If Walls Could Talk: Working Through a Writing Slump
It’s funny. I wrote my previous article about how NaNoWriMo had revitalized my writing and yet not even a week later…I found myself completely and utterly lacking any motivation to work on any of the plethora of projects I’m bouncing between.
And I almost gave in. I almost justified it. After all, I’m about two days ahead in the word count so what would be a missed day? Having your own words come back to bite you is an annoying feeling, let me tell you.
So let me tell you another tale of November, 2021’s NaNoWriMo.
I dragged myself to my computer and forced myself to write. I did come up with a compromise. If I worked for an hour, I’d give myself some slack if I didn’t hit 1667 or if I decided to stop and not go on after that.
Yes, I can on occasion hit 1667 in under an hour. I’ve done it twice this year so far, if memory serves. Sometimes, it’s out of desperation and fear of not hitting the count when I’m motivated. I’m competitive and want to stay ahead of the word count so falling behind isn’t an option for me.
I powered through that day and hit my 1667 and not much more. But it’s okay. Then came my second day where my motivation to write every day was put to the true test. It was after a LONG day. I’d added extra hours to cover for an injured coworker, gotten off even later than that, still had to run the errands I needed, and had gotten home far later than I’d planned. In fact, it was so late, I mostly missed the Sprints I told you about in the other post.
Sitting down after a shift like that to write is something I wasn’t sure I was ready to face. Which annoyed me because I had the idea that I might race ahead and hit 25K. As a reminder, the goal is to hit 50K at the end of the month, so that halfway point is an important milestone. Hitting it a couple of days early was something that appealed to me. Not only for the pride of being ahead, but also because the goal was not much more than the daily word count. Just shy of 2.2K if memory serves.
But there I sat, with 90 minutes left in the day and a goal that was higher than usual and a complete lack of motivation. I honestly considered calling it a day. I was massively ahead of the day’s count so I could afford to miss it. I hopped inside the voice chat to say hello to the ML (Municipal Liaison – basically the person who runs NaNoWriMo for the area) and mentioned that I might not do much that night because it had been a day. And he encouraged me to go for it anyways.
Honestly, I felt challenged. Though he didn’t mean for it to come across that way. He told me with a lot of confidence that he believed that I could do it and I decided that maybe I could.
So, I pushed, found some energy I didn’t realize I had. And I bounced between projects a lot more than usual. Words dried up on one, I jumped to another. I wrote an autopsy scene in the latest Rosella because I knew it was something I’d enjoy, and I could get some words out of describing things.
Completely unrelated writing tidbit, if you’re looking for someone who writes excellent autopsy sequences, I highly recommend Preston and Child. I just picked up one of their new ones and I’m excited to dig into that.
But back to my point…
For the better part of the last two years, I would have let myself give up. I’d done it enough. I said it last week and I’ll say it again. I’ve been in a writing slump. It’s been a bit since I’ve written this column, a bit more than that where I’ve been real with you.
It’s been a rough couple of years. Something I don’t think gets mentioned enough is that you have to be in the right headspace for writing. Sometimes, I can get away with writing a particularly grisly part of a murder mystery when I’m not (see the entirety of my first book) but, it doesn’t often end well. Usually, the reader can tell.
I’m not telling you this to earn sympathy. We’ve all been through the wringer the last couple of years. But we’ve come through this together. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. To be honest, I don’t feel a lot stronger yet but maybe it will come.
This month has been hard. It’s been the first time I really pushed myself as a writer in a long time. Normally, I’ve let myself slack off but this month, I’ve latched on to the accountability and ticking clock that is NaNoWriMo. For the first time in far too long, I’ve grabbed on to a deadline I plan to keep.
Considering how far I am into this article, perhaps it’s time I get to the advice part. Here are my thoughts from my experiences, not only this month but in the last few years.
1) Accountability is Key
I’ve been extremely lucky in my writing career to be surrounded by friends that hold me accountable. Whether that’s checking in on deadlines or reading over things to make sure I’ve haven’t done or said something incredibly stupid, I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
NaNoWriMo has been the most productive I’ve been for the last two years. Honestly, I was terrified at how I was going to be after NaNo when that goal wasn’t there. Though, I did discover a feature in Dabble. It’s the writing program I’ve been using for a bit. They have a feature where I can set a goal (for example 50K in 30 days) and then tell me how many words I need to hit to make that goal.
