Back on Track and the Lessons I’ve Learned While Astray

Terrible oil pastel drawing of that crushing, staticky feeling. Artist: me.

As you’ve probably noticed from my fluctuation between complaining and a lack of posts, I have had some issues writing after quitting my “day job.” I thought at first I just didn’t have the right story idea. Maybe the plot I had in mind (or the characters, or the setting, or the everything altogether) was bad and I wasn’t going to get it to work, so I abandoned the idea. This happened twice in a row. Then I thought that I was pushing myself to work too much or too often. So I took a break.

After my break, I felt much better – for about a day. Then I went straight back into feeling like shit and static filling my head. Maybe I was overwhelming myself with the steps to write something to completion. So I built a system to keep myself focused. This worked for about two weeks and then I fell right back into the pit. 

Maybe I was depressed again. So I decided to narrow down what I was doing, lighten my workload. But I still suffered this…blockage of sorts. What the hell was going on?

Finally I realized I felt the worst when something external reminded me about writing. Someone would ask how my book was coming along. Or they’d make a snarky comment about how I wasn’t working on a Saturday. Just taking a peek at Medium I’d get bombarded with all kinds of writing advice articles. 

The articles were, interestingly enough, the worst. Individually they aren’t bad, but I’d sit down and read a bunch in a row. Every single one of them basically saying the same thing: I should be writing content every single day. 

And the problem isn’t that producing content is bad. I’m writing content right now. The problem starts when you let this outside world into your private routine. When you allow others to tell you how to write or what to write or when to write. And this happens very easily when you feel that your process or your job isn’t valid.

So what changed? 

I can’t say for sure exactly where I unfucked myself. Most likely, it was a culmination of a few things. 

First, I stopped trying to make myself an “authority” on anything. I stopped writing the how-to posts here. This eased my impostor syndrome quite a bit, and being honest about it felt great, but had the unintended side effect of a minor, uh, existential crisis. 

What should I write now? What do I even have to say? Do I have something to say? Should I just stfu and shut down the blog? 

The adage is to write what you know, but what did I really know? Well…I knew a lot about my own experiences with depression and anxiety. So I drafted up a few Medium articles on that. And never posted them.

I’m still learning how to be more honest with myself about my emotions – broadcasting heavy thoughts like that with my name out there for everyone to see felt…wrong. I just couldn’t make myself do it. What I wrote was “authentic” I guess, but publishing it just didn’t feel like me. I kept asking myself, “if not that, then what?” I agonized over this for way too long until I finally asked myself the real questions:

What drew me to writing in the first place? What is it that I like to read?

scenic view of city during nighttime
A whole new wooooorld…
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

I love books that are filled with characters who struggle. I love stepping into worlds that are rich and vibrant. Adventures that make me feel alive. Relationships that feel authentic and sweet, even if they start off a bit rocky. I want to open a book and see a massive universe I can set out and explore. Especially if it goes beyond what the author has written. 

Stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, The Witcher, The Dark Tower series. Any world that allows you to imagine yourself living there is like catnip to me. I use literature to escape and I’d love to write the same for others. 

I have ideas for short stories, too. I’ve written several, and in the spirit of the year of finishing things, I will still try to finish the majority of ones I abandoned. But publishing shorts is not my calling. Worldbuilding is. 

This conclusion made me realize I’m incapable of following the route the internet has drawn up for writers. Though there’s more money to be had in publishing an article every day on Medium and in writing and submitting shorts (assuming they get accepted). Guest posts, cross posts, affiliate links, Pinterest infographics, Twitter quotes/screenshots…all of these things and more are great ways to monetize your writing and to gain an audience. I’ll have to do some of them eventually, too. None of this is bad. It’s just not what I should be doing right now.

I should be writing. I should be living in the worlds I’m crafting so that when I’m done, you can live there, too. 

