Writer’s Block & NaNoWriMo

Confession: I have writer’s block.

Yes, I’ve already heard the classic argument that there is no such thing as writer’s block. And to a certain degree, I buy it: writer’s block should never be used as an excuse to avoid putting words on a page. Whether I feel like doing so or not, I sit down every week and complete my allotted writing hours, even when it means working on a project I’m not as excited about (editing, penning proposals, etc.) while I wait for inspiration to strike my fiction-writing brain.

But believe me: writer’s block is a genuine condition. Sadly, the past few months have afforded me plenty of personal experience upon which to ground that theory.

Approximately nine months ago, I finished writing (I’ve been told by my test readers) my best novel yet. I was thrilled–I knew I held in my hands that paper-and-ink moment when compelling story and strong voice lock together.

Just look. See how happy I was?

Finished Prohibited
Me, with my shiny new manuscript, PROHIBITED, December 2014.

Awwww. Of course, that was about two seconds before my creative faculties staged a coup d’état, driven to rebellion by one haunting thought:

What if this one novel is all I have in me?

Suddenly, that’s all I could think of. My brain refused to move past the fear.

Vaguely, I remembered reading (likely in his excellent memoir On Writing), that Stephen King had suffered similar anxieties. Terrorized by his own success, he dreaded being unable to continue producing good books.

I also remember arrogantly, stupidly, thinking, “Well, that’ll never be me.” Not because I believe I’m savvier than King, but because ideas have never been the part of the writing process where I get stuck.

From the time I was 13 on, I penned a novel per summer. I was so focused, so full of plots, that only the intervention of my best friends–Amber, Sarah, and Angela–kept me from becoming one of those creepily reclusive writers. Occasionally, they’d forcibly abduct me to have fun.

Bridal Shower
Me, Angela, Sarah, and Amber at my rockin’ bridal shower.

But apparently hubris and drive weren’t enough to shield me from this paralyzing anxiety: I’ve-done-something-good-what-if-I-can-never-replicate-it?! Because here I sit, nine months after completing my last novel, only tentatively inching toward my next book concept.

My logical brain’s recognition that historically I’ve had plenty of ideas makes no difference; the fear remains. It’s been a real issue for me, quite literarily causing sleepless nights. It’s a scary, helpless feeling, because although there are many aspects of writing born of sheer discipline, there’s no forcing the Muse to visit. In the relationship of writer/muse, the latter holds all the power; you are lost if she abandons you.

For Inspiration, you can only wait. Which, as pearl shopping proved, I’m not so great at.

But I may finally be breaking through the fog, thanks to two tools.

Tool No. 1–The Snowflake Method

I actually can’t believe I did, but I’d totally forgotten about this extremely useful mechanism for plot development, originally introduced to me by my one-time professor, Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Agency.

My normal novel-writing process doesn’t involve much in the way of organizational tactics like timelines, notes, or mapping. I’m a discovery writer (or, in George R.R. Martin terms, a gardener), finding my way via the actual storytelling.

Nevertheless, I find the deceptively simple tool that is the Snowflake Method excellent for refining vague ideas into actual plot lines, and character outlines into detailed sketches. I’m not saying the method is a panacea–nothing works for all writers–but if you’re like me, stuck with a concept you can’t seem to massage into something more, I’d recommend giving it a go. I’m only through step 2 of 10 and already, my next novel idea is becoming something palpable, textured.

Tool No. 2–NaNoWriMo

“NaNo-what-o?” you may be asking.

NaNoWriMo–or more formally, National Novel Writing Month–kicks off annually the day after Halloween. Every November, writers who wish to participate are challenged to produce a 50,000 word novel within the 30-day span of the month.

I’ve never signed up before, so this’ll be a totally new experience. (Perhaps when all the writing dust has settled, I’ll blog a review.) But it seems like just the thing to propel me past my writing anxiety. After all, it’s pretty tricky to yield to writer’s block when you have a 50,000 word deadline staring you down. And although there’s time pressure a-plenty–50,000 words over 30 days means a daily average of 1,666.666666667 words–there’s a lot less pressure on final product quality.

I don’t mean I’ll aim to do a shabby job; I’ll invest deeply in what I write. But if I spend a month working on this novel and the idea reveals itself unworthy of further pursuit, then I’ll have lost little. I’ll have flexed my linguistic muscles and overcome my fear of returning to fiction. I will have experimented with a concept and ruled it out, freeing me to move onto the next.

But on the other hand… NaNoWriMo may show me an idea well worth refining, the next contender for the title of Best Novel I’ve Written Yet. After all, if Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants are just two of the several renowned novels which had their genesis during NaNoWriMo, there’s nothing holding me back from producing something excellent.

Not even writer’s block.

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