On Crutches, and Winning NaNoWriMo

Day 3: Limping Along or Running Full Tilt?

It’s not a binary really, NaNoWriMo. You’re never just doing one or the other, but it can feel that way at times. My wife and I are both doing NNWM this year, and she expressed a worry last night that struck me as worth sharing and talking about with other NaNoers.

I like to call it the Crutch Phrase. It’s that word or set of words you find yourself using ad nauseum, infecting your narrative like a virus until every chapter is rife with it. Every time your protagonist looks somewhere, he’s glaring. Whenever your main character’s love interest speaks, his face is pinched up with fear. And so forth.Crutches_Church

The value of the crutch phrase

Repetitive phrasing, also called echoing, at first may seem a fault or failing on every writer’s part. But during NaNoWriMo? Exactly the opposite. We’ve got 27 days left to reach the 50K mark, and unless you’ve clocked 1,667 words at minimum on days 1 and 2, your ledger is leaning towards the red. And if that’s the case, then you need to stop nagging yourself about writing the same phrase every time somebody looks somewhere or says something.

Use the crutches to help you make it to the finish line. That’s what they’re for! These overly used words and phrases are stand-ins; they’re movie set extras who forget they’re not supposed to look at the stars as they walk by in scene. So what? They’ll be edited out and will vanish among all the darlings lying around the cutting room floor.

How to use the crutch phrase

Keep a little notebook or scratch pad on your desk, coffee table, lap, what have you. Once you’ve identified a word or phrase that fits the crutch definition, write it down. My wife, for example, was worried that all of her characters were frowning too much.

“I can’t believe you’d paint her that way,” Simon said, frowning.

“She looks like a trussed up peahen,” Arthur said, frowning.

In a published novel, lines like those are sore thumbs. For a NaNoWriMo draft, those crutch phrases are gold.

As you build your list, and do expect it to grow as you add to your word count, make extra notes beside the words or phrases you’ve put down.

Some might be “dialogue tags” like those above. Others might be “scene setting” (every room is either a dark chamber or a well-lit hall) or “scene blocking” (characters always stand out of the way so the protagonist can occupy center stage). Once you’ve got the 50K draft finished, you’ll go back through during revisions and replace each crutch with the details you couldn’t spare time to work into the first draft.

You’ll capture a character’s mood by showing facial expressions with more vivid detail. The antagonist’s true motivation will be plain to see when, shaking with rage, she utters her ultimatum and curls her fingers into a fist — instead of simply frowning.

So write on, and remember not to slow yourself down trying to get things perfect this go round. We’re all a little hamstrung by the time constraints of NaNoWriMo, so just go with it. Use the crutches for their intended purpose.

What’s your secret trick for powering through NaNoWriMo? How do you avoid the stalling and stopping and starting of trying to make your first draft perfect, and instead just write?



About ajsikes

I am a freelance editor and author of speculative fiction in the dark/weird vein. My editing style is best described as nurturing. I treat each customer with the same respect and consideration regardless of the quality of their writing, and always aim my comments at helping writers improve and strengthen their work. For more information, please visit me at my website.
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4 Responses to On Crutches, and Winning NaNoWriMo

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Ah, well, my characters also frown a lot. And they also chuckle a lot and glance. A-ehm…
    And you know? I don’t care. Not only during NaNo, I dont care for the first two or three drafts. What I care is getting the idea down, the action sorted out, the dialogue saying what’s importnat. When I come to the fourth or the fifth draft (depending on chapters, some are easier) THEN I start caring about those nasty little pests 🙂

  2. I imagine myself getting run over by a huge dog or getting trapped in a stuck elevator with one of my characters. Sometimes I imagine drinking wine with several of my characters. What’s the conversation? What are they wearing? Eating? Afraid of? Excited about?

    • ajsikes says:

      Those are great prompts to get the writing muscle flexing. I used to be more of a pantser than plotter, but I’ve entered that intermediary state of plantsing 🙂 I do a sketch of scene ideas for each of my main characters, chronologically. At some point they all end up in the same room together, so I have to save those scene ideas until I’m far enough along to know what’s going to happen. But having some idea of where each scene will go really helps me hit my word counts.

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