Writer’s Block, Part 3: Focus

This is the third in a series of posts on writer’s block, largely to help me (and anyone else who’s interested) to get into writing mode in the run-up to NaNoWriMo. So far I’ve talked about blocks caused by the dreaded blank page and the demon of self doubt; now I’d like to talk about those factors, internal and external, that can stop us completely.

“I just don’t feel like writing…”

Also referred to as a lack of motivation. This is, in the majority of cases, sheer laziness. Some days you really don’t feel the urge to write. Maybe it was a long day at work, or you slept badly, or you’ve got too wrapped up in the latest series on Netflix and want to finish it.

The thing is, motivation doesn’t work – not for long, anyway. Plenty of people start a new writing project with enthusiasm and then, a couple of weeks later, they skip a day. And then another day. And then the whole project just stops. (It’s not just writing. The same thing happens with diets and exercise, or new habits.)

Writing is hard work. It’s not so bad while it’s fun, but when the fun stops it just becomes work. It takes discipline to keep up the habit. After a while, the habit becomes routine and starts becoming fun again, or at least becomes That Thing You Do Every Day, when you just do it because that’s what you always do.

If I put a gun to your head and told you to write two thousand words, would you still “not feel like it”? Or would you suddenly discover you were motivated after all?

However…

There are occasions when “not feeling like it” are entirely valid. Illness is an obvious one – if you’re feeling sick to the point that you can’t see properly and your head is throbbing, the only thing you should be doing is resting. It’s also hard to focus on writing when you’re exhausted, or if a close family member has died, or if some urgent and vital task takes priority. If your house is flooded, you have more important things to worry about than your daily word count.

Speaking of other priorities…

Distractions

It’s hard to write when distracted. There are definite advantages to having a quiet room where you can work, away from the family and the cat complaining about her empty bowl (you only just emptied it, cat…). I find it harder to write when there’s too much noise, or not enough noise – dead silence is just weird – but there are other distractions.

First, you need to take care of yourself. I’ve never believed in the concept of the starving artist – if I’m hungry, I’m not going to write until I’ve eaten something (but not too much; being bloated may be worse!). Your writing will suffer if you’re tired, or if you have something else on your mind.

And then there’s the other kind of distraction – other writing ideas. It’s very easy when you have a big project to get distracted by a shiny new one. “I’ll just do this,” I say, “and then I can get back to the other thing.” Several weeks later, I have two big projects to get on with and a third one is whispering seductively into my brain…

The best thing I’ve found to do there is to write them down. Note all those new ideas, plan out what they involve, and then put the plans aside. You can always come back to them later. Sometimes, when I do, I read those ideas again and say to myself “what was I thinking?!”

Fear

And finally, there’s the biggest and most insidious block of them all – sheer panic. A big task like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words can certainly bring this on, but it can happen to anyone. It happened to me, and it did so a little at a time.

Sometimes, you have a bad writing day. It happens. You just can’t get anything done, and the only thing you can do is leave it and come back to it tomorrow. Or maybe you don’t write anything for a while because something else gets in the way. For me, it was a major change in my routine – not going out, working from home, not seeing anyone else… March 2020 hit everyone in different ways, and it threw out my writing completely. I didn’t want to spend more time at the computer when I was spending the entire day in front of it.

That’s okay. You come back when things settle down. And then something awful happens – you’re staring at the screen, and you can’t remember how to write… it goes badly, you give up. You come back the next day – but you’re still stuck, and you remember that you didn’t do anything yesterday and you feel more pressure to do something today.

Keep that up for several days. A few weeks. Even months… and now writing isn’t just hard, but impossible. The very act of sitting down at the keyboard and opening up that novel fills you with dread.

That’s what I felt. For months.

It’s still not great for me. The novel rewrites started back up a while ago and then stalled again. You can’t reason your way out of this block; I know it’s ridiculous, I know I can write, but it doesn’t matter. I’m therefore doing two things to ease back into the routine:

  1. Write something fun and frivolous. The big project is too daunting, and failing to get anywhere just keeps it that way, so I’m writing something else entirely. It’s completely pointless, but it’s fun – and it’s keeping up a daily habit. I’ll be parking it again when NaNoWriMo starts, and starting on another fun and vaguely silly idea that will at least be halfway practical!
  2. Write less. If even a thousand words is too much, don’t try to write a thousand words. Write 200 words. If that’s too much, write a single line. Any progress is still progress, and it snowballs. One line leads to a second. 200 words leads to 300 words.

Next week I’ll be starting on my 50,000 word project – and reporting on how day 1 went.

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