Hitting the Wall - A Survival Toolkit

Everything was fine until it wasn't.

I'd been cruising along, working steadily, writing 1500-2000 words a day. I was motivated, focused, and enthusiastic about my work. Over the course of two years, I'd written three full-length books (the Bodyguard series), three novellas (the Graysons series), and had co-written another three full-length books (the Blood and Glory series). I was consistently filling pages with words, my work was winning awards and receiving good reviews, and I thought everything was fine, until suddenly...I had nothing but blank pages. My motivation disappeared. My focus turned to fog. My enthusiasm dried up like a raisin in the sun.

I wasn't blocked. I knew what I was supposed to be writing--I had characters, and an outline, even a soundtrack for my work-in-progress. No, the blank pages were because I'd hit a wall. I was tired. Worn down. My books weren't selling well. I'd been dealing with a lot of stress--from my day job, from writing and, more specifically, publishing, and from some pretty heavy stuff going on in my personal life. But I'd thought that as long as I kept writing, I'd be fine. Everything was fine.

SPLAT. Like a fly into a windshield, suddenly I was at a complete standstill. I didn't care about the book I was working on. Even getting a page of new words was excruciating. In darker moments, I didn't even care about my career. Hitting the wall had thrown me into an unshakeable funk. But I had a deadline approaching, and I knew I needed to come up with a strategy that would help me get my ass in gear. So, I turned to my agent sisters to ask them for advice. How did they cope with non-existent motivation? How did they overcome flagging enthusiasm?

And let me tell you, I was so glad I asked, because their answers gave me the foundation for the survival toolkit I've implemented (more about that in a bit). Here's what they had to say (with small edits for clarity):

April Hunt: Sometimes I've found just avoiding it [the manuscript] for a week helps. Sometimes binge-reading everything in sight. But I don't think there's any real way to avoid it [burn out]. It's inevitable and happens to the best. A group of us check in with one another at night, and when we're sitting down to work, we DM [each] other and keep each other moving through the night. We sometimes help each other when we get stuck.

Bronwen Evans: What I found was I went back to reading instead of writing for a while, and found my love of the genre once more by reading my favourite authors and rereading my keepers shelf! I hope you find your joy soon and remember this industry is hard and we have to be tough if this really is your passion! You have to find a way to balance work and writing OR do not get hard on yourself. Set realistic targets and publishing dates. If 1500 words a day is a struggle (and I only have that target without a full time job) lower it to 500 words a day. Make it realistic or you'll stress and nothing kills the joy or creativity like stress. The guilt [of being late on a book] stifled my creativity, I kept panicking because it was late then couldn't write. We need to be KIND to ourselves.

Sally Kilpatrick: Okay, so here's what I did: I made a deadline before my deadline and I set a daily word count. If I got behind then I had to figure out how to make word count for the week. But that's how I work: I need a deadline and then smaller manageable goals like 2k a day. Full disclosure: I got behind and ended up with 4K/day at one point. I don't recommend anything over 3 if you can help it. Do you have specific rituals [to get ready to write]? I don't recommend this, but I had Dr Pepper, Chips Ahoy, and the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack to get me through my last book because it reminded me of writing in high school and made it more fun than job. Healthy suggestions are a specific essential oil--I hear citrus helps you stay alert, a specific song, decaf tea--anything that becomes part of a routine/ritual.

Rachel Lacey: Sometimes, I just have to take a night (or nights) off when I'm just useless for writing. Sometimes, I work on promo on those nights, or I might just read or watch TV. I give myself weekly word counts (10k/week is my usual) so that I can have more productive days and less productive ones. Also, I do feel like having someone online to check-in with when I'm writing is helpful.

Heather Heyford: It always helps me to read an author who inspired you early on (or your most recent favorite). Or buy or reread a favorite craft book. The other thing I do is free-write my feelings down in a doc. Whenever I feel down I reread it/add to it/edit it.

Annie Rains: Sometimes I will free write something that's different, that I'll never publish (or will). Reading inspires me. Workshops inspire me. Talking to my writer friends always helps. When I'm not feeling it though, I still try to do a little something so I feel productive. Write something that makes you happy.

Gina Conkle: 1) Make your writing time about stories you love. We get caught up in the business (ie. must post on social media, must send a newsletter, must join that group blog, must do that blog post, must...must...must). In all that noise, we forget what inspired us in the first place--telling stories. I made a list of the stories I want to write and I'm working my way through it. I'm a firm believer your passion shows in your words and likewise so does malaise.

2) I listened to Deep Work on audio book. The author reminded of the trance-like happy place I was in writing two of my early books. Now I protect that writing time and my word count has soared (I had a 7K day last Monday and 4K the day before). I discovered I work best in "deep bursts" (what that means is I have days where I put in a regular word count such as 500 - 1800 words but then I have a stretch of those phenomenal days). I also know I write in layers. It all comes down to understanding how you work best.

3) You have to take care of yourself. I'll say "when I get to this point, I'll have a facial" or I'll feed myself smoothies and juice b/c junk food is a short fix that weighs you down. I bought flowers for myself (well, tulip bulbs this last time). You know what feeds your soul. When you're running on empty, it's hard to produce words or give/take care of others.

