Camp NaNoWriMo: Tackling Writer’s Block

So, it turns out that this month has not exactly gone the way I anticipated. I’m behind on my word count, and I’ve missed a lot of writing days. I wish I could chalk this up to some easy excuse–working more than usual, personal stress, etc.–but it’s a combination of stress, exhaustion, and just not wanting to write. I’m beginning to wonder if my idea really has the teeth to make it to 50,000 words. So far, I’ve hit a little over 20,000, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s going. That can be good, but I don’t know here. Also, it’s a horror story, and quite frankly, it’s just not scary enough. I need to amp up the fear factor.

That being said, I wanted to take on a common problem for writers: writer’s block. I know some people will try to convince you that writer’s block isn’t real, but I am not one of those people. Sometimes, the well runs dry. You can look at a blank page and just have no idea what comes next. There’s no way around it: this sucks. But it happens to everyone. The trick is figuring out a method that works for you to combat the block. Here’s a list of things that I have found help me:

1. Write something else. If you have a blog, write a blog post. If you have another work in progress, switch over to that for an hour or so. If the block is specific to your current project, “breaking the ice” on something else can be all that it takes for ideas to flow again.

2. Read something. Basking in the creativity of other people can be a huge help. For me, it helps to read something else in my genre. I get motivated by reading great stories by other people. It makes me want to write an equally great story.

3. Create a Pinterest board for your story. I know, this might sound silly. Hear me out: I like to do this anyway, but if you’re having trouble with inspiration, a little visualization can go a long way. Cast your story. Research the city where it’s set. If it’s a science fiction/fantasy story, and it’s not a real place, search for artwork on Pinterest. Finding pictures that match the tone of your story can help get you back in the mindset you need to write.

4. Create your story’s soundtrack. Go back through what you’ve written so far, and imagine what songs would be playing in the background if this was a movie. Or if your reader wanted a recommendation for what to listen to while reading, what would you suggest? Music is critical to my writing. I have a giant playlist full of instrumental music that I use while writing, and I would encourage you to do the same, if you like listening to music while you write. Another musical option is to pick out your story’s “trailer music” – again, imagine it like a movie and think of what the trailer would look like. What are your key scenes?

5. Work on character development. If you google “character development questionnaires,” you will find a plethora of resources. Fill out one of these for each of your main characters. Even if it doesn’t actually inspire you to go back to the project right away, it’ll give you more information on your characters.

6. Take a walk. The world is full of inspiration, and sometimes, the best thing to do is to get out of your house. This is especially true if you’ve been staring at a computer screen for hours. Take a walk. Get a cup of coffee. Engage in some quality people-watching. Keep your mind as clear as possible, and you might be surprised what ideas jump in.

7. Don’t writeThis may seem counter-intuitive, but if you really can’t break the block, just walk away for awhile. A lot of writers say that you just need to power through it, put some words, any words, on paper, but that’s not always healthy. Sometimes you just stare at the screen. There’s just nothing coming out. The longer you sit at your desk, the worse you’re going to feel about yourself. With every passing moment, you start to doubt and criticize yourself. If you know that you’re not going to be productive, take a step back. The project will be there tomorrow. Take the time to recharge yourself.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. These are simply a few things that I’ve used in the past that help me. Writers, how do you battle writer’s block? 

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Camp NaNoWriMo: Routine is your friend

We’re on Day 8 of Camp NaNoWriMo. At this point, you’ve probably exhausted the initial “Weeee, this idea is great!” feeling, and you’re starting to get into the weeds of your character development and plot. This is a treacherous time for a story, because if you’re not careful, this is when you fall into bad habits. The worst of these habits is, obviously, not writing. When a story is new and exciting, you want to write as much as you can and as often as you can. But once that initial glow is gone, we start to make excuses about why we can’t write anymore, and the most common excuse is, of course: “I don’t have time to write.”

That is a lie. You know it. I know it.

You think you don’t have time to write. Or you’re not making time to write. But believe me – the time is there. The question is, how do you find it? The key to setting yourself up for success during a writing challenge month is to establish a routine from the beginning. Here are four tips to help you establish your writing routine:

Work at the same time every day:  This is going to largely depend on your personal preference. Do you like to write first thing in the morning? Are you a night owl? Do you go into work in the afternoon, so your morning is free? No matter what you’re doing for work, you have some time somewhere. I’m not good in the mornings, and I’m definitely not good at waking up early, so I know that’s out. I get a lunch break, sometimes, but not always, so that’s out. That leaves me with the evenings. I generally block off 9 pm – 11 pm as writing time. I hit my stride around 10 pm. And as long as I’m home, I write during that time period, no matter what. I plan my whole evening to make sure that I have that time free later in the evening – I’ll do my errands, go to the gym, etc all before 9, so I know I have those two hours free. Sure, sometimes life happens, and I don’t end up actually writing until 9:30 or so, but I always make sure I sit down and do it.

