Monday, September 04, 2017

Rebooting Your Writing When You've Stopped for too Long

By Elisabeth Staab, @ElisabethStaab

Part of the How They Do It Series

Elisabeth secretly loved getting sent to her room as a kid so she could devour her pile of Nancy Drew books. To this day she takes something to read everywhere, and the stories with happy endings are her favorite. She writes paranormal and contemporary romance, because vampires and tortured athletes make everything better. Follow her newsletter (where she swears she will send notice the second she spots Matt Bomer in the wild), or socialize with her online when she’s not busy adulting.

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Take it away Elizabeth...

Getting back on the writing horse. Err…the writing bike? (Beginning again when you’ve stopped for too long.)

I’m ashamed to admit that up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t written a word in months. As in, the better part of a year. So when Janice suggested I write about overcoming a writing struggle, this seemed like the right thing to share even if I’d rather not tell a soul how epically I’ve slacked off.

I mean, you know, stuff happens. At first it was only a hiccup. We were preparing to move so I sacrificed writing time to the effort. Then a little bit of pain in my shoulder turned into a whole lot of pain in my shoulder and arm, so the writing itself got difficult. For a time, I could barely get my kids to school, let alone work. Yes, I could’ve used voice-dictation, but I was too depressed to try.

You know how it is, right? You get behind schedule. Then you’re super-duper behind. Then, somehow, you’re so far in the hole there you’ve convinced yourself you’ll never see daylight. The ever-growing list of STUFF I HAVEN’T DONE YET looms large and angry, so you curl up under the covers and take a nap instead (at least I do). After all, you’ve failed so hard what’s the point in trying now? For all you know, you’ve forgotten how to write.

I’m here to tell you I have been there many times, and gotten the T-shirt. We had a club, but nobody had time to come to the meetings.

Some wise guy once said failure isn’t in falling but in staying down. So how do you get back up when there’s so much stuff piled on your back? Results may vary, but I’m gonna tell you what’s worked for me. Personally, I think the first point is the most important, so if you take nothing else away, I hope you remember that one:

1. Pick one thing, and only one thing. 

This is the same advice I give my kids when their room is so messy “There’s NO way I can clean all this stuff,” but I think it applies pretty universally. Especially for those of us who struggle with anxiety, it’s easy to look around at the giant mess or the towering to-do pile and go completely blank. 

The trick for me was, I finally decided to forget the big list and pick one small item. Things like just looking over the plot for my languishing work in progress to remind myself of what I’d been doing before disaster struck or posting an ad for a $0.99 ebook bundle helped me get back in the frame of mind to work. Most importantly, I went to bed knowing I’d done something even if it wasn’t much. Soon enough that success built on itself and I was able to re-write that to-do list without hyperventilating and even dive into conquering it.

2. Take a look at the daily schedule. 

When I thought hard, I realized I had more time than I’d been giving myself credit for. Even during the summer when the kids were not only home but fighting like cats and dogs, there were blissful moments of reprieve. 

I’d always been an early riser, but I used to spend that time doing household stuff; cleaning the kitchen, starting breakfast or packing lunches, tossing laundry in the machine and whatnot. Yes, it made for a more orderly house, but when I reclaimed that time and used it to journal or work on my WIP, not only did I have a greater sense of accomplishment but my overall mental health improved. 

Sometimes the biggest hurdle is simply beginning, so I gave myself permission to write literally anything and to be brutally honest. Even if I’d only end up tossing it in the trash. Even if it was about my frustration with my kids and the fact that the dog had peed on the floor. I was using my voice again and squeezing in a much-needed clearing of emotional baggage. One night after a sweat-inducing nightmare, I used the time to write down the opening scene of a romantic thriller. Even if I never finish, it got the words flowing. Who knows? Maybe someday I will.

3. Set realistic goals. 

That sounds like the easy one, right? It always does to me, but then I get super ambitious with myself. “Okay, I can usually write 1k an hour, so if I write for eight hours straight, I can get this book done in ten days. No sweat!” Too bad it doesn’t turn out that way realistically—at least not for me, but my hat is off to the folks I know who can write fast on a consistent basis. 

When life happens and I fall further and further behind, the despair only makes things worse. And John Lennon was right about how life happens when you’re busy making other plans. Guaranteed, if I plan a solid six-hour work day? One of my kids will get sick or injured and there goes my afternoon. That 1k/hour goal can also knock me on my butt really fast when there is zero room for error. 

These days I plot my deadlines on the calendar and figure out what’s the absolute minimum I need to do. Then I give myself a shiny sticker on the calendar for every day I reach that goal. Trust me on the stickers. Your inner child will love them. 

