Thursday, November 3, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Breaking Through Writer's Block

A blank page: The writer's greatest opportunity and greatest fear.

Christ Baty’s 2006 book No Plot? No Problem! details the inception of NaNoWriMo, as well as tips for planning a novel and making it through a thirty day writing spree.  I read the book in my sophomore year of high school, in preparation for attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time.  While I found No Plot? No Problem! to be full of helpful information, there is one major difference between my noveling experiences and those Baty described:

The part of NaNoWriMo which causes me the most strife is the first seven days.

In Baty’s experience, writers rush through their first week of NaNoWriMo, fueled by their excitement for their projects and the anticipation of the great novel they will produce.  In the latter weeks, the prospective novelists begin to struggle, hampered by worries that the work they’ve produced is poorly written or plotted.  Certainly, once the initial inspiration has faded and reality has sunk in about just how much work a novel entails, it’s easy to become discouraged and distracted, especially considering that the end of November contains both Thanksgiving and the Christmas shopping sales.  Still, the last three weeks of NaNoWriMo are never what I struggle with.

My problem is getting to those last few weeks.

The opening pages of a novel, as any author knows, are the most important.  It’s the beginning that either succeeds or fails in holding the reader’s attention.  The beginning determines whether or not an editor will continue reading your manuscript or set it aside.  The opening pages, when it comes to publishing or establishing a readership, are everything.

Of course, in the actual process of writing a novel, the first few pages, as with everything else, are something that ought to be hammered out in a rough draft, and revised and worried over later.  Intellectually, I know this.  Emotionally, it’s a different story, and it’s a story that gets me stuck in the mud, wheels spinning, in the first week of every NaNoWriMo.  My failed attempts at writing a novel in a month were all projects abandoned in the first week.

Every year I’ll wake up on the first of November intending to go through a process like this:

1.  Write as if possessed by Calliope, hammering out two or three days’ worth of work in one sitting.
2.  Stay ahead of the required daily word count all month, finishing before Thanksgiving.
3.  ???
4.  Profit!

Instead, Day One tends to go something like this:

1.  Write one paragraph, stare blankly at page for half an hour.
2.  Check email.
3.   Revise paragraph, add another.
4.  Collapse on floor, loudly sobbing to anyone in earshot that I have failed and will never be a successful writer.
5.  Watch My Little Pony; claim I need to do something calming and happy before I resume the strenuous writing process.
6.  Finally complete 1667 words; regret every one of them.

This is how every day of week one tends to go, though with less melodramatics each day as the week goes by.  By the second week, I hit my stride.  That is, if I reach the second week.

Luckily, after five years of novel projects, I’ve finally managed a method that allows me to break through the writer’s slump.  And best of all, it works for any week of NaNoWriMo!  The downside is that it’s not easy.

The method?  Force yourself to write.

Don’t accept any excuses from yourself, or, if your will is weak, instruct your roommates/family members/coworkers not to accept excuses from you.  Strap yourself into that chair, Clockwork Orange style.  Snap a rubber band against your wrist every time you find yourself browsing Facebook.  Better yet, delete the shortcuts to the Internet from your desktop while you write.  Hire a friend to smack you with a flyswatter whenever you idle too long.*  Whatever it takes.  Just get it done.

*#amnoveling does not endorse flyswatters as a writing method.  While any measure within reason is acceptable to motivate oneself to write, please use common sense when selecting a method and do not choose one that is potentially harmful to yourself or to others.

“Some help this is,” you may be thinking.  “If I could just sit down and write, I wouldn’t be looking for advice in the first place.”  Yes, this method may be stating the obvious, and yes, it’s work, and it isn’t easy.  But after you force yourself to write page after page, you’ll find the process becomes simpler.  Runners call it breaking through the wall: a point after the pain and fatigue of the exercise ceases to affect them.  I call it breaking through the writer’s block, and it will happen, though you might need to spice up your plot to hold your interest if you’re still lagging after forcing yourself to write.  Can’t possibly write another word of this scene?  Start a new one, even if the old one ends midsentence.  Kill off a character!  Demolish a building!  Who cares if it doesn’t make sense?  NaNoWriMo isn’t for revising, it’s for getting the words out on the page.  There’s plenty of time to go back and connect the dots after the month is over.

But whatever changes occur in your story, the important thing is to get the story down.  Writing a novel isn’t easy, but if you can make yourself continue, it’s never impossible.

See you at the finish line!

-Lauren Burch

1 comment:

  1. YES! I've come to accept that at least the first scene and usually the first chapter of anything I write will have to be scrapped. You have to shovel some dirt before you find the treasure chest, yes?

    Marian Allen
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