Ask Alice: How do you maintain creative momentum during NaNoWriMo (and beyond)?

  • 1 November, 2021

Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the name A.B Endacott.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!

So you’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo.

For those not in the know, National November Writing Month is a challenge to which people sign up with the aim of putting down 50,000 words in the space of a month. The idea is, in part, to galvanise you to keep writing by sweeping you along with the online enthusiasm, support, and encouragement of others who have also signed up.

Put another way, it’s like Tough Mudder, but for writing, and across a month.

One of the questions that arises from Tough Mudder and NaNoWriMo alike is how to maintain momentum. How do you keep placing those words down one after the other when you’ve lost your puff?

Although I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, in the subject of maintaining creative momentum, I’m well versed. The general wisdom for indie authors is to publish a few pieces quite quickly to establish yourself and your catalogue. With that in mind, I published four novels in my first year.

Now, before we get into the nitty gritty, a big shiny caveat: nobody writes in the same way. It’s why the pantser vs planner divide is so strong (team planner for life). That’s even more the case if writing is a creative outlet for you instead of a job. For me, it’s a job, so my motivations are different to if I happened to write purely for pleasure as a way to relax or creatively express myself. Thus, the advice I’m offering here is a collection of things that have worked for me as part of my subjective experience as a person for whom writing is a creatively fulfilling part of my work rather than my leisure.

To that end, I think the first and most significant piece of advice I would give to anyone is to remember to find the motivational tips, processes, or behaviours that work for you. Experiment a bit. Acknowledge that if something’s not working, it’s not a reflection on you as a writer or person, it simply means you need to try something else.

The footnote I’ll add to this is that what motivates you may change over time. That could be due to the nature of the project on which you’re working, or it could be for some other reason. The upshot is that what worked for you a year ago may no longer be as helpful as it once was. The important thing to ask yourself is ‘does this serve me in a way that is helpful and non-damaging to my mental wellbeing?’ If the answer is no, then toss it out.

So, with all this being said, here are my top four tricks that I have found useful to maintain a sense of momentum across a longform writing project:

NaNoWriMo Tip One: Create an ‘unbroken chain’

A young Jerry Seinfeld reportedly put a big X on his calendar for each day that he wrote comic material, and sought to not break the chain of ‘x’s that quickly emerged. Even if it was just a line a day, it counted.

This strategy is really yielding results for me at the moment. There are currently quite a lot of plates spinning in the air, so writing time is increasingly encroached upon. However, rather than write the whole day off (ha – geddit?), I’ll sit down and peck out a few sentences. Sometimes it’s enough to slip into a greater momentum as I get excited about what one sentence implies is to come, and a thousand words pour out. Sometimes a few lines is enough for me to know I’ve progressed the story; there are now more words and plot than the day before.

Regardless, it cultivates a sense of continuity that keeps the story fresh in my mind and keeps me from the unproductive doom-trap of feeling terrible for not having done anything. I’m not dogmatic about a totally unbroken line – some days it’s just not going to happen, but then again, Jerry’s residuals from Seinfeld make a pretty compelling case for daily work.

NaNoWriMo Tip Two: Practise the pomodoro technique

Not entirely mutually exclusive with the ‘unbroken chain’ approach, the pomodoro technique is a well-known procrastination buster. I was first introduced to the pomodoro technique in John Birmingham’s book (which has maybe the best byline ever), How to Be a Writer: Who Smashes Deadlines, Crushes Editors and Lives in a Solid Gold Hovercraft. In essence, the pomodoro technique involves working for 25 minutes, taking a five minute break, repeating four times, then taking a longer 20 minute break.

As with the Seinfeld chain of X, I don’t follow this method religiously. Instead, I fold it into writing sprints. Mostly I draw on this approach when I have a solid block of time to write and have faffed around for a bit trying to craft perfect sentences or overthinking how one plot point will seamlessly flow into the next. When this happens, I look at the clock, note that it’s, say, 3.42pm, and I’ll say to myself that until 4.00pm, I just write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, it doesn’t matter if it’s sensical or otherwise. The only rule is that until the clock ticks over to 4.00pm, the unceasing clicking of my computer keys should fill the air.

I often will get out quite a few hundred words in these sprints, and have moved past whatever is slowing me down plot-wise as I’ve slipped into a stream of thought or sense of flow. That means I can end a session of writing feeling motivated and excited to come back to the work rather than dispirited and with the sense that it will remind me of my lack of production.

NaNoWriMo Tip Three: Bring in a buddy

As before, by no means mutually exclusive with either of the previous tips, a buddy system can be quite useful.

I’m very much a solo writer, so writers’ groups have never done it for me per se, but I imagine the principle would be largely the same.

A friend recently messaged me and expressed they were struggling to stay accountable to consistently get down words for a personal writing project. We agreed to contact each other at the start of the week with the overall goal we wanted to achieve, and the amount of time across each day we’d like to try and spend writing.

Neither of us necessarily meet our goals perfectly, but across a period that’s been frantic with my other work demanding large chunks of my time and attention, the tiny bit of extra accountability and encouragement has kept me looking for time in the day when I can put something down (even if it’s only one line!) which in turn keeps the material fresh in mind and makes it easier to get into when I do have a nice big chunk of time.

NaNoWriMo Tip Four: Follow the fun

In addition to a motivational tip, it’s just a wonderful piece of general writing advice: you need to enjoy yourself.

I recently had the delight of speaking with Poppy Nwosu following the release of her latest book, Road Tripping with Pearl Nash. One of the things we discussed was a quote which I attributed to Australian literary legend Isobelle Carmody (which I can’t source anywhere), which runs along the lines of: ‘If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, how can you expect the reader to?’

If I’m labouring through a scene, I ask myself what purpose it’s trying to serve to the plot (advance it, perform exposition, reveal something about a character, set up something for later on). I then ask if I can do fulfil that purpose in another, more fun, way. Cutting out writing that feels like a chore is the best way to stay enthusiastic about what I’m doing.

A final bonus observation. . .

Sometimes the best thing to do is step away from your work and find something that creatively excites you. If I read a really well written fantasy with a beautifully crafted world, gorgeous use of language, and exciting conceits, I become excited and inspired to emulate that kind of well put together work in my own writing. It makes me want to write more. It makes me excited to write.

What I’ve just run through is far from an exhaustive list. But hopefully it can offer a few ideas on how to approach writing across a sustained period of time. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or even if you’re not, I wish you best of luck with the task.

But remember the most important thing: find what works for you.

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