Tuesday, November 16, 2010

27 Writing Through the Doubt

There have been a number of excellent posts about overcoming writer's block recently. Lynda Young over at W.I.P. It did one just yesterday about causes and solutions, and that and some similar articles made that dorky little light bulb go on over my head. If I was a cartoon, I'd have my own personal DUH bubble.

I've never sat and stared at a blank page and not been able to put down a single word, so I assumed I'd never really had writer's block. But that stereotypical, angsty form of the dread disease isn't the only form it takes. There's a quieter, more insiduous form that can sap your creativity just as surely. And that one I've suffered from frequently.

Even when you know where your story is going, it's sometimes excruciatingly, teeth-pullingly hard to get there. You may find that you have no time to write. You may find that you hate the previous chapter so much you can't possibly write another word until you fix it. Or maybe you have a burning need to blog, or Facebook, or Tweet, or play that extra game of Lexulous. Maybe you need to watch that rerun of Law and Order for the 47th time. The kids need something, the dog needs to be walked, a committee needs volunteers, there's a great yoga class, or--heaven forbid--a client actually needs work done. Oh, and somewhere in there, there's a very patient husband. When you're excited about the story and the characters and plot are working well, none of that stuff gets in the way of putting down 1500 words a day. When you grind down to 100 words-per-day or spend more time talking or reading about writing than actually writing, you may have joined the great, often unwashed, ranks of writer's block suffererers.

Time for an eight-step program. But first, the diagnosis. When I sat down and thought about why I'm not writing as easily, I found it all came down to doubt. Sit down and analyze what it is that brought your writing to a crawl. Is it any of the following reasons?
  1. There's something in the story that isn't working right, but you don't know what it is.
  2. You've written yourself into a corner and need time for your brain to figure out how to get out of it.
  3. You're worried that the concept of the story isn't good enough.
  4. You're worried the voice of the story isn't right or good enough.
  5. You're worried that your writing overall isn't good enough.
  6. You're worried that no matter how much you write, how many times you edit, you will never be good enough.
  7. You've heard all the great stories about other people's journeys and their success makes you more convinced than ever that items 3,4,5, AND 6 above are absolutely true.
  8. You just read a great book, a stupendous, knock-your-breath-out-of-your-chest book, and you will never be that good in a million years.
So. Now that the doubt is identified, it's time to fix it. Because that's what writers do. We fix things.
  1. If something in your story doesn't work, read the manuscript over with an editorial eye and find the problem. Show it to critique partners or beta readers. Get their feedback and LISTEN to what they say.
  2. If you've written yourself into a corner, try different techniques for getting out of it. Run 'what if' scenarios. Throw more complications at your protagonist. Review your Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC). Pick up a free tool like yWriter and plug the scenes you've already written into it, describe those scenes, put in the goals and conflicts within each one, and then start shuffling and fine tuning until something creative fires inside your brain.
  3. Analyze the concept. Break it down to a log line or pitch paragraph and see if it sounds interesting. If it doesn't, then maybe that's the problem. Keep twisting it until it's a saleable, workable premise. And yes, that may require rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty.
  4. Figure out what's wrong with the voice with the help of critique partners and beta readers. Is it wrong for the main character? For the genre? Not interesting enough? Not authentic enough?
  5. If you're worried about your writing, you can work to improve it. Read great books in a variety of genres, experiment, and write, write, write. The more you write, the better you will get.
  6. You may never be good enough--that's true. But how do you measure that? Are you a failure if you don't win a Newberry? If you don't make the NY Times Bestseller list? If you don't get published? One thing's for certain, you do fail if you never try. Maybe instead of worrying about failure, it's time to redefine success.
  7. The writers who get the most attention are those who make it fast, or make it big. For all of them, there are a lot of others who made it by clawing their way onto the midlist by the skin of their teeth, working hard on every book, and steadily getting better at their craft. Remember them instead of the J.K. Rowlings of the world.
  8. You probably will never write a knock-the-breath-out-of-your-chest book. But maybe you will speak to someone, even one person, the way that book spoke to you. Maybe one sentence in one book you write will change someone for the better, or make someone happier, or make them see something in the world in a different way. It may only be a critique partner, or a trusted friend, and that's okay. It's better than okay, because it's someone who matters to you even more than a stranger would. And maybe the next book will change two people. In the meantime, you get to keep writing, and you have the excuse to keep reading a lot of great books that make you feel amazed and humbled and inspired.
Whatever happens, writing is not about one book, or about one manuscript. We're in it for the duration, and every word we read, every word we put on paper is a step in the learning process. Each makes us better writers.

