Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 15, 2016

Getting Out of the Dreaded Slump

Kate Moretti

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.

Writer's Block


Have you had a slump? Writer’s block?
How did you get yourself out of it?

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About Kate

author photoKate 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.



39 comments on “Getting Out of the Dreaded Slump”

  1. So love this! Especially, "because the fear is huge." and "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." Which was something I hadn't considered, and now I will, thanks a pantload.

    I think it's every writer's nightmare to have a book die. Thanks for the great advice!

  2. I'm in a slump, now I see why and you've giving me some ideas as to what to do about it, thanks for the article.

  3. Oh boy ... you weren't kidding when you said this was perfect for me. 🙂

    I love everything about this post. It's exactly where I've been and I was nodding at every step in the process out of the slump. The one thing I'd add is to lose the guilt -- that's a hard one for me. I don't write on Tuesdays because I'm in class all day - I'm doing something for ME. I don't HAVE to feel guilty about that. That "for me" class has served up inspiration for a couple of blog posts and details for the main character in my WIP. Buh-bye guilt!

    1. I really think reframing your "no" makes a world of difference. "I would love to but I can't" leaves room for doubt, guilt, and negotiation. "No thank you, my schedule is full that day." Or "I will volunteer on Fridays (insteand of willy nilly at the askers whim)" closes the door pretty firmly, and also makes people respect your no. And by people I mean YOU, too. I have such trouble respecting my own no!

  4. I love this! "Set Limits - say no" - what a concept! One that is very difficult for me to do, and it puts me in a no-win situation - guilt for saying yes and not writing, guilt for saying no and writing - uffda! Saving this post to re-read in June when I plan to step down from a very time consuming volunteer position and use that time to focus on my writing, exercise and learning. Ok ok, I can fit in the exercise now. . .

    1. Exercise! I'm not perfect at it. I do fight it all the time and some days I do precious little but no matter what, I'm doing more than before AND on the days I move, my brain clears, too. So I tell myself I'm doing this for my brain and that gets me moving more often than not.
      As for the guilt, HA. If you figure it out, let me know. 🙂

    1. What a relief Margie! I've got no psychology training at all (besides writing about sociopaths). Sometimes I write these posts and think OMG what I'm full of you-know-what? ;). xoxox Thanks for reading (and cheering!)

  5. The "I don't" is the best thing here for me. I love that!
    I've actually always moaned that I cannot be diligent with exercise and writing at the same time. This past month, I have *chosen* to prove myself wrong. I can and I have. What a difference! Neither is perfect, but my mood and my writing are improving. And this past weekend, when I did not have the time or energy for either due to family commitments, I was a bit of a monster. And that's on me. To make the time - even a little bit - whenever I can has become imperative. I can probably skip a day, but definitely not two!
    Thanks for new insight on what feels like an old topic! 😉

  6. Thanks for this article. I find that it encompasses more than "getting out of a slump." It contains excellent advice on how to move forward at all times, a nice insight into your writing process. Kudos to you, Kate, for making a commitment to exercise, too. I'll bet you get ideas while exercising, too. Works for me, provided I resist the temptation to hook my brain up to an mp3 player while I'm walking/running.

    1. Ok, truth be told, at this point in time, I'm so out of shape that my "brainstorming" while exercising involves trying not to die. BUT I expect it to be really valuable time...SOMEDAY. 😀

  7. Hi Kate, I too am re-training my author brain, among a plethora of seemingly worthwhile distractions. In a post at Writer Unboxed, Allie Larkin included a quote from Randi Zuckerberg that really resonated with me: "The entrepreneur's dilemma: Maintaining friendships. Building a great company. Spending time w/family. Staying fit. Getting sleep.
    Pick 3." I think it's so true. As a former dancer I know I need to exercise and I'm now back on track with that. I've never in my life functioned well without sleep. So writing it is, and there isn't much room for anything else. Real world considerations knocked me off-focus last year. Thanks for the tips to lead me back!

    1. I tend to prioritize spending time with family, which can only be good. I battle insomnia naturally, so sleep is important to me as well. Hmmmmm, I may have to pick six 🙁

  8. Loved the "Do. Not. Look. Back." This is so true for me. When I'm drafting if I stop and go back it can take me days to move forward again.

    1. NEVER LOOK BACK! hahaha I was so tempted yesterday, I switched timelines in chapter 6 and I was doing some pot-shotted reading of the earlier chapters of my WIP on my kindle and it was SO tempting to open up the laptop and tinker with it, but NO! NO! NO! I resisted 🙂

  9. You hit the nail on the head! I too keep a journal in Scrivener and Do Not. Look. Back is my take-away from this great post.

  10. Thanks so much for making the "time" to write this post, Kate. I needed to hear every word. I'm a plotter, not a panster, and I usually don't have trouble with my initial draft--unless I'm unwell or in pain. It's the rewriting, when I have to straighten out the mess I've made, that can send me into tailspin. The longer I write, the more self-critical I become, making each book more challenging. I've found that alternating between two projects can often help with my perspective. Nothing can kill creativity quicker than fear and doubt. And you're right about exercise: even stretching can make a big difference!

    1. I didn't touch on fear/doubt too much but it's HUGE. HUGE for me. I struggle with the first draft because of it. Usually when I start rewriting, I can figure it out, but eventually I just need someone to tell me what to fix because doubt can cloud my vision. So, I feel your pain!! It's a spiral, for sure!

  11. My over crowded brain thanks you for this great post! The social media hamster wheel only makes the fog worse. One post a day! I'll also be hopping on the treadmill to reread a few pages of a favorite book. Forever forward! 🙂

  12. I am a day late, but boy did I need to read this article. I am definitely in a slump, and I think its a combination of that huge fear and needing to move more. I too hate exercise but I always feel better when I do it, it's just the getting started that bites. As for the fear, I did so well last year as a self published author that I landed an agent and have plans to be a hybrid author this year and it's scaring the holy hell out of me. So much that I am only 10k words into the novel that I need to write for her. This was a much needed 'advice' article that I needed. So I am off to write. Wish me luck!

  13. What a terrific post, thank you. 🙂 I tend to fall into this slump pattern every January / February - likely all that "it's a new year, and I'll be better! I'll be MORE!" when really, that turns into mostly "more tired". 😉 I feel your pain. And yes, isn't it funny (in a sad way) that the more we write, the harder it can get. Thank you for explaining that fear perfectly. All the best to you.

  14. I just went through the exact same thing. From the ignored outline to the fear. I've been publishing for 30 years, and due to some changes, I've been dealing with a situation that has knocked my self esteem and my belief in myself as a writer for a loop. Do I even know how to do this any more? Am I and what I write relevant in ANY way? It's not fun. I'm sorry you went through it, but it's sometimes good to know other people have been where you have. Thanks.

  15. Great post, Kate; thanks. I've been in a brutal slump for over three months and couldn't figure out why until I saw the quote, "An overcrowded brain is not creative. It’s tired." That really resonated with me. Last week I did most of the things you recommend; additionally, I unplugged the whole week -- I didn't do anything online I didn't absolutely have to, freeing me from a bunch of crap I'd been hyper-focused on. In its place, I just read for fun (over 1,000 pages), something I hadn't done in a while. I've written over 5,000 words the last couple days and am back on track. Thanks for your advice!

  16. Yeah Chris, I too unplugged for nearly 4 days last week when my phone died and I had no choice but to wait for a new one. By the time the new one arrived 4 days later, I was wishing it had been more like 4 weeks! I got more done, was more refreshed, and more centered than I had been in a long time. And back on track, writing too!

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