The Writing Vacation

Last week I wrote about 7 ways to fit in writing a novel when you work more than full time. That article included tips that applied any time throughout the year.

There’s another great way to enjoy getting a concentrated amount of writing done, and that’s to take a writing vacation. It can be a day, a week, or more, and it doesn’t need to cost a lot, or anything at all.

Why a writing “vacation”?

Thinking of the time away from your work as a vacation makes it easier to carve out the time because vacation is fun. How often have you thought to yourself, “I should make some time to write” and not done it? That’s because put that way, it sounds like an item on your endless To Do list. When it’s a vacation, it still takes effort to arrange, but it’s designed to make you happy, not add work to your week or month.

Also, when you’re working tons of hours at your “first” career or job, taking time away to write is relaxing and fun. I usually came back to my regular work refreshed and excited.

Finally, “vacation” implies to other people that you’ll be away and should be contacted only in a true emergency. If you tell people you’re taking a vacation day or week, most will at least try to respect your time. Tell them you’re taking time to write and they’ll contact you just as if you were at work.

How to plan a fun, productive writing vacation

At home or away, here are a few things that’ll help you enjoy your writing time and use it well:

  • Decide in advance which writing project to focus on
  • Set a goal that fits the time you have. A 1-day vacation goal might be writing a few paragraphs about each of your characters, a first draft of a novel chapter, or a plot outline (check out my Super Simple Story Structure if you’d like a quick guide–it’s 99 cents (or free if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), and it includes links to free worksheets). If you have a week and you already know what will happen over the next quarter of your book, you might set a goal of a 50 pages or more.
  • Figure out before you go/stay home a place to write where you can turn off your Internet connection and your phone
  • If you get a lot of email or calls, put an Out of Office message on both just as you would if you were on another type of vacation
  • Don’t tell anyone unless you absolutely must that you’re taking the time to write
At home writing vacations

If you’re planning your writing vacation at home, there are a few additional points.


If you have a live-in partner, spouse, and/or children, the at-home vacation only works if they will not be there during the day. It’s next to impossible for people you live with to view you as “not there” and leave you alone, and it’s on you, not them, to be sure your writing time is sacred. If your home is occupied during the day, find a separate space in advance. Some possibilities are coffee shops, libraries, office sharing spaces, or the home of a friend who lives alone and is away at work during the day.

Pets and Chores

If you have a pet, do whatever you normally would if you went on vacation or were away at work. Get (or keep) a dog walker, feed the cat first thing in the morning the same time you would if you were going to work.

Also, no squeezing in a few chores. (No, not a single one, not even laundry if you will have no socks tomorrow.) Deal with it all just as if you were truly away and there was no possibility of doing any of these things.

If you go away

Ideally, go away alone so you won’t be tempted to skip writing and go sightseeing or sip cocktails and chat with your friend/spouse/significant other. But that’s not always possible, and if your partner or another person in your life will be upset by you going away alone, that’s important too.

One solution is to plan a trip where the other person can do something fun. If your spouse loves to do yoga, go to a yoga retreat with plenty of activities for him/her during the day while you write. Or go to one of those areas of the world that you have no interest in seeing but your friend has been dying to visit, so long as that person is okay sightseeing alone. Or suggest that’s a great time for your spouse to visit that in-law you can’t stand or that best friend she or he would rather hang out with alone while you stay home and write.

Whether alone or with someone else, check ahead of time so you’re sure there will be a place you can write undisturbed. It’s also helpful if you landlock yourself. Find somewhere with food options in walking distance, then take public transportation or a cab or airport shuttle there. Without a car you won’t be as tempted to leave to do something other than write.

What else to do during your vacation

You won’t be able to write 24 hours a day, and most people won’t be able to write 12 hours a day for that matter. And if you do, you may find yourself feeling depressed and isolated.

So wherever you take your writing vacation, plan some other relaxing activities. Have a nice dinner somewhere with a view, take a walk on a beach, catch up with your friends and family after your writing day is finished. Bring books to read or line up shows to watch, especially if both are something you never get enough time for the rest of the year.

However you handle it, a writing vacation can be a wonderful way to make progress on your novel away from day-to-day stresses.

Have you taken a writing vacation? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Until Friday–


L. M. Lilly

P.S. Remember to check out the Free 5-Point Story Structure Blueprint if you’re in the planning stages of your novel or are just getting started and would like a guide to help figure out your storyline.


Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full Time

Okay, I admit it. When I was in law school, one of the main reasons I sought a position at Chicago-based large law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (now Dentons US LLP) was that author Scott Turow is a partner there. It wasn’t just that I wanted to meet him, though that crossed my mind. Mostly, I figured a firm that touted a novelist/lawyer in its marketing must be comfortable with attorneys who pursued other vocations along with law.

In contrast, at the other big law firm where I interviewed, a partner glanced at the one line on my resume about fiction writing and said, “You know, you won’t have time to do that here.”  Points for honesty.

As anyone who practices law knows, regardless whether a firm or company tends to hire lawyers with outside interests, juggling law and the rest of life is a challenge in itself, let alone pursuing another avocation. I’m sure that’s true for other professions and jobs, too, not to mention being a parent. The reality is, few people who write novels have more spare time than anyone else. And Scott Turow notwithstanding, most published authors don’t earn enough to quit their other jobs.

So below are a few suggestions on fitting writing into an already too-packed life.

(1) Seek Out Something Different

The less time you spend wracking your mind for ideas, the more time you’ll have to actually write. Stimulating your mind with new activities and information can generate a lot of thoughts and ideas on which to base your fiction.

If you’re too busy to add anything new outside of work, try to vary within your profession. Work with someone you don’t usually partner with, have lunch (or coffee if you’re short on time) with a colleague you seldom see, pick up a project that’s just a little outside your comfort zone. Talk to someone whose views are completely opposite to your own.

And if you can do something new outside of work, that’s a great way to get your creativity flowing. Attend a play, a movie, a concert, or just take a walk along a street you don’t normally travel and really look and listen. It doesn’t matter if you like what you’re doing. Sometimes at a play that bores me out of my mind I come up with great new story ideas.

(2) Develop A Habit

In the classic Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill said, and I’m paraphrasing, you are what your habits make you, and you can choose your habits. In that way, writing is a lot like working out (though I’m far more likely to do the former than the latter). If you need to decide every day whether to go to the gym or what time to try to squeeze it in, it’s less likely to happen. Same thing for writing. But when it becomes a habit, the pages start churning out, and it feels great.

If you don’t already have a habit of writing at a particular time or for a certain number of minutes or hours per week, figure out when it’s most likely you’ll be undisturbed, even if it’s only a half hour a week on Sunday morning or Friday night. When that time rolls around, write, even if you write about how you don’t have anything to write about. Or you can use that time to sketch out what you’ll write about in the following session.

Once you have the habit, you can increase the amount of time you write, and the quality of what you write.

(3) Create Time

If finding half an hour a few times a week is a challenge, look first at television, social media, and video games. I’m always surprised how many television shows my lawyer friends, even those with kids, find time to watch, until I remember–they don’t also write.

If you’re already lean on recreational activities, look at your work. Is it possible to work less and write more? Some firms or companies allow reduced schedules for reduced pay. I did this for several years at Sonnenschein, though I concede with mixed results. Sometimes I still billed more hours than people on regular schedules and just earned less. On average, though, it did allow me to write more. Likewise, when I ran my own firm, after a number of super busy years, I began deliberately cutting back. First I turned down new cases other than from existing clients, then I turned down any new matters at all.

If that’s not an option, consider buying time. With the advent of virtual assistants and a sharing economy, almost anything can be outsourced. This is especially wonderful when you can pay someone less than your time generates in your own profession. If you earn two-four times as much per hour at your day-to-day paid work than you would pay someone to clean your home, remodel your bathroom, grocery shop, do your taxes, wash your car, fix typos in your manuscript, or keep your financial books up to date, do what you do best, and pay someone else to handle those other tasks. You can then use the extra free time to write.

(4) Harness Your Unconscious

Much of the creative process takes place behind the scenes. Even if you’re extremely busy, your unconscious can come up with story ideas and scenes and flesh out characters. The key is to stimulate the unconscious without stressing out. One way I do this is to ask myself a question before I fall asleep or head to the office, such as–when I was plotting The Awakening–“Where is the most unnerving place for Tara to be confronted by a stranger who claims to know the meaning of her pregnancy?”

