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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NaNoWriMo Tips: Continuity Issues in a First Draft

Welcome to the eighth 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.

Over the next few posts1Well, three of the next four. I did some poor planning when I designed my initial schedule., I want to focus on some common blocks that NaNoWriMo novelers start to hit around this time of the project. That’s not to say that you’ve hit each (or any) of these yourself at this point. You might be buzzing through your novel, gradually increasing your word count as you fall more and more in love with your amazing story. If that’s the way that you feel right now, that’s amazing. That said, even though these posts might not feel like they’re for you at this point, I would encourage you to read them anyway. You never know when one of these feelings might creep up on you.

I can say that I’ve had each of the feelings I’ll talk about in the next three posts — feeling like my book has continuity issues, like I’m out of ideas, and that I hate my story — at various points writing many items that I’ve written. Hell, I’m even personally experiencing the topic of today’s post right now with my non-NaNoWriMo work in progress. The fortunate thing is that while these topics are all big potential stressors when it comes to writing, fortunately they’re (generally) not topics that all arise at the same time.

If you’re someone that came into NaNoWriMo completely blind, you’re likely at a point where if you go back to read your story, you’ll likely have a plot path you’re following, but there’s probably some giant plot holes that have started to introduce themselves. The main storyline may be in decent shape, but your main character’s backstory could be inconsistent chapter to chapter. Side characters may pop in and out of scenes where they don’t belong. If you’re anything like I was in 2015, you might even accidentally write a character into a chapter, only to realize later that you killed them off three chapters earlier. The sad part is that 2015 was the year I was relatively prepared to do NaNoWriMo.

Granted, continuity issues aren’t the worst thing to have happen at this stage of the writing process. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, NaNoWriMo is about getting your story on paper. It is, at its very essence, as way for you to write the first draft of that novel you’ve always wanted to work on. There will be mistakes in this first draft. It’s okay to make those mistakes as long as you’re making progress towards that goal of finishing both the novel and the 50,000 word goal, right?

Well, yes. That said, I know that once I realized a giant piece of inconsistency existed in my story, it make it a lot harder to keep moving forward. For example, in the story I’m working on right now, one of my alpha readers noticed a massive point of inconsistency in the backstory of one of my two main characters. Basically I had written lead up to why this character had broken up with her high school girlfriend one way in chapter 3 of the book and another way in the initially outline I’d written. Normally, this wouldn’t be a massive issue. Just change either the outline or the chapter and move on. The problem was that by the time the reader noticed my inconsistency, I had written both scenarios into fact at various points in the next six chapters of my story. This means that at some point in the future, I have a ton of re-writing to do, which was a little disheartening to realize initially.

My advice if you have a self-inflicted bout of continuity issues in your NaNoWriMo project at this point is to do the following.

  1. Pick a way to solve that continuity issue and stick with it going forward. Write everything from this point forward with that new plan in mind. You can go back and fix previous chapters later.
  2. Know where an instance of the inconsistency is, but don’t re-read your story seeking out every
  3. If you’re writing with a writing buddy, talk through your struggles with them (or feel free to share them in the comments here). Maybe they’ll give you an idea that solves your continuity issue going forward. If nothing else, they may well be able to empathize with the same struggle you’re facing.
  4. Keep a list of continuity issues you do notice through your story. Again, you don’t need a comprehensive list at this point — just things you notice if you go back in your story for any reason. Future you — the version of you that has to edit this story — will thank you.

A commonly overlooked reality of books, television series, and other media is that if left to go on for long enough, nearly any story will have some sort of continuity error, be it unintentional2As is the case with most continuity errors. or, less commonly, intentional3Pretty much any time Kenny dies in South Park prior to the creation of the Mysterion character.. Your story likely will too, both now as well as after you edit it once. Or twice. Or multiple times. The goal is to limit those continuity errors once you’re completely finished with your book.

The reality is that you’re not totally done with your book at this point. You’re just past the halfway point. There will be holes you missed as you’re telling your story, regardless of whether you went into the month with a plan or not. Do whatever you need to in order to help yourself deal with them now. That said, don’t spend too much time on continuity errors at this juncture. I promise, they’ll still be there in December when it’s time to edit.

