NaNoWriMo Tips: Handling Writer’s Block

Welcome to the ninth post of my NaNoWriMo tips series. For other tips in this series, as well as a schedule for future posts, take a look at the links below. Today’s tip and my discussion of it can be found immediately below the schedule.

Before I get in to the main points I want to talk about in today’s post, I want to share a bit of the background to how I put this series together. In late August/early September of this year, a couple of folks who I know that do fiction writing reached out to me asking if I was doing NaNoWriMo this year. My answer to them was, for various reasons, no. With that said, I did want to do something for the project, particularly since I haven’t personally participated in NaNoWriMo since 2015. So I decided to write this post series. I came up with my initial ideas for three posts in this series that same night. The first three post ideas were:

  • Help! My family thinks I’m crazy because of NaNoWriMo1This later became NaNoWriMo Has Turned Me Into a Hermit.
  • I’m not going to make it. Have I failed?
  • Handling writer’s block

Once I came up with my full list of topics and shuffled the order around a couple of times, I finally landed on the list of topics and order that you see at the top of this post. Since I determined that order I have, for the most part, been writing these posts in order chronologically. It made sense to me to do it that way. After all, the topics built off of one another through the progression of a writer’s journey through NaNoWriMo. You’ll notice that I did say that I’ve been doing the chronological writing mostly, not completely. You can blame this on the fact that I had writer’s block on exactly what I wanted to say for one of the posts. Guess which one it was.

It was the writer’s block post2Considering the topic we’re discussing today, it only makes logical sense..

I’ve had long bouts with writer’s block before on various projects. I’ve been blogging for nearly fifteen years now across various blogs. Some years, I’ve done a ton of work and written lots of great (or not so great, in retrospect) content. That said, between April 2013 and October 2014, I wrote five blog posts. Total3Considering I’m at 63 posts in 2018 counting this one, this could be a depressing figure. It gets much worse if I point out that I wrote over 100 posts in 2012 and nearly 450 posts as part of the #postaday project in 2011..

The mind of a writer is a strange thing. Sometimes, the words just come out and they won’t stop. My longest post (by far) this year is this 4,200+ word ode to one of my oldest friends (and one time Patreon Q&A host), Mike. I wrote that post over the course of two evenings, but pretty much all of it came out stream-of-consciousness style. I didn’t have to think about what I was writing — it just came out and became words to tell my story. Meanwhile, there’s some of the more average posts (length wise) that I’ve written that have taken me days or weeks to finish because I can’t get out the words I want to say.

When I tried to participate in NaNoWriMo in 2012, I wrote the first 6,000 or so words to my novel within the first 48 hours of the project going live. I updated the NaNoWriMo site on day 1, but forgot to before I went to bed on day 2. I knew that I had a busy weekend on the 3rd and 4th and wouldn’t be able to write, so putting myself at 6,000 words at the start of day 5 would have put me just behind the goal pace to that point in the month.

Day 5 was a Monday night. I came home from work exhausted. I looked at my story, didn’t know what I was going to write next, decided I could handle it better later in the week, and chose to play video games instead. Day 6 was election night, so I accomplished nothing then either. By the time day 7 rolled around, I reviewed my story and came to the realization that I had no idea where to go with my story next. I had written three chapters of my story — two of which were primarily world building chapters — and had hit a wall.

At that point in time, I relied heavily on a couple of people that I considered to be writing muses to help spur ideas in my mind if I had no idea what I wanted to do next. It was a pretty reliable strategy and had been greatly successful for me. If you have writing buddies for your NaNoWriMo project, I strongly encourage you to bounce some ideas off of them if you hit a bout of writer’s block. It’s a very reliable strategy that helped me immensely in my 2011 project.

That strategy didn’t work out for me quite as well in 2012. One of my muses had taken a new job with significantly more responsibility, meaning she didn’t have the time to read much of anything in her now-vanished free time. I had a falling out with the other person just before NaNoWriMo, meaning I was now down the two people I used as primary sources of inspiration for my writing. This became a problem because I had an over-reliance on their help. I had reached a point in my writing, particularly my fiction writing, where their ideas and input had such a massive impact on my creative direction that I felt like I couldn’t write well.

Looking back, this was clearly wrong. Their ideas and direction were exceptionally helpful, don’t get me wrong. That said, there were other things I learned to do to beat writer’s block over time that might have helped me finish my 2012 project on time. I’ve talked in previous entries in this series about how helpful forums like NaNoWriMo’s writers forum and /r/nanowrimo are. And yes, I’ll reiterate that they absolutely are amazing resources. That said, they’re not the only places you can get ideas to help get you out of your writing rut.

Let’s say for a moment that you’re writing a fantasy novel for your NaNoWriMo project. You’ve decided — as many fantasy novelists do — to fill your book with courtly pageantry, castle intrigue, and lots of magic. That said, your story is in more of an urban fantasy setting because you want it to be grittier and darker. While that mood for your book may be great for your direction, you could always consider doing some research into more traditional fantasy books to look for direction as to how to write interactions between characters. Alternatively, you could use those same examples for exactly how not to tell your story.

I’m also a huge advocate for rubber duck debugging your stories. For those not familiar with the concept, computer programmers often have to figure out why their code is not working. It’s a tedious, line-by-line process that can take a ton of time. On top of that, since the programmer reading the code is usually the one who wrote it, they can be prone to missing their own simple mistakes. By reading their code out loud to something that can’t talk back to them or interrupt — in this case a rubber duck — it allows them to hear what the actual code sounds like out loud without having someone provide commentary on that code. It works surprisingly well.

While I’m not say you should read your story word-for-word out loud to a rubber duck (as you’re potentially nearing 35,000 words at this point), I would recommend giving a plot synopsis of what has happened in your story thus far to your rubber duck. You might find that doing so gives you some inspiration as to what to do in your story next, as hearing your story told in a linear fashion can help to spur ideas as to what to tell the duck your next plot point is. In the event you don’t have a rubber duck handy, any inanimate object with eyes will do. Why does it have to have eyes? It doesn’t, but it does make the conversation more amusing.

Like my NaNoWriMo tips series? Have questions for me about the topics posted daily? Do you just want to talk about your story and have nowhere else to do so? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

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