If I ask a question like that every so often, then put it out of my mind, eventually a scene or idea pops into my head.  (In that example, the scene takes place just before midnight in a deserted Laundromat where Tara works. The stranger enters as she’s closing for the night.)

(5) Use Your Downtime Well

One of the things I love about TV law shows is how no lawyer goes to court and sits forty minutes waiting to give the judge a status report. You also never see lawyers waiting at the gate when the flight to the deposition is delayed.

In the real world, most of us spend some time waiting. That’s why I carry a note pad everywhere and pull it out if I have more than five minutes. (You can also use the note function on your phone for this, but judges frown on lawyers appearing to be emailing or playing on their phones while in the courtroom so I carry paper.)

I particularly like scribbling about characters, because if I’m cut off in the middle, it doesn’t matter. In fact, my unconscious will probably keep going with the train of thought. Now and then I write snippets of dialogue or openings for scenes. While the legal pad pages rarely make their way to my writing desk, and the exact words almost never get typed into a manuscript, my thoughts flow more freely when I do have time. It’s a big part of why I’m usually able to turn out pages as soon as I sit down to write.

You can also use time stuck waiting in line to observe fellow customers. Notice their chins, their noses, how they carry themselves, their expressions. Think about how you’d describe them in writing. This can be especially helpful if your physical descriptions of characters tend to get repetitive or rely too much on describing eye color, hair color, and height.

You can find specific writing/thinking prompts for short time periods in Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time.

(6) Set Small Goals.

Most professionals are goal-oriented people. That’s how we got where we are. Large goals, like writing a best-seller in two years, are inspiring, and they work well when pursuing a pre-set program like graduate school. But they also are too easy to put off truly pursuing until tomorrow.

So break those goals down. If you have a regular schedule, your first-draft goal could be a page a day or seven pages a week. If you have an erratic schedule, a goal of a number of pages per month or per three months may work better. One of my best writing instructors, author Raymond Obstfeld, called this latter approach the spare change method. Rather than writing X amount per day or week, you throw whatever you can into the writing equivalent of the spare change jar. So when I practiced law full time, one week I might have written 4 pages, the next 10, then next none, but at the end of the month, I’d written 30 pages.

(7) Write Something Bad.

If you’ve tried cases for twenty years, you might be able to think through an opening argument the night before trial and give it the next morning. But when you started out, you probably outlined the argument, practiced ten times in front of a mirror, and tried it out on a colleague or two. Yet, for some reason, many of us insist on trying to make every sentence of our fiction perfect the very first time.

Hemingway said all first drafts are sh*t. I find this very freeing. Many of my first drafts are rambling or too sparse (or both) and include pages that ultimately don’t need to be there. A first draft is a thing of beauty not because it’s perfect, but because it’s done. Trying to write well the first time out can keep you from writing at all. So the biggest key to finishing–no matter how much time you have or don’t–is being willing to write something bad. Then you can revisit, rewrite, and polish all you want.

There’s no magic to finding time to write, any more than there is to finding time to study in college, or to raise children, do volunteer work, or care for your parents while working fifty hours a week. There will be things you’ll miss while you sit and write, and carving out the time to write may mean, for a while at least, earning less than you could if you focused all your efforts on a more immediately lucrative profession.

But if you love writing the way I do, it will be worth it. Much as I enjoyed practicing law, nothing satisfies me more than finishing a piece of writing and feeling I’ve done my best with it. (Though practicing law did mean I eventually got to meet Scott Turow. Pretty cool.)

Until Friday, wishing you a productive and not-too-stressful week–


L. M. Lilly

P.S. If you’re starting a novel and are looking for a clear, quick way to plan it without being bound to a rigid outline, try Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel. It’s free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers (reg. $0.99 for Kindle, $4.99 paperback). The Kindle version includes a link to helpful worksheets. It can save you a lot of time.

When Your Job Is Not A Day Job

Ever since I published my first novel in 2011, business colleagues have asked if they could give my number to other professionals who are writing novels. Others have contacted me because they’ve recently started or finished a book and want to hear from someone like them about the writing and publishing process.

Having another career in addition to writing is wonderful in many ways. It can mean we’re doing work that’s mentally engaging where we meet interesting people and, hopefully, earn a fairly good living. But that same career can also make it a challenge to write, publish, and–if that’s part of your goal–sell your work.

