Everyone who's ever decided writing might be something they want to do for the rest of their lives - or at the very least keep as an intensive hobby - knows the feeling. What should I be writing? What's the book that will get me to the next level in my career and in my "craft"? What's the concept and who are the characters that readers will fall in love with - that I'll fall in love with long enough to let it take up so much of my time and my life?
What the f*ck do I do now?
Artist's rendering of actual state of mind.
Here's how it usually happens for me. I've just come down from an amazing high after finishing something I've worked on for however long (my upcoming novel was written over the course of two years, off and on), and suddenly I'm caught in the frustrating, incredibly depressing limbo that is Between Projects.
For me the problem is not a lack of ideas but far too many options. The opportunities are literally endless, particularly since I also enjoy writing screenplays. I keep a list of ideas for future projects on my phone (I know, it's a bad habit I should have broken the last time my phone crashed and I lost an entire book outline, but I"m a glutton for punishment), so while I'm elbows deep in one project I'm making notes of nasty little images, snatches of dialogue and cool titles. I've got hundreds of ideas percolating there - any one of them could be The Next Big Thing.
My first instinct is to throw myself right into a new book or short story, and often I'll try to juggle multiple projects. A screenplay, two novellas and a short story all at once? Sure! Why not?
"You shit your pants, and dive in and swim." - Joe Cabot
Sometimes just trying to work on a few things at once until one of them clicks seems to be the best way for me to get through this all-too-common rut.
Other times it's the worst possible thing I can do. I read over this new writing - which I find is often more "purple" than any of my previous stuff, as if I've forgotten my own "voice" - and soon I'll arrive at the conclusion that all of it is shit, that I'm an imposter, a hack and worse: that I'm a "hack with pretensions." (As Stephen King wrote in On Writing.)
This line of thought invariably hurls me into a downward spiral until I'm finally able to stick with something, until I become passionate about some new character or dramatic problem or concept or theme and hopefully, all four at once.
Fortunately, this funk usually only lasts a couple of weeks at the most. But while it's going on it feels eternal. And it always happens - even if I already know what I plan to write next. Even if I've been eagerly anticipating diving headfirst into a new project while I'm nearing the finish line of the previous one. It always happens. I'll start working on the Exciting New Project and it dulls in comparison to what I'd imagined it would be, the literary equivalent of Rob Gordon's failed relationships from High Fidelity. The characters are bland, the writing is boring, the plot is derivative, the theme has been done to death, and sometimes all four at once. (Did I say that already? Well, at least I'm only imitating myself this time.)
A recent example: after the novel I finished writing in March, I announced on social media that I would be working on a sequel to my relatively successful novella, Woom, thinking this would motivate me to stick with it during The Inevitable Funk (good band name, if you use it please credit me). I hammered out an outline and started writing it, enjoying the music of the language, the peculiar desires of the characters, the sadistic pleasure of checking back in to the sleazy Lonely Motel on the US-Canada border, knowing I'd get to torment these characters (and hopefully some unsuspecting readers!)… until one day I just started to hate it.
I'd also picked up another novella I'd been playing with for a while, which I'd dropped earlier due to a movie that had come out with a similar core concept. I managed to figure out a way to make it different, while tying it to things I'd experienced during my childhood. I thought that would be a good way to work through some personal demons and also be something that would keep me invested in finishing the damn thing.
I worked on these two for a few weeks, but nothing seemed to do it for me. Nothing sucked me in. Even though I was writing, I was trapped in limbo again. I was Between Projects all that time and I didn't even know it!
And yes, Between Projects can sometimes feel like "writer's block." I don't like to use that phrase as it's incredibly self-defeating. Once you succumb to the idea that you have "writer's block," it's like an echo chamber filled with negative thoughts, swelling until it's all you can hear. You choose the form of your destroyer.
Actual footage of writer's block in progress.
If you're serious about writing, you have to know that this too shall pass. Instead of telling myself "I think I can't, I think I can't" like the Little Engine That Couldn't, I should have been reminding myself nearly every writer goes through some similar personal hell at one point or another.
Nearly every artist, period. Self doubt seems to be a common thread throughout most creative endeavors, the act of creation itself an often lonesome undertaking. (I almost wrote "loathsome." Freudian slip, anyone?)
Eventually I realized I had a plethora of unfinished writing from previous stints in purgatory. So I picked up the first novel I'd ever finished, which I'd attempted to rewrite a few years ago. I found a lot to like in that partial rewrite, and some kernels of what could become really cool scenes in the first draft. I told myself, "This is the one. It's timely. I have something to add to the genre. I can make it sing. This is the book."
And those characters sucked me right in. I needed to find out what happens next! As of this post, I'm almost 60k into the rewrite and I'm loving every minute of it. People might hate it. That's part of the journey. I thought Woom would be inundated with one-star reviews but it's become one of my more popular books.
This all is just my experience. Yours may be completely different. No matter what form of destroyer your Between Projects takes, the answer to the question "What the f*ck do I do now?" is the only thing that makes any sense: you sit your ass in the chair and write, dammit!
Even if it's just a stupid blog post only a handful of people will ever read. *wink wink*