And bonus? We get to meet and spend time with other writers, and many of them--more than I can count--are the most incredible people in the world. They keep imagining all these wondrous things, and they keep working toward seemingly impossible dreams. They make the journey a joy to travel.

So what about you? Do you suffer from writers block? What brings it on? And how do you get over it?

Happy writing,



  1. YYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! Thank you for this today!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    (She says banging head against wall with revisions)

  2. Writer's block and I can be pretty familiar with one another at times. Martina knows I've struggled through it on some of my picture book manuscripts. I have banged my head against the wall trying to troubleshoot them. Eventually, I reach 'analysis paralysis,' where I've over-thought it so much that I just can't see straight. That will often leave me stagnant and I can't seem to move forward. This has been a big mistake I've made in the past.

    Martina and I went to a conference recently where a speaker said that if you're finding trouble finding time to write, then you're just not ready. I was thinking, "Wait! I do want it. I AM ready." But the truth is that she was right in a certain way. I hadn't been writing, but more because I was stuck on one specific manuscript and I allowed it to take over my momentum. I wasn't giving myself permission to let go and move on, even if it's just for now. I took that piece of advice and fueled myself to MAKE time to write- only to write something ELSE. As a PB writer, we have that luxury since manuscripts are so short. Coming up with quality ideas for picture books isn't easy. But I figure every idea I have that I pursue is another practice story in the event that it doesn't garner enough steam. It just feels good to write again.

    Even if my hard drive is loaded with manuscripts that have never seen the light of day, each one has elevated me a step higher toward becoming a better writer.

    Hang in there, Martina. Anyone who reads what you write KNOWS the astounding talent you have. Thanks for all your support and inspiration. And thanks for dealing with me! Love you!


  3. Great post. I guess I never thought of not having time to write as writers block. Maybe it is and I definitely have it at times.

    I think defining success in different ways is so important. I suffer from a lot of self doubt too and that gets in the way of my writing. On my good days, I focus on enjoying the writing. On the bad ones, I think I'll never get published and then I don't want to write. Thanks for the great post.

  4. YAY, Marissa! You have such clever, kid-centric ideas, and the one you've tangled yourself into knots over is my favorite. You already know my opinion on it, so I won't belabor it, except to say that if you don't mail it, I'm going to do it for you. In the meantime, I'm so glad you are writing again, and SO glad you're feeling inspired to make time for the writing even with your crazy schedule. And right back at you, only you've got it backwards. Thanks--as always--for holding my hand and having my back, for cheerleading and clapping and handing out tissues. Love you more!

    Candy, hang in there. Even if you've hit a rough patch, it will get better. Focus on the small victories instead of the big picture and stop comparing yourself to anyone else!

    Natalie, if you enjoy the writing on the good days, then you enjoy writing. Does publication matter as much as the process?


  5. How did you know I needed this today? I have been revising and editing this last chapter for a week saying all of these things to myself. Thanks for the great advice!

  6. I suffer from it when I need a break through b/c I'm stuck. I usally make a list of what ifs and then spend some time away. Or I take a nap and sometimes an idea comes while I'm half out of it. I love how the brain works!

  7. Renae, we all need this now and then, don't we? I wrote it because I needed it. I'm so glad you've been giving yourself those pep talks all week. Hope the revisions are going well now!

    Laura, I swear, that's my favorite part of writing. The not knowing where things come from--the discovery and suprise of it.