If you sometimes feel it will take forever to finish your novel or you can’t imagine when you can squeeze in time to send out query letters or go through the self-publishing process once you do finish it, you’re not alone. Advice to “write during your lunch hour” doesn’t help if your typical lunch is 10 minutes eating at your desk while reading trade publications or answering email.

So you know it’s not just you, below are some of the downsides for writers who also have another career or profession. But I’ve also listed the upsides. Yes, there are upsides!

The Challenges

If you write as a second or additional career, you’re more likely than other writers to:

  • Experience significant demands from your first profession, including ethical obligations. One advantage of a traditional day job, such as working as a data processor, telemarketer, or waiter, is that generally when you punch out for the day, you’re done. When I worked as a cashier, if I didn’t want overtime, usually someone else did. As a lawyer, if a client calls last minute or a court enters a ruling that requires a quick response, I need to take care of it. Any plans I had to spend that evening or weekend polishing my chapters for an editor, researching where to schedule ads for an upcoming promotion, or being with family or friends, need to be put aside.

While that’s part of what makes a career more interesting than a day job, it also makes it much harder to set a firm date by which to finish or publish a novel, to send out a certain number of query letters a week, or to regularly post on social media.

  • Have an unpredictable schedule from day to day, week to week, and month to month. This makes it harder to write at the same time each day or the same day or days each week, which in turn makes it harder to get into a writing habit or to make time for marketing or publishing. (In future posts, I’ll address some ways to track your progress and establish a writing a habit, despite that writing every day at a certain time may not be possible.)
  • Think of “books” only as printed books and focus on bookstores as the best sales outlets. While a love for and familiarity with paper books can mean you’ll be more motivated to sell paperbacks when many other writers are ignoring them, it also means you may overlook the sales potential of ebooks and audiobooks, as well as overlook the necessity of an on-line presence. I sell the most novels in ebook format, then in Audiobook format, than in paperback. If I’d kept my view of books as paper books, I doubt I’d have sold 10,000 copies of The Awakening to date.
  • Have a limited view of what “professional” means and how it looks. Conforming with certain standards for appearing professional is great when it comes to presenting yourself. You know how to dress and behave in a professional way and you understand why you should have well-written marketing materials free of typographical errors.

As I talked about in Is This Blog For You?, though, unfortunately, this view also may cause you to dismiss advice from those who don’t fit your image of a successful business person. I almost skipped a free on-line seminar I’d signed up for when I saw the first two minutes of the initial video presentation. The presenter wore jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt, and he was sitting at a computer desk in his bedroom, his electric guitar leaned against the bed behind him. (The presentation was not about music.) The decor also suggested the bedroom was in his parents’ house. As someone who takes a lot of care in what I wear to court, to teach, or to meet with a client, my gut reaction was that this wasn’t someone who took himself or his presentation seriously, so why should I devote time to his talk or to any part of a seminar that would use him as the headliner?

To my surprise, I learned quite a bit from him about writing good advertising copy, and I learned from the other presenters, too. All of which I would have missed had I rejected him based on my view of how a professional looks and acts.

The Pluses

As a writer with another career, you’re also more likely to:

  • Have a professional network from your first career or profession. Knowing about another career from first-hand experience and interacting with professionals in other careers gives you a wealth of plot material. It also gives you a lot of information about various types of jobs. Other writers can get that by researching or interviewing people, but you already have it in your head. Which means you won’t ever need to be that writer whose main characters are always writers. (Something that always annoys me, unless it’s Stephen Kind doing it. Somehow, he makes it work.) That network also expands the number of people who might help you spread the word when you publish.
  • Have extensive knowledge of your field and/or technical expertise. Knowledge gained through your first career can also provide a foundation for your novels. Readers love getting the inside view of a profession or industry. Authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham used their experiences as lawyers to create exciting novels and sparked a new genre, the legal thriller.

Even if you don’t write about your profession, the skills you learn with it can be helpful. When I started writing The Awakening series, I was working so many hours as a lawyer that the last thing I wanted to was to write about law. But my research, writing, grammar, time-management, and client service skills aided me in plotting, finishing, and marketing the books. I also tapped into professional contacts who were medical doctors, probate lawyers, and former police detectives to flesh out details of the obstacles my main character faced.

