Have you ever lost traction on a writing project, or wondered if you can actually finish writing a whole book? I’ve been there!
This is the story of how I finally beat writer’s block.
With my first novel, Poison Bay, I often wondered if I could write a whole book. You can’t really know till you’ve done it. Just write. My best suggestion if that’s holding you back is that instead of asking yourself “what if I can’t write a book” try asking “what if I can?” Reframe the question.
With my second novel in the Wild Crimes series, Venom Reef, I already had evidence that I could indeed write a whole book, but then the manuscript stalled at 38,000 words.
Not a small interruption. It stalled for more than two years!
I’d invested a lot in this manuscript.
- I loved the story and the setting, and was excited about the development of my continuing characters and how it would build the series.
- I’d done an expensive and difficult research trip to a tiny island on the Great Barrier Reef. I’d interviewed university researchers and made videos and taken a million photos and videos. I’d taken two weeks out of a busy schedule for a personal writing retreat and written a chunk of words.
- When I got home from the trip, I’d persevered with bleary-eyed 5 am writing slots, eating away at my word count target.
- And I’d even added a teaser for Venom Reef to the back of Book 1.
Then, suddenly, at 38,000 words, I just couldn’t seem to touch it.
Kind and enthusiastic friends kept asking me how my book was going, which is such a lovely thing for them to do, but also excruciating.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
Why did it stall?
I’ve done a lot of thinking about why it happened. This is the short version.
Firstly, an important feature of one of my characters became socially controversial. It was very important to me not to accidentally write something that would be insensitive or hurtful.
Secondly, I became uneasy about another character’s strongly counter-cultural choices. Could I write these aspects so that readers found them “real”?
The specifics of my situation might be a million miles from what’s worrying you.
But at heart, these were my worries:
- People might not like my story.
- I might not have the skill to carry off a difficult thing.
Do those sound more like concerns that could affect you??
How I overcame writer’s block and finally finished my book
The first draft of Venom Reef is now finished. Those final 53,000 words came together in a kind of verbal avalanche, in the space of about five months, even while I was working long hours in my business and dealing with family issues.
These are the five things that seemed to make the difference for me, and could make a difference for you.
1. Get inspired again
I mentally shelved the two big blockages mentioned above for a while by focusing on something in a completely different category: I organised another research trip.
I’m a former journalist and I love research. Plus, it comes fairly naturally to me.
I found a way to combine it with a 7-day holiday with my mum to north Queensland. (She finds my research fun, too.) I thought about where I’d go and who I’d interview, not just for Venom Reef but for the next books in the Wild Crimes series. I spent time surrounded by the ocean my characters will be surrounded by. I tracked down and made appointments with venom researchers at James Cook University. I found a nature park where I could go on a cruise through natural swamps and see crocs launch themselves at me from a metre or two away (without getting eaten – bonus!), and which even had some cassowaries (enormous flightless birds with scary claws) and other lovely deadly things.
I got excited.
I gained momentum.
When it was time to actually open up the dusty old Scrivener file and start writing again, the tropical breezes were tickling the corners of my mind, ideas were sparking and firing, and the momentum just carried my fingers onto the keys.
Sure, there were a few hiccups in those early days of getting back into it, but the momentum had begun, and I kept feeding it, and I now had the strength to push stubbornly through hesitation, because the inspiration had returned.
An idea for you:
If you are blocked, try to regain your passion for your story by working on something which you greatly enjoy, but which is on quite a different tangent to the source of your blockage. It might be research online or in person, like mine was. Or it might be developing character outlines, attending an applicable course, talking to someone who is immensely supportive of your book, or sitting in a coffee shop and listening for dialogue you can adapt and incorporate.
The important thing is that you love it, it advances your book project, but it’s in a different area from the blockage.
2. Deal with blockages
If Technique No. 1 was ignoring the blockages, Technique No. 2 was the opposite. I stopped looking at them nervously from the corner of my eye and faced them head-on.
- Manuscript changes: I took some pretty bold action to neutralise the first blockage. This took some soul-searching, some serious lateral thinking, and a willingness to stop being “precious”.
- Psychological changes: The second blockage was essentially psychological and had no external solution, so I worked hard on improving my self-talk. I told myself (sternly and often) that no book is loved by all readers, some readers will actually be intrigued by the counter-cultural choices of my characters, and that I have a great team of beta readers and a good editor to help me test and strengthen those aspects to make them convincing. “Let’s get the first draft down, and *then* fix it, Belinda.”
