Mike Tyson is probably the last person you’d look to for writing motivation, but he does have one quote that’s helpful for anyone facing writer’s block:
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
As we get into the middle of November, I’m sure many people taking on NaNoWriMo feel like they’ve taken a solid left hook to the face. While we’re big fans of setting yourself up for success (we even built a customized RescueTime dashboard to help you track your writing time, block distractions, and stay motivated), even the best-laid plans can get derailed.
But while it’s easy to throw up your hands, give in to writer’s block, and lose your writing momentum, you don’t have to. Writer’s from Kurt Vonnegut to Hunter S. Thompson have all lost their writing motivation yet still gotten through to the other side (mostly) unscathed.
So if you’re hitting a slump in your NaNoWriMo novel, here’s some motivation to help you push through.
Writer’s block is a myth
If you’ve hit a slump in your writing, you’ve probably got more than a few choice words about writer’s block—that nebulous ailment that forces you out of writing.
But just like there’s no muse that comes into your home at night and whispers words into your ear, the idea that some wall becomes erected in your mind is equally ridiculous. So what are we actually talking about when we talk about writer’s block?
According to author and writing coach, Jeff Goins, a lack of writing motivation comes down to three factors:
- Timing: Is it the right time to write your story? Are your ideas formed enough to do them justice or do you need to let them stew a bit longer?
- Fear: Are you afraid of critique? Are you worried that people will judge your writing and give you negative feedback?
- Perfectionism: Is there an editor on your shoulder constantly telling you what you’re writing isn’t good enough?
These are all real issues that every writer faces. But they’re not a valid reason to lose your writing motivation. Let’s break down each one and explain why.
While timing might be a valid excuse outside of NaNoWriMo, when you’re halfway through the month you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You’ve committed to your novel and whether you feel ready or not, it’s the right time to write it.
As Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert explains:
“I don’t sit around waiting for passion to strike me. I keep working steadily because I believe it is our privilege as humans to keep making things. Most of all, I keep working because I trust that creativity is always trying to find me, even when I have lost sight of it.”
What about fear? We all face the fear of putting our work out there. But one of the beautiful elements of NaNoWriMo is that it’s an opportunity to push past that fear and get words down.
If that’s not enough to convince you, try this piece of advice from John Steinbeck:
“Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.”
Lastly, perfectionism. Of course, you want your writing to be the best it can be. But no one writes the perfect first draft. As Malcolm Gladwell explains:
“I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent — and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent.”
Building up your writing motivation: 5 unconventional exercises for getting through any writing slump
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Sure, sure. It’s all well and good to say writer’s block isn’t a thing. But I’m stuck, stressed, and behind on my word count!
It’s important to remember that writing is an art. Not a science. And while there’s no surefire, 5-step plan for simply getting over your lack of writing motivation, luckily it is something that countless authors have spent centuries learning to overcome.
To give you a headstart, here’s some of the best advice they’ve come up with:
1. Take an “edit” day
While many authors suggest “writing through” your writer’s block, sometimes motivation comes from looking backward. Not forward.
Editing while you write is a terrible idea (and an easy way to succumb to perfectionism). But taking a dedicated day to go through, edit, and get re-inspired to continue on can be a great way to break through writer’s block.
Spend a few hours going back through what you’ve written a do some light editing. Clean up typos and the “ugly” sentences you let slip through. One of the wonders of human creativity is a phenomenon called “incubation”. Simply put, even when we’re not directly writing, our subconscious mind is banging ideas together trying to make one fit (it’s the source of those Eureka! moments we all love).
Just the act of switching from “writing” to “editing” mode is often enough to spark ideas. As you edit, your brain will continue to write, using what’s on the page to inspire you to continue.
If you don’t want to take up an entire writing day you can add some of this process to your routine. One of the biggest tips from writers in the NaNoWriMo forums is to re-read sections of your previous day’s writing to get back into the “world” of your story.
Even Hemingway suggested starting your day this way:
“You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
2. Change up your environment
We’re incredibly influenced by our environment. And while famous writers from Stephen King to Maya Angelou suggest writing in the same place every single day, that monotony can take its toll when you’re facing a slump.
Our brains are novelty seeking machines. And placing yourself in a new location can help spur new ideas and push your creativity. Take a day to go write in a cafe, at the library, or somewhere completely different. As Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling wrote:
“It’s no secret that the best place to write is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, and you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement.”
As an added bonus, a bit of background noise is actually great for boosting creativity. In a series of experiments, researchers discovered that background noise around 70 decibels—what you’d typically find in a semi-busy coffee shop—actually increase performance and creative thinking.
3. Use the 5-minute hack to just get started
Once you start to feel your writing motivation slip, it’s easy to fall into what we call the Procrastination Doom Loop. You start to stress over how behind you are. That stress causes you to procrastinate. Which puts you even further behind. And on and on and on…
To break out of this cycle, you need to get past how behind you are and just start. One trick is to begin by writing for just 5 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, right? But the magic comes after that time is up.
In most cases, you’ll blow your 5-minute goal out of the water. Because, as Mark Twain explains:
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
4. Go for a walk and get out in nature
Writing happens in a room. But nothing inspires the writer’s mind like getting outside. Not only are there immense health benefits to walking and getting fresh air (like a more positive mood and increased energy). But it also spurs creativity and helps you get past writer’s block.
A 2010 study found that our cognitive abilities actually increase while walking—a finding that suggests a quick stroll might help you think through a plot problem or uncover a character’s dark past.
For example, Charles Dickens routinely walked 20-30 miles a day, letting his characters formulate in his head and “composing” dialogue as he went. Or as the renowned nature lover, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.”
5. Write someone’s else’s book
If you’ve lost the motivation to write your own masterpiece, write someone else’s.
When Hunter S. Thompson was looking for inspiration and writing motivation, he would sit down and type out, word-for-word, whole pages of The Great Gatsby or A Farewell to Arms “just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way.”
This is more than just an exercise to sidetrack you from your own lack of progress.
Writing is like music, as author Gary Provost writes in 100 ways to improve your writing. And great authors vary sentence length from short to long to lull the reader in and sustain their attention.
By copying the work of others you learn their melodies and can copy them into your own work.
Lastly, remember that while you write alone, you still have a community
Writing is a solitary act. Ultimately you’ll only get words down by spending time with your butt in a chair typing away. This isn’t easy for everyone. As Stephen King so famously wrote:
“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
Isolation, especially for an extended period of time is hard on all of us. And hunkering down for a month to write 50,000 words means plenty of alone time. But while you write alone, you don’t have to struggle without help. The NaNoWriMo community is an incredibly supportive place for boosting your writing motivation and getting through any slump.
So if none of these suggestions get you out of your slump, try asking for help in the forums. There are hundreds of thousands of other aspiring novelists there waiting to share their wisdom.