Nicole McLaughlin: I recommend [the book] Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and the podcast to go along with it.

Mia Sosa: More likely than not social media (and being on the internet generally) isn't helping you to stay motivated. I spend way too much time checking my numbers, checking for reviews, analyzing what other authors are doing, second-guessing the decisions I've made, agonizing over the state of the world, and so on and so on. It's draining, and it in no way helps me to finish the book. I can't say this will work, but I've decided that until I turn in the book, I'm going to alter my social media presence to fit my writing schedule rather than the other way around. Social media sites will still be here when I turn in this book, so I'm going to focus on the thing that brings me the most joy--writing. Now might be a time to sign up for Hootsuite if you don't have it already.

It may be hard to believe this right now, but your work matters, and there are readers who want to read your books. To remind me of this, I'm creating an inspiration board that includes reader emails, motivational quotes, a few tweets from writing friends that brought me joy, one or two positive reviews, and the first line of each of my books. I'm not doing this because I think I'm fabulous and want to swim in my greatness. No, I'm doing this because I'm often crippled by self-doubt and I need those things to counteract the negative thoughts in my head. When I'm feeling down, I'll stare at that board for a few minutes. I hope it'll help me to press ahead. [If you make one for yourself] I suspect even the process of putting it together would help you recapture some of the excitement you once had for the book.

Asa Maria Bradley: I learned that things like grief, self-doubt, and burn-out cannot be conquered by my regular "mind over matter" attitude. I'm still struggling, but found that things like positivity journaling, shutting out the news, exercising, and allowing myself to binge read and binge TV watch works.

With the help of a close writer friend I also examined what outside of my writing life steals my creative energy and inspiration. Mostly it was things in my day job. I made a list of things about my day job that inspire me even if they are time consuming and require hard work. And things that I put a lot of effort into but never feel like I reap any rewards from. And then my friend gave me permission to remove myself as much as possible from the items on the list that drain my energy but give nothing back in terms of inspiration or motivation. Once I saw those things on paper and very symbolically scratched them out, it was easier to work on boundaries at work and not let the day job steal my writing time and/or energy.

It sounds so easy now, but it was emotionally hard for me to set boundaries where I'm only available for people from work during certain times during the week. I took my work email application off my phone and only check email on my work computer. I resigned from several committees that were great for me politically but accomplished nothing and were time suckers. I don't get caught up in drama and gossip. And I try very hard to not let the words and actions of others get to me. Don't let anyone or anything (including negative thoughts) steal your light. Nurture yourself and believe in your brilliance!

Phew.

As I read the responses--all thoughtful, all empathetic, all full of useful, helpful advice--I could feel a strategy emerging. I could see patterns in the suggestions, and even better, as I read, I could feel my funk starting to lift. My writer brain wasn’t broken. Reading what all of these other talented authors had to say made me feel like I, too, could get through this. They’d struggled with the same thing—lack of energy, and feeling depleted, emotionally and creatively.

And so with all of these ideas swirling around my brain, I sat down and did one of my favorite things: I made a list. I think it's a pretty good one, and so I'm sharing it with you.

Burnout Survival Toolkit

  1. Take a break. We put so much pressure on ourselves to produce and keep grinding, but sometimes this is the opposite of what we need--mentally and emotionally. If you need a night off, take a night off. The manuscript will still be there tomorrow.
  2. Read. Fill your creative well with old favorites and new discoveries. Read fiction. Read books on writing. Give yourself permission to fall back in love with the written word.
  3. Binge watch TV. Immersing yourself in another world is fantastic stress relief, and sometimes giving your brain a break is what it takes to get things flowing again.
  4. Have other writers to check in with while you're working. A little motivation can go a long way.
  5. Set attainable goals, whether it's revising your daily word count to something more manageable, committing to writing for a set amount of focused time every day, or writing a certain number of days per week. Reward yourself when you hit milestones--a small treat every 10K words, a bigger treat at the half way and ending points. As Donna Meagle would say, treat yo'self.
  6. Practice self-care. Eat well, get proper sleep, spend time outdoors, exercise, take breaks, and be kind to yourself.
  7. Create positive rituals around writing to help your mind get into the proper headspace. Use all the senses--burn a scented candle, have a cup of tea, wrap yourself in your favorite blanket, listen to your book's soundtrack, etc.
  8. Write something else. Instead of forcing things on your work-in-progress, give yourself permission to write a few pages in a project that's just for you, or take some time to journal.
  9. Step away from social media. It's not conducive to productivity and can steal a lot of joy and energy.
  10. Treat your writing time as something sacred. Protect it fiercely, and figure out what drains your creative energy and (if you can) take those things off your plate.
  11. Create an inspiration board to help you remember and reflect on the joy that writing brings.
  12. Reach out to other writers for support and encouragement. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but you're not alone.

Now when I'm feeling like that bug on a windshield, I turn to these tools. I'm learning to cut myself some slack, set more reasonable goals, and rediscover the joy of storytelling--the joy that made me want to write in the first place. I thought I'd lost it, but thanks to the advice I received, I've realized that it's still there.

It just needed a little breathing room.