Four Common Writing Problems & How I Deal With Them

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This week, I cheered as a team of four U.S. astronauts launched into space aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule for a journey to the International Space Station for the first time since 2011.

This journey came after years of intense preparation and research and included an unusual companion: a Baby Yoda doll. (I’m a huge Mandalorian fan, so my ears perked up at this bit.)

Why the doll? It was a lighthearted way to tell when they had achieved Zero G. It was a marker of success along the way. Zero G is achieved before you reach the Space Station and the mission is “complete.”

I think this illustrated something we can forget as writers. We need markers of success along our writing journey. Often, we get so focused on the problems we face, that we forget to celebrate the moments as we overcome them. The moment that Baby Yoda doll starts to float effortlessly by itself.

So today, I wanted to share four quick things that I (and many other writers) struggle with and how I deal with these common writing problems. And then a couple of ways we can celebrate.

After all, writing is a creative process. It’s time we started reclaiming some joy in it!

Problem 1: Getting Started

While there are many reasons why I hang up on getting started (fear, not having a clear premise, simple procrastination), I do have a nearly surefire way to bust this “block.” And it is as simple as just doing the work.

Usually, there is at least one scene that I can see clearly in my head (sometimes several.) Sitting down and writing this scene, no matter where it may fall in the plot, cracks the ice and gets the writing river flowing.

Once I’ve busted out this cornerstone scene, I can get to know my character and world because I have a concrete piece to refer to. I can see how they acted and what their environment looks like. And because I wrote it so early, I don’t feel pressure to keep this scene in my final work because I know how much the story will evolve. But for getting started, it is a critical jumping-off point.

Have you tried to pre-write a key scene for you story?

Way to celebrate: I like to go out to get coffee or lunch with a friend. I might not even tell them I’m celebrating. Just being with other people is a big boost for me. If a friend isn’t available, I might indulge in going to a nearby park and hiking the trails for the afternoon. The key here is to get out and do something. Movement helps keep the creative wheels spinning.

Problem 2: The Comparison Game

Have you ever read an amazing book, put it down, and immediately gotten down on yourself that you’ll never create something as amazing as that author? I certainly have. I get down on myself that I will never inventive as creative of a plot-twist, have as poetic of a voice, come up with as compelling characters as X, Y, Z authors.

The crazy has to stop! So lately, I’ve adopted a two-step method to break out of this kind of unproductive funk.

First, I praise the author/creative that I was just envying. Publicly. I either post about them on Instagram or Goodreads. But I try to note at least two things that I really admired in the work and that I aspire to. It’s really hard to be jealous of someone when you genuinely praise them!

Praising others also takes the focus off of yourself. By focusing on the positive things you liked, you almost can’t focus on the negative things about yourself – or rather, you begin to look for ways you can do those positive things too! It humbles you, and puts you in learning mode, rather than moping mode.

Then I remind myself that I am different from them, with different goals and talents (even within writing), and that is a good thing! We need diverse voices. So this is kind of a half-step.

Second, I get around others who like and love me for myself. Being around people who deeply know and value me gives me confidence that no amount of social media likes or email opens can give.

Notice how many of these points revolve around getting out of our insulated bubbles and letting the people who know us best build us up? Are there people in your life you can more intentionally reach out to and build positive relationships with?

Way to celebrate: Get a friend date on your calendar! I aim for one a week with my “quarantine bubble” (God, I will be so happy when Covid-19 is over) outside of my weekend activities.

Problem 3: The Plot Thickens

When it comes to staying on track while writing, there is one major thing that can throw me off: Not knowing where to go next with my plot.

For my first book, I thought my plot would be fairly straightforward. It was all in my head; it would be fine. But the more I wrote, the more twists my characters kept throwing at me. I soon discovered that I should have planned better.

