Ask a Writer #2

Hello again everyone! And welcome to another edition of “Ask a Writer”. Today’s a special one because I had two questions submitted from fellow writers on Twitter when I asked for submissions this past week, and I’m combining them into a two-for-one column because after thinking about them, I honestly believe they have the same basic answer. So without further ado, here they are.

B. Storms (@grabthefish): Do you ever find yourself in an editing spiral and if so, what have you found to be the best ways to get out?

Kim Plasket (@KimPlasket): How do you keep the momentum going when you feel as if you have run out of words?

Wow, both very good questions ladies, and in all honesty, ones that I considered passing over because I struggled with how to answer them in a way that might be helpful, informative, and/or at least entertaining. But I figured that 1) that wouldn’t be fair to those who went out of their way to ask in the first place, and 2) that I should really challenge myself for this column I’m doing if I want it to mean something. So I wrestled with how best to respond for most of this week, and I think I finally have something for you.

First of all, I totally get what both of you are saying. By “editing spiral”, I’m assuming you mean the kind of depressing, destructive cycle we as writers can get into when we start obsessing with a new work we’re creating and wanting it to be as perfect as possible the first time out. As a perfectionist, I understand. It drives me crazy to think that I’m not putting my best foot forward, and before I’m even done the work in question I’m already going back and editing chapters to change what happened in them, completely throwing off my rhythm of writing and leading to a dangerous precedent for me. This kind of behavior can absolutely consume all of your time if you’re not careful, and has often lead to me deleting entire chapters in despair and starting over from scratch: in essence, setting myself back before I’ve even gotten to the end of the story.

In addition, I do often feel that I’ve “run out of words” when I’m writing, as I’ll get to a certain point and be unsure about the best way forward. I usually sit down inspired to write with some lines of dialogue playing in my head and the scene running before my eyes like a movie: I can see everything that’s going on, and I totally feel like a part of the world I’m creating. But once I get past the part I’m imagining, it gets complicated. Sometimes the direction things have taken and how I’m feeling at that specific point in time will inspire me to go onward, beyond what I was prepared to do. Other times, even when I want to and know I should write more, I just can’t. It starts to feel unnatural, I feel the quality is slipping, and before you know it, I’ve stopped altogether.

I think depending on who you ask, a lot of different people would give different advice. Many writers I’ve come to know and admire here on Twitter might tell you that the best course of action is to push on ahead, regardless of how you feel about what comes out. What matters is that something productive happens, and you performed the act of writing. You can go back and edit and clean up later, but the point is to show progress and move forward. Myself, I can’t really do that. At least, not yet. Maybe I’m just not as good of a writer as they are, and maybe I’m just not developed or disciplined enough yet. But as such, my advice in this case is something very simple but probably paradoxical: just the opposite. Walk away.

That’s it. Just walk away.

I often tell people that the true secret to being able to write a novel, or any decent-length piece of fiction, is perseverance. That means sticking with the project no matter how tough it gets, and no matter how long it takes: you’re willing to do whatever you have to in order to see it through. And for me, a critical part of that process is knowing when to take a break. Sure, you could see that as a “loss” of momentum, or inaction that wouldn’t necessarily help you get out of the downward spiral of editing and doubt you find yourself in. But seriously, think about it.

When I’m feeling frustrated by what I’m writing, and I feel as though I’m not making progress or the quality is slipping, it’s important for me to not feel ashamed if I walk way for a while. Leave the story alone, for a day, for a week, or even longer if you have to. As long as it takes to remember why you fell in love with the story in the first place. Once that happens, the gears in your head will start to turn again, and in my experience the writing will come. Life also often inspires my writing: random circumstances I find myself in that I think would make a great scene in one of my books. Or I just do something else I love, like go outside hiking, or to karate class, or playing games. Even a bath or a shower sometimes does the trick! I’m not kidding, I’ve had some of my best plot ideas in the shower. I’m a regular Archimedes.

There’s such a thing as pushing yourself, which is good, and there’s such a thing as overtaxing yourself and burning yourself out, which is bad. It’s true for anything. If you were at the gym and you felt like you couldn’t take one more step, what would you do? You’d go home. It’s the same with writing. When I’m down about my stories I also sometimes go back to my touchstones–usually TV, movies, or other books that have the kind of tone, characters, themes, or other things that have influenced the story I’m working on and partially inspired it. For “Camp Ferguson” and its subsequent books, that’s often sitcoms like “Arrested Development”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, or “MASH”–I watch and re-watch these shows way, way too much, but it really does help put me back in the mindset and I want to be in. Also, when you’re doing something that’s truly making you happy in that moment, you’re much more likely to get the creative juices flowing again and just have a random good idea pop into your head. Trust me, it’s happened to me a lot.

In conclusion, as a writer I don’t think it’s wrong to take a break from your work, and you shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to do so if the situation calls for it. If you’re feeling run down, out of things to say, or starting to doubt the quality of your story up to this point, take a deep breath, put down the computer (or pen and paper if you’re still into that, I guess), and walk away for a while. Doesn’t matter how long: just as long as it takes for you to get back into the right frame of mind. Nothing good comes from forcing yourself to be creative: only more frustration and bad writing. I’m sure there’s a balance between what I’m advocating and that, and it’s different for every person. But walking away and taking a break from a work that’s giving me trouble is hands-down the best way I’ve found to get through these blocks and spirals.

I hope that maybe helps some of you out there who are going through this, and if you are, feel free to reach out to your fellow writers or myself and talk more about it! That’s another thing that can help: community. Twitter has proven to be an awesome place for me to chat with and get inspiration from other awesome writers. Plus, if you have a sense that you’re part of a group and belong in that way, chances are you’ll have a more positive outlook on the whole writing thing–and maybe even find some advice that’s better than mine! Or that just works for you better.

Until next time, keep your pen to the paper and your nose to the grindstone. Except when you’re taking a well-deserved break.

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