How to keep writing (or not) when nothing is working

I have three kids. I have a full-time job running a 24-hour restaurant. I own a home that requires constant upkeep. I have a wife who’s guaranteed to leave me a “Honey-do” list every week on my day(s) off. And yet, these are the least of the problems that keep me from writing.

The thing that keeps me from writing most is when I hit the wall with a story. So many times we’re told that you must write 1,000 words every day and we mustn’t abandon a project until it’s completed. I think this is usually pretty good advice. But not always.

What’s wrong with taking a day off to really think about a scene? What’s wrong with jumping between projects? There are many successful writers who work this way and it may work for you.

The Gold Standard

Stephen King’s On Writing is the gold standard of writing manuals. Everybody loves it and many authors swear by his methods. I enjoy the book, but many of his ideas do not work for me.

For one, I don’t believe that stories are fossils that live inside of me that I must painstakingly uncover. I believe that I am creating something that doesn’t exist anywhere at all.

Two, I’m a planner. It works for me. I know this because I tried to be a pantser for a long time and was never able to finish anything. I don’t believe in writing “organically.” I believe what artists do is necessarily “inorganic.” For me, the spontaneity of writing is in the outlining, and I allow for the story to change when my characters surprise me. An outline isn’t written in stone.

Finding what works

He’s also a big believer in finishing one project before moving on to another. I remember reading about a professional writer (whose name eludes me) that kept five typewriters in his office. Each one had a separate project and when he ran out of steam, he moved to the next typewriter and continued writing.

And then, of course, there’s the famous Anthony Trollope, whose method of writing 3 hours every morning before work allowed him to write almost fifty novels in his life. And he was panned not for the quality of his works but because of this fact. How, the believers of organic writing would say, did Trollope arrange this daily meeting with the Muse? That’s not possible, they say, and as evidence I’ll point to how much I always struggle.

My point is that writers should be willing to acknowledge that there’s not one method. And that discovery should lead us to two facts. First, just because someone works in a way that doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean that they’re not good or “real” writers. Second, try every method out there and find out what works for you.

JK Rowling’s outline for the Harry Potter series

I live by the outline, but I write freely as well. Most of my stories come from one image in my mind. I write out that scene and then create the characters and outline from it. My outlines are usually pretty detailed. Each scene has a starting and ending point. But, how I get there is for me, and the characters, to find out as we go.

A lot of this is necessarily dependent on you having writers in your social circle. Talk about processes that work for you and listen to the processes that work for them. Try them out. If they work, incorporate their techniques into your own and find something that consistently works for you. And this goes for the actual tools you use as well.

Writing instruments

  • Do you write only on a manual typewriter to feel like Hemingway? Try writing on your phone, see what happens.
  • Only write using an iPad? Try writing everything freehand just to get a feel of it.
  • Only write using blue ink on yellow legal pads? You may like a word processor, give it a try. 

Don’t pigeonhole yourself into a technique even if it works for you. Always be willing to try something different.

    And just about every one of us feels beholden to a specific genre. Either one that we enjoy or that we’re good at. We see Stephen King, the master of the horror genre and forget that he wrote “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Or what about Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series who also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Take a chance.

    Switching it up

    • Always write high fantasy fiction? Write a mystery story and see what happens.
    • Only write erotic fiction? Try sci-fi and see if you don’t surprise yourself.
    • Love to write thrillers? Try a straight mainstream love story.

    Cross into different forms of literature as well.

    Expand your literary oeuvre

    • Write a poem from the point-of-view of one of your characters.
    • Write one scene purely in the form of a play.
    • Write a nonfiction essay about what inspired you to write the story. 

    Fragmentation is all the rage these days.

    Which brings us back to On Writing. Just as writers should feel free to pick and choose what makes their story, only use what works from different advice and not necessarily the whole process. I’ve got so many different writing books I can hardly keep up with them all. But it would be impossible to use everything from all of them all of the time. John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth was a book I was given in my Advanced Creative Writing class last October. I really enjoyed this book. The practical advice is amazing and I recommend it with almost no reservations. Almost.

