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The Setback: How to Successfully Start Writing Again

If you're anything like me, part of your New Year's Resolution (that's still a thing, right?) was to write more. It might've been to hit a certain word or page count in a day, write for a certain time length, develop a number of ideas in a day, etc. Whatever it was, you told yourself you would write more. You had writing goals, writing resolutions.

At least I did.

And now it's a couple days from February and I've got a whole lot of (mostly) nothing. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Sticking to those set goals? Pfft.

Back to the drawing board. I decided to think back to some of the most important lessons I've learned about writing, whether that was in a classroom setting or sitting alone staring at a computer screen. First, writing is hard, folks. (Duh.) It's not always as easy as flipping a switch and pounding out something worthwhile.

Here are some methods and practices I've used to get back to writing consistently previously (and in the past few days). Hopefully these will help you find a little writing motivation and get back in the saddle, too.

Set a Time
Writing is a lot like exercising. Sometimes you can't get over the mental hurdle of actually exercising when you haven't exercised in awhile. Writing is the same way.

With that in mind, make writing a routine—as routine as brushing your teeth, eating lunch, walking the dog, etc. You want writing to be a part of your daily life, something you do without even thinking about it. So sit down to write, every day, at the same time. It won't take long for a habit to form.

And whatever you do, don't take a day off. It's really easy for, "I'm tired, I think I'll skip writing today and pick it up tomorrow," to turn into a week's worth of no writing. Most of the battle in forming a habit is mental.

Writing can be hard if you don't have someone to bounce ideas off of, read your work, and encourage or critique you. Yes, long term, you're writing for a specific audience. But I'm thinking here and now. It's hard for me to write if I don't have someone else reading it, someone expecting something from me. I recommend having writing partners, buddies, hombres, etc. It's good to have someone you can take a completed work, draft, or even a section of a draft to. They can tell you where they think your writing is the strongest and where it trails off. I find it good to have another set of eyes, someone who can confirm or deny suspicions, anxieties and preconceived notions you might have about your own piece.

In that same vein, I think it's good to have two or three writing buddies. A lot of writers don't like other people to read anything they've written until it's complete. Understandable, particularly if you don't want to be influenced along the way. But having a couple of people comment and critique your work isn't a bad idea. You can get different opinions instead of being pulled and influenced in one direction. Or, if you're lucky, they'll concur on an opinion.

Also consider a writing buddy that doesn't actually write. Or at least doesn't write in the same kind of category that you do. I like to bounce ideas off of a creative writing professor, but I also have a friend who is mainly into screenplays. Different voices and perspectives can be both eyeopening and encouraging as a writer. I know it's scary to let someone else read your writing, so pick someone you trust. And make it personal. Meet with them face-to-face. You get honest feedback when someone reads your writing and comments on it when you're in the room.

Monitor Your Thoughts
I've found that thinking about a certain story I'm working on can be exhausting, especially when my mind is running through ideas all day. Turn your writerly mind off for awhile.

If you think about what you're going to write, what that character is going to do next, your next big scene or plot point all day long, you won't want to write when it comes time. It's okay to drift off and think about things once in awhile. Just don't do it all the time.

Of course, one way to combat this is to write first thing in the morning. Then you can think about your story all day long, go to sleep, and still be okay the next day. But if you're a night writer, it's awfully tough to think about writing all day and then actually do it.

Bring a Notepad
...or your iPhone, iPad, whatever, with you everywhere you go. That way, when you think about your story, you can actually write ideas down.

I can't tell you how many times inspiration will strike and I don't have anything to write it down on or in. Granted, sometimes that happens while I'm driving. I wouldn't necessarily recommend trying to write down the perfect opening scene or title while navigating rush hour traffic. But you get the point.

Don't let ideas (good, bad, or the other) go by the wayside. If you don't write them down, they're gone. Don't tell yourself you'll remember it for later, especially when 'later' becomes, "I'm tired, I think I'll skip writing today and pick it up tomorrow." It adds up.

Still struggling to get started? Let's turn to an excerpt from 90 Days to Your Novel, by Sarah Domet, for some advice. The following is straight from her "Day 1" section, with an assignment included. And remember, just because it was written to address novel writers, doesn't mean it's not for other writers, too!