  • Have more money than time. While not everyone with a first career or profession makes a lot of money, odds are you earn more than someone working retail or punching a clock. This can also be a challenge (see above), as you’re probably working more than 40 hours a week. But it does give you a certain flexibility. You can buy time by paying others to do things that otherwise take up your writing time, such as housecleaning. You can also pay for a class run by a skilled, published author or pay a reputable story editor to go through your manuscript. If you choose to self-publish, you’ll probably be able to afford a professionally-designed cover, which will increase the chances of readers buying your book.
 The Big Picture

Of course there are differences among those of us who juggle multiple careers, and no advice is one-size-fits-all. What worked for one author, regardless of her or his background or other career, to sell a thousand copies may do nothing for another writer, and may not even work for the same author a year later.

The publishing industry is changing rapidly, and it’s an exciting time to be part of it. You belong to a long tradition of writers with other careers that includes William Carlos Williams (doctor), Lewis Carrol (mathematician, photographer and teacher), and Virginia Woolf (publisher). Overall, in my view, your first career or profession on balance helps your writing, despite that you many not be able to maintain the same production schedule as someone who works a 9-5 job or writes full time.

As we go forward together, I hope some of what I’ve learned—and what I keep learning—as I juggle the roles of author, attorney, and adjunct professor will save you time and trouble and make your writing life happier and more successful.

Until Friday,

L. M. Lilly

Three By Three: Creating A Writing Space

Whatever it looks like and however it fits with the rest of your life, it’s important to have a space where you feel good and where you can write. This is especially so if you have another demanding career or profession. If you don’t have a physical space set aside in your life for writing, it will be hard to make space in a figurative sense.

Two years ago I got rid of the pull-out sofa in my second bedroom and created a home office. Before that, I had a nice antique desk in that room, but it was too high for comfortable keyboarding, and the overall space was cramped. That desk is still there with a monitor on it, and my law firm laptop sits on a tray below it. (You can see it on the left side of the photo.) I have a standing writing area for my fiction writing. I also have a third desk that I moved home from my law office. That is where I sit when I’m hand-revising printed manuscripts or am grading my law students’ papers.

This is the first time in my life I have had such a large area devoted to my writing. But there were pluses to my other writing spaces over the years, however small. I have had anything from one corner of the dining table, to a drafting table, to a spare room at my parents’ house.

Below are some things to think about when choosing your writing space. There are basically three choices for location: somewhere in your home, somewhere in your “other” workspace, or somewhere in public. And there are three major factors that affect how well those spaces work for you: what else you do there, who else is there, and your fiction writing work style.

What else do you do there?

If you are someone who feels the need to do laundry if it’s in front of you, load the dishwasher as soon as you finished eating, or sweep the floor after every meal, first, come to my house. I will write while you do those things. Second, working at home might pose challenges for you. It’s all too easy to decide to throw in a load of laundry before you start writing. It seems like it won’t take much time. But in about half an hour, you’ll need to switch it to the dryer. In another hour, you’ll need to take it out and fold it. Now if you were lucky enough to set aside two hours to write, you’ve spent about twenty minutes of it on laundry. With a little practice, you can get past this, but if you find that chores at home interrupt your writing every time, you should probably find a writing space somewhere else.

This is where writing in public is particularly helpful. The barista at Starbucks is not going to ask you to clean the cappuccino machine, and the librarian will not expect you to reshelve books. Put your phone on silent, leave books and ear buds at home, and don’t connect to the Internet. There will be nothing for you to do but write.

If you have an office for your other career or profession, you may want to try writing there. (More on that below.) A few recommendations if you try it:

  • Set aside some small space in that office where you put your notes on your writing project and anything else that relates to writing. That way you won’t waste time digging it out or organizing it.
  • Unless it’s impossible to do for your profession, turn off email notifications, forward your phone to voicemail, and block off the time on your calendar. (If the only way you can find time to write is to be available for emails or telephone calls, try ignoring them for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, then checking in. Odds are, you can be away for that amount of time, and if there’s no emergency, proceed for another 15 or 20 minutes.)
  • Even if you’re paid for results or tasks, not by the hour, it’s probably best not to tell people at work that you are writing while you’re there. They will view you as “not working” and feel free to interrupt you to chat. They also may start to imagine you’re not as attentive as you should be even if you are.
Who else is there?