    The one issue I have is his belief that a writer should set a timer for a random number of minutes each day and just write. This is very similar to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way who recommends three longhand pages of “morning writing” at the beginning of every day. There’s nothing wrong with this and it is outstanding advice. But I think Dufresne takes it too far. He says that you should do this every single day and if you don’t you’re not a writer and you should just break your pen in two.

    I disagree. I don’t think anyone can tell you that you are not a writer or you are. James Baldwin said that we don’t become writers, we discover that we are writers. Once you find this is true, you’re always a writer. You may not write today or tomorrow. You may take a week or a month off. As long as you come back, you’re a writer.

    The most important thing is to not place limits on your writing. You really should dabble in everything. In the end, we’re creating whole worlds out of nothing. Why would you want to limit that at all?

    (I really do recommend The Lie That Tells a Truth, it is great. As is his TED Talk.)

    What the Declaration of a Independence can teach us about the writing process

    As I learn to navigate my way around blogging I try to make my posts timely. Last week, I wrote about Harry Potter on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and it seemed to work well (even if no one read it). I’m not sure how to write a blog post about writing to 4th of July. 

    But it’s really not that hard, when one thinks about it. Name another holiday that revolves around a document? There are 10 and a quarter federal holidays and it’s the only one that celebrates words written on paper.

    That’s all well and good, but what can a writer take from that? It’s a little presumptuous to think that any of us would ever write anything that would stand the test of time the way the Declaration of Independence has. Outside of the Bible, it’s the most influential document in human history. But we can still learn a great deal from the process itself.

    The Continental Congress established a committee of five to write the Declaration that committee than came up with a general outline and decided that Thomas Jefferson would write the first draft. He wrote a first draft and brought it back before the committee who made changes, which Jefferson incorporated before presenting the document to the Second Continental Congress. They would then make many more changes, removing nearly a fourth of its prose and removing a reference saying King George III forced slavery on the colonies. This sounds to me very much like how Breaking Bad would produce an episode of television. Starting with a group of writers, then having one person write the script which would then go through the hands of the director, the cast, and many others before the final product is realized. 

    But I’m sure it sounds nothing like what most writers do when they attempt to produce a novel. They sit in their room, banging away on a typewriter or keyboard, reveling in their isolation. When it’s done they don’t revise or edit it before trying to get it published. They don’t have others read it and give critiques. And if they do, they rarely take the advice. I know I’m guilty of this myself. Worse, the only people I have read my work is friends or family who, while best intentioned, probably don’t have the heart to tell me the brutal truth about my work.

    The one published novel I wrote was read and edited multiple times before I decided to self-publish it. Upon further readings, I still find mistakes and bad writing. When I submitted the first chapter to an online writing critique group, almost every reviewer said the same thing: the first sene has to go; the story starts in the second scene. As soon as I read it I knew they were right. So how did this get past me and all of my beta readers?

    The simple truth is that a second set of unforgiving eyes is critically important for any writer. And it’s the hardest thing to find and cultivate. Who has time to go to a writing group once a month? And online sites are either inconsistent or require a monthly payment in addition to your contribution of critiques.

    I recently finished going back to school and getting my degree. Throughout my adventure, whenever I had to post about what I liked most about my writing courses, I always said two things. One, I loved giving and receiving critiques. And two, I didn’t know where I would go to get those kinds of critiques after school was over. And I was right.

    This time I really had no answers but I would love to hear from anyone about what they do to get input on their work.

    Writing organically vs inorganically 

    As I was driving home yesterday I was listening to the Breaking Bad podcast and was just blown away by what I was learning about the writing process. They talked about how they opened season 5 with Walter in a full beard, long hair, different glasses, a New Hampshire license plate, buying an M-60. But they really had no ideas how they were going to get there. They talked about how they were “breaking the story” for months before they even started writing individual episodes. And then as they wrote, they would have to make changes as characters did things that surprised them. This is what all writers, to a degree, should be doing. I know most writers like to write “organically” but this can cause a multitude of problems.

