Are you currently engaged in National Novel Writing Month? Have you been furiously writing away and watching your word count build as the days go on? With the middle of the month approaching, maybe you’re already suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burnout?
Maybe you’ve even fallen behind or dropped out. Due to that one or two days when you couldn’t get any writing done… You felt like you’d failed and you dropped out.
Or maybe you picked up your thread again, but those missing days still bug the hell out of you.
Don’t heap unnecessary pressure on yourself
The truth is, with everything else that’s going on – Covid, lockdowns, restrictions, job worries – you don’t need the added stress of writing obligations.
Or a feeling that you’ve somehow failed.
#NaNoWriMo is great for getting people engaged in an activity for a fixed period of time, where you can also talk to other participants.
But if you find it’s all getting too much, it’s perfectly okay to drop out.
Your health is more important than a word count
First of all, your health and wellbeing come first. Secondly, your writing won’t necessarily benefit from you feeling stressed out and under some kind of obligation to produce.
If you feel that NaNoWriMo is the boot up the backside you need to get you motivated, there are others ways to get the same results. And they don’t involve the same short-term pressures.
If you can find a writing group – including an online writing group – that would certainly help motivate you.
You could also try and find some accountability partners. It can be one or two and then check in with them periodically. Set reasonable goals for the next check-in.
Never set unreasonable goals. You’re just setting yourself up to fail and feel bad about it.
And that can keep you trapped in a negative downward cycle of ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can’t do this’.
One technique I found helpful in the past
One thing I’ve found helpful in the past is writing down a word count for each day. Even if it was just 30 words. Tiny word counts were fine because there were other days when the count would be in the thousands.
Momentum was the key.
I could count up the words at the end of each month, each quarter, each half-year, and each year.
Over the years, the overall word count went up dramatically.
At first, there was novelty and enthusiasm. Then there was the sense of obligation and the grind of having to do it. This is why even allowing small word counts can help. After a while, I had to write and if I didn’t there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t associate it with a sense of failure or duty either. It had more to do with the feeling that writing was such a part of my daily life that I missed it and didn’t feel right when it wasn’t there.
Nevertheless, we’re all allowed breaks.
If you feel that a month of writing isn’t for you, it’s fine to take a step back. Never mind what other people are doing. Writing is not a competition – though it might feel like it is sometimes when you’re on social media.
Still intent on finishing #NaNoWriMo?
If you’re feeling a bit burned out, but you still want to continue, remember to take breaks. Go for a walk. Listen to music.
While some writers can finish a book in a fast sprint, for most of us it’s more of a marathon. A writing project can take months or even years to complete, requiring commitment, freedom from distraction, and, hopefully, a writing routine. It also helps if you can build up confidence and self-belief, not to mention setting reasonable goals. Self-sabotage is all too easy.
First and foremost, before we even look at writing standards or quality, it’s necessary to talk about establishing a regular writing routine. Because this is how you build up writing stamina. Without that, finishing any longer work is going to be difficult. Certainly in the shorter term.
Establishing a writing routine
When you first start writing, it’s a bit like taking up exercise or learning to play a musical instrument. You need to keep at it. You need to establish a routine. And the reason is somewhat more complex than it first appears.
First and foremost, there’s a neurological reason why you need to practice. It’s to do with neural pathways. Firing cells become more and more efficient over time. And it’s the reason why you have to concentrate more while learning a new skill – but at a later point, you can do it almost without thinking. In fact, once you have mastered a skill, the parts of the brain associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering take over. This is the point where you are ‘in the zone’. Musicians, athletes, and others experience this.
So, if you want to establish a writing routine, you need to work at it. But research also shows that building up a skill slowly works best. The ability to correct yourself when making a mistake, thereby refining your skills, is better achieved that way.
Additionally, sleep plays an important part in strengthening the new pathways, with reverse firing or signaling during sleep. It’s therefore important to get a good sleep when you’re learning a new skill.
Setting goals and boundaries
Establishing a regular writing routine means a number of things. Firstly, you have to find time in your day and set aside all other tasks. Even the tasks other people think are more important. This could be housework, working in the garden, cooking, DIY, or just generally being at the beck and call of others.
You have to make it clear that your writing time is yours. It’s quite possible, even likely, that you won’t have a lot of support for this. And if you are apologetic about wanting writing time, other people are less likely to take you seriously. You need to be clear about how important writing is to you. Then try negotiating time in a way that also supports the interests of those around you. Aim for some give and take.
Start low. Aim high
There’s no point telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words a day from the start, or even 500 words a day. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to write higher word counts early on when they’re still in the honeymoon period of writing on a regular basis. You’re fired up, eager, and you might write more than you expect.
The trouble, though, is this period is unlikely to last.
One technique for establishing a very long-term writing habit that worked for me came from two pages in a large ring-binder diary. These two pages had a calendar for the entire year. Six months on one page, six on the other. Three months on the top half of the page, three on the bottom. With the days of each month listed by name and date, and a brief line space next to each.
So, I tried an experiment. Towards the end of that January, which is when I happened to start the trial, I recorded daily word counts in these short line spaces. I also noted editing, rewrite word counts, and general note-taking word counts.
Then, I counted up the total word count for each month, each quarter, each half-year, and finally the entire year. The overall trajectory was upwards.
I started in the honeymoon period, felt like I was getting the habit of daily writing. Then, at some point, it became a nuisance. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do that day. Maybe I didn’t have the time, etc, etc.
But I knew I had to push through this phase. It was an interesting experience. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t something I did when I was in the mood. I was forcing myself to do it.