* * * * *

You’ve probably heard the old writer’s dictum, “Write what you know.” This, of course, is excellent advice; however, it does not simply mean you should only write about, literally, the people and places with which you have direct contact and intimate familiarity. Not only could that get really tiresome really quickly, but it might be better saved for your memoir or personal biography. However, your experiences and memories—the fine, rich details that form the tapestry of your life—make for excellent novelistic fodder and are often fantastic jumping points for exploring fictional worlds.

Meditating on your earliest childhood memories might trigger some noteworthy visual pictures: that concrete culvert you and your neighbors used to pretend was a bunker; a spot in the woods where a willow tree drooped its branches, creating a perfect imaginary house; the basement of the McDowells’ house that was lined from ceiling to floor with a collection of eclectic beer cans; or Janis Putts, your old neighbor who exiled you from her yard for stepping in her petunias. (You were only four, and that’s where your ball landed!)

Reaching back into the crevices of your brain, you might find some interesting and noteworthy characters, too. Individuals who were minor players in your real life, might somehow find their way onto the stage in the starring role in your novel’s world: Just who was that old man who was always sitting with a suitcase at the bus stop on Fifth Street? And why did Mrs. Ortenwagner live alone in that huge house up the hill? She would always retrieve the mail in her housecoat and slippers, her hair rolled up in curlers, even though she never seemed to go anywhere. Why did Miguel Mylar, the science teacher, burst into tears that day back in high school? He never came back to McKnight High after that. I’ve always wondered….

Memory can provide us with rich and intricate details that we might not even realize we remembered. What was your first memory? What did it feel like to be kissed the first time? What were some of your favorite smells as a child—and now as an adult? What was the most daring thing you ever did, or wished you did? Did you ever come close to getting everything you’ve ever wanted? Have you ever read a news story that just stuck with you because it was so bizarre, grotesque, or surreal? Have you ever seen a sight you wished you hadn’t seen?

When we explore our memories, we are not simply transporting ourselves back to the past, but we’re using our memories and imaginations to embellish what we once thought we knew. Philip Roth once explained, “Obviously the facts are never just coming at you but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.” What Roth means is that memories aren’t the literal events as they happened, but events as we always imagined they happened, in our minds. At their core, then, memories are embellished stories dissimilar from the original thing itself. Exploring your own history will help you embellish, expand, and manipulate experiences into fictional elements that resemble nothing of the original memory itself.


In this exercise, brainstorm as many early memories as you can, writing them out in as much detail as possible, dedicating at least a paragraph to each. For this exercise, do not worry about writing in scene or editing yourself as you go. The goal is to keep brainstorming and to keep writing, as much as possible in the minimum of two hours you’re allotting yourself. If this is the first time you’ve written in a while, don’t feel pressured to write something perfect. Just let yourself write freely as you think about each memory. I’ve provided some prompts to get you started, though please don’t feel limited to these categories.

People: Your favorite or worst teacher, the postman, your first babysitter, your neighbors, your first boyfriend/girlfriend, your childhood best friend, someone who got you in trouble, someone you admired from a distance, someone you thought was beautiful, your grandparents or most distant relative, the saddest person you ever saw, somebody you knew by sight but never met in person.

Places: The inside of your house, your bedroom, your favorite place to play as a child, somewhere you go when you want to be alone, your favorite vacation spot, the most cheerful place you ever visited, the most frightening place you’ve ever been. Perhaps a place you weren’t supposed to be?

Things: Your favorite coat as a child, your prized childhood possession, the way someone close to you smelled, your first pet, an old photograph that sticks out in your mind, the purse your mother used to carry, the sounds outside your window, how you felt when you gave/received your first kiss, how you felt at a time when you knew you did something wrong, how you felt when you didn’t get the praise you deserved.

* * * * *

If you're looking for more help on getting a jump start in your writing, or are looking to capitalize on your "novel" idea, be sure to check out 90 Days to Your Novel for instructions on crafting your outline to developing intriguing characters and believable plots, motivating insights about writing to minimize your moments of doubt, and more.

90 Days to Your Novel
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