Four Writing Hurdles & How to Get Over Them

First of all, you’re not getting ten writing hurdles because I realized that a lot of my issues fit under larger umbrellas. You get four instead. Good news for anyone with ADD.

So. In attempting to complete a novel these past gajillion years, I encountered, and fell prey to, numerous hurdles that indefinitely halted my progress. Faced with the task of keeping up with my 2011 NaNoWriMo goal and determined to succeed at long last, I went toe-to-toe with these hazards and blasted them into oblivion before all was lost. Pew! Pew! Pew!!

Now that it’s all over, I can claim first-draft victory and share with you a list of my top four writing issues–the Murkies and Lurkies in my brain, trying to steal all the pretty colors. But I’m not just here to whine about their devastating effects; I’m going to tell you how I leaped over those hurdles, like a surprisingly agile hippo, and completed a first draft.

This is specifically directed at completing a first draft.

Without further ado, my personal top four biggest writing hurdles, and how I got over them.

The List

Misguided Preparation

This is a tricky one because every writer is a beautiful snowflake. My prep method may not work for you and vice versa.

Full-on, chapter-by-chapter outlines didn’t work for me. Constructing an outline took the joy out of writing, and leeched all the energy out of my story before I wrote the first sentence. Then there was the question of flexibility. Could I stray from the outline? At that time, I thought I couldn’t. The outline presented itself as the most direct path to the publishing house; I was afraid I’d get turned around following any new ideas, and the story would be lost. Inflexibility in writing is a dangerous thing. My character’s and stories’ ability to surprise me is an important driving force in my writing process.

Before trying in-depth outlines, I wrote without any preparation, when the mood struck. First of all, writing when the mood strikes sounds poetic and productive, and it is for the first  few chapters, but I’ve never run down the street waving my golden ticket in the air for the span of an entire book. So when the adrenaline petered out some 7,000 words in, I’d sit on my duff waiting for the mood to strike again. And it always did, but my muse has a fear of commitment. She always shows up with a new plot, a whole new handsome face to obsess over until she gets bored again. This is why I have so many book beginnings, and only one complete novel.

This year, I decided I’d be on intimate terms with my main character, getting to know her inside and out, casually get to know the supporting cast and backstory, and draft one paragraph describing the plot. It worked.

The key here is trying out different methods of novel prep until you find one suitable for your creative process and for your story. Don’t beat yourself up if an outline doesn’t work for you–maybe you’re amazing at flying by the seat of your pants when you write. Finding your method is often a matter of trial and error. Patience is key.

Workspace Fail

The elusive writer in her mole hole.

Workspace Fail

I usually go to bed around midnight on weekdays (I work a full time job). During NaNoWriMo, I often fell asleep around 7 p.m. Those nights, hiding from the bitter November cold under the bedding, my warm laptop heating my legs like a fat cat belly, I slept like I’ve never slept before. I’ve lost hours of writing time making poor choices about where to write.

Avoid writing sanctuaries that will put you to sleep and, on the flip side, don’t work in an area that promises distraction. If you’re easily distracted, stay away from the television, roommates, significant others and, hard as this may be, try to stay away from the Internet. I’m of the type that can’t listen to music while writing. Not even classical. When I do, I just end up fantasizing about riding my winged serpent above the misty Scottish Highlands to the tune of Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium and then I wonder where the time went.

You’ve found your flow; the words are pouring out of your head and onto the page in an inky deluge. Your character is confronted by her future arch-nemesis for the first time. His lips part for that meaningful opening exchange and then he says–wait, what exactly was he supposed to say? Where are my notes? Maybe they’re under the dusty stack of 1970’s National Geographic mags I’ll need one day.

There is nothing so frustrating as having to rifle through tons of loose paper and index cards to find something in your notes, or realizing your reference material has mysteriously disappeared. I can get really disorganized during the first-draft stage, especially when experimenting with storyboard methods and outlines. There was a time when I had chapter-by-chapter synopses taped to my wall (that reminds me, I need to buy paint). Disorganization=disruption. For this reason, I favor typing my notes, character descriptions, story arcs, etc. and saving them all in one place.

Looking for a program to keep your shizz organized? I use Evernote, and Scrivener is my soul mate (I wasn’t as big a fan of the Windows version, though).

Last year, I decided to strike back against workspace fail by attending write-ins and learned that there’s something magical about writing outside of your day-to-day environment surrounded by other people doing doing doing. There’s a subtle pressure to keep busy when the sounds of productivity are all around you. Maybe it’s my rabid competitive streak, but I felt compelled to be just as busy and consistently wrote more during write-ins and when I’ve abandoned the mole hole.

Cafés are great because you can buy productivity at $1.50 a cup.

Lack of Discipline

I have the capacity to be a severely lazy human being with a bad habit of waiting until the last minute to do anything. My work ethic only extended to full-time employment (i.e. work that promises a paycheck for my time and energy). That said, I quickly sunk into depression when I wasn’t working toward something significant outside of the office. What I really needed to get myself out of that lazy funk and complete a novel was discipline (especially when writing without my fickle muse).

