It happens to me with every novel. Usually somewhere in the middle, in that long swamp of scenes known as Act Two. Not writer’s block exactly, more like writer’s avoidance. A kind of insidious procrastination that erodes my sacred writing time. This week alone I found myself weeding instead of writing, washing woodwork instead of writing, watching Wallander reruns instead of writing, whimpering and whining and wailing instead of writing. This is when I know I am suffering from “Middle Malaise” and need to apply one or more of the following remedies.
Read something completely different.
For me, this means literary fiction or nonfiction. I browse magazines—The Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review are among my faves—and inevitably I come across some random fact or feature that gives me that frisson of inspiration that propels me back to the blank page.
When I was dragging my feet during the writing of my third Mercy Carr mystery, I found a story about hidden rooms in 19th century houses along the Underground Railroad that became the germ of one idea that led to another idea and then another idea that eventually found its way into The Hiding Place. That article was the spark I needed to light my way back onto the road to The End.
Right now, I’m (finally) reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and listening to Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman. Verghese’s prose reminds me that, as the physician/author likes to say of writing and medicine, “God is in the details.” And Lucy Worsley is just fun, as is her wry, insightful take on the bestselling mystery writer of all time. Fun is good—and when the writing is fun, I’m happy to apply the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair and pound out that next scene.
Take a research trip.
Get up off your recalcitrant butt and go somewhere meaningful to your novel. Setting makes your story come alive, and when you’re feeling like your writing self is failing, visiting a key setting can help reinvigorate you and your story.
Note: Even if it’s only with the globe-trotting Rick Steves or Sir David Attenborough or the late, great Anthony Bourdain, seeing the locales of your novel may be the shot in the arm you need. This kind of research invariably reveals interesting and unexpected material that can make your way into the story.
When writing The Wedding Plot, during the pandemic, I couldn’t visit the fancy hotels and exclusive resorts that inspired the destination wedding in my story. But I could drive to Eshqua Bog Natural Area in Hartford, Vermont and check out the annual blooming of the Showy Lady’s Slippers. Seeing the rare wild orchids at their most colorful best was a pleasure in and of itself, but it also gave me the perfect June weekend for my story—and the impetus to write that all-important wedding scene I’d been so assiduously avoiding.
Talk it out with another creative.
I sometimes envy the writing partnerships that co-authors enjoy, like our own Brian Andrews and Jeff Wilson. They have each other to help brainstorm ideas, talk through plot twists and character motivation, and, perhaps most germane to this discussion, to keep each other writing and hold each other accountable.
Most of us fly solo as authors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t turn to our creative friends for a little intellectual and emotional support. Take your favorite writer/artist/musician to lunch or invite them over for dinner and just talk shop. The more wide-ranging the discussion, the better, but do get around to story specifics eventually. Typically, your pals will come up with ultimately nonworkable solutions, but in thinking them through you’re bound to break through with a brilliant solution all your own.
We all need writer friends. I rely on mine whenever I need inspiration, help solving a plot problem, or just a little cheerleading. Our weekly Career Authors meetings have been my salvation time and time again. Like now.
Note: When my creative colleagues are unavailable, I talk myself through the next scene using voice-to-text (I like the Rev app myself), asking myself questions and second-guessing myself as I go. It’s a way to record a brain dump that I can sort through later, one that in effect serves as a very, very, very rough draft. And when you’ve got a draft, you’ve got something to edit. As they say, you can’t edit a blank page. But you can edit a bad page.
Change your routine.
Sometimes you can fall into a fitful weariness simply at the thought sitting there at your desk tapping away at your keyboard. Mix it up: Exchange your office for a local coffee house (tip well) or a city park or a quiet library. Or, if you can spare the time and the money, borrow or rent out a cabin in the woods or a house on the beach or a suite at a nice hotel for a weekend (or longer).
When I was writing my very first novel (which never sold but did get me my first agent), I was determined to finish the first draft before my upcoming wedding. I was spending way more time planning the nuptials than writing, so I took myself off to the Sylvia Beach Hotel for a week. I finished that first draft, and got married, knowing that I was already a novelist, albeit unpublished. Knowing I could make the commitment of marriage with a clear conscience, having honored my commitment to my Writing Self first.
Resort to bribery.
There’s nothing wrong with a well-placed bribe. I’ll leave it to you to offer yourself the bribes you know you cannot resist, the rewards you’d happily crawl through fire or climb a mountain or write that next chapter for. Mine include chocolate (any kind will do), retail therapy (I’ve hit my word count more than once just so I can blow fifty bucks at Home Goods), and French food (preferably in France), but that’s just me.
Time to acknowledge Middle Malaise and get back to writing, visions of pain au chocolat dancing in my head. Whatever works, people, whatever works.