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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NaNoWriMo Tips: Halfway Done! Now What?

Note: The prompt post for this month’s Mid-Month Short Story Challenge will post tomorrow, November 16 rather than its regularly scheduled day.

Welcome to the halfway point 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.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the halfway point of NaNoWriMo! That’s a really big accomplishment. Even though you’ve still got quite a bit left to do prior to completing the project, you should be proud of how far you’ve come.

This leads to an obvious question — what do you do now? Aside from the fact that you should just keep writing, that is. Depending on where you are in the process of finishing, the answer to that may differ ever so slightly. In today’s post, I’m going to give some short pieces of advice for the various points in the process writers may find themselves at halfway through NaNoWriMo.

I’m Way Ahead of Schedule

Criteria: You’re over 40,000 words and/or at least 75% done with your story.

This is where I was in 2011. I was super motivated to write my story and to get it done within the time limit that I wrote my 50,000th word on the 15th day of the month. Though I still wrote another 8,000 or so words across the next few days, I was functionally done with my story by this point. If, for whatever reason, you’ve written three-quarters of your story already, I say keep that momentum up and don’t be afraid to finish the story well in advance of the end of the month.

That said, you should also do something I didn’t bother to do in 2011. Once you do finish the story (if it is early), go back through your manuscript and see how you can make your story better. Is there a small scene you can add to better flesh out one of your side characters? Are there plot holes you can patch up with an additional chapter added to your story? This is the perfect time to add them. While this isn’t formal editing of your story, think of it as a way to make your story more editing-ready.

I’m a Little Ahead of Schedule

Criteria: You’re in the 30,000-40,000 word range and/or 60-75% done with your story.

If most writers are honest with themselves, this is where you’re hoping to find yourself at the halfway point of the month. You’ve gotten past the midpoint and are building up to the climax of the story. This might be by design, as you’re trying to build up a buffer prior to the Thanksgiving holiday1If you’re an American, that is., or it might be because you’ve just gotten invested in your story. Whatever the case is, you’re ahead of schedule, but not so much that people think you’re crazy.

With the coming fifteen days, use your time to keep doing what you’re doing. Write your story. If you need a day or two off as a break, you’ve likely built yourself some leeway to take that break. So long as you budget your time accordingly, what you’ve done through this point in the month will carry you through to the finish line.

I’m On Schedule, Plus or Minus a Few Words

Criteria: You’re in the 20,000-30,000 word range and/or 40-60% done with your story.

It seems like you’re nearly directly following that little line on NaNoWriMo’s site telling you how many words you should have each day. That’s both good news and bad news.

The good news is that you’re exactly right where you should be, at least statistically. Depending on whether you’re judging ‘on schedule’ by word count or by how finished you are with your story, your stress levels are likely either relatively normal or through the roof, in that order.

The bad news is that November has the potential to be a busy month for most people. If you’re not running at least a little bit ahead of the goal word pace, you might find yourself needing to do a bit of writing on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. And if that’s your plan, awesome! If that wasn’t your plan, you might want to start adding to your daily word counts in advance of that long weekend.

The secret good news is that if you’re like me, you can sneak away and write a bit while everyone else is in a food coma.

Oh God, I’m So Behind. Halp.

Criteria: You’ve written less than 20,000 words…possibly significantly less.

I have some advice for you that I shall break down into bullet points.

