I’m going to be honest. I’ve never had real writer’s block. Until recently, I really believed it was an excuse. I thought you could just write through it. I wrote THOUGHT I KNEW YOU and I swear I was high on sugar the whole time. It was the most fun I’ve had writing in my entire life. Nothing mattered, I could literally do anything I wanted because who on earth was ever going to read it besides my mom, and not like she likes anything I do anyway (oh, jeez, KIDDING).
So, why is it getting harder with each book instead of easier? Maybe it’s because I know what I’m doing (more, not entirely). Maybe it’s because I have further to fall. Maybe it’s because the fear is huge.
I’ve read all the articles: write through it. Read. Sit down, butt in chair and write.
But I went through a four or five month slump where the words just did not come. Where I would sit and write four hundred words only to erase them an hour later. I couldn’t figure out the plot. I couldn’t find my characters. I read an article that said I was maybe writing the wrong book, not the book of my heart, and I had to breathe into a paper bag for five minutes because what if the book of my heart wasn’t the book I sold?
I was a cliché. I sold a book on pitch and now I couldn’t write it. Seriously, I adore Wonder Boys. I had no desire to live it.
But hooo boy, I was in a slump.
Then my reading started to crash and burn. Every book I picked up lost my interest. My mind would wander, I’d get irritated at the characters, the writing, the setting, once, even a pet. This was not me. This was more than a slump, this was writerly depression.
I also realized, it’s so common. For a long time, I thought I was alone. I wasn’t. I’m not. We’re in this together.
Why do we slump?
Nothing about the creative arts is an assembly line. You can’t phone it in when you have to get words on the page. As of 2015, there are 1,025,109 words in the English language. If you’re staring at a blank page, that’s a helluva multiple choice question.
There are two components to a crippling slump: External forces, life, health, busy, self-criticism, and then story components: characters, plot, setting.
I had both. My life was crazy. I forgot how to say no to all kinds of people. I’d pared down my work hours and decided that meant I could take on all the things. Yes! Let’s do lunch. Yes! I can do the class party. Yes! I will work in the lunchroom at my daughter’s school. Yes! I will perform 40 hours of work in a 24-hour work week. Yes!
In addition to that, I had a deeply flawed outline that I was ignoring and pretending it would all work out fine. I had mismatched motivations. I had characters who were not compelling or likeable.
Things needed to change. Here’s how I wriggled out of my slump:
1. Reset goals.
Much of my writerly depression was steeped in failure. I’d commit to 1000 words a day, only to fall short and then the next day think “why bother”. I did a reboot: I committed to 10 minutes every day.
This was a retraining of my mind the way a couch potato trains for a 5K: One minute at a time. Half the time, I’d sit down for ten minutes only to realize I’d been working for a half hour. I fixed the outline. I tackled the plot issues. I focused on the characters and let them come to life for me. I stopped thinking about the contract (it is currently TBD if this part was a good idea).
2. Write something crazy.
Ok, so my outline looked good but gads, 85K is a LOT OF BOOK, PEOPLE. I found myself with seemingly endless pages between plot points. When I would start to get that creative-killing white mind panic thing, I’d write something that I didn’t plan on. I’d focus on a character and just write. I’d try to connect it to the scene I’d previously worked on if I could but it wasn’t necessary. Anything to get that blank page filled with junk.
I ended up actually using most of it and I found if I really meditated on the character, the story came naturally. Sometimes, I think if you outline, you can feel like you have no options when you’re stuck. But sometimes a detour is just the ticket: maybe there’s a secondary story happening that you didn’t plan out. Maybe there’s an underlying (genius!) theme you hadn’t thought of. Unearth it in the most creative way possible.
3. Never look back.
Forever Forward is my drafting motto. I cannot, will not, go backwards to fix ANYTHING. If I go back, I get stuck in an editing loop before I’m done drafting. Then I find mistakes. I find wonky characterization. I find awkward phrasing. I’ll spend my drafting hours fixing these things. These are editing fixes, when I have the clay of the story lumped out on my desk. I cannot get mired in that nonsense.
4. Keep a side journal.
In Scrivener, I use a separate document that I store in my research section. It’s a story journal. I write what needs to be edited, ideas on new scenes, random thoughts about characterization. I write anything that flies into my head in that journal. Sometimes I’ll think of a great line but know it doesn’t go in the scene I’m writing. It goes in that journal. This is an easy way to never look back. I repeat. Do not. Look. Back.
5. Read the RIGHT books.
This was key. I was trying to read a lot of books in my slump. They were women’s fiction, or literary fiction, or humor, or sci-fi. I read a wide range of things in my regular not-writing life. When I’m drafting, I’ve learned that all these voices in my head drown out my own. I’m too susceptible, too sensitive to other people’s stories. I picked 5 books that are my genre, beautifully written and inspire me – sometimes from picking a random page, I can be off and running. They’re all re-reads.
From a “life” perspective I made two changes that really altered my frame of mind:
6. I started exercising.
I wear a fit bit. I move my body. I go for walks. I am not thin. I am chubby and I don’t much like to move around. I have two sedentary jobs. As I get older, I find my joints creaking and my mind foggy and at two o’clock I want a nap. You know what else exercise fixes? Mild depression. You know what depression does? Kills creativity.
When I started moving, I started being able to think. I was interested in books again. I would walk and think about my story and then the kinks started unknotting themselves. I talked into my phone recorder like it was a person. It’s ok. I’d say things like “What if Henry actually killed his wife’s best friend? Oooh I like that.” Yes, I probably looked crazy. That’s fine. If we cared what people thought about us, we wouldn’t be in this biz.
7. I set limits.
I started saying no. I finally, finally, learned how to say things like “I only volunteer on Fridays” or “I write on Mondays”. I got my act together and organized my work life and said, “I don’t work on these days.” I stopped saying “Oh, I can’t” which left people room to talk me into things and started saying “I don’t”.
Make self-policies and by God, stick to them. For me, one of the biggest challenges to managing my writing is how to manage my time. I’m now in the – albeit wonderful – boat of having to market as well as write. I have phone calls with editors and publicists and marketing reps. I have to call book stores and reply to emails (this is currently still a failure). I have to find something to post once a day on my Facebook and make sure I retweet all my supporters and writers in my tribe. I have to read books and talk about them. I have to blurb books.
These are all NEW WONDERFUL THINGS. It’s so hard to say no. To not say, “I can’t do that”, but “no thank you, I won’t do that”. To set self-policies “I will not blurb books that are off genre”. Or “I’m sorry, I don’t work between the hours of three and seven. Can I call you tomorrow?” For a people pleaser like me, and so many other women, these are hard self-talks.
An overcrowded brain is not creative. It’s tired. Preserving your energy is imperative.
It’s kind of trendy or cool now to be so busy. Everyone is so busy. It’s so tempting to give in to that and let the busy-ness invade the business. But, as authors, our #1 job is the writing. The writing is the thing.
I have two mottos now: “Forever forward” and “The writing is the thing.” I say them to myself daily. They’re pinned to my corkboard.
Have you had a slump? Writer’s block?
How did you get yourself out of it?
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Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.
She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.