Day After Day After Day—Showing Up At The Page No Matter What

There is a point in every novel I write where I am utterly miserable.  The book is a big mess, full of TKs (“to come”) and notes to myself (“fix this in line with Chapter 22”), sloppy writing and dull characterization.  It feels like it will never, ever be finished, and even if it is, it will be the biggest pile of manure to yet arrive on the literary scene.

I am there now.  It usually lasts 2-3 months, and it is the reason I will procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate until there is no more time—I have to sit my rear down in my chair and put words on the page, day after day after day after day.  All alone.  Me, myself and the blinking cursor and the characters who are nowhere near as charming as I had expected they would be when we first began this journey so long ago.

Day after day after day.

I’ve noticed that it sometimes alarms newer writers when I talk about how much I hate my current book.  Their eyes fly open and they lean in with concern.  “Has it ever felt this way before?” They are afraid that I really am going to embarrass myself, that I’ve stumbled into a the quicksand of writer’s block, that somehow, this will be the end of me.

It’s not. It’s just the process.  I’m miserable mainly because I’m kind of lazy and writing is seriously hard work, seriously hard work.  It takes a lot of physical stamina and mental stamina and a clear head and—

Showing up. Day after day after day after day.

The miraculous thing is, when I actually do get to the place where I have to show up like this, amazing things happen.  I can plan a book as much as I like—write detailed outlines, scene lists, synopses; I can map and collage and color-code as much as I like, but the actual story happens when I sit down, open the window into that other world, and let the characters go, do their thing.  It is only in sitting down, day after day, that I discover that one character, a taciturn ex-soldier, really loves cats, and shows another character a secret about barn cats that has some very strong metaphorical underpinnings for the girl’s journey.  I couldn’t plan that, because I didn’t know it.  It’s only in the writing, only when a character takes a sudden turn into a new action that surprises me, that I learn who she really is beneath her Paper Doll Place Holderness.

Writing a novel is a monumental undertaking, but we do it a paragraph, a sentence at a time.  One step and then the next and then the next.  A quick run back to the top of the page to fix that one word, then on to the next paragraph.  A novel is written one gesture, one action, one tiny goal at a time.  When it seems overwhelming, I can go back to that:  what one thing do I know? I know this character keeps being drawn back to the lavender fields.  What does she do there? What is she discovering–about life, herself, the plants themselves? How does that knowledge change things?

And then….what is the NEXT thing I know?

It can feel sometimes like there are twenty million miles ahead of me, and I’ll never finish at this glacial pace, but day after day after day, I show up and write the next thing I know and the next and the next, and one day, not so far from now, probably, I’ll see that the book has nearly written itself.  That there are a million things in it that I hardly knew before. And what I really had to do, what I have to do every single time, is show up and put my hands on the keys and start writing.

Day after day after day after day.

Do you find yourself despairing at some point in the book?  Is it hard for you to write every day?  When you get to the hard parts, how do you cope? 

 

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. Maree K says

    Great post! I totally relate to this, especially where you say that the story happens when you let open the window into the world and let the characters go and do their thing. I’ve tried plotting – never works for me until after I’ve written almost a full manuscript. In my last two manuscripts it’s taken 75-80,000 words for the characters to start telling me what’s really going on!

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  2. janet says

    I’m thinking I’m at that point right now. I could easily NOT show up at the page and just file it under not yet….lots of brackets () and (LSOE) my code for research…and ?? in there….and I am easily distracted !!!

    But because of your blog I will turn up tomorrow and have another crack…might even write a bit tonight!!

    thanks for the motivation even if it is only because I sense the same pain in others!

    Janet

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  3. says

    You’ve put writerly meat on the bones of Woody Allen’s truism about just showing up, Barbara. So true that immersion into your characters and being there for them in their time of confusion can bring epiphanies. They will eventually take you where they (and you) need to go. Just hang.

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  4. says

    Barbara,

    You are so right about the seriously hard work put in to write a novel. One day at a time. One word at a time. The hardest part, I think, is showing up to work. It’s tackling the blank canvas, for me, that is so scary.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

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  5. says

    I always appreciate it when writers share this kind of thing – makes me feel not so alone and crazy. :)

    I found this particularly helpful – “When it seems overwhelming, I can go back to that: what one thing do I know? … And then….what is the NEXT thing I know?” A great reminder to take it one step at a time.

