a day job so I was only able to write a little over 50K words for NaNo (I got 3/4 of the way completed), but it still did it! I’m really interested in this whole POV dilemma. I’ve written in 1st person for The Ending series, and now that I’m starting a new project, which is in the romance genre, I wanted to tackle 3rd person. However, I’m in limbo. i feel with 3rd, the reader can learn more about all the characters instead of just the MC. BUT I’m finding it’s harder to do this. How ominous can the narrator be? How often can you switch between him and her before it gets confusing…? I have so many questions, but I really like the idea of being able to know more about the characters than just 1st person POV.But there’s definitely the potential of a better connetion between character and reader in 1st. I wish it was an easier decision…oh the woes of author-ism-ology 🙂

  27. I’ve read this post a couple of times now, using it to try and move me forward to editing … something. Thanks to NaNo, I now have four first drafts of novels. The very first one was written in 2007 and I’m thinking I should attack that one because (1) it’s a standalone novel; (2) it’s in better shape than the more recent three; and (3) it’s a different genre from the other three (horror vs literary/crime fiction). I’m sure I’ll be reading this post again before I make up my mind 😉

  28. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    For all my fellow NaNo participants out there, Kristen has some great suggestions for getting unstuck with your novel.

  29. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who re-writes the same story, inadvertently, and also loves strong female characters!

    The thing about NaNo that I didn’t like was all the drama. I “fast drafted” a few stories myself, writing upwards of 3,000 wpd, without even thinking that it was “a big deal.” Then people were spazzing and losing hair over 1,500 wpd, and I just looked around and scratched my head. ‘Did I take a wrong turn somewhere?’

  30. What does NF mean?

    1. Non-Fiction 😀

    • Jennifer Rose on December 16, 2013 at 2:31 pm
    • Reply

    I love doing fast drafts. Thought through experience, I’ve learned that it helps to have a rough outline before going in. For this, I absolutely LOVED Jami Gold’s webinar class through Wana Intl. She shared some incredibly helpful tools.

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  3. […] Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Renlund One of the reasons I LOVE NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November) is it gives new writers a glimpse of a professional pace.  […]

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