R.J. (Rebecca) Anderson is a preacher’s daughter, a conference speaker, and the author of nine commercially published books for children and teens, including the beloved UK bestseller Knife (currently published in the US by Enclave), its companion Rebel (2016 Christy Award finalist) and the fantasy-mystery A Pocket Full of Murder (chosen one of the 2015 Top Ten Best Books for Children by the Canadian Library Association). Her ninth book, A Little Taste of Poison, will be published in September 2016.
Learn more about Rebecca and her writing at www.rj-anderson.com.
There are plenty of authors, including some highly successful ones, who insist there’s no such thing as writer’s block. All you have to do is keep at it, and the words will come. But if you’re anything like me, there are times when your motivation and even your ability to write comes to a grinding halt, and it feels like there’s no way out.
Maybe you’re writing what should be a pivotal and exciting part of the story, but can’t figure out what on earth your characters would do or say. Maybe you’re slogging through the Dreaded Middle of your book (or as I like to call it, the Slough of Despond) and feel like you’re fresh out of plot. Maybe your creative slump is so bad you can’t even write a decent sentence, and you’re starting to fantasize about quitting and running off to join the circus.
|Rebel by R.J. Anderson|
Yep, that’s me. So how do I fix it?
We all have bad writing days now and then. Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting in the hours no matter how dismal our efforts may seem, and praying for better results tomorrow. But sometimes the cause of our doldrums is much simpler and easier to fix than we imagine.
Because we’re not just minds and spirits. We’re bodies, too.
So if you’re having a terrible writing session (or day, or week, or month), and no matter how hard you try your brain just doesn’t seem to wanna, ask yourself: When was the last time you took a break?
Huh? I take breaks all the time. I’m taking one right now to read this blog!
I don’t mean the last time you checked e-mail or social media, or read an article online. How long has it been since you got up, stretched and walked around for a few minutes? Did you eat breakfast this morning, or a healthy lunch/supper, before you dived into writing? Did you get a good eight hours’ sleep last night, or did you stay up until 2 a.m. pawing blindly at your laptop like Keyboard Cat and panicking over the thought of missing your deadline?
Could it be that what seems like writer’s block — a mental condition — is more like writer’s blech — a physical one?
Maybe what you need isn’t more skill, or more self-discipline, or a better outline. Maybe what you need is a chance to rest and refresh your mind.
But I can’t stop! I have too much work to do!
When we’re desperate to meet our writing goals and frustrated by our lack of progress, it may seem counter-intuitive to stop working. After all, isn’t Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard the first rule of every professional writer's success? And if we’re behind schedule, isn’t it irresponsible not to work as hard as we can?
Even for the author whose deadlines are self-imposed, it can be tempting to drive yourself ruthlessly to get your latest manuscript finished, and/or prove to yourself that you’ve got what it takes to be a pro. Especially if you’ve got a full-time job, and only a few hours of precious writing time in the day…
But your creativity isn’t some kind of magical genie, or angel, that exists independent of your body. If you’re tired, or hungry, or stressed out by troubles at work or at home, it affects your mind as well — and that affects your writing. Studies have shown that the human brain can only focus for 90-120 minutes at a time before it tires and begins to wander. Getting away from the computer and doing something completely different (looking at your smartphone doesn’t count!) for 15-30 minutes every hour or two can reset your tired brain and make the difference between a single less-than-optimal writing session and a whole wasted, wearisome day.
It’s also likely to make you happier and more productive. If the writing’s not going well, you can always look forward to your upcoming break. And knowing that you’ve got a limited amount of time for each session can boost your concentration and your writing speed, as well.
What if I get on a roll, though? If I stop I’ll lose my momentum!
It may seem that way, but if you don’t get enough rest your judgment suffers, and you can end up making choices you’ll regret. In my contemporary YA fantasy Rebel, a finalist in this year’s Christy Awards, my protagonists Timothy and Linden are caught up in a desperate cross-country chase with a horde of ruthless faeries after them. Timothy’s injured, exhausted and starving, and soon his physical weakness spills over into an argument with Linden that nearly tears their friendship apart — and has some serious consequences later on.
Pushing characters to the breaking point makes for dramatic fiction. But it’s also a reminder that bad things happen when we’re too scared, stubborn or weak in faith to slow down and take the rest our bodies need.
If you’re used to writing for hours on end, pausing only to visit the bathroom or take another swig of coffee, stopping work every 60 to 90 minutes may feel strange and even scary. When you’re worried about meeting your deadline, it seems like a crazy leap of faith to take your fingers off the keyboard and walk away.
But it could also be the healthiest choice for your writing. Who knows, you might just find that what you thought was writers’ block was really just blech after all.
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