Because of this realization, I was able to shed the imagined expectations weighing me down. I don’t need to write 40 hours a week. Sometimes writing means getting thoughts down on paper (or pixels) whether or not they are coherent. I am writing every day, and a lot of it is unusable crap. If I need to stop mid workday and play Bugsnax or (god help me) Detroit: Become Human in order to relax, I should. If I need to take a whole day or week off in order to “refill my creative bottle” (Thanks for the metaphor, Arbor!), then I absolutely do. If my workday consists of me walking around my office in circles, mumbling new storylines or dialogue to myself, then so be it! 

Stephen King says to write with the door closed, edit with the door open. He’s referring to writing a story exactly how you want to tell it, and then editing it so that it can appeal to other people as well. I feel like it should extend to your routine, too. Don’t let other people dictate how you work, just make sure you eventually do get to work. 

These steps together eventually got me back on track, and I really hope outlining them will help anyone else suffering from a constant burnt-out, static-brained, panic-stricken blockage of words. Basically I think it all boiled down to getting back to why I started writing in the first place. 

A caveat

This is the part where I reiterate that I am so, so privileged. I get a small retirement payment every month, so I can feel like I contribute a little to my household. Beyond that, everything gets covered by my husband. We saved for a long time, we finagled our finances, and eventually got to the point where me not having any other income was doable. I can rest easy while I make-believe and do other weird writer shit. My circumstances are not normal. 

If you want to only write novels, then do it! But keep a day job. Don’t force the pressure of finishing a novel on yourself – you will fail, and it will suck the whole way down. Establish a writing routine around your work. If your job leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, write at the beginning of your day. If you can’t concentrate on work when you write beforehand and it’s threatening your job, find a different job (while still working at your current one). 

If you want to write articles every single day and you think you know your niche, then try it while you still have a job. With either of these options, you want to be able to support yourself (or nearly be able to support yourself) on the money you’re making from your efforts working around your dictated schedule. If you find yourself making excuses, procrastinating, getting easily discouraged, doing or being or feeling anything that keeps you from producing regularly, do not quit your job. 

Anyway, the point is…

…enjoy the go! Oh wait, no, that’s something else. 

But seriously, have fun while you work. If you can’t figure out how to enjoy it, it’ll be more difficult. And if you’re anything like me, the pressure to work while miserable will make you crumble. Sure, I can bust my ass to meet the occasional deadline, but I would die as a journalist. Knowing your work style, your limits, and being honest about and honoring them both will make all the difference if you’re having issues writing like I did. 

And I almost guarantee I will forget this by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around again…

Novel Ways to Get Novel Ideas

peeping gray cat
Here we see mittens, about to pounce on a possibly plot line.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Now that we’ve established what parts make up a story, let’s get to work answering the question that is the bane of many authors’ existence: “Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s not because this is a bad question. If you didn’t have this question, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. But a lot of writers have superstitions surrounding this process and some don’t know how to answer. 

I’m not saying I have all my shit together, but seeing as how I had to get out of a deep slump in order to get ideas again, I have a little bit more insight into how it works than someone who’s never had to coax it out of themselves before.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

What IS an idea?

An “idea” is any thought or a unrelated pairing of subjects that come together to form what could become the basis for a character, plot point, setting, etc. This pairing can be deep, shallow, brief, a flash of an image, or even a super detailed world straight from the forehead of Zeus kind of inspiration. 

Ideally (heh), an idea will come to you, get you started, and then everything kinda rolls out in front of you like a tapestry. Words fall from your fingertips like a stream of water when you pretend to have water laser powers in the shower (what, just me?). Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can always take these ideas and save them later.

So then HOW do you get one?

They just happen. This is such a boring answer, but it’s true. Our brains constantly process thoughts, events, and previously consumed content on an unconscious level as we go through our lives and occasionally just…spit something out that you can label as an idea.

The real question is how do you speed up this process?

Yes, how??

Do something different

white socks on white paper
Try writing from a new location!
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

You can’t think differently if you don’t do anything different. Though it’s possible that you are different, in which case your ideas will be unique for now. This doesn’t last forever, especially when you first start using these ideas on a regular basis.

“Different” doesn’t have to be crazy. Listen to different music, take an alternate route to work, try to have a meatless Monday or eat a new ice cream flavor. No matter what you do, be safe about it, and make sure to savor the experience.

