In the movies, inspiration strikes the writer, and then a montage of the writer banging away on his or her chosen instrument flashes by, ending with a completed masterpiece that shares the writer’s soul with the world. Sadly, the reality is not like the movies. Sometimes the stories rip through your fingers like your hands are possessed; but more often, putting a story into words feels like yanking your teeth out of your head. It's all too easy to get stuck in writer's block.
When that happens, there’s nothing more we want to do than give up on the story and start over. But we can’t. We have to push through and finish it.
The Ugly Middle of a Story
This happens to me all the time. I start writing with gusto only to find myself questioning what I’m doing. With each word, I ask myself, “Have I devoted too much time to this already? Is it too late to stop and start over?”
This is especially painful because my fiction writing time is limited. I only have a few hours each night after my kids go to bed. I don’t have time to waste on a story that’s never going to work.
At the same time, if I stopped working every story I thought was crap, I’d never actually finish anything, because I think everything is terrible right around the sixty percent completion mark.
My wife can testify to this. If I’m working on a 1500-word short story, it's right around word 1000 that I will stand up and walk into the kitchen grumbling to myself. Once I’m done pacing, I will return to my computer and announce, “I hate this story. It’s crap.”
After five novels and over a hundred short stories, she’s so used to this routine that she doesn’t even look up from her puzzle anymore when she says, “I’m sorry. You’ll figure it out. Just keep going.”
And she’s right. Some the best things I’ve written I’ve hated while I was writing them. The key was that I needed to keep writing and see the piece to the end before I gave up on it.
3 Ways to Overcome Writer's Block
When I think the thing I’m working on is crap, here are three tricks I’ve learned that have helped me see what I’m working on to the end:
1. Don’t Stop
There have been times I’ve said to myself, “I’m just going to quit for tonight and I’ll pick it back up in the morning. It will probably feel better then.” Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes I hate it as much the next day as I did when I started it. I pick the story back up and I’m right where I was before, still stuck, still hating it.
When we hate something and want to stop, the best thing to do is keep writing. Even if we hate it when we are done, we can always edit it. Better to finish it and struggle through one writing session than to let the same story ruin two, three, four, or more writing sessions.
2. Remind Yourself What the Story Is About
Most of my stories have a ground from which they sprang. There is typically an idea, dream, or point I’m working out with my fiction. When I start hating what I’m writing, it helps to go back to the original well by reminding myself what inspired the piece in the first place.
When we are lost in a story, head back to the original map and remember why we started this journey in the first place.
3. Find the Right Song
I absolutely hated writing my third novel until I heard Lorde’s version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The song completely captured the tone I was going for. As the music played, I could see the scenes from the novel flash through my mind.
Sometimes we just need a little extra push of inspiration. If we can find a song that matches the tone we are trying to create, we will be able to connect with the story in a new way.
Just because you don’t like a story while you are writing it doesn’t mean you will hate it when you are finished. Sometimes the best thing you can do is figure out a way to keep going until you’ve gotten to the end.
I’ve shared with you my tricks for persevering. Share your tricks with me in the comments.
What tricks do you use to overcome writer's block and persevere to the end of your writing? Let me know in the comments.
Today, take fifteen minutes to write a story about someone doing something that is difficult. Maybe it's a student writing a final paper, or an amateur chef trying to cook a gourmet meal, or the heroine of your work in progress slogging through to learn a skill she'll need to overcome the villain. Whatever the case, lean in to the struggle — theirs, and yours. Don't quit!
When you're done, share your writing practice in the comments below. Don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."