When NaNoWriMo Eats Your Soul

Since it seems like several of us Scribes are participating in NaNoWriMo, and hopefully by now we’ve all crossed the halfway point and entered the OH NO WHAT COMES NEXT danger zone, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what happens when the words turn on you and NOTHING comes next.

You know that feeling. You’re staring at the blank white page and suddenly it starts staring back at you. Maybe you have an outline, maybe you don’t, but you find yourself wondering how on earth to get your character from doom and gloom to heroic cat-saving antics. Maybe you’re wondering why you thought anyone would ever find this protagonist funny or sexy or impressive. Every sentence you’ve ever written seems like crap, and you realize you have absolutely no idea how to word any more.

You, my friend, have had your soul eaten by NaNoWriMo.

Hey, it happens. And sometimes there are legitimate reasons for the implosion: you got sick, you got busy, life got in the way. But other times, it’s just the fear talking, the gaping hole where your sanity used to be leering up at you like an oozing, sulfurous hellmouth that leads only to self-doubt and despair.

Whoa. Maybe NaNoWriMo ate MY soul.

So how do you get past it?

Clearly Buffy failed NaNoWriMo.
Clearly Buffy failed NaNoWriMo.

If you want to win NaNo and pave over that terrible stress-ripped maw in your psyche with shiny new feelings of confidence and glorious creativity, you have to learn to grapple the formless, ever-expanding fear that eats away at your ability to write. While there are loads of ways to do it and not everything works for everyone—and this particular writer has fallen victim to the soul-eating fear and doubt more than once—a few simple tricks seem to help most people.

1. Pursue another creative endeavor. Draw, paint, sculpt, knit, create papier mache dolls and sew little outfits for them, do what you need to do. Hell, grab a coloring book and some crayons and just color out your feelings, man. Sometimes occupying the lower (higher?) functions of your brain with a creative hands-on task can free up your mind to work out plot kinks or even just rest. It’s like yoga for your brain. I knit like a madwoman, and every time I pick up my needles, I feel like each stitch sews a piece of my exhausted mind back into place. Try it.

2. Give yourself an actual day off. This means actually taking mental time off from writing: don’t think about how you’re not writing, don’t recalculate how many words per day you’ll need to finish. Go do something completely different, and let yourself feel no guilt about taking some personal time. You’ll feel rested and refreshed when you return to the keys the next day, and I promise that will help you leap across the hellmouth of doubt.

3. Read something you love. Read something new. Read anything with a plot and characters. Read poetry! Read. Read. Read. Genius inspires genius, and there’s no scenario in which reading someone else’s words doesn’t help. Go read.

4. If you absolutely must write, try something completely different in your work: change your angle of approach. What’s the worst thing that could happen to your characters? Figure that out, and make it happen. What’s hanging you up about where you’re currently at? Can you skip it, and go on to another scene? Sometimes we just get into a rut, especially when working on a long, intensive project like a novel. Shake up your creative process by making things happen. (Bonus: if you’re bored, there’s a good chance your readers would be bored, too. Explosions are always an acceptable plot device.)

5. Change your scenery. Some of my most productive days happen when I go write at my library or a coffee shop. Taking your work out into the world means the world gets to influence it. Maybe that cute girl with the nose ring will be an extra in your next scene. Maybe the gorgeous old building across the street will be the scene of a crime. Maybe staring blankly at a different wall will inspire you in ways the walls in your house can’t. Be a part of the world, and let the world be a part of your work.

So there you have it: tips for fighting your soul-eating, word-blocking demons. What do you do when the great black hole of doubt threatens to consume your creative existence?

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2 thoughts on “When NaNoWriMo Eats Your Soul

  1. Shauna Granger

    It’s so funny too, when you’re getting close to winning NaNo, one of two things happens. 1. You write like a madwoman, super amped to get to the end. Or, 2. It seems impossible that you still have 15-10k words to write and you almost can’t do it. I’m going back and forth between both reactions. SO CLOSE YET SO FAR BE OVER ALREADY GOD.

    1. Kristin McFarland

      I’m having the exact same problem — like, one minute, “Oooh, 10K words is easy-peasy, no prooooblem!” and then the next day, “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO WRITE ONE THOUSAND WORDS TODAY?! HOW?!”

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