Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Identifying a Loss of Momentum vs. Writer’s Block

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some days, we sit down to write and the words won’t come. Are we blocked? Maybe not.

Even before the pandemic and quarantine intruded into life, I’d hit a patch in my writing where I wasn’t getting much done. I’d just finished a major revision, so this wasn’t unexpected—I usually need a break after a draft is done—but it dragged on longer than usual. Every time I sat down to write, I couldn’t.

I wasn’t blocked, I knew that. I just didn’t have any urge to write even though I knew I should be writing. I’ve been writing long enough that I knew the difference, but not every writer has realized yet that just because you have trouble writing, doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Not Being Able to Write Doesn’t Always Mean You Have Writer’s Block

We get tired. We get stressed. We have insane things going on in the world that sap our energy. These things can easily make it difficult if not impossible to write. And thankfully, it’s temporary.

Losing your writing momentum falls somewhere between blocked and burned out. Every sentence is a struggle. Writing an entire paragraph takes three times as long. You still have the ability to write if you really push yourself, but you just don’t want to.

(Here’s more on How to Write When the Last Thing You Want to Do is Write)

Here are three reasons why you might have lost your writing momentum:

You’ve Lost Enthusiasm for the Work, or for Writing

There are days when writing isn’t fun, and when you face a lot of them in a row, you start dreading sitting down at that keyboard. Writing gets hard, and instead of making you happy, it brings you down or even makes you angry. You no longer want to do it, or no longer want to work on that particular novel.

Maybe you’re stuck in the story, maybe it’s taking emotional energy you need elsewhere, maybe you’re just not as interested in this story as you once were. There are plenty of reasons to cease caring about something you’re writing.

What to do: Trust your instincts and walk away from it. It’s possible you just need a break, and once you recover you’ll re-engage with the project. A break will also give you time to gain perspective and some necessary objectivity about the project. Is there a problem with it? Is it even worth finishing?

(Here's more on What to Do When Your Writing Stalls Out)

Maybe the lack of enthusiasm isn’t about the project at all, but you’re facing challenges with writing itself. Perhaps you need a skill you haven’t developed yet, or you’re feeling pressures to publish or sell that are outside of your control. You might feel that your dream is unachievable and wonder what’s the point of working so hard for something that’s never going to happen? Publishing is a hard business and even the pros get slammed with self doubt.

What to do: Take a break. If you’re feeling “less than” in any way, writing when you’re unhappy will likely compound that. Try focusing or engaging in something non-writing related. Play games, do crafts, binge-watch your favorite shows. Stay away from books and writing, as even reading can trigger comparisons about your work versus a published novel.

(Here’s more on A Three-Step Plan for Returning to a Partially Finished Manuscript)

You’re Brain is Distracted

This is where most of us are likely falling right now. There’s a lot going on in the world and so much of it is scary. It’s all everyone is talking about, and it’s easy to get overloaded by pandemic talk.

Even when the world isn’t surreal, life can steal your writing focus. Personal problems, family issues, work hassles, even positive situations can distract you, such as vacations, birthdays, socializing with friends, or a new romance.

Whatever the cause, you’re thinking about everything but your writing. So really, it’s no surprise that you can’t gather your thoughts enough to focus.

What to do: Unless you’re on a hard deadline (and self-imposed ones don’t count—only deadlines where someone is waiting for the manuscript and there are repercussions if you miss it), deal with life for a while. Writing will still be there when you’re ready for it. It’s much better to take a break then to struggle, and anything you write while distracted will likely need revising anyway, so in the long run, you’ll probably be more productive after the break writing new words than fixing old ones.

If you are on a hard deadline, cut out as many distractions as you can, especially right before a writing session. Turn off your email, don’t check your phone, don’t talk to anyone who might send your brain in the wrong direction. Then find a quiet place, sit down, and write. It might be hard and slow going at first, but keep at it best you can.

If writing is impossible, then talk to the person you need to send the manuscript to and see if you can get an extension on your deadline.

(Here’s more on Just Say No to Writing (When You Need to).)

You’ve Dropped the Plot or Story Threads

Sometimes writing momentum stalls because the story does. You hit a wall, or the plot went off track and you got lost in the weeds. You might not even remember what it was you wanted to write, or that original plan changed so much you aren’t even sure what the book is about anymore.

You might have also lost the plot because it was never solid to begin with. This happens a lot with premise novels that stall after the setup, because all we have is a neat idea, but no protagonist with a problem driving the plot yet.

What to do: Step back and examine your manuscript. Write an editorial map and examine what you have going on in every scene and how those goals move the plot forward. Odds are you’ll spot where you went off track, or where the story starts to unravel.

If the problem is uncertainty where to go next, look at your core conflict and the main story problem the book is trying to solve. If you don’t know what that is, that’s very likely your problem—just figure out what the conflict is and re-plot to resolve that problem. Also look at your protagonist’s goal. What are they trying to do? What are they trying to do it? Goals drive the plot, so if the plot has stalled, odds are it’s a goal issue.

If that doesn’t help, then look at your story. What is this book about? What tale do you want to tell? It’s possible you’re focusing on the minutia of what happens and have lost sight of the reasons why the protagonist wants to solve this problem or go on this journey.

(Here’s more on The Perils of Not Knowing What Happens Next in Your Story)

Losing your writing momentum is never fun, but it’s usually solved with a break or a re-evaluation of the project. In most cases, it’s your brain’s way of saying it needs time off, and once you let your creative well refill, your momentum and urge to write returns.

Have you ever lost your writing momentum? How did you get it back? Are you stalled right now?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

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 ShifterBlue 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 Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Thanx- you hit a lot of nails with one soft hammer. Keep it up-
    Andy Garza