This could mean writing less some days, but since I included small word counts as being just as legitimate, I didn’t become demoralised. In fact, I came to understand that the amount of time spent telling myself I didn’t have the time, was potential writing time! Maybe 30-100 words or more of writing time.
And writing time included rewriting and making notes. Which also made things easier, not to mention more realistic. Because this is where most writing work takes place – the planning stage, the research, the editing and rewriting.
Eventually, I broke through that “this is just annoying now” phase of having to write daily. On the other side lay the absolute need to write daily. I was no longer pushing myself. It came naturally. The day was incomplete without some writing.
By the end of the first year, I had written around 120,000 in just over eleven months. In another couple of years, it was beyond 250,000 and continued to rise. Larger word counts came more easily as time went on. I think that makes sense. The process becomes more efficient.
I also think aiming too high too early is a form of self-sabotage. If you don’t reach your goal, you feel like a failure, and you quit.
But you’re not a failure. You just needed to set more reasonable goals.
Go easy on light writing days. And when you have an established writing routine, it’s easier to skip a day or two without losing your momentum. It’s much easier to lose your momentum early on.
Establishing a writing routine is the number one priority
That means it doesn’t matter how much you write in any one day
This is because establishing a habit is harder than knocking off 1000 words every now and then
Establishing a habit means not slacking off on busy days – 30 words will do
Accepting that 30 words or 100 words is “good enough” takes away unreasonable expectations
Counting up the total word count at the end of each month allows you to see the bigger picture
Counting up the quarters, the half-year and the total annual count also means those smaller word counts contribute to the bigger picture
It’s also important to note down editing, rewriting or research activities
Avoiding online distractions
The next issue is how to find time when there are so many distractions around and the modern attention span is not what it used to be.
I totally recommend either switching the internet off or using social media blockers. I’ve written about this in an earlier post. But to summarise, you need to identify the sites that are your biggest time wasters and block them. Or block the entire internet if necessary.
Try something like Cold Turkey. You can set a timer. You might find yourself trying to check something online on instinct – remember those established neural pathways? It’s a difficult habit to break. So give yourself a hand with a social media blocker. Twitter or whatever will still be there when the time is up, but you’ll have some writing to show for your time offline.
Also, don’t compete with other people when it comes to writing. Compete with yourself. That’s why the weekly/monthly/quarterly/half year/annual wordcounts are so useful. It doesn’t matter what other people in the Twitter writing community are doing. It only matters what you’re doing.
In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.
One example is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.
It’s a hugely ambitious novel and can sweep the reader up for days on end. However, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)
Rice really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.
But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.
Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.
A tale of three cities
This second published author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.
The European capital was strangely lacking in detail compared to the other two. It felt like this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since street lights exist, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.
It felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.
Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.
When writing about familiar and unfamiliar settings in the same novel, it’s best to avoid this location issue. Therefore, you need to ensure your locations are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means research.
This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book.
But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?
Research, research, research
In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something about the daily life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.
I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there.
Of course, in a lot of novels, location is less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar settings, try not to leave your reader feeling that one is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.
Spending too much time on Twitter or other social media? Checking the #writingcommunity and #amwriting threads there far too often? Come on, be honest!
This is pretty much the modern equivalent of tidying your desk or playing with your pencils. If you really want to maximise your writing time, you need to get tough. You need a social media blocker.
I know, I know … you have this really good reason to be on Twitter. You have this writing or plot problem and if you just put out a tweet about it, maybe someone will answer. A blocker would totally interfere with that.
So, there you are on Twitter, or FB, or wherever you hang out, and while you’re waiting, a million other fascinating tweets/posts will appear. Before you know it, a couple of hours or more have gone by, and you’re running out of writing time.
Another problem is that social media just fractures your concentration. The internet throws so much information at us, and for so long, that our attention spans have diminished. We’re chasing one shiny new piece of information or entertainment after another.
Sometimes you just have to get tough. One way to do that is to use a social media blocker …
Protect your writing time by using social media blockers.
I use the free version of Cold Turkey, though there are others available.
On Cold Turkey, you can make up custom lists of sites you want to block. My two worst time wasters are Twitter and YouTube, so I have that as my A-List. My B-list is just Twitter. So, um, Twitter is definitely my downfall, with YouTube a close second.
For other people, it’s Facebook, Instagram, or some other place. It’s always worthwhile checking your browsing history to see just how long you spend on certain sites, going from one page to another.
Virginia Woolf talked about the necessity of having a room of one’s own to write fiction. But the internet gives us a neverending window of passing traffic, entertainment and noise. It removes that quiet room needed to get some writing done.
And that’s why it’s worth using a site blocker. Cold Turkey comes with a timer, and you have the option to add in a break time.
There are other alternatives – including a number of Chrome add-ons. Pause, for example, literally pauses your access to a site by showing a calming green screen for five seconds (or longer, if you want to adjust the timer). You are encouraged to reflect on whether you really want to continue to the site or not. This add-on is produced by Freedom Labs and you’ll find it in the Chrome web store.
Then there’s the ingenious Forest, which encourages you to ‘plant virtual trees’ instead of visiting your usual internet haunts. It’s more of a nudge app than a blocker. So if you don’t mind your trees dying when you leave the app, then you need something stronger. Forest works on iOs, Android and Chrome.
Other blockers and nudgers are available, some free, some with paid options. For now, I’m happy with the free version of Cold Turkey.
Personally, I find it a bit of a relief to have the block on. And if you really do have questions you want to ask others in the writing community, you can always jot them down and ask them when the timer is up. Social media will still be there.