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Writing Woes

This email comes from an anonymous blog reader, and I think we can all relate to this concern:

Lately, I have been having trouble finding inspiration and the drive to actually write something. Instead of writing when I sit down with my computer, I end up checking my email, surfing the Web, and discovering other ways to waste precious writing time. In addition to being a bad procrastinator, I also have trouble finding good ideas for novels that sound interesting and appealing to my target audience. I feel like writing is constantly an uphill battle for me. How can you tell if you’re just not meant to be a writer?

Well, there are no guarantees in life, of course. You can never be 100% sure of anything, including whether or not you’re meant to be a writer. Or, I should say, you can be completely sure of it in your head but reality may not always match that conviction. There are several answers to this question, and I will strive to be as comprehensive as possible.

First, why do writers sometimes waste a lot of time and procrastinate when they know they should be writing? The good news is, all of the professional writers I know, many of them bestsellers with lots of books on the shelves, do this. They have good days and bad days, they celebrate and complain, they ride the highs and lows of creativity, just like the rest of us. But writing is their job, they’re getting paid, they have deadlines, so the most successful of them keep showing up to the page to write, even if they don’t feel like it. Because they are writers. So one piece of advice I can give you right off the bat is to keep writing and keep up your habit. If you find yourself avoiding a part in your novel that’s challenging or doesn’t feel right for some reason, skip that part and write around it. The temptation to avoid writing something and stay blocked is always there, but the trick is to keep writing past it, around it, underneath it, and the block will loosen up eventually.

The other part of the equation, of course, is the idea and the project. Sometimes, the writing urge may be there but writers get derailed by an idea that just won’t come together. So they stop writing, but the writing isn’t actually the problem. Writing a novel is a long process full of frustration and crisis (for the writer and the character, ideally). If you are losing excitement for your idea, you are going to be your own worst cheerleader. I say it’s perfectly fine to put a novel idea aside if it isn’t working or if inspiration has struck elsewhere. You can always open the file back up and start typing at another time. But if you have ideas you’re not excited about, how do you expect readers to get psyched?

So there are three issues at play: the writing, the point in the story that may be causing you to avoid it, the story idea itself. Diagnose which is making you stuck. Most likely, it is story-related. Jazz up your story or start another one. If it really is the writing, maybe take a break. If you miss it and want to come back, that will reinvigorate you.

One way writers tend to get frustrated, also, is by setting too-high goals for themselves right at the beginning. When I started writing, as a teen, I told myself that I would be completely unacceptable as a human being unless I published a novel by age sixteen. Did that happen? No. Did that put a lot of pressure on my writing at the time and take the fun out of it? Absolutely.

The fact is, not everyone who strikes out to publish a novel will end up reaching that goal. But there are many more writers out there than authors who have books on the shelves. If writing is something you are called to do for life, it you can’t think of doing anything else, then take the heat off yourself in terms of seeking publication. Take a little bit of time off. Get back into why you love writing in the first place. No matter what anybody says, publishing will still be there when you want to take another run at a book contract or an agent.

But if you find yourself churning out joyless, passionless stories or writing, day after day (and not just a brief block or period of depression), something is wrong, and you should fix it before you slog through to the query and then submission. If you’re not excited, it’ll be hard for us to get excited, too.

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  1. Danielle’s avatar

    Thanks for this: “all of the professional writers…have good days and bad days, they celebrate and complain, they ride the highs and lows of creativity, just like the rest of us.”

    We unpublished writers can be so hard on ourselves for not writing during every spare moment of time, for not loving every second we spend on our novels and for not feeling endless inspiration. It’s difficult. Keep going!

  2. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    I can understand this. There are periods of time where I just crank through revisions in my book. After a while of going strong I run out of steam and the inspiration/creativity bank gets dry. I, too, find myself at the computer wasting time, reading blogs doing whatever, hoping that the inspiration will suddenly hit as I am sitting at the computer. But what really gets me going is actually writing. Just write anything. Usually I will get out of my funk and that writing leads me to ideas for scenes or dialogue, or whatever I am working on. Sometimes I have to work on book two for a while (when the inspiration hits for that and not book one) and then I can go back with a clear head.

    Another thing that helps a lot is reading other people’s writing. Not just any writing, but published books, especially award winning books (because afterall, don’t we all want to win awards? Not just write average, everyday MS’). Sometimes I read something that really blows me away and I love to just sit in my imagination, dreaming up new ideas, being inspired and then I can go again, like the energizer bunny =)

    until the next stint.

  3. creepyquerygirl’s avatar

    all sound advice. It’s a delicate balance isn’t it? Between fostering your creativity and actually having to work at the writing. great post!