I may turn to friends, whether in the NaNo server I’m in or the gang here at 18thWall. Honestly, it will probably be a combo.
While writing can be a very solitary task it also requires an army. An editor to correct you, friends to cheer you on and support you, experts to help you research, the list can go on. Feel free to turn to them and go, “Hey, I’m not wanting to lose the habit I made in NaNoWriMo. Can you check in with me and see if I’m writing every day?”
Will I write 1667 words every day this month? More than likely not. But even on those days where it’s hard, even on holidays, I want to try and sit down and write something.
I’m aware that James is reading this and I will eat my own words again sometime in the future.
2) Be Kind to Yourself
In 2013, I was very early in my writing career. At that point, the only publishing credit I had to my name was my first short story in a collection called Doc Claus. Honestly, I cringe thinking about how bad that story is. Sitting here almost exactly nine years later, it’s amazing how far I’ve come.
In September that year, I rewrote a Young Adult novel that I was working on and sent it into a writing contest (obviously it got nowhere; but this was back before the days where I discovered the joys of writing a mystery, but I’d get there soon enough). Basically, I did NaNoWriMo two months early, with all the stress and grind that that implies.
Then October came and I wrote for Lemon Herberts. Granted, that was only 10K (actually it was closer to 7.5 if memory serves). But I did it in time for the deadline. In the heart of that project, I got some news that would send me spiraling. I was already well on my way to burn-out for a variety of reasons, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Even though I should have known it was an absolutely horrible idea, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and I won that year. But that victory came at a price.
I pushed too hard.
This is very much an “If I knew then what I know now” situation. I should have bowed out of NaNoWriMo. I was spiraling. While on a normal year it fuels me and my writing, that year was a bad idea.
It would take me six weeks to work my way out of that funk enough to even approach writing again. And the project that came out of that was my first book.
Sometimes, even today, I’m not good at listening to myself and to my body. Some days, I should cut back on writing. Or maybe, I should spend a couple of hours curled up with a book and refuel before I touch the keyboard.
But today is a good example. I curled up and read for 90 minutes and now I’m writing one of the longest articles I’ve ever done for this column. And the book in question is sitting behind me taunting me to come back, but I’m going to work on this for a bit before I give in to its siren song.
And that’s what a lot of the last two years have been. Listening to my body. Writing when I can. Being kind to myself when there just aren’t any words in me.
Self-care is important. As writers, as creators, we give so much of ourselves in the work that we have to take care of ourselves lest we fracture.
3) Write What Makes You Happy
Let’s be real. This is a hard job. It’s one a lot of people don’t understand. There is absolutely no reason to make it harder on yourself by writing something you can’t stand. I’ve been there, done that a few times, and I’ve regretted it. And no, I’m not sharing which projects they were. They turned out okay in the end, sure. But it was hard to write them.
Writing something you love makes it easier and more fun. Words flow on the page when you’re passionate about a project.
Now, if you’d told me nine years ago that writing autopsy scenes would excite me, I would have laughed in your face. In fact, James laughs at me frequently because when I wrote Notches, I refused to write an autopsy scene. Instead, I did it as an exposition dump in a scene at the precinct. Present me looks at past me and sighs at all the lost words there. It could have helped the project shine and maybe I would have found a way to show the information instead of telling it.
I feel like it’s time to wrap this up. So let me leave you with these parting thoughts. While a lot of popular advice sources say, “You should write every day,” I am one who will argue balance. Listen to your mind and body. Maybe it’s not a writing day. Maybe it’s time for research. Or to catch up on your to-read pile. I hope yours is not as long as mine. Instead of panic buying toilet paper two years ago, I may have panic bought books and haven’t caught up since…
But the opposite side of the coin is there. Where you could write, but you use some justification to get from it. And it hurts you in the long run. The two days I mentioned in the articles are prime examples. I think between the two I wrote 4.5K that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t forced myself to write those days.
The trick is balance and moderation. Writing slumps are a part of the gig. They’re unavoidable. I’ll be the first to tell you that. But sometimes, the best feeling in the world is coming out on the other side, finding your groove again, and putting words on paper.
I may have a ways to go yet. I may still have some things I need to work on. But in some ways, I’m better than I’ve been in a long time. And if you’re in a similar spot to me, I hope you find your groove again soon.