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.
Cecil Castellucci won’t cosplay with your heart.
Cecil Castellucci has been writing for young people for over fifteen years, has published a stack of books and writes an ongoing comic book through an imprint with Marvel. She knows the world of YA and gave me the lowdown on that world in this incredible conversation.
We talk about her latest book, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart, which I loved and read in a single sitting. I expect you will, too. We dive into tons of hot-button topics in this episode: capturing the teen experience, why people are suddenly being accused of being “fake geeks” now that geekdom is cool, and the issue that’s got a lot of people talking: sensitivity readers and what this means for writers.
If you’ve thought about writing for young people, or are working on a story for that audience, this is essential listening. And even if this isn’t your usual genre to read, you may find yourself diving in after listening. This is such a fun audience to write for, and one worth spending time with. Bonus… you’ll learn who the main character of Cecil’s book is named after toward the end of the episode, something I guessed while I was reading and had to confirm. Happy listening!
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Cecil’s Blog | Cecil’s Books | Don’t Cosplay With My Heart | Facebook | Twitter
Discussed in Episode 85 with Cecil Castellucci
- Revisiting nerd culture with the main character an unabashed nerd.
- The narrative of the nerd as a sad guy in his parents’ basement was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
- “There’s this feeling that they have that their spaces are being invaded. But they’re not being invaded. It’s enhanced.” On the broadening of the geek fanbase.
- “They’re stupid and I am a real geek.” On accepting your place in geek culture.
- “The only thing you need to be a fan of anything… is enthusiasm.” On being enough of a fan.
- “There’s always something to be discovered about the stuff that you love.” On the depths of fandom.
- “It gave me the bravery to bring out this other part of me.” On being a young cosplayer.
- Eden, main character in book, uses cosplay as a way of dealing with a tough time in her life.
- Made up her own superhero team within the world of the novel, to avoid associations with existing superhero IPs.
- “How do you make a reader like a fandom that doesn’t exist?” On the challenge of building investment in a fictional IP.
- “Sensitivity readers” in YA publishing and doing research to get characters and experiences as close to accurate as you can.
- “I’m going to the source and asking.” On caring about the authenticity of your story.
- “I don’t think it takes anything away from your book by getting it right.” On proper research and having early readers with experiences beyond your own.
- “No matter what you do when you write a book, someone’s mad.” On not worrying about whether your book will be perfect.
- “Most people who write for young people still get asked the question, ‘When are you going to write a real book?’” On being a YA author.
- “If you’re going to write outside of your lane, do it right.” On doing the research and listening to voices outside of your own.
- “The more people you invite to the table, the better your feast is going to be.” On opening up publishing to more & different voices.
- “Your job as an artist is to go and experience things.” On fueling your creative output.
- When she started writing YA – books and comics – it didn’t have a shelf to itself. Now, thanks to all the series that have been turned into movies – it’s blown up and is much bigger and harder to get into.
- Comic: Shade the Changing Girl
- Plain Janes Graphic Novel
- Don’t Cosplay is a return, of sorts, to the themes of the book that launched her career 15 years ago.
- Edan Lepucki
Author photo: Eric Charles
Joanna Penn is a prosperous writer.
Yes, you read that correctly. I wanted to begin the New Year with an episode guaranteed to inspire. Once I connected with Joanna, I knew she was the one to share with you first in 2018. Not only is she day-job free, Joanna Penn makes a solid six-figure income from writing and travels extensively to places that fascinate her to research her books.
Before you glaze over, I promise you – this is far from a get rich quick scheme. It took Joanna four years to build up enough income from writing books and speaking to walk away from the job that was crushing her creative spirit. She works very hard and writes continuously to keep new titles up to sell. She has learned so much from building a business as a writer, deciding not to publish within traditional publishing and going the indie author route, and choosing to write books that are fun for her to write. This episode was like an invitation to consider what is possible to accomplish for writers.
A big proponent of developing a successful author mindset, I know Joanna will challenge you to dream bigger about living a great life as a writer. Our conversation definitely lit a fire under me and I have been writing like a maniac ever since. May it do the same for you. Happy listening!
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Joanna’s Site | The Creative Penn Podcast | Joanna’s Books | Facebook | Twitter
Discussed in Episode 84 with Joanna Penn
- Masters degree in theology from Oxford. Then went into business consulting. Worked in accounts payable.
- “I got to the point where I was crying at my job.” On starting off NOT as a writer.
- Needed to change. Set affirmations. Took two years to be able to say (below) out loud.
- “I am Creative. I am an author.” On setting intentions.
- “I was never going to give up the money.” On changing careers.
- “What is your definition of success?” On deciding between traditional & self-publishing.
- “I measure my life by what I create.” On deciding what matters.
- You have to decide whether or not you’re going to make money as a creator.
- As a writer she thinks first about the reader. Perhaps in contrast to literary fiction that is often more inwardly focused.
- “Literary fiction is a genre.” On categories of writing.
- “You have to write more than one book.” On making money by writing.
- Write a lot and write a lot of different books. You get more potential audiences and you become a better writer.
- Done with “book as baby” metaphor. Onto “book as employee” metaphor. The more books you have, the more readers & customers they can bring in.
- “You have to consume in order to produce.” On ideas and inspiration.
- Consume with the mindset of taking in ideas for your own work. Take notes. Write things down.
- Capture ideas continuously on the fly with Evernote or Pinterest.
- Book recommendation: Big Magic
- Book recommendation: State of Wonder
- “Don’t feel guilty about what you’re interested in.” On genre versus literary fiction.