  4. Sheri Larsen’s avatar

    Ooh, self-pressure is my nemesis. Hates me. I find it hard to pull out of that sometimes. Backing off or starting a new project, even if you have no intention of doing anything with it, can be helpful. I’m at that crossroads right now. So to your anonymous writer I say you are not alone. I and countless others feel your frustration. But whatever you decide, know you are worthy.

  5. zll’s avatar

    Good to know this happens to everyone.

    Personally, I have to write around, under, or over the scene, then come back to it when I’m ready and have a greater sense of the story’s pacing, arc, etc.

    Another thing I’ve noticed in my own writing is that I most often get writer’s block when I don’t care about my characters. I once spent a month drafting half a novel with IMO a pretty unique and interesting premise, but I quit the darn thing when I realized I just couldn’t resonate with my characters’ needs / situation / trails / triumphs. Writing for me is the greatest thing in the world when it feels like I’m not telling the story, when my characters are living right beside me, and that only happens when my characters seem to act on their own.

    So whenever I lose steam, I forget the narrative and start poking at my characters.

  6. KellieD’s avatar

    I read a middle grade novel this weekend that I picked up at a library booksale and just visited the author’s website. She had this pictoral of her writing process that I think goes well with Mary’s post on writer’s block. This is pretty funny. . .

    http://cynthiadefelice.com/how-i-write-a-book

  7. Kate B.’s avatar

    Thank you for this! It’s always good to know that I’m not alone in my quirky writing despairs. I think that if you have a super-high opinion of yourself, you shouldn’t be a writer; you should be an actor! (Kidding, of course)

  8. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Great advice! I’m glad you shared this question and answer with us. And to the writer who wrote the question–hang in there.

  9. Nicholas Rose’s avatar

    Regarding going online to procrastinate writing–I think a good suggestion is to go somewhere without internet availability. If you can’t find a good place, perhaps just get rid of your internet for a few hours each day. I’ve done this in the past from time to time, and it’s helped a lot. My “online life” never suffers if I just spend fifteen minutes online instead of three hours.

    As for not being able to get into the writing mood, you may just not be excited about the story you’re working on. It may be a good time to brainstorm ideas to make the story more interesting to you. I also like the suggestion to go pick up a book you really love and read through it. I imagine that every writer loves books. Pinpoint what it is you love about the books you enjoy reading, and see if you can try doing something similar.
    This might not be for everyone, but f I get really, really stuck at some point in a novel I’m writing, I sometimes just skip it and go on to more exciting parts (and then realize later I probably don’t really need the part that I skipped). Also, taking a break from the novel and working on something else, like a short story, sometimes helps me get back into the swing of things.

  10. Diane Magras’s avatar

    Having just a short amount of time can do wonders for encouraging a writer to get work done. These days, with my full-time job, husband, and son, I rarely get to my computer before 10 PM. Then it’s a battle between my creativity and fatigue, but every hour I continue counts because it’s simply all I have. My husband, also a writer, has found that his temptation to surf has completely diminished thanks to his equally reduced free time since our son’s birth. I don’t know if you can artificially create a window for writing like this, but it’s what has worked for both of us.

    Not having the enthusiasm is hard, though. Earlier this year, I managed to slog through a draft of the novel I am currently working on, revising after agent rejections, and felt it was hopeless. So I put it aside and started taking notes for a completely different novel. But the thing is, I had worked so hard and long on the current novel that I didn’t feel right dumping it. And my readers all agreed that I needed to go back to it. Recreating characters, being brutal with revision (cutting out whole scenes, chapters, half the book) have given it new blood. But the big part was rewriting the protagonist as someone who made me laugh, not an idealistic young hero. I had aimed too high before in attempting the Great American Middle Grade Novel, and now I just have a kid I love in my novel. And writing during those exhausting late hours is so much fun again.

    Keep working. If you’re a real writer, you won’t be able to not write. And give yourself the freedom to work on something new, but also to go back when you’re ready to your current manuscript and bravely revise as you never imagined you could. It’s worth it.

  11. Ronni’s avatar

    Wonderful entry, Mary. Thank you so much!

    Anything worth doing won’t be smooth sailing all the time. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

  12. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    Mary said, “If writing is something you are called to do for life, it you can’t think of doing anything else, then take the heat off yourself in terms of seeking publication. Take a little bit of time off. Get back into why you love writing in the first place. No matter what anybody says, publishing will still be there when you want to take another run at a book contract or an agent.”

