The one where Charlie realizes they have no idea wtf they’re doing.
Something I really wish I could do is skip forward to the point where I know what I’m doing at this job. Then I would have the answer for at least a few of these questions as it pertains to my style and process:
Is this bit of preparation something that will actually help make my book better? Will I have enough skill to make sure that this minor character’s story arc and psychological growth will appear to those who read this story without it being a moralistic spoonfeeding session? Is this a story I should even bother finishing or just count as a loss and move on to more exciting projects?
Then of course, the big question: is this story ever going to be any good?
I’ll never have the answers to these questions until it’s done. That’s the painful part of writing, I guess. It’s a lot of work to get your story planned, your characters breathing, your plot rolling along, and then you have to keep hammering away until it resembles something remotely okay. The whole time you just trust that eventually someone might want to read the nonsense you’ve been butchering.
This isn’t a new revelation: writers have been complaining about this part for ages. I’m only now getting to this point because I rarely get past a first draft, or I’ll write short stories which are easier to not think as hard about.
First drafts are all the good feelings: “oh boy, this is amazing! There’s no way this could be flawed!” and then you can just put it away, whistling innocently. The subsequent drafts are you on your knees scrubbing, praying the bloodstains come out of the carpet.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that no matter how cocky you are right now (like I was before this), you will come to this point, too. The experts say don’t quit here, so I’m not going to, but dear god is it tempting. It hurts to finally open your eyes to the faults in your story. To see the supporting characters as flat or to realize a bit of world building you thought was compelling and unique doesn’t actually make any sense.
But I’m trying to remember that every first draft has massive problems, and I can see mine because I have been paying attention. I have studied stories from the greats, I have picked apart trash, and I can see where my work falls short precisely because I’m not a lost cause. What I can see, I can fix. What I can’t see, I hope my beta readers will point out to me, and then I can fix those problems, too. Which will be another painful process in itself, but let’s take this one gut-punch at a time, yeah?
For someone who wanted to write about how my writing life is going, I sure don’t talk a lot about what I’m actually writing…crippling self-consciousness will do that, I suppose. I’ve written this introduction about ten different times, adding and removing disclaimers, rewording sentences, nearly deleting this entire blog and setting fire to my computer to go back to living in the wild…you know: just writer things…
The truth is, this self-consciousness is getting embarrassing. Of course not everything I write will be perfect. Obviously not everyone is going to like even my greatest work. To pretend that it could be any other way is a ridiculous fantasy and is only hurting my ability to get this job done.
I need to figure out how to talk about my work without feeling like a child, for both future professional conversations and for allowing y’all to see what I’m working on. With this in mind, let’s do a rundown of what this novel is about, the process so far, and what I’ve been doing on it recently.
What it’s about
This is the part I’m the worst at. Explaining the plot of the more complex stories I write feels like trying to slowly rip the skin off my bones while waiting to see if the other person laughs at me for it.
Something I did a while ago was write some summaries/pitches/teasers for stories I’d been working on, so I could organize my thoughts better. This is the current (definitely not final) draft for this one:
A teenager attends her own funeral where her saviors are arrested. A Legionnaire is sent on a suicide mission as an incoherent babbler kidnaps a convenience store clerk. Fresh out of training, a Guardian Angel stumbles upon a well-kept secret. Their stories coalesce to upend the assumptions of Good versus Evil for the rest of time.
Still reading? Cool.
The beginning of, well, something
This novel was originally started alllll the way back in 2009 for NaNoWriMo. It was the first/only time I got to 50k words within the month, and wrote a beginning, middle, and end. I was mostly able to do this because I was alone the entire time except the 24 hours a week I worked.
The method I used was full on pantsing. I started with “girl trying to keep her past involvement with angels secret” and went from there. It was a process of “pace around and think of the next few steps,” write it down, then repeat until the end, occasionally with a glass or three of wine.
Like almost every novel idea I’ve had, it evolved into a series – a trilogy, in this case. After finishing the first draft, I decided to get the basics down for the next two books before I rewrote the first. I only got a little way into the second book before putting pause on my writing for nearly half a decade.
Editing draft zero
A few years ago, I read through my first draft and it was a mess. Notes and complaints dotted the draft and needed to be removed or acted on. Chapter dispersion was uneven – sometimes I switched between characters as one would expect and other times I stayed with a single character until I couldn’t think of what to do with them anymore. This led to a lot of plot inconsistencies and timeline problems. Scenes had been written and then rewritten, with both versions kept in. And of course I found plot holes you could drive a damn bus through.
