Overcoming Writer’s Block with NaNoWriMo

What is NaNoWriMo?

Just in case you haven’t heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s something of a misnomer, since it has been international rather than national for most of its history. While the event began in the USA in 1999, by the following year, which was the first that NaNo (as those of us who have taken part affectionately call it) was online, there was already someone from Canada taking part.

What’s the point in NaNo?

I first read about NaNo several years ago on a blog I used to follow. I couldn’t see the point in it. The idea of writing a novel in a month seemed utterly crazy to me at the time, and as far as I could see any novel written that quickly would be dross. I didn’t give it a second thought.

Then three years ago my older daughter, then aged ten, decided she wanted to join a friend who was taking part in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. Children can choose their own word length; my daughter had wild ambitions to write a 20,000 novel. She didn’t come close, so the following year when she decided to try again I persuaded her to aim lower. She settled on 15,000 words, and had the ambitious plan to write a story set in the 18th century during the Seven Years’ War between the UK and France. Although she’d done some research beforehand, she was soon struggling with her story and was way behind the word count. One Sunday afternoon in mid-November, she lay on the floor wailing that she would never be able to do it.

I knew how she felt. Several years before, when I was in the middle of a Creative Writing MA, my second daughter was born extremely premature. I was granted an intermission, and for about eight months even didn’t try to write. When I started back, my confidence was low and my writing took place in snatched moments while the baby slept. I didn’t have time to hang about waiting for the muse and with a fierce inner critic to get round, I developed a way of writing down whatever came into my head, even if it was: “This is total rubbish and you will never write anything good.” This got the thoughts out of my head and took away some of their power.

Two Books That Help Overcome Writer’s Block

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)

A wonderful book for overcoming writer’s block, and for freeing you to write.

 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Another great book that guides you through the process of writing from getting started being published and beyond. Funny and helpful.

 

I also used a method Natalie Goldberg suggests, in Writing Down The Bones, of rewriting each chapter several times, without looking at previous versions. I did that in longhand, before selecting the sections that worked and transferring them onto my computer. It meant that much of what I wrote wasn’t used, but it provided the energy I needed to keep going.

Asking a panicking eleven year old to rewrite each chapter several times wasn’t likely to calm her, so I didn’t! But I did suggest she try writing whatever came into her head, and I did read her an edited version of the third chapter of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. This chapter is titled “Shitty First Drafts,” and gives you permission to start writing without worrying about the quality.

So NaNoWriMo does have a point after all…

This is exactly the point of NaNoWirMo, which I somehow managed to miss all those years ago. In the “About” section on the NaNoWriMo website, is this wonderful piece of information:

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap.

Instead of spending years trying to produce the perfect piece of literary fiction and feeling blocked, you give yourself permission to make mistakes. The intention was never to produce a finished novel at all, but to produce a first draft. (At a word count of 50,000 words, this is a very short first draft, since most novels fall somewhere between 60,000 – 100,000 words.)

My daughter completed her 15,000 words that year, and last year decided to go for 25,000. She also persuaded me I sign up. I wasn’t convinced, but decided it might be an opportunity to kick-start my second novel, even if I didn’t get close to 50,000 words.

Given that the NaNoWriMo methods work so well for me, it now seems strange that it took me so long to come round. But until November 19th 2010 I believed that I was a slow writer. By then I had just about given up hope of reaching the target word count, since my daughter had been ill much of the month and I’d done very little writing. That morning I woke early and started writing before anyone else was up, and in fifteen minutes I wrote four hundred words. Suddenly I was no longer a slow writer. I had also written straight onto the computer, rather than longhand, something I didn’t think I could.

I use The Work of Byron Katie, a process that involves noticing stressful thoughts and questioning them, so I wondered what else I believed about my writing ability that wasn’t true. I started paying more attention to the thoughts that came to me every time the writing flow dried up.

Some Thoughts That Can Cause Writer’s Block

With thanks to my husband for being the ‘victim’ in this photo.
With thanks to my husband for being the ‘victim’ in this photo. | Source

Those thoughts were all mine, but from working with others I know they are pretty universal. The first two of those thoughts didn’t surprise me. The next two did.

Let’s take a closer look:

“That was the easy bit, but now the real work begins.”

Does that sound familiar at all? The sort of thing teachers, parents and other adults might say to encourage a reluctant child to keep going on some task? Could it have been something I had absorbed as a child to try and motivate myself? I actually felt grateful for all the effort my mind had made to try and keep going – and I could see that the tactic wasn’t working, and it was time to let it go.

