Most writers suffer from a creative breakdown at some point or another, and many would-be authors are derailed entirely by these problems. Life intrudes on writing time, or distractions make the project drag out, sapping the energy and drive of the writer. Without a plan, writing starts to take a backseat to things that are more urgent, or easier to accomplish. The writer’s mind begins to seek out time-sinks, making excuses as to why they aren’t writing.
The key to preventing this from happening to your writing is having a plan. Not every writer’s plan will be the same, just as not every writer feeds on words in the same way, but every successful writer will have a plan. In a very broad sense, this plan will have four key parts: ideas, focus, goals, and a schedule.
This is usually the easiest part of the plan to think you have under control, when it’s actually in control of you. Writers are creative people, which makes sense considering they create whole worlds within their books, but too many creative people are led around by their ideas rather than owning them.
Take, for example, the following situations. You’re listening to music, the lyrics are pulling at you, and suddenly there are scenes flashing through your mind about a story that expands on the song. You’re sitting in front of a painting, the figures frozen in a single moment, and your mind begins to fill in the background of the scene. You’re weeding the garden and wishing your life was more exciting, your mind starts imagining all the different things that could happen to make the current situation more than the dull chore it is.
These are all ideas, and they come to a creative person effortlessly. They are all the basis for a potentially amazing story. At what point do they stop being your ideas and start owning you? When they start becoming the end of the creative process instead of the beginning. When you become buried in them.
Brainstorming is an important first step in any creative endeavor, but there’s always a time when the idea generator has to be set aside and the detail work begins. If you allow yourself to be completely open to incoming ideas while you’re working on a project, it’s easy to get sidetracked and have your focus shifted to another project. By all means, jot down any ideas that come across, but then set them aside to be pursued at a later time, and stay centered on the work at hand. Which brings us to the next part of the plan.
This can be the hardest part of writing. In today’s world there are so many things to distract us, and a writer often works in the very heart of distraction: the computer.
Many successful authors will tell you that the only way to prevent these distractions is to get rid of them entirely. Even though they work on a computer, they turn off anything that could distract them. They don’t open internet browsers, they don’t sign into social media, and they don’t play games on the computer when they get stuck. Some authors will go so far as to remove the access to these things from the computer entirely, reserving a separate machine for their writing so there is no chance of temptation. There is no shame in resorting to such drastic measures if that’s what it takes to get the job done.
Sometimes the problem isn’t avoiding temptation, so much as avoiding burnout. Focusing on one thing for an extended period can cause your mind to wander more the longer you try to force it into line. It’s important to step away from things periodically and let your brain reset. Even the greatest author can be reduced to a blubbering jelly bean after a marathon of writing. Step away from the words and do something refreshing to you. Get up and move around. You will return to the work with more focus after the break.
Some authors have to trick themselves into staying focused. This brings us to the third part of the plan.
A book can be a very daunting project at the beginning. Some books take years to write, and are hundreds of pages long. It can seem like a literary mountain that needs climbed, but even climbing a mountain can be broken into a series of steps. Set small goals for yourself, to keep focused and to keep moving forward, and to give yourself a sense of accomplishment along the way.
A common goal among authors is to set a word-count or page-count for each day. It’s never a bad thing to exceed your goals, and you may write an entire chapter in a single day instead of the three pages you set as your goal. That’s great! There will also be bad days where you have to force those three pages out of your tired and uncooperative brain, and feel exhausted and unsatisfied with the results. The important thing is that you wrote them, and eventually those three or more pages per day will result in a completed book.
There is also bribery. If you have to promise yourself an hour of television before bed if you finish the next chapter, and it will actually make you finish the next chapter, by all means bribe away. If you let yourself go out to eat for a celebratory dinner after every 100 pages you write, bon appetit. I’ve even known authors that deny themselves things they enjoy until they meet their goals. And of course, what are goals without structure?
If there is no deadline for a goal, then the goal loses some of its importance. If you need a set “writing time” everyday in order to make yourself sit down and do it, then go ahead and pen it on the calendar. Many writers can get away with saying they will have a certain thing done by a certain time. It doesn’t have to be pages/words per day. It might be a chapter per week. Be wary, however, of procrastination. You don’t want to be sitting on Sunday with an entire chapter left to write.
Remember, too, that schedules can have some flexibility. If you want to work writing into an already busy schedule, block out chunks of dedicated time that flow around your normal workday. Schedule time when your favorite coffee shop is open and you can borrow a comfortable corner to get your writing done.
If you want your story done by a certain day, work backwards from that day to find out what you need to get done each day or each week. Don’t forget to leave time for editing. Eventually, you will hit your deadlines.
Some writers don’t care if they ever finish their book, the joy of putting words on the screen is enough for them. Maybe writing will never be more than a personal hobby for you. That’s ok.
Some writers intend to publish, and would like to be successful. Those writers need to have a plan, and they need to see their writing for what it really is… a labor of love. It’s work, and hard work at that. Work needs structure, and deadlines, and a plan.
Every writer will approach their craft differently, so you’ll need to come up with your own plan, but when you do it’ll help you become a better writer. When you see your first book on the shelf, or the app store, or your website, all the hard work will be worth it. So make yourself a plan, and keep on writing.