Dear Story Nurse,
So, I have no problem writing anything that can be done in one sitting (once I’ve chased the brain weasels off and started typing, that is). I can do some good work in micro and flash fiction and I’m trying to stretch things out. You said some really good things earlier about tying pieces together with plot threads and those were really helpful, but I have a somewhat different problem: If I have to stop, I find it really hard to pick the thing back up again. (My writing time is necessarily fragmented, with job/commute/parenting. I write when I can.)
It seems that I don’t know how to pick up the mood/action of the story and carry those words further out. Note that this only seems to happen with fiction writing: class assignments were easy to pick back up, and most essays are easy to pick the thread back up and carry on with my work.
I have a good idea for a story, I can make decent headway, but once I stop, I’m doomed. How do I restart the engine?
Please Story Nurse, you’re my only hope!
Thanks for bringing up this problem, which I think is a pretty common one. It can have a few different causes, but the one I see most often is a sort of writerly centipede’s dilemma. Something about the process of sitting down to add more words to a half-written work makes you very aware that you are writing, and then you get self-conscious and either feel blocked from writing at all or dislike everything you try to write.
I suspect this is happening with fiction specifically because fiction writing is mythologized as drawing on inspiration in a way that essays and class assignments don’t. If you’d tried to get away with not doing your homework because “my muse was on holiday” or “I couldn’t get into the zone,” your teacher would rightly give you the stink-eye, but the prevailing cultural notion of fiction writing is that some part of it comes from outside of you and is given to you or channeled through you.
We often feel most inspired when we’re starting something exciting and new. In polyamory circles this is called new relationship energy or NRE, and probably the hardest moment in a relationship is when the NRE wears off and you realize that you actually have to work at keeping the relationship going now. Like NRE, that sense of inspiration is intermittent and fleeting, and writing without it feels unsatisfying or clumsy by comparison. So we chase after it and try to get inspired again, or we give up on the old project and start a new project, as though that were the only way to write well, or to enjoy writing.
Inspiration doesn’t come from outside you. It just feels like it does. What’s bypassing your conscious mind is your subconscious, not some mystical muse. The writing is coming from inside the house. Every word you write is a word you write. So if you love those inspired passages, take credit for them! You wrote them, even if it doesn’t quite feel like you did. (If you feel weird or guilty praising your own writing, and it feels much easier to credit a force outside of yourself than to say “I wrote some good stuff,” then that is a useful thing to be aware of and to work on.)
I’ve felt that sensation of words flowing into me and out through my hands in a way that felt like it wasn’t under my conscious control. When I was in my teens and 20s I would routinely be inspired to write songs, with melodies that emerged full-fledged into my mind. The inspiration would give me two and a half verses to go with the melody… and then stop. No matter how carefully I crafted additional verses to follow them, the work I was constructing never felt as good, as purely right, as the words that came to me in that first rush. It happened over and over again. It was agonizing. It’s been two decades since I wrote some of those songs and I could still reread them and tell you exactly where the break is between the inspired part and the constructed part.
But if you read my songs, you couldn’t tell where that line is. Because what I’m remembering is the difference in how it felt to write, which doesn’t actually translate to a difference in what gets written.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Cory Doctorow, and he said something that really stayed with me (starting at 33:53 in the recording at that link):
I figured out how many words I needed to write every day and just wrote them, even when they felt like bad words, even when they felt like words that weren’t worthy words, and that they were irreparable words that I would never be able to make worthy. And what I realized was that in hindsight I couldn’t tell the words that I had written on days when I felt like I was being very inspired from the words that I wrote on days when I felt like I was just sort of phoning it in or writing very mechanically, and that both of those conditions were related to things like my blood sugar and my love life much more than they were related to the words I was actually writing on the page. And so, having had that realization, it doesn’t change the feeling that I get when I’m working… and I sit down every day in absolute terror that I’m writing badly… but I sit down every day in that terror and intellectually I know that the terror is not well founded, and so I work not because I’m not afraid but because I’ve overcome the fear, because I can feel the fear and go past it.
So if you’re struggling with that self-assessment in the moment of writing, know that a bestselling, world-famous author feels just the same way. And like him, you can find ways to separate the writing from the judging, and keep doing the former in spite of the latter.
Here are some techniques to help you tap into that wellspring of inspiration or keep yourself writing even when the muse feels out of reach:
- Use simple rituals to trigger the writing mindset. Play the same piece of music, or put on your special writing bracelet, or take a whiff of perfume that smells like old books, or read the latest post on the @AdviceToWriters Twitter feed, or do five jumping jacks, or meditate for five minutes. Do whatever works for you, as long as it’s fairly quick and portable. Make it a consistent habit until you have it firmly associated with getting into the writing headspace, and then it will help you shorten or bypass the awkward transition between not writing and writing smoothly. But don’t let it become such a specific and complicated ritual that it gets in the way of writing rather than enabling it.