What I ended up doing was printing everything out and using scissors to cut up every scene. I sat on the floor to stack each piece into which character was the focus of the story at that point, and then made a new stack as I reordered what I had into a readable narrative. As I moved the text around in my document, I also added placeholder chapters. This is a mostly blank page that says “Chapter 23 [character y] does [x]” so that I could make sure the next chapter for that character made sense.
The method of writing was chaotic, and the editing process equally so. Especially because I ended up sick during the process and prescribed Vicodin. So at times I was editing while high on medication, what I wrote while drunk.
Pro tip: don’t do that.
Eventually, I could stop taking the drugs, and I rewrote many passages so they weren’t as messy. I deleted notes, cleaned up the prose a little, and ended up putting everything on hold all over again. Every time I tried to work on it after, I felt so disconnected from who I was when I wrote it, I gave up. Or so I thought.
Enter the year of finishing things
First, I started about four other novels I still haven’t gotten as far on. After the last one in NaNo of 2020, I decided to go back and actually finish what I’ve started. I thought this was going to be painful and cringey to see the mess I left myself but I surprised myself halfway through. I cared about the characters and even though I knew what happened, found myself tense during the more exciting scenes.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of work to be done on this beast. Not only that, I realized a trilogy would be stretching it too far, so I opted to make it one book. This means I need to add an entirely new half to the plot. But that’s okay! I know where I’m headed.
What does this process look like now?
Since starting this new initiative, I’ve *deep breath* reread the book thrice, made notes on all of the ridiculous things I need to cut or change, made notes on all of the plot holes or worldbuilding I skimped out on, decided to make it all into one book, began to fill out the world better, and have started to consider combining or removing characters entirely.
It feels a lot like I’m not making progress because the book’s word count is unaffected by my efforts, but it will lay the groundwork for a much better rewrite later.
Overall, my biggest goal is to finish the book. If I make it great, then I will be ecstatic, but I’m mostly going for decent and complete. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself so I don’t fuss over it so much it remains undone. So here I am, announcing that intention and sharing the premise.
As you’ve probably noticed from my fluctuation between complaining and a lack of posts, I have had some issues writing after quitting my “day job.” I thought at first I just didn’t have the right story idea. Maybe the plot I had in mind (or the characters, or the setting, or the everything altogether) was bad and I wasn’t going to get it to work, so I abandoned the idea. This happened twice in a row. Then I thought that I was pushing myself to work too much or too often. So I took a break.
After my break, I felt much better – for about a day. Then I went straight back into feeling like shit and static filling my head. Maybe I was overwhelming myself with the steps to write something to completion. So I built a system to keep myself focused. This worked for about two weeks and then I fell right back into the pit.
Maybe I was depressed again. So I decided to narrow down what I was doing, lighten my workload. But I still suffered this…blockage of sorts. What the hell was going on?
Finally I realized I felt the worst when something external reminded me about writing. Someone would ask how my book was coming along. Or they’d make a snarky comment about how I wasn’t working on a Saturday. Just taking a peek at Medium I’d get bombarded with all kinds of writing advice articles.
The articles were, interestingly enough, the worst. Individually they aren’t bad, but I’d sit down and read a bunch in a row. Every single one of them basically saying the same thing: I should be writing content every single day.
And the problem isn’t that producing content is bad. I’m writing content right now. The problem starts when you let this outside world into your private routine. When you allow others to tell you how to write or what to write or when to write. And this happens very easily when you feel that your process or your job isn’t valid.
So what changed?
I can’t say for sure exactly where I unfucked myself. Most likely, it was a culmination of a few things.
First, I stopped trying to make myself an “authority” on anything. I stopped writing the how-to posts here. This eased my impostor syndrome quite a bit, and being honest about it felt great, but had the unintended side effect of a minor, uh, existential crisis.
What should I write now? What do I even have to say? Do I have something to say? Should I just stfu and shut down the blog?
The adage is to write what you know, but what did I really know? Well…I knew a lot about my own experiences with depression and anxiety. So I drafted up a few Medium articles on that. And never posted them.
