You’d think I’d know everything about this subject—after all, I’ve been in the grip of writers block for well over a decade. There are many moments when I stare blankly at the screen wondering if the next word should be and, if or but.
What happened, you ask? What happened to the RITA-nominated, best-selling, award-winning Sue Swift that pushed her into becoming Suz deMello, hesitant yet subversive erotica novelist?
When I first started writing, it seemed as though the words spilled out in an unstoppable flow. I’d get up at two am and write until four. On weekends, I was a river of words—good ones, too—beautiful phrases, sexy love scenes, deeply felt emotion, witty banter.
A series of life setbacks ensued: dead and dying family members, a marriage gone south, an editor who hated my work. This is one of the pitfalls of being with a publisher—people come and go, shift jobs and so on, and then you’re suddenly with an editor who didn’t acquire you initially and who really doesn’t like your writing.
And so I found myself orphaned at Harlequin/Silhouette, which in the best of times can be a very challenging work environment. I bounced around for a while, selling old manuscripts to Five Star for the hard-cover library market until they stopped buying romances. Then I languished. And anguished.
So, while I know a great deal about writers block, I’m not sure how to even spell the words. Is it writers, writer’s or writers’?? (Oh, those pesky apostrophes!)
But here are a few approaches that work, at least for me:
Paradoxically: stop trying. Yes, I actually mean stop writing. Instead, do something else that exercises your creativity. My favorite is refinishing old furniture. I’m moving back into my condo, where a tenant’s been living while I cared for my elderly mother. She’s with my brother now, so I can resume my life, and I’m looking forward to that. But there are a lot of built-ins in this home, including a huge dresser, where about a third of my clothes have been residing. And I gave my now ex-boyfriend the storage I’d been using—which itself had been a rescue-and-refinish item. So I get to do the same thing all over again. Yay!
I love the process of finding the right piece, deciding what colors to paint it, discovering the perfect drawer pulls. But you have to have the temperament for this. You have to love wandering around thrift shops and hardware stores. I happen to, so I’m good.
But do whatever tickles your fancy. Maybe you’ve always loved stained glass but never had the cojones to try that. Find a local class and give it a whirl. Try Paint Nite—in many cities, there’s an organization that sets these up in local bars. A team has already provided the materials you need, and an instructor walks everyone through painting a preconceived work. It’s a step up from paint-by-numbers, and because there’s alcohol involved, it’s fun, especially with a friend.
Another tactic is to go back to the original wellspring. For me, it’s Regency romance and Gothics, which were the only romances I’d read before I started writing. I was hooked on Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt, which explains a lot about the stories I write.
Being blocked as well as hella busy with life, I’m not writing right now but am moving, contemplating the dresser I want to find and refinish, and yes, reading a lot of Regency romance.
So the trick is to make this fallow period in your creative life a productive and fun time rather than wallowing in depression.
Another tactic is to shift your writing focus. Write something you’ve never
before, but has intrigued you nevertheless. When I found myself at a standstill
with Harlequin/Silhouette, where I wrote sweet romances, my friends persuaded
me to write erotic romance for the burgeoning online market. So I wrote my
first erotic romance novel, recently republished as Phoenix and Dragon. I haven’t made as much money as I would have if
I’d persisted at H/S, but I’m much happier.
But what do you do when you’ve found an idea that sparks you, but it’s sooooo hard to write even a word?
Tactic number three: best to use when you’ve managed to get yourself immersed in a project: don’t allow yourself to do anything on your weekend until you’ve written a chapter. It doesn’t have to be a great chapter. (It should, however, be decently long, at least 5000 words.) Even if it sucks, you have spare moments during the week to make repairs. As Nora Roberts famously said (paraphrasing here): “I can fix a bad page, but not a blank one.”
I remember when I was living in China and teaching toddlers English as my day job. On Saturday I’d get up and stay in my PJs until I’d written a chapter of Temptation in Tartan. Sometimes I didn’t get out of my apartment until 2 pm! But it turned out to be a damned good book.
Read it yourself and find out:
And in the meantime, don’t stress about it. Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert told us in Dune. Stress will block you as surely as a big rig overturning during rush hour.
BTW there's hope: since I found myself blocked, I've written far more than I did before that awful time. I'd written maybe eight books and a couple of short stories. To date, I've written ten more novels and too many short stories and blogs to count.
So don't worry. You can push through this.
Good luck and happy writing!