  • Coffee is your best friend. You’ll need it for one of the coming points.
  • Remember that strategy I talked about a few days back about sprint writing or scheduling days where you just write for hours on end to beef up your word count? If you have the time this (or next) weekend, take a shot at that strategy.
  • Stop writing your book in a linear fashion. Write the exciting parts now and fill in the rest. If you know what the climax of the book is going to look like, but you’re struggling to slog through the world building to get there, write the climax now. It may well motivate you to write what gets you to that point2I actually did this in my 2015 NaNoWriMo project to help get me back on track..
  • If you’re writing your book anywhere that’s online (Google Docs/Wordpress/etc), stop for now. Put your story into offline mode (if using Google Docs) or add it to a Word doc, shut off your WiFi, and just write. The internet is distracting.
  • Consider following a pomodoro timer to help you write in bursts. Use Tomato Timer if you need a quick, free site to help you with this technique.
  • Finally, keep up the faith that you can do this. In the next three NaNoWriMo posts I’ll be writing over the coming days3Technically, it’s three of the next four. I wrote this point when I had my schedule originally plotted out, only to realize I had forgotten when Thanksgiving fell this year. This forced me to change my schedule just days before the start of November. I also forgot to come back and update this post until the day it published, so you get a footnote., I’ll be talking about some of the pitfalls that can cause NaNoWriMo authors to get behind in their stories, as well as what you can potentially do to fix it. We’ll begin with one I’m dealing with now in my work in progress — continuity issues — on Saturday.

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.

Support my writing on Patreon by pledging at this link.

NaNoWriMo Tips: Progress Over Perfection

Welcome to the sixth 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.

Early last month, I received a piece of advice that is oddly applicable to NaNoWriMo, despite not being delivered to me in that context. Before I talk about that advice, its context, and how it applies to NaNoWriMo, I need to talk about the beauty of being a first time NaNoWriMo participant. I swear this all ties together.

The chart above is the word count trend for my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel. I will immediately admit that day 1 involved nearly 10 hours of writing non-stop with no interruptions. That said, save for a four day stretch from the 15th through the 18th, you’ll notice I made slow and steady progress from the first day of the month. I did minimal editing through the first 21 days of the month, meaning I essentially went from pen-to-paper to completed story while making next to no changes to my story.

Compare that with my 2015 novel chart that I featured a few days ago and you’ll see a different story.

While I was much busier in 2015 than I was in 2011, one thing I noticed about my 2015 attempt1As well as my failed 2012 attempt. was that I found myself editing as I went significantly more than I did in my 2011 attempt. That’s not to say you can’t edit as you go. If there’s something you’ve written in your story that you really hate or that doesn’t make sense with the direction you’ve taken your story, you certainly can go back and edit it out. That said…I’m not certain that you should. At least not immediately.

I have a semi-rhetorical question for those of you reading this post. What is the primary purpose of NaNoWriMo? Put simply, it is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. No one can agree on exactly how many words constitutes a novel. That said, your objective for this novel in this project is to write 50,000 words. More is fine, but less is not.

Let’s say that you’ve written a chapter a day to this point. Depending on when in your day you’re reading this, this means you have 12 to 13 chapters in your story, as well as somewhere in the neighborhood of 19,992-21,658 words2If you’ve hit the word count goal on the nose every day.. For sake of discussion, let’s also say that the part of your story is a scene that is half a chapter long, or about 800 words. By removing that scene completely and rewriting it — likely the most time efficient option — you’re effectively lowering your completed word count by 800 words. Said another way, by the end of your story, you’ll have written 50,800 words. That’s assuming you don’t write a single additional word above and beyond goal to complete your story.

Back in early October, I had lunch with a former co-worker who I considered to be a mentor. Her biggest impact on me was (and still is) teaching me how to conduct myself in a more composed, professional manner in anything I do in the workplace. We had gotten on the topic of a project she was working on for her current job, which she explained was very lengthy and likely more than one person could handle quickly and efficiently. Yet, she was the only person working on it, as she was a one person department. I asked her what her next steps were in moving forward with the project and she shared with me a piece of advice she had gotten from her own mentor that she viewed as her motto, both with this project and in general.

“Progress over perfection.”

When I completed NaNoWriMo in 2011, I was so naive as to how the writing process worked that I just wrote with no mind to if the novel was coherent, free of plot holes, or (frankly) good. With my 2012 attempt, I got so caught up on making the dystopian world I was trying to build so perfect that I barely wrote any of the story during November. And with my 2015 novel, I found myself having to play catchup on weekends. This was partly due to the fact that I was busier that year, but it was also because I was insistent on making my story have as few plot holes as possible in the first draft.

