On forcing a new project out of your unwilling fingertips

A couple years ago, I had huge writer’s block, which I documented here. I couldn’t seem to commit to a project. I had a bunch of ideas, but none of them really grabbed me in the heart … except for one, which I attempted to write pantser-style in a great rush of inspiration. Then I hit a brick wall 50k words in and the whole thing went to pot. Inspiration was gone. My faith in my ability to write new stories was cracking. Apparently I lacked discipline. Vision. Probably both.

I eventually returned to a previous project that needed serious work, and decided to rewrite from the ground up. I spent a gloriously satisfying time getting that into shape over about nine months. But last fall, when I was ready to query that one, I started getting writing anxiety.

Because here I was again, about to enter the mushy time when a project ends and another must begin (for my optimal happiness as a human person thingy). But which project? How? Forthwith and henceforth? Was I going to get stuck again?

I was scared. I didn’t want to go back into writer’s block land.

So I decided to try an experiment. I’d commit to one of my ideas–didn’t matter which–and September 1st, I’d start pounding out the words. It didn’t matter if they sucked. Nothing mattered except the pounding out of the words. I’d write 50k words in the month of September. Then and only then, I promised myself, would I allow myself to take a step back and consider if this was the project I wanted to continue on with.

Worst case, I’d spend a month on something only to trash it.

But even in that worst case, I’d be working on my craft instead of dithering about wondering what should I work on today?

“It’s an experiment,” I said to my husband as I put my word count goals up on the fridge for all to see.

Then I picked a project at random. Last time I’d gotten stuck, it had been in a complex high fantasy with a magic system I couldn’t begin to explain to myself. So this time, I’d do a murder mystery. That felt straightforward, if tricky. I wouldn’t overthink it, either. Hot blond gets murdered in the woods. Bam. Go.

I already figured this would be my most superficial story ever. It would probably be cliche, full of tropes, and totally expected. But it didn’t matter. I was going to grab onto it like a lifeline and write my way through September come hell or high water.

50k words felt like a fair shot for any story line. I applied myself to the task.

By the end of September, I had a big old mess of 50,000 words. It wasn’t a coherent story. The order of scenes made no sense. The characters weren’t doing the right things. There was kind of a mystery. And there was kind of a murder.

BUT! I had done it–no small thing amidst the daily duties involved in three small kids and a full-time job. Aaaaand I had characters. They had names, and were starting to have personalities. There was something like a plot brewing.

I was going to continue. October 1st, I scrapped the first document and started a fresh, blank new one. Same story, same characters, but now I knew a little better where I was going. Two more months of writing followed. The structure got ripped apart and rebuilt. Characters completely changed.

Then, some time in December, my sister read it. And . . . hated it. She would never say that, but yeah. Her exact words were, “It was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t stop reading, but it was not fun.” Then she added, “Oh, and I have no idea who your main character really is.”

WHAT? Not fun? And a COMPLETELY BLAND PROTAGONIST? As soon as I recovered from this painful (but productive) blow, enter another huge rewrite. INSERT MORE FUN. Insert humor. Make it less dark. Define Main Character. And on and on.

Then my husband read it. More problems were identified. More tears were shed. The structure had to be changed . . . again. After a day of crying about my story’s problems and the lack of love it was receiving from my readers, I set to work again. Over Christmas, I problem-solved, wrote new material, and changed the beginning.

But by the end of January, I had a manuscript I was proud of. I was ready to query.

The little project that started as a FORCE YOURSELF TO WRITE experiment had turned into an actual finished story. With characters that I loved. Themes that moved me. A plot that made me giggle madly.

And most importantly: the story gave me five happy months of work that stimulated me, made me excited to get up in the morning, and added that extra layer of joy and interest to my life.

In conclusion: if you’re stuck, like so many writers before me have said, just write. Practical ways to do that:

  1. Give yourself a goal. If you’re externally motivated, share it with others.
  2. Pick a genre and story line that doesn’t intimidate you.
  3. Free yourself of ANY EXPECTATION other than words on the page. Your story has permission to suck. Your scene progression doesn’t have to make sense.
  4. Write a stupid scene, just because you can. No one has to see it. Write a stupid character. Don’t worry, you can erase it later if you want. Just write. And I can promise you . . . by the end of your goal, there will be something there.

Creativity doesn’t always start with a bright shiny idea. Sometimes it starts with you, casting yourself into the mud of a new project and thrashing about. It feels like a mess. And it is. But it won’t be a mess forever.


2 thoughts on “On forcing a new project out of your unwilling fingertips

  1. Wonderful advice and engaging synopsis of your experience, Jenna. I’m glad you’re still writing and doing what makes you happy! (3 kids, you say? I have no excuse…) Writing is something I’m still compelled to do and your post gave me permission to have FUN with it — not that I need “permission.” Direction, maybe? You’re headed in the right direction!


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