Back in January, I started work on a brand new manuscript. I took out my calendar and counted the available days between January and May, excluding weekends and my kids’ school breaks (they attend year round school so every nine weeks they have a three week break – there would be one in late February/early March and another in mid-May). I then divided my available days by 100,000 to set a daily writing goal.
After setting my daily writing goal, I dove deeper: Was this a realistic goal, why or why not? What possible barriers were there to meeting that goal (these included things like upcoming school breaks and trips, a possible loved one’s elective surgery that would require caregiving, uncertainty in where the manuscript was headed (I am, for better or worse, a pantser), and emotional barriers like fear and anxiety)? I then wrote suggestions to address each of those possible barriers.
I used that information to formulate a plan with concrete goals and tactics for achieving them (a set schedule plan for the boys during their break, non-negotiable time for writing that came before any possible caregiving tasks, brainstorming sessions, positive reinforcement, buy-in from my family, etc…). I also scheduled a monthly check-in meeting on my calendar to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. I created a self-interview for those meetings that included questions like: How many days did I write? How many words completed? What was my average words per day? How many words and days remained and what average word count would I need to meet to make my proposed deadline? What new barriers had I encountered? What possible solutions would address these barriers?
And I was kicking butt!
I started in late January and knocked out 12,000+ words before the end of that month. I smashed February and wrote 30,000+ before the kids’ school break. Then, all coronavirus hell broke loose.
The kids had only been back in school for four days before they cancelled it again. I was concerned and confused by the fire hose of information coming at us at that time. I was managing a slew of cancelled appointments and navigating a brand new emotional world for our family. As a result, I wrote only 10,000 words in all of March.
April and May were worse. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The work in progress stalled.
I found myself stuck. With good reason. My creative well was empty. I decided that was okay. There were real, concrete reasons for my inability to write. I firmly repeated the words grace and gentleness to myself like a mantra. I gave myself permission to not write. I mourned my lost deadline, but I accepted it. This was beyond my control, beyond my planning, beyond comprehension in many ways.
But then the boys settled into a school routine. They needed me less and I found myself with a little available time, but still no motivation. I signed up for a workshop that allowed me to work up scenes from my work in progress which flexed my creative muscles and gave me a touch point to my manuscript, but I still was not writing completely new material for the draft yet. It started to pain me. I wanted to get back to it but was afraid I didn’t know how.
Finally, I got a kick in the pants by way of feedback on a different manuscript I was querying. The feedback wasn’t bad, but it was thought provoking. If I followed this person’s advice, it would mean more work. Work I had to admit it probably needed and I felt capable of, but work that would take longer than a day or even a week. Work that would bump me from my new manuscript while I tackled the old one.
I went to a trusted group of writers I know and cried out for help – not something I am typically comfortable with, but I am so glad I did. They all offered excellent advice and posed questions I had to dig deep for the answers. I spent a weekend in deep thought and really listened to myself, my muse, my creative self, whatever that piece of me is that typically compels me to the page. I did a gut check and I knew, in my heart, that I didn’t want to lose the thread of this new manuscript. I could revise the older one later, after I completed the rough draft when I needed space and perspective anyway.
Back to the planning pages I went. I set a new deadline. I calculated days and a conservative average word count/day to get me there. I committed to a seven day a week writing plan and an early morning alarm clock on all seven of those days to ensure the quiet space I need to write. Every morning, before I put fingers to keys on my manuscript, I turn off my wifi and put pen to paper to brain dump all the hang-ups I have that morning. The key, however, is that I have to offer a solution to every problem. Yes, I can vent about being tired or not knowing what in the world these two characters are up to, but I have to keep writing until I can fix it or let it go. It doesn’t mean I solve every possible problem on that journal page, but it does mean I don’t come to the keys afraid or frustrated or thinking only of how I shouldn’t have stayed up so late the night before binge watching Schitt’s Creek. Finally, I picked a scene that may not have been chronologically next, but knew needed to be in the book and was excited to tackle.
I started writing.
And I kept writing. I should easily complete this rough draft by the end of this month.
I was terrified that this plan was a recipe for failure. I had spent so many months without trailing words behind my cursor that I was convinced it wouldn’t happen again. Not only has the well opened again for this draft (don’t get me wrong, there are still some murky middle moments and revisions are going to be hell as a result), but I’m thinking about the story in a whole new way. I realized I may need to add a second point-of-view. I see where motivations changed for someone halfway through the story and are better for it, meaning big changes to the first half. Like I said, revisions are going to be hell, but what this time of fallow writing really showed me is that being honest with myself and by giving voice to what’s stopping me – both physical and emotional barriers – I can more effectively deal with them.
So, if you are stuck, here are my quick tips for getting restarted:
- What is your writing goal? This could be as simple as rekindling a daily habit or as big as writing a novel. Figure out what that goal is and be specific.
- Does your goal have a deadline? I love a deadline for accountability. Write it down. Circle it on your calendar. Even if it’s arbitrary, treat it seriously.
- Write down any possible barriers to reaching your goal. This might sound silly, but this was huge for me. I wrote down everything I could think of then took a look at my list and realized they fell into three major categories: Murky Middle (writing challenges), Mental Health (fear, anxiety) and the Outside World (e.g., kid demands, self-isolation challenges). This really helped me to recognize what was really keeping me from my goal.
- Brainstorm solutions to those barriers. Here is what my list looked like:
- Murky Middle Solutions: Keep moving the story forward. Start with a scene I KNOW needs to be there. Don’t forget my subplots.
- Mental Health Solutions: Opt outside (go for a walk every day, pick a hike each week to do with the kids). Ask for support. Tell a friend about my deadline (accountability partners can really be helpful). Check in with my therapist as needed (Therapy has been a huge help in my life and if you think it might help you, I encourage you to try it!).
- Outside World: Create sacred early morning writing time. Turn off wifi. Journal before starting. Schedule time for other creative pursuits (photography, interior home projects). Limit time on social media.
- Check in. Schedule a date to check in with yourself and see what’s working. Run through the questions again and analyze what’s working and what’s not. Things change. Before we were all self-isolated at home, I wrote at a completely different time of day that’s definitely not feasible any more. These check-ins provide an opportunity to adjust course before you go too far down the wrong path, get frustrated, and give up. I have been known to grab a journal page and do an emergency check-in meeting when I think something’s not working. I highly recommend writing down your questions and answers (I use different color ink for the answers) like I’m interviewing myself on paper. I don’t know why that works, but it creates a different kind of analysis than only thinking through the answers to myself. But do what works for you.
- Celebrate the small victories. I brag about my word counts to my kids and husband and let them know how I’m doing on reaching my goal deadline. I wrote my writer friends who had given me advice and shared my plan and how it was going and we all virtually wa-hooed together. Celebrate however works for you – a piece (or two or three) of chocolate, a glass of wine, a long walk, a celebratory gif sent to that accountability partner. Whatever you do, acknowledge your successes. You deserve them!
I hope one of these tips helps you. Share in the comments below what tips and tricks have been working for you during this pandemic.
Wishing you all grace and gentleness wherever you are on your pandemic writing journey.