A confession: I stopped writing fiction for two months recently–the first time I have ever stumbled to a complete halt. Why? The usual reasons:
1. THE ELECTION. I couldn’t focus on fiction when truth seemed so much stranger.
2. HOLIDAYS. Let’s admit it: for women writers, holidays are time and brain drains.
3. DOUBT. I had sent the first 200 pages of my new novel to my agent. Her response? “Um, no.”
4. MONEY. Life isn’t getting any cheaper and fiction isn’t any getting any easier to sell.
With so many great reasons to quit, why did I feel compelled to beat back writer’s block?
Because I feel horrible if I’m not writing, and decent-to-amazing when I am. Writing fiction is my portal to another life. When the words are flowing, nothing in my “ordinary” life feels impossible, from dishes to democracy.
So I had to find ways to reboot my creative habits. In doing so, I stumbled onto a few new tricks that might help you, too:
Switch Up Your Schedule
Before this particular hiatus, I would get up and exercise, do half an hour of social media, then dive into my paid freelance projects. Only when all of those “must do” things were completed did I “allow” myself to write fiction.
Since that wasn’t working anymore, I decided to switch up my schedule and try writing first thing in the morning–before I exercise, and often before I even get dressed–just for an hour. If I have an early morning conference call or deadline, I get up an hour earlier to write fiction. Then I quit after that hour, do my day job and house chores, then get back to my novel after dinner for what I call “play time.”
Writing early in the morning means my head isn’t cluttered with news headlines and social media noise, and calling it “play time” lets me just tinker with the words at the end of the day, when I’m in my bathrobe and the world feels far away.
Read Books about Writing
I hardly ever read self-help books for writers. I’m too big-headed, thinking, Hey, I already have an MFA and have published six novels, plus many more ghostwritten books. What else is there for me to learn?
So, when my good friend, the writer Maddie Dawson, gave me a book called Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran, I said a gracious thank you, but set the book aside.
Then the book mysteriously drifted to the top of the stack on my nightstand, and one night I started flipping through it. This book turned out to be just the nudge I needed, with advice from writers I admire and their own tales of doubt. For instance, bestselling author David Baldacci, of all people, writes, “Every time I start a project, I sit down scared to death that I won’t be able to bring the magic again.” This, from a guy with 110 million books in print!
Lower Your Word Count Expectations
Most of the writers I know set daily word count goals. I do, too, especially when I have a contract with a tight deadline. Even without a contract, I have traditionally given myself word counts to ensure that the work keeps progressing. When my writing screeched to a halt, I felt terrible when I couldn’t make my word counts, but some days I just couldn’t do it. I was felled by a crushing crisis in confidence.
As Homer Simpson famously quipped, “If something is hard to do, then it’s not worth doing!” I’ve always been one of those driven Yankee types who believes that, if you try hard enough, you will succeed. But, in this case, Homer was right. My word count was working against me, because I took each day I fell short of coming up with the “right” number of words as yet another sign that I’d failed. I had to remind myself that the only one who was making up those word counts–or cared about them–was me.
So I did the unthinkable: I cut my word count goal in half. On good days, I exceed it and feel wonderful. Even on my worst days, I can make the limit–which makes it a little easier to sit down and write every day, knowing my goal is within reach.
Leave Off Mid-Sentence
Because I was so scared of being blocked again, I started following the advice I used to give my writing classes back when I was teaching college students: I always leave off in the middle of a scene, and preferably in the middle of a sentence, so that I know EXACTLY what word I’m going to type next. That way, the next day I won’t have to worry about that age-old question, “What will I write?”
Dare Yourself to Be a Bad Writer
We have this image in our heads, right? It’s the perfect sentence. Or even the perfect book. Maybe you can even see the cover image and your name splashed across it.
But what we put on the page early on is usually terrible. I’d forgotten this, somehow, and hated everything I wrote, until I went back and looked at some of my journal entries made while I was writing my last novel. There it was, in my illegible handwriting: “My writing sucks. Who’s going to want to read this?”
I had written these words about a novel I sold to Penguin.
The magic of writing lies in the rewriting. You need to keep that thought front-and-center, so that, as you set words down on the page, you’ll stop worrying and just let yourself be a bad writer. Throw in all of the adjectives you want! Let your characters speak in cliches! Who cares? This draft is for you alone, so that you can tunnel your way into the heart of the book. Then you can start chipping away at its edges and sanding down the rough spots. I’d suggest writing maybe fifty or a hundred pages, then stop, read what you have, and outline where you want the book to go. Then write a book jacket description–something you imagine as marketing copy for your book.
If you still can’t see the direction after doing those two things, write another fifty pages and try this exercise again. Eventually the smoke will clear and you’ll see where you’re going–and how far you’ve come.
What about you? Any strategies to share for overcoming writer’s block?