If you live with other people or pets, give some thought to how that affects your writing. The obvious answer might be that you should have complete isolation and quiet. But I found that now that I have that, at least once a week or so I take my laptop or a notebook and go to a local Starbucks to write. I like the energy and noise around me. Sometimes, it actually helps me focus. There also are times when I want to write in my living room with the television on or my parakeet chirping away in his cage. (I rarely let him out while I write, as he usually jumps on the keys or bites the tip of the pen.)

Joss gives me a rare moment of peace.

Despite what I said above, if you have children, a significant other, or pets whom you’ll feel as if you are wrong to ignore no matter how much you want to write, it’s better to make arrangements to be away so you can write somewhere else. Asking others to carve out writing space and time for you almost never works. It has to be a priority for you first, equal with your other work, or it will never be one for anyone else. This is why I simply don’t answer email or phone calls when I’m writing unless I have a break scheduled already.

What if your spouse also is a writer or also has work to do at home? Some couples I know both work from home. This arrangement seems most successful when the workspaces are in two separate rooms. This makes sense to me. If you like each other and enjoy each other’s company, there will be a lot of temptation to pause what you’re doing and chat. If you’re not getting along, the negative energy will likely make it difficult to concentrate.

You may also choose to write in the workspace for your other career or profession if that’s an option. If you have an office and can shut your door when you choose and be undisturbed, and it’s compatible with your work schedule, you might write for a set time, say 30 minutes a day twice a week, during your usual workday. What probably will work better, though, is to come in early or leave late. Then even if you don’t have an office, if no one else is around, you may be able to write at your desk, in an open conference room, or in the work kitchen. These types of spaces can be wonderful if they are deserted.

Public spaces can also be a great option if, as I sometimes do, you like the bustle of people around you, but you don’t want to interact. Depending upon where you live, the following can be good places:

  • a coffee shop
  • a library
  • a restaurant in off hours
  • open seating areas in a college or university
  • a park in good weather
  • the back room of a friend who owns a business
When and how do you do your best writing?

I am most productive, and feel the best, when I can set aside large chunks of time to work on a single fiction project in peace and quiet. I take periodic breaks, but I love to immerse myself in the fictional world and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. Sometimes I do that with a lot of noise around me, and that’s fine, but what I don’t want are interruptions. Other people like to shift from task to task and feel antsy or frustrated when they spend hours on one project.

Temperature, sleep, and food also matter. I need to be physically warm. If I am shivering, I find it too hard to think. I also work best when I have had a lot of rest and have eaten. Some people get an edge from pushing themselves beyond fatigue and from working through meals. I just get edgy. And angry, and irritable. (So you probably don’t want to come hang out with me if I have just put in a 12-hour work day.)

All of these types of factors affect where your best writing space is. If you prefer not to be interrupted, choose the place where that is least likely. As I mentioned, that may be at a public place, or it could be at your workplace before anyone else comes in or after they leave. If noise bothers you, you might need to write when you’re alone, or buy a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

It also matters whether it helps you or makes it harder for you to need to go to a different place to write. It’s a lot like exercise. If you are someone who exercises more if you must go to a specific place to do so, a health club membership is a great deal. For me, a 10-minute walk to the gym means I never get there, but I roll out my yoga mat every morning at home. Likewise, I write the most when I have a nice writing space at home, despite occasionally liking to write elsewhere.

Don’t worry

Whatever space you choose to write in, every once in a while, try something different. For one thing, you may not know for sure yet where you do your best work or where you feel happiest writing. It may take some experimenting. Also, as your life changes, where you prefer to write will change as well. So if you can’t find the ideal place right now, don’t worry about it. Pick the best place out of your options, and keep in mind that change always happens.

If you’d like to email me a photo of your writing space, send it to [email protected] and let me know if it’s okay to share it.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful week.


L. M. Lilly

Writer’s Block – Overcoming the Myth

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Before you tell me I’m wrong because you’re suffering from it right now, let me explain.

Most of what gets labelled as “writer’s block” isn’t what’s actually stopping you from writing.

Barring physical or mental illness or injury (which I talk about more in Writing When Injured Or Not Well), if someone pointed a gun at you and insisted you write something, anything, unless you have a death wish you’d write.

Beyond that, if ordered to at gunpoint, you’d write a short story, even if you’ve never written one before. It might not be a good short story. It might lack conflict, or have a cardboard cut out for a main character, or have a terrible ending or no ending at all, but you’d write it.

