Dilemma Diaries #1: Getting Through A Writing Slump
The cursor blinks at you on the page. Your fingers fly over a few keys, a staccato rhythm of steady clicks punctuated by slight hesitations. Then, the press and hold of a single key, the cursor racing across the page leaving a trail of white in its wake, erasing everything.
Sigh. The dreaded moment has come. The moment when your momentum and excitement about your current project starts to wear off and you become tempted to give up. The writing slump.
If you follow me on Instagram, then you know that for the past few weeks, I have been experiencing a writing slump --a period of time where I've felt unmotivated and uninspired to continue writing my story. I'm just now starting to get back into the flow of writing but I think I've made it to the other side of this slump now and want to share how I got through it. Of course, I'm not sure that these things will work for everyone, but they are what have worked for me. Also, this is advice for people who already have a chunk of their novel written rather than for people who may be suffering writer's block at the beginning of a project. That's a whole other story and this blog post probably won't help, sorry!
To give you a little background, I started working on my current manuscript in the beginning of May. Towards the end of May, around the 34,000 word mark, I felt my eagerness to write and initial passion for my story dwindling. I was feeling like everything new I had written was terrible and my story would probably never see the light of day anyway so what was even the point in putting all this time into such a crazy endeavor?? Especially since I have so much else I need to be doing?? I was doubting myself, the value of my story, and my capabilities to actually bring fictional characters and events to life. This is a feeling that all writers can probably relate to. To tell you that I am completely over these doubts and fears would be a lie. I still feel them--at times very deeply. But writing a novel is a personal goal of mine I'm not ready to give up on. And so I pushed myself to find a way through the slump rather than letting it become the end of "an experiment in fiction" I will look back on with regret in my old age. Here is what I did in order to motivate myself to write and to start feeling excited about putting words on the page again.
Be okay with taking a step back from actively writing. But at the same time, be thinking about your story while you do mindless everyday tasks.
First of all, let yourself off the hook for a little bit. It's okay if you're not actively writing every single day. Sometimes, it's actually better to give yourself a break from creating and let your mind wander for a while without the pressure of producing any words, much less the perfect ones for your novel. However, this doesn't mean forgetting about your story entirely.
During my slump, I went from writing every single day to writing only one day a week (this is only because I host weekly write-ins with the Advocacy in Fiction writing group. Otherwise, I have a feeling I wouldn't have written at all). Even when I wasn't writing though, I still tried to think about my story and characters as frequently as possible. While I was cleaning or cooking or walking my dog, I would try and place myself into the mindset of various characters and further explore their motivations/goals. If any ideas for backstory or a new element of the society/world in my WIP came to mind, I would jot it down in a notebook and then let it sit. Try not to feel obligated to turn your ideas into prose right away because sometimes, this can backfire and end up complicating your storyline to the point where you write yourself into a rut. So just take some time away from your manuscript.
If you're worried this "break" will drag on and eventually become forever, place a time limit on it. Maybe say: okay I'm going to take a maximum of two weeks to recharge and then get back to writing. And then, hold yourself to it! Either way, a break can be refreshing and beneficial.
Read books in your genre with themes similar to those in your WIP. Find books that re-ignite your passion.
In the meantime, while you're enjoying this period of not writing, fill your free time with reading. If you are an avid reader like me, then reading is probably what inspired you to write in the first place. Try to re-capture that feeling but in a focused way by compiling a list of books in the genre you are currently writing with themes similar to your WIP.
I am personally writing a science fiction/speculative fiction novel with the following themes: the value of personal connection in an increasingly impersonal world, immigration/cultural differences, systems of power and how the labels we place on people affect us, cross-cultural/interracial love, and cultural conflict within a family unit. I have been struggling with a few world-building elements and wanted inspiration for how to portray immigration and cultural differences in a science fiction or speculative fiction context. I also had questions about parallel universes and wanted to see how other science fiction writers have treated this trope in a way that isn't expected or overdone. I even took to Instagram and asked people for reading suggestions (thank you to everyone who responded!). In the end, I came up with a short reading list of books I thought might inspire me: A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray, The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, and A Conspiracy of Stars by Olivia Cole. I've only read the first two in the list so far but I'm already feeling re-inspired to write! Karen Lord's novel especially reminded me why I love my story in the first place and why I want to write it. Looking into her and her works also gave me new vocabulary for the type of novel I'm writing: social science fiction!
So definitely don't think reading or using your free time for something besides writing your manuscript is a waste of time. Anything that keeps you inspired is worth spending the time to discover!
Go back to the building blocks. Brush up on structural story-telling techniques.
Usually, when I get stuck or feel like what I am writing is uninspired, it's because I'm not sure about something in my story. Sometimes, I don't feel the tension or momentum building toward the next reveal and get discouraged by this. Sometimes, I start doubting myself because there are inconsistencies in what I have already written so far. Sometimes, I realize that I don't even know what the climatic moment of my story is and completely freak out. In other words, I needed help in the story structure department. During this time of uncertainty and doubt, it has been so helpful to turn to writing resources on story structure. Doing research on writing and taking a break from creating can recharge your creative juices while also allowing you to learn more about the craft. A few of my favorite books on writing are The Anatomy of Story by John Truby and The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. I read both of these books before I even started drafting my current WIP. But when you read a book on writing before you start writing, you don't really have any material to do the exercises with. Now, I actually have scenes written and can use this material to complete some of the exercises in these books.
