Much has been written about the ways the ongoing apocalypse has influenced our productivity. I don’t think I have anything new to add. At this point, and at any point, simply surviving for a while is perfectly valid. But what happens for those of us who associate our quality of life with creativity? It might be an overstatement to say that writing has helped me survive, but in many ways it has. When creativity is what gives us joy and comfort and still writer’s block hits, pretty much any situation feels worse than it already is.
NaNoWriMo has come and gone and, once again, I didn’t hit 50k, though I only missed it by about 5k, which makes it a huge success for me. I didn’t write many inspirational writing posts as I had planned, though. It didn’t feel right, as I thought that to help or uplift others I should find joy in my own writing first. For the longest time, I couldn’t find this joy anywhere. Not in a new project I attempted to start (and gave up on day 1 since some sort of planning is necessary even for me to produce the amount NaNoWriMo requires), not in an old story that doesn’t work anymore (and yet I desperately want it to).
Then, 2021 came and two things happened. First; I finished draft 3.1 of my story (essentially just draft 3, fully proofread and corrected). Second; I decided to make 2021 a writing year. Now, I know that these New Year Resolution attempts hardly ever work. We are only human and a year change is first and foremost mental, rather than a solid change of circumstances. The same barriers that kept us from our goals last year still apply. And yet we hope. Thinking of the many works of fantasy – and not only – that have given me hope over the years, I decided to cling to that hope and see what happens.
Even though I currently work, I decided to still prioritise writing during my time off, something I had never managed to balance while a student – and set clear goals. I knew I could fail since day 1, but fortunately, something clicked. Things are still far from perfect of course (and when has any writer felt things are “perfect” where their work is concerned?) Nor can I say I will never feel blocked again. But after months of struggling, I finally feel I’m going somewhere with my writing. Not sure where, but finally thrilled to find out. So, I wanted to share some insights, in no particular order, hoping they might help others too.
Starting small can help
If you feel like writing 4,000 words in one sitting, by all means do. I know some writers can do that and I’m very, very jealous. But if you are starting now, or getting back after a long block, setting an intimidating goal might put you off before you even start.
On the first days of November, I didn’t do NaNoWriMo writing at all due to a conference (perhaps I should do a conference post at some point?) Being too harsh on myself, as I’m sometimes prone to be, I did some maths
(very badly because I am that writer who can’t do math) and ended up with a schedule that required at least 3,500 words for some days.
Now, this might be perfectly reasonable for some, but it wasn’t for me. Not after a Masters, an exhausting job hunt and the world outside being so scary. I often found myself spending the whole day on the sofa or my desk, literally dragging myself through words that could have been written in 4 hours or so. I don’t regret writing those words. I hardly remember some of them, and I’m always curious to see writing that I don’t remember well. Surely, if these words don’t amount to much, they will at some point. But at that point, I was losing whole days, and even when I did manage to meet the desired wordcount, it didn’t feel like a win anymore.
This is why I made the difficult decision to take a step back from NaNo even though I was so close. I spent December editing my draft and some stories to submit to journals. Editing was a much better choice for me right then, because it reminded me that I can produce words and make them matter. It’s too easy to forget that during a block. During the holidays, I focused on reading as much as I could from writers I admired.
And then, on day 1 of 2021 I decided that this is the year I’m finalising my book draft AND writing 1,000 words every single day.
Now, after two literature degrees and writing for 10 years, I’ve reached that point where 1,000 is too little for me. If I’m really focused, I can do that in half an hour or so. But 1,000 words is 365,000 in a year. This is much more than your average novel, so it feels like a doable, modest goal that is still huge in terms of impact. Make it 438,000, since I often find myself writing 1,200 without even noticing. And if I miss a day, well, it doesn’t feel like much was lost, and it’s easier to do just a little bit more whenever I can.
So, if you feel intimidated now, don’t be afraid to start small, as long you just start. Whatever you manage to produce might be more than you think.
Sticking to a project is advisable, but don’t be afraid to experiment first
We often see advice along the lines of “you can’t jump between projects” and “you have to stick one, because all projects will feel equally interesting so whatever you choose is as good as any.” That’s an understandable sentiment, but one many art blocked creators won’t appreciate. Sure, starting projects and abandoning them in a day has to stop eventually, but you shouldn’t let your own creative work restrict you. You created it, after all.
As I’ve already mentioned, I started a novel on my first day of NaNoWriMo. I even managed 1,700 words, or whatever it is you are supposed to produce when you write every single November day
I told you I can’t do the math. Then I hit a wall. Sure, I’ve always wanted to try a steampunk project, and I still might one day, but I had not thought that one through. We’ve heard George R. R. Martin’s metaphor about architect writers (the planners) and gardener writers (those who just produce words and see what happens) many times. I very much belong to the latter category, but at that point it wasn’t working. I didn’t know who these character were. To find out would require some writer things I love doing, that have helped me better understand my characters and setting many a time – but that wouldn’t be writing and I still wanted to give NaNoWriMo another chance.
So I shifted to my first ever story, that has changed and changed over years. Many writers I know have this baby project and sadly, it doesn’t always work out. At least, the shift allowed me to produce a huge amount of words at a short notice and I never regret exercising those writing muscles… Until the whole thing took a toll on my creativity and well-being as I’ve described above. That’s when I dropped NaNo and focused on editing.
