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Writing Without Coffee: Finding Motivation during Nanowrimo

Staring at a word document can be the most daunting thing in the world. I often wonder how my brain can work through plot holes, catch mistakes, or even make sense of one more page. Last year, as I geared up for another Nanowrimo, I read a motivational essay whose first bullet point for success was: DRINK LOTS OF COFFEE!

I laughed, but once I got in the thick of Nano madness, I realized that a caffeine rush could help propel my productivity. Now, I don't drink coffee, so instead, I began the tradition of starting each writing session with a mug of Stephens hot chocolate.

It was lovely.

On those cold, November mornings, I looked forward to my mug and keyboard. I completely understand how people get attached to such a calming moment with themselves. Plus, I finished my 50,000 words in just twenty-two days of writing. It was incredible! 

But, drinking that many calories isn't sustainable and I need to be productive every day. Some mornings, I dread sitting down to my keyboard because I have no idea how to crush any more crappy words out of my brain. It is much, much harder without caffeine.

But I've learned a few things. Ways to dig deeper and let go so I can accomplish my goals regardless of how hard the day is. 

1. Take a moment to inspire yourself.

Meditation. Connecting with Nature. Praying. There are so many ways you can feed your soul. Writing is often a spiritual experience for me and I like to involve God in the process. I begin with a prayer, then spend a moment of mediation- not thinking about my book, but thinking about what I believe in. What matters to me. More often than not, those themes find a way into my writing and make it more genuine, complex, and enjoyable.

​Next, fill your creative well. Look at photographs and notice the fine details. Think of ways to describe them. Watch movies and take note of the setting details, emotional gestures, and dialogue. Read classic novels that paint pictures with words. Go out in the world and notice the smells, the temperature, the sounds... Being an author requires you to have experiences and be aware of your senses enough to make other people feel as if they were living through your words.

2. Never hit delete.

I talk about this all the time because it has made such a huge difference in my life. I read somewhere that you can't create and critique at the same time. I love that sentiment. Critique allows for second-guessing and backtracking, the two sure killers of momentum. Let your fingers run away with your keyboard. Let them spell out exactly what your mind is thinking, without worrying about sentence structure, consistency, or grammar. You'll find that though you make mistakes, your words will be vibrant, raw, and impulsive. Your draft may be riddled with cliche's or plot holes, but those are things that can be fixed. Just finish the scene. You'll have an emotional guidepost to build onto till you have a perfect picture.

3. Don't expect a final draft.

Have you ever seen an animated film storyboard? The pictures are sloppy, often colorless, but when you pair them next to the finished product, they are unmistakably the same scene. The storyboard captures the emotions and plot the storytellers wanted to portray. When you are writing a rough draft, you are sketching the storyboard. You are in no way completing a finished product. Don't stress yourself out by telling yourself that it is.

But after the rough draft, it's easy to think "Ok, NOW it has to be perfect." But guess what. Your second draft is allowed to be terrible. Your third draft can make huge mistakes. The only thing that matters is that it's slowly taking shape. By expecting a shiny final draft in the early stages of writing, we cripple ourselves with perfectionistic expectations. By letting go and allowing ourselves to make mistakes, we increase our production because we aren't holding ourselves back!

One of my critique partner's husband gave me some great feedback during the last writing group (we often get guest appearances by our supportive families during our video chats.) He said that often authors mention in their acknowledgments that they "never thought this book was ready for publication." Think of that, New York Times bestsellers still feel like it's not a final draft! So, the sooner we let go of the idea that we have to get it perfect before we send out our manuscript, the more productive we will become.

4. Let out a stream of unconsciousness.

On a recent Writing Excuses podcast about fear and writingMary Robinette Kowal said a question she asks herself is "Why don't you sit down and write about why you're not writing? What are the barriers that stand between me and the next scene I need to write? Eventually what winds up happening is that I start noodling on the scene and then suddenly the part of my brain that is delighted by writing is like "Wait, may I have the drivers' seat now?"

One of my favorite therapy books as a writer is called The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. One of the first things Julia instructs readers to do is get in the habit of writing 'morning pages'. These are meant to be a stream of unconsciousness. Morning pages are meant to help you expel all your fears firsthand, then have a free and open mind as you begin writing your story.

5. Find a support group.

Family can be some of your biggest cheerleaders. I call my mom all the time to run ideas past her, and my siblings are often some of my first beta readers. I look to my husband for confidence and support when I need to hit deadlines. (I can't say how many times he's made dinner for the family while I'm locked in my office.)

Even though I live two states away from my writing group, they are some of my dearest friends. There have been times when all of us have video-chatted just to write together. Most of our time was spent in silence, typing madly on our keyboards, but there was something about the sound that made me feel so supported. Like I could actually follow through and do this! Every time I see their updates on Facebook, or get a text from them, or run an idea past them I am motivated and reminded that I deserve to be writing. 

Find people online who share your passion. Facebook groups, twitter, blogs... You can find communities no matter where you look. One of my favorites I used when I was just starting out was I met online critique partners and got excellent and respectful feedback from there. I'd highly recommend it. My new favorite community for writing is called, a role-play game where you defeat bosses by reaching timed wordcount goals. It is the BEST thing for productivity.

​Writing with caffeine is still an occasional treat I give myself. For example, when I have a day without the kids, I'll really try to maximize my time by gaining a few pounds with sugary caffeinated fuel... ​

But to be completely honest, the biggest most reliable kind of production is in the regular, self-disciplined days. The small, steady output is better than any desperate race to catch up. Not only do you have consistent momentum, but you'll avoid writer's burnout. Try it and let us know what tips and tools work for you!

​Now, time for me to get back to writing my novel.

Happy Writing!

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