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Feeling a Little Empty?

See full issue for 2017 02-27
by Renee Miller

If you’re at all like me when it comes to writing, there are periods where you’re extremely productive, followed by desolate, dark times where the very idea of touching the keyboard is nauseating. I don’t call this writer’s block, because I think that’s a myth used by lazy people who don’t want to put in the work. I call it burning out. The words are there. They’ll be there until you’re ready to resume writing. The problem is too much of anything can stifle us sometimes.

I tend to write little bits on a regular basis (at least 5 days a week), and then every few weeks, I’ll spend several days binge-writing. Sometimes I’ve written 15,000 to 20,000 words in a day, which is EXHAUSTING. However, it’s not the worst part of my binges. After a week or so of writing non-stop, I have to edit the results. God, I hate that part. So then I spend a few days in a constant state of dread and I hate everything. I might edit a page or two, but I take frequent breaks, and the whole time, I feel like it’s all shit. The temptation to delete everything is so strong, I have to step away from the computer or I'll actually delete everything I've written. Thank God for the recycle bin. Then, one day, maybe a week into it, I go on an editing binge, decide what I wrote is kind of awesome, and all is right with the world again. This roller coaster is draining and it’s probably ridiculous, but it’s how I function in most situations. And it works for me, so I continue to do it.

We all have a different routine that works for us. Some of you might write a set number of words every single day. No binges. No pauses. Just this many words, no matter what. Or maybe you set a minimum and go with that. If you write more, it’s a good day. If you write less… let’s not talk about those days. Maybe you write only on the weekends or three or four days a week, depending on your work/life schedule. No matter how you work, even you have a scheduled routine, at some point you start to feel overwhelmed.

That’s normal.

When you put all of yourself into something for a prolonged period of time without getting a lot of reward (let’s face it, that’s what this industry requires), eventually, your brain and your body say “Enough.” You begin to wonder why you’re doing this. What’s the point? Maybe you even look at the screen and want to cry, because there’s nothing “there.” And yet, you can’t bring yourself to even touch the keyboard. When you can’t write a single word, or think of a moderately good idea, or writing becomes a torture that leaves you feeling miserable instead of fulfilled, that's your brain’s way of saying you need to slow down and catch your breath.

Listen to your body and your brain. They’re conking out on you for a reason. Don’t try to be tough or hard core about this, because in the long run, it’ll bite you in the ass. I’m not saying you should quit. I’m saying, slow down, or take a few days to recharge. It’s okay to pause and it’s okay to need that pause. To be able to write good shit, we need to experience something other than writing, right? Right.

Maybe you think you’ll fall behind if you do that. You’ll lose whatever progress you’ve made. You won’t. Taking a break and doing something, anything other than writing is necessary. Your creative batteries don’t last forever and they need fuel. Give them what they need and stop being so hard on yourself.

Read. Take a vacation. Go out with friends. Or just Netflix (and chill if you feel so inclined). Whatever makes your brain and body happy, do that. Maybe you just need a day or two. Some of us need more. Take as long as you need. Trust me, when the creative juice starts flowing again, you’ll know. That’s when you put your ass back in the chair and resume whatever insanity you call a writing routine.

Tags: Advice for Writers, Miller Time

Renee Miller

Visit Renee Miller‘s website.


  1. BRLCoryn

    As with many other kinds of questions in writing, the answer to “Should I switch between points of view in my book?” is “It depends.” If you’re writing first-person, you obviously shouldn’t, especially in the middle of a dialogue. (I have seen one or two novels succeed at switching off between characters from chapter to chapter, but I recommend that method only for experienced writers.) If you’re writing from the rare second-person perspective, you definitely shouldn’t do any head-hopping: only one character at a time ever gets to instruct/encourage/castigate others as second-person writing is intended to do.

    Third-person writing grants you a little more leeway, but whether you should switch points of view anywhere in the story depends on whether your story is more about the characters or the world-building. If the story is more about the characters, you’ll generally want to follow one more than all the others, and should not depart from that one’s point of view too often. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow series each dealt with quite an interesting vision of our world’s future, but they always focused principally on the trials and turmoils of their respective main characters Ender and Bean: the only head-hopping in those books was in brief interludes (usually in recorded dialogues at the start of the chapter) in which various characters would grant us some perspective on what they were doing in reaction to or in hopes of having an effect on the main characters.

    If your book is more about the world-building than the characters in it, however, you can definitely get away with a lot more head-hopping. My particular favorite example of this would be Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, in which the main character (much to Alan Moore’s chagrin) was Rorschach, and yet the point of the story was more to call into question and examine everything comic book readers thought they knew about superhero comics than to follow any particular character. In Watchmen the point of view tends to shift very rapidly indeed, with Rorschach’s journals providing only one of many voices offering their perspectives on a world in which costumed vigilantes and a man with actual superpowers are regular features on the nightly news rather than just being characters in comic books.