The only way to finish any large task — be it a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, a massive work project, or anything else that seems insurmountable because of its large scope — is to start and keep working at it. While it will seem like you’re not making much headway at first, you’ll be able to look back after time has passed and see how far you’ve come. Take a look back up a couple of paragraphs ago. If you’ve kept pace through 13 days, you’re at over 21,000 words. That’s over 40% done with a 50,000 word novel. Holy fucking shit.

Even if you’re not there, it’s okay. Just continue to make progress. Your NaNoWriMo novel doesn’t have to be perfect right now. You can edit it in the months after the project ends. You can make it closer to perfect later. That’s not what this month is about though. This month is about progress. It’ll be much harder to make that progress if you’re constantly striving for perfection at every turn.

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.

Support my writing on Patreon by pledging at this link.

NaNoWriMo Tips: Telling Your Story

Welcome to the fifth 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.

I’m going to talk about the concept of telling your own story by telling you a story about a story that isn’t my story.

Make sense? Good.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the coolest things I’ve seen done for NaNoWriMo is when bloggers do the project by publishing chapters of their story as blog posts. I did this with my 2011 project in its entirety, as well as putting selected chapters of my 2015 up for public consumption. My experience was largely filled with people who were supportive of my story, with the comments generally being questions as to what would happen next, mundane ‘good job’/’so exciting’ statements, or questions about where I was headed with the story.

I followed a handful of other bloggers in 2011 who also followed the blog post is a chapter way of writing their NaNoWriMo novel. One blogger in particular decided to write this sci-fi love story that I found to be incredibly intriguing1I’d love to link to it here, however the blog appears to have been taken down.. The first few chapters wherein she was doing world building received minimal interaction. However, near the end of the first week, her story began to pick up steam, both in terms of plot development and in terms of attention.

Overnight, I watched as the chapters went from receiving 3-4 comments per post to 75-100 comments per post. While the blogger typically tried to interact with everyone who commented on her blog, the sheer volume of comments must have made it difficult to continue to do so and still write her novel. More importantly, at least in the context of this story, the commentors routinely provided unsolicited feedback as to where the story should go next. Some of the comments were relatively benign, though there were a handful of people who — quite loudly — stated where they felt the story should go next. They were insistent that the lead character (let’s call him John, since I don’t remember the actual name) should end up together with his nerdy assistant, Lara2Again, fake name.. When the story’s middle produced a turn where John begins dating another woman instead of Lara, the anger in the comments went through the roof.

Never mind the fact that John’s love for this other character caused Lara’s villainous turn that would ultimately cause the book’s climax to happen. Never mind that the commentors weren’t the ones writing the story. They felt they had been wronged by the author of the story because their ship had sailed3Or didn’t sail? I’m unsure of the terminology here..

I talked with that blogger a few months after NaNoWriMo and the holidays died down. They shared with me that they had used their novel as a way to deal with a rough relationship situation they’d been through. That other woman introduced mid-story was the writer’s proxy character for herself, meant to show the hypocrisy that John and Lara’s characters had shown throughout the first half of the book. And while she felt she had delivered the message she was looking to get out well, the fact that so many people focused on the prospective relationship between John and Lara rather than the larger story being told frustrated her to no end.

If enough people read your novel, someone is going to hate something about it. Some of those people are probably going to hate everything about it. And if you’re serious about turning your NaNoWriMo project into a real, published novel, you’ll likely go through a long editing process that will help you to clean up some of the things that those angry people may have valid points about4We’ll talk about editing near the end of the month.

Until that point where you’ve gone all-in looking to publish your completely written novel, however, you should be writing your story. Not someone else’s. Not the story Twitter wants you to tell. Not the story the comment section wants you to tell5Never read internet comments.. Your story. This story has been living in your head for however long it has been there. Tell it. Even if you end up hating the story by the end, tell it. Don’t change your story just because someone wants your story to have a different couple together at the end.

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.

Support my writing on Patreon by pledging at this link.