It is one of the most common questions I am asked by people looking for writing advice. I understand the frustration. Before finishing Young, Sick, and Invisible, I had attempted and failed to write several different novels. I have a folder of dozens of half-written or half-outlined ideas that I still hope to revisit.
Writing YSI was a constant state of anxiety about whether it was something I could finish. Between ADHD making focus and starting difficult, and troll brain thoughts telling me I was unable to ever finish a project that wasn’t set by a teacher or a boss.
Even after I managed to finish YSI, I was convinced that it was a fluke. That telling my own story is easy in comparison to making up a story completely. I had started writing Hunting Blackbirds by this time, and still in the back of my mind were the thoughts telling me I couldn’t do it. When i wrote the final line of the first draft, it was overwhelming. I did it. I wrote a novel. Regardless of anything that happened next, I had completed a novel and no one would be able to take that away from me.
Finishing a book is hard, especially when you are dealing with mental illness and disability on top of it. Most of the advice out there for writers is mostly directed at either neurotypical people, or don’t include advice on breaking through mental barriers. I’ve been thinking for a while about all the things that helped me, with both books. What tools did I use to help with motivation, to help cope with troll brain thoughts, to help keep the writing going past the point of writer’s block and scene block? Here’s what I finally came up with, and I hope that other struggling writers out there find it useful.
As I mentioned, I have a much easier time completing projects when I am accountable to someone and so as a result there is some punishment for not completing the project. In the case of both YSI and HB, I made an IndieGoGo to force myself to be accountable to someone other than myself. I had to finish the novels, because someone had paid me money to do so.
Having that obligation to someone other than myself ties into other parts of my psychology that make it uncomfortable for me to disappoint someone. I hate that feeling so much, that I’ve even overworked myself in the past trying to prevent it. While that in itself isn’t healthy either and is something I am working on, learning to tap into that motivation to help with finishing projects that matter to me has been very helpful.
In addition to using monetary accountability, however, I’ve also used my friends and loved ones to help with this. In the case of YSI, Alyssa was very helpful in helping to motivate me to write: giving me reminders, asking questions, and listening to me discuss things that I find helpful to writing. Also helpful were amazing Facebook friends who would send me memes of support, and encouragement, and share with me how excited they were to read what I was writing. Seeing other people’s enthusiasm for my work made it easier to connect with my own enthusiasm for the story I was telling, and it helped me overcome the moments where I was reliving the difficult moments I had gone through, or during moments of self-doubt and/or block.
With HB, I had sent my dad the first few chapters of my story. We always had similar tastes in books, especially when it came to science fiction and fantasy, and so I was really curious to hear what he thought of the story that I was trying to write. He loved it! So much in fact, that anytime we spoke, he would always ask if there was a new chapter. When he realized how much his enthusiasm was helpful to my motivation, he decided he wasn’t going to read any more until I had finished it completely. Not just the draft, but the edits as well.
Having someone like my dad, so eager to read the story because he had liked what he had read so far, was an incredible experience. It’s still overwhelming for me.
- Writing Sprints and Contests.
Believe it or not, but I am a highly competitive person. I don’t like losing, though I try not be be sore or awful about it. I just like competition. It energizes me. Tapping into that competitive instinct was a big help not just in breaking through tough scenes and just getting words done on paper, but also in helping to make writing a habit.
Many famous authors will tell you not to participate in NANOWRIMO. Writing a novel is hard enough, trying to force yourself to write one in the span of one month can be a good way of making yourself feel like a failure when you don’t succeed. This is not invalid and I can see it working out like that for a lot of people. For me, however, Nanowrimo played an essential role in helping me finish both books.