I went back to the first few chapters I had written and ended up re-writing a scene using some of the advice from Donald Maass' book. I'm still not sure which version of the scene I like better (there are elements of both that I feel are stronger than the other) and will probably end up combining the two but re-visiting an old scene and seeing how I'm capable of improving it, even in the smallest of ways has re-animated me and given me more confidence going forward.
Review the structural elements of your story and see if you can flesh out your outline a little further.
After you've gone back and reviewed your favorite writing resources for tips on story structure, it is time to implement those strategies. Go back to your outline and see if there are any plot points that need to be added or further developed. Revisit character arcs and see if they can be tightened or improved. Is there backstory to add? Where should flashbacks be placed in your narrative?
I'm in this process now and it has helped immensely to do this right after re-reading parts of my favorite writing resources. I feel like this is something I will definitely need to do again once I reach the editing stage but it's also useful for getting yourself out of a writing rut. New scenes are coming to me and filling in some of the gaps in my plot that I was stuck on before.
Only do this one if it has been a few weeks since you've read the beginning of your story: re-read the first few chapters of your WIP.
Sometimes, we all need reminders that we're capable of writing compelling prose. Re-reading through words you've already written can help you gain a renewed appreciation for what you're currently writing and remind yourself of the value of your story. When we are in the moment, we can be blind to the merit of our words. It is easy to feel like what you've just written is absolute trash, especially if you've been looking at it every day for the past few months. The words feel familiar, overdone, trite, boring. But with some distance, they can be fresh and allow you to realize that even though your manuscript will still need work and rounds of revisions after drafting, there are a few magical writing moments happening and those moments are worth pushing through for.
It's been over a month since I've read the very first chapter of my manuscript and I have to say, it's not as terrible as I thought. There were even a few sentences that I felt very proud of. So if it's been a while since you've read over your own work, revisit the parts you're not currently in the thick of writing and remind yourself that you can do this. You ARE a writer. Allow yourself to feel proud of what you've written thus far and let that feeling carry you forward.
Writing a novel is a marathon but even a marathon can be completed through a series of sprints. Force yourself to sprint through it.
Writing sprints have been such a lifesaver for me in terms of getting words on the page, even when I feel uncompelled to do so. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of writing sprints, they are basically shorter spurts of time that you dedicate completely to writing and only writing. During all my writing sessions, I usually do at least four 20 minute writing sprints with 10 minute breaks in between. It's important to set a timer for yourself and commit to writing without distractions for the duration of your sprint. This means you can't check email or any social media, stop to make yourself a sandwich, or even go to the bathroom. Use every single minute of that sprint to actively write with no filter. If there's a time limit, I find that I simply don't have the space to doubt the words as I type them. I just allow myself to type for the duration of the sprint and leave the editing for later. Of course, writing sprints require you to have a basic idea of what will happen in the scene or chapter you're sitting down to write but once you have that, you can let your imagination play like a movie and just let your fingers record it in words. Once you're ready to get back to writing, I highly recommend writing sprints.
Visualize how it will feel when you finally finish your manuscript.
I know this is cheesy but it's probably the number one thing that keeps me going. I constantly remind myself how good it will feel to finally type "The End" on my first draft, print out my manuscript, and hold an entire novel that I've written in my hands for the first time. Seriously, if you are doubting yourself or are experiencing a writing slump, think about this moment and think about it A LOT. Over time, it will become an inevitability rather than a flitting daydream. At least that's what all the personal development gurus say, right? Honestly, I'm not sure if I believe it's possible to manifest an outcome by visualizing it, but I do know that thinking about actually reaching my goal of completing my first draft gives me hope. It gives me something concrete to work toward and I imagine it being super gratifying. I'll probably reward myself with a short vacation once I do finish my draft but I also think the completion of my manuscript would be a reward in and of itself. Since this is the first time I have ever gotten 30,000 words into writing a novel, I don't actually know what that moment will be like but I certainly want to find out. If you're in the same boat that I am, let your curiosity about this feeling motivate you to keep going!
Surround yourself with positive, supportive writer friends.
Seriously, if you haven't already, find a group of like-minded writers who will keep you accountable and motivated. It's totally okay if they are at a different stage of the writing process than you are. In fact, it can be really inspiring to see how everyone is working through their own writing journeys. Through Instagram, I have met people who have already published, who are currently editing their 4th draft, who are querying for the first time, who are on the precipice of a book release, who are just starting their novels, and more. Every single one of their feeds inspire me to keep working on my own manuscript!
I don't think I would have even gotten this far if I didn't have my Instagram friends and my writing group so thank you to everyone who is following me and all of the Advocacy in Fiction members! You are the best and I feel so lucky to have connected with you all! We can do this!!!
Hope this was at least a little helpful for those who are experiencing a writing slump. As always, keep reading to open your minds, keep writing to open your hearts <3