Sometimes the hardest part about writing is getting started.
Dal Kular and I are on a mission: support writers in overcoming the obstacles that keep them from telling their stories. Whether these obstacles were imposed externally, or came up inside you as the critic, we want to band together to break through as writers.
We are currently accepting entries into an anthology we are assembling to showcase tales of anyone who felt the fear and wrote it anyway. Told by a teacher you’d never write? Tell us your story. Crippled by doubt and perfectionism despite support from those around you? We want that story too. Circumstances conspiring to prevent you ever having the time to write? Hell yes we want that story told.
Here’s how to submit to I Wrote it Anyway:
- *We are accepting submissions of up to 2,500 words
- *Please listen to the Secret Library Podcast Episode #88 to hear our discussion of the anthology’s mission
- *Submissions must be sent in by March 15, 2018 at midnight Pacific Time
- *Email your submission as an attachment to: email@example.com
- *Share this post on Social Media with the hashtag #iwroteitanyway
- *We will announce the essays we select for the final collection on April 30, 2018
Good luck! We look forward to reading all your stories. As Dal says in this episode, writing is a revolutionary act. We all benefit when more stories are told. Let’s share what helped us write.
We’ve all reached that point in a project where we run out of things to say. I’ll be honest, I thought that point was never going to come with the novel I’m working on. I started with such grand dreams and the process felt wide and bottomless. This is not a new feeling- I have started and abandoned about five novels now. So to imagine this feeling would not return was a bit, shall we say, misguided?
It comes on in different ways- things can begin to feel slow when you sit down to write. The voices of the story feel quieter. It’s harder to hear what the characters are saying. Sometimes there is suddenly a flood of social invitations that sound too amazing to pass up. Sometimes you get to a busy time of year and then there isn’t time to get to the book for a day, and then a month.
The first thing to remember is that this is not a sign that you are writing a bad book. Getting to a stuck place has nothing to do with the quality of your idea. It’s simply a part of the process that is inevitable as a writer. One of the curses of anxiety is how it compounds itself. First, you feel anxious about how the project is going. Then, this can fold in to become a layer where the presence of the anxiety begins to mean that the project is not worth continuing.
Take a deep breath and let that thought go. Your book is absolutely worth writing. Your story still matters. In these stuck moments, the important thing is not to damage your relationship with writing when things feel difficult. Instead of walking away completely or forcing yourself to grind through and continue at your prior pace no matter what, here are some helpful steps to take at low moments in a draft:
- 1) Write backstory. That relationship between two of your characters that isn’t quite clear? How your main character’s parents met? What happened that summer that no one can talk about? These kinds of plot lines that the reader may never find out completely in the course of the book, but that you need to know to decide what you put in the book and what you leave out are perfect ways to spend your time when writing the actual official book isn’t going so smoothly. I learned this tip from Scott O’Connor (ep. 72)
- 2) Let yourself cheat on your project, for a little while. I have lost count of how many writers have told me that they cheat on their main project when they get stuck. Patricia Park (ep. 71) started two other novels while at work on Re Jane. Edan Lepucki (ep. 4) always has a new book idea as a lover on the side when she’s working on a novel that she can look forward to working on when the current book is finished. If you’re feeling a bit bored with this project because a new one seems much shinier, then give yourself a few days to play. When you come back to your current project, you’ll be that much more motivated to finish and move on to the next story.
- 3) Change format. Don’t underestimate the power of the bright shiny object. When I get stuck on a project, I switch freely from handwriting it to typing straight into Scrivener, to dictating into a voice recorder on walks and then transcribing with Dragon Naturally Speaking (ep 84 Joanna Penn‘s hot tip for avoiding RSI), to typing with the Alpha smart (A trick I learned from Piper Huguley in ep 77) Sometimes changing how you write can be just the trick to keep writing.