I wasn’t necessarily competing against other writers. I was competing against myself. The word tracker that NANOWRIMO uses, displaying it publicly, were both great in tapping into both my sense of competition and into my sense of accomplishment. Watching those bars go up, watching them stay above the line for the first half of the month, both of those experiences energized me and kept me going. I get more writing done during NANOWRIMO and NANOWRIMO camps, then I do at any other time. What was even more incredible is that that writing was not just limited to the novels I was writing. Not only did I get more work done on my novels, I also usually managed to increase my blogging output as well. That’s because writing had become a habit by that point.
Then, a great friend introduced me to the concept of Word Wars: 20 minute writing sprints where two or more people try to get as many words done as possible and then compare totals. The act of having the words down on paper being temporarily more important than the quality of the words, was a great way of forcing myself through difficult sections where I wasn’t sure how to word what I wanted to say. The end result wasn’t always something I would keep, or at least not without significant modification, but the act of getting it down on paper moved the story forward enough to get me moving. It was the writing equivilent of helping yourself clean by carrying a set of dirty dishes from one room to the kitchen when you get up to go to the bathroom. It might be a small contribution but it was a contribution nonetheless.
On those occasions where my word sprint totals were still extremely low, and I didn’t feel like I had moved forward at all, that was usually a sign that something was wrong with the scene itself. That’s when I knew, the problem wasn’t in me, but in the story itself. It was a sign that I needed to stop and rethink the scene.
When Word Wars were not available, keeping an updated Facebook word count total was a good way of engaging with competition against myself. I would set a goal such as i want to reach 36,000 words by midnight, and I would regularly post updates with my standing word total. I was competing against myself, and I would get to see motivation from my friends. It was like having my very own cheering section, which is a pretty great feeling.
- Make it a Habit
There is a reason that every list I’ve ever seen about how to be a writer, eventually includes, write every day. Habits are a lot easier to maintain than obligations.
Competing against the tracker was what broke through the initial motivation blocks, but eventually, the act of writing every day for days on end made sitting down and writing every day easier. It became part of my ritual, and so sitting down and doing so was no longer something unusual and breaking my pattern. As I write this, I realize that that is a huge part of what can make it so difficult to start even things I enjoy. While ADHD has a tendency to make me spontaneous, my autism makes me crave pattern.
The difficulty here of course, are my disabilities, which can make maintaining any type of regular schedule an impossibility. No matter how much I try, I can never fully anticipate my ability to do things on any given day. I could spend a week feeling fantastic, then randomly wake up one morning barely able to move. My ability to do things can depend on how much or the quality of sleep I had that night, whether my crohn’s is acting up, whether my fibro fog is worse, what time I take my meds (which infuriatingly is not consistent with regards to when they work the best EITHER), whether I’m experiencing paradoxical reactions to medication, whether it is raining or sunny, whether I have other obligations like doctor’s appointments or meetings with friends. It can depend on whether I manage to eat breakfast and whether my crohn’s liked the breakfast I ate. It can depend on whether I have to spend time standing, or if my joints are particularly stiff. The smallest thing can suddenly impact my bodies ability to handle or cope with certain stimuli, which in turn will affect my energy levels and in turn my motivation.
Tapping into my sense of competition has so far proved the most effective way of managing to break through those difficulties enough to let me do it regularly enough to incorporate it into the ritual of my day, and it provides added motivation on days when my spoons are low and everything takes more effort.
It also helps maintain it past the occasional spoonless day when I can’t do anything. And then if i hit a spoonless period where I can’t seem to do what I need to for longer periods of time, I have competition again to help me make it a habit again.
- Storyboard and Post-its, Post-its, Post-its
This is an idea i picked up from a class I took a few years ago, and tried it out when writing hunting blackbirds. It is a visual representation of the standard rise in action as the story proceeds. The peaks and valleys of action. I created the line graph out of yarn. Then I mapped different plot points to spots along that graph. It helped me visualize how much time happened between the different parts of the story, as well as where there was too much down time.
Organizing all the information with colour coded post it notes also made it easier to have an idea of what sort of information appeared and where. I also use post its to create reminders for myself of future story points in the series, as well as ideas for scenes or descriptions, or dialogue.
