writing when you’re uninspired

First, thanks to Jennifer McFadden for being the inspiration for this post; this one is for her.

I wish I could sit my muse upon my shoulder at my pleasure and have her whisper inspiration in my ear, but I can’t; she’d be knocked senseless within minutes by reality. Sometimes I have to force her up and out of my soul, and I do that by writing whether I feel like it or not.

When I was young (and yes there was a day) and working through my first novel, which was a dreadful mess, I only wrote when I was inspired by my characters or by a plot-line that fascinated me. I never forced myself to sit down and write, nor did I try to keep up any kind of writing schedule. I was quite the bohemian.

And I was never published.

This time around, I took a different attitude and decided I would subject myself to same work ethic with my writing as I do with my job. I would write at specific times in the evening, no excuses, even if it meant that I did nothing more than switch three sentences and a comma.

Never underestimate the amount of self-discipline it takes to be a writer. It is enormous.

I’m glad I built that work ethic and made myself write even on days I didn’t have to, because two weeks ago, my agent sent me edits for my novel. One of those edits included a recommendation for an additional chapter. I imposed a deadline on myself to have those edits back to her in two weeks.

I didn’t have time to wait for my muse to strike. At first, I had no inspiration for the new chapter; I didn’t see a way to write it without giving away plot points I wanted to hold back. However, I remembered my promise to work even when I didn’t feel like it, so I started writing.

I had to brainstorm with myself almost constantly. I put my characters into multiple situations and tried to foresee the possible outcomes. I can’t begin to tell you how many words were jettisoned into that mystical nowhereland by the delete key. However, with sustained effort, the chapter became clear. I’ll know how well that chapter stands when I get Weronika’s next round of edits. I’ve promised myself I’m not going to look at it again until she sends my novel back, so I will have some distance from it, but when it left my hands, I felt good about it.

Sometimes when I’m stuck or uninspired, I start writing for the sake of writing. I don’t worry about 1-3-1 for my chapter or who’s on first or how this plot may look 60,000 words down the line. I just write. I did that recently with Guillermo. I just completely tossed every writing rule in the gutter and started writing the scene the way I saw it unfolding in my mind. A few edits later, with those writing rules in mind, I managed to eke out a short, but lovely, first chapter for In the Garden of Forever. I’m not worried about the length of it for now. I know as I go deeper into the novel and Guillermo reveals more of himself, I’ll find more words for that first chapter.

By forcing myself to write, even when I don’t feel like it, I build on the self-discipline that I will need to get me through those deadlines when I must write. Nowadays I just remind myself that it’s no longer about me. When I signed on as Weronika’s client, I signed into a partnership, and her ability to work depends on my ability to meet deadlines.

That line of thought got me through the synopses. The synopsis for the second novel in my Katharoi series was easy–I already had a clear idea of how I wanted the plot to develop in Dolorosa. The third novel was a complete mystery. Well, not a complete mystery, I knew bad things were going to happen, but I just didn’t know in what order. One night, I sat staring at the computer, my mind an utter blank. I decided to give up and go to bed.

The next morning the solution came to me like an epiphany, and the synopsis was done in no time. Sometimes I need to retreat so I can see the way clearly. Every situation is different.

So what about you? What do you do when you’re uninspired? Do you force your way forward or do you retreat? What is your writing work ethic like? Whatever you do, check out Kat’s hilarious post on How a Writer Avoids Working on a Deadline.

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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20 Responses to writing when you’re uninspired

  1. I’m great at the self-discipline, just not always about applying to my fiction. Sometimes that’s necessity, because I’ve had other writing-related tasks (or non-writing-related tasks) that have required my attention; sometimes it’s just that fear has wormed its way into the space between me and the blank page. What helps me then are the things listed – oddly enough – in the Writer Unboxed post of today: timed writing, playful writing, and a break. It’s a balance: to keep coming back and trying, but to not grip the page so tightly the words become illegible. Anyway, bad metaphor, but you probably get what I’m trying to say.

  2. erikamarks says:

    Funny you should write about this, Teresa, because just the other day I was thinking about how we do this. For me, the biggest “trick” I know of is to leave a scene (assuming there is no deadline looming) when I am in the thick of it and loving it–in other words, not resolving a scene but stopping somewhere in it, and looking so forward to returning.

