Dealing with writer’s block

I’ve never really thought of myself as having writer’s block. For as long as I’ve been writing, which has been since I was a kid, any time I’ve sat down to write, there have always been words. I’ve never felt blocked in a traditional sense. I’ve been reconsidering my views on writer’s block recently.

When I wrote I Wish, I was excited to move onto the sequel immediately. Until I tried to start plotting it out. Suddenly I wasn’t excited anymore. Even though I knew before writing I Wish the overall plot of Your Word Is My Bond, when I sat down to finish outlining the details I kept getting stymied.

For the longest time I’ve just chalked that up to an overall lack of excitement towards writing. I turned my energy to writing other things that paid the bills and just stopped writing the fiction for me. Every so often I’d sit down again, determined this time to write that sequel, only to give up after a day or two of half hearted attempts to come up with an outline.

I miss writing fun, just for me, fiction. So this time when I sat down to write I decided to scrap my plans of working on YWIMB for right now. I’ve been really digging American Horror Story lately. It’s got a gothic, dark vibe to it that I really enjoy. It inspired me to pick up an idea I had earlier this year to write a ghost story about a young woman who was murdered years ago and has finally pulled herself together in ghost form only to find that the world has moved on without her. Her toddler has grown up to be a rebellious teenager, everyone believes that she abandoned her family when she disappeared, and the only living person who can see her is her ex husband who may have been the one who killed her.

I love the premise, but originally my plan was to execute it as a 1st person POV as told by the ghost and play it more as a comedy. After watching AHS, I started thinking about what would happen if I tried to get that same eerie tone and made it a 3rd person POV instead, with several viewpoint characters. Suddenly the concept took off. I’ve recaptured the excitement that I originally felt when I was working on I Wish.

My tips for dealing with writer’s block:

Learn to recognize it:

I chalked up my lack of progress to changes in my life. Within a short period I moved halfway across the country, joined the local roller derby team, and switched from a Windows machine to a Mac- which included steep learning curves as I struggled to find alternatives to all my favorite writing and planning software.

If I had realized what was going on sooner, I could have taken steps to break out of the cycle.

Figure out what’s causing your block:

For me, it wasn’t all writing that was an issue, it was one particular project. I got a lot of positive feedback on I Wish, including the very flattering, “When can we expect the sequel”. I was optimistic and thought that it was just a matter of putting in the time and it would roll out as easily as I Wish had. I didn’t have a plan B. The idea of working on anything else before I finished YWIMB made me feel guilty. I dealt with the guilt and lack of excitement for the project by focusing on other aspects of my life and just abandoning writing altogether.

It’s a really counterintuitive way to deal with the issue. Not only did the sequel not get written, but neither did anything else, wasting all that time.

Work on something else:

Of course I want to deliver the sequel to the people who have invested themselves in my series. Since that isn’t working for me right now, I’m giving myself permission to write something else that I do feel passionate about. Writing anything is beneficial to me as a writer and to my career. Not only does it grow my body of work and thus my “shelf space” at sites like Amazon, but it teaches me more about writing than reading any number of books or articles about the craft. And I think my fans would rather read an unrelated novel that I’ve written than have nothing from me until the sequel is released.

Look at ideas from new angles:

When I originally came up with the idea for the ghost story, I liked it a lot. I could see how it would play out. I think it would have been fun to write and fun to read. Now I’m convinced that with this new approach it’s going to be a stronger story than it would have been before. It also had the added benefit of renewing my interest in the project. Now I can’t wait to start getting words on paper.

Set goals:

I sat down yesterday and spent several hours creating a production schedule based on a personal goal I’ve created for myself to write 4k words a day (2k for my fun stuff and 2k for my other projects). This is a very doable goal for me, challenging, but nowhere near unachievable. It hinges on treating my writing like it’s a full time job, which is something I should have started doing earlier this year when I decided this is what I want to do with myself.