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  6. says

    I am just easing out of such a miserable time, myself. I, too, get into these weird funks–usually in the smack middle of a novel. I get this despairing feeling that…”Wow…this is actually crap and I’ve been wasting my time. People will hate this…I don’t know how to fix the plot, WAAA, WAAA!” So, I take a break from putting more words on the page and I go back and READ the manuscript up to the point I’m having trouble with. It works every time. I find myself enjoying my characters and the story and thinking, “I LOVE this! I MUST fix it at all costs!” Then, things start to move again.

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  7. says

    Great post, Barbara. I love this:

    I can plan a book as much as I like—write detailed outlines, scene lists, synopses; I can map and collage and color-code as much as I like, but the actual story happens when I sit down, open the window into that other world, and let the characters go, do their thing.

    I have felt this time and again. It’s almost like your imagination can’t tell all until you sit down, as if it has a subconscious of its own and you’ll never know what it is until your fingers are on the keyboard and it’s tunneling through them onto your screen. I love those moments; they are the very best.

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  8. says

    I love this post.

    I once thought that writing was about 90% muse-inspired magic and 10% sweaty toil.

    Now I see that yes, we need the muse, but really, completing and polishing a novel is actually 90% sitting our arses down in that chair. Every day.

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  9. says

    i’m so with you. Every book. Every one, I hit a wall. Sometimes early on, sometimes in the middle and sometimes at the end. I’m always sure that this is the book that will tank my career, (alternated by thinking i’m a genius, ha). I procrastinate until I too HAVE to get going because time is running out. I also find that the writing I do when I’m inspired is no better or worse than the writing I do which feels like pure, one painful word at a time, drudgery. Great post!

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    • says

      For me, there are short walls, high walls, cardboard walls, and Berlin walls. It all depends. The worst thing is to stand at the wall and let my mind spin off into negative judgments about myself as a writer. That’s what leads to procrastination for me, far more often than being stuck.

      Barbara, thanks for your honesty and for the helpful emphasis on what’s helped you.

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  10. says

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today. I’ve been working on rewrites of my first novel and I can so relate to your experience. I find myself procrastinating and feeling fatigued and overwhelmed, but in the end, showing up is the only way to success (quitting is not an option).

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  11. says

    Oh lawd, yes. Right now I’m in the middle of the bazillionth re-write. Chapter 24 has expanded into chapters 24, 25, and 26 because I rushed through the hard stuff the last time. I know what the next scene needs to be. And yet dragging my butt to the chair each morning is a struggle, one I sometimes lose.

    It’s reassuring to hear that someone whose work I admire also reaches the miserable stage.

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  12. says

    I’ve done it both ways, actually. Sitting down with an outline, and also without, and haven’t truly discovered which way I prefer yet, as I don’t know that the amount of misery you describe above would be significantly different either way.

    There comes a point wherein I feel it is possible to minimize the misery, by actually taking not long periods of time away, but two or three days to do anything else that’s not related to the current opus.

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    • says

      I actually do outline and write a synopsis for every book. I also write tons of backstory and that kind of thing for myself.

      Not sure I could write without one, but I have many friends who do!

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  13. says

    Absolutely and when people talk about how much they love writing or suggest that if you don’t love it all the time, you shouldn’t do it, I either plummet into a spiral of worry and self-doubt or fight it by telling myself that these people are obviously amateurs and have no idea what they’re in for and I’m obviously a better writer than them – that hating it is the mark of a good writer. And then I worry again that maybe they’re right and loving it is the mark of a good writer. And then I remember the times when I tried to give it up but had an amazing idea that wouldn’t leave me alone and just had to start writing again. And the smugness returns.

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  14. says

    This captures my writing experience so perfectly. I love it when my characters take over and lead me places I could never think up by myself. But it sure can take a lot of butt-in-chair, forehead-on-keyboard time to get there.

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  15. says

    Barbara,
    Oh yes, I know the feeling. I am going through that right now. Nothing I write is good. I return to a scene and make it a little better, but it’s still not good enough. As you said, writers just have to work through it. Perseverence and focus are the keys. Great post. Thanks.

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  16. says

    Perfect timing, Barbara, except I won’t tell you how many months I’ve dwelled in this slough. The mistake I made at first was to see that hatred and despair as a sign of trouble, rather than a sign to dig deeper.

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  17. says

    What’s great about your process is that you see revision as a task list. Those little notes (“TK”) are bite-sized nuggets of story gold waiting to be panned from the stream.