    Yes, if you want to be published, writing does have to become like a job, as well as a passion. You may NOT feel the love, as they say, some days, but an editor needs her or his edits when they need them and the muse didn’t sign the contract–we did. I went through this same self-doubt in my years as an illustrator–so worried early on that I might have bad drawing days as I had before I was getting paid to draw. Yet somehow, amazingly, knowing it was a job and knowing I had to produce the work no matter what became a positive thing and I rarely had days when the art didn’t come through. I feel the same about my writing and I take great comfort in that.
    (But, of course, all that said, we all still have those days when we aren’t feeling it as fully as we’d like.)

  3. Amy says:

    Theresa, wonderful post! I’ve very much of the push-through-it mindset: I have a pretty strict writing schedule. When the words don’t want to come I pull up Write or Die (nothing like the threat of being Rick-Rolled to jump start your creative process) and just promise myself I can delete it all later if I truly hate it.

    With one exception: in the Dreaded Middle my brain does a lot of off-radar working out of plot issues and themes, and then I will give myself a break, because I know even if it feels like I’m not doing much, I need that time to let the story pull itself together.

    • Hi, Amy,

      Usually by the middle, I’m on a roll toward the climax; it’s the first 50 pages that always prove the most difficult for me. 😉

      So far, though, everyone seems to follow some good writerly instincts when it comes to knowing when to push ahead and when to let it simmer for a day or so. I was always afraid if I stopped for a day, then I’d stop for good. So far, that hasn’t happened.

  4. Kelly Bryson says:

    Great topic. I tried to think of something to suggest, but I couldn’t. I guess I should have tried harder;)

    I write as much as I can because I’m obsessed, kind of in a bad way. It’s really hard for me to put down a book when I’m reading, and I have the same compulsion to finish my book. It’s been really hard to learn to take breaks and to set times to write and to stop when it’s time to stop. You can’t run for two years like that, not with a family to take care of.

    Nice links, too.
    -Kelly

    • Hey, Kelly, breaks are very important. Ditto on reading other people’s books. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll read somebody else’s book and get a kind of a zen moment where go I “ah-ha!” now I know why X hates Z.

      And you’re not obsessed, you’re dedicated. 😉

  5. rozmorris says:

    Great post. You’ve described so many of the things I do. My only rule is, keep going – because I usually find something usable starts to emerge, even from ludicrous beginnings.
    Lately I’ve been getting to the end of a 2nd draft, and I’ll write a scene I love then I’ll flag in the next one. So I’ve been asking myself a simple question: ‘why am I not in love with this next scene?’ Which is shorthand for ‘run at it again, differently’.

    • Hey, Roz, I like your litmus test for the need to re-examine a sceen. Sometimes it takes a minor tweak or two and other times it takes a severe overhaul, but if I’m aware of the problem (like you describe) I can see it and fix it.

  6. Thanks for another great post! I wish that I had the time/discipline to write everyday at a certain time like you do. Some days I write several chapters at a time, while other days I do not write a single word. When I have writer’s block or get the urge to hit the delete button, I call my co-author and brain storm again. You are a great example to me Teresa.

  7. scottmaiorca says:

    When my muse takes a hike I whine, usually. Now I’m trying writing exercises like sentence imitation to get her back.

    • Hi, Scott,

      I haven’t heard of sentence imitation, but I love writing exercises as a way to break through blocks.

      • scottmaiorca says:

        Take a great sentence, from writer you really like, and remove their words. Keep the grammar as a skeleton and fill your words around them. So you take this:

        We explored the streams, quietly, where the turtles slid off the sunny logs and dug their way into the soft lake bottom.
        –E.B. White “Once More to the Lake”

        And come up with this:
        We explored the stars, solemnly, where the cosmic spores wisped off the nebulas and dug their way into the fabric of time.

  8. Teresa, I really enjoyed this post. I often have the experience you described, of staring at the computer screen before giving up and going to bed, and when I wake up the words are spilling out of my head before I can get the coffee to brewing. LOL So I always work on something, knowing the words will show up–I just have to lure them to the surface. 🙂

  9. Like you, I have deadlines now – but yes, before that, I figured out that waiting for some magical muse to strike meant I wasn’t writing very much. And really, just sitting down and putting fingers to keys and seeing what comes out willy nilly can uncover some really nice bones to stick meat and veins and muscle onto!

    • . . . just sitting down and putting fingers to keys and seeing what comes out willy nilly can uncover some really nice bones to stick meat and veins and muscle onto! Love it! 😉

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