Try Writing Sprints to Overcome Writing Setbacks

by James Scott Bell

Okay, let’s not mince words. 2020 has been one hell of a year. This is how it’s felt:

Getting whapped in the face over and over is not fun. But, as the Stoics used to say, it is what it is. It’s what you do with the “is” that counts.

This applies to any field of endeavor. No one gets to have a successful career without confronting and overcoming setbacks. Some will be big, some small, but come they will.

Steve Jobs built Apple into a powerhouse, only to be forced out in 1985. Twelve years later Apple was circling the drain. Jobs was brought back in and turned Apple around. When he died at age 56, Jobs was worth $7 billion.

Wally Amos started Famous Amos Cookie Company in 1975. I was there. I was walking along Sunset Boulevard one day that year when a friendly man in a cool hat and holding a plate of cookies stopped me. He was standing outside a little A-frame store with a giant cookie on the sign. So I sampled one of his little beauties and was hooked. I bought a bag. And shook hands with Wally Amos.

But then came the setback. In 1985 Amos was forced to sell the company. He was prohibited from using his name to start another. So what did he do? He started the Uncle Noname Cookie Company. Faced more setbacks. Started another company, and at age 84 is working on another. This is called never giving up. 

Writers have their unique challenges. When their career is in the hands of another, there’s always the possibility of being dropped if things don’t work out financially. This can lead to some depressing conversations. The screenwriter played by Albert Brooks in his movie, The Muse, had one such talk:


Setbacks are often due to circumstances beyond our control. I know one writer who got a mega book deal, the first hardcover coming out with great fanfare on the usual release day, Tuesday. Only this Tuesday happened to be September 11, 2001. Suffice to say the book stalled and so, for a time, did the author’s career. But he came back.

So did a guy named Gilstrap. Back in 2003 “everyone told me that my career as a writer was over.” Now what have we got? A hit series and another one on the way. (Read John’s account of what happened here.)

Among my writing friends are several “midlist writers” who were phased out, dropped, or otherwise shown the door by their former publishers. Most of them are now happily publishing independently—which in and of itself is the most amazing “comeback machine” ever handed to the writing community. 

Then there are setbacks that come from life itself: pandemics, family issues, physical challenges, mental fatigue. All this can affect our work. 

How to handle them? My advice has always been along the lines of the flippant doctor’s prescription for insomnia: Just sleep it off. I’ve counseled writers to keep writing, or “write your way through” whatever it is that knocks you flat.

But I know that’s easy to say and hard to do. So let me suggest an exercise I call writing sprints. This is where you set yourself a goal of writing 250 words—a nifty 250—as fast as you can. The three rules of writing sprints are: 1) Write without stopping; 2) Don’t judge what you’re writing as you write; and 3) Wait ten minutes before you look over what you’ve done and decide what to do with it. 

I’ve broken writing sprints into five categories:

1. Scene sprints

That scene you’re about to work on? Pick a spot in the scene, any spot, and write 250 words. It could be the beginning, or it could be the “hot spot” where the meat of the scene is taking place. You can also write an ending, too. There is no wrong decision. 

2. Emotion sprints

This is my favorite. Find a place where your viewpoint character is feeling something deeply. Then write 250 words just on that feeling. Expand it. Use internal thoughts. Use metaphors. Follow tangents wherever they lead. Later, you’ll use the best of this in your writing. Even if it’s only one line, you’ll have found gold.

3. Dialogue sprints

I love dialogue. It’s fun and easy. In a sprint, don’t use quote marks or attributions. Just the dialogue between characters. Let them improvise. Let them argue. Let them reveal things. Usually you’ll find something that is delightfully surprising (and it will delight your readers, too).

4. Description sprints

Go wild on describing a person, place, or thing. I often close my eyes for this, and let my imagination give me pictures. 

5. Random Word sprints

Open a dictionary at random (I used to carry a pocket dictionary for this, back in the days when it was acceptable to write in a coffee house). Pick the first word you see that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write 250 words on whatever that word triggers. You can apply it to your WIP if you like. Example: You find the word bloodhound. You can just start writing and follow rabbit trails (hey, just like that dog!) Or can ask yourself, “How might a bloodhound figure in my story?” and then go. Maybe your Lead can have a memory of a bloodhound. Or maybe he feels like a bloodhound. Okay: what does he think about that feeling? Keep writing! 

Here’s another benefit. After you’ve done those 250 words, you’ll almost always feel the flow. You’ll want to write some more. So write! Because setbacks won’t stop a writer who produces the words.

What’s a setback you’ve faced as a writer? What did you do to overcome it? Or are you still in process?

35 thoughts on “Try Writing Sprints to Overcome Writing Setbacks

  1. Congratulations on your new thriller!

    I live by word sprints. I always see the beginning and the end of my stories first, then I write the scenes I see. On days when I’m stuck I look at what I have and put it in order. That always gets me going again.

    Wishing all the best to Mr. Amos. I never did meet him but Mrs. Fields (another cookie icon) spoke at our Officer’s Wives Club in Japan. Her basic message was along the lines of “If you love something, do it even if you’re clueless. You’ll figure it out.”