    Boy, did I need to hear that. For the past three years, I’ve been putting the heat on myself to find an agent and a publisher because I thought I couldn’t justify spending time writing when I should be cleaning the kitchen unless I got a publishing contract. It was really a disheartening drag. Then it occurred to me – not everyone who plays golf intends to play in the PGA. Most people who play golf do so simply because they love the game. I’ve decided to write like that. I’m not even going to try to get published until my kids are grown, and then, well, we’ll see (maybe historical fiction will come back in style, ha ha). But I’m going to keep writing, just because I love telling stories.

    (I just realized I’ve used two sports metaphors in my replies to this blog, which is sort of weird, since I’m not a sports person.)

  13. dirtywhitecandy’s avatar

    Great post. I’m in the thick of a first draft and every other day seems to present a scene I find more difficult than I anticipated. I’m doing exactly what you describe – rewinding to what made me want to put that scene in the outline, and what kernal makes me want to write the novel. First novel or fifteenth, we fight the same battles!

  14. Joan’s avatar

    I usually spend the first part of the morning reading emails, blogs, etc. while the kids get ready for school. The theory is that I’ll get it all out of the way and be able to write when I return from taking them to school.

    Unfortunately, I never finish reading all the blogs or answering all the emails before I take them to school so I pick up where I left off when I get home. Then I find myself way too involved in emails and blog posts and before I know it, it’s time to get the kids from school, and my writing time is over.

    This is a good reminder that blogs, email, and pretty much everything else can wait while I focus on the writing! I can still check emails and blogs when the kids are home, but it’s hard to concentrate on my writing when they’re asking for help with homework and for silly things like dinner. ;-)

    I think I need to reverse my daily routine. Write first then check emails and blogs after. Which means I better get off here and get the kids to school so I can write when I get home!

  15. Erin Entrada’s avatar

    I definitely fall victim to procrastination and the like, but I think if you’re meant to be a writer, you know it. I started writing as soon as I could hold a pencil; for me, the thought of not writing is akin to not breathing.

    That is the romanticized stuff, of course. The non-romanticized stuff is me rubbing my temples, updating my Facebook status, and surfing the Web, all while a cursor blinks on a blank page in Word.

    When I drift off into Internet land in an attempt to put off doing some actual work (i.e., writing), I try to disappear into the land of online literary mags instead of the land of social networking. The more I read, the more energized I get — especially when I stumble upon a really great story. I can get lost in Duotrope for hours … and at least it makes me feel like I’m doing SOMETHING writing-related!

  16. Eric Sidener’s avatar

    Great post. I can get really inspired where the writing is pure joy, and write for hours, only emerging when absolutely necessary — and then there are the days I have to drag myself to the computer.
    I picked up an old computer that I keep upstairs, with no internet connection, no email, so: fewer distractions. This actually works reasonably well.
    My friend writes a blog all about motivation, sometimes specifically about writing related motivation. And procrastination, good and bad habits, brain science… I would really recommend it. It’s called the Willpower Engine, at http://www.willpowerengine.com

  17. Rebecca’s avatar

    So, let me ask you this:

    What if you absolutely LOVE the idea of your story, know it’s completely different from anything out there, have taken a break for, um, a couple of months, yet you still can’t write it? What if you know how everything happens, in the exact order of how it happens, yet every time you sit down to write nothing comes out? What then?

    I take breaks all the time. I believe it helps clear the mind so you can refocus your ideas and, possibly, reconnect with your characters. But lately I don’t know what’s wrong. Perhaps it’s the constant, “Why am I still doing this after two years?” question nagging in the back of my brain that’s not helping me any.

    Either way, I know I love writing. I have a journal of nothing but ideas. I’ve started more books than I’ve finished. But at the end of the day, it’s what I want to be for the rest of my life. When people ask, “What do you do?” I simply reply, “I write.” :)

  18. Olleymae’s avatar

    I’m pretty sure there is like an anti-motivation bug going around for writers lately. I’ve felt it around the blogosphere and in my own life.

    Thanks for acknowledging the very real, sludgy side of being a writer. And it’s true, a real writer won’t be able to give up and stop writing. :)

  19. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    I am so with you all on this. I wonder if it is the heat getting to us. I have had to learn about rhyme and meter in a few days and completely re-write a story I’ve had for a year ready for a conference. Now when I think I have learned so much and it is so much better, it still isn’t reading perfectly. The clock is ticking and the heat is rising. it really is like rock climbing sometimes. But you know its a long way down so you might as well get your crampons out and heave it up there. Good luck everyone

  20. Jon Gibbs’s avatar

    Good to know it’s not just me this happens to :)

  21. aj finnegan’s avatar

    Love this: ” . . . the trick is to keep writing past it, around it, underneath it, and the block will loosen up eventually.”

    Thanks!

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