I don’t think I have to explain how crippling lack of discipline is when trying to get anything done. I was always making up excuses about why I didn’t have time to sit down and get cracking on a work in progress, and then got nothing back for the nothing I put into my projects.

When my 29th birthday rolled around and I realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to pursue my dream, I took some good advice and committed one hour each day to writing. Driven by the fear of growing old and doing nothing with my life, I stuck to my commitment. I now devote almost three hours a day to writing (well, editing these days).

Deadlines are also great for developing discipline. NaNoWriMo gave me a deadline for the first draft, and I came up with my own editing deadline. I have to submit my manuscript to agents by this November. My deadline may be arbitrary, but it put a fire under my butt. I need to feel panicked and rushed in order to get anything done. That sounds horrible, but I’ve accepted that fact about myself and used it to my benefit.

Figure out what bends you. What makes you get stuff done? Once you know, put that gun to your head (FIGURATIVELY! FIGURATIVELY!).

We’re coming up to the worst of my hurdles now…



When I decided I wanted to write a novel almost a decade ago, I thought every writer edited as they wrote, and that’s how you produced a work of genius. Every paragraph was churned out with painstaking attention to prose, word-usage, and style. I’d write a sentence, go back and revise it, and then revise it again before moving on to the next sentence. My first attempts were full of poetry, but devoid of plot. In other words, I attacked writing ass-backwards.

I made the horrible mistake of sharing my 2010 NaNoWriMo progress by posting each day’s writing on a blog. I thought the potential for public shaming about failing to meet my word count goals would keep my fingers on the keyboard, but it turned out that my stronger fixation on churning out flawless writing to avoid public shame directly contributed to my failure to meet those very goals. I questioned everything I wrote and re-read until my writing slowed to a molasses crawl.

I didn’t accept that the first draft was for me, and me alone, until recently.

But I still struggle with self-editing. The voice in my head that says, “This sounds stupid. Go back and fix it, loser,” no longer has a megaphone, but it’s still there. It took hearing about first drafts from other authors I consider geniuses to resist the urge to edit as I write. To tell the story first without worrying about perfection.

Seriously, buy Stephen King’s On WritingAlso, this:

This is what I call draft zero. This is private. No one ever, ever gets to see draft zero. This is the draft that you write to tell yourself what the story is. Someone asked me recently how to guard against writing on auto-pilot. I responded that writing on auto-pilot is very, very important! I sit there and I bash the stuff out. I don’t edit — I let it flow. The important thing is that the next day I sit down and edit like crazy. But for the first month or so of writing a book I try to get the creative side of the mind to get it down there on the page. Later on I get the analytical side to come along and chop the work into decent lengths, edit it and knock it into the right kind of shape.

~Terry Pratchett, source: Writers Write

6 thoughts on “Four Writing Hurdles & How to Get Over Them

  1. There are definitely some parallels here with doing theoretical physics. Especially the part about what order you things in. For a long time I had this idea that I had to understand all the tools I was working with in excruciating detail before I got started on anything. And of course this means that I know the first couple of chapters of a couple of textbooks SUPER well. It’s hard to tell your inner perfectionist to sit down and shut the fuck up because patience is essential to even attempting perfection. It’s also really hard to generate creative and fresh ideas, so there’s always a pressure to do something extraordinary, but it’s important to do the ordinary stuff too, if only as practice.

    Also it’s important to allow yourself to try ideas, even if some of them will turn out to be failures. You don’t have to tell anyone about it 🙂

    • Who would have thought there would be similarities between theoretical physics and creative writing! But, yeah, that’s spot-on. That pressure to be extraordinary is tough, especially when you’re constantly comparing yourself to people who’ve been working at your craft for decades and are seasoned professionals. And I’m really only just coming to terms with the idea that failure and rejection are learning experiences (it’s always been easy for me to say, but incredibly difficult to believe).

      • Well, I think doing theoretical physics, especially pure theoretical physics, is basically art where your medium is math that is constrained by physical conditions. Your job is to make shit up. It’s hard because there are a lot of rules about what you can and cannot do, and the job is to find new things to do that aren’t in conflict with what we know and that someone else hasn’t already thought of. A lot like writing fiction: you have to think of plots that haven’t been written down before, or you have to do them better and with a different angle than people before you.

        My biggest hang up is getting started. I am always so terrified that I won’t understand something or won’t know how to do something that I get paralyzed and just avoid trying things. I also worry about getting bored, so I put things off. It’s bad!

  2. We must have been related in another life. I struggle with the same hurdles, especially discipline. I work 12-hour days, and when I get home, all I want to do is veg-out in front of the TV.
    I usually write the first ten or twenty pages of a project first. Then, if I’m still interested, I start plotting and outlining.

    • It makes me wonder if we writers are a bit masochistic. Sometimes I think my current schedule of non-stop work is cruel and inhuman, only to remember that I’m the one setting said schedule.

      That’s a good way to go about a project. Sounds like it allows you to release the creative ya-yas without losing foresight.

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