How to Get Back to Writing when Life Has Completely Derailed You
Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch call life derailing events “life rolls”. It’s a useful name for a whole host of troubles: Sickness, death of loved ones, disasters, accidents, divorces, getting fired… We’re writers of fiction; we can easily imagine what life rolls might look like.
When you’re hit by a serious life roll, you expect that your writing will be put aside while you deal with it. That’s perfectly natural. What you might not realize or count upon is that once the initial emergency is over, you might find it challenging or even impossible to get back to writing.
A major life roll will change your perspective on your life and everything in it. And even if you remain committed to writing, you might not be able to bring yourself to blow time writing about fictitious people. You may even have physical difficulties that make writing…challenging.
This happened to me. Twice, in fact.
I reported on the first occasion here – a hospital visit, emergency spinal surgery and a cancer diagnosis.
What I haven’t reported since then is that I was rushed back to hospital in early November, with a hospital acquired bone infection from the original surgery. That required a second surgery to clean the initial incision and reclose it, and six weeks of antibiotic treatment, that also required putting chemotherapy on hold.
On both occassions, I tried writing fiction while in hospital, but a hospital ward isn’t conducive to writing. It’s noisy, and there are constant interruptions. I just couldn’t concentrate.
I didn’t realize that my physical and mental state wasn’t helping at all. I only figured that out much later, when I had been home for many days and could feel the mental fog lifting and my physical energy improving.
But getting back to writing was difficult, especially the first time. I tried to make myself write, but couldn’t get the words to come into focus when I stared at my screen. But people were waiting for me to finish books, so I kept persisting and it was the most awful grinding process to get there, but I did. My output was abysmal, but I was writing…until the infection flared and I was bounced back to hospital (strangely, to the very same ward and bed I’d been in before).
The second time I came home from hospital, I did things a bit differently. Here’s the process I used to get back to writing—a much gentler, kinder process.
If you’re trying to get back to writing after a major life roll, take this process and adapt it for yourself and your needs, to help you ease back to actively producing fiction once more.
Remove all pressure
This can be harder than it sounds, if you’re writing full time and have legions of readers waiting for the book you promised them. And if you have other people in your business who rely on your book production for their income (assistants, partners, etc.), then the pressure can be excruciating.
I told everyone what had happened to me, to explain why books wouldn’t appear when I had promised. I also had long talks with the people in my corporation (there’s only three of us) and we shuffled things around to give me room and time to get back to writing.
I have no deadlines, anymore. My production schedule has been put aside until my writing output becomes more reliable and predictable. Instead, we’re waiting until I’ve written “the end” to schedule books and talk about their release publicly.
Do whatever you can to get rid of any deadlines. If you’ve got legal commitments (e.g. public readings, traditional publishing contracts), deal with them, first. Communicate with everyone who has expectations, including your readers, and remove the pressure to write.
And don’t forget to temper your own expectations. If you were a prolific writer, like me, you might veer toward beating yourself up for not producing word counts like you used to. Give yourself a break. This is a process – you can’t just flick a switch and get back to producing the way you did before the life roll happened.
Take care of yourself
You should be taking care of your mental and physical health anyway, for it supports your writing. Now you’re recovering from a crisis, it’s even more important. Your energy levels can’t rebuild themselves. You need to feed your body and mind, with good food, exercise, relaxation and all the other facets that build well-being.
If your crisis was health-related, like mine, then your health must be the priority and writing must fit around your health demands. Remind yourself that this upending of priorities and routine is temporary and eventually, you will find a new routine. Don’t expect that routine to look like the old one. There is no going back, after a life roll. You can only go forward.
Consume your old favourite stories
Don’t read new releases in the genre you’re writing in (a.k.a. market research). Don’t make yourself read anything at all. Instead, slip back into the pleasure of reading by picking up all your old, favourite authors and titles. Indulge yourself.
Books, movies, TV series…whatever form the story comes in, if it’s one you loved, knock yourself out. I re-watched all sorts of movies I haven’t seen for years, including childhood staples like The Sound of Music, when I wasn’t reading novels I had to blow the dust off.
Diving into old, reliable favourite stories will help feed and inspire your writer brain. You might just remember why you got into writing fiction in the first place.
Copy your old favourite stories
When you’re ready, take one of your favourite novels. Either start at the very beginning, or pick a favourite passage or scene. Open up a new blank document, and transcribe that section.
Note: I’m not suggesting plagiarism, here. After you’ve finished transcribing, you can delete the file or throw away the pages.
Copying other, better authors is a time-honored tradition among writers. The act of copying one word after another lets you spot sentence structures, analyze word choices, and winkle out techniques that you won’t notice when you just read through.
It will also occasionally let you spot weaknesses and flaws. You’ll hear yourself saying: “I would have written it this way….”
