I was asked about making a new start in writing, when you’ve taken a break – voluntary or not.
You still want to write. You still have ideas. You are still really a writer, but something happened to break the daily habit of sitting at the keyboard and pounding out words.
That is an habit, and one that has to be built and enforced. I found this early, even before I had kids or cats.
While I’m not one of those writers who enjoys having written, but not the process of writing – I could never write as fast as I do if I didn’t have fun doing it – writing doesn’t always go smoothly, particularly in the beginning, when it’s all guess work. You know just enough to know you’re screwing up, but not enough to know how to fix it, and you get frustrated and wander off to bake carrot cake (this figured heavily in my newlywed days, because my husband likes carrot cake, so it got me instant reward.) Then you remember that the kitchen floor should be scrubbed. Oh, and did you ever send a thank you note to aunt Emma? And what about that trivet you were knitting? And next thing you know, not just a day but a week or a month has slid by, your story remains undone and stuck, and you haven’t learned enough to get past the hump that sent you baking carrot cake instead of writing.
I refer to this process as rotating the cat. You’re doing stuff, but after a while it’s not stuff that needs to be done, or that anyone will notice. You’ve just fallen into a routine of doing little stuff.
I spent years like this. When I say it took me almost sixteen years to really break in, it’s hard to contemplate how many of those years were like this. Oh, when I broke in I had sixty short stories and eight novels fully written, plus any number of fits and starts – so I got stuff done… but not nearly as much as I could have.
Of course in those years, a lot of it was through my being discouraged. I thought I’d never get published, and after all what I did for the family counted for a lot more, right? If these words were never to be read? And there’s some explanation, too. For six years of that time, I was going through infertility treatment. Those of you who’ve done this, know what havoc it can play with your hormones, which in turn make concentration something that happens to other people. I was pregnant for eighteen more of those months – nineteen, really, younger boy was almost a month late. And with the first pregnancy, I had pre-eclampsia, which meant that I couldn’t do much. My wonderful husband bought me my first laptop then (yes, it was massive) but sitting up sent me to the hospital, and while something like a netbook, now, might allow me to work, working reclined wasn’t possible. Also, embroidery sent me to the hospital once. It was too exciting for me. And I had toddlers in the house for almost six years straight.
But explanations aren’t excuses. Yes, I spent years when the only work that could get done had to get done when the boys were napping. And years fitting in my writing time in the two hours the younger kid went to pre-school. That’s fine. But there were still weeks, months, and at least a couple of years of rotating the cat.
And then I figured out what was happening. The cycle went something like this: something happened to drive me away from writing – hitting a snag on a novel, or sixty rejections in one day, or… something – and I got into a cycle of rotating the cat. That broke the habit of writing every day. Then I got in this weird process akin to insomnia, when you want to sleep but your eyes remain stubbornly open.
It’s not that you lack inspiration. You really want to write. You have the story idea. The words even run through your mind. You just can’t sit down and do it. The debris that flowed in to fill your day while you were mute is now everywhere and you don’t have the time to write. Or the mental space. Or if you have both, you just can’t sit that long and just type.
You’ve lost the habit. And habit is a great part of any daily routine.
Now, what always happened to me is that one of the “door blowers” – one of those ideas/inspirations that blow the doors off everything else and MAKE me write them – would come along, grab me by the hair and MAKE me work, and by the end of it, I had the habit again.
I’m sure this happens to a lot of people, but it’s an unreliable process. Door-blowers, at least for me, come around once every three or four years, not every time something breaks my habit. So I had to learn to get around it without the Door-blowers. You have to, if you’re going to have a career in writing. Unless you’re a big name and the publishers love you, you can’t do a book every three to five years and sustain a career. I doubt you can do it in indie, even. People will forget your name. They won’t look for you. (Heck, for various reasons, I’m pushing this with Darkships, which is why I need to start promoting again before Darkship Renegades comes out.)
The best thing is not to break the habit. You know what they say about the best. You can’t always have it. Even I still break the habit regularly. Take the last two months (please.) Between kid’s graduation, wildfires, illness, I’ve written cold nothing.
The problem is that – writing four different series, etc. and dealing with the house, and being everyone’s scheduler in chief – my best days were completely packed, even without adding in the indie publishing stuff with its extra duties. THEN add in an “emergency” or anything unusual – like transitioning a kid to college – and one of the balls has to drop and, out of long habit and also because it’s the most susceptible to my state of mind, that’s usually the writing ball.
So, let’s suppose the same happened to you and you’re out of the habit of writing. How do you get back into it?
I have several tricks, but in the end there’s only one thing that works: brute force. You have to make yourself get into the habit again. I sometimes feel like I’m two people: one a truant kid and the other a stern mother. The mother chases the kid all over until finally she makes her sit down and write.
Yeah, you’re going to have to force yourself. You’re going to have to block out a time and a place and set yourself a goal. “From eight to noon I write, no matter if the roof falls on me, or how many times I’m interrupted.” Or “I’m going to write two thousand words, no matter how bad they are.” And then you stick to it.
If you’re whining that you don’t have enough will power – no one does. You have to grow it. Failing once is not an excuse to continue failing. You have to keep on it.
On the other hand, there are some tricks. Not many, and they all still require will power, but some:
1 – set a time and a place and do your writing there, ALL the time. Habit can work FOR you as well as against. Make that a place where you don’t do anything else: no games, no reading the news (my own bete noir), no household accounting. Set up a desk or a corner or even part of the rarely used dining room table for WRITING ONLY and every day at 2 or 3 or whatever, sit there and write for two hours. (At least when forming the habit, try not to take more than one day off on the weekend.)
2 – If at first your fail – don’t absolve yourself from doing it. Do it tomorrow.
3 – Reward yourself. My reward for finishing a novel – regardless of whether it sells – is a handblown glass float/witchball. Which is why a galaxy of them hangs from my celing at my office. They were on my “if we have enough time” evac list. I.e. after cats, documents and computers were in the car, if I had ten minutes, come in and save the glass floats by throwing them into a box. (They’re sturdier than it sounds.) But I know writers whose reward is another song or CD, or a day off in their favorite area, or even going out to dinner. (THAT depends on what your metabolism is, of course.) I know one writer who rewards himself with a single malt. Just make it something really special – after you finish a short or a novel, or whatever.
4 – if you’ve tried all this and nothing is working, break your current routine. The problem is not that you don’t have a routine, but that you have a BAD routine. I’ve been known to go to a hotel for three our four days and just write. That usually means when I come back home I can write again. If that’s not possible, due to money or time constraints, just REALLY break your routine. Take a laptop to a nearby park. Start waking up at three in the morning to write. Just do something your internal clock isn’t expecting. (Nobody expects the sneaky writer!)
Depending on how long the habit has been broken, it might take you a while to get it back on. As with horse riding (which I’ve never done, but I hear this) it’s best if you get RIGHT back on again and try not to fall of.