    First, it may mean that you end up straying so far off course that you end up in a place that is so far from what you recognize that you just give up. Before I started outlining I ended up this way many times. I remember beginning a story that simply started with a female restaurateur and the next thing I know she was in a room with some mobsters and I had no idea what happened. It’s okay for characters to surprise you but not if it leaves you with no clue about what’s going to happen next.

    Second, stories written this way usually have what’s known as a “sagging middle.” Stories with a sagging middle usually lack structure. You’re so focused on a strong opening and a strong ending that you meander in the middle.

    Third, stories written organically tend to have endings that aren’t connected to the beginning. A really good novel tells the whole story in the first chapter. You should know who the main character is and what his struggle is. If you don’t know where you’re going this is a pretty unlikely scenario. I can’t tell you how many books or movies I’ve lived until the ending. It is a great book, one of my favorites. But the ending sucks. Where did the monster come from? Oh, it was aliens (Stephen King pulls the exact same stunt in Under the Dome, another one that sets up great and then just peters out). And then there’s Chasing Amy, a wonderful Kevin Smith film that sets up beautifully. But it has a horrible ending (also suffers from sagging middle, Kevin is probably a seat-of-his-pants writer). I think it’d be an interesting exercise to rewrite one of these stories by starting with the premise and then outlining it and writing towards the ending.

    Now I’m not suggesting that the only way to write is to develop a specific and detailed outline that plots out every twist and turn and then stick to it obsessively. But I do think that outlines work. I know my writing improved immensely when I started developing outlines.

    I generally come up with the characters and a general scenario first. Then, I write a quick scene with that character so I get a general feel for him—who he is, what he wants. And then I find out what kind of trouble I can get him into. I’m sure you’ve been told this many times before but I’m going to say it again: do horrible things to your MC. Put him in impossible situations, really paint him into a corner and then spend a lot of time trying to get him out of it. When you want to use luck or coincidence it should almost always work against your protagonist. Then think up crazy ways to get them out of it. Come up with as many stupid ideas as you can, you’ll probably end up surprising yourself with what you find out.

    Then come up with your outline. Make it as detailed or as loose as you want. But you really do have to know where you’re going, I truly believe this.

    Back to Breaking Bad. It has one of the truly great endings in the history of television and the writers set the ending up without having any idea of how to get there. They spent six months coming up with idea after idea trying to set up that ending. They did horrible things to all the characters and then, as they wrote, they would make adjustments to the story. They introduced ricin in the first season and it didn’t pay off until the final scene in the final episode when they kill off a character with it.

    That’s brilliant. And that’s what you have to do.

    Your characters will surprise you. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it won’t work. Learn what works and what doesn’t. And if something doesn’t work just throw it away and start over. It’ll be okay. The two best skills a writer must have is confidence to try anything and the willingness to throw your crap in the trash. It may be hard to admit that a whole scene or a whole chapter has to go, but you have to be willing to do it to cross over into success.

    Why do we like some bad writing and hate some good writing

    Good writing is hard to define. Look at the most popular novels of the 20th century and see how many of them can honestly be called well-written.The Lord of the Rings is probably the most popular book of the last century and it has many problems. The novel is far longer in the beginning than it is in the ending. Most of the characters lack depth or or any kind of analysis at all. And don’t get me started on the Council of Elrond. It’s a really long kids book essentially and I’ve never been able to read the whole thing.

    Atlas Shrugged has always been one of my favorites, but can I honestly say it’s well-written? No. The dialogue is stilted, the characters are one-dimensional, and Galt’s Speech is as long and confusing as the Council of Elrond. This begs two different questions: why are badly written books popular and why do we like some and not others. Also, why are the books that are clearly well-written that we don’t like?

    No one can argue that War and Peace and Anna Karenina are well written but they are also awful too read. Is it the author’s negativity that wears me down? But then there’s Chuck Pahlaniuk, a pessimist if I’ve ever read one, and I love a lot of his stuff. Or Camus’s The Stranger, which I can read over and over again—not exactly a feel-good book.