My production schedule hinges on having several projects going on at a time, including writing one novel while simultaneously editing the last one. I have mapped out a projected 6 novels that I expect to have written by the end of the year. By planning them in advance, I can start the outlining and prewriting process for later books right now, which will give me almost an entire year to plot out the last book, which should take off a lot of the pressure to come up with something workable right now. It also gives me the ability to direct my attention to just a handful of projects instead of wanting to run with every new idea that pops into my head.

Start a “daily 5” list:

Speaking of ideas… one thing I swear by is having a daily 5 list where you write down ideas you can use in your writing. Anything is game for these lists as long as you find it inspiring. When I’m asked to contribute to an anthology, the first thing I do is scan my idea lists to see if I have anything that could be worked into a short story. Since I write down everything from character sketches, to lyrics and quotes, to entire plot summaries, I can usually find something that gives me a jumping off point. Your lists are also helpful when you get stuck in your writing. It’s almost like playing with a random generator except every idea you come across is going to be something that spoke to you at one point, which is guaranteed to make it more interesting.

The other benefit to keeping a daily 5 is that you never have to worry about forgetting an idea. You can write it down in as much detail as you care to and mark it so that you can find it again easily later. It’s really helped to curb my impulses to drop everything and run with a new idea. I know it’ll be there waiting for me when I have time to address it.

Outlining is your friend:

The one thing I can say is that once I start writing, I have never gotten hung up. Because I’ve already worked out the plot in advance through an outline, I always know exactly what needs to happen in a scene. I also don’t do any editing during the first draft, even if I’m convinced a scene is painful to read. My first draft is 100% putting words on a page. A finished novel can be reworked, one that hasn’t been finished isn’t doing anybody any good, even if the 4 chapters you have finished are solid gold. Turn off the inner critic, follow your outline, and finish that first draft.

Butt to chair, everyday:

The last thing I’d recommend making writing a priority. You’ll never write anything if you aren’t putting in the time. That’s something I keep saying, but not practicing. I haven’t been treating my writing like a job and it shows… I could be a prolific writer due to the time I have available to focus on it and the ease with which the words come to me. Instead, I have 1 rather short novel and a handful of short stories to show for an entire year. This is unacceptable to me and, sadly, totally avoidable. This is the one thing that every writer can control. If you aren’t writing, you’re missing out on the opportunity to improve your craft and your income stream.

I did some math the other day. This is something I’ve seen other places, Dean Wesley Smith preaches it regularly on his blog. There are two ways to make money as a writer: have one blockbuster release or have a large body of mildly successful titles. Clearly the second option is the more realistic option for the majority of us.

I think almost everyone can assume that they’ll sell at least 10 books per title a month. The more titles you have, the more they’ll all sell overall as it increases your shelf space, but even my lowest selling titles will move at least 10 copies per month. If you do the math based on 10 copies a month times the amount you know you could have been writing if you’d only put in the time, it becomes really eye opening. Even if all you have time for is one title a year, that’s still 120*$3.50 (the payout on a $4.99 novel)= ~$420. The next year if you write a second novel that’s another $420. After a few years you can start paying for a nice vacation with the money you earn for work you did years ago. I think most people can push themselves harder than that though and a lot will sell significantly higher than 120 copies a year.

I sort of went off on a tangent for a minute there, but the point is that it’s all moot if you aren’t writing. You can’t sell something that doesn’t exist. I think that making writing a habit will do more to cure yourself of writer’s block than anything else. If you aren’t letting yourself off easy, “Well, looks like I can’t think of anything to write. Oh well, I’ll go watch that Law and Order SVU marathon instead.”, I believe you’ll find a way to work through it because it becomes a habit. The human brain is constantly seeking ways to entertain itself. If you sit there staring at a blank page long enough, your mind is finally going to come up with something to say because it can’t stand it any longer.

The one good thing to come out of my brush with writer’s block is that it taught me things about myself as a writer that I didn’t know before. I feel more prepared to deal with this situation in the future now that I can more easily recognize what’s going on with myself the next time I start getting all cagey.

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1 Comment

Filed under indie publishing, writing

One response to “Dealing with writer’s block

  1. Great analysis of a situation every writer finds themselves facing – whether they anticipate it or not!

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