- Very hard to make a living on book sales alone.
- When she left her non-writing job she had four books, blog, affiliate income, speaking gigs, courses, events.
- “I was not relying on one book or even four books.” On having multiple streams of income.
- “Writing in a series is almost critical if you want to make a living.” On satisfying binge readers.
- Having books in multiple formats – ebook, paper and audio – and in both fiction and non-fiction, doesn’t cannibalize readers. The audiences are different.
- Don’t forget to think globally. If you own your ip rights, you can publish all over the world.
- AI translation is probably coming to non-fiction in the next five years. Literary and poetry translation will likely remain small and artisanal.
- English-speaking and reading markets are huge in countries like India & China. Larger even than market in UK.
- Think about book length. If you primarily sell ebooks, traditional book length – determined by physical shelf presence – is irrelevant. You can write shorter.
- 25,000 words is fine. 90,000 words is not needed.
- Deciding that you are a successful author causes you to focus on things that will help make that happen.
- “The people who are ready to hear the message will hear it.” On making the leap.
- “Everyone in the world should write a book.”
Anu Partanen never planned to move to the United States.
She was very happy living as a journalist in Finland until she fell in love with an American, and ended up moving to NYC so they could marry and be together.
Once moving here, Anu became even more aware of the advantages her home country had provided: universal high-quality health care, childcare, maternity leave, elder care, and on and on. For the first time, she was presented with bills and policies that didn’t make sense to her. As a journalist, she began researching the differences between the US and the Nordic countries, expanding her research to include policies in Sweden, Norway and Denmark as well as Finland. The result was the book, The Nordic Theory of Everything.
I read this book in late 2017, wooed by the topic of social change. I was blown away and immediately knew I had to speak to the author. Our conversation explores the potential impact on writers and people in creative fields and how the way the US treats people could be the reason countless people choose not to pursue a career as a writer. Thankfully, we also find hope in this conversation, as well as actions people can take (in addition to seeking Finnish citizenship) to improve life as a creative professional.
I’m so grateful to release this episode in the last slot of 2017, just in time for us to make big changes that support more and more writing in the New Year. Happy listening!
author photo: Kristiina Wilson
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Anu’s Site | The Nordic Theory of Everything | Anu’s Atlantic Article | Facebook | Twitter
Discussed in Episode 83 with Anu Partanen
- Finds writing painful and hard, but that reading is the way she bests understands complex ideas. So she writes.
- “Life in America seemed so complicated.” On moving to America from Finland.
- “You can go to yoga as much as you want but if your healthcare system is super-expensive and complicated the yoga is not going to help.” On navigating the American healthcare system.
- “America is the promised land of self-help books.” On the American trait of self-improvement.
- “It is not about you only as an individual.” On working for change within a culture.
- “Who is able to write?” On how societies support, or don’t support, creative arts.
- “It immediately skews the voices that we hear.” On social systems that don’t support the less well off.
- “It also alienates readers if you feel like, ‘well, these writers are not representing my life.’”
- “Even though there is so much talk, a lot of important things still are not said.” On the need for all voices to be heard.
Mark Frauenfelder makes magic with books.
Everyone has heard the classic trope write what you love. In some cases, I have felt a bit bullied by this concept. “How am I supposed to know what I love most?” I have wondered. I think the best thing you can do to figure this out is to listen to this conversation with Mark Frauenfelder and listen to how he followed what was fascinating to him and wrote books and articles about these things along the way.
In this conversation we talk about the day job that Mark escaped to write and it is the worst day job for a writer I have yet heard of. In addition, learn about how Boing Boing was founded. The original office space for the zine version sounds like my version of heaven and I’m sure it will to you, too.
Above all, Mark is an incredible role model for making a living from curiosity, enthusiasm, and being willing to dive into a world you don’t entirely know yet. His fascination with a variety of topics and being willing to write about them just because he loves learning is both infectious and a great example to the rest of us. If we follow his lead, I think we are in for a lot of amazing books to hit digital and physical shelves very soon.
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Mark’s Site | Boing Boing | Mark’s Books | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
Discussed in Episode 82 with Mark Frauenfelder
- “I think it’s just because I’m curious about so many things.” On the diversity of his writing output.
- Video is the future of how-to.
- Books and audio may still be champs when it comes to the storytelling. Recipes too.
- The founding of BoingBoing.
- On the beginning of BoingBoing.
- “It took us about a year to do the first issue of BoingBoing.” On writing a zine around a day job.
- “It was really exciting. The PO Box every day was just stuffed with colorful, amazing, eclectic publications.” On the height of zine culture.
- Today indie games and lofi music maybe still have some of the same energy of the zine days.
- Podcasting has some of that vibe and intense focus on topics.
- Whole Earth Review
- Coming out of Whole Earth Catalog
- Moved to SF to work on Wired. Total fake it till you make it situation.
- Signal, special issue of the Whole Earth Review
- A proto-Wired magazine.
- Cool Tools
- Institute for the Future
- ‘I FORGOT MY PIN’: AN EPIC TALE OF LOSING $30,000 IN BITCOIN
- Navigating between ideas that could be books, articles, videos, etc.
- Has a smart agent.
- “I tend to get overexcited after just thinking about something for a couple of days.”
- “Any exciting idea that comes my way, I’ll think ‘oh yeah, there’s a book there.’” On being a broad spectrum enthusiast.
- “One thing that’s fun about writing is that you get to jump in & explore a new world.” On finding writing as a career.
- Vellum app
- “I’m not really doing any of it for the money.” On the broad swath of his writing output.