Monday, March 19, 2018

How to Write When the Last Thing You Want to Do is Write

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing is an activity that requires of a lot of brainpower. We tap into our intellect, or emotions, or sense of empathy, and draw from within to create a story. When life throws us a curve and sends all our brainpower in one “this sucks” direction, writing screeches to a halt.

Last week was a bad week for me. It started out great with the last days of a fantastic conference in Alabama, seeing old friends and making some new ones, then a lot of bad news crashed down on me at once. Just trying to write a post for today was difficult, and I stared at my list of topic ideas knowing I wasn’t going to be able to write a single one.

Hence, this post.

Life gets hard for lots of folks every day, and there’s a good chance many of you are having a rough time right now, too. I’m on deadlines, I have things I need to do, so curling into a ball and ignoring the world for a week or two isn’t an option. It’s even less of an option for writers with kids and jobs and many more obligations than I have.

When life gets hard, here are some things to try when you don’t think you can handle writing right now:

Use writing as a distraction

Writing lets you loose yourself in someone else’s problems for a while. It gives you an output for whatever emotions are clogging up your brain. If your current WIP isn’t working, try writing blog posts, or short stories, or random bits of whatever hits you. Pull our your favorite writing prompts and run wild.

This is my goal for this week, and I know it won’t be easy. Sitting at the keyboard will be hard. I’m not going to want to do it. I’m going to hit snooze on my alarm several times before I get up and move to my desk. But the more I focus on my characters and my story, the less I’ll have to think about my own bad news. I doubt my productivity will the be the same as usual, but who knows? Maybe my focus will actually be a benefit.

Edit what you’ve already written

If being creative is impossible, go through your manuscript and edit. This could be a good time for those tedious, but useful edits, such as searching for -ly words or words that often spell trouble.

If editing it too much, use this time to check for continuity or any scenes that don’t hold your attention. Being in a bad mental place might make it much easier for slow or weak scenes to pop. Anytime your mind starts to wander and you feel like skimming, mark the scene to look at later when you’re in a better head space.

Read older manuscripts you gave up on

Some manuscripts get shoved in a drawer and forgotten, but actually aren’t bad (I’m working on one of those now). Re-read work you haven’t touched in ages and see if there’s anything worth reviving. Maybe time away has given you new perspective, or you’ve learned a necessary skill you didn’t have when you first wrote it.

Do tasks you don’t have time for when you’re writing

If you truly can’t write, maybe you can still be productive in your career. Is this a good time to do some of those marketing tasks you keep putting off?
  • When was the list time you updated your Amazon or Goodreads author page?
  • Does your blog need some work or cleanup?
  • Is this a good time to create that social media page you’ve been meaning to do?
  • Could you research conferences or festivals you’d like to attend, or would want to attend after your book is published? Schools for future school visits? Bookstores to visits and introduce yourself to?
Author “busywork” can be a nice way to keep your mind occupied and get something done you needed to do anyway.

If all else fails…Read those novels you’ve been meaning to read

Reading is working for a writer. We learn how to tell a great story by reading great stories, so if writing isn’t going to happen no matter how much you try, shift to the other side. Not only does it distract you from your problems, it’s reminds you why you love to write and why you want to tell your own story. Reading can reinvigorate you when your emotional and mental wells run dry.

Writing during tough times is hard. It’s okay to take a break when you have to, but it’s also okay to push through and use your writing to help you deal with personal issues. Do what you need to do to get through it, and cut yourself some slack if it’s harder than you expected. Some days might be better and you can get some writing done, others might be hide from the world days. Do what you gotta do.

For me, I’m going to focus on the problems of two fantasy-world teenagers whose lives I’m making miserable. I don’t know how much I’ll get done each morning, but every word will be one more than I would have written if I didn’t try.

Have you had to write during tough personal times? How did you handle it? What tips can you share?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. ahhhh... The mind-numbing times -- they're horrible...

    When my mom passed, after I had done hospice with her for 6 weeks, I swear I wrote through every stage of grief. All were 'letters' to her or to God or to anyone who fell into my cross-hairs.

    After that was exhausted, I fell into reading novels where it was acceptable to be in tears or angry or accepting of fate.

    Sometimes, you just can't write - there are too many words or no words left. I prefer the no words left, as that seems to be the point where you can look out the window and focus on some tiny, beautiful thing that makes you smile without thinking. And that's what is needed right then: to smile without thinking. And suddenly the 'right' words spill out, maybe for the one scene that refused to be written.

    The passing of time doesn't make anything better really, but since we know that particular horrible thing can't happen again, the further we get from it time-wise, the more we relax from the shock of it. And then, comes a day that, like the smile unbidden, we rise and go to our keyboard, full of good words -- and our Muse sings a little happy song. :o)

    Thanks for sharing and reminding us that nothing is forever...

    1. my mother just passed last month, your words " That particular horrible thing can't happen again" struck hard. I also lost a whole litter of baby kittens to fleas lost week. I have been able to edit, and read a little. thanks.

  2. I'm sorry for whatever bad times you're going through. I hope the better times come back soon.

  3. Sorry to hear you have bad stuff going on. I'll say a prayer for you.

  4. Hugs to you in whatever tough times you are experiencing. I hope your days look brighter soon!

  5. First, I'm sorry to hear that you're going through a tough time.

    Second, I thank you for another inspiring and timely post. I appreciate that you continue to motivate despite your struggles.

    I'm pushing through the middle of my current WIP, and just when I'm gaining traction again...WHAM! We get hit with the 3rd Nor'easter in 1 1/2 weeks, causing us to lose power for 30 hours. Needless to say, this scrambled my write/work/family schedule. Oh, and there's another storm on Wednesday. (Springtime in New England--never a dull moment.)

    Thanks for the perspective. So now, I will resist the urge to pro-craft-i-nate and put my butt in the chair now that the chaos has settled. Can't work in the garden, anyway, because it's covered in snow.

  6. There's always the thought that deadlines don't count when you've been 'shot in the heart'. I won't say 'have a nice day' I got too many of the: sorry to hear your mother has passed, have a nice day' Peace and blessings to you, Janice.

  7. Thanks for encouraging us, even though life has been hard for you lately. I trust things will turn around soon!

  8. Hang in there, Janice. Wishing you uplifting energy to pay back all the times you've uplifted me with your posts.

  9. I am now getting back into my writing. I have put it off for so long but as I turn another year older tomorrow and look back on my life I realize I must live my dreams. This post is so inspiring and uplifting at the same time. I just started a new job so my energy is a little low plus I had lost a few close family members the last few weeks so I understand how that can zap someone. My prayers to you Janice and all here who lost a loved one. I will keep you all in my prayers. God bless and thank you for this great post. I will definitely read one post each day before I start to write. Thanks again.