Likewise, if you’ve ever had a job you didn’t like (and if you haven’t, kudos to you), my guess is most workdays when you were well enough (and possibly sometimes when you weren’t) you got up and went to that job anyway. You worked whether you felt like it or not, whether you were inspired or not, and whether you wished you were doing anything but going to work or not. Because you couldn’t call in sick with bricklayer’s block or office clerk’s block or middle manager’s block.

If you’re reading this blog, you like writing more than you liked that job. If you could do that job despite everything else, you can write.

Dealing With The Issues Behind The Label

So what is writer’s block?

It’s a label that can be used for a variety of issues, making them sound insurmountable when most of them are not.

Here are six issues that once you’ve identified you can address so you can start (or continue) writing:

Generating an idea

You want to write a novel or a short story, but you don’t know what to write about. So you sit in front of a screen or page and do nothing.

The problem here is not inability to output or write.

It’s lacking enough input. You likely need to feed or nourish your creative mind or spirit.

Listen to music that you love or hate, either live or in person. Visit a museum and stare at the most compelling paintings. Walk in nature if you’re usually in the city or take a train from a rural area to a city and watch the landscape change along the way. Read novels of a type you don’t normally read or read a non-fiction book that catches your interest. All these things stimulate your mind. While you do any of them, don’t search your mind for ideas. Just immerse yourself in the experience.

Once you’ve done that for a while, ideas will form.

If you still need a jumpstart, use specific writing prompts. Buy a deck of Tarot cards, choose one at random, set a timer for 15 minutes, and write about the card, or any thought that card sparks, until the time ends. Sit in silence for 10 minutes (set the timer again). Listen to every sound and let your mind wander and imagine what or who caused the sound. Make up a story to go with it. When the 10 minutes ends, write down what you imagined. You can similarly use magazine pictures, travel guides, or Instagram posts to prompt your writing. Or choose the first line from a favorite book and write your own story with that start.

Too many ideas

Sometimes we have so many ideas it’s hard to pick one, which again leads to staring blankly at a screen.

Make a list of your ideas. If there are several you already think would make good stories, pick one at random, set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes (yes, I love timers), and write about it. That timer frees your mind because if it turns out you don’t like this idea or it doesn’t work, you’ve “wasted,” at most, 30 minutes. If you feel pretty good about this idea when you’re done, next time you write, continue with it. If not, pick another and repeat.

Another approach is to simply choose the idea that involves the most conflict.

As I talk about in Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel, stories need conflict. If you main character gets everything she wants and has a lovely day, there’s no story there. Your main character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of lemonade, and need to overcome obstacles to get it.

If your ideas all lack conflict, try this:

Write down one of these four words: man, woman, boy, or girl. Write down an active verb like run, jump, hit, play, touch, throw, or swim. Again write down man, woman, boy, or girl. Add any necessary prepositions to create a sentence. You’ll be left with a basic sentence such as “Woman slaps girl.” or “Boy runs into man.” These are almost guaranteed to generate conflict. Write for 30 minutes about that. (Remember, you don’t have to love the story or the idea. This is all about getting words on a page.)

Where to start

If you have an idea for a story or novel and you can’t get yourself to start writing, you’re probably unsure where your story starts.

The good news is pretty much all first drafts are bad, so you can start anywhere and fix it later.

If it raises too much anxiety to do that, start wherever your main character first wants something and can’t get it, even if it’s as simple as wanting that glass of lemonade when the refrigerator is empty and the grocery store is closed.

Don’t worry about whether there are other scenes that should come first, you can always add those in later.

Also don’t worry if the lemonade turns out not to matter because the real story is about her dad never coming home from the war. The lemonade issue might stay to draw us into the piece or you might drop it. Again, the point is to get rolling. Later you can decide what you need and what you don’t.

Overcoming your fears

If you have another career or job, my guess is you had to write something at some point for work. A business email, a note to a supervisor, a schedule of days you can or can’t work. You probably didn’t freeze up at the keyboard, so why does it happen when you try to write fiction?

Fiction is more personal than most jobs. You also may have a lot invested not just in being a writer but in being a good writer. You may fear writing something bad, your writing being rejected, or other people looking down their noses at how you spend your time.

Here’s the thing. All of that will happen.

