Kick the Writing Blues to the Curb

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last month I wrote about the real effects to the brain from having to “slow think” through the current cultural miasma. Things like prolonged lockdowns, animalistic politics, and rampant lawlessness can lead to the blahs or the blues, with the consequent lack of enthusiasm for what we do—write.

Of course, writing resistance is nothing new. It can occur even in the best of times. Back when my career was getting off the ground I noticed something happening around the 1/3 mark of every manuscript. It was like hitting a wall. I’d realize I had a heckuva lot of book left to write. I’d freeze up at the thought. Did I have enough material? Was the premise solid enough? Were the characters sufficiently engaging?

To my relief, I found that other writers—even well-known ones—went through something similar. Their advice was pretty much the same, along the lines of “just keep writing.” Well, okay…but was that all?

There is a more strategic way to go about it. I hit on this recently after recalling something from Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. She talks about actual panic setting in when you’re trying to write a full-length novel. You come to a point where you feel like you’re “trying to scale a glacier.” As you’re slipping around, negative thoughts “arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer…” She starts to feel as if “the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable…”

It’s then that she takes a deep breath and looks a blank, one-inch picture frame on her desk, to remind her that

all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch….just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame…

The other day I came to my computer to work on my NIP (novella-in-progress) and got hit by the blahs. That semicircle of negativity Lamott describes was starting to form around my desk. I remembered the one-inch frame, and decided to make it even smaller. I determined that I would write just one line in the stalled scene, the next beat of action or dialogue. I also told myself that it would be enough for the day. Of course, that was a mental trick. I knew that if I wrote one beat I’d want to write another. And maybe another.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Soon I had 350 words done. Instead of keeping on, I took a break. I’d done a “Nifty 350” (which is how I like to start the day). I gave myself permission to stop. If I didn’t reach my quota on this day, no problem. I’m the boss. I can give myself a holiday.

But I found after awhile that I wanted to get back to the scene. When I did, I told myself to just write the next beat. Let the action unfold. And before I knew it I’d added another 250 words. This made me so happy I did take the rest of the day off. The boss was most accommodating.

So that’s my medicine for the writing blues. Just write that next beat. Let’s say you’re writing a scene where a cop is in a gunfight on the street. You know it’s a crucial scene. The anxiety begins to creep in. You’re not even sure how the scene will end. Write the next beat, and that’s all:

Harry wiped a bead of sweat from his eye.

Yes, the bad guys are out there, shooting at him. Don’t even think about them yet. Just write the next beat:

He blinked a couple of times to clear his vision.

What will be the next beat? Maybe firing shot…or maybe not. Maybe at this point you realize that going slo-mo is just right for this action scene (it often is). So for your next beat, you get inside Harry’s head.

What was it Donahue always drummed into him? “Ninety percent of a good shoot is vision. The other half is mental.”

And then it’s time for an action beat:

A brick exploded over his head.

What next? It’s up to you. By this time you’ll be feeling it again, getting into the flow. Stay with it for awhile. Bird by bird, word by word. Soon you’ll look up and have a Nifty 250. Maybe even 350.

Guess what? Do that consistently and in less than a year you’ll have a full-length book. That’s how you kick the blues to the curb.

Getting in your kicks lately?

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26 thoughts on “Kick the Writing Blues to the Curb

  1. I love this. Just write one more sentence.
    I’ve just passed the 30K mark in the current endeavor, and that’s where I, too, wonder if I have enough to finish. I tell myself, “It could be a novella if that’s what it turns out to be.”
    But I’ve been giving myself permission to write half of my normal word count goal. I recently beta read a novel from a NYT best-selling author, and took encouragement that I found errors and flaws in her work, too. If she makes the same mistakes I do, then I can keep going.
    I find I resort to a phone ringing, or someone barging into my protagonist’s office with “I’ve got news.” Then I wonder who’s on the phone, or what the news is, and take it from there.
    I’m also not afraid of the “Unduki.”

    • That “giving myself permission” trick is a good one, Terry. It applies also to a scene and the whole book. Give yourself permission not to be “perfect.” Get the thing written, then you can fix it…or use some Unduki on it.

  2. The next beat.

    Hence the cheerful prodding of Fats Domino:

    The big beat keeps you rockin’ in your seat
    The big beat keeps you rockin’ in your sleep
    Clap your hands and stomp your feet
    The big beat makes you act this way
    Come on gang, let’s swing and sway
    The big beat makes you act this way
    Peg Leg Joe threw his crutch away
    The big beat keeps you rockin’ in your seat

    [Please don’t tell the Big Man I altered the sequence of the lyrics.]

