How to get out of a writing rut? I’m not talking about a small blip along the way, the kind of thing that can be surmounted with the aid of a cup of good coffee and a quick brainstorming session. I’m talking the serious downer many of us encounter at some point in our creative process. Somewhere in the production of your bug-whomping epic fantasy / romance / thriller / mystery, you lose faith in some aspect of your own writing – the characters suddenly don’t seem real, the plot feels as if it’s meandering, or someone gives you feedback that causes you a severe case of self-doubt. This can happen when you’re halfway through, when you’ve completed the first draft, or when you’re rewriting in an attempt to fix those very problems. It often happens when you start to share your work with others – friends, relatives, critiquing buddies – and the feedback is less positive than you’d hoped for.
Of course, we all aim to filter critique wisely. Ideally, we take on board what is genuinely helpful and set aside what we know we can never believe in. We then analyse the feedback, make a new plan of action and get straight back to work.
Sounds easy; perhaps too easy. We all know what an immense effort redrafting can be, especially if it involves structural changes. It’s a challenge akin to climbing the glass mountain, two steps forward, one step back, and in that process it’s all too common to start losing enthusiasm for the project.
One possible approach is to take time out from the magnum opus to do something else. I’m not talking about raking up leaves, going for a bike ride or knitting a teddy bear – though such activities can be good circuit breakers – but taking on an alternative writing project. If you are a novelist bogged down in your masterwork, why not attempt a short story or novella as a change? The side project can even be set in the familiar and well-fleshed-out world of your novel. This way you can exercise your writing skills, create something that may well be saleable in the future, and add to the depth of your world or characters while taking time out from the novel itself.
Or you may write a short work that is in complete contrast to your novel – different genre, different setting, different target audience. You may set yourself a particular technical challenge – write the story in second person, or write it in verse. This will not only maintain the creative flow, but also develop your skills, refresh your mind and send you back to the novel with batteries recharged.
Earlier this year, I was asked to contribute a novella to an anthology featuring work by well-known Australian fantasy writers. The pieces were to be set in the worlds of our existing novels, or in worlds to be featured in our future novels. I set aside my work in progress to write a 20,000 word story set in the Sevenwaters world. I built some technical challenges into the novella project, attempting for the first time a dual first person point of view and a combination of past and present tense narratives. Whether I’d have taken on that project if I’d known I would be diagnosed with cancer just as I was finishing it is a moot point. Medical treatment gobbled up a lot of my writing time this year, resulting in an uncomfortably short deadline for the novel.
Despite that, taking time out to write the novella is one of the best creative choices I’ve made. I enjoyed the technical challenges, loved revisiting old characters and fleshing out their stories, and felt a deep sense of satisfaction in the end result. My motivation for taking on this project was not, in fact, being bogged down with my novel, but enthusiasm for the anthology’s concept and respect for the editors. But the satisfaction of completing the novella and the depth it added to the Sevenwaters world, in which the novel is also set, were instrumental in keeping me writing, albeit slowly, during this difficult year.
I do believe one of the best approaches to getting stuck is to put your manuscript away in a drawer – right away, out of sight – and have a go at something else for a month, two months, three – however long it takes you to finish an alternative project. You should emerge with something new plus a fresh eye for problem-solving in your major work. In fact, you may decide your novel is not so bad after all.