Embrace the Suck and Write
How to write when you don’t feel like it
There comes a time in every writer’s life, and in every writer’s project, where the writing sucks. I don’t mean the actual written words themselves. I mean that writing feels like slogging through mud on a humid day. The words aren’t coming out as free flowing as it used to. Your brain is tired from having to think so damn much and just wants your characters to shut up!
For me, this happens every time I reach 25,000 words in my novel. The reality of just how far I still have left sets in, doubt creeps in, and a little tiny demon voice whispers, “You’re not a good writer, so just quit already.” Every. Damn. Time.
In a way, being a writer is a lot like being an endurance athlete. You have to do the thing even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to.
Endurance athletes go through a lot to get to the finish line. They train for weeks, months, even years just for one shot at glory, so they know a thing or two about suffering. In their book The Brave Athlete, Simon Marshall, PhD, and Lesley Paterson write that our brains interpret suffering through our experience of pain, how we interpret it, why we’re going through it, and how long it thinks we can endure.
This is different from pain, as pain is the body signaling to your brain that something is mechanically wrong. Joint pain or a sting in the ankle tells an athlete to stop before there’s permanent physical damage. Of course, writers aren’t exempt from this. I’ve had to take a day or two off after my carpel tunnel flared, and I make sure to stand up at least every hour to prevent back pain from sitting all day.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the grind of writing, or if you want to get dramatic, suffering. Writing 50,000, 80,000, or 100 000 words for a full-length novel is hard. Unlike endurance athlete, who do the thing in one day and stop, writers spend week, months, years writing a book and that’s just the first draft.
Writing is an ultra-marathon that we need to get mentally prepared for because it could take years before our work sees the light of day. But if you quit at the first 25,000 words, you’ll never even get that draft one done.
So how can we get through the grind of writing and get to the end? I have a few tips that I took from The Brave Athlete that can apply to writers.
Chunk it into manageable parts When I think about the prospect of having to write 80,000 words, my brain automatically says, “nope,” and calls it quits before I’ve written a word. But when I segment the novels into acts, it doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.
I like to use the three-act structure, chunking it into different folders in a Scrivener document, but you can do it any way that makes sense to you. Maybe you don’t like acts and would rather chunk in scenes or story beats. Either way, break it down into small parts and tackle one part at a time.
Marshall and Paterson write, completing a chunk of task satisfies us. Our brains rewards us with dopamine and resets our suffering clock, making us ready for another chunk.
Set small word count goals Many writers use word count as a metric to reach their writing goals. If I can write 10,000 words every day, I can write an 80,000-word novel in only eight days! Except that I’ve never actually written that much in a day. The most I’ve ever done was 7,000 and I was nearly brain dead by the time I finished.
Some writers can and do write 10,000 words a day every day, but you don’t have to be one of them. Start small by aiming for 500 words. When that feels manageable, try to write 750 or 1,000 words a day.
By making your word count goals smaller (and incrementally increasing), you’re more likely to reach them, giving you a dopamine hit, making you want to write more. It’s a wonderful, beautiful cycle that will eventually lead to you writing “the end.”
Be mindful of what you’re feeling This one is a tricky one because there’s a lot of things that could be at play here. When you find yourself in the slog, ask yourself why it’s happening. Are you bored with the scene? Can you skip it and move on to something more exciting? If yes, do it!
Are you just tired and don’t feel like writing? Get that manuscript open and write anyway. Getting the thing open will get you in the mindset to write, even if it’s just a word or two. Do you also have a little demon in your head creeping up and telling you that you’re a sucky writer? Tell it to shut up by exploring why it’s saying it and working through it. This might be done with the help of a professional therapist for best results, though I’ve found that journaling these thoughts out of my head helps me to detach from it, thereby silencing the little demon for another day.
No matter where we are in our writing career, we all hit a wall at some point. Whether it’s at the beginning, the middle of the story, or the ending, every writer has had to deal with the grind at some point. But when we embrace the suck by preparing for the suffering and leaning into it, we might find that it’s not so sucky after all.