I’m currently between writing projects. I reworked a novel I started probably ten years ago, sent it along with a pitch to my agent, and now, suddenly, I don’t have anything to do. Or I do, but I’m figuring out exactly which project I’m going to jump into next, so I sort of willingly don’t have anything to do. I’m writing this post to figure it out, I suppose, but that’s about it. And that’s okay. Kind of.
If you’ve been writing seriously for any length of time, you know what I’m talking about. It’s not procrastination. It’s not writer’s block. It’s figuring out which writing project is going to be the most enjoyable for me to work on over the next weeks and months. For me, it means choosing between the next draft of a novel I started in 2016 or starting a new first draft of a new novel (I have two ideas I’m considering, both of which need a little more thought in terms of how I’m going to tell their stories). But that’s part of the fun—figuring it out. For me, it’s like trying to draw up the architectural plans of a building (though I’m not talking about outlining here—that comes later). Do I want a skyscraper, like the Freedom Tower, or do I want a vast, land-consuming building like the Pentagon? That probably doesn’t make sense to you, but that’s okay—it does to me.
One of the novels I’m considering beginning is a sort of autobiographical novel that takes place in Miami in the 1980s and 1990s; the other is about a family that must make a tough decision (think Sophie’s Choice tough). My problem with the first one is that I don’t yet have the angle figured out, meaning what the main character wants, and the style is giving me trouble as well. The second deals more with point of view (I’ve decided it can’t be from the kid’s point of view, so I need to decide which adult’s point of view will be the most dramatically appropriate one to use for maximum effect).
These are big-picture issues for me, so I’m probably leaning toward revising that 2016 novel; it’s already been through quite a few drafts, so it’s about time I get back to it. The novel is somewhere around 125,000 words. Personally I don’t mind that length, but most editors (and my agent) prefer novels around 100,000 words. So I need to cut it down quite a bit before I’m done. And that, for me, means killing a few darlings and paring back a subplot (or two).
Now, obviously I have numerous projects I can just jump into, which is a nice problem to have, I know. I’ve been in worse positions over my writing career. I’ve sat there in front of a blank screen plenty of times, fiddling around. Trying to come up with a story. A character. Something! And beginning after beginning, nothing seems to catch. Nothing draws me in. For me, it’s always about two things: do I want to write a novel that I have to do research on, or do I already have enough knowledge on a particular subject to just get going once I pick the angle? Because of my work history and my background (I’ve traveled extensively around the world and the U.S.), I have enough material to write until I’m dead. But that’s not how my brain works. Don’t get me wrong—I have novels I’ve written (including THE LOSSES, my first published novel), that used just that—my past employment and my travel experiences. But I feel like I can do that all day. It’s not what excites me, at least not right now. And if something doesn’t excite me at a particular moment in time, that’s it. It’s dead in the water. When something strikes me about my past lives and experiences, the writing’ll come. Only then will I jump into that new project. That’s my process, and it’s worked for me. Your process may be different. In fact, it probably is—and that’s just fine. If it works, it works. As long as the writing gets done, you’re making progress.
But what if you don’t have a novel or two waiting for that next revision? What if you’re having trouble figuring out what to write about? Well, there’s plenty that you can do to get those creative juices going. While I don’t do all of these, I do do some of them, and they help. Maybe they’ll help you too. Here they are:
Do Some Research
Watch a movie, a documentary, some YouTube videos about it. Read a book or two. Interview someone that can be that go-to resource for you when you need it for a real-life situation in your novel or short story. What this does is it gives you the ability to “write what you know.” You need credibility in your work, whether it be what a cowboy wore in the 19th century, how a doctor would explain something to another doctor in a hospital scene, or what it’s like to be in a building that’s collapsing—meaning what you might feel, think, smell, hear, and so on. Research is key to getting the details right, and getting the details right is critical for good fiction.
Start an Outline
If you know what you want to write about but aren’t able to get going yet, start an outline. Figure out how the novel begins, and then ask yourself what comes next. I don’t normally outline (I’m a pantser), but for my next novel (which will be one of the two I mentioned above) I will. My brain is telling me that I need to for some reason, so that’s my plan. Outlining allows you to lay it all out before you begin writing. It let’s you work out the kinks of a plot instead of going back later and adding things in so that the almost-plot you wrote makes sense and is cohesive. At least a little more than if you hadn’t outlined. An outline also makes it easier to follow a certain structure, whether it be Freytag’s Pyramid, Save the Cat, or whatever structure you choose.
Write a Short Story
I don’t really write short stories anymore, but short stories can turn into novels sometimes, so why not give it a go? Who knows, you may even write a good enough short story that you’ll get it into publishing shape. Either way, short stories are less daunting than novel-length works, because you’re not as invested timewise. You can toss away a few pages of prose and not think too much about it. Throwing away a novel is much more heartbreaking. (I’ve never thrown away a novel—I just put it away permanently and think “how cute that I thought that that was going to be a novel.”) Anyway, a short story might get the creative juices going, so give it a shot if you’re stuck. One of your characters may catch your eye, and off you go.
Take a Course
This is basically the same thing I wrote about doing some research, but it’s a little more advanced and in-depth. I’ve always admired lawyers and doctors and scientists who’ve gone on to write novels. Their knowledge about their subject matter makes me jealous. Editors are always looking for something different, so maybe you take a course on Viticulture and Enology. Or Fermentation Sciences. Or on mastering the bagpipe, which Carnegie Mellon University actually has as one of its master’s offerings. Learning something firsthand is a great way to gather firsthand knowledge about something so you can write about it authoritatively. You can audit the class, so you don’t have to worry about tests and things of that nature—you can just sit there and learn and write something no one else has written about (have you ever read a novel about a bag pipe maker?)
Yep. I said it. Do. Nothing. Doing nothing gives your brain a rest. It allows you to regroup, to relax, to catch your breath. According to SCL Health, “When you turn off all distractions, it allows space for your subconscious to expand, ultimately boosting your creativity.” And that’s what fiction writing is all about—it’s about being creative. It’s about allowing yourself to create a world and characters who have wants and needs and the motivation to do things they should or shouldn’t do. Doing nothing doesn’t mean you’re not thinking—it just means you’re not actively “trying” to think about what to write about (even though you probably are, you just aren’t as acutely aware of it). If you’re like me, doing nothing doesn’t last too long, but that’s okay. The world won’t end if you take a day off. Or even a week. Do something you enjoy doing. Go for a run. A hike. Go on a trip. Watch shitty television shows. Whatever. But do nothing. You’ll be amazed how beautiful that blank sheet of paper or blank screen will look to you when you decide to return to the land of writing. And don’t worry, it’ll be waiting for you. I guarantee it.
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