I won’t go into detail here, but having a plan, however loose, is far superior to winging it. It keeps you from the dreaded “now what?” feeling that is so terrifying when you’re in the middle of your book and you realized you kinda didn’t think of anything to fill said middle. I have a much better method for plotting now- if I can stick to it.

An outline is the difference between starting a coast to coast road trip with a well-marked travel guide and just pulling onto the highway knowing vaguely to “head West.”

Having a plan takes discipline and that’s not something we as writers and creatives like to think about until it’s knocked into us. But it will save you a lot of heartache. Bonus: it doesn’t take as long as you think to put together an outline. Some methods only take a couple of days, some a month. It varies based on how detailed you want to be. They all save you time with the writing itself so it is well-worth the investment.

Way to celebrate: I like to break each step of my planning into a mini-goal. After each step, I may celebrate with a cup of tea, a mini-Snickers (this sweet tooth is real y’all), a walk around my neighborhood, tending a patch of garden. Something small that gets me up from my desk for 5-15 minutes. Again, getting up and moving keeps the creativity going and the blood flowing!

P.S. I’m a discovery writer! And I still consider planning a vital part of my writing process. It helps me discover my world, get to know my characters, and get a feel for my major plot points (based on my characters’ goals and motivations) so much better. It also eliminates that sagging middle that I kept running into before. The trick for me is planning what is going to happen but not necessarily how. This forces me to get clever while writing!

Problem 4: The Research Rabbit Hole

Let’s face it. Who hasn’t spent a pleasant evening diving into the depths of Wikipedia and obscure research sites learning everything there is to know about ancient forging for one obscure reference in their short story?

Just me? Ok.

But you get my point. Sometimes we get so caught up in the accuracy of our writing (and the delight of hoarding knowledge!) that we forget we have a story to write.

Great details can make or break our writing. But getting hung up on tiny details while we’re drafting can break the draft.

I know I’ve had the experience of coming up from a research hole only to have lost the flow of my scene and quit writing for the day out frustration. And I did it to myself.

This is where defensive research comes in. Defensive research says “Hey! I can write this without having to know the exact species of kelp otters eat.”

Now, unless it is plot-critical, I skip the research and just draft the dang story. I leave the details for my second pass.

Using highlights, brackets, and margin notes to skip the unimportant parts so I can just keep going has been revolutionary for me.

What isn’t defensive research? If you are writing historical fiction or sci-fi or anything that requires background knowledge, it would do you well to take some time and learn the contextual knowledge.

When I’m doing this I set myself some specific limitations. Think of those high school research papers. (And you thought your English teacher was teaching you a bunch of useless stuff.)

First, I create a set of research questions that I know directly pertain to my plot, whether that’s theoretical physics, computer programming, or learning how life was in a specific time period. I won’t be terribly upset if it’s necessary to expand or correct this list. If I need to reach out to experts, I do so as early as possible for courtesy’s sake. I also make any research trips, if possible (I love visiting actual places to research, but budgets….) Museums and archives are one of the best and most cost-effective resources there are.

And I also set a tight end date. This keeps me from dawdling by having a deadline. Research is the ultimate excuse to procrastinate writing. Don’t give yourself that excuse. My goal here is to find out the bare minimum to get started. Yes, I risk having to majorly correct something later, but that is ok. And this risk is slighter than you think if you constructed your research questions correctly.

So, if you need to do some research up front, do so! But set your limits. Then go on the defensive while drafting.

Way to celebrate: For completing the first round of research, I like to go out for nice meal! Whatever is your favorite, treat yourself. Also, invite others to celebrate with you by posting one of your favorite facts from your research on social media. This will pique your follower’s curiosity. Since filling in the holes of your defensive research will be done during revisions of your first draft, you can have a lot of fun with this. Maybe treat yourself to a new coffee mug or that journal you’ve been eyeing! Something that feels like a small luxury.

Do you deal with these common writing problems? How do you handle them? Let me know by shooting an email to susan@susanfarris.me!

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