I’ve been dragging my feet about this update for days because this has been the first month all year that I can’t say I’ve finished another chapter of my manuscript. In my last update, I talked about how much work I put into (and success I had with) chapter 5, but a month later I’m still only in the middle of chapter 6.
I could list excuses: my seasonal job kept me insanely busy at the end of May, my chapters are long (10,000 words or more each, only 9 chapters total), I put so much effort into finishing chapter 5 quickly that I was in a bit of a slump in the aftermath. But the important thing is that I still made progress, even if it was slower this month. I kept trying, and I think I’ve finally pushed through to productive mode again.
When I opened chapter 6 right after my last update, there were only 2,000 words in the chapter– only 1/5th of my target number. But I did add 5,000 more words that were tucked away in a file of scenes I wrote without knowing where exactly they would fit into my manuscript. But they needed heavy revisions and editing. So that’s what I’ve been working on this month. I’m currently at 8,400 words, and I’ve revised and edited my way through 14 pages of what will probably end up being about 32 pages.
But some good, encouraging things have been happening lately. First, I read Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year, a recent sci-fi release that has almost nothing in common with my manuscript and was only a 3-star read for me but proved very helpful anyway. The Oracle Year follows a similar sort of structure as my manuscript, and it uses the same concept of a single weird phenomenon being introduced into the real world. So it was great to see in someone else’s writing which aspects worked for me (or didn’t) as a reader, since it’s so hard to be objective about some of the technical/mechanical aspects of my own writing. I know people say you should read a lot of the genre you write in, and I don’t exactly do that. I just read a lot of anything that catches my eye. But this one was particularly educational, and I came back to my manuscript feeling like I had new ideas to apply.
Second, I cheated on my writing plan. I was supposed to be using 2018 to work through my manuscript in chronological order– my work on it in 2017 was all over the place, so even though I was close to a full draft it basically looked like Swiss cheese and the parts didn’t all mesh together. It’s been nice having a lot of the structure and plot already in place, but I was so afraid that if I looked at anything other than the chapter I was in I would get derailed again. But in my slump, I looked ahead. It turns out chapter 7 already has over 10,000 words in it, and I like the plot in there a lot. Some revising/editing will be required, and now that the first 6 chapters are (almost) completely in place I know of a few more details I’m going to want to add. But working from a starting point of 10,000 words sure beats the 2,000 I started with in chapter 6, so I feel less daunted about the last 3 chapters now. When I started struggling so much with 6, I was really afraid that 7, 8, and 9 would be just as hard, which didn’t exactly motivate me to reach them. But now I know that 7 should be easier, and more fun. I want to get there.
On a related note, one thing that often happens when I get into a slump is that I think all of my writing is bad. Writers sometimes talk about “killing their darlings,” how hard it can be having to cut out parts of the writing that they’re proud of; I have the opposite problem. Especially when I’m in a slump, I can look back at something that I thought was good, and cheerfully destroy two thirds of it. I wonder why I’m trying to write at all, when clearly I’m terrible at it and will never be able to convey what I want to in any appreciable way. (We’re hardest on ourselves, right?) But after I cheated and looked ahead at chapter 7, I cheated again and reread a lot of chapters 1-3. And surprisingly, I didn’t hate them. I really liked them, in fact. I’ve been working so hard on every individual chapter this year, going through sentence by sentence, and not moving on until every word feels right. When I was stuck in that one section of chapter 6, going over the same 2 pages again and again and still not finding the right balance of the original idea and the new information I needed to combine, it was harder to see the bigger picture. But when I went back to reread some of the scenes I knew I had really liked, I remembered why I was being so stubborn about the details– because in the end, it was paying off. There were still a few word choices I’d like to go back and change once I have a complete draft, but for the most part I’m still really pleased with the work I’ve done this year, and reminding myself of that made soldiering on through this tough spot more tolerable.
Third, I just kept opening up section 6, day after day, even when I knew I was going to get nowhere with it. I had to look at it. I had to keep it in my mind, so that I would be ready for the ideas to start flowing again at any time. And in the last few days, that persistence has been turning into progress. I finally made some sense out of that 2-page section I’ve been stuck on for weeks, and I’m excited about the next sections of the chapter. That one section went really slowly, but even the days when I had only edited a couple of sentences after hours of work added up, and I did finally make it through. Sometimes working on a scene I’m feeling uninspired about can backfire, but I was patient this time. I didn’t let myself settle for having words on the page even if they weren’t the right words.
This has been a long update already, especially for having only “completed” half a chapter this month. But you know what’s better than reading success stories? Reading about other people’s struggles. Sometimes you don’t meet your deadlines. Sometimes you have a lot of work to do and you take a nap instead. Even the writers you idolize have rejection letters and unfinished projects. Bad days (or months) are part of the process. Today, I’m feeling a little better about where I stand than I did for most of this month, but I wanted to admit that I’ve been working on the same 2 pages of my manuscript for probably 3 weeks now. My go-to slump-crushers weren’t working (taking a walk, reading something inspiring, opening a new document and writing something non-manuscript related just to get some words flowing again). But I’ve survived and the world marches on. I’m still confident that I’ll finish this project eventually, and some days I’m even pretty confident that it’s publishable. (Though that’s a whole other fear not worth going into today.)
I’m ending this update with no particular plans or expectations– I have no idea how far I will get in the next month, or how much longer it will take me to finish section 6 much less reach the end of the draft. But that’s okay. I’m still trying.
What do you do with writer’s block?
The Literary Elephant