    Happy Sunday!

    • Thanks, Cynthia! I like your method for dealing with being stuck, viz., looking at the pattern and moving things around. That’s what I like to do with Scrivener. Using the outline or corkboard view, then moving things. It also helps using Scrivener’s cousin, Scapple, for a mind-map view.

      Happy Sunday back atcha.

  2. Doing critiques for my writing partners, or looking at what they’ve said about mine usually does the trick. Or I write a blog post.
    In the WIP, it’s knowing that I have a delete key and know how to use it keeps me moving. So does knowing that if I’m not writing, I’d be expected to do the housework.

    • Ah yes, the great “I’m writing” answer…I am sometimes caught staring into space by my lovely wife, to which I’ll say, “I’m working!” Usually, I am.

  3. Thanks for these reminders. My book is at the editor, and I need a way to inspire my next one. I used to start my creative writing class with the 250 words activity. At the end, I ‘d ask writers to exchange papers and have the reader circle their best line. 90% of the time, the line was at the bottom. Something about the sprint that makes writing urgent.

    Could you give me a link for your first clip? I have an unemployed friend who has lost 3 jobs to Covid and would identify—with humor. of course.

    • Nancy, sounds like you were right on teaching that class. You are so right that the “good stuff” often comes near the end, after our engines are warmed up and we’ve silenced any lingering inner-editor voice.

      That clip is actually the opening shot of a Sam Fuller film noir called “The Naked Kiss.” It’s viewable on YouTube:

  4. My setbacks are “life itself.” There are always twice as many things that need to be done as there is time. The only solution that has worked for me is prioritization. On days off or weekends, writing comes first. Everything else has to wait until the afternoon. I’m more creative in the morning. I need the physical activity in the afternoon. Some things don’t get done, but they wouldn’t all get done even if I spent all my time working on them. I just keep shuffling the priority list. Such is life.

    Thanks for the reminder of the release of LONG LOST. I had it on pre-order on Amazon. I switched off airplane mode and downloaded it. I look forward to reading it.

    Thanks for the ideas on writing sprints.

    • That’s the way to do it, Steve: prioritization. I like that you have set writing times. Protect them! Years ago I had my daughter make me a sign, in cut-out ransom-note font style, that says, “Writer at Work.” I would hang that sing outside my office door, and everyone knew not to enter “the zone”!

  5. What Steve just said, Jim. That’s great advice, however, about the writing sprints. At least that’s a sprint that I still can do. I like to tell people that I used to job but the ice kept falling out of my glass (originally said by David Lee Roth).

    Best of luck with LONG LOST!

  6. Our weekly critique group begins each meeting with 10 minutes of free writing from prompts.

    It’s a worthwhile exercise. In a period of 7 years, I’ve polished two of those efforts into stories I sold.

  7. First get it written, then get it right! Love it, JSB! Downloading Long Lost as we speak.

    I’ve been writing short stories when I get stuck. I don’t know much about the rules of short stories, but I’m having fun mucking around in them. I have a collection of titles in a file, and when I’m feeling uninspired with the current project, I pull one of them up and let it take me where it will.

    And, BTW, I was going to ask a question about short stories. If I have one polished up, can I submit the first 400 to First Page Critiques, or is that just for novels?

    Happy Sunday all…

    • Deb, have fun mucking around with your short stories! (As you know, and as I am modestly forced to reaffirm, I wrote the definitive book on short story writing).

      That said, we are focused on 1st pages of novels here because they are a “different animal” than short stories. The latter often contain a lot of backstory “telling” to get us into the story. Not so the novel!

      Keep on muckin’.

      • Thanks, JSB. And wonder of wonders, I just found How To Write Short Stories and Use Them To Further Your Writing Career, by James Scott Bell, in my Kindle library.

        Guess I’d better break it open… 🙂

      • Thank YOU. I look forward to the emails directing me to these helpful blog posts. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s worth all the trouble. Then, like this morning, I read something truly helpful (this blog) AND receive an email from a total stranger praising one of my short stories that was published some time ago and I think….well…maybe it IS worth it after all.

  8. Congratulations on “Long Lost” being out in the world. I pre-ordered it, and look forward to reading it.

    I love this list of writing sprints, I’ll definitely pasting that into a text file to have at the ready. I’ve done a fair amount of “pomodoro” style writing sprints–set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes, write, nothing else, for the time, take a break, rinse and repeat. That’s handy, but your five categories are more focused. I really like the idea of sprinting to a word count, rather than a time limit. It’s a been a long time since I’ve done that.

    These five will be so helpful in dealing with the setbacks we’re all dealing with now, as well as the personal, writing career related ones.

    My recent setback has been self-inflicted–namely writing 26K words of an urban fantasy novel a while back, going over what I’d written ala your technique of stopping there to check how things are going. Alas, I could see what I’d written didn’t work. there was lots of hugger-mugger and not enough enough character emotion.

