#NaNoWriMo: It’s not, in fact, better to Burn Out

I’m a little worried about some of you guys.

Not you, the one who’s a little behind you wordcount. You’re fine. Get back to work.

Not you, the one who writes exactly 1,667 words every day, and then stops. You’re… well, you’re not fine, but you’re beyond my help.

And not you two over in the corner, who write a little extra most days, and then maybe a little less other days cuz you can afford to, and then make it up.

I’m worried about you, over there: the one who’s at 31,000 words already, breathless and bloodshot. We need to talk.

(Take all the following with a grain of salt, guys: everyone writes differently, and everyone’s daily productivity is different, blah blah blah, we’re all unique snowflakes, et cetera. Also, this post is probably coming a little earlier than it needs to, and that’s fine — I’d rather talk about this now and have it be early than next week and have it be late.)

I’m worried you’re going to burn out or, worse, physically damage yourself (Repetitive Stress, et cetera) by just doing the same thing too much every day. I’ve been there, quite by accident, and it ain’t a fun place.

You need to pace yourselves.

A lot of folks who are doing NaNoWriMo don’t do a ton of writing the rest of the year. Cool. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. November becomes a special time — an event — you get to ignore other stuff in favor of writing, instead of the other way around (which is how it normally goes), and that’s some heady stuff.

As a result of this decadent blank check of writing prioritization, some folks go a little crazy. They churn 6000 words out day after day, cackling gleefully. After the first week, the cackles get a little less gleeful and a little more maniacal. In week three, the cackles get a little raspy – a little plague-stricken; also, those folks start rubbing their wrists a lot and taking handfuls of aspirin. Week 4? Week 4 ain’t pretty.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Listen, some of you out there can do that level of production every day with no ill-effects. You’ll have you’re fifty thousand words sometime Monday, and you’ll probably hit 113k by the end of the month. I’m not talking you.

(Seriously: I’m not talking to you, like, ever, because I both hate and fear you. We will not let the machines win.)

Most people can’t do that. Even if they can, they shouldn’t. Let’s take a look at Stephen King for a few seconds. Love him or hate him, no one can argue that the guy isn’t a productive and prolific writer1; he’s basically turned out at least one book every single year since he was about 20 or so, and he’s somewhere in his mid-60s now. The big secret to his productivity is pretty simple: write 2000 words, every single day. On Christmas. On Sundays. Whatever.

The astute reader will notice that’s pretty much what you’ve got to do to finish NaNoWriMo. The very astute reader will note that King’s been doing that pretty much non-stop2 for 40 years without burning out.3. A bit of word-math let’s us deduce that if he can maintain that pace for 40 years, we should be able to sustain that pace for a month, assuming we have something to say. (And the going wisdom says that everyone has at least one book’s worth of something to say inside of them, so you’ve got that advantage.)

What you don’t hear about are guys who write 3 times as much as King every single day for 40 years. Those that tried to maintain something like that either came to their senses or don’t write anymore, for any number of progressively depressing reasons.

So cool your jets. You want to enjoy yourself throughout the project, and that means not blasting away so hard that you burn out too early.

Ultimately, some of you may want to turn this into a Real Thing. A thing you do all the time. A lifetime pursuit and perhaps even profession. For that, you need to establish realistic, sustainable writing habits, and I’m sorry: your wrists might be young and supple now, but they won’t stay that way – six thousand words a day ain’t sustainable.

The guy on the right has written 1500 words while you read this post.
The guy on the right has written 1500 words while you read this post.

Here’s a few telltales to see if the stress of NaNoWriMo (which is normal) is turning into Burnout (which isn’t).

(*unlimbers some very dusty html table-making skills*)

Stress Burnout
Over-engaged Disengaged
Emotions are overreactive Emotions are blunted
Urgency and hyperactivity Helplessness and hopelessness
Loss of energy Loss of motivation and hope
May kill you prematurely4 May make life seem not worth living

Sorry for the downer points, but it’s kind of important, you know? NaNoWriMo’s supposed to be fun, and sometimes it ends up being the very opposite of that.

Solution: Burnout Prevention

  • Start the day with something relaxing. Spend a couple minutes doing some easy yoga or stretches (BACK Rx is on it’s way to me as I write this), writing something not-the-story longhand in a journal, or just reading a book you really like.
  • Stick to healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. As much you might want to, this is NOT the month to let yourself stay up til 2 am every night or to switch to your all-chicken-skin diet.  You WILL be pulling some late nights, and you will be munching on some crap like halloween candy and ohmygodyumturkey, but don’t make it a daily habit, and try to get plenty of rest and some regular physical activity to make up for it. Take short naps.
  • Set boundaries. Don’t overextend. Don’t agree to do more stuff than you can legitimately do. (But also: DON’T just leave your family and friends hanging in the wind all month – that’s a dick move about which I will write more another day.)  Seriously, though: no new commitments on top of this one: learn to say no.
  • Set a time each day when you completely disconnect. Put away your laptop, turn off your phone, and stop checking email. Doesn’t have to be a long time, but you should do it.
  • Try to do something every week as a fun thing that has nothing to do with the project.

That’s about it. I’m not a genius about this stuff (said the guy trying to learn how to podcast at the same time as write this month), so if you have any good tips for avoiding stress and burnout, let’s hear it in the comments.

1 – I, like Neil Gaiman, think he’s one of the finest living American writers; possibly one of the finest living or dead. Only time will tell.
2 – Except for when he got hit by the truck. That put a dent in his writing for awhile.
3 – No, the alcoholism and mid-80s coke habit don’t count as burnout – just stupid.
4 – But not in just one month. Chill out.

3 Replies to “#NaNoWriMo: It’s not, in fact, better to Burn Out”

  1. Non-nano months I write 2000 a day in fiction, 2000 nonfiction, and about 50-200 lines of code (more if it’s new design day).

    One day when my noveling career takes off and coding, short stories and freelancing become just side projects then maybe I’ll slow down.

    I’ll admit though I committed to a lot this month. Start a rough draft via nano, finish another draft so I can have it all for my critique group after nano. And I’ve got a long term freelancing gig going.

    That start a rough draft and finish another one thing has been a little crazy.

    Still I turn off the interwebs at night, and relax.

  2. Yep. Like I’ve said on my other NaNo posts, I’m writing advice for myself.

    Two classes to write, daily nano posts, the NaNo project, and hey… how about I learn how to do twice-a-week podcasts at the same time? Yeah, I’m pretty much writing this to me.

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