I’ve noticed most negative thoughts of this sort are rooted in kindness, in trying to protect ourselves and others from hurt. For instance parents may try to protect children from disappointment by discouraging them from unrealistically high expectations, but the result can be unrealistically low expectations.

“I’ve done enough,” is the obvious retort of the reluctant child who doesn’t want to try the harder task. I was truly surprised to realize it appeared in my mind almost every time I stopped writing. It was accompanied by a number of excuses. “It’s too hard.” “I’m too tired.” “I’m never going to finish in time anyway so what’s the point?” “This is just indulgent anyway, I don’t need to do NaNoWriMo, I should be doing the cooking/cleaning/painting my fingernails.” (Actually I haven’t painted my fingernails since 1980, but you get the picture.)

The rest of November last year was for me a continuing lesson in how to let go of writer’s block. As well as believing I was a slow writer and had to start longhand, I used to believe I needed quiet to work. The heaviest snowfall our city had seen in forty years began on the 28th and the schools were shut for the next few days. The room I work in is directly off our living room, and on the last day, with the television blaring and kids talking, I wrote words straight onto the computer. The story kept veering off in directions I didn’t expect, but that turned out to be what it needed. I wrote almost 10,000 that day, completing somewhere over 40,000 in all. So while I didn’t make the amount needed to count as a NaNoWriMo winner, I felt like a winner.

The Work of Byron Katie in Action

BELIEF:

The writing should flow.


Is it true?

I can't know that, no.

How do you react when you think that thought?

I feel frustrated, anxious when it doesn't. Get distracted. Tell myself if it's any good, if I'm doing it right, the writing should flow.

When it doesn't flow I stop, write emails, do inquiries, read forums, hubs, my hub statistics. Lie on the sofa feeling tired. Try to force myself to write and then notice and let go. Imagine I will never get it done in time, that I can't do it.

Who would you be without the thought?

More willing to stay with it when it doesn't flow, to just write anyway. I'd trust my process, remember that with my first novel I wrote reams longhand that never even made it onto the computer, whereas with this novel everything has been straight onto the computer so all my ramblings are there. I’d remember it takes getting the dross out first to get to the gold.

So without the thought I'd be more patient with my process, relax, enjoy.

The Turnaround – and three reasons it is true.

The writing shouldn't flow.

1) Because this is reality, if it doesn't.

2) Because then I get to see my muddled beliefs, the subtle pressure I exert on myself that stops the flow

3) Because when I'm thinking "it should flow," or "I need to get a move on" or any similar thoughts - how on earth can it flow? I'm not engaged with it, I'm trying to control, get approval etc.

That last one, in particular, feels so freeing. Peaceful.


Overcoming Writer’s block NaNoWriMo Way

I have no doubt that my first NaNo experience has helped me enormously when it comes to writing on Hubpages. I may not even have signed up if I hadn’t taken that first challenge. Having taken the plunge and overcome several limiting beliefs, I could do it again.

However, although I was initially pleased with the plot deviations that had arisen, a character that was not in my original plan had appeared out of nowhere and taken on the role of “supporting actress”, which I had originally designated to another character. I thought I needed to bring the first character back into the forefront and couldn’t see how. I felt stuck.

November 2011 approached. I decided to have another go at NaNo, to see if this time I could complete it, and more importantly to see if I could get that novel moving on again.

November became crowded: Hubpages ran its Creative Writing contest, I had a seminar booked for the last weekend and citation for jury service for the last two days. And my daughter was sick again!

I devoted the first part of the month to Hubpages and on the 12th got down to NaNoing. I kept a journal beside the computer so that every time I felt blocked I could write down the thoughts that brought me to a halt. I welcomed whatever thoughts and feelings came up and allowed them to pass. The thoughts were usually variations of, “I’ll never be able to do it,” or, “I shouldn’t think it’s that easy.”

I also noticed that I felt rushed and forced much of the time. I just caught up with the target daily word count before my weekend away, so upon my return I was behind again. Luckily, at the last minute, I wasn’t required for jury service, but I felt very tired and struggled to keep up. Then I noticed I had a belief that if the writing was any good it should flow. I used the Work of Byron Katie to look question that belief. The result of that inquiry is in the box on the right, with the process’s questions in bold. The realizations I gained from that process helped me to feel more relaxed, but I still felt tired and a little ill.

On the very last morning, feeling rushed, I realized I had a persistent image in my mind of struggle and of pushing myself to work. With that realization, I let go of the stress I’d felt. I still felt tired, but it no longer felt overwhelming, and the rushed feeling I’d had all month dissolved. I reached 50,129 words with around three hours to spare, and more importantly I got beyond several writing blocks that have plagued me for years. My novel has taken several unexpected twists that I’m now very happy with as details slot together well. The most important lesson for me is a reminder that if I trust the writing process it will give me what I need. The first draft of my novel is not yet finished, and there’s rewriting yet to come. But taking part in NaNoWriMo has been an amazing and enjoyable experience. I thoroughly recommend it, especially if you believe you are slow at writing!