  3. I like that. A way to entice yourself line by line. Will have to try that.

    Funny that this topic comes up today because I was just evaluating the first 9 months of this year in word count terms. I usually start strong in the first 3-4 months of the year (true this year) then it all starts sliding downhill until the last few months of the year. March was my big month–over 20k words averaging 657 words a day. One month I averaged a whopping 2.5 words a day. LOL!

    But the important take-away for me was: nine months in, I’ve written over 54k words (but not all on one project)—which means with 3 months left, I’m more than capable of finishing one manuscript.

    The other thing that struck me is that 657 words a day is NOT really that bad a target. This comment is 189 words. So I think writing in beats would be a great way to meet that 657 words a day target. May we all find whatever works to get our manuscripts completed since we all have something unique to say!

  4. Thanks, Jim, for those words of advice. I’ll try them.

    For me, the problem is momentum. Once I’ve started one task, it’s hard to switch to something else. I just finished editing and publishing my third middle-grade fantasy. Since I have a day job, I didn’t have time to do much else with writing other than begin working on outlining book #4. Now the publishing is done and I’m cutting firewood, and I’m finding it hard to ignore the hundreds of little things that need to be done; I’m having trouble getting my bum glued to my writing chair.

    So, I’ll take your advice and start playing with my opening scene, just to get something on Scrivener….and then I won’t want to get out of my comfy chair and cut firewood. I’ll blame you. (just kidding)

  5. Great advice, Jim.

    Reminds me of the Chinese proverb that says a journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step.

    My mountaineering friend, who’s climbed Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, and others, advises climbers not to look at the summit but only the next step before them. And then the next step, and the next…

    • Yep, that’s sage advice for a reason, Debbie. It’s like the middle-aged man who went to the doctor to seek help for his love life at home. The doctor suggested he run one mile a day for ten days. Later, the doctor gets a call from the man and asks him how things are with his wife. The man says, “I don’t know. I’m ten miles from home!”

    • Great advice from your mountaineering friend, Debbie. I’ve never climbed a mountain (at least not a physical one), but I’ve run a few marathons. The experts advise something similar: don’t think about running 26.2 miles. Just run the next mile. It doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it doable.

  6. Great advice. But where does one find a 1-inch picture frame? 😉 (what I’ll sometimes do is pull up the bottom of my writing window to shorten it)

    • I’m going to make that 1 inch picture frame with white paper and toothpicks…great idea!

      And, Harald, pulling up the writing window is another great idea. I’ll give that a go.

      🙂

  7. I was feeling sorry for myself recently. I thought, how can I think about writing during such trying times? Then I realized, wait, great literature has always been produced, even during much, much worse times. World wars. Plagues. Famine. Not to mention writers who persevered during great personal and private challenges. If all those guys could write, then surely I can fire off some fun pulp fiction.

  8. Hi, Jim

    Great advice, and much needed these days. I have a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” which I need to dip into to help me warm up. I’ve been studying cozy mysteries as I brainstorm and plan my library mystery series. Getting close to finally being able to draft the first book. I’ve given myself permission to follow the old German advice to “go slow now in order to go fast later.”

    Have a great Sunday!

  9. I especially like the way you did it as a grounding exercise, settling into the character’s physical being and dealing with the very next thing, which was wiping away a bead of sweat.

  10. Small chunks sets your mind in the no-pressure zone.

    I tell myself “Today, one line is better than nothing.” But then I like that one line and want to see what happens in two…

    My final edit is the same way. Someone said, “Only edit 40 pages at a time.” Usually I can. But some days I’m pressed for time. I tell myself, “At least do one chapter today.” And then I get int he zone and spend the same amount of time on that one chapter as I would on 40 pages. And the chapter comes out so much better. Small chunks.

    • Well said, Nancy. Sometimes we do need a little pressure, which is why I must have a SID (self-imposed deadline). But other times we need to get into that “no pressure zone” just to get something done!

  11. Very timely for me. With a full time job I don’t have a lot of time to write, so this is pretty much what I do all the time. I was being angsty today “Why bother? It’s not enough. It’ll never be enough.”

    Maybe it will, maybe it won’t but it’s a lot more fun than cleaning out the garage, which is the other thing I’d be doing.

    Thank you.

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