Getting stuck, burnout, and the guilt of taking a break
Being a writer is a strange job. You can do it by yourself, from anywhere, at any time. Basically, there are no rules or boundaries. You decide how hard to work.
And "working" on your book doesn't necessarily mean writing new words. It could be doing research, tweaking your first chapter, rereading what you've written so far, writing notes on a character's history, creating an outline for the plot...
A lot goes into creating a finished book, and it can be really overwhelming, no matter how many manuscripts you've completed. And as much as I adore writing, sometimes I get really sick of it. I stress myself out over my current WIP.
"I have no clue what happens now. How do I move the plot forward from here? Is this even a complex enough idea? Do I have enough to fill a whole book? Is this whole thing utter garbage? Should I abandon this idea completely?"
When I reach this point, it's obvious I need to step away. So I try to not think about my plot problems, try to not touch my laptop for a few days, try to relax.
But then, the guilt sets in. I worry the longer my break lasts, the less likely I am to ever go back to my WIP. I wonder what's wrong with me, since I was able to write full books in the past. Have I lost my touch? Did I only have a few books in me, and that's it? What if I NEVER WRITE AGAIN?!
It is so incredibly easy for the self-doubt and anxiety to creep in, and spending a lot of time on social media doesn't help, either. If you follow lots of other authors, your feed is likely inundated with tweets that say variations of the following things:
Just banged out 8,000 words today after writing 7,000 yesterday! I'm on a roll!
Wrapping up my current WIP after two months of working on it. That makes my fourth finished manuscript for the year. Jumping into my next idea tomorrow.
Wow, the words are really flowing today! I wrote for seven hours without stopping.
After a long day of work, there's nothing I like more that sitting down with my WIP and writing until midnight.
Am I crazy for writing three different book ideas at the same time?! LOL
I have two simultaneous reactions to these types of tweets. I admire these writers and mentally cheer them on -- and I also feel utterly exhausted just reading these. I can't help but compare myself to them and feel bad. Why couldn't I have written 8,000 words in one day? Why did writing feel like pulling teeth today? Why did I only work on one manuscript this year?
Accepting we all write at different paces
It's very easy to feel like you're falling behind if you aren't writing at breakneck speeds like some authors do. What was even worse for me was the fact that at the start of my writing career, I was one of those authors.
Picture this. It's mid-2020, and the pandemic is fresh. I'm working my day job fully remote, and I'm not seeing any friends or going out in my free time. These were the perfect conditions to sit down and bang out my debut novel, Another Day, Another Partner.
I think I spent about three months on it. And a few months later, after my agent and I polished it up and sent it out on submission, I was eager to dive into a new idea I had -- a mystery/romance about a chipper crime reporter and a grumpy detective.
This book, Bad Press, poured out of me. From start to finish, I had a completed draft in 45 days. Thinking about this now, I'm gob-smacked. I don't know how I did it. I think I must've spent every waking, free minute on this book.
Regardless, since I'd written two whole books in a few months each, I just assumed that was my pace. I could keep churning out several books a year. I certainly had no shortage of ideas.
So when I sat down to write Manuscript #3, I was confused when the words didn't flow as easily. I had a strong concept and fleshed-out characters, but I was having trouble. With multiple POVs and flashbacks galore, this book idea was definitely my most ambitious yet. I assumed that's why I was having a tough time.
No big deal, I thought. I'll just hop over to a different idea. One that's a little easier and would be more enjoyable to write. But I continued to get stuck. I'd write a solid 10,000-15,000 words of several different new WIPs, then stop.
Mind you, at this point we were deep into the pandemic. Things were very bleak. Like a lot of people, my mental health and motivation were at an all-time low. I knew about burnout at work, but I didn't understand how I could be burned out doing something I loved. Yes, writing is work, but it never really felt that way to me. I loved spending time creating characters -- that was my "fun."
Eventually, I realized it was indeed possible to get burned out while writing, even if you love it. It's just not sustainable to write during all of your free time. Your brain gets tired! It wants to shut down for a little! And constantly trying to think through plot holes and twists wasn't doing my poor, tired brain any favors.
So, I forced myself to step back. I didn't touch Manuscript #3 or any of my other ideas for a while, only writing when I truly felt like it. I used to force myself to open my WIP and at least write something every single day, even if I was tired and not in the mood. Not anymore!!!
I wrote at a less intense pace, and little by little, Manuscript #3 came together. From the time I first started it to the time I passed it off to my agent, almost a year and a half had passed. Despite all my struggles to create it, I was really happy with it -- I didn't even care that it took so much longer than the other books I'd written.
I learned that not only does every author write at their own pace, but every book is written at its own pace, too.
Despite this learning experience, I do still struggle with feeling guilty when I go long stretches without writing -- particularly now that I have readers, an agent and an editor all awaiting sequels for my book(s). The pressure of that can be a bit much sometimes, but I realized staring at my laptop when no words are flowing is simply frustrating and unproductive.
Taking breaks from writing without guilt is easier said than done, but I'm forcing myself to do it. Sometimes life gets in the way, sometimes the ideas aren't flowing, and sometimes I'm simply tired. Going for long stretches of time without writing doesn't make you any less of a writer -- and neither does writing books more slowly than your peers.
So ditch your daily word count goals, give yourself a few days off, and stop comparing your speed to other writers. Your WIP will be all the better for it.