Figure out how much time you need, and then work backward: How much time do you need? Well, again, that depends on you. Look at your writing patterns from the last week. How long does it take you to hit 1,613 (the magic “words per day” number you want to hit if you’re aiming for 50,000)? If I’m incredibly focused, I could hit that in an hour. If I’m zoning in and out, it’s going to be closer to two hours. Maybe you can write that in 30 minutes. Maybe you need three hours. If you find that you need so much time that you can’t block off a chunk of time, split it up! Write for 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes on your lunch break, 30 minutes on your train ride home, and so on.

Tell your family and friends what you’re doing: Two hours of writing time is a lot. That’s time that you’re not spending with your friends or family, and some of them might be a little confused about why you don’t want to watch television/go out/etc. Tell people what you’re doing, especially the people living with you, and ask for their support. This is especially important if you don’t have a dedicated writing space, like me. I have a rule with my husband that when my headphones go on, even if I’m in the living room, that’s the Writing Signal, and distractions need to cease. Let your people know what your goals are and how important they are to you.

Make it a pleasant experience: If you’re doing a writing challenge, chances are that you love writing. In other words, writing should be fun. What can you add into your daily routine to make it better? If you’re working in the morning, buy some really good coffee and tell yourself that’s your writing coffee. If you’re writing at night, have a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Find music that you love and make a writing playlist (I’ll talk about this in more detail in a later post). This shouldn’t be torturous – this should be a time for you to follow your passion.

Writers, what other advice would you give on forming a routine? Is routine important to your writing, or do you just write whenever you feel like it? I’d love to hear about your patterns!

Camp NaNoWriMo: It doesn’t have to be good (right now)

It’s Day 3 of Camp NaNoWriMo. I hope that if you’re participating this month, that your projects are going well. This month, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about the NaNoWriMo experience and how to stay motivated.

The biggest criticism I hear about NaNoWriMo, and other writing challenges, is that it produces crap. These critics love to dismiss the work put in during the single month, waving it off as poorly written garbage.

And actually… they’re kind of right.

But that’s okay!

Let me back up. If you’re going to write 50,000 words in a month, it’s not going to be perfect. Finishing an entire story in a month is a daunting task, and it requires a commitment to write nearly every single day. There are some writers out there who can miraculously produce 10,000 words in a day, and sure, those people only need to write for a few days of the month. But for the rest of us, that 50,000 word count gets met by writing consistently. NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you the luxury of reflecting. This isn’t the time to take a couple of days to think about your characters or envision your settings. This is the time to sit down at your computer and just pound out words. Inevitably, some of what you write will be crap.

That’s fine. It’s a first draft. All first drafts have problems. Whether you take one month or six months (or six years) to write your story, your finished product will not be perfect. Even famous, respected authors would have to agree with that. Your story needs to be revised and edited.

But first, it needs to be written.

I don’t like reading criticisms of NaNoWriMo that focus on the quality of writing. I think it’s a bad argument. You can’t write the next great novel in a month, so why bother?  That strikes me as short-sighted. No, you certainly can’t write the next great novel in one month, but maybe you can write the bare bones of it. Maybe you can get the idea onto paper and work from there.

If you’re serious about your writing, you know that the first draft is only the first step of many. There will be time later to fix your grammar and polish your prose. For now, you need to get your idea out there. It doesn’t have to be good right now. It just needs to get done.

June Recap: You win some, you lose some…

Ah, here we are again. Another monthly recap. June wasn’t too bad. There were some awesome highs and discouraging lows.

Writing: In total, I wrote 13,779 words in June. I’m disappointed in that number, but I’m trying to stay positive. As you may already know, I finished my first draft of The Travelers early in the month. I read it on my Kindle and decided to ignore it for awhile. I have every intention of going back and editing it… eventually. Right now, the task seems daunting, and so I’m just acting like it will fix itself.

After I finished The Travelers, I just stopped writing for a little while. Part of it was because I was reading my own projects (as well as many novels; see below). I was disappointed in myself for not pushing through and writing something every day.

On the positive side, the remainder of those words went to two separate projects. One of which is a weird science fiction story that I imagine will be only a short story or novella that is heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick. The other is my Camp NaNoWriMo project, which I started a couple days earlier. It’s a horror novel about the occult, sort of, but it’s really about the choices we make and the things we’ll do for the people we love.

Reading: I READ SO MANY BOOKS IN JUNE. Well, 10, to be exact. That’s pretty good for one month. I’m up to Book #50 on my GoodReads challenge of reading 100 books in the year. At this pace, I should be able to meet my goal. I just started The Maze Runner and Ready Player One, both of which I’m enjoying.