  8. This was such a helpful and uplifting post!! I needed to read all of this. You are so right that we keep getting better when we keep writing. I love that you posted all of these concerns and solutions to them, showing that there is always a way out. Thanks so much!

  9. Um, #3, 4, and 5? Yeah, I NEEDED THIS POST TODAY! I'm stalling on my new WIP because I'm letting writer doubt creep into my noggin.

    And I love this line:

    'Maybe instead of worrying about failure, it's time to redefine success.'

    Perfectly said. Thanks M!

  10. #3 That's it. Okay, back to work on my logline and pitch paragraph. Great suggestions!


  11. This is a great post!
    Yes, every time I write, there are moments of doubt. But I believe in my stories and that, along with positive feedback, sustains me.

  12. You're trying to make me cry, aren't you?? What a great post! I couldn't help but notice that only items 1 and 2 are objective. The rest are "you are worried" etc. I think that speaks to all of the self-doubts we all share. I don't know a writer (J.K. included) who hasn't felt this way. :D

  13. Super post! All writers have self-doubt to one degree or another, I think. It could be semantics, but I just call it being "stuck" when I'm stalled on a ms--I don't like the term "writer's block."

    Usually if I give my subconscious enough time, I'll work through the bog, and attack the issue with gusto. So I'm never ULTRA worried, just temporarily stymied. :) I'm stubborn enough, I'll keep hacking away at something.

  14. Saumya, believe in yourself and believe in the process. It is going to work for you!

    Cam, no doubt for you! You are so brilliant. The WIP will be brilliant. I KNOW this. And I will kick your a** tonight for doubting. Huge HUGS!

    Yay, Jenny! Go whip those into shape. So glad this helped!!!

    Kathryn, you're fortunate. I honestly think believing in the story is its own form of magic.

    Lisa, oh woman with a brilliant agent and the ability to churn out a damn-near perfect novel once a week? Um. No doubts allowed in your corner either. That's reserved for us mere plebs, thank you very much. :D

    Carol, genius attitude. I'm kind of the same way in that I keep slogging, but when the doubt sets in, it hurts. And it definitely keeps me from going as fast as I should.

  15. Writing is HARD and even harder when stuff just isn't working. I swear, its a wonder the book store is filled with so many completed books!

    Great post!

  16. Great post! I've been bumping up against writer's block a bunch this month due to the pressure of NaNo, but I'm going to put some of these tips to use next time my brain freezes up :)

  17. With NaNo this month I have, for the first time ever, encountered just this type of Writer's Malaise. All of a sudden it is like pulling healthy teeth to get the story from head to computer, although I know the story I want to write and have it semi-outlined, it flows only one scene at a time. Very frustrating.

  18. Thank you sooooooooo much. This was just what I needed. You described what I'm going through in perfect detail. Great post!!!

  19. So glad I'm not alone with these feelings! Thank you sooooooooo much.

  20. Practice. Sheer, bloody-minded persistence and practice. Each process, each stage, each technique seems impossible, drags me down, comes out botch, gets done on determination, gets fixed, critiques help with it... and there comes a point after too many friends say "You have too many run-on sentences" for example. I just take it for granted. Get them down, and aim a machine gun loaded with periods on the line edit pass because half the time the words are all there and I substituted commas for all punctuation because I type faster than I breathe. It stops hurting. It starts being understood.

    "I know how to do that" kicks that one little thing from the "I'll never be able to do it" into "That's the hard part but I know I'll get it right if I sweat bullets" to "That's the fun part, I don't mind that at all, it's..." one of the other challenges.

    Sometimes there are discoveries. I always will have run-on sentences in roughs, the easy part now is cleaning them up. I don't outline, so plot changes take total concentration - unless I synopsize as I go so that I've got an outline when it's done. Cool side effect - a rough draft of a submission synopsis.

    I've had two pro short story sales and so many low or no-pay acceptances that I lost count. I just haven't edited that many novels or sent out that many yet. I know my novels come out better than my shorts.

