Have you ever been hit by a writing slump? Maybe you’re even struggling through one right now? They can strike at any time, taking with them our confidence, motivation, and belief in ourselves and our writing.
My most recent slump struck soon after I had published my first novel in the Bloodwitch series, The Dying Light, and was trying to begin drafting its sequel, We Become Shadows. I was so desperate to write, and to be with my characters again. But each day, the blank page beat me. The longer this went on, the more I started to doubt myself, and my own worth and abilities as a writer. Maybe I only had one story in me. Clearly, I was the problem – I just wasn’t good enough.
I’m sure you can imagine how well that way of thinking turned out.
Thankfully, with the help of good advice and good friends to talk to and learn from, I worked my way out of that slump, all the way up to 100k words and past the halfway marker of the first draft.
In this article I have tried to condense what worked for me into five actionable steps. My hope is that, after reading, you will feel empowered to flex those writing muscles and be strong enough to fight your way out of any slump!
1. Build a routine that gets you into flow state
Flow is ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter’. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that ‘the best moments [of our lives] usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’. Writing is a perfect example of this (although maybe struggling to fix that major plot hole doesn’t feel like one of life’s best moments while we’re at it!)
To achieve flow, we need to minimise or eliminate as many distractions as possible. Grab a snack, and have a drink beside you (peppermint tea always signals to me that it’s officially Writing Time). Hide your phone (you could try putting it on a shelf behind you, or even hide it behind your laptop). Close your door, and let any beautiful distractions (such as a husband trying to procrastinate from his own work) know that you’re now going to be busy for a while.
Although some people struggle to write while listening to music, for me it’s a cue that the flow state – and writing – beckons. You could set up a writing playlist, or – if you find yourself singing along – why not try out some lo-fi or even blast some brown noise? (It’s surprisingly handy if you need to block out construction work from next door when you’re on a deadline!) My current WIP has mostly been written to the Frostudio Chambersonic orchestral covers of Frozen. Whenever I hear those first few notes, my brain just know it’s time to write.
2. Try exploring by keeping a character journal
When I first started drafting We Become Shadows, I was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of what lay ahead of me. I felt as though I had just climbed a mountain by writing and publishing my first novel, only to realise that there were even higher peaks still waiting for me. With the sight of a blank page – an empty document – all the confidence I had developed while writing The Dying Light crumbled. I didn’t know what to do. I felt as though I had lost my characters’ voices, and I didn’t know how to find them again.
Thankfully, that very week, my friend Jennie Fournier (@jenniefournierwrites on Instagram) posted a live about character journaling. I had never heard of this concept before, but it was a real revelation. As Jennie explains, you only need a piece of paper, something to write with, and about ten minutes to half an hour of uninterrupted time. Choose the character whose perspective you will be journaling from, then begin to free write in first person. Following Jennie’s method, I began: ‘My name is Vasco Kovalev, and I …’
The words simply flowed from there. Every day for weeks, I would sit down and write for about ten minutes from the perspective of one of my characters. Typically I would alternate between my two main characters, listening to their tangled thoughts, their deep fears, and their tentative hopes. Whenever I introduced a new character I would try writing from their perspective too, to get to know them a little better. I would never know beforehand what the characters needed to say to me, but by dedicating a little bit of time to allow their voices in, I got that sense again that they were willing to trust me to take their story forward.
3. Get to know yourself better for success
A slump can be a great opportunity for self-reflection, and to reshape our creative approach. If you’re a Plotter, do you need to spend more time on your outline? If you’re a Pantser, do you need to give yourself permission just to write? Are you in fact a Plantser, and are holding yourself too strictly to one of these approaches, as I was? Does a daily/weekly word count goal motivate you or frighten you? Would you make more progress if you thought in terms of completing chapters or scenes at a time, rather than getting hyper-focused on the numbers? Do you work better on the weekends? Straight after waking up? Do you benefit from structure, or do you need freedom? We are all different, so it makes sense to switch up your routine (or parts of it, depending on your other commitments) to discover what works best for you.
Sometimes when we’re in a slump, it can be easy to fall into the comparison trap. We see the amazing progress everyone else seems to be making, and can only see how we are falling short compared to them. There’s a gentle balance to be struck between learning from others and having faith in ourselves. Being part of an active community when you’re in a slump can sometimes feel like being lost in a storm. But stepping back or cocooning yourself isn’t always the answer.
Speaking personally, what I have found helps is to approach everything with a sense of curiosity. Rather than feeling as though developing character voice is a skill you could never improve, see one person’s tips on that skill as an opportunity to try something new. Equally, if another person’s approach to outlining simply does not resonate with the way you work, have the confidence to stay true to yourself and your own process.
Gretchen Rubin created a really intriguing quiz where you can discover your ‘Tendency’ for free. I’d recommend it to writers because the concept of Tendencies is shaped around how we can best work with our own personalities to make progress, rather than struggling to fit into someone else’s mould. The seven questions relate to how we respond to inner and outer expectations – those commitments we make to ourselves, and those we make to others. I was somewhat surprised to discover that I am a Rebel, although reading the detailed information sheet that follows the result, seeking ‘to live up to their own identity and their values’ sounds about right. It even comes with personalised strategies to help you reframe your goals to best help you succeed!
4. This is the one you’re not going to like as much …
There’s one fool-proof method to get yourself out of a writing slump – to write your way out of it. Psych yourself up; take some time away; do some reading; watch some films; take care of yourself; talk to your writer friends; make some moodboards; add new songs to your playlist. All of these things can be so beneficial when it comes