Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Writing Through Difficult Times

By Shanna Swendson, @ShannaSwendson

Part of The Writer’s Life Series 

JH: When the world is falling apart, it's hard to be in the right emotional space to write. Shanna Swendson share tips on balancing stress, emotion, and getting words down when we need to. 

Shanna Swendson earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas but decided it was more fun to make up the people she wrote about and became a novelist. She’s written a number of fantasy novels for teens and adults, including the Enchanted, Inc. series and the Rebel Mechanics series. She devotes her spare time to reading, knitting, and music. Her most recent release is the young adult fairy tale fantasy Spindled.

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Take it away Shanna…

Writing fiction is emotional work. We have to draw on our own emotions in order to write words that will affect readers’ emotions. There’s also a lot of emotion involved in the process of writing. It can lift you up when it’s going well, and it can drag you down when it’s a struggle. 

I’m often physically exhausted after writing a particularly emotional scene. That means that when things in your life or in the world affect you emotionally, it can make it difficult to write. When we’re in the middle of a pandemic with a struggling economy and a heightened awareness of injustice, that’s a lot to deal with, and if you’re struggling to write right now, you’re not alone. 

How do you keep writing when you’re struggling to stay sane?

First, you need to give yourself a break by being aware that this is a legitimate issue. You’re not slacking off if you aren’t as productive in these times as you usually are or if your work isn’t of the same quality. 

I just finished reviewing and revising the book I was working on when the pandemic really hit the United States, and there’s a sharp drop-off point in quality. There’s no emotion on the page, and the scenes were more summary than actual scene. It was like all my emotions were tied up in what was going on in the world, or else I was shutting everything down in order to cope, and that affected my writing. So, don’t expect as much of yourself. These really are unprecedented times, the kind of an era that will end up being discussed in history books.

If you want or need to stay productive, try switching to a different kind of work. 

When I’m emotionally disengaged, I become more analytical. It’s been a great time for proofreading and for analyzing the plot of a draft to figure out what needed to be fixed in the next round of revisions. Doing that work got me back into a groove, and I was eventually able to rewrite that book that got disrupted. This might also be a time for doing research for a story idea, developing a plot, or working on publicity plans, depending on where you are in your career or your writing process. 

What if you don’t have time to take a break, if you have a deadline that requires you to keep writing?

That’s more difficult. One of my best friends was diagnosed with cancer and then rather abruptly passed away just as I started to write the third book in my Enchanted, Inc. series. She’d been serving as a beta reader on those books. I’d send her each chapter as I wrote it and get her feedback. That meant I associated her with the books, and all I could think about as I tried to write was that she wouldn’t get to read this one. That got really distracting. I also didn’t have the constant feedback or demands for the next chapter to force me to keep writing. But I had a deadline, and I had to get the book written. I knew she would want me to get it written and published.

A lot of the things I’ve recommended in previous posts for establishing a routine helped in this situation. I picked a specific time to write. For that one book, it ended up being fairly late at night. I think it might have helped that this was a change in habit for me, so it felt different, and it was a time when it seemed easier to shut the world out. It may help to change your routine if you’re struggling when times are difficult.

(Here's more on The Best Time to Write)

I also started some “rituals” associated with writing. I moved to a specific space that was away from the desk where I’d been writing these books, and I played a television show soundtrack CD while I worked. It was music designed to be in the background, so it worked well to be just enough noise to drown out extraneous thoughts and keep me in the zone but wasn’t enough noise to distract me. I turned out the rest of the lights in the house and just kept on the lamp near where I was working, which made me feel like I was off in a different world. I set firm word count requirements for myself to make sure I made progress.

(Here's more on Break out of the Box and Escape the Rut: Tips to Boost Your Creativity)

I still had to do a lot of revision on that book. When I looked at it again a month or so later, I realized that it was pretty dark—which was bad for a book that was supposed to be a comedy. You could tell I wasn’t in a great place when I wrote it, but I was able to revise it. Anything you write during a difficult time is going to reflect that. When you have a little more distance from the process of writing that draft, you’ll be able to fix it. Because revision is more analytical, it might be easier to do that than to write the first draft.

Taking care of yourself will help your writing. 

Don’t get too sucked into the news or social media. Talk to your friends, especially writer friends, for support. Read books you love. Get enough rest and exercise. Take small breaks to recharge. 

If you find yourself really affected so that you can’t stop thinking about the bad things, if you feel really gloomy and things you normally enjoy don’t perk you up, or if you’re having trouble sleeping, eating, or doing normal activities, you may need to seek professional help. A therapist, counselor, or psychologist can help you find the coping mechanisms you need to get through all the turmoil.

About Spindled

She’d always read fairy tales. She didn’t expect to find herself living one . . .

Once upon a time, a princess was brought to a strange land for safekeeping, until the day the curse placed on her in infancy expired and she could return to her kingdom.

Lucy Jordan is not that princess.

But thanks to a case of mistaken identity, she’s kidnapped by an evil enchantress’s men and taken to a magical world, where she finds herself living out a story that seems awfully familiar. Meanwhile, Lucy’s friend Dawn suspects the “aunts” who brought her up might have something to do with Lucy’s disappearance, and she feels compelled to travel through the magical gateway she finds in the garden shed to find her friend.

Now Lucy’s rewriting the storybooks as she goes on the run with a handsome young squire and plots to save Dawn’s rightful kingdom from the evil enchantress, while Dawn is drawn closer and closer to her true destiny, entirely unaware of how dangerous a spindle can be for her.

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