Oh, but I did make one crucial decision. After The Maze Runner, no more YA books for awhile. I just can’t do it. I can’t get into them, and sometimes, they frustrate me, even if they are good books.

Still haven’t finished Anna Karenina.

Other: I saw Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys at the theater. I loved Jurassic World, despite the somewhat silly plot and the terrible character development. I liked (but did not love) Terminator: Genisys, despite the time travel wonkiness and Emilia Clarke’s terrible version of Sarah Connor (sorry, not sorry). Still haven’t finished Daredevil on Netflix.

Bring on July!

Inspiration Strikes!

Today was an odd day. On the way to work this morning, I was pondering which of my “in progress” projects to continue next month during Camp NaNoWriMo. I told myself that I was going to do some outlining and brainstorming on each one, and I’d make a decision by the end of tonight.

Around three o’clock this afternoon, I was struck with a sickness that I just couldn’t shake. I had a terrible headache and felt nauseated. I popped some Excedrin, but I didn’t feel any better, so I ended up heading home early. I went straight to bed and fell asleep for almost two hours.

I had the weirdest dream that I have had in a long time. It was creepy, but more than that, it was a complete narrative. This used to happen to me a lot, but it hasn’t happened in awhile. Somewhere in the middle of the dream, I realized that I was dreaming, and it got so intense that I had to wake myself up. Then, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. The narrative was too bizarre, even for fiction, but the base idea was intriguing. Within an hour, I had four main characters and a general plot outline developed in my head. This is an idea that I can honestly say I’ve never approached before, so I have no idea where it came from.

It strikes me as especially weird, since if I didn’t feel sick today, I wouldn’t have gone home, wouldn’t have slept, and wouldn’t have had the idea come to me – would it have come to me at another time? I don’t know.

Anyway, I know this is a random post, but HOORAY for inspiration. This solves my Camp NaNoWriMo dilemma! Looks like I’m headed back to the horror genre for the month of July.

The Big 3-0: Reflections

On Thursday, I celebrated a milestone: my 30th birthday. I try not to be one of those people who freaks out at birthdays, and the truth is, I feel no different at 30 than I did at 29. But I think birthdays, like some holidays, provide a good opportunity to reflect on one’s life and goals, especially when entering a whole new decade.

My 30s are intimidating to me because I associate them with “real” adulthood. My earliest memories of my mother are when she was in her early 30s, and of course, I always thought she was a real grown-up, someone who had everything together. This next decade is going to include a lot of choices – where do we want to live long term, do we want to buy a house, are we going to have kids, and if so when, etc., etc. This is also going to be an important time in my legal career. I’ve been working for almost five years now, so I finally feel like I know what I’m doing at work. The next decade will (I hope) provide more opportunities to advance in that career, and, most importantly, I should qualify for public service loan forgiveness within the next six to seven years (seriously, it’s going to be the happiest day of my life).

When I look forward to the next decade of my writing career, I don’t know what will happen. I have one project finished, pending editing, and I have three other projects that are thisclose to being done. Okay, realistically, each one needs another solid month of work, but I could finish at least one or two of those by the end of the year. Taking that into consideration, what’s a realistic goal for the next ten years? Publish one book a year? That seems a little aggressive to me, though not impossible. Maybe one every year and a half? That would end up being between 6-7 books over the next decade. I think that’s possible. Ideas aren’t the problem. I have 11 stories “in progress” – meaning I’ve either written something on the story or I’ve fleshed out the idea. So, the problem is actually sitting down and finishing all of these projects.

I’m also trying to remind myself that I’ve accomplished a lot so far. Let’s be honest – during ages 1 through 18, I didn’t do much, but in those subsequent 12 years, I finished college and law school, had two great legal jobs, published a book, and traveled a decent amount. That’s not bad before 30.

Do you use birthdays or holidays to reflect upon your goals? Anyone else hit 30 and not freak out (or did you freak out)? 

Noooo, not Hannibal!

I was so bummed to find out yesterday that NBC is cancelling Hannibal after three seasons. I love that show – perhaps an unhealthy amount. It’s such a great show because it’s the perfect combination of substance and style. Hannibal pulled off things that I had never seen on network television before, and they did it with such lovely art direction. It’s dark, gruesome, and lovely. But beyond just the style of the show, the showrunners were excellent storytellers. They managed to weave elements of surrealism and horror into what is, essentially, a crime show. Their version of Hannibal Lecter is just as delightful as the versions in the books and films. Also, the acting–I mean, come on–Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, Gillian Anderson–that’s a cast of fantastic actors.

I’m really hoping that it gets picked up by some other service. I can’t even imagine how gruesome this show could be if it was on Netflix or something similar. I know that the darkness of this show isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of horror, and you haven’t watched Hannibal, you’re really missing out. The first two seasons are available now on Amazon Prime, and the third season is currently airing on NBC.