Getting through the bad patches

At some point it’ll happen. Your characters act in ways that make no sense, your plot is a hopeless heap of spaghetti that goes all over the place as soon as you start trying to bundle it together, your prose is leaden and flat, and either the idea that seemed so bright and shiny and wonderful has now been revealed as the worst idea in history or it’s still bright and shiny and wonderful but there’s no way you’ll ever be able to capture that with your pitiful scratchings.  And more importantly, it’s not fun any more.  Either this project or writing as a whole — the spark has gone out of it.

A nasty version of this often hits if you’re just learning some of the details of the craft, or after an intense critique. You’ve got all these new and shiny tools with which to attack your story — and all you can see is the glaring flaw that you didn’t even know was there two weeks ago.  For me, something like this happens at least twice per draft. More, if it’s been a bad month or if there are other pressures. And yet, somehow, at the end of it I still have a completed draft, and it’s often a pretty good one.

Writing is, for me, a balancing act between believing that my work is good enough that it deserves to be out in the world in its best form possible and believing that my work is so terrible that I need to revise it immediately and fix all the glaring flaws. This may not be the healthiest approach — the seesawing back and forth is nasty .  And when my mind’s firmly set in the “my writing sucks” mode, it becomes very, very difficult to continue.  As Rachel pointed out in her post, I forget about this stage every time I start something new, and I get blindsided by it every time.

Trouble is, I’ve got to keep writing.  Even if I didn’t have a deadline looming (for several different values of “looming”), I’d have to keep writing.  It defines too much of me to stop.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about writing even when every fiber of your being is telling you to pack it all in:

  • The Internet is not a writer’s friend at times like these.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve wasted writing time drifting around the net, just because the inertia is too great.  Cat macros can’t make up for actual writing accomplished.
  • Take breaks.  Not just getting up for coffee, not just going in to work, but time that would be spent writing turned slightly askew.  Noodle around longhand for a bit.  Write up details of a minor character.  Take a walk and think about the plot.  Sometimes this’ll be counterproductive — I recently figured out how to rewrite two chapters just after I’d rewritten them wrong — but getting a perspective from outside whatever valley you’re in can help.
  • Don’t feel guilty about the work you’re not getting done.  This happens especially when other events preempt writing — big life changes, day job going bananas, etc.  Sometimes you just won’t have the space for it, and while you can write in the little spaces between, it’s easy to get nervous about how much you’re not writing.  I get my worst blocks when I’ve set myself a timetable and am failing to meet it; the guilt over those small failures eats into my ability to keep going. Beating yourself up about what you haven’t written won’t get anything more written.
  • On the flip side of that, don’t let yourself completely slack off.  You might not have the brainspace or time to write your thousand words per day, but don’t let “I just don’t feel like it” become an excuse.  Slogging through the dull spots is rough, but it keeps you in practice, and once the skies clear a little, then you’ll have the extra momentum to keep going.  (I’ve gotten into the habit of calling these sections “muse bait”; by having competent scenes laid out and following what I trust was a good idea way back in the outline stage, I sometimes catch extra insights halfway through a scene, and once I get a new spark, it’s easier to continue.)
  • If you need to vary your writing approach, do it.  I prefer not to skip ahead when I’m writing, but sometimes there’s no way around it — and sometimes when I do that, I find that what I skipped wasn’t that vital after all.  (If I’m bored writing it, that doesn’t bode well for how the reader will respond.)
  • If you’ve really, truly had it with this story, then take a quick break and write something wholly new.  Half a vignette in a setting you don’t ever work with.  A gory battle scene that will never, ever find a way into one of your subtle romances. A fairy-tale ending that won’t work with any of your hard science fiction. Hell, go ahead and write the most cracked-out fanfic you can think of; nothing says you have to then make it public.  You can retain plausible deniability as long as you like (or until that Shoot ‘Em Up/Doctor Who crossover just demands to be posted).  This will keep you in practice for writing, but it’ll be different enough that coming back to your old work will be fresh — and possibly a relief.
  • Remember that you can revise.  It doesn’t have to be perfect this time.  When time comes to polish it, it’ll be easier to deal with the prose because all the other pieces will be in place.  (This method works best if you’re in the habit of revising a lot, like me; if you prefer to do one big draft, then give yourself permission to come back to this section later.)

Ultimately, though, there is no way out of these bad patches beyond simply writing your way through them.  Think of these as the times when you have to sail blind: stay the course, and hope that when the fog lifts, you’ll be where you wanted.  Or at least somewhere nice.

9 Responses to “Getting through the bad patches”

  1. 1 Ilasir Maroa
    September 16, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Haha… I totaly know what you mean. I think of it more as a roller-coaster than a seesaw, though. I used to go up and up and up before crashng down, but now I start with height and drop with only a few short ups in between. Means I really have to get worked up a few times to finish before I drop below sea-level.

  2. September 16, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Oooh, excellent post. It applies to more than just writing. I think I will post your ideas next to my monitor for work inspiration.

    Ironic that the number one is that “The Internet is not your Friend.” Since, you know, I found the rules on the internet and all.

    But thanks for the focusing tips. They will be useful. Even though I’m not an author.

  3. 3 Emily
    September 17, 2009 at 4:36 am

    “Beating yourself up about what you haven’t written won’t get anything more written.”
    “I’d have to keep writing. It defines too much of me to stop.”
    are two things I need to stick on my corkboard right over my computer while I dissertate.

  4. 4 mlronald
    September 17, 2009 at 5:52 am

    Ilasir, that’s another good way to look at it — and again worrying, because it skirts closer to the mood swings aspect of it than I like. But yeah, as we go on, it does start to even out. Maybe it’s just another part of learning the craft, maybe it’s about getting older (at least for me).

    CathyR, thank you! I hope you find it useful. The Internet is…really, not a good friend at times like these. Too many shiny distractions — it’s like trying to write in the middle of an amusement park. (Now that I’ve said that, of course, someone will point out how much fun they have writing at amusement parks.)

    And Emily, it’s taken me forever to discover that first one, and it’ll still be years before I’ve fully internalized it. So I’ll be right there with you. And good luck dissertating! Dissertationing. Disserting. argh need new verb form.

  5. 5 camille
    September 17, 2009 at 6:57 am

    I admit it. I’m reading this because I’m avoiding my own writing. See, I’m revising the opening scene YET again after a critique gave me some new ideas, but I have no idea how to successfully marry those ideas with the things I love about that scene the way it is written. Or rather, mentally I know how to do it, but I can’t seem to capture it on paper. So I started surfing and found stumbled on this post. Ironic, eh???? (yes, I am Canadian so I’m allowed to say “eh”). Man, my butt is sore as your words did a good job of kicking some perspective back into me. So I have to sign off, but thanks for the encouragement (I think). Did I say my butt’s sore?

  6. 6 mlronald
    September 18, 2009 at 3:59 am

    Ha! Camille, sorry for the sore butt, and I hope this helps a little. It’s always that problem with capturing the idea, isn’t it? Everything that seems so awesome in my head feels flat once it’s on the page. The payoff, though, is that in revising it I can sometimes get it to approach what I had in mind — and sometimes the process of getting it on the page sparks new ideas that are even more awesome.

    And I should admit it — I used this blog entry to procrastinate instead of writing, too. The internet is not my friend in more ways than one.

  7. 7 Kim W.
    September 18, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    The internet is sort of your friend in that it reminded me I should go buy your book 🙂 It said, “you like Maggie’s short stories! Seth likes them too! So you should buy her book!” (So I did).

    Also, the advice on getting through bad patches is nice even if you’re not an author. Thank you.

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