After the most unsettling spring and summer in recent memory, fall has come as something as a surprise. Obviously we knew it was coming, but more in a “I can’t wait for sweaters, pumpkin spice, and hiding under flannel blankets” sort of way. Halloween ghosts, goblins, and spooky things don’t seem nearly as scary as, well, the real world outside our doors.
And yet it is the end of October, and November heralds the beginning of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—a monthlong event that results in a mad flurry of writing and sleepless nights.
Only this year, the prospect of challenging ourselves to produce an entire draft of a novel in the span of one month might just be the most horrifying Halloween trick yet. So what can writers and authors do to ensure that this year’s NaNoWriMo is more treat than trick?Adjust your goals if you need to
How do you honestly feel about doing NaNoWriMo this year? A lot of folks are trying to juggle full-time jobs, childcare, and escalating stresses due to the pandemic, such as keeping the bills paid, food on the table, and a roof over their heads. The prospect of writing 50,000 words in a month on top of all that may make you want to throw your cards in, cash out, and go curl up under a fuzzy blanket with a mug of something warm and watch the trashiest TV show you can find. For others, this kind of challenge may be nothing short of a siren call to focus all their energy on the pursuit of the book.
If you fit into the second group, check out the Writers’ Center’s NaNoWriMo Survival Guide, “Ready, Set, Write.” It’s filled with all our usual advice for everyone who is on their usual steady course.
For the rest of us, it’s simply a matter of striking a balance between what we want and need to do, and what we can actually face. I’ve long been a fan of setting your own word count goals, adhering to those, and just being OK with not keeping up with everyone else. If you find you’re doing better and can manage it, then pursue the full 50,000 words. But there’s no shame in 30,000 words. This year, find a goal that works for you.Break it down into smaller parts
“I’m among a growing number of people I’ve spoken with who admit to a lack of motivation for tasks they know need doing but now are unable to face,” writes Jane E. Brody in “How to Maintain Motivation in a Pandemic.” “Too many days I wake up wondering why I should bother to get up, a feeling contrary to my normal determination to use every waking moment to accomplish something worthwhile.”
To that end, Brody suggests breaking down any daunting tasks into smaller parts.
“Writing a book in a month” sounds like a lot. “Writing 50,000 words in 30 days” isn’t much better. So aim for just over 12,000 words a week. Or roughly 1,600 words a day. Think about it. On a lovely weekend afternoon, you might be able to hammer out 3,000 words—almost two days’ worth—or more. Or if the numbers are making you a little bit twitchy, aim to write a full chapter every time you sit down. Not feeling your story’s flow? Write a scene that happens later, or go with a plot point that better fits your mood. After all, there’s nothing like a little angst to really inspire your creativity.
More importantly, remind yourself just how much your book means to you.
“Doing what’s meaningful—acting on what really matters to a person—is the antidote to burnout,” psychologist and author Daniel Goleman tells Brody in the article. The trick, he says, is to face what’s really going on and ask yourself, “What does it mean to me? What really matters to me now? Is there a way I can act upon what’s meaningful to me?”
Unplug from the world
“Technology has helped society cope with the impact [of isolation], partially bridging the gap and reminding us that ‘we’re all in this together,’” writes Lynn Taylor in “10 Ways to Get Motivated During the Pandemic.” “Still, social media can provide too convenient an escape from the crisis—pushing aside personal or professional obligations.”
It’s no secret. Social media can be and is one of the greatest distractions today. Many writers (myself included) use social media as a means to stay connected to the world—sort of like a digital water cooler. It’s easy to just pick up our phones and scroll through our feeds, looking for something to keep our minds from thinking too much about what we’re supposed to be doing. And before long, we’re tumbling down a rabbit hole filled with threads and trolls, or hilarious tweets from our favorite people. And whoosh! An hour goes by.
If you’re hoping to keep yourself focused on writing, this is a good time to excuse yourself from social media and take a break. Or at least restrict social media browsing to nonwriting hours. If your self-control has a tendency to wander off in search of a good thread, there are a number of apps, such as OFFTIME and Flipd, that can help you restrict your ability to access social media when you need to write.
