How to Deal With a Bad Writing Day

Cup of coffee with "Begin" on it

Cup of coffee with "Begin" on it

Writing this week has been a slog! So I thought I'd share a bit about it.

I write every day, but I don't keep track of how many good writing days vs. bad writing days I have. (Maybe I should...?)

On the good writing days, I'm spending just as much time on the work as I am on the bad days — and sometimes more, probably because it's fun.

I tamp down a grin as I come up with the perfect descriptive word or tap out a descriptive paragraph seeing all the details in my mind, from the way my character carefully folds a flyer before tucking it in his pocket to the stained rattan seating at the coffeeshop. I'm there, and I made it up, and I am a powerful being. A motherfucking sorcerer!

I write 1,000 words every day and I have a pretty good guide for when I'm about halfway there, then fully there... but when the writing is going well, I get lost in the process and put down 1,200 to 1,500 and feel a pang of regret when I snap back into it, realize I'm doing for the day, and put away writing to focus on the hundred-other things I just let slide so I could do what I'm meant to do in life.

On the bad days, well... every word is a slog. I'll muddle through a dialogue exchange, hating every trite word I'm putting on the page, then my inner editor will come out and remind me that it's just a draft and it can all change later. I'll move on to a descriptive paragraph that reads more like stage directions than, you know, actual writing. I'll space out or check my email or change the soundtrack as if that will somehow help me tap into the flow (lately I've been writing to rain sounds, by the way).

The entire time, I'll be fighting myself or taking the entire thing as proof that I'm not really great after all.

Which, I've learned, is just part of the process.

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There are good days and there are bad days. We are assured plenty of both if we keep at this, and either way we are lucky beyond belief.

It does not serve the work to attach excess meaning to those bad days. And we are here to do the work.

We should always take our creative genius lightly. The good days don't mean we are the next J.K. Rowling any more than the bad days mean we'll never see our work published.

When you're going through a bad day, the trick is not to internalize all the crap that comes up. Recognize it, acknowledge it, and then keep going until you've hit your goal.

A few ways I do that when it's a grind to every get word down:

  • Introduce someone new.Why not have my main character wander down the street because a street vendor's pancakes smell too good to miss? Eating pancakes will kill 200 words easy.

  • Put in a memory to establish a bit of backstory.Yes, let's go back in time to a day that maybe doesn't suck as much as this one, sure. Good for a half-page, maybe.

  • Change the scene.Because grinding it out for another 200 words isn't any fun for me or my characters, let's move things along.

  • Remind myself that it's a draft, it will change.Hell, almost all of it will change. Why get all bothered by it now? It doesn't matter what I write, and that's kind of freeing. Turn the screw.Hell if I'm this miserable writing, my characters can be punished more than they are, so sure, why not have a pickpocket happen upon this miserable little scene? No passport, no wallet, no money.

When I finish a bad writing day, I don't have the same energy high as when I come off a good day feeling. But I don't expect to, either.

Part of making it through a manuscript is giving yourself permission to have the feelings that come up during the process and to work through them. If I'm having a bad day writing, there's probably a deeper meaning to it. My subconscious will let me know more when the timing is right. Or, you know, my muse is a punk with a shitty attitude and hey, that's cool too.

If I feel disengaged writing, it might be because some higher part of my brain thinks I'm going down a dead end. After 2-3 days of miserable writing, my brain will pop up with the missing element that makes it all fit together. Or it might be because I'm resisting ending the chapter/changing the location/reaching the end of act two and I've run out of things to say but can't make myself cut the scene. Eventually, I'll rip that bandage off and move the plot forward.

If you're reading this and your writing isn't going well, don't be hard on yourself. There are enough people in the industry who will do that for you.

Try to solve the problem if you can; if not keep moving. Your only job is to move the work forward. A word at a time, if you have to. As long as you're doing that you're on the right path.

Trust that good days will come. You'll have that flash of insight. You'll realize what you do want to be writing about—or what's missing—or what's not working right.

Writing is rewriting. Good writing, anyway.