    In any event, if you feel the need to go head-hopping in your story, never do it in the middle of a dialogue; wait until the end of the chapter or at least until the end of a conversation to change to a different character’s point of view. Even in Watchmen, each character’s story manages to reach some proper stopping point before the focus shifts to someone else: Rorschach always manages to finish a thought in his journal before interacting with other characters, and other characters in focus always manage to finish their actions or conversations or reminiscences on a given situation before the focus shifts to someone else. Anything the characters don’t have time to elaborate in the story itself usually turns up at the end of the chapter in the form of various supplementary materials such as police and psychologist profiles on Rorschach, the Silk Spectre’s scrapbook, and a political essay from one of Doctor Manhattan’s scientific colleagues on how a man’s gaining superpowers has socially and politically deformed all of humanity.

    Concerning burnout, something I find is that if you’re having trouble coming up with more to write, it’s often because you’ve written yourself into a corner. “Exposition Hell” as I’ve heard the DVD commentary track on Back to the Future put it, is a trap capable of catching even the best writers, and Heaven knows I’ve had a few struggles with it before. While you shouldn’t go blowing away your entire script when you get bogged down like that, I do find that taking a break for a while and then going back over what you’ve written helps get you back on track.

    Part of getting back on track may involve deleting a whole scene or conversation, maybe several thousand words in all. In my case, I had to back up and delete what probably amounted to about two or three chapters of my novel when my characters got stuck in a boring and seemingly never-ending situation that wasn’t going anywhere. Even so, going back that far and rewriting was better than the other two options of trying to slog forward through the quagmire (and hope my readers didn’t get stuck in it as well) or going back and deleting the whole thing.

    Taking a break also gives you the opportunity to seek new sources of inspiration. When I’d started writing my novel, for instance, I’d planned on ending it with the characters suddenly discovering they were on an alternate version of Earth and leaving the readers to guess what would happen next. During one of my breaks from writing, however, I took to discussing some of the technological innovations of our time with some Trekkies and then started speculating how things like the matter replicators depicted in various Star Trek series might affect future civilizations’ development. All at once, I suddenly had a basis for describing the civilization into which my novel’s characters would have to integrate themselves toward the end, which was enough material to make what had originally been intended to be an 80,000 word novel into a 100,000 word novel.

    Something worth remembering: if, after taking a break and coming back to your novel you discover it needs a major overhaul, you need not be ashamed of yourself. Even great and experienced writers like Orson Scott Card have had a couple of false starts: check out his article on how he had to rewrite the opening to Ender’s Shadow some three times before it started working for him, for instance (and this was before he realized that Ender’s Shadow was a much more marketable title than Urchin too). Taking some time to forget what you were thinking back when you wrote something that sounded brilliant at the time but now just isn’t working for some reason helps you get a reader’s perspective; and from that perspective, you’ll likely be able to identify and fix the problem so you can get on with writing the story.

  2. George

    Renee: Thank you for your response. It agrees with much of what I’ve been told that I haven’t wanted to accept. Now I have to figure out how to handle it differently. Not really what I wanted to hear but I respect your opinion and I guess I’m finally convinced. I wish this was one of those rules you could ignore for good reason. For me, it just seems very natural.

  3. Renee Miller Post author

    George: If you write in the omniscient POV, you don’t have to stick to one person’s thoughts, but it’s a difficult POV to master, and not a favorite of readers (in my experience). When writing in other POVs, like third limited or first person, you can show the thoughts of others in their dialogue, expressions, actions, etc. The POV character can “assume” thoughts as well, but you have to be clear that it’s their assumption. Switching from one head to the other, though, pulls the reader from the story and makes it difficult to “connect” with your characters. This is why the rule is important. If the reader doesn’t care, then it ruins their enjoyment of the story. If you really feel it’s important to show another character’s feelings, save their thoughts for a new scene. You can use multiple POVs, as long as each is in its own scene and the reader knows whose head she’s in. I hope that helps for now. I’ll work on a longer, less rambly article about it for the future.

  4. George

    Renee, I’d like to here your ‘take’ on Point of View rules. I’m often accused of head hopping because I like to interject the thoughts of various people, usually within a dialogue. The scene is predominantly in one character’s POV but I like to reveal the thoughts of others as the scene progresses. I get a lot of flack for it but I’m not yet convinced I need to give it up. I feel it’s essential to the story at times,

  5. Renee Miller Post author

    Thanks, George. Everyone’s experience is different, and that’s what I try to emphasize with a lot of my articles. Some of us never get tired of plugging away, and I’m jealous of those people.. I guess it depends on how we do what we do. And if there’s anything you’d like to read my “take” on, I’m always open to suggestions. Sometimes burnout doesn’t just affect the fiction. ;)

  6. George

    Renee, For what it’s worth, I like you. You commentaries are raw and honest and I appreciate it. You’re a real human being with a edge. My experience doesn’t begin to resemble yours in this piece . . . mostly, but you’re right. Burnout happens, one way or another.

    I love you posts and read all of them.

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