I’ve written before about the struggles that many writers have with getting work done. But it’s such an important and surprisingly commonplace issue, that it’s worth mentioning again.
Not least because sharing this advice actually gives me the push I often need to concentrate on my own writing.
The common problems that often get in the way of writing can be broken down into three categories:
This might sound harsh, but many writers are their own worst enemy when it comes to getting work done. The key is figuring out what is a genuine problem and what is an excuse.
You aren’t feeling inspired
The sad truth is if you wait for inspiration to strike, you’ll never get anything done. The most prolific writers are the ones who make their art a task that is scheduled into their day.
To fix it:
1. Set aside writing time
Even if it’s only 15 minutes, slot some writing time into your schedule at least two or three times a week. Once it becomes routine, you’ll find it easier to extend your writing time and work on other days.
2. Don’t finish the scene
If you’re in the zone, with the words flowing, don’t keep going until you’ve finished the scene.
Sounds counterintuitive, right?
But if you stop before you reach the end whilst you’re still on a roll, it’ll be easier to pick the story up next time.
3. Become an emotional vampire
I can’t write well without being in a certain mood, so I craft it artificially using music or films that will bring out the particular emotion that I need.
Keep a playlist ready for when you want to write and fill it with songs that will evoke the feeling you want, whether it’s joy, terror or sadness. You could even set up a variety of playlists for each type of scene.
You don’t have confidence in your abilities
All writers struggle with this one at some point, especially when they’re just starting out and haven’t had much success.
To fix it:
1. Join a writing group
Discussing your work with peers can have a really positive effect, especially if you’re all at a similar stage in your writing career. Other writers will often read your work with a sympathetic eye, but they’ll give you useful and relevant feedback.
Talking to others will also help you realise that most writers have the same problems and insecurities, which can be overcome with a bit of support or encouragement.
2. Enter competitions
Competitions are a good place to test out the quality of your work, a bit like a soft submission. If you’re successful, it’s an indicator that you’re heading in the right direction. You might also be lucky enough to receive mentoring or feedback as part of the process.
3. Listen to feedback
Try to get as much useful feedback on your work as possible and use it to identify the recurring issues. If half a dozen people have picked out a particular plotline as not working, chances are it’s something you need to work on.
Not all feedback with be worth listening to, but it will help you to gain the confidence in your own assessment of your writing.
Outside issues can have an effect on your ability to sit down and write, but it is possible to take control.
You don’t have time
To fix it:
You’re never going to have time if you don’t make it. There will always be other jobs or responsibilities, but it’s okay to put your writing first, at least some of the time. Start small: carve out half an hour, once a week, and let those around you know that this is your writing time. Do not disturb.
Alternatively, you might have to give up some of the other things that are eating away at the time in your schedule.
It might be switching off a trashy television show that doesn’t add value to your life, or cutting back on nights out. Putting off your writing is always going to be the easier option, so it’s up to you to take control of your own time.
3. Find a good support system
Enlist a partner or friend to help you manage your time. If you currently spend hours on the housework, could they take on some of the chores and free up your time? Perhaps a friend could babysit for you one afternoon a week and give you the quiet you need to get some work done.
Think about all the non-writing jobs that someone else could help you with.
You don’t have space
Unfortunately we can’t all afford a big house with a dedicated study, especially if writing is a hobby and not a profession.
To fix it:
1. Get out of the house
Working in different places can change your outlook or your mood and refresh you when you’ve had enough of writing. Moving to different locations can be inspiring.
Visit the library when you need a quiet space to focus, or head to the local coffee shop to eavesdrop on conversations and find material for your dialogue.
2. Double up your space
Are there rooms in your house that you could share? Perhaps the home office your other half uses during the day could become your writing cave at night, or you could monopolise your child’s bedroom whilst they’re at school.
3. Buy some noise cancelling headphones
It might not be the best solution, but if you have to sit on the sofa with your laptop and the family around you, headphones could be a great way to shut out the noise and focus on your work.
Everyone works differently: some writers will plan a story down to the last detail, where some are happy to ‘pants’ it.
But lack of planning can throw up some issues.
You don’t know what happens next
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve hit a wall halfway through a chapter, where I’m struggling to write anything at all. Many people attribute a problem like this to lack of inspiration, but it’s more likely to be a lack of understanding of the scene and where you want it to go.
To fix it:
1. Draft an outline
You don’t have to create a detailed plan for your entire novel before you can start to write. It can be enough to have an outline. That might only be one action that is going to take place in each scene, but it will give your writing direction.
2. Use a spreadsheet for your plot overview
It can be difficult to keep track of the plot when you’re writing a novel, especially if it’s something filled with plot twists and hoards of characters. We all know the Song of Ice and Fire series would be a nightmare to manage…
I’ve come across a few interesting ways of getting a plot overview, but whilst editing my current manuscript I decided to use a spreadsheet and so far it’s working really well.
My story isn’t linear, so it’s helpful to have a record of how the chapters are ordered. This has allowed me to go back in and move things around or add in new chapters where the story needed developing.
3. Delete, delete, delete
If you get stuck halfway through a scene and can’t figure out where to go next, just get rid of it. It’s tough, but it probably wasn’t adding much to the story anyway.
You don’t know who your character is
To fix it:
1. Leave gaps
A great piece of advice that I picked up during NaNoWriMo was to leave gaps for anything I wasn’t sure of, rather than wasting hours debating a small detail, such as the name of a minor character, or whether my protagonist should be blue or brown eyed.
You can always go back and fill them in later; don’t interrupt your flow.
2. Create the character before the story
Many writers start with the story and fit the characters around it, but you should really come up with the people first. Let them develop into real people and it will become easier to progress the story, because you know what decisions your characters would make or how they would behave in a given situation.
It’s easy to get stuck when you realise that the character you’ve been writing would never actually do something that is key to the plot you’ve meticulously planned.
3. Develop a family tree
Even if you’re not going to write about Great Aunt Maud, it doesn’t hurt to have a family tree – or a character map if you prefer – all planned out.
Fill in as many details as you can, including physical descriptions, names, jobs, personality. That way everything is there if you do need to write about it and you have a record of someone’s hair or eye colour if you lose track of it during the writing process.
You hate what you’ve written
This has happened to pretty much of all us at some point: that passage you were in love with the other day now seems trite and poorly written. It can be crushing, forcing you to doubt your own abilities.
To fix it:
1. Put it away and come back to it later
Sometimes you’re just too close to the work, especially when you’ve just finished a draft. Or you might be in a horrible, negative mood, subconsciously ready to tear down your own work.
Instead, close the computer or put the draft in a drawer and forget about it for a few weeks. Come back to it with fresh, objective eyes and you’ll be able to tell the difference between genuinely not-great writing and self-doubt.
2. Ask someone else’s opinion
There are times when no matter no hard you try to be objective, everything you’ve done looks awful. You can waste years of your life going round in circles, but it might be better to ask for an outside opinion. If you don’t think your friends and family can be objective, try posting some of your work online for strangers to assess. You can post on your blog, if you have one, or try a site like Wattpad.
3. Start again
Ultimately, that manuscript you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into might not be salvageable. Don’t force yourself to keep going if you know it will never work.
Instead, take some time to analyse it and see what you’ve learned about the writing process. What didn’t work? Where did you go wrong? What can you do better next time?
Use this knowledge to help you take a step forward with your next manuscript.
So you see, there are ways to get around some of those problems that plague us all from time to time. Some are easier than others, and some issues will be stubborn, refusing to go away.
But there will usually be a solution, even if it takes a while to find.