I organize the storyboard somewhere within easy reach and view, that way i can make a note whenever one comes up. I’m in the process of setting up a new one, as I finish up the final details of my office, but I have included a picture of the one from my old apartment. The one I used to help me write Hunting Blackbirds. Once I’m done building everything, I plan on using a different one to help me with editing.
Keeping track of ideas on post-its has the additional benefit of not making me have to rely on memory. It’s a fact of life, I will remember a scene perfectly, every details, every conversation, until the moment I sit down to write it and then it disappears! Keeping track of them on post its helps me remember certain key points when I sit down, and has the added benefit that it gets me thinking about the story even when I’m not. I see the scene, I start thinking about it, and before I know it, I’m two new paragraphs in with no memory of when I actually started writing.
- Outlines, Outlines, Outlines.
While a lot of the story will seemingly pop out of thin air, I like to work with different outlines as I work.
There is the first outline before I’ve even really started writing the story. When I first think of the idea and want to get an idea of the trail it will follow. I don’t necessarily finish it right away. I don’t fill in every detail, I just get a sense of the general story.
Once I start working on the story, I start fleshing out the details. I start outlining various scenes themselves as well as the greater story as a whole. This makes it easier for me to keep track of where i’m going, and how I plan on getting there.
I might rewrite an outline several times, just to see if the thread I’m following feels right. Sometimes, I realize something needs to change, and outlining how the story follows from a given event, gives me a better idea if the change is the right one. Additionally, outlining can give me an idea if I’ve forgotten to include something. Is there a detail that we should learn in the beginning that becomes important later? Conversely, am I spending a lot of time on something that doesn’t really matter?
- What’s the Point?
I think the biggest fear, the biggest motivation drain, for writers is the prospect of Writer’s Block. Every time you can’t really figure out how to best phrase or describe something, you can’t help but panic that you’re blocked and that the story will never get written. Of course the panic and anxiety make concentration and creativity harder which certainly doesn’t help.
Sometimes though, it’s not that you are blocked yourself but that the scene is blocked. No matter how many words you get down, no matter how lovely your prose, it’s just NOT RIGHT. Everyone who reads it loves it, but it still just doesn’t feel like it belongs. Is this imposter syndrome? Is it troll brain? Do you just continue anyway? And even when you do, it feels like a slog, or just won’t go.
I hate these moments. The story feels stagnant somehow, it might be days or weeks that nothing seems to progress. If I’m racing against the clock during Nanowrimo, they’re the slow moments where I AM trying to work, but NOTHING is coming out.
What do I do?
At some point, I concede defeat, sort of. I stop writing for a second and I ask myself, What’s the point?
Not What’s the point of writing or telling the story or trying to be a writer; what’s the point of this scene? Why does it matter? What am I trying to do?
More often than not, this has to do with transition scenes. The moments when the character is moving from one part of the story, one ACT if you will, to the next one. These are some of the most difficult scenes for me to write. Trying to balance a consistent pace, with relatively inactive scenes can be hard to navigate, I don’t know what to include and what to leave out.
This kept happening to me when dealing with Hunting blackbirds. At some point I had to actually show Thrush on the Island and sometimes all she was really doing is walking through a forest. There is only so much you can describe terrain and trees before it gets a little redundant and boring.
Finally, some advice I had read once came to mind. Every single scene in the book should have a point. It should serve some purpose. Whether it was a conversation at the store, the way something caught the characters eye, the pain they were feeling, whatever was included should serve some greater purpose to the story.
So I decided to ask myself, what was the point of the scene I was writing. There was transition, but was there anything else?