    The scary hairy part now is editing novels and sending them out. Fine. I know I got past those other Hard Parts so I'm going to push through this one with bloody minded stubborn will power, till that gets to be a routine chore and finally a giggling, triumphant Easy Fun Part.

    That's when I'll qualify for the only job I ever wanted. I'm closer to it now than I've ever been before, and I don't care how many Sending It Out rounds I have to do to cross the line. Stephen King got 20 rejections on Carrie and it was a hit. I want my tickets in Literary Lottery.

    Crud wins that game sometimes. Skill counts but so does topical randomness. Skill raises the odds and it's something I can control. But that's just a frivolity. Midlist success is the job pure - it's being able to become self supporting instead of living on Social Security.

    That's what I tell myself when it gets hard. That I got through all those other Hard Parts and any Hard Parts still ahead will become easier and more fun the more I make myself do them. Push - and pat yourself on the back for all successes, even just internal ones like enjoying the process more or finding it easier to fix.

    Ari sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration on you!

  21. Great post!

    I have suffered from many of these. There's been a few times when I needed "time fo rmy brain to figure it out" and it ended up being so much better than expected. I've worried about concept--is it cliche or overdone, will others care; Voice--is my character likable? Is it consistent? Do I even really know what voice is?;
    Am I a good enough writer--every book breaks the rules but it is a matter of how they go about doing it. Am I breaking them too much? Breaking the wrong ones? So afraid of breaking the rules that my writing is stilted and awkward? If I keep editing, will I completely lose what voice I had to begin with?

    While it was wonderful knowing I am not the only one with these fears, my favorite part of the post was this tip:

    Analyze the concept. Break it down to a log line or pitch paragraph and see if it sounds interesting. If it doesn't, then maybe that's the problem. Keep twisting it until it's a saleable, workable premise. And yes, that may require rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty.

    I think that applies so often. Thanks for the food for thought :-)
    Rachel Harris/EndingUnplanned

  22. This. Is. A. FanTAStic post!!!!!!!

    Thank you.

  23. One items 1-8 above, check, check, check, ...

    It must be a common thing with us writers! I have these fears ALL the time. Like, every day. And yet I still write, knowing that I'm getting better with each manuscript.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  24. I, too, am a self-doubter in the throes of writer's block. Thanks for the great, practical suggestions for getting beyond it.

  25. It is so important to ignore the doubts. Sometimes I have to go offline and get away from it all. Thanks for this!

  26. Kate, I know, right? But not only are the bookstores filled with books--they're full of great books, and I bet very few of them started of being great. So we have to believe, and work, and just keep on trying.

    Hayley, good for you for doing Nano. I was hoping to finish up this week, but that's not going to happen. Not so much due to writer's block as revisionitis. I need to adjust the climax to accommodate changes I know I need to make in the midddle. Hope you are breezing through!

    Rebecca, exactly! You are doing exactly what I am doing. But I think that's okay. At least for me, the scenes are not horrible, so I suspect I am gaining speed in the second draft what I am losing in this one.

    Lisa, that's what I love about this online writing community. We are always here to remind each other that other writers have all gone through the same things we are facing--and they've come out the other side strong and successful. You will, too, I'm sure.

    Stopeka, hang in there! Hope the writing goes more smoothly.

    Robert, you are absolutely right. We have to pat ourselves on the back!

    Rachel, I struggle with voice constantly, and I'm not sure anyone knows what it really is. Except that we all recognize when we find one we love!

    Julie, it always makes me feel stronger to know that others have the same doubts. If they don't quit, then I can't, right? Hang in there!

    Megan, breathe, relax, and have confidence that you'll get past it. And if all else fails, back chocolate chip cookies or do something that invokes the sense of smell related to the scene you are supposed to be writing. Somehow, the sense of smell seems to be stronger for me creatively than almost anything else. Weird, huh?

    Laura, going off line is such a great idea for so many reasons. Not least of which is the fact that we can spend so much time spending time online :D.


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