I’ve also had success with some of the many word count apps like WriteTrack, PaceMaker, or 5k per hour. The latter has been helpful for testing out different scenarios to determine under what conditions I’m able to write fastest. I always try to overshoot my daily goal, but if I only do the bare-minimum, then I’ve achieved success and boy does that feel good.

4. Find roadblocks before they surprise you. 

So much can happen to trip me up. Kids, social media, general fatigue, a messy house… The list goes on. Apps like Freedom or WriteorDie force me to stay off social media and focus. WriteorDie also helps turn off my editor brain, which I really like. Little things like making sure I’m fed and hydrated throughout the day help with falling asleep every time I sit down to work. 

I also try taking a quick walk around the block if I’m really struggling and I’ll voice-dictate onto my phone or treat myself to an audiobook while I do. When the kids are home I make them take reading breaks, bath breaks, and other limited-supervision activities during which I can work (when they were little I worked during their nap times), and if I can swing it I get a sitter or try to trade childcare with a neighbor. If they’re too sick to go to school they must stay in bed—no tv or video games. Yes, they will inevitably seek me out, but it makes sick days fewer and more bearable. 

Messy house? Honestly, I try to ignore it, and I attempt to save the cleaning for when I can’t write. I also forgive myself if there are still dishes in the sink at the end of the day, and fall asleep dreaming of the day when I can hire someone to help. 

Writing first thing in the morning, as I mentioned, helps me to get words down before the chaos intrudes. Not every problem can be stopped before it starts, but looking out for the common ones can only help.

5. Go easy. 

I’m sort of repeating myself here, but I think we tend to be too hard on ourselves. Some days are awesome: I get so excited by a great piece of reader mail that I wind up writing up a storm. Some days my kids wake up before dawn because of a bad dream and my morning writing plans are dust before they ever got going. 

It’s easy to feel like a failure when things fall through. Especially if it happens many days in a row. I find it helps if I make a list of the things I have done (Look, self! I updated my blog which I am terrible at, posted a Facebook ad, checked in with my street team, set up to give a month of proceeds for my latest book to hurricane relief, wrote two hundred words which is better than zero, and I didn’t strangle anyone. Success!!). Celebrating the little stuff keeps you moving forward, even if it’s not at the breakneck speed you’d like.

So how do get back into the swing of things when you’ve lost your writing mojo? I’ll take all the helpful suggestions I can get!

About Losing the Fight (royalties for September go to Houston Food Bank’s Harvey Disaster Relief)

He’s already blown his shot…

Tyler Thacker threw away his MMA title. When his brother died and he lost the girl he loved, getting his career back seemed impossible. Now that girl is in the picture again and so is his chance to set things right.

Kate Flynn hasn’t been the same since the accident that killed Tyler’s twin and left her injured. When their best friend drags her to Evergreen Grove, she comes face to face with her first love. Being around Ty pushes her to get her life in order, but it also brings up pain she’d rather have kept buried.

Tyler needs to reclaim his future. Kate needs to let go of the past. Maybe, together, they can fight through the agony of what they’ve lost. Maybe, together, they’ll win something truly amazing.

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  1. It was good to read this today. I'm in the "writing during naps" phase of a new baby and feeling pretty unproductive as a result. I keep telling myself: it eased up eventually with kid #1! It'll come back!

    1. It will! And if you haven't tried it, getting a backpack style baby carrier helped me out once in awhile as well. I'd strap the kid to my back, straighten the kitchen, work at my laptop, all while the baby drooled on my shoulder. Good times. ;)

  2. Yes! Thanks you. I'm also in the 'writing during naps' phase. I'm never quite sure how long those naps will be...

    1. My kid was a terrible napper, but now and again we'd get lucky and they'd nap for two or three hours. Fingers crossed you get more of those long naps! And preschool will be there before you know it. :)

  3. I so agree!!!! I started slacking when changing jobs in May, and then made things worse by trying to 'fix' myself. I am a pantser and for once I found that I at least had to try to plot things out, map a scene structure etc, which - as I should have known by now- completely kills my creativity. I got stuck, and did not find the energy to pick it up again, not even after a long vacation. Now I decided to write something short and fun just for myself (the fanfiction type of thing, no pressure, no-one takes them serious anyway :) ) and finally I've found back the joy in writing + it almost flows out without effort.. I need this for a while, until I get inspired enough to re-start working on the novel that I have been planning for...

  4. Great post, Elisabeth!

    Just what I needed.

    When things happen in life, I find that writing is good for me. Except when things get too hectic. I do write every day, but I'm not as productive as I'd like to be.
    My goal is to start taking at least one day off. :)

    Thanks so much for sharing.