Creativity is fleeting. Stories are ornery. Words are elusive. Writing is just damn hard.
Or so it seems on those days when the writing mojo is nowhere to be found. Diana Gabaldon refers to her approach to combatting this common writing problem as her cold start process, which she discusses in this clip. This week, we ladies are discussing our own cold start processes. So here’s Nancy’s guide to unsticking when stuck, in 4 simple steps.
Avoidance. When it comes to bad writing days, I’m a firm believer in an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. In other, words, I try to avoid them. At least, I do my best to avoid one of the leading causes of these creativity blocks: not knowing where to go next.
One of the things I found fascinating about the Gabaldon clip is that at the end, she announces that she realizes where her character is physically for the next scene. If I didn’t know where my characters were going to be for each scene of the next act, let alone the very next scene, I would spend most writing days crying in a corner. The joy that some creators find in writing in the dark and tunneling their way to their story would break my brain. It simply Is. Not. My. Process.
I always have plans. Lots of plans. In the past year, I’ve become a devotee of planning my stories using Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method. Other planning tools I love: spreadsheets, project planners, Jennie Nash’s two-tier outline…You get the idea. When starting a manuscript, I plan the big picture (major and minor act turning points). Then each week, I break down what I hope to accomplish for the week by scenes, do a brief sketch for each scene, and adjust my plan at the end of each writing day. (Some pantsers out there just felt a little piece of their souls die – sorry, friends!)
Still, there are days that all the plans in the world won’t get the words flowing. When that happens, it’s time to pull some other power tools out of the handy-dandy writer’s toolbox.
Validation. Planning isn’t infallible. I know, I, too, was devastated to learn this! But take heart, my planning compatriots. There is always time to redirect course, and if you’re just not feeling a particular scene, it might be time to validate its place in your story.
When Justine does this, she pulls out her notebook and sketches out everything she knows about her scene, what might need to change, and whether it even belongs in the story. I follow much the same thought process, but tend to do it while pacing the floor and capturing notes on a white board. Sometimes you find a key – emotional or otherwise – that unlocks the scene. Other times you realize you don’t need the scene (or in my case, an entire subplot). Regardless of how you do it, if a scene bores you, trips you up, or blocks your brain, put it through its paces. Make it prove it belongs in your story.
Confrontation. If you’ve done an honest assessment of your next step in the story, found it to be solid, and are still struggling to write it, you could be facing another common writing block culprit: fear. Writers are chock full of fears. Fear of not finishing. Fear of finishing. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of disappointing readers. Fear of the emotion we have to face on the page. Fear of the thing living under our bed (okay, that might just be Stephen King’s fear). Fear of the world finding out we’re imposters!
What all these fears have in common is they’re in our heads. That’s not great news, though, as we writers spend a lot of time ‘in our heads’. It’s sorta the job, right? But you can get past the fear, or least continue working through it, if you’re willing to identify it, confront it, and do some work to quell the worst of it. For tips on how to do this, you can start with this article.
Rest. If you have a solid, validated plan and aren’t being weighed down by fears but the words still won’t come, maybe you’re just tired! We tend to think of writing, creating, and in fact most of our life pursuits as requiring continuous states of activity. But creativity in general, and perhaps writing in particular, also require downtime. And that doesn’t mean walking away from the computer for five minutes to look out the window and ponder your story. It means actively disengaging your brain from your story.
This is one of those times when I need to apply the ‘physician, heal thyself’ adage. I am terrible at recognizing when I need a mental break from my story. It brings up all sorts of anxiety, which over time I’ve come to realize is a fear (another one!) of not knowing how to get back to the work. Which is crazy, because I’ve taken involuntary breaks from writing (aka, the day job) for extended periods of time, and have eventually figured out how to get back to it every single time.
The block that comes from needing rest tends to occur when you’re making the most progress and, out of the blue, you collapse, lose focus, and can’t find the words. The natural tendency is to chastise yourself because you were doing so well and now you’re failing! Next time this happens, try being kind to yourself instead. Give yourself a day or two – even longer if you’re really burned out – to actively engage in other things. Read some books. Take long walks. Commune with nature. Meditate. Exercise. Have lunch with friends. Whatever fills your creative well, concentrate on that instead of your story, just for a short time. I promise you’ll be able to come back to the writing, and your story might be stronger for it.
You’ve noticed by now that I have multiple approaches to overcoming days when the story eludes me. That’s because I’m a firm believer that there are multiple causes for those tough, scary, wordless writing days. The trick is identifying what’s happening on any given day, digging into the writer’s toolbox to work through it, and getting back to work as painlessly as possible.
And when all else fails, you know my go-to solution: coffee. Or Bourbon. Or coffee with Bourbon, if you prefer. You do you.
Have you used any of these ‘cold start processes’ on your tough writing days? Think you might give some of them a try?