Discover The Work of Byron Katie on Amazon

More about NaNoWriMo

It began in July 1999 in the San Francisco with twenty-one writers.

In 2010 over 200,000 people took part with around 30,000 completing challenge.

NaNoWriMo is financed by donations from participants and by sponsorship from companies such as Amazon, Create Space and Scrivener.

There are many local groups were people write together.

Both the adult and children’s program have active forums where writers can support each other. I have never used the forums, but my daughter regularly does, writing plays with other young writers throughout the year.

If you can’t take part in November, you can join the April Script Frenzy or Camp NaNoWriMo, which takes place in June and in August.

In January agents are swamped with unedited NaNoWriMo novels. If you decide to take part, do remember what you have at the end is a first draft. Remember even the NaNoWriMo site says:

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap.

Enjoy!

More by this Author


Comments 33 comments

DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 5 years ago from Iowa

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I haven't tried NaNoWriMo yet. I think November is a terrible month for it, at least for me, but I'm considering making January my own personal NoWriMo.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Deborah, Thanks very much for your comment, and good luck with your personal NoWriMo in January. I’m hoping to make that finish the novel begun in NaNo month!


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

Hi Yvonne, What a journey! I commend you and your daughter! I agree about January being a better month...I'm hoping to atempt the 30 in 30 for the new year! Thank you for sharing and for the inspiration:)


BRIAN SLATER profile image

BRIAN SLATER 5 years ago from Nottingham Uk

Hi Yvonne. Writers block hits us all from time to time especially when you go off topic to something you are not familiar with. Enjoyed your journey on this hub, congrats to you. Thanks for sharing this hub with us.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Very cool! You've made me wish I had joined NaNoWriMo... it obviously changes much more than the volume of one's writing material!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Linda, Thanks very much for your comment. It is indeed quite a journey for both my daughter and me. Good luck with the 30 in 30 in January!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Brian, thanks very much for your comment and for following me. I think you are right that writer’s block is universal. Glad you enjoyed the hub.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Simone,

Yes, NaNoWriMo can have a big impact on more than volume of writing, depending how we approach it. Mindfulness is the key to enjoying it I think.

Remember, there’s always the April Script Frenzy or the CampNaNo months in June and August if you’re keen to give it a go!

Thanks very much for your comment.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Hi Melovy-I wrote in the Nano three yrs ago and it was a wonderfully challenging experience. I ended up with 35,000 words before it ended, but it was a good challenge.

Lots of wonderful tips here. Especially loved the last bit of advice! LOL


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Denise, and thanks for sharing your experience with Nano. 35,000 is a pretty respectable figure. Have you done any more with what you wrote?


TKs view profile image

TKs view 5 years ago from The Middle Path

Hi, Melovy. Enjoyed your topic here. I've not done NANO but have in the last week become inspired to dive into my second novel. My plan is to have it ready to pitch at a writers conference in April. One of the things that helped motivate me was a friend that posted her word count everyday on her FB page.

I used to labor intensely, to perfect each scene which slowed me done a lot. With this project I'm writing what comes, trusting myself enough to know in the re-write I'll be able to add greater depth and dimension to my work.

I agree, writing anything helps get things moving again and each time I begin working now, I just tell myself, "I'm writing." That always brings a smile to my face.

Thanks for the good tips.


zannierose profile image

zannierose 5 years ago

well done to your daughter for completing her 15,000. How did she get so lucky to have a mum like you to encourage her creativity. I had come across NANOWRIMO befor, but have yet to do anything with or about it.what would it take for that to change?


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi TK’s view

Great to hear that you’re planning to dive into a novel. What you say in your second paragraph is so, so important to overcoming writer’s block - it’s when we trust the process that it can flow. Getting that first draft down then gives us something to improve!

Thanks very much for adding to the hub with your comment, and glad you found it useful,.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Zannie,

It’s great to see you here! I didn’t know you were on Hubpages. My daughter’s 15,000 was an inspiration to us both for sure. I thought I’d put in the hub that she completed the 25,000 the following year and 35,000 this year, but I see I haven’t so an edit will be imminent!

And when you are ready you’ll write that novel, no pressure! Thanks very much for reading and commenting.


