Surviving Burnout! A Must-Read for the Holiday Season

As November winds down and brings NaNoWriMo to a close, it’s time to discuss an important subject that many writers face but don’t like to talk about: writer burnout. All of us have or will come across this dreaded feeling; it’s akin to a sailor being stranded in the doldrums. One minute you’re flying along on the giddy wings of inspiration, and your fingers can’t keep pace with your ideas. The next, you stumble and stare at a blank page. What was effortless a second ago is now a drudge. The words are there, but they jumble inside your mind and they won’t come out. Is it writer’s block or are you tired? This happens to us all. It’s unexpected, it’s not preventable, it’s frustrating and there is no way of knowing how long it’s going to last. The only cure is patience. Writer burnout can strike anyone at any time. So what can you do when it happens to you?

We’ve talked a lot about how to use strategies to overcome writer’s block, but burnout is different. The definition of burnout is: “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” It’s important to identify the events or times in your life in which you may be suffering high amounts of stress that could contribute to sudden and unexpected burnout. NaNoWriMo is a big culprit. The holidays are another. Tests, exam dates, family visiting, changes to a schedule … these are all valid reasons that one might suffer burnout, especially at this time of year.

But writing is how I combat stress in my life, you might say. I agree, as writers do. It can be a cathartic outlet and is a form of stress relief. So why then would one be burned out from doing the thing they love? It is when there is a schedule involved, such as writing for a deadline, editing a project, contributing to a literary journal, composing an academic paper, contributing to a competition or hosting a blog which one might find pressure building. This brings a different sort of expectation to the writing than one would have in writing for pleasure. Typically, writers take pride in their skill and they are so at ease in their craft that they are writing far more than they realize. They may craft a paper for school and discount that as “writing” because it was so easy for them. They may put out a quick blog post but not consider that “real writing.” Then when they come home to work on their novel, they don’t realize that they have been using their talents all day. It may not seem like much, and it may be enjoyable, but it is still writing and requires work. When we are under stress from different areas of our life, the words dry up and we are left wondering if they will ever return.

A big contributor to burnout is the holiday season. Whether you love it or hate it, it is tough on the life of a writer. Most cultures celebrate holidays of some kind, and no matter what time of year they fall, they tend to involve a disruption of schedule. Writers need time to practice their craft, and they require uninterrupted concentration. This is in short supply when relatives are visiting and the flow of the day is different due to celebration. Increased responsibility and attendance at festivities means that writing needs to take a backseat to whatever event—or events—are occurring. These events could be a day or even span the course of several weeks. Some families are accepting and accommodating of writers’ needs during this time, and others are less so. This can lead to frustration and guilt for the writer. This slurry of disrupted scheduling and emotional havoc is a major contributor to burnout.
What can be done? Be patient and forgiving of yourself, especially during a time of year when you expect to have increased responsibilities that will take away from your writing time. Plan when you can write and set aside those moments so that you can be assured to have time for yourself in the chaos of the holiday season, but know, too, that you might not be able to keep to your regular output. Understanding that beforehand will alleviate anxiety. Many people who participated in NaNoWriMo choose to take off the month of December. A pause is something to consider, and know that you may come back in January invigorated and refreshed.

Understanding that burnout doesn’t just happen to some—it happens to all—is a helpful point to remember. This is something that is stress-induced and can be managed, but in the end every writer has been in this position, and you are not alone. From Shakespeare to Virgina Woolf, if you wield a pen, at some point you will feel betrayed by your inspiration. It’s the badge that marks you as an author, and something only time and patience can cure. But by keeping in mind that you are in good company and you, too, will survive, hopefully your holidays will be a little less stressful to begin with.

Strengthen your Character.

 

 

Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” So how do you create that depth of realism in your protagonist that makes you (or at least your readers) weep at their misfortunes? How much time should you devote to these exercises? I once attended a Brandon Sanderson book signing where he answered the question saying you need to know (at minimum) these 3 things about each and every character, no matter how minor:

 

  • Where did they come from?
  • What do they want?
  • What’s stopping them from getting it?