- 4) Give it time. There is so much pressure to write fast and to get everything down as quickly as possible, but it isn’t always possible to write a book or a story as fast as we’d like to. It takes time to digest all the material and all the thinking you need to in order to write your story the best way you can. I have yet to speak to a writer who wishes their book had taken longer to write, but almost everyone wishes they could have gotten in done more quickly. Even so, Jade Chang and Paul McVeigh both said in their episodes that a lot of what made stories they got stuck on work was more time. That after reflecting and letting the work breathe, it came together on its own in the end.
- 5) Pull a tarot card. I have found this to be an incredible source of breakthrough in my writing as well as for others. Once a friend asked me to do a tarot reading for her writing project instead of her and the results were so profound that we were both utterly gobsmacked. I created an entire course about using tarot to break through blocks in writing and it’s still available for anyone who needs some support and guidance getting started.
Don’t give up on your writing. Everyone gets stuck and everyone has a hard time seeing the way forward when you’re in the middle. It’s normal to get rattled by this point. It’s called the messy middle for a reason. But just because things get messy doesn’t mean you have to give up on your story.
I hope you keep writing. I hope you keep going back to the page. I struggle with the same issues, and I have learned that every single writer does, too, no matter how successful they become. You are not failing if you get stuck. Trust your story, trust yourself, and keep going.
Your story is worth it and so are you.
For close to two years, I’ve been interviewing authors every week for the Secret Library Podcast about the process of writing and publishing books. As we approach episode 100, I’ve been reflecting on the immense volume of advice and input that has come through the show. Themes have emerged and, when it comes down to it, many authors have similar things to say about what it takes to finish a book.
It is my greatest hope that this show inspires people to write. Whenever I get a response to the newsletter that says someone kept writing because of something they heard on the show, it makes me whole day- maybe even my whole month. Take these notes about writing to heart. It is possible for you to finish your book. Please keep going, with the following in mind:
1. Every book is different. Even if you’ve written many books, each one poses its own challenges. Don’t get stuck trying to find “one method that rules them all” that will work with every book you ever write from now on. And even if you do find that method, you’ll still get stuck. (V.E. Schwab was particularly eloquent on this last point.) As reassuring as hearing about other people’s routines is, the only one that matters is the one that works for you.
2. Finishing a book is doable, and happens all the time. One of my favorite comments from the show came from Scott Carney, who said “If you’re intimidated by writing a book, you’re probably looking at writing a book wrong.” He breaks his writing down into 500 words a day, no more and no less, and continues until he has a first draft. This may seem to contradict #1, but the benefit I have felt from talking to this many published authors is having it beaten into me that people finish books every day. If you keep writing, it will happen. Giving up is the only thing that will stop you from ending up with a finished manuscript.
3. Don’t force the process. This is particularly important with Fiction, but can come up with other forms of writing as well. If you feel like you’re having to squeeze it out of your brain, it’s not going to be fun to write or for anyone to read. I go back to an early episode with Sarah Selecky all the time, who talked about writing as a kind of magical transcription. If you sit in a place of curiosity and take notes from that place, the story will come. Keep showing up on your schedule, and be open to magic. This episode will change the way you think about writing fiction, and is such a relief. If you feel like you have to white knuckle your story onto the page, this conversation will set you free.
4. You’re in charge. So many people feel scared of the responsibility of writing a book, but a flip that many authors have reminded us of is this: where else do you get to be completely in charge of everything that happens in the whole world? Perhaps the tyranny of choice is a bit scary, but an alternative is to enjoy this experience. Frustrated at your job? Wish you had more say in some aspects of your life? Relish the fact that every single thing that happens in your book is up to you. Fall in love with the world you are writing about and immerse yourself. (J. Ryan Stradaal will share how smitten you can become with your world and how to keep going when research is too enticing)
5. Above all, know why you want to write THIS book. So many of us dream of writing books. I have since I was little. And each book that sits on a shelf somewhere started out as a “what if…?” for its author. To take it all the way to the final moment, the reason you’re writing it has to feel important to you. It doesn’t matter how much this book would mean to anyone else when you’re writing it. You will spend more time with this book than anyone else will, even if they read it numerous times. Find out why you HAVE to write this down and it will get done. Look to Natashia Deón’s drive to write while waiting at court for her job as inspiration, and Lisa Cron’s exploration of finding your why for support.)