Don’t judge

Have you ever been a part of a brainstorming session at work?

“No stupid ideas,” your boss says, but the second you mention duck costumes, they tell you to be serious. pfft.

Judging shuts down your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow. One undisturbed idea is like a seed for a tree. One stupid seed. Leave it in place – don’t judge it, don’t belittle it – and it will start to produce the wackiest, tastiest fruit you’ve ever had.

What does it mean not to judge it? Don’t say anything negative about it. Don’t try to make it “fit” into something that it’s not. It doesn’t matter if the idea is too childish or gross or even mean itself. This goes for people, too. Try not to say negative things about people and you’re already a step ahead of the game. Let everyone be themselves without trying to make them fit into some arbitrary mold and then be surprised at how easy this becomes.

This doesn’t mean you have to spout some positive nonsense, either. If you have an idea that you aren’t super jazzed about, then instead of saying “this is dumb,” tell yourself, “this is, in fact, an idea.” 

It sounds simplistic, but it works wonders.

Along this same vein, don’t tell anyone your ideas. Not yet. An idea that is still a seed is too unformed for others to understand, and if you aren’t allowed to be negative about your own ideas, you certainly don’t want anyone else saying mean things about them, either. This kills the seed.

What ifs

As you go through life doing weird shit that you aren’t being a negative Nancy about, also consider the “what if” possibilities. 

What if – I were to smack that guy in the face?

What if – character X from that one movie witnessed that person over there complaining to management?

What if – character Y from this movie hooked up with character B from this book series?

What if – there was an airlock in this grocery store and it opened right now?

Always try to think of random scenarios like these (better than these, I hope), and then play them in your head as far as you can. Go deep down that rabbit hole if you need to. The more you do it, the better you get – it’s all a skill, so practice!

CONSUME

Read things that are challenging. Read things that are good. Read things that are bad.

Take them all in and think critically about them – not in a judging way (no judging, remember?), but in a “critical thinking” kind of way. Why did this work here, but not there? Why did this character act this way in response to that? Why did so and so use this word when they could have said this one? 

This will also help you as you try to improve your writing on the whole.

“Borrow” ideas

No, not plagiarizing! 

There is nothing new under the sun – there are anywhere from 2 to 21 basic storylines possible depending on who you ask, so you will probably not find a new one. That doesn’t mean give up! That means you need to take what you find and make it your own.

Think about how you would rewrite something – a fairytale, a classic story, an ancient myth – and keep changing it until it is unrecognizable. Or not, honestly. There are a lot of well done stories that are a retelling of a classic, and they are not lacking in creativity.

Even if you don’t get anything publishable out of this, you have done something different – which is, if you remember, one of the things you can do to generate more ideas. Yes, ideas can generate more ideas.

Prompts and pictures

person in brown coat and black hat standing near white and black floral wall
What is happening here? Who’s in this pic? Why?
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

My favorite way to get an idea is to look up pictures online. Go to google’s image search and type in “scary” or “spooky” and you are going to have pages of pictures to spark your creativity. Use this in conjunction with some of the other ideas in this list and you’re pretty much golden.

For prompts, you can also go to places like awesomewritingprompts where they will have one or two sentences or even a list of words for you to take and use in a story. Most sites and books of prompts don’t require that you credit them with ideas you use (and for the record, I don’t either), but some ask that you do. Please be polite and either don’t use those ideas or credit them accordingly.

Write everything down

Record thoughts, dreams, nightmares, conversations. Even the most mundane of shit can be useful. Remember, no judging!

Keep paper by your bed at night so that when your brain spits out your million dollar idea at 2 in the morning, you can record it before it disappears. Every idea you get, write down. Even if it doesn’t seem like it could go anywhere, writing it down and occasionally reading it over can foster more ideas in the future.

Eva Amsen wrote an article for The Writing Cooperative about a great way to keep track of ideas that I immediately stole for myself. 

 There are so many more things you can do to get ideas, and more specific ideas within the ones I’ve shared, but I bet this is enough to get you started in time for NaNoWriMo.

My NaNo idea

A picture of the author, “writing.”

