Today’s post is written by novelist and writing mentor Cathy Yardley. Thanks, Cathy!
Between day jobs, family responsibilities, social obligations and all the other details of mundane life, it’s hard to carve out time for our writing. What’s worse, our writing muscles can act like an old car: the longer unused, the harder it is to start up again.
Here are five ways to help you keep your writing engine running:
1. Reach out to writing friends.
Writing is a solitary pursuit—no one’s getting the words down on paper but you. But if you stay too solitary, you might find yourself losing perspective on your work, getting trapped in your head with your self-doubts and perfectionism.
In my writing classes, we do sprints. Just emailing or calling someone, saying “let’s write for an hour” and then checking back in when the hour’s up does wonders for productivity and for morale.
Also, having a weekly check-in, reporting on what you did the week before and stating what you’d like to do in the upcoming week, is tremendously useful.
2. Set smaller goals.
Writing a novel is like running a marathon: thinking of the whole thing at once can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis.
I used to think I could only write in large blocks of time. If I couldn’t dedicate at least an hour, I wouldn’t bother writing that day. Then I had my son. If anything teaches you to grab small increments of useful time, it’s children! Re-training myself to think “I can write something in fifteen minutes” has been challenging, but incredibly helpful.
Celebrating even one page written a day, rather than bemoaning such a small amount of productivity, is a mind-set change that will help encourage your writing rather than stunting it with pessimism and perfectionism.
3. Beat the clock.
Speaking of perfectionism: often it’s our underlying need to get it ‘just right’ that makes our internal editor clamp down, stifling a daily page count.
One of the best ways I’ve found around this: Dr. Wicked’s diabolical Write or Die program. You can set either a time or a word goal, then start typing in its word processor. If you stop typing, an annoying sound starts playing and the whole screen starts to glow an angry, increasingly urgent red. For the truly brave, you can type in kamikaze mode: if you stop typing, it begins to erase what you’ve written!
It sounds extreme, but it’s actually a lot of fun and perfect for goosing a recalcitrant muse into action.
4. Create a container.
I got this concept from Cairene Macdonald, a time management specialist that works with creatives.
Start in the morning, looking at what you need to do and want to do, and then write down a time and place for your writing that day. Not only that, but she suggests writing down what you want to accomplish (i.e. ‘scene 12’ or ‘5 pages’) as well as when you’re going to do it (‘from two to three o’clock’), where you’re going to do it (‘my desk,’ ‘the coffee shop’) and what you’re going to do to keep your energy up (’emailing Cathy beforehand’ or ‘treating myself to a mocha while Iím there.’)
With clear details, you’ll find yourself more likely to actually get writing done.
5. Meet your monsters.
If you know all the previous steps already, but you’re struggling to find motivation or you’re avoiding your writing, then your main issue is probably fear.
Havi Brooks of The Fluent Self talks a lot about ‘destuckification’ and one of her tools is called meeting your monsters. It involves getting quiet and meditative, and then inviting a personification of what is stopping us—what we’re afraid of—into a conversation. (Considering we have conversations with our characters all the time, I’ve noticed that writers are particularly good at this exercise!)
Then, you do the following:
- Identify your fear (giving it a face/voice)
- Give your fear space, acceptance and attention
- Discover what your fear is trying to protect you from, and
- Negotiate a compromise that will give your fear some sense of safety without keeping you paralyzed.
Let’s say you’ve hit writer’s block. Using this technique, you learn that the reason you haven’t written is because you don’t want to have your work, which is so close to you, rejected. You’re afraid that the outside world will savage it. (Strangely, you also notice that this fear ‘speaks’ in a voice similar to your harsh fifth grade English teacher, who suggested that writing for a living was a ‘pipe dream.’)
Instead of telling yourself that’s silly or brushing it off, you recognize it as a valid fear.
You realize that it’s trying to protect you from outside judgment. You may have an issue with others judging you in other areas of your life.
You also realize that if you want to be a published writer, then someone else—whether it’s an agent, editor, or simply other readers—is going to look at it and probably ‘judge’ it. So there’s a disconnect: you can’t be a published writer without taking this risk.
