This is the final segment of my three-part series on tackling writer's block. Click on the links for Part I: Inspiration, or Part II: Motivation.
Perspiration may be the most difficult of the three phases of writer's block. Something inspired you and sparked a great idea. You were motivated enough to write it down right away. Now, the initial burst of creativity has burned out and your enthusiasm for the project is waning.
A lack of perspiration happens first to people who want to have a book published, but don't actually like the process of writing. If this is you, there are ghostwriters you could work with to help tell your story.
But flagging motivation and a desire to quit happens to nearly every writer. It happens to me every time I commit myself to a writing project (and happened three times when I was writing Always, Jessie). When I start losing motivation and think about giving up, I ask myself several questions:
1. Is This Project Any Good?
First, I ask whether the project is worth my time. Is the story a good one, or, is the plot riddled with clichés and the characters mere archetypes? Has someone else said the same thing in the same way? Do I already know the end point before I begin?
If the story is weak and the characters fall flat to the degree that I cannot save the story, I sometimes give it up. I do the same if the story has been told before, especially if the other book is amazing to the extent I can’t do better.
For example, I planned to write a young adult novel which was a contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet from Rosalind’s perspective. Doing research, I realized Lisa Fielder’s novel Romeo’s Ex and Rebecca Serle’s When You Were Mine were better books than I had planned, so I gave the project up, about 8,000 words in.
2. Should This Project Be Shorter?
If the project is worth my time, I next consider whether the story has to be told in book form. Sometimes I think people give up on their novels because their stories are a bit thin, but these stories could be adapted to short story form, condensing the tale without losing any of the twists and turns that make it interesting. And maybe that works for you! Maybe writing a 90,000 word adult novel or even a 30,000 word middle grade book isn’t for you. There are plenty of places looking for short fiction up to 10,000 words, and micro or flash fiction ranging anywhere from 50-1,200 words. Submission Grinder is a great place to start finding online publications and literary magazines looking for your brilliant shorter works!
I did this with an upcoming story for Bete Noire Magazine. I had a great idea for a mystery in which a wealthy family’s maid has been murdered. When I started writing, I got about 2,000 words in before I realized the killer was about to confess. I turned it into a short story of 3,000 words. The story was tightly written and the character much more intense than they would have been in a longer work, and I was able to finish a project in a day or two instead of the weeks and months involved in writing a novel.
On the other hand, you might have a great short story with more potential. Consider whether you can flesh out the characters, add detail to the setting, add backstories, use the story as the first of several adventures, or turn it into a flashback, if that works.
3. Do I Legitimately Need A Break?
If the project is worth my time and it needs to be told in book form, I ask why I’m stalling. Is there a problem that needs to be worked out before I can continue? I have this current issue with my rat’s nest of a historical novel. I know this will be the first, last, and only historical novel I ever write. The research process has been daunting and I am officially stuck, a third of the way in. The first third is probably some of the best work I’ve ever done, and I have no idea how to commence the next section. So, I’ve set it aside for a few months to focus on other projects.
My friends and family keep encouraging me to finish, but I know it’s not time yet. I haven’t worked out all the kinks and I don’t want to pressure myself and drain my creativity when there are other stories to work on. I considered working on this book for NaNoWriMo, but I wrote another book instead, one I was really passionate about. I’m so glad I did because the idea may have been lost if I waited and the subject matter is extremely timely, so I didn’t want to wait!
I have plans to continue the rat’s nest in another month or two. I have two short projects to complete and I think January may be a great time to start. By then, the last of the details will be fleshed out and my imagination will have time to rest and renew itself.
I think the most important question when stalling is this: Is there a reason I’m stalling, or am I just lazy. There’s a difference between being burnt out on a project and being lazy about it. When I feel fatigued by a project, I try to do a minimal word count each day. During NaNoWriMo, my goal was around 4,000-5,000 words a day. That’s a lot, but I was pushing to finish in time. When my brain felt fried, I aimed for 500-1,000 words. I barely made that minimum two days in a row. Then I went on a date with my lovely boyfriend who said, “No, seriously. You need to stop writing and come to a movie tonight,” got some rest, felt refreshed, and started back up the next morning.
Maybe your project is different. Maybe you’re aiming for 500 or even 1,000 words a day or maybe your goal is to write for an hour each morning. If you’re burned out, do a half hour. Cut your word count minimum in half. Go back to something that motivates or inspires you.
4. Am I Just Procrastinating & Being Lazy?
But, if you’re just being lazy, as I often find myself doing, push through it. Turn off the TV. Stephen King once said that TV is “really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.” The same goes for the Internet. When I write, unless I need to do research, I put my computer in airplane mode. It’s too much of a distraction.
Get off social media. Turn off the TV or YouTube or whatever is distracting you, and TURN YOUR PHONE OFF. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t mute it. Don’t put it on vibrate. Actually turn it off. The world will be okay without you checking your phone every three minutes for the next hour or two. Then, get yourself a snack, light a candle, play some music, do anything to get yourself sitting in that chair or on your couch to get down to work.
Then, sit down and write. Remember this is a rough draft. You don’t have to be perfect, yet. You don’t have to worry about editing or censoring yourself. Just get something on paper, even if it’s nameless and formless and only part of an unstructured indication of the brilliance you might flesh out later.
You don’t have to eat the elephant, but to persist, you do need to keep eating one bite, one word, one letter at a time.