    Many think revision is working through the manuscript in order, changing words, tightening here and there, and hoping it will be better. Not so. Revision means deepening in a thousand small ways.

    In workshops I suggest doing drafts that focus only on one task: tension, scene turning points, stripping down dialogue, inner struggle, crafting surprises. Participants say, “I never thought of that!”

    The manuscript isn’t really a mess, it’s just up on a hydraulic lift becoming a racing machine. When you write…

    “I show up and write the next thing I know and the next and the next, and one day, not so far from now, probably, I’ll see that the book has nearly written itself.”

    …you’re saying that you have faith. You also have a vision that every day gets clearer. You also have craft, an eye for what works and what’s weak.

    Press on. A novel is not just an epiphany in fields of lavender, a final product. It’s, for authors, a process full of joy and daily discoveries.

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    • says

      Great point, Don. Revision is about deepening. My rough drafts tend to be more like elaborate sketches than a full draft. I usually end up adding 1/4 or more to the book in the rewriting stages.

      And thanks for the encouragement!

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  18. says

    Great post! Usually around the 100-page mark is when I freak out. But it also happens during other points in the process. Have a great time at Author Fest of the Rockies! Hope our paths cross again one of these days.

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  19. says

    Yep. I’m there right now. And I dread sitting down and writing, which is tragic, since it’s my favorite thing to do. BUT every day, when I sit down, I break through a little more and a little more and a little more. And like you said, before I know it, there will be a book there. But it won’t get there if I don’t sit down every day and let it write itself. Thanks for putting into words what is obviously such a common experience for writers but that makes us feel so lonely and isolated at times!

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  20. says

    Oh, Barbara, thank you.
    I feel like this so often and, sometimes, it’s hard to just have faith that it will — eventually — all be figured out on the page. I especially loved this line: “A novel is written one gesture, one action, one tiny goal at a time. When it seems overwhelming, I can go back to that: what one thing do I know?”
    I needed to see that today ;).

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  21. says

    Naps — they work wonders, because while I’m lying there all “ahhh, I’m going to take a nap” – sometimes something from the book will slap me upside my peahead and I go “hey! . . . ” something that would seem so obvious, but it is not, just as people you come to know show more and more bits of themselves.

    Words come easy for me – its the making of story that terrifies.

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  22. says

    I’ve done only two novels so far; both are in the middle of re-writes, of editing of the first draft.
    And I hate it. It feels non-productive, word counts go up, then down, my scribbled notes seem cryptic to me, post-it notes hang out every edge of the manuscript. I realize, too, that this is the first of many revisions, it will be a long process.
    My strategy so far has been to do other writerly things. Write dozens of flash fictions, read about writing, join writing groups, take literature courses, read other people’s good writing.
    I know that the solution – other than burning both manuscripts – is to dedicate a chunk of time every day to this editing thing. I also know that, as with many things I ‘should’ be doing, when it annoys me enough, I’ll do it.
    I’m hoping that annoyance builds up soon.

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  23. says

    Just last week I was telling my husband that I thought the story I’m working on is boring crap and then in the exact same breath realized that I felt that way with the first novel I’ve written. Having you post this post today confirms for me that it’s not something to freak out over, but to write through. Thanks!

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  24. says

    Oh god, Barbara, THANK YOU. This post is so me. I welled with emotion when I read “It’s just the process” — because it’s my process too, and it’s so reassuring to know I’m not the only one. That I can press on and succeed, as you have, as you constantly do.

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  25. says

    It’s funny how many sites and books give advice on how to handle the “write everyday” thing. Yet, it’s still one of the most prevalent problems I see among writers.

    I equate it with the opposite of eating McDonalds. Everytime I got to McDonalds, I convince myself it’ll be awesome, yet it never is. Likewise, when I haven’t written for a while, when I think about sitting down and getting to work, it’s the most terrifying thing ever. But it’s never as bad as I think it’ll be.

    It’s true that our characters and stories are really fleshed out during the writing process. I try to write one short story per week, and right around Thursday and Friday, I hit a wall where I’m convinced the whole thing sucks and I’m wasting my time. It takes a lot to push on through that.

    There’s no real trick other than just sitting down and getting to work. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but valuable. And it’s also a lesson you have to continually learn and you will always forget.

    Writing sure is fun.

