flickr_journaling_vic

Picture taken by Vic on Flickr.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I lost a ton of time this year by trying to bully myself into coming up with awesome ideas, on a deadline, during my daily hourly writing time.

It really, really didn’t work.

And because this wasn’t working, I decided to try some other, gentler brainstorming techniques. And while most didn’t do too much for me, journaling turned out remarkably well.

Here’s what I did.

First, let’s set the stage: I had a draft of a novel I didn’t want to use and a lot of ideas I didn’t like that much.

I wrote a novel for last year’s NaNoWriMo that was, unsurprisingly, not very good. I outlined it a week before I started and didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I stopped at 70,000 words.

And while NaNo was fun, the story was a mess. It had multiple points of view, and one of them–which made up a bit less than half the story–was pointless. The two POVs never interacted in any way. The main villain was a ton of fun to write, but she didn’t really do anything. This left the protagonist to kind of… wander around, do her own thing, and have a small, meaningless little adventure until it got trashed in the climax.

It was not a good story.

The more I dug, the more I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the secondary characters. I didn’t like the backstory I had created. I didn’t like the big reveal at the end of the book. I wanted to throw it out and do something totally different with everything–the characters. The story. The lore.

I needed to do a lot of thinking. I started by trying a lot of things that didn’t work. Then I tried journaling.

What do I mean by “journaling”?

Basically, I just sat down every day during my scheduled writing time, opened a Word file, and wrote about my feelings. I wrote about things like:

  • What ideas in my story did I like? Why?
  • What ideas did I not like? What bugged me about them?
  • What kind of characters do I usually like? What character dynamics do I like? Why?
  • Why did I not like the characters in the previous draft? What bored me?

So on, so forth. I wrote down my thoughts about my plots. I wrote my feelings about my backstory. I wrote about my theme. I wrote down what sort of things I enjoyed and what sort of things I didn’t.

I didn’t not come up with solutions. (But if one burst into my head, great! I’ll take it!) But if I didn’t know what I wanted, that was fine. If I did try to come up with new ideas, I’d just be brainstorming. And brainstorming is good, but I–again–had spent several months being bad about brainstorming. So I tried, very hard, to not pressure myself.

If my thinking aloud naturally, gracefully led me to an idea, I followed it. But if I was just angry and tearing apart my old story and ranting about how it bored me, I just let myself complain, then moved on.

Some approaches worked better than others.

I had never done this before, so I wasn’t quite sure how to do this correctly. It took me a while to figure out some good techniques:

  • I tried to balance “why didn’t I like [something I made]” with “what do I like?” I wasn’t trying to start a pity party. I was just trying to pinpoint why I didn’t like certain things, not insult myself.
  • I eventually pulled all the ideas I liked into a single file and tried to imagine a story that included all of them.
  • Similarly, I played around with how it’d feel if I removed everything I didn’t like from the original story. What was left? What holes were there? Could I fill them with the good ideas?
  • I also wrote down things I enjoyed from my favorite books, stories, and games. Why did I like them? What appealed to me? Why?
  • I tried to fangirl a little. What if I took the ideas I liked the most and tried to make them as big and dramatic as possible? What if they were the crux of the story? What if everything revolved around them? What is the coolest scene I could do about them?

Could I have just laid down and thought through all this? Sure. But writing it down made me process these thoughts more slowly. And, more importantly, it created a record of them. That let me come back the next day, look through my previous thoughts, and analyze them more deeply.

It helped a lot, actually.

For several weeks, this is all I did. I mused. I wrote down my thoughts. On most days, I made no measurable progress at all. I just thought.

But when I started making lists of everything I liked and didn’t like, and started to imagine a story that had all the good stuff and none of the stupid stuff… it started to congeal into a better story. And I started to outline.

It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of messiness, a lot of weirdness, and at least one giant hole in my outline. But it’s definitely better. And there’s a lot more in this story that I’m genuinely excited to write.

And it worked because I wasn’t just brainstorming. I wasn’t sitting down, revving up my brain, and expecting fully-formed ideas to fall out. And because I was just working through my feelings, there was no way for me to slot my days into “success” or “failure.” (And if you’re just brainstorming? Yeah. Ideas you can use = successful day, no good ideas = hurray, I just wasted my time.)

I have a terrible habit of pressuring myself to produce something measurable, quickly. New words! New stories! New ideas! NOW. It helps to have a technique in the toolbox that lets me feel a little productive–I often came up with hundreds (or thousands!) of words of journaling every day–while not actually requiring me to produce!!

So if you fall prey to the same vicious thoughts, give it a shot. It’s like tricking your brain into a kinder, gentler form of brainstorming. Maybe it’ll help!