Taylor’s advice can also apply to writers and authors who aren’t home alone while they’re writing. “If others are constantly interrupting you, set some ground rules,” she recommends. “Get used to putting your cell phone on Do Not Disturb for certain periods. Use your earbuds. Set aside time for calls and video conferencing. Schedule certain times of the day to check news updates and social media.”
Take good care of your physical and mental health
I know, I know. We see this piece of advice everywhere. But there’s a reason for it. Taking good care of our mental and physical health right now is key to the battle we’re all facing. Maybe this isn’t quite the time to overhaul your eating and exercise habits (or maybe it is?), but still make an effort to protect your writerly brain by:
- Getting at least six to eight hours of sleep a night
- Eating nutritious foods that include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and good fats
- Avoiding and eliminating high-sugar and processed foods, as well as restricting the use of recreational drugs and alcohol
- Getting at least 30 minutes of activity a day
- Spending some time outdoors every day
- Enjoying time with your loved ones, even if it’s a phone call or a video chat
Use your writing time as therapy
“The coronavirus has transformed life as we know it,” writes Natalie Proulx in “12 Ideas for Writing Through the Pandemic with the New York Times.” “Schools are closed, we’re confined to our homes and the future feels very uncertain. Why write at a time like this?
“For one, we are living through history. Future historians may look back on the journals, essays and art that ordinary people are creating now to tell the story of life during the coronavirus.
“But writing can also be deeply therapeutic. It can be a way to express our fears, hopes and joys. It can help us make sense of the world and our place in it.”
One of the biggest struggles writers can face is writing a scene or description when they’re “just not feeling it.” But we can channel this uncertainty and fear into our stories, our characters, our plots. After all, don’t our characters face their own struggles and their own fears? Don’t be afraid to use your writing as a release for the storms swirling in your head.
Losing focus, stuck in a rut, or having trouble just sitting down and writing? You’re not alone. After all, it can be hard to settle down when you’re anxious and worried and the future seems a far-off alien place. We’re caught somewhere between “where we used to be” and “where we’ll end up.” And that sense of uncertainty can be very unsettling to our brains.
We’re so used to indulging in a bit of pleasure at these moments (“Ooh yes, another glass of wine, please” or “YES I NEED THOSE SPICE JARS WITH LABELS NOW AND PLEASE THROW IN THE GINSU KNIVES”). Even a hug from a loved one seems less than thrilling when you’ve been staring at their face every hour of every day for the last eight months, and for the love of god, please go for a four-hour walk.
But there’s a way to plug directly into that feel-good place in your brain, and the best part is that someone else benefits.
“There are now a plethora of data showing that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being,” says Dr. Richard Davidson in his 2016 talk “The Four Keys to Well-Being.” “These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way we respond to other positive incentives, such as winning a game or earning a prize…When we engage in practices that are designed to cultivate kindness and compassion, we’re not actually creating something de novo—we’re not actually creating something that didn’t already exist. What we’re doing is recognizing, strengthening, and nurturing a quality that was there from the outset.”
In short, if you want to make your brain happy in a way that is satisfying and long-lasting, do something generous, whether it’s an act of service or a donation. It’s the best way to give your well-being the nudge it needs.
Use your creativity to embrace the chaos
It’s so easy to forget that writers and authors already have an innate capacity to observe the world. After all, we do it every day. Why not use those skills of observation to both witness and explore the unique perspective of such a tumultuous time?
For all the chaos and madness and fear, there are moments of triumph and love and kindness. And who else to remember—and write about—them than those of us who live within the written word?
Remember that with the badness there is always goodness. And it is here where inspiration lies, and where creativity thrives.
“Look for the places where good comes out of bad,” writes novelist Carolyn Parkhurst in “Writing Through the Pandemic.” “The oceans have gotten quieter in these months, and maybe your brain has, too. Your busy modern brain, overcrowded and overscheduled, reverting to a state of nature. Be the empty streets of Manhattan. Be the Welsh village overrun by goats. Be the canals of Venice, finally clearing out enough to allow space for dolphins and jellyfish to swim. Who knew they were there the whole time?”
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.