I’m still learning how to be more honest with myself about my emotions – broadcasting heavy thoughts like that with my name out there for everyone to see felt…wrong. I just couldn’t make myself do it. What I wrote was “authentic” I guess, but publishing it just didn’t feel like me. I kept asking myself, “if not that, then what?” I agonized over this for way too long until I finally asked myself the real questions:
What drew me to writing in the first place? What is it that I like to read?
I love books that are filled with characters who struggle. I love stepping into worlds that are rich and vibrant. Adventures that make me feel alive. Relationships that feel authentic and sweet, even if they start off a bit rocky. I want to open a book and see a massive universe I can set out and explore. Especially if it goes beyond what the author has written.
Stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, The Witcher, The Dark Tower series. Any world that allows you to imagine yourself living there is like catnip to me. I use literature to escape and I’d love to write the same for others.
I have ideas for short stories, too. I’ve written several, and in the spirit of the year of finishing things, I will still try to finish the majority of ones I abandoned. But publishing shorts is not my calling. Worldbuilding is.
This conclusion made me realize I’m incapable of following the route the internet has drawn up for writers. Though there’s more money to be had in publishing an article every day on Medium and in writing and submitting shorts (assuming they get accepted). Guest posts, cross posts, affiliate links, Pinterest infographics, Twitter quotes/screenshots…all of these things and more are great ways to monetize your writing and to gain an audience. I’ll have to do some of them eventually, too. None of this is bad. It’s just not what I should be doing right now.
I should be writing. I should be living in the worlds I’m crafting so that when I’m done, you can live there, too.
Because of this realization, I was able to shed the imagined expectations weighing me down. I don’t need to write 40 hours a week. Sometimes writing means getting thoughts down on paper (or pixels) whether or not they are coherent. I am writing every day, and a lot of it is unusable crap. If I need to stop mid workday and play Bugsnax or (god help me) Detroit: Become Human in order to relax, I should. If I need to take a whole day or week off in order to “refill my creative bottle” (Thanks for the metaphor, Arbor!), then I absolutely do. If my workday consists of me walking around my office in circles, mumbling new storylines or dialogue to myself, then so be it!
Stephen King says to write with the door closed, edit with the door open. He’s referring to writing a story exactly how you want to tell it, and then editing it so that it can appeal to other people as well. I feel like it should extend to your routine, too. Don’t let other people dictate how you work, just make sure you eventually do get to work.
These steps together eventually got me back on track, and I really hope outlining them will help anyone else suffering from a constant burnt-out, static-brained, panic-stricken blockage of words. Basically I think it all boiled down to getting back to why I started writing in the first place.
This is the part where I reiterate that I am so, so privileged. I get a small retirement payment every month, so I can feel like I contribute a little to my household. Beyond that, everything gets covered by my husband. We saved for a long time, we finagled our finances, and eventually got to the point where me not having any other income was doable. I can rest easy while I make-believe and do other weird writer shit. My circumstances are not normal.
If you want to only write novels, then do it! But keep a day job. Don’t force the pressure of finishing a novel on yourself – you will fail, and it will suck the whole way down. Establish a writing routine around your work. If your job leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, write at the beginning of your day. If you can’t concentrate on work when you write beforehand and it’s threatening your job, find a different job (while still working at your current one).
If you want to write articles every single day and you think you know your niche, then try it while you still have a job. With either of these options, you want to be able to support yourself (or nearly be able to support yourself) on the money you’re making from your efforts working around your dictated schedule. If you find yourself making excuses, procrastinating, getting easily discouraged, doing or being or feeling anything that keeps you from producing regularly, do not quit your job.
Anyway, the point is…
…enjoy the go! Oh wait, no, that’s something else.
But seriously, have fun while you work. If you can’t figure out how to enjoy it, it’ll be more difficult. And if you’re anything like me, the pressure to work while miserable will make you crumble. Sure, I can bust my ass to meet the occasional deadline, but I would die as a journalist. Knowing your work style, your limits, and being honest about and honoringthem both will make all the difference if you’re having issues writing like I did.
And I almost guarantee I will forget this by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around again…
Almost all of the posts on this blog so far have been carefully constructed: I figured out what to write, wrote a first draft – possibly from an outline – and then I edited it. I knew what I was going to say beforehand or at least knew what I wanted to say from the beginning.
