Novel Writing 101: Keeping it Real – Writing When It’s Hard

There’s an old adage we writers love to toss around–“You can’t edit a blank page.” The idea, of course, is that if you want to have something to shape into a book, you have to sit down and write it first. Last week we talked about 5 tips for getting that first draft written; today we’re going to dig a little deeper into what to do when things get hard.

The real question is, how does a writer stay the course, and stick to the process, when they don’t feel like it? Most of us know the rush of excitement that comes with a new project (you know, when you can’t wait to get home from work so you can finally write), where the ideas or words just keep flowing in a nearly overwhelming deluge. But then there are those other times–where we’ve got nothing but a desiccated creative well, and putting down any word becomes a monumental challenge. Stress about deadlines or our own sense of guilt over minimal progress can make things even worse.

I find myself in an in-between place right now–excited about my work, but literally uncomfortable almost every time I sit down to write. That would be because of precious baby #4, who is about 4 weeks away from joining us in the world. He likes to spend his spare time cramming his feet up into my diaphragm, kicking my internal organs, preventing me from bending over, and waking me up as often as possible in the night. And worst of all, my favorite go-to writing and comfort beverage–a steaming cup of tea–now gives me dreadful heartburn and tastes bad. (Honestly, I know I’m getting philosophical here, but I think God is stripping away my last vestiges of creature comfort to prepare me for the total life takeover of the newborn stage.)

Now, I’m not generally one for complaining–it doesn’t improve anything and only drags other people down–but I feel it’s important to point out that, if we want to accomplish our goals in life, there are times we’ll have to work through discomfort. In my case, even less productive days are looming ahead. This time right now, while not as easy as I’d like, is still a precious gift and one I don’t want to waste.

So what are my tips for making the most of it?

  1. Be realistic – Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away. And acknowledging that you’re going through difficult circumstances isn’t the same thing as complaining. Physical and emotional limitations and external circumstances will chip away at our ability to write. It’s important to assess your current limitations, and to look at how you can realistically carve out work time within those limits. Remember, this too shall pass.
  2. Prioritize – Create a list of all your writing-related tasks, including any hard deadlines, and then evaluate what’s most important to accomplish right now. It’s easier to decide how to best use your time if you know what needs to be done. I’ve got several things on my list, from finishing a first draft to updating this blog to editing The Cursed Ones. Because I think editing will be somewhat easier than drafting on limited sleep, I’m prioritizing the first draft now and saving the editing for after the baby is born. I’ll also be working on finishing the outline for my next fantasy WIP, so that it will be ready to write once my brain is back in working order.
  3. Make your time work for you – You know what time you have available, and you know what you want to accomplish. Can you align your priorities more effectively with your time? In my case, my available work time comes in various segments. Knowing myself, I need at least 30 solid, uninterrupted minutes with my laptop to get anything decent written on a draft. So I save my drafting for times when the kids are fully occupied or asleep. If I’m away from my laptop (say, at the playground or piano lessons), I’ll bring a notebook and make notes for the next scene I need to write, my next blog post, or an outline for a future WIP. And if I know I’ll be interrupted frequently, I try to work on something that doesn’t require as much concentration, like writing a backcover blurb, light editing, or jotting down research questions. Save the tasks that require more time and brainpower for when you know you’ll have it; otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for frustration.
  4. Just do it (thanks, Nike) – I’ve assessed, I’ve prioritized, I’ve made the tough decisions. Now, there’s only one thing left. I have to actually do it. As in, bottom in chair, laptop or notebook out, fingers writing. Whether I feel like it or not. Some days, my hour of available writing time might only produce one page. Some days, even less, if I’m so tired I can barely concentrate. But either way, the work is getting done. And there will be days that surprise me, too, where I crank out 4 or 5 pages without even realizing it and still want to keep going. The key is to make regular writing (as in daily or almost daily) a habit. Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, and every step, no matter how tiny, pushes you closer to the goal.


I’d like to close with one of my favorite Bible verses, which I think applies perfectly to our journey as writers:

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14

So keep your eyes on the goal and don’t give up, and one day we’ll hold our prize–a finished book–in our hands. Until then, enjoy the journey!


Image credit: CC0 License.

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