To tell the story of how I got the idea for my NaNo novel is to tell the tale of an idiot. Or at least a forgetful and/or drunk person. The order of events as my memory serves goes like this:

I was looking through some files in my google drive and happened upon one called “Haunted soul cavity thing??” Inside this file was a description of an idea that I do not remember writing down at all. It talked about a guy who has to go to abandoned buildings and then I asked myself why. 

Then past me rambled on about something like a missing soul and a demon haunting this guy. It was a weird idea. The words were written like I woke up from a dream or severely drunk when I thought of it.

Then I remembered that for a while I was looking at a lot of pictures of abandoned buildings and was wanting to write about someone who went to them all the time, but I couldn’t quite think of a reason why. I guess in my drunken stupor/sleepy haze I came up with a reason.

Now in a more…coherent state, I decided to combine this idea with the world I started building in my first successful NaNo Novel. I’m not sure if I will continue with that part of the idea, but it spurred me on to start with my researching.


Where do you get your ideas? Are there any specific websites or books that you would recommend?

Overcoming Self-Doubt and Writer’s Block

silhuoette of a person
Photo by Zachary DeBottis on Pexels.com

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a new writer. I have been writing since I could hold a crayon and have loved every moment of it. I like writing reports for school, blog posts, journal entries, grocery lists, short fiction, long fiction, D&D campaigns, songs…(though I kinda suck at the last two to be honest). I am, however, new to the publishing game.

I knew going into this that I would be getting rejections. That’s all a part of this life – you literally cannot please everyone and you should never try. However, it is tiring. I know some of you are looking at the rejection counter and thinking “Three rejections has you frustrated? I got twice that last week!” But it’s that plus feeling stressed to the point of exhaustion at work, things going on in life in general, a lack of blog views and self-promotion always makes me feel a little weird about myself. 

And it’s perfectly natural to be at this point right now. It can take up to a year of consistent posting before a blog gets any significant readership, I haven’t done a whole lot of promotion (mainly just throwing links up on Twitter and Instagram), and I definitely haven’t been putting in enough hours for me to start getting squirrely. 

What I’m saying is I’m feeling a bit of unwarranted self-consciousness and it’s annoying. 

So what am I doing about it?

I’m going to write my way out. 

“Writer’s block” is caused by a number of things, mostly internal. You might have doubts about your abilities like I do now. Sometimes you feel like you “peaked” with your last story or post. Maybe it feels like nothing you write is original enough (this is also part of my problem). Other times you look at the project on the whole and immediately decide you need a nap.

To work through our writer’s block, we first need to understand what is causing it. Do some journaling about it, write about every thought that comes up every time we start to put pen to paper or finger to key. This isn’t for anyone else to read, just for us.

Let’s take a look at these different causes and how we can work around them:

1. “I suck at writing/I peaked with my last piece”

angry bad john art black and white emotion
Photo by Jan Prokes on Pexels.com

This might be the most common block out there. You sit down to write something that you know other people are going to read (or at least, you hope they do), and suddenly every word you put down is wrong. Sentences fail to flow, your writing voice sounds hoarse, you can’t seem to get to the point, and dialogue comes off like it was written by robots. Not the hilarious AI writing, either. How do you fix this? By not giving a shit anymore. Boom – next problem!

Just kidding. But also kind of not. 

I have two different strategies for dealing with this, depending on how bad I feel at the time. If I am feeling more lukewarm about what I’m doing, I just write what I tell myself are journal entires. If something good comes out of it, then sure I’ll use that, but I don’t expect it at all. For example, if I want to write a blog post but feel like it’s not going to be good, I just write a journal entry about what I was wanting to write. This isn’t anything that anyone will ever see, so it allows me to let go of the perfectionism holding me back.

If I am completely down about my abilities, I like to not only write something I know will never be read, but also cheer myself up with some ridiculousness. In the example of trying to write a blog post, I sit down and pretend that this is the final draft and write something patently horrible. Break all of the rules, fill that mother up with cliches, swear to your heart’s content. Use the same word twelve sentences in a row. Make your topic terrible too: write about something completely insane, or completely inane. “An ode to my…um,” looks around, “post-it notes.” 