Today I wanted to try something a little different. I’m still trying to figure out what I want out of this blog beyond the clearly stated mission already posted. Do I want this to continue being very orderly and neat and planned and polished? Is that even a realistic expectation as I go forward with my plan to finish as many stories I’ve started over the years as possible this year? I don’t really think it is. And that’s okay.
I don’t really want to stop posting here. That wouldn’t be true to the point of the whole thing. But I also need to let go of this fantasy of the truly polished blog. Of perfect entries that are instantly shareable with infographics and research. I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself to produce work in a way that is just so and it has started to eat me alive.
My time away from this blog and writing in general made me feel really fucking dumb writing all these “how to” articles when I still hadn’t published anything, and so I had decided not to do that anymore. But then I found a new problem: what the hell am I going to write instead?
Obviously I’m going to be writing fiction. I want to be a fiction author. I didn’t set out to be a blogger, not in the beginning. That wasn’t the thing I thought of when I considered my dreams. There’s nothing wrong with being that style of writing, either, but my point is that when I wanted to be a writer, “blogging” hadn’t been invented yet. I had never even heard of the internet at all before. I’m not here to write a textbook or whatever, so there’s not really a point to me trying to write a bunch of polished posts like I am.
So where does that leave me? With my original mission: I’m here to report on what this life is like for those who wanna know the more complete story. I think might end up sharing fiction I write here, but that’s for another day.
Either way, that’s where I’m at right now. I may or may not stick to a posting schedule. I think I will try, just so it’s both better for you to know when to come back and also better for SEO reasons (*~algorithms~*) but I might throw in the occasional random post depending on what’s going on.
It’s the day after typing this up – casual or not, I gotta edit – and I’m feeling much better about this. I’m going to work up to “diversifying my portfolio” and “income streams” or whatever, but I’m okay with keeping it simple for now. I’m still really new at this. I’m still learning. That’s okay.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a new writer. I have been writing since I could hold a crayon and have loved every moment of it. I like writing reports for school, blog posts, journal entries, grocery lists, short fiction, long fiction, D&D campaigns, songs…(though I kinda suck at the last two to be honest). I am, however, new to the publishing game.
I knew going into this that I would be getting rejections. That’s all a part of this life – you literally cannot please everyone and you should never try. However, it is tiring. I know some of you are looking at the rejection counter and thinking “Three rejections has you frustrated? I got twice that last week!” But it’s that plus feeling stressed to the point of exhaustion at work, things going on in life in general, a lack of blog views and self-promotion always makes me feel a little weird about myself.
And it’s perfectly natural to be at this point right now. It can take up to a year of consistent posting before a blog gets any significant readership, I haven’t done a whole lot of promotion (mainly just throwing links up on Twitter and Instagram), and I definitely haven’t been putting in enough hours for me to start getting squirrely.
What I’m saying is I’m feeling a bit of unwarranted self-consciousness and it’s annoying.
So what am I doing about it?
I’m going to write my way out.
“Writer’s block” is caused by a number of things, mostly internal. You might have doubts about your abilities like I do now. Sometimes you feel like you “peaked” with your last story or post. Maybe it feels like nothing you write is original enough (this is also part of my problem). Other times you look at the project on the whole and immediately decide you need a nap.
To work through our writer’s block, we first need to understand what is causing it. Do some journaling about it, write about every thought that comes up every time we start to put pen to paper or finger to key. This isn’t for anyone else to read, just for us.
Let’s take a look at these different causes and how we can work around them:
1. “I suck at writing/I peaked with my last piece”
This might be the most common block out there. You sit down to write something that you know other people are going to read (or at least, you hope they do), and suddenly every word you put down is wrong. Sentences fail to flow, your writing voice sounds hoarse, you can’t seem to get to the point, and dialogue comes off like it was written by robots. Not the hilarious AI writing, either. How do you fix this? By not giving a shit anymore. Boom – next problem!
Just kidding. But also kind of not.
I have two different strategies for dealing with this, depending on how bad I feel at the time. If I am feeling more lukewarm about what I’m doing, I just write what I tell myself are journal entires. If something good comes out of it, then sure I’ll use that, but I don’t expect it at all. For example, if I want to write a blog post but feel like it’s not going to be good, I just write a journal entry about what I was wanting to write. This isn’t anything that anyone will ever see, so it allows me to let go of the perfectionism holding me back.
