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Stray Thoughts: How I beat writer's block
I cringe a little when people ask how many books I’ve written. Why? I feel like the number is awkwardly large, and I’m not someone who wants to make a big deal of anything. Of course, I appreciate people’s kind words. Writing 1.9 million words is an accomplishment. (Wow, it was hard to type that sentence.)
How do I write a book so quickly? It mostly comes down to the fact that I don’t get writer’s block or have at least learned how to beat writer’s block. It’s true that I also don’t spend much time consuming media. I might watch a movie or Netflix series with my husband on the weekend; I only listen to one podcast. (The podcast is called How’d She Do That, and it’s very worth a listen!) I read primarily when I’m in between writing books.
That all frees up my time, but learning to work around writer’s block has really been the key for me. For writing fiction, at least (more on blogger's block later). So, here’s how I beat writer’s block.
Creativity does not awaken while you’re sitting in front of your computer screen. There’s nothing inspiring about a flashing cursor. An app or AI program that forces you to put out X number of words before it sounds a buzzer is not inspiring either. This is all fine for a work deadline when I have to think of a marketing email intro by Friday at 10 a.m., but for a work of fiction or creative non-fiction? No way.
Back before we all had children and/or ‘real’ jobs, I was part of a writers’ group with several friends. Some of them found that writing longhand was the key to helping their words flow. I personally hate writing on anything that isn’t a MacBook Air, but to each their own. Technology isn’t the real hindrance, I think. It’s staring at a blank screen and expecting your mind to paint some kind of picture all on its own.
Your mind can’t actually paint a picture without, you know, paint. While I go about my day, I’m mentally working out what I want to commit to Microsoft Word when I finally have the opportunity to sit down in front of that flashing cursor. If you sit in front of a computer with the intention of forcing words, you'll never win. Go do something that inspires you. It's your brain that has writer's block, not your hands.
Back before I had my daughter, the shortest period of time it took me to write a book was nine months, which felt like a tremendous accomplishment. I should pause and say writing is not a race, unless you have an actual deadline. That said, I think finishing a first draft as quickly as you can manage does help it feel fresher or like less of a chore. If it feels like a chore, just stop writing it!
Post-child, nine months is a very long time for me to spend writing something. I wrote the first draft of Where We Start From in four weeks. The longest a Pedigree book has taken is 21 weeks each for The Dream Kingdom and the forthcoming Book 7, New in Town. I wrote them in 2020 at the height of, well, 2020. I don’t call not being able to produce creative work while under extreme stress writer’s block. That’s just being extremely stressed. If people are rioting in the streets while you’re locked down during a global pandemic, maybe be kind to yourself and don’t expect to hit 10,000 words per day.
But I digress. As I said, the key is to decide while you’re out living your life what’s going to go on your screen or paper. Having less time to sit in front of the computer has made me more organized and more likely to produce work when I do get the chance. I look forward to the flashing cursor rather than dreading it because at last I can take everything that’s been swirling in my brain and pour it onto a page. I get maybe two hours per day of actual writing time and have to make the most of it.
Another tip for producing work quickly is not to create a hideous, unworkable first draft. This might sound counterintuitive - I just read an excellent writing guide, the revised edition of Everybody Writes by Ann Handley. Although I disagree on the ‘ugly first draft’ point, it’s an incredibly helpful resource.
Here’s what I mean. Sometimes, my only computer time of the day is after Margaret’s bedtime, by which point in the day, my brain is fried. If I still want to work on a book, I go back and clean up the manuscript. I don’t have to write anything new, but the day isn’t a total loss. Perhaps you’re also a gigantic perfectionist and don’t want to see a large number of errors in any stage of the draft.
Infrequently, if a scene really isn’t going anywhere or I just can’t think of how to get out of it, then I just skip ahead. I can always go back and finish it (or delete it) later. The point is not to let yourself get stuck when you could be forging ahead.
As I’m finishing a project (or an entire series), I typically always know where I want to go next. Initially, I was writing projects back to back. However, as the books have gotten longer and more complex, I’ve found it helpful to take a fallow period between writing them. I took the entire summer off, which I felt really improved the ideas I had going into the final book of the series. It also became a 133,000 word doorstop, and I’m someone who really struggles with writing longer works. Level unlocked. Take that break! It’s never a specified period of time; it’s just whatever feels right and cleanses my mental palate. You’ll know when you’re ready to jump back into creating.
These are my tips for avoiding writer’s block. This is getting long, clearly no writer’s block here today, so I’m going to wrap it up and deal with what I’m going to call ‘blogger’s block’ in a post later this week.