Thinking about what it was I was trying to show, Thrush’s frustration and hardships, her learning curve which eventually gives her necessary information for a future part of the story, and so on, helped me realize that the reason it was hard going was because what I was trying to write served no purpose. That the reason it didn’t feel right was because I wasn’t showing what needed to be shown. It also helped eliminate the transitional feeling to the story. This wasn’t down time, it was exposition just as before, only this time her learning took place while she was trying to do something else and didn’t realize it was happening. I was able to divide it instead into different scenelets if you will, and bring the story from Act 1 to Act 2 more cohesively.
Then of course, I made some outlines.
Sometimes it’s hard to work on fiction because the ultimate rewards feel so far in the future. While I write because it’s what I love, by necessity I also need to support myself and eat. Writing blogposts, articles, etc. can feel like they have a more immediate rewards on a variety of levels: I post it once I write it and so there is almost immediate feedback.
Thanks to Patreon, posting something on the blog also means that the time I spent working on it earns me income which I need to pay rent, buy food and meds, and basically just to survive.
Sitting down to work on a work of fiction can feel a little like taking food out of my own mouth and throwing it away just because I feel like it. It can feel hard to justify, because the potential rewards seem so intangible at that moment.
The breakthrough happened when I finally realized that I could post Fiction on Patreon as Patron Only posts. I could write fiction and NOT STARVE.
Of course not all rewards have to be monetary. When I was writing YSI, Alyssa would bribe me with promises of a present once I finished writing. Then of course the deadline got moved to finishing editing. 😛 Still the prospect of a nice treat was a great additional motivation.
- Make it Part of a Ritual
Whenever people hear the word ritual, I always feel like they get this mental image of someone sacrificing a goat in front of a poorly drawn pentagram, with a dagger, surrounded by candles. And I mean, if that works for you go for it (though maybe make sure the goat doesn’t suffer and make sure to at least eat it afterwards or feed it to a wild animal or something).
No, what I mean about making it part of a ritual relates back to the bit about making it a habit. One of the ways to make habits stick is to make them more pleasant to experience. While writing YSI, my ritual involved packing up my computer and heading to my local starbucks. The quiet but not too quiet atmosphere was perfect for my brain, and the added treat of a coffee and some socialization, made it additionally rewarding.
I used to go to starbucks to write and do homework when I was in highschool. Part of the reason was because this was one of the only ways I could work on something without being interrupted by my little sister, or with requests to clean the kitchen, or to babysit, or some other endless request. If I locked my door I would get in trouble, and I couldn’t work in the ways that suited me best without being accused of not working.
Being at starbucks, I might not always be allowed to stay as long as I wanted, but for that specific time I could work on my own thing and then take a short break. It worked for me. I even had a strange sort of luck, always ending up sitting next to someone who somehow had expertise related to the project I was working on: a tudor historian, a former Chinese diplomat, a group of young Muslims discussing prejudice they face – no seriously, right as I am working on a project about Islam for my worst religions course, while starting work on the section about modern hardships etc. I asked if I could interview one of them for the project to make sure I could accurately represent what was happening. They told me so many stories that I could use in my project, shared their names for me to credit in the project, they were great! I think I ended up offering to buy them all coffee or a cake or something for all their help.
Ultimately the problem with starbucks ended up being that either it had to be spaced pretty far apart, or it got a little too expensive. Especially since this was around the time I was applying for disability. Luckily I had some generous friends who put money on a starbucks card for me that helped earn some free drinks too. Also the staff at Starbucks got to know me and would treat me every once in awhile.
The other problem was that writing YSI had me reliving some profoundly painful moments and I hate crying in public… or re-living pain in public. That and when you start needing the restroom every 20 minutes, it’s a little awkward having to keep asking someone to watch your computer.
Making it part of a ritual at home involved making sure I had what I wanted to drink, had my meds within easy reach, had a show I could ignore playing in the background, and the most important part: I told myself, I am sitting down and writing now.
More than anything it was about making a point of putting myself in a state of mind where I was prepared and determined to write. Just making a point of basically telling yourself that that’s what you are going to do is surprisingly helpful.
What are some tricks that you’ve found that help you sit down and write?