If I am completely down about my abilities, I like to not only write something I know will never be read, but also cheer myself up with some ridiculousness. In the example of trying to write a blog post, I sit down and pretend that this is the final draft and write something patently horrible. Break all of the rules, fill that mother up with cliches, swear to your heart’s content. Use the same word twelve sentences in a row. Make your topic terrible too: write about something completely insane, or completely inane. “An ode to my…um,” looks around, “post-it notes.”
Though not at all healthy, I am also a fan of picking up something that’s been published that is way worse than anything I write. Somebody paid for that, friend. And someone will pay for what you write as well.
2. “Nothing I write is original enough”
This is another problem I’m running into right now. I decided to start doing my “learning out loud” series which involves doing research. But then this ends up showing me just how many people write about the things I’m trying to write about. Obviously others have written about these things, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do much research on them, but my brain immediately decides to discount anything I could say.
But I’m not just writing about, say, researching. I’m writing about my view on it, what information I found and what I plan on doing with it. Eventually, after I’ve put that plan into action enough times, I’ll be writing about my own personal experience with it. Some people won’t connect with what I write, but others will only connect with it.
When it comes to writing fiction, it’s the same. We aren’t just writing a ghost story or romance novel, we’re writing about our whole experience with the subject. If we write with our own, unique, authentic voice, then we will be writing something original.
I will be writing about this topic soon, I think. It’s worth exploring even if just to ease my own mind about if I have done enough for this or not.
3. “I need a nap”
Oof. I get this feeling so hard sometimes. This usually happened to me with school projects. You know that there is a ton of stuff to research, a bunch of pages to write about something you’re not super excited about, and then you have to give it to someone who is going to judge it harshly, which can affect if you’re able to go to college or not, which in turn affects your career choices and how much money you’re going to make in the futu–
Hold up, buddy. Take a breath.
You don’t even know what your paper is about yet.
If you haven’t guessed yet, I am anxiety-prone and can be easily overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed makes me sleepy. It’s almost like my body is sizing up some kind of beast in the wild it needs to chase down, and decides it needs to gather some energy and strength first. But we aren’t hunting buffalo, we’re researching and then writing a paper. So how do I approach this?
Back in the day, I would just take that nap and then scramble on the last night, driven by adrenaline to stay up until it was done. Today, however, I have a much better way to deal: breaking it up into chunks.
First, pick a topic. Nothing matters until a topic is chosen. You can’t hand in a paper with no topic, because you can’t write a paper with no topic, so don’t bother thinking about that part yet. Same thing with a novel.
If you look at writing a novel with the “everything done at once” mode, then of course you’re going to want to take a nap. But you haven’t even thought of a plot yet! Don’t waste energy on the publicity or editing or reviews until you at the very least have a plot.
Once you get the plot, you can start to do your research and world building – one tiny detail at a time. Once you get your topic, you can start your research. Gather your source citations, figure out where your main character lives, etc. Break up whatever your project is into the smallest bites imaginable, and don’t even think about the others yet.
But what if…?
What if we do suck at writing? What if we did peak with our last piece? What if we really are writing what everyone else is writing? What if our project really is too big?
Then we need to keep writing! It might be hard, but if this were easy, literally everyone who ever said “I wanna write a book” would have done it already. Why must we keep writing? Because it’s what we want to do – and we can’t get better until we have done what we want to do over and over and over again.
So write until your hands cramp and your eyes dry out.* Write until you have no more words to write. Finish your projects as best you can, figure out what went well, what didn’t go well, and what you can do better in the future, and then do it all over again.
*Don’t push yourself too hard, for reals.
So then what do I write?
Anything! As I mentioned already, now is the time I’m going to write myself out of this slump, but what does this mean? Broadly speaking, it really does mean write more and with sheer abandon. For me, however, this means that I am going to give the “personal essay” thing a shot.
In between researching for blog posts and my novel, I am going to write a boatload of essays. And they are going to be terrible. It’s something I haven’t actually done since I attempted college, and I’d like to publish some on Medium eventually. Those will be what I turn to when I get stuck again while writing posts. Something new, something without a deadline, something I understand I will be terrible at to begin with. Anything to get words flowing again.
What do you think you might turn to when you get stuck? Which one of these blocks is more common for you – or is there another I didn’t mention here you have trouble with? Let’s talk about it in the comments!