I also worked on distracting myself from both concerns by continuing the momentum, celebrating the growing word count, and getting engrossed in the scene-by-scene situations needing solutions as the manuscript took shape.
An idea for you:
Is there a big issue that’s tying you in knots, and really does have some foundation in reality? Could you actually remove the blockage altogether by lateral thinking – without compromising your vision?
Or do you simply need to change your self-talk? What would you say to another writer in your situation?
3. Create accountability
I’d heard of accountability partners before and thought it sounded awkward and maybe artificial and possibly dull. 😬 Then I stumbled into fun Skype catchups with a writing buddy who moved overseas, which somehow morphed into accountability meetings. Every time we met I felt encouraged and spurred on. Brilliant!
- Monthly catchups worked well for me. More often would be too much pressure and also not give me enough flexibility. Longer than a month, and I’d lose focus amid the busybusy. Do what suits your personality best.
- I experimented with setting appropriate targets. Initially, I tried for 30,000 words per month and wrote nothing. It was just too much of a stretch-goal. Then I settled on 10,000 words per month, and that turned out to be a good fit. Daily targets didn’t work well for me. Monthly targets were more fluid, allowing me to catch up after interruptions, or get ahead if I knew a bad week was coming.
- Our goal-setting was aspirational rather than punitive, which suits my personality perfectly. We set our own targets (not each other’s targets), and then reported back next time. I loved being able to say: “Yay! I did it this month!” and have my friend celebrate with me. It gave me something exciting to aim for. But there was no disapproval towards each other if a target slipped for some reason. We just said “life happens” and set our sights on the next goal.
An idea for you:
Could you find an accountability partner, another writer perhaps? Or they might not even be a writer, just someone who really cares about you and supports your desire to write. They can be in another town or even another country if you don’t know anyone locally. You could always just try having a casual chat with them about writing, and then if you gel, see if they’d like to do the accountability thing. We are all motivated differently.
4. Change writing times
I used to write at 5 am, because everyone I admired seemed to write at 5 am.
But it was such a slog. What I wrote read okay when I looked at it later (which initially surprised me!), but at the time every word felt like blood from a stone, and my daily word counts were low.
Then I experimented with writing after dinner at night, in a timeslot that might have been spent watching television. Only for about an hour or 90 minutes, because I still do have to get up early and sleep is important for health.
After-dinner writing worked perfectly with my body clock. I now find myself clock-watching during evening committee meetings because I want to get to my writing. 😉 (I assure you I NEVER felt that way about 5 am.)
An idea for you:
If you’re feeling blocked, is it just possible that you are trying to force yourself to write at the wrong time of day FOR YOU? Maybe experiment with some different times – morning, evening, lunchtime, on the train, in the car while the kids do sport, etc etc. I realise it can be difficult to find a time that fits with other responsibilities, but maybe there’ll be a better one than the one you’re currently using.
5. Enjoy it!
Once the momentum got underway, I just loved writing this book. It became a special treat, no longer a scary or intimidating thing. All the worries became things to be dealt with “sometime, later, maybe”. I just kept telling myself the story and enjoying the discovery.
An idea for you:
Could you stop being quite so hard on yourself, and just enjoy writing your book? Maybe let it become a stress reliever instead of a source of stress, and, finally, the words might flow.
What’s next for me?
I’ve blogged before about what to do when you finish the first draft. But this is my basic plan with this one:
- The manuscript rests for a month.
- Big Revision 1 begins. I’ll set goals with my accountability buddy, and test them to see if they’re realistic.
- Beta readers for about six weeks. I’ve already invited them so they’ve had a couple of months’ notice, and I will keep them posted if the timeframe needs to adjust. (I’ve written a book about beta readers and feedback, if you’re looking for more ideas.)
- Big Revision 2. More accountability goals.
- Editor, typesetting, proofreading … published!
Finally, the book I love is happening.
What about you?
Have you had experience with writer’s block? Have you ever been blocked quite as long as I have?? What helped you overcome it? Please share your discoveries and join the conversation below, so we can all help one another. 🙂
Please share to your writing friends and social networks. Thank you so much!