- Do some writing warm-ups. This is another transition-easer. Instead of opening up that in-progress story right away, spend a few minutes writing a poem or recipe or diary entry, or jotting down notes for other stories, or doing a character outline for one of your characters. Or deliberately write a very clunky or goofy or off-the-mark continuation of the story you’re working on—just a few paragraphs, definitely not more than a couple hundred words. Don’t be afraid to be silly; jokes are super good for tapping into the subconscious and they can give you some great ideas. (“‘Suddenly a chasm opened under Jim and he fell six miles down into the realm of the Nome King. He screamed because he was afraid of the dark.’ Huh, I didn’t know that about Jim. I wonder how the antagonist can use that against him.”) It’s okay to “waste” a page of words that you already know you’re going to scrap; they’re just words, you have plenty more in you, and they serve the very valuable purpose of warming you up for a good bout of writing. And if you reread the page and realize you like it, roll with it!
- Remember why you fell in love with your work in progress. Reread your favorite passages and actively remember how it felt to write them. Maybe even retype a few of them or recite them aloud. Laugh at your own jokes or cry at your own pathos. Really get into the work itself and let it excite you all over again.
- Appreciate other kinds of pleasure in writing. When the NRE wears off, it’s easy to think the relationship is over just because it doesn’t make you zing the way it used to. But zing isn’t all there is to life. Savor the quieter pleasures of writing: getting to use a fun bit of research, naming the villain after your third grade teacher, guiding your characters through their difficult journeys and bringing them to a place of fulfillment, returning to a setting you know like the back of your hand, watching the wordcount tick past milestones, finishing the story and writing the end (or ### or -30- if you’re old-fashioned like me).
- Skip ahead. If you’re blocked on the scene that comes next, write the ending, or the emotional climax, or some other part of the story that gets you really engaged. Then come back and fill in the gaps.
- Get rid of the boring parts of the story. This is one of Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K tricks. If you find yourself losing interest in what you’re writing, change the scene until it grabs you, or cut it altogether. Bored writing is boring writing and your readers won’t like it either, so don’t waste your time on it.
- Accept that sometimes writing will feel mechanical. Writing is supposed to be fun, but sometimes you just need to make your wordcount. If you accept that rather than trying to fight it or simmering in resentment of it, you’ll get through it that much faster.
- Acknowledge what’s blocking you and deliberately move forward. Whatever you’re feeling, say it out loud. “I’m scared that my writing is only good when I’m inspired.” “I know that the next scene is where things start getting hard for my protagonist and I don’t want to put her through that.” “Writing is the last thing I want to be doing right now—I’d rather go take a nap.” And then ask yourself, Am I going to do some writing right now despite that? If the answer is yes, say that out loud too: “Even though I’m scared/nervous/tired, I’m going to do some writing now. That’s what I choose to do.” Because you can always choose to do something else with your time—no one’s forcing you to write. Own that choice and feel powerful in making it.
- Build your skills. One day, after I’d been writing songs for a few years, I got inspired to write a song, and the first two and a half verses showed up in my head, already basically perfect. I wrote them down and then consciously crafted the rest of the lyrics. I sat back and read it and thought, You know, that all really works together. I can’t tell where the break is. I’d reached the point in my craft where I could bring my subconscious and conscious minds together and write with both technical knowledge and intuition. It was a wonderful feeling. You can get there too if you keep developing your craft until your conscious work is as good, and feels as good to write, as your subconscious work.
Finally, two important things not to do:
- Revise an unfinished work.
- Start something new every time you feel blocked.
These are classic procrastination/dodging techniques. They feel very productive, but all they actually produce is a bunch of gleamingly polished story stubs that peter off around the 1500-word mark. They are absolutely antithetical to producing complete works. Avoid avoid avoid.
My own rule when I’m writing is that if I tweak more than three words in the text I’ve already written, I close the file and walk away for at least 15 minutes to reset myself. That’s how complete the loss of writerly concentration is for me once I start revising instead of writing. You may not have to be such a hard-ass about it, but be prepared to need some degree of discipline to break out of avoidant habits and keep yourself focused.
There’s so much to enjoy in writing even when it’s very challenging. I hope you find ways to reach that joy and satisfaction in all your work, whether it’s brand new or an ongoing project. Have fun!
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