K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 5 years ago from Northern, California

Happy Thursday Yvonne. You and your daughter are very brave ladies indeed! I commend you on your encouraging support as your daughter struggled with her path. This could well have been a turning point for her to either forge on, or give up. The world needs more moms like you! Enjoyed the story a great deal.

Cheers~

K9


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Happy Thursday to you too KPkeystrokes, and thank you for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the hub.


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 5 years ago

Thanks for a good hub. Voted you up! And congratulations, your daughter is doing better than I am, but my problem isn't writer's block. I keep promising myself I'll check out NaNoWriMo in hopes it will keep me on track. I started a novel seven years ago, but then I keep getting sidetracked: That doesn't fit, so I'll make it into a short story. Now I'm questioning this particular novel in general, but I'm getting quite a bevy of short stories. LOL I recently entered one of them in a writer's contest. We'll see.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi MizBejabbers - cool name by the way!

Thanks very much for your congratulations.

Glad to hear you are getting lots of short stories even if not yet a novel. It might encourage you to know my first novel took around 12 years from start to finish. Taking part in NaNo has definitely helped with this one, and so has noticing the stumbling blocks and letting go. Good luck with the writing contest.


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY

I guess I've been doing this without realizing it. I write when ever something comes to mind. I do it without the intention to use it since a lot may very well be a lot of crap as is the method of NaNoWriMo.

Sometimes when I feel at a loss for an idea, I dig through my crap I wrote and sometimes find a piece I can use as something to elaborate on and expand into a useful article. My theory is that none of it is crap. We just need to get it written down so we don't lose the thought. Anything we write can someday expand into something meaningful and useful. Your Hub put all this into a clear picture for me.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Glenn, How great is that! Your method is exactly what NaNoWriMo - and Natalie Goldberg - suggest. I love your theory that anything we write can one day expand into something meaningful and useful. That’s such a positive way to write, and I’m thrilled that you left this comment because it sums up what the whole hub is about!

I’ll be checking out your hubs very soon!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon

excellent article!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi PDXKaraokeGuy,

Thanks for reading, and glad you like the article.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon

you're welcome, melovy!


summerberrie 4 years ago

What an insightful hub. Good luck this year and to all who take part in the

NaNoWriMo!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Summerberrie!


KDuBarry03 4 years ago

No mistake: writing crap is the best thing to know about your writing; you get to have fun fixing it! (No Joke!) I cannot wait till I graduate college so I'll have more time with the NaNoWriMo competition. I wish you all the luck this year, Melovy! Have fun :D


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Interesting article. I read about NaNoWriMo on HP last year; until then I had not ever heard of it. I was interested to see you've read Writing Down The Bones, a book I still go back to time and time again for inspiration. I used to write humorous fiction for my friends, in which they were the lead characters but I think NaNoWriMo would be beyond my 'talents' (I use the word very loosely) :o) Well Done to your daughter, what an achievement at her age!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

KDuBarry03, I agree - fixing the crap is definitely an enjoyable part of writing. Thanks for your comment and the good wishes. I hope you do get time to spend on NaNoWriMo soon too. It's great!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Jools, I also often reread Writing Down the Bones. It has been such a helpful book for me.

You never know with your fiction - NaNo could be just the thing to develop it further than for just your friends.

Thanks for your comment and I'll pass on your "Well done" to my daughter.


RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I am so glad you posted this for me Melovy! I love it! Right now, I feel like the child laying on the floor, pounding my fist and crying "I can't do it!" lol Ok well I felt more like it yesterday then barbergirl28 showed up in her cape and you with this...I think I can get over this hump!

You must be so proud of your daughter - and it's such a great example of how we really do learn lots from our kids. You should tell your daughter that I am now going to show my little writer this hub too. I bet you anything she will be inerested in joining next year! Thanks for telling me about the young writers group!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Kelly, as I reread this before I gave you the link I actually thought you might be feeling like my daughter lying on the floor! :) It is a huge challenge, but very worthwhile, so I'm glad you feel encouraged. Your novel sounds very worthwhile.

And you are absolutely right about learning from our kids. My daughter is doing it again this year and getting on well. If your daughter joins in they might meet up on the kids' forums as those keep going all year; the kids write things together.

I haven't done it this year… but earlier on today I dug out what I've written of my novel so far and started making revisions, so I'm feeling inspired to get back to it.

Good luck!


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I'm almost wishing I had of joined this year as I can write a lot of crap :) Seriously though I do love a good challenge and I may have to jump in on the next one.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Susan, you could always join us in our mini version of it next year. It'll be great to get support from others to keep going, which to be honest I didn't do with Nano, just beavered away on my own.

Thanks for reading and for your comment.

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