New Year’s found me adding random 1,000 words to the baby project again, but only for two days. It was at that point that I decided to do some serious brainstorming about that initial steampunk project and another one that is basically Fantasy inspired by my culture (I wouldn’t have felt brave enough to even contemplate attempting this a year ago, but that’s stuff for another post). Eventually, the latter clicked. It’s very much new, and I can’t promise anything, but I did write 8,300 words already if that means anything. For the time being, I’m happy to have this as my main writing project, while editing and scribbling some shorts on the side. I really, really want this enthusiasm to last but I’m also glad to have felt it again at all, because writer’s block (not unlike reading slumps for bookworms) can persuade you that you are never feeling that joy again.
So, while there is some wisdom about the advice to stick to a project, I won’t begrudge the experimentation and shifts it took to get me excited about writing again – and neither should you.
A change of focus can help
For a person who doesn’t like numbers, I was too focused on the word count. This is normal, especially when you really don’t feel like working or when you have a specific amount to produce. You want the word count to hit the day’s goal so that you can stop… only, in my case, the wordcount was increasing so slowly it hurt. So, in 2021, I tried something different.
I mentioned above that I can write 1k in half an hour, but let me tell you, the writing (mis)adventures of last November had wiped that information out of my memory. Last weekend, I set my timer to 30 minutes – a modest, non-intimidating amount of time – shut down all Google Chrome tabs and just dove into writing. At 15 minutes, I was surprised to see the wordcount was already 450+. So I went on even faster, and hit 1k just before time was up. Writing “for x minutes” as opposed to writing “x words” produced the same effect but it was relatively stress-free and reminded me what I can do when I put my mind to it.
Another thing I found useful back when I tried NaNoWriMo in 2019, was focusing on finishing the chapter, as opposed to telling myself I’d stop at x words. Writing with the goal in mind can provide a much needed change of perspective. So if you think that whatever you are doing to measure your writing isn’t serving you anymore, the problem might be this- not you or your writing.
Accept that writing, editing and research are different skills and know what you’re doing when combining them.
This one took me ages to fully understand and I’m still not perfect at it, but I’m slowly getting there. When you start a new project it’s very tempting to just go back and correct what you already have, especially since what you have is so little. Research is also very tempting, especially when the information you lack about the culture or historical period you’re writing about keeps you from writing what you want. But please, hear me out.
For the longest time, I’ve ignored any advice along the lines of “never look back, just power through until you have a draft and then edit.” My brain just refuses to work that way. If I don’t occasionally review my writing, I might forget plot points I meant to expand on. Plus, exercising those editing muscles is not contrary to writing. And of course, you can’t write the draft without any research, while doing all the research first might delay you a lot.
I’ve discovered that it’s quite easy to find time to Google things, or purposelessly reread your draft, editing the odd typo and being surprised at what you wrote than one time at 4 am. Allocating time to tackle the dreaded blank page is trickier. And please, don’t be tempted to think that you’ll just Google a single thing you need to know. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t work that way.
My advice, then, is to set time to actually write, as often as you can, and be very vigilant about it. If you find something you need to look up, make a note. Don’t think you won’t have time for research or editing later, you know you will. Mix them up if it works for you, but don’t be tempted to give them some of your actual writing time. This is the hardest to get back. I’m by no means an expert in writing this way, but during my last 2-3 writing sessions I fought the urge to Google stuff, and I promise you they were some of the best writing sessions.
Finishing drafts is a wonderful thing but some complicated feelings are to be expected
So far, I’ve mostly talked about failed projects, finding the will to write, and focus. I haven’t talked about my finished draft. I might do a post on finishing drafts at some point for what it’s worth, but this is a post about writing struggles and, to be honest, while I’m really proud of this draft some dread it there.
Writing advice websites will tell you that no matter what you do, you need to finish your draft. I totally agree. Reading and rewriting something that is complete, finding themes you hadn’t even realised you put there, seeing your characters come full circle – these are all wonderful feelings and I want you to have them too.
Relatively fewer articles focus on the grief involved in the process, which is fair, because it’s a very positive process that should fill us with joy and pride. But some sadness can be there. It’s normal to already miss these characters you spent so long with. In some ways, I like editing my work more than writing it because I associate it with more confidence in my skills, but I do miss having late night epiphanies about character motivations, or listening to that one song that was just like a plot point I had in mind.
And, of course, after you finish a couple of drafts, if you intend to do anything with your story, you have to take the next step and show it to the world somehow. In a sense, this can feel like letting go of complete control over the story. Then, there’s the fear of rejection, and that little voice that keeps telling you you could have done more, handled things differently, crafted something better.
I have many tips on how to write, and a few on finishing drafts. I’m very much still figuring out what to do after that. So, if you have completed a draft and are in a similar position, my only real advice is to be proud of what you achieved, accept all feelings as valid and take your time to figure it out, taking all the help you can from those around you. This is all very new and, for now, I’m taking tiny steps. When I despair I remember why I started writing, and I think that this too will be worth it.
This ended up being much longer and more emotional than I expected. In any case I’d love to know if any of my thoughts helped you, or if there are other writing issues you want me to tackle next!
Do you have any other ideas about navigating writing struggles? Let me know in the comments!