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  26. says

    I love this post! First, I love that you admit that you don’t always love your book without adding something like “But deep down, I know the novel is great.” I feel like writers are often afraid to admit that they don’t like they’re (metaphorical) children because they’re afraid that other people will think that that dislike is rooted in bad work.

    Second, I love that you point out that the best, most-interesting parts of our books are not planned for, they emerge organically from our love of our characters are our attention to them. I’m in editing/rewriting phase now, and with each pass, motivations become clearer to me, personalities shine. And it’s in ways that were unexpected and incredible. And so freaking cool.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  27. says

    Ah, so reassuring. Thank you, Barbara.

    I’m in the outline phase, and I keep thinking “I should know more about these characters and their problems by now.” But we’re just getting to know each other. It will take months of writing daily to really get to know them.

    Just like real people. :)

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  28. says

    Yes, and I’m always glad when other writers confirm this is a normal experience! I usually hit my stride at around 30,000 words (if I’m not going strong from the beginning) and then I hit that wall at around the 60,000-70,000 word mark . (I write science fiction and fantasy, so my books tend to be a little longer than most.)

    BUT like you said, it is a great place to discover new things, and that can only be done by working your way through the rut. You learn about intricacies of the characters’ personalities, and even things you can insert earlier to support where you are going. You learn things about your plot and world and people that lend the story greater depth, complexity, and meaning. And they’re not things you can plan for; they arise organically based on everything you’ve already done.

    But despite all this discovery, this part of the novel is a chore. There’s no shame in that. I doubt anybody likes their job all the time!

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  29. says

    How I adore you for writing this! I have felt that way too. While I love to write, there comes a point of sad, disillussioned, “what am I thinking, I can’t do this and I hate it” kind of panic that overwhelms me. But then, there’s the light of magic that just picks me up and sweeps me away that makes it all, the torturous and the sublime moments, all worth it.

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  30. says

    Ugh, I’m there now. This is the FOURTH (and, I sincerely hope, the FINAL) pre-submission draft of a YA fantasy novel I’ve been working on for a YEAR now, and at this point I just want to be done, done, done.

    Fortunately, though, I’m starting to realize that my most frustrated moments come right before my biggest breakthroughs, so I’m getting better at working through the frustration. : ) Good luck!

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  31. says

    I tend to hit despair moments before a research breakthrough. I hit a wall with the information at my hand, so I panic my way to my book shelf, where I sometimes find another question scribbled in the margins. Some clue I wrote myself: A half-thought. An underlined passage. A question mark beside a name.

    Experience taught me to dig into the page to process information. I’ll never make sense of it with my nose in the book — that’s only the starting point. I can find a question. The beginning of a sentence. The rest won’t appear until I put pencil to page.

    Thank you for this post. I feel so encouraged.

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  32. Rikki says

    What a refreshing perspective on the writing process! I am encouraged by this author’s candid confessions about the darker side of writing. I think it’s assumed that if you’re a writer, it comes naturally and words effortlessly appear on the screen – all the time. But that is not true! Everyone, writer’s included, struggles with mental blocks. Perseverance is important.

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  33. says

    Barbara,

    I too, sit down every day. I’m on deadline, and I did the math – I need 1k words a day to finish on time. I can do that. Except . . .

    Last Friday, I was stuck on a pivotal scene. A sex scene. But it was like pulling blood from my pores. But I needed those 1k words, and committed to NOT quitting until I had them written.

    11 1/2 hrs later, I was done, and had a fight scene instead. Turns out, that was the problem – I was trying to write the wrong scene.

    Being too stubborn and just plain dumb to quit taught me a lot that day. Now, I hope I’ve learned it, so I don’t have to do it again!

    Great post.

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  34. Donna McDonald says

    Really? It’s like this forever? Truth? I dont’ have first timer blues? oh dear! oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The poor husband. The poor kids. But I on the other hand, feel sooooooooooo much better!Thank you. And I’ll stay put then, and get off email and back on the page! :o)

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  35. says

    Barbara,

    It is wonderful to hear all of these golden nuggets from you and fellow writers. I freak out myself when I get the slightest whiff that something is “wrong” with the way my novel is going, and it usually takes me forever to realize that the reason something is “wrong” is that the characters and the story want to go elsewhere, but I’m stuck on the ideas I’ve jotted down on post-it notes and the film-trailer images in my head. It is SO true that only through the words and the writing that the real story can come out.