Though not at all healthy, I am also a fan of picking up something that’s been published that is way worse than anything I write. Somebody paid for that, friend. And someone will pay for what you write as well. 

2. “Nothing I write is original enough”

church abandoned
Even religions borrowed and stole from one another.
Photo by @seb on Pexels.com

This is another problem I’m running into right now. I decided to start doing my “learning out loud” series which involves doing research. But then this ends up showing me just how many people write about the things I’m trying to write about. Obviously others have written about these things, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do much research on them, but my brain immediately decides to discount anything I could say. 

But I’m not just writing about, say, researching. I’m writing about my view on it, what information I found and what I plan on doing with it. Eventually, after I’ve put that plan into action enough times, I’ll be writing about my own personal experience with it. Some people won’t connect with what I write, but others will only connect with it. 

When it comes to writing fiction, it’s the same. We aren’t just writing a ghost story or romance novel, we’re writing about our whole experience with the subject. If we write with our own, unique, authentic voice, then we will be writing something original. 

I will be writing about this topic soon, I think. It’s worth exploring even if just to ease my own mind about if I have done enough for this or not.

3. “I need a nap”

A photo of the author.

Oof. I get this feeling so hard sometimes. This usually happened to me with school projects. You know that there is a ton of stuff to research, a bunch of pages to write about something you’re not super excited about, and then you have to give it to someone who is going to judge it harshly, which can affect if you’re able to go to college or not, which in turn affects your career choices and how much money you’re going to make in the futu–

Hold up, buddy. Take a breath.

You don’t even know what your paper is about yet.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I am anxiety-prone and can be easily overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed makes me sleepy. It’s almost like my body is sizing up some kind of beast in the wild it needs to chase down, and decides it needs to gather some energy and strength first. But we aren’t hunting buffalo, we’re researching and then writing a paper. So how do I approach this? 

Back in the day, I would just take that nap and then scramble on the last night, driven by adrenaline to stay up until it was done. Today, however, I have a much better way to deal: breaking it up into chunks. 

First, pick a topic. Nothing matters until a topic is chosen. You can’t hand in a paper with no topic, because you can’t write a paper with no topic, so don’t bother thinking about that part yet. Same thing with a novel. 

If you look at writing a novel with the “everything done at once” mode, then of course you’re going to want to take a nap. But you haven’t even thought of a plot yet! Don’t waste energy on the publicity or editing or reviews until you at the very least have a plot.

Once you get the plot, you can start to do your research and world building – one tiny detail at a time. Once you get your topic, you can start your research. Gather your source citations, figure out where your main character lives, etc. Break up whatever your project is into the smallest bites imaginable, and don’t even think about the others yet.

But what if…?

What if we do suck at writing? What if we did peak with our last piece? What if we really are writing what everyone else is writing? What if our project really is too big? 

Then we need to keep writing! It might be hard, but if this were easy, literally everyone who ever said “I wanna write a book” would have done it already. Why must we keep writing? Because it’s what we want to do – and we can’t get better until we have done what we want to do over and over and over again. 

So write until your hands cramp and your eyes dry out.* Write until you have no more words to write. Finish your projects as best you can, figure out what went well, what didn’t go well, and what you can do better in the future, and then do it all over again.

*Don’t push yourself too hard, for reals.

So then what do I write?

Anything! As I mentioned already, now is the time I’m going to write myself out of this slump, but what does this mean? Broadly speaking, it really does mean write more and with sheer abandon. For me, however, this means that I am going to give the “personal essay” thing a shot.

In between researching for blog posts and my novel, I am going to write a boatload of essays. And they are going to be terrible. It’s something I haven’t actually done since I attempted college, and I’d like to publish some on Medium eventually. Those will be what I turn to when I get stuck again while writing posts. Something new, something without a deadline, something I understand I will be terrible at to begin with. Anything to get words flowing again.


What do you think you might turn to when you get stuck? Which one of these blocks is more common for you – or is there another I didn’t mention here you have trouble with? Let’s talk about it in the comments!