You’ll write something bad. I’ve written bad stories, bad poems, bad novels, bad blog posts. You’ll have your writing rejected. No matter what you achieve or don’t with your writing, someone–probably a friend or family member–will sniff at what you did and tell you a story about a friend of a friend who is a “real writer” because he won a Pulitzer Prize. The good news is, none of that will kill you and none of it needs to stop you from writing. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing and give yourself permission to write a very bad first draft that you will never ever show anyone. That’s all you need to get started.

Lack of inspiration

For many people, this is the easiest part of writer’s block to get past because  you don’t need to be inspired to write.

When I write first drafts, I write whether I’m inspired or not. At the end, I can’t pick out the passages that flowed from my fingers easily from the ones where I felt like I was trudging through molasses. I enjoyed one more than the other, but there’s no quality difference. And if there were, I’d revise to improve the quality.

Your Writing Routine

The best way to write regularly and not depend on inspiration is to create a routine.

If your schedule is predictable and your physical and mental health allows, pick a regular time in your week when there are few other things to distract you. Choose a small amount of time to start.

For instance, rather than aspiring to write an hour three times a week at 8 p.m., you might decide to write for half an hour Friday morning before you go to work. Then sit down at your desk for half an hour every single Friday even if all you write is “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know why I am sitting here.”

Do that for half an hour every Friday and you’ll get into a habit. Eventually you’ll start to write something that you want to keep.

If a routine time is impossible due to your schedule or your health, you can try setting a routine through triggers.

Creating Triggers

Each time you sit down and write, you might burn a scented candle, or drink a particular type of tea, or wear your red socks. Those things can trigger in your mind and spirit that it’s time to write and can help you make the transition to writing from other parts of your day.

If you otherwise are able to do the things you want or need to do in life (such as going to work, caring for loved ones, reading, going to movies, etc.) and you never feel like writing, if it always feels like trudging through molasses (uphill), consider why you want to write.

Do you enjoy having a finished story or novel enough to go through that? Does being a writer have its own rewords despite not loving the process? If yes, keep those rewards fixed in your mind and trudge.

Finding time to write

There are times in life that might not be the best ones for writing a short story or a novel, or at least not for finishing them in a defined time period.

When I was working full-time and attending law school at night, I didn’t write fiction. I wrote poems and journal entries during the odd few minutes here and there.

If you have a two-year-old at home and you’re working full-time or also caring for an aging parent, this might not be the time to set a six-month or one-year goal of finishing a novel. Or…

Write In Smaller Bites

But if novels are what you love to write, you can still do that by writing what you can when you can and letting yourself be okay with finishing some unspecified time down the road. (See Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time for ways to fit in small bursts of writing.)

Aside from life circumstances like the above or physical or mental health challenges, for many writers it’s about finding the time, not having time.

Finding Time

Nobody has extra hours in the day or the week, and nobody starts out getting paid to devote hours to writing. So notice what you do with each hour of your time for a week or two. Decide what activity or activities you could skip so that you can write instead.

For instance, if you can afford it, and you currently spend two hours a week cleaning your house, pay someone else to do that while you write. If you spend half an hour a night watching the news, make a deal with a well-informed friend to tell you anything you really need to know, turn off the news, and write for that half hour.

Once you figured out what you can miss, create a schedule or goal and stick to it.

Keep in mind that if you have a cyclical worklife or a chronic physical or mental condition that affects when you are well enough to write, that schedule/goal may need to be more flexible.

You might set a goal of hours per month or word count per month (or per six months) rather than per week or per day. Or you might simply set an overall goal of finishing a novel or poem or story without a timeframe so that you can leave room for stretches of time when writing’s not possible.

That’s okay. Even if you don’t write as much as you hoped, you’ll write something.

In closing

To sum up: (1) If you’re stuck, don’t worry about writing something good or what will happen after you finish, just go ahead and write something bad. (2) Stories are about conflict, so start with a main character who wants something and is having trouble getting it. (3) You can always fix it later. (4) Timers are your friend.

I hope these suggestions help you get started or move forward if you’ve been feeling stuck. Have other questions? Feel free to add a comment or email me at [email protected].

Best wishes for a happy, productive week.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Still feeling stuck? Write On: How To Overcome Writer’s Block So You Can Write Your Novel might help. It addresses ways to get started, get past slumps in the middle of your manuscript, and get across the finish line.