You know the feeling, fellow writer. You’ve done all the right things. She wanted you up by 5 am, before the dogs rose even, before the husband stopped snoring, before the neighbors rolled out their trash cans, and, by God, you did it, day after day. This is day ten. Shivering in your bathrobe, you fumbled through the cold, dark house (because you didn’t want to wake up the family) to your cubbyhole of a writer’s den and powered up the laptop. You have no coffee. You are staring at the computer screen listening to the clock, and your muse has still not come to the party.  She has, you think, packed her bags and moved on, at last, leaving you for more fertile imaginations elsewhere.

Writer’s block.

It’s soul-crushing, worse than rejection letters because with those at least you can say you tried and didn’t Hemingway once boast about accumulating a bushel-full of them before even claiming to be a writer? When the muse vacates without notice, she or he leaves behind a windswept plain of hope, barren and stretching as far you can imagine–how will it ever improve? Maybe it won’t? Why not just give up? Take up watercolors or volunteering at the senior center instead and tuck away that sorrow into your pocket where you can touch it bittersweetly now and then and have a good long cry in the closet.

I’ve been in this writing gig for — I hate math and my advancing age is making this a more challenging puzzle — 45 years. That’s crazy. I started writing, like many other writers I know, when I was a kid. When I became serious about trying to publish my creative endeavors, I read, I researched, and I studied craft, and I haven’t stopped. I took creative writing in college, became an English major, continued to write through grad school and published three academic books. When I spent three years revising my historical suspense with my writing critique partners and when the piece when on to win an award, I was thrilled! But between sending it out to agents and collecting rejections, I knew it was time to start another novel and that’s when the euphoria turned slushy.

Considering that for three years, my muse feverishly belted out words in my head at a speed I could scarce keep up making hours feel like minutes, we were having so much fun, I assumed she’d always be there for me. Where has she gone? Writing the first draft of a new novel feels like I am tethered to a waterwheel, going around and around, up and down, when I should be trotting down the path toward a glorious destination. Why is this so hard? Because it is easier to revise than to create anew…at least for me. And my muse feels the same, damn her.

In despair, I’ve been reading heaps of websites and articles on writer’s block, on writing the first draft, on the importance of keeping up a practice, on outlining vs. seat-of-the-pants outpouring, on keeping an inspiration journal, and so much more it could fill this blog for years to come. What I’ve come to is this, and it is working, after a year-long dry spell.

  • The preliminary draft is called a vomit draft for a reason. Obviously, you have an idea so start playing it out and stand out of your way. WHY is this so difficult to do! I am terribly linear in my thinking but this doesn’t serve me well during this phase of writing. I am stuck because I want the plot to move from chapter 1 to chapter 30, unrolling in front of me like a red carpet. Hah. Let it flow. Don’t even think about sharing it with your critique group either.  A very helpful tool in this process is Scrivener, a writing software program that allows you to create scenes in no particular order on virtual index cards that you can then pin up on a virtual corkboard and move them around. Brilliant!
  • Whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, you need some general idea of the story theme, the characters involved, the setting, and the genre.
  • Genre. This seems painfully obvious, but I cannot believe how I have battled this writing demon. I wrote a book that I termed a “gothic” a la Victoria Holt, only to find that genre didn’t appear on many contest forms. I entered it as a mystery in one contest only to find, yikes, I needed a dead body up front. I entered it in romance and it won. So I pitched it to agents dealing in such material only to find that I had to have my hero show up in the first XX pages.

I joined NaNoWriMo this year and was doing pretty well in my vomit-draft mode until I rode up against the genre issue. Without realizing it, I had started my new book with a dead body and had suddenly become a crime writer, which I have never even considered in my entire life. Without going into great detail about this, what happened is that I could not write scenes because I had to have clues, and I couldn’t write clues because they required more knowledge about my esoteric subject than I had in my head. My book had more words in Track Changes as notes to myself than it did actual words in the story. I realized that had I spent more time thinking about the genre I wanted to write in (suspense), I would have saved myself a very frustrating November.

  • Every day, you have to sit, but you don’t have to produce. I disagree with many more successful writers in this.  Life is complicated! We have jobs or families or pets or household dirt. I have a  husband, work, a 94-yr-old mother to supervise, and two rescue dogs. Some days there’s no time or energy and I’m sick and tired of beating myself up about it, so instead of daily insistence on producing words, I insist I sit for at least 15 minutes to think about the novel, and that may mean examining my schedule to see where I can wiggle in some actual writing time later in the week.
  • Do puzzle out the time of day you are most creative. Try ever so hard to be faithful to yourself and set that time aside for your writing. Every time has its problems. If you’re a morning writer, you’re competing with work and feeding the kids. If you’re a night owl, you’re possibly competing with necessary shut-eye time. The list goes on. Prioritize. It’s hard because it always means saying no to something or someone. You can’t do it all.
  • Beware research. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I could spend my life in a library, but when you’re writing the preliminary draft, researching a problem can swallow you down a rabbit hole never to return, or never to return to that creative moment, at least. Put a sticky note or a Track Changes on the piece where you need more info and charge ahead. Now, this is easier said than done. If you are writing a historical piece as I am, you can get tripped up if clues, for example, need to build on each other and those are dependent upon factual objects, events or people that you have no clue about.  In this case, do as James Pattison does, spend three months researching before you write.

These are the tricks that are working for me…now. It’s a work in progress. If I had to select one of the above as the key to writing success it’s the establishment of a regular practice of writing. Find the physical space and the right time for you and guard it with your life. If your muse is a runaway, don’t wait for her. Start advertising for a new one. Sit at that laptop or pad of paper over your coffee and doodle, surf, think, read poetry…and create an open door through which aspiring muses may tread.

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