 

You will find endless lists online of questions to ask yourself/your characters to help define who they are and how they will function in your story, but I find myself returning to these core questions again and again. It doesn’t need to take long, but the more fully fleshed out these answers are, the more fully your people will live and breathe on every page.

It can be as simple as deciding that my gatekeeper from the village now works in the big city, and just wants to go home and see his visiting daughters for the evening, but this rough-looking traveler is getting in the way. It can be as complicated as detailing the religious beliefs of an political dissident who is plotting a major coup with multiple obstacles. Very versatile.

 

There are a variety of apps that can help as you seek to give your character depth and clarity. I’m not talking about those word processing apps (with a little spunk) like Scrivener or yWriter, I’m talking about dynamic organizational tools that will make your background work on character development and world building easy to find and integrate into your writing.

My very talented niece introduced me to Notebook.ai, a free online app that organizes all of your background information into four integrated categories: Universes, Characters, Locations, and Items. I find it to be a very efficient way of seeing all the pieces I need easily and directly. It includes relationship maps, and can be as simple or as detailed as you like. Its format does encourage you to be succinct, but doesn’t have a character limit that forces the issue.

Another fairly new option is StoryShop. This one is more comprehensive, there is a price tag, but could be worth it. While this one features a character development section, it also provides space for outlines, research, and a word processor so you can keep ALL the pieces in one box. (I will do a follow-up post reviewing these tools and others soon!)

So spend some time fleshing out the people in your stories. Make them live and breathe and desire. No matter their age, they have goals and fears, and something drives their decisions. What is it? Make sure you know.

 

A word of caution: Don’t let your time spend in character development or world building become so all-encompassing that it distracts you from your true goal: Completing that story! You NaNoWriMo soldiers get back to work!

You’re Not Alone: NaNoWriMo Support

Embarking on NaNoWriMo is daunting from the jump, but fear not! There are plenty of resources for everyone from first timers to seasoned vets, and there are more popping up each year. No matter how far along you are or what’s holding you up, there’s a solution out there to get you to the finish line.

NaNoWriMo.org

This is home base for NaNo warriors, chock full of resources that you may already be aware of, but there’s so much here that some of the essentials can get lost in the shuffle. Here are some direct links:

Pep Talks – Pep talks written by well-known authors delivered right to your inbox.
Regions – Meet other like-minded participants in your area to help each other through.
Word-Count Helpers – Track your progress and share milestones.
Forums – Everything from motivators to a place to unwind, be sure not to spend more time chatting than writing!

Camp NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo is the very definition of community for NaNo participants, featuring counselors and coaches, forums, and badges to celebrate your milestones. Use your nanowrimo.org account to sign in!

@NaNoWordSprints

For something a little different, pop over to Twitter and join a scheduled word sprint run by NaNo volunteers.

The LetterWorks

While you’re here, we’ve written a handful of NaNo help guides on a variety of subjects:

November Events
Making The Most of NaNoWriMo
30 Days in the Trenches: Staying Motivated During NaNoWriMo
Writing Past the Wall
Let it Rest.

WikiWriMo

Have a question about anything NaNo related? Chances are you’ll find your answer here.

 

With these resources at your disposal, you can win NaNoWriMo!

Memoir vs. Autobiography: Does It Really Matter?

Happy November! For most of America, the transition from October to November heralds the end of trick-or-treating and pumpkins and the anticipation of Thanksgiving and the bigger winter holidays, whatever your family celebrates. For writers, however, November first means only one thing: the start of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month! Our staff has covered this venerable tradition in the past, and we’ve got advice for you if you’re participating this year for everything on staying motivated  to the importance in staying connected with like-minded individuals to reviewing your work after the big rush . Here are some links to get you started:

This post is for the portion of our friends out there who swim in the autobiographical end of the writer’s pool or for those who are thinking about testing those waters this November. We are seeing more and more of a trend towards autobiographical submissions. This is becoming a very popular category of the nonfiction section, and why not? It’s easy to see why people might want to draw from their own personal histories to create an epic novel; there’s an endless source of inspiration to draw from. Anyone can do it, from celebrities to political figures to a person with a story to tell. But hold on a second: does anyone remember that moment in time back in 2006 when A Million Little Pieces was first hailed as a masterpiece then ultimately crucified as a work of fraud? Written by James Frey, the book was billed as a memoir, but on January 8, 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article exposing large portions of the book as fictionalized or gross exaggerations. Mr. Frey was interviewed by Larry King to defend his book three days later, but the real media storm happened on January 26 when Mr. Frey made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He was confronted by her and admitted to fabricating many sections of his memoir, which he had previously stated had been fact-checked by his publisher. This ultimately caused an ensuing controversy in which Mr. Frey’s literary manager dropped him and his publisher broke a two-book, seven figure deal. A legal settlement for readers who felt defrauded was also reached, and people were entitled to a refund of their book. That’s a massive consequence for someone who embellished the truth a bit. So where’s the line? Should writers be expected to remember every conversation they’ve ever had when they are recording memories to the page? Is any creative license allowed, or are we in danger of being sued by some disgruntled cousin who doesn’t remember the family reunion going down the way we do? How can we sort through what is fact and what is reasonable fiction? Luckily, there’s an answer to these questions and more.
Everything on this list falls under the umbrella of non-fiction. If I think of writing as dessert, then autobiography is cake. Memoir, narrative nonfiction, personal essays and roman à clef are all just slices of the same cake. Let’s break it down:

Autobiography: An autobiography can be distinguished from the others on the list as the most factual of the bunch. It is told in a linear fashion and should relay all the major life events of the subject in a chronological order. It concerns itself with the entire scope of a person’s life and all of the events, people, places and subjects that relate to a person’s existence as they move forward through their life, not just a few key years, events, feelings or observations of the narrator.

Memoir: This form gives someone more creative license. It can cover a few short years or a major event. Examples might include how someone survived their time in a concentration camp or how they overcame an addiction. It doesn’t have to be harrowing, but it may just focus on one developmental stage and is more likely to reflect strong feelings. It is generally less factual and more emotional. It is far less encompassing in scope than an autobiography. It is generally less formal and may have a more literary feel.

Narrative non-fiction: Narrative or creative non-fiction is a somewhat new and emerging genre. It draws on real-life scenarios, usually something journalistic, but incorporates elements of fiction to become a readable novel. According to literary critic Barbara Lounsberry, there are four recognizable elements to narrative nonfiction: the topics and events must exist in the real world (not in the mind of the author), there must be exhaustive research, all scenes must be in context, and it should all be presented in a literary style. Some examples of narrative nonfiction are The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Personal essay: This is exactly what it sounds like: an essay that is personal to you. It is generally just a short memoir. A great example of a classic personal essayist is David Sedaris.

Roman à clef: Roman à clef is from the French, meaning “novel with a key.” It began as a way for people to write an expose of famous social and political figures without the risk of reprieve. It is truth with an overlay of fiction. Names or identifying situations can be changed to avoid persecution, but the general public could still understand and enjoy the jab. This could be done for protection of the author or for satirical purposes. The Marquis de Sade often employed the roman à clef to skewer prominent religious and political figures of his day. Today, the roman à clef is still in use for various reasons, including satire, but it can also be used when you’d like to write a memoir but perhaps you would like a bit more creative license than your own story affords you. This is where certain authors—cough, Mr. Frey, cough—could simply have stated his work was inspired by real events. That little disclaimer would have saved him seven figures plus and a whole lot of embarrassment.

These are all just guidelines. Most of them bleed into each other. The important thing to remember is if you have a story to tell that you don’t fret which category you bill it as, but that you get it all down on paper, especially this November! A good editor can help you decide how your memories and your story fit together and what you’d like to call it. Happy writing!