You’re engaging your writer and editor mind, getting back into the habit of sentence construction, of putting one word down and then the next. You will also be sucking up new techniques that will make your writing stronger.
Read your own stories
Don’t do this straight off the bat. Read your favourite authors first, then gradually add in your own works.
The idea here is to read your stories for pleasure. In among a bunch of other great stories, yours can also be consumed as a reader. Do everything you can to turn off the editor in your brain. Just read your stories, and when you’re done, congratulate yourself on a story that holds its own.
Skip this step if you just can’t turn the editor off, or can’t stop disparaging your own stories. You don’t want any negative messages about your writing to pop up right now.
What this step does is train you to read your own stories as a reader, which is a valuable skill to develop. Being able to grasp how your stories come across to readers lets you measure how your books stand in the genre market you write for, so that you’re pitching your marketing efforts to the right readers.
It also helps ease you into the midst of your own work in a non-pressure way.
While you’re reading your own work, it’s entirely possible you’ll get ideas for other stories, spin off series, etc. Take notes, but don’t promise yourself you’ll write them some day. Just put them somewhere safe for now.
Read the story that was abandoned
This is a biggish step. When you’re ready, when you can feel stories dinging away at the back of your brain, pull out the story you were writing when the crisis hit.
Read through what you’ve written so far. You can mark it up and tweak it, if you want, but you don’t have to.
This has the effect of re-inserting the story back into your mind.
Think about how the story ends
If you’re a plotter, read through your plot outline and remind yourself how the story ends. Visualize the finale.
If you’re a pantser, try to recall where you thought the story was going and how it might end (which gives you a goal post).
Mini plot the next few beats of the story
Even if you’re a plotter, your plot is likely too loosely woven to tell you exactly what happens after the point where you left off writing. There are always gaps and beats missing from any plot, no matter how intricately it was built.
And by now you’ll likely have forgotten what you were thinking as you wrote the last paragraph. The story strings you were holding in your mind as you wrote it will be long gone.
Pantsers have very little idea of what comes next in the story, but there is value in knowing what happens right now.
Create a little mini plot – a list of three or four beats outlining what happens next. You can get right down to the granular gritty detail:
- He doesn’t like that reaction, and takes a swing at the jerk.
- Jerk is actually a physical coward, and takes off running.
- Hero thinks about what jerk said before the fight, recalling a single phrase that tells him where the bad guy might be.
- Hero has to deal with bar manager over “fight”
- Then takes off to check out the location where the bad guy might be.
The point of building this mini-plot is to overcome any resistance whatsoever to starting to write your story once more. With the next few movements in place, there should be zero reason for you to sit with your fingers on the keyboard, wondering what to write.
Think about the next sentence
There’s no pressure to get the next sentence down. You just have to think about what that sentence might be. Don’t worry about the second sentence. Just think about the one that comes now.
Write the next sentence
And when you’re ready, write that sentence down.
Once you’ve written that sentence, think about the next sentence. Write that one down.
Rinse and repeat.
Can you keep going?
If at any point in this process, especially when you’re sitting with your current book open in front of you, if you feel resistence, or worse, resentment, then retreat back to one of the earlier steps. Consume more stories, read more of your own, etc.
This also applies if you simply can’t get your brain to work to come up with a sentence, or a miniplot. If it feels like you’re stirring sludge, retreat a step or two.
Then, a day or so later, try coming back to devising the next sentence in your book, or the next beats. Keep coming back to this point. Even keep your manuscript file open so you can flip over to it at any time.
It’s important to keep coming back to your MS and trying, because genuine inability to write could so easily be replaced by procrastination…because it’s easier to not write. If you keep coming back to the story, and keep trying to put down a sentence or two, then procrastination can’t raise its head.
Just don’t beat yourself up if you can’t write even a sentence. Give yourself time, and kick any pressure to write out the window. And come back tomorrow and try again.
Evenutally, you will reach a point where the sentence drops onto the page, and the next sentence will already be there in your mind, ready to go.
Congratulations, you’re writing again!
And once you’re writing
Once you’re actually producing words once more;
- Don’t stop.
Make visiting your manuscript and writing a sentence or two a daily exercise. Give yourself the option of writing more. Or not.
Eventually, you will be writing regularly, and can (very carefully) start managing your output. Start small. 500 words a day. Or even 250 words (an old standard page’s worth). Build up from there.
It took me a few weeks to get to daily writing. I’m still not writing a “managed” amount, but a few days ago, I wrote 6,000+ words for the day, and today I’ve written this post, and will be returning to my current novel when I’ve posted it, which will be a good day’s work.
In a week or two, I will try to hit a predetermined word count per day, something rather low, that seems ridiculously easy for me to achieve every single day.
For now, I’m enjoying the process of writing, sans pressure.
You can get back to this point, too. You can get back to writing after even the most severe types of life rolls, if you really want to. It just takes time and patience, and a gentle way to bring yourself back to your manuscript.