There’s not a lot of advice out there for mid-career writers. Once you’ve finished your first book or story, the expectation is that you now have a process that works for you and can be repeated. And yet, invariably, new problems arise. Maybe the idea for your second novel came in a different shape than the first one, or you’ve noticed yourself repeating what went before. How do we recapture some of the freshness, the sense of exploration and wonder, we had when we were starting out?
Each story we write involves venturing into unfamiliar terrain. We learn as we go, and yesterday’s lessons aren’t always applicable. Here are five approaches taken from my own writing practice that will hopefully help you to reinvigorate yours.
1) Don’t think about it
David Milch, the showrunner of Deadwood and NYPD Blue, says, “Whatever you think about writing, when you’re not writing, is bullshit.” There’s truth to that. All of our ideas about ourselves as writers—our ability or lack thereof, our nature as “plotters” or “pantsers,” even which tools we use—are in service of an image of ourselves. The stereotypical boy in the coffee shop typing away on his MacBook, or the girl scribbling in her Moleskine with her favorite pen—these are self-images that have little to do with the work itself. Sometimes we need the reassurance of those images. Other times it’s good to clear away the trappings and let the strategy and materials suggest themselves as you go along.
2) Switch it up
Since grad school I’ve written everything by hand, then transcribed it. There are reasons for that—at the time I wanted to develop a more immediate connection to language, rid myself of distractions, and attempt to form an individual style.
Lately, though, I’ve been doing my first drafts on a computer. If there’s a tradeoff in concentration, it’s made up for by speed—we’re talking about first drafts, which are never perfect, and sometimes getting the ideas down is the best way to start.
Whatever your usual method, it’s good sometimes to try a different one. A computer writer might enjoy the tactile sensation of writing on a legal pad, while a hand-writer might like to pace their apartment with an audio recorder. Experiment.
3) Accept imperfections
When I switched to drafting on a computer, I also told myself, if a distraction occurs, rather than get upset, let’s go with it. And I find this liberating. A quick text to my girlfriend or a Facebook comment or an email response to my agent doesn’t mean I’m taking the work less seriously. The opposite, actually—it means I’m getting the work done without devoting energy to feeling guilty for minor worldly intrusions.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re playing Farmland and trying to write in between turns, you’ve maybe got a commitment problem. But maybe not. Again, it’s about the work, not how it gets done. As long as you revise critically and thoughtfully and don’t send
out anything you’re not happy with, how you arrive at your daily goal is your business—and like a business, things come up that occasionally divert attention.
4) Embrace unfamiliarity
It’s not only okay to spend weeks or months working on something only to give up on it; it’s inevitable. False starts, snags with plot or character logic, a fall into cliché, or (the absolute worst) the realization that your subject bores you—these aren’t cause for despair. Think of it as time spent on research and design.
The second act, the middle, is the hardest to write. Your inspiration might have started to flag, your outline may seem antiquated, your characters may have become unrecognizable—if so, good. David Mamet connects second-act problems with the hero’s journey, in that the writer, like the protagonist, is searching for a solution and coming up empty, failing their way along against what seems like an insurmountable problem. Sometimes insurmountable problems are just that. But being faced with such a problem is also the most fertile time for inspiration to strike—the surprising yet inevitable revelation that leads us into Act III. Innovation and risk go hand in hand.
5) Read, darn it
It seems silly to suggest that there are writers who don’t read. But when writing becomes a serious endeavor, sometimes our interest in reading for pleasure changes. Between reading books on craft, the canon of classics, and the works of our contemporaries, we can forget to read for fun.
Grab a short story collection. A mystery. An airport thriller. Whatever it is you most love to read. Pick up a book you’ve read and loved before. A favorite poem. An audiobook. Wander the aisles of a bookstore until you read a first page that so blows you away you have to buy it. That feeling of enjoyment, or boundless possibility, is what prompted a lot of us to start writing, and what keeps us going. Don’t let it seep out of reading. Treasure it.
Sam Wiebe is the award-winning author of Invisible Dead and Last of the Independents. His critically acclaimed new mystery Cut You Down comes out February 13 from Quercus USA. Visit samwiebe.com or @sam_wiebe.