To negotiate this disconnect, you can remind yourself that you won’t improve without writing more. You can promise yourself that no one needs to see it until you feel ready. You can even find ways to gradually show your work to others: first some supportive beta readers, perhaps, or a kind writing teacher.
Showing that you accept the fear and want to work with it rather than simply kicking it boot-camp/tough love style will go a long way towards eliminating the block.
Writing regularly is like staying fit.
Blocks happen. Heck, life happens. But as long as you take a few conscious steps to keep your creative muscles in motion, you can make sure that writing happens, too.
Cathy Yardley is the author of fourteen published novels and the non-fiction writing guide Will Write For Shoes: How To Write Chick Lit. She teaches a year-long mentoring program at Savvy Authors, and she also runs Rock Your Writing, a blog dedicated to helping writers ‘sell a lot, without selling out.’
Join the discussion
florence fois says
Another great post, Suzannah 🙂 I suffer from too much over-thinking, rewriting, editing and stalling the moment when I have to click and send. I have given myself a deadline to stop procrastinating sending my work out and with a little cattle prod from a good writer friend, I’ll either do that your she’ll have my head. Seriously, great tips to keep us fit and running smoothly. One trick I use to “trick” my block is to switch to another project or work on a post for the blog for a while … do research … read for an hour and then go back. Anything that can distract you from believing you can’t continue, then continue.
Shannon McKelden says
Awesome tips, Cathy! I’ll give some of them a try as I get back to work on my manuscript this week!
Cathy Yardley says
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — you write alone, but you don’t write successfully by yourself. Support is crucial. Sounds like you’ve got that, Florence!
And thanks, Shannon! I hope they work for you!
Mel Corbett says
These are awesome tips, and I don’t know how I found your blog anymore, but man I love Havi! she is awesomeness. So yes, absolutely talk to your monsters. At the very least view it as a different kind of writing exercise it totally works wonders.
Cathy Yardley says
Oh, yeah. LOVE Havi! I was so stuck before I found her. I have a “fear management” exercise with all my writing students. It’s really freeing – and it’s interesting to see who avoids the assignment!
Laura Marcella says
These are wonderful tips, Cathy! I especially like #4 and #5 and am going to give them a go right now. Thanks for sharing!
Cathy Yardley says
Thanks, Laura! I’d love to hear how they go. Glad you found the article helpful!
That is super information!! Thanks for sharing it.
Charlotte Rains Dixon says
Your first tip is so important–reaching out to other writer friends. A writing pal and I just started a monthly meet and greet exactly for that purpose here in Portland. Its called Literary Libations (I snitched the name from my Nashville friends) and it is great! Really inspiring and motivating to spend Happy Hour talking with other writers.
This is such a great post! I’m going to bookmark it. I love these tips. I do number one regularly and numbers 4 and 5 are ones I’m definitely going to try. Thank you!
Trish @ wordbitches
OK, so now I have to thank Kristen Lamb for pointing me in this direction, and Suzannah for inviting Cathy to post on her blog. I am now subscribing to Write It Sideways, because I need connection and community! It’s lonely being a writer in China, but I’m not just in China anymore. I’m on the net! Thanks for the great suggestions, Cathy. I especially relate to Cairene Macdonald’s concept of the “the container”. Man, do I ever need to get specific about my work plans!
Melissa Sugar says
This is a great post. I finally had to stop blogging and give up my social life for six months but it was worth it as I finally finished my first novel. You have some excellent tips and ideas here. I love write or die. I know what you mean about how children make us realize that we have to grab 15 minutes whenever we can and take advantage of any free time. I enjoyed this post
Miranda Ryan says
Thanks for sharing this! I am new to the writing game and am experiencing a lot of the barriers you described. I will definitely try some of these techniques. Cheers, Miranda
You are right, Cathy. A writer’s block happens to all writers, just like any other thing in life. Many times that I do experience this, I take it as an alarm clock telling me to stop writing for a while and explore other activities that lead to creative discoveries. I leave my laptop and do some other things like jogging, hiking, and photography. These activities, among many other, get my creative juice flowing and when I get back to writing again, I feel refreshed and full of ideas. Works for me every time 🙂
That’s it! I’m going to meet my getting-in-the-way-of-a-quick-first-draft monster tonight!