    I am about to go back into my novel to simplify passages and hopefully slim it down by a few thousand words. And I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m here again! Why can’t you ever be done?” But I remind myself that is so worth all the anxiety and near-chronic writer’s butt.

    -Jillian

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  36. says

    Thank you for this post. I’m currently vacillating between slogging and flying on the first draft of my WIP. Coming up on 90,000 words so it should be nearing the end (SF, so I get a few more words), but I keep thinking things like “I need this earlier scene to help develop my antagonist” and “Oh! X should’ve happened earlier so that my MC is able to get out of Y.” What I hope this means is that I’m somewhat including my draft 2 process in draft 1 (draft 2 is normally where I flesh out all the holes, then in draft 3 I manage to revise to a shorter word count than draft 1). So maybe I’m saving myself time in the long run. But it’s *hard.*

    I do have faith in the overall story, and I have had those glorious moments where a particular scene comes together and even on rereading, I think it’ll just need a quick polish. But yes, much of writing is slog and toil. Glad I’m not the only one who feels like that!

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  37. says

    All I can say is thank you for this. It is all so true and relieving to see that others suffer through the same insanities as I do.

    My journey is only just beginning and already I have reached points similar to these that make me want to quit and just go back to my ‘day job’, so to speak. So, again, thank you. I will soldier on!

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  38. says

    It’s both depressing and uplifting to see that this feeling never really goes away, no matter how accomplished you are. I sometimes feel like I’ll never to get over that hump. Also, because I only have time to write in my spare time that 2-3 months turns into 10-12 months pretty quickly. But like you said, there’s only one way out of it. Great post. If I was at home I’d open my WIP right now. There I go procrastinating again :)

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  39. Sarah says

    I struggle with just getting started! I swear, I’ve gotten things going and then given up almost instantly!

    It really is a process, and it really is work, but it’s one of the most rewarding things when you have something you love at the end!

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  40. says

    I always hit walls, almost always in the middle. Like Sarah noted above, writing is about ninety per cent toil. What sometimes frustrates me is that every non-writer in my orbit is stunned how long it takes to write a book and shepherd it to publication. They can’t imagine what we writer types DO all day…. And I’m not even especially slow.
    Showing up is indeed the key, and reminding self that this is the best job in the world.

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  41. sopheansoeun says

    When I read this, I couldn’t help but think that I was reading an article about myself. I had no idea that other writers went through the same writing process as I did. I always wondered what it was that I was doing wrong to have to go through this sort of process. Now I know it’s more of a natural thing among other writers.

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  42. says

    Hello Barbara, and thank you for this post today. I am struggling with my first-ever blog post and bit off a larger subject than I wanted to chew. But, I chewed it… =)

    Thank you for your guidance, I look forward to following you here.

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  43. Bianca Peterson says

    Never published a book, but I’m working on one and I can definitely relate to feeling stuck.

    Some days are awesome; I know where the story is going and I’m on a roll. Then I’ll have days where I’m struck with how more there is to write, what details still need to be elaborated on or explained, etc and then I start feeling miserable. I stare at the page and just try to will the words into existence. This is the point where I try to step back and take a breather.

    Some of the best writing advice I’ve gotten is to write everyday; the trick is it can be any kind of writing. When my novel starts to overwhelm me, I do some free exercises, write about other things and come back in a day or two with fresh eyes. I find ideas come to me best when I’m not forcing them and just letting them come to me when they want to.

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  44. Dominique says

    It’s always so relieving to see established writers having a hell of a time working through the procrastination, too. I’m “working” on my creative thesis of 150ish pages of science-fiction short stories and it’s so hard to just sit down and write! Thanks for the motivation!

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  45. says

    Barbara O’Neal, you are my new hero. Your post is priceless.
    I despair on every single story I work on. I’ve done major overhauls, created new stories, and totally destroyed manuscripts. I can tell myself over and over again that it’s part of the process, but it doesn’t change how I feel, but after digesting your message, I feel encouraged. Now, I can sit at my laptop with confidence and continue to plod forward when I reach that point of despair.
    Thank you Barbara

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  1. […] There is a point in every novel I write where I am utterly miserable. The book is a big mess, full of TKs (“to come”) and notes to myself (“fix this in line with Chapter 22”), sloppy writing and dull characterization. It feels like it will never, ever be finished, and even if it is, it will be the biggest pile of manure to yet arrive on the literary scene.  […]

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