    So, I sat down and came out with a new outline and began a new draft. When I reached 20K in that draft, my writing pace had slowed to that of molasses in January, so I decided it didn’t work. (I didn’t do re-read–perhaps I should have. Instead, I decided to switch to writing that library cozy I’d been brainstorming in the back ground. I worked out an outline. I’m now almost 24K words in and am determined to not let the 20K-ish mark convince me the book isn’t working.

    I’m wondering if I should stop and reread what I’ve written or if it would be better to just keep drafting?

    One thing I’m determined to do, no matter what, is to see this novel through, and be the 13th novel I’ve drafted, and hopefully the eighth I’ll publish 🙂

    Thanks so much for this post. Have a great Sunday!

    • Dale, yours is a common experience. When I do a 20k step back, I’m mainly looking see that my plot foundations are as solid as can be. I don’t make a massive change in my outline, just shore things up. You might be experience the 30k “wall” many writers talk about. My advice there is, yes, push on! Write the doggone thing. Get it out there so you have something tangible to self-edit and 2d draft.

      Carpe Typem!

  9. Jim, Long Lost arrived on my Kindle this a.m. Looking forward to reading it.

    During my 25+ years of writing articles, 30+ print magazines went belly up, sometimes owing me money. I began to wonder if I wrote for a publication, did I doom it to failure? Then a screenwriter friend told me he had put four movie studios out of business so I didn’t feel so bad. Ya gotta have a sense of humor in this biz.

    During those disappointments, I usually went back to working on fiction to recharge. Hope always glimmered on the horizon that one of my novels would hit.

    I write both fiction and nonfiction. During one year (2003) full of personal and professional disasters, I decided to give up fiction altogether but kept at the nonfiction. The break lasted several years but the fiction urge eventually returned.

    After writing 10 novels, #11 was traditionally published and the editor expressed strong interest in the second book of that series.

    Six months later, they closed up shop.

    Too old to play the submit-and-wait game any more, I opted to indie-pub.

    The sixth book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series will be out in January. If the books succeed, the credit is mine. If they fail, the blame is mine. Either way, I’m no longer at the mercy of outside forces that are driven by factors beyond my control.

    Two ways I keep going through down times:

    1. I shift gears between fiction and nonfiction. Different disciplines, different mindsets.

    2. I shift between long form (novels) and short form (short stories, articles). That also refreshes my mindset. If a book-length project feels too daunting, I write a short piece instead. I can finish those in a week or less and have a sense of accomplishment.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I’d only change one thing in your comment. There is no “blame” in books not meeting expectations. It only means we regroup, keep learning, keep producing. And, of course, learning like the Stoics not to let expectations rule over us!

      Congrats on series book #6!

  10. I’ve had a minefield of a career, almost none of the mines of my own creation, and I kept moving forward for almost 40 years because I had something to say, and I believed in myself. Looking back, most of those exploded mines made the way safer for other writers since I was a pioneer and a lightning rod for change in more than one war. They did spit little for my career but made me a teacher of more than just craft.

    Anyway, a writing sprint sounds like a fine tool to try. No tool works for everyone because writing is so individual, but we need to just keep trying until we find something that works.

  11. Just downloaded “Long Lost” and love the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Looking forward to this evening when I can dive in.

    I like the idea of writing sprints. Sometimes the stuff of life gets in the way of writing, and my old nemesis “fear” pays a visit now and then to question my ability to come up with new ideas. Your list of sprint categories is great. I’m going to give one or two of them a tryout today. Ready, set …

    • Thanks, Kay. You are so right that fear is a nemesis. Stephen King said something to the effect that when he is actually writing he is keeping ahead of the waves of doubt.

      Or as Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”

  12. “It is what it is. It’s what you do with the “is” that counts.” Words to live by, Jim. Thanks! I look at setbacks as life lessons to learn from. There’s a saying in the bloodhound business that applies to writing – Nose down. Arse up. Keep moving.

  13. I’ve had a book idea for a couple years now, and it hasn’t let me rest. So, a couple days ago, I leaned into a writing sprint just to see where it would lead. As a meticulous planner, this was new territory for me, but I did it. And now, I have a better handle on why this idea chased me for so long. I don’t think I would’ve uncovered it if I didn’t do the exercise. Thank you for the wonderful advice, Jim! Hope you’re enjoying your Sunday.

    • Thanks for mentioning another benefit of a writing sprints, Sue. Often it tells us what we want to write deep inside but haven’t ferreted out yet. Happy Sunday back at you!

  14. Well, this comes from another place. What worked for me was to stop writing. Made a conscious decision early last spring to set aside both manuscripts and take a break. Probably virus-funk related, but as the Stoics say, it was what it was. I was worn out, I think, after 20-some years of being on the hamster wheel (a book every 9 months or die). It has felt great to not write. Like I can feel muscles healing.

    Maybe, for some of us, instead of sprints, sometimes you need to slow down, walk and see the scenery. (See Joe’s post from Saturday). What tells me this was the right decision is that the urge to write is returning. I am going to get back in the game.

    • And a most welcome return it will be! Thanks for sharing that perspective, Kris. It’s an important one. Sometimes a season of rest is what’s needed, letting the desire to return happen naturally. Glad it has in your case.

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