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After years of writing, I’ve learned a very strange thing about myself: when I feel like garbage, a story isn’t working, and I know it needs a lot of work before it’s “done,” the absolute worst, most demoralizing thing I can think is “but imagine what it’ll be like when it’s published!”

Yes, demoralizing. It makes me want to quit. It makes me want to wallow. It is the most depressing, most frustrating, most upsetting thing I can think of.

Why? Well, let’s dive into my psyche. I might just be hyper-sensitive and neurotic (I probably am, actually), but hey! Maybe you work the same way.

The problem with focusing on big successes is that they don’t always happen.

Here’s the long and short of it: when I’m depressed about writing, dreaming about a wonderful future where I’m a successful author doesn’t help, because:

  • That success is far away.
  • Achieving that success requires me to not be depressed.
  • I still have to put in dozens (or hundreds!) of hours of work to get to that point.
  • It’s extremely common to write something and have it never sell anywhere, or never find an agent, or never find a publisher.
  • Even if you self-publish, it’s extremely common for you to put out a book and have it receive middling-to-non-existant sales.

Which means that if I’m anxious or depressed, dreaming about eventual success is poison. I can guarantee you that my mind is not going to say “Don’t worry! You’re worried now, but you’re going to feel great when you succeed!”

No. My mind is a jerk. It thinks evil things. It’s going to say, “Imagine what it’ll be like if you never publish this story at all, and the 6 months of work you put into this was wasted because you got stuck right now and you never got over it!”

So, uh, that’s bad.

The solution: focus on very, very small wins.

So what does work when I’m deep in a pit? Celebrating small successes like:

  • You wrote today! You haven’t written for a week or so, so THIS IS GREAT. Hurray!
  • You wrote 1,000 words! That’s super fantastic!
  • You accomplished something! Accomplishing something feels good, right? Don’t you want to feel like this a lot? Remember this feeling!
  • Write a to-do list, where the task for every single day is “Just write anything.” Cross off today! CROSSING OFF STUFF FEELS GREAT
  • Good golly, did you finish a chapter?! One down! WOO!
  • You sent a query! Cross that off your QueryTracker list! Who cares if they ever respond? You did your side of the work, which is writing a good query and sending it out. DONE. YOU SUCCEEDED. HURRAY.

OK, so these sound cheesy. They are, really. Believe me, I know. I can’t sincerely throw myself a party for writing 1,000 words, either.

But I do feel genuinely content when I finish something. So that’s what I focus on: the small, nice feeling of accomplishing anything.

So here’s my takeaway: when I’m most depressed, I need to accomplish something.

That’s basically it.

“Hey, maybe you’ll sell this book someday” is not something that I can do in a weekend to snap me out of my slump. But I can do a tiny bit of work.

This stuff is not easy for me. When I feel bad, I want to second guess my accomplishments. “Yes, I wrote 1,000 words, but are they objectively good ones? Because maybe I’ll just have to write those words over again later, and this time was wasted!” or “I wrote a chapter, but there are 27 in this novel, so at this rate it’s still going to take me 3 months to finish this thing, at best!” I’m realllly not a very positive person, usually.

But you know what feels good? Accomplishing something. Accomplishing anything.

The only way I can drag myself out of depression is by accomplishing milestones. Little ones. Preferably ones I can accomplish every day. I won’t cheer myself up by thinking “You won’t feel like garbage 3 months from now, when you’re done!” I have to find something I’ll feel better about today. Now. Something like:

  • You sketched out notecards for every scene that’s working in your novel, up to the point where it isn’t
  • You brainstormed ideas for how to fix your current problems
  • You wrote a reasonable amount of content
  • You wrote something else, and it was fun and liberating
  • You read a book about writing and it gave you some ideas on how to fix your writing
  • You sat down and used your dedicated writing time for something writing-related for once, and you’re going to do it again tomorrow.

All of these are small victories, and you can do them today. They don’t require you to succeed at anything, or to complete a lot of work, or to fix everything. They’re just tiny baby steps you can do today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

It doesn’t always work, of course. But it’s better than clubbing yourself over the head with things you can’t do today.

I still get writer’s block. I seem to fall into a pit of depression about once a year, swear to give up writing forever, and stop writing for a week or two. It happens. And every time it happens, it feels like I’ll never drag myself out of it.

But I always get back on that horse and try again. And it’s never because I remembered that it’d be Really Super Amazing to get a TV show based on my novel. It’s always because I did something small, and writing felt possible again, and accomplishing something felt good, and I figured I should do that more often.

So, yes. Perspective shifts: helpful. Maybe they are for you, too?