    Now I know this may seem like an idiot rambling on with no point, but I do have one. I think there’s a lot to be learned about myself as a writer if I look at all these things and try to discover why I like this and why I don’t like that. Why do I love Heinlein and Dick even though I don’t like much sci-fi? I tried to read Banks’s Consider Phlebas and it took me forever. 

    And I wasn’t really sure if I liked it, it was just so confusing. I’ve never enjoyed the fantasy genre even though that’s what almost everyone I knew in high school who read, read. There’s some humor fiction I like, Christopher Buckley and Nick Hornby, but when I try to branch out into Hiaasen or Christopher Moore I can make it past the first chapter. 

    So why even bother? Why not simply accept that there are some things I like and some things I don’t and leave it at that? To that I must defer to Socrates: “Know thyself.”

    As I think you may have noticed from my previous blog posts, I’m a pretty analytical guy. I think good writing is done with an editing pen and comes from digging deep into a story for what’s needed to be said. By digging why some good writing reaches you and some doesn’t you really need to spend some time with individual texts. Find a work that you really like but has problems and identify why you go back to again and again. Literally sit down with a notebook and a highlighter and analyze what works.

    And then do the hard part: find something that is universally regarded as good that you don’t like and do the same thing. I know that feels like the shittiest homework assignment ever and it may be. But you will gain something from it. In fact, it’ll probably surprise you.

    How nonfiction can inform your fiction 

    As writers, most of us, and maybe I’m speaking out of school here, see ourselves writing novels. That’s why NaNoWriMo is still going strong year after year and Script Frenzy disappeared after a few years. Most writers occasionally venture into short stories or poetry, but usually either to sharpen our skills or because we don’t have enough story for a novel. But good writing exists in more than just the fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble. Great writing can be anywhere. First off let’s not forget the other five hundred nonfiction sections in the bookstore. Many of these sections have tremendous writing that the growing writer can learn from. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is one I’ve read recently that truly moved me simply with the eloquence of his prose, beyond the message. The book opens with a letter to his nephew that includes the following passage:

    “Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”

    Freakonomics is so engaging it’s ridiculous. You forget you’re reading about economics, generally regarded as the driest of the social sciences. Steven Levitt is an economist but he realizes that for his theories to reach the general public, they must be grounded in a practicality that they can use. When he says the following, he is not lecturing but opening the gate to the path he is about to lead us on.

    “It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.”

    Another aspect of these two authors is that they genuinely have something new and interesting and important to say. When writing fiction it’s really hard to differentiate between writing a book with a message and preaching to people. Believe it or not, no fiction can help with this, too. Any good nonfiction that is trying to make a point, is going to have to give you the impression that it’s treating both sides fairly. You need to do the same thing with your story.

    When you tell the story, make things hard for your protagonist. It’s okay for luck to play a factor but it’s usually better if luck and coincidence goes against your protagonist. This will make it seem like you’re being fair to the story. 

    Nonfiction shouldn’t just be books on how to be a better writer. You should read all types of nonfiction and take what you learned and apply it to your fiction. In the long run, you’ll see the difference. 

    The last reason writers need to read bad writing 

    The last reason a writer should read bad writing is that it should push us to submit our own writing as much as possible. When you finish something that you know isn’t very good you should find something that you’ve written and just send it to a publisher or agent. Find the agent who represents that writer and send them a cover letter that says: “You published Such-and-such by So-and-so and I think you should read this because it’s not great but it’s better than that piece of shit.”Not really. You should never ever say anything like that. But you can say: “I just finished Such-and-such by So-and-so and I thought you might like this.” I say this for a couple of reasons. Most writers read—or should read—within the genre they write in so that they can find out what works and what’s missing in that genre. It’s said that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia because they couldn’t find the things they wanted to read so they wrote them themselves. You should be the same way. Don’t just ape everything you like. Read what you like but look for what’s missing or what could be better and do that (Which, by the way, will be what’s next, What to Take from Good Writing).

    There are two things every aspiring writer really struggles with: confidence and inspiration. Bad writing should give you both. It should give you confidence that your writing is good enough to be shopped. And it should inspire you to give readers something better.