Remember that you can do this, and that your writing matters. Speaking to writer after writer, each one tells me they get scared or blocked or worried that their book is total crap, but then they keep going and finish it anyway. And I am inspired by each one of them who keeps sitting down and doing the work. It’s hard to talk yourself into writing sometimes, but please remember that the end result is worth it. Your story is worth it.
Thank you for being brave and for continuing. More stories told makes a better world for all of us.
This week’s letter comes from Dal… who is interested in learning about book proposals. Listen up to learn if you even need a book proposal at all, and how to write one if you do.
Recommended podcast episode:
What to do when your personal philosophy hits a roadblock.
I’ve just finished reading Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I loved it the first time I read it, and got just as much out of it this time around.
For those of you who haven’t read it, the basic principle is this: we often get distracted and waste our effort by pursuing too many goals at once. We make a millimeter of effort in a million different directions, instead of choosing what really matters. Focusing all our energy on what matters means much more progress much faster.
This is the path of specialization. I know this experience well: when I read 20 books at once, I never really get into any of them and I never get to finish any of them. If I just read one book at a time, I really dive in deep and finish it faster.
This makes sense, and I can see some ways I can make more concrete progress by saying no to more things that I’m not really that excited about, or that are less important to me, in favor of the ones that I want the most.
One of the other books that I have read that is a huge game-changer is Yes Man. I recommend each of these books all the time.
The quick summary of Yes Man by Danny Wallace is this- a guy who was stuck in a rut and feeling depressed got jolted out of this space when he was confronted by a man on the bus who told him he said no too much and that he should say yes more.
He then went on an odyssey of saying yes to every opportunity that came his way for the next year and it completely changed his life. When I was reading this book a friend was reading it as well. We were so fired up by this philosophy since it was so life affirming. But it did give us pause when trying to make plans with each other. We didn’t want to force the other person to join us, just because of the yes.
So we started leaving a lot of voicemails that sounded like this: “Hi! I just thought you’d want to know that I’m going to the movies today. I’m going to see Fantastic Movie at 3pm at this theater. Just thought I’d let you know. Bye!” That way, there was no question and no required yes.
But as I was working my way through Essentialism, feeling really good about saying no more, I remembered Danny Wallace and the joy of saying yes.
Am I an essentialist or a yes man?
This sort of thing is enough to put me into an identity tailspin, so I’ve been cooking on it all week. Do I have to choose one? Can I have both?
I think I can.
- The message of both books is, at their core, to say yes to the things that really matter.
- The reason Danny Wallace had to go big on the yes was that he had gotten in the habit of saying no to everything all the time.
- The core message here is: don’t say yes or no without considering why you’re saying it.
What I am looking for is a philosophy that combines both of these ideologies.
Let’s call it The Essential Yes.
Anyone want to be a part of this movement?
Here are the principles:
- Life is meant to be joyful and juicy
- Going all in creates a better result
- It’s important to consider all your options before going all in
- Go big at the beginning- brainstorm every single thing you might want to say yes to
- Then choose what you want to say yes to right now
- Go all in on that for as long or as short a time as you choose
- It’s ok to change your mind or to return to step 1 at any time
- Enjoy the process
That’s it… I think the major thing is that we make mindless choices in life a lot of the time, and this leads to unhappiness. We say yes to things without asking ourselves if they are really want, so we need to strengthen our no. If this is your tendency, I suggest you read Essentialism. We might also say no right away, fearing we’ll be disappointed or get overwhelmed, so we stay small and hide from anything new that feels too dangerous. If this is you, I say go for Yes Man.
We’ll all meet in the middle on this method.
The point is to say yes to the things that matter and no to things that don’t.
Have a philosophy that helps you sort through these choices? Please do share below in the comments. I can’t wait to hear!
Until then, I’ll just be here dreaming of a podcast episode that’s a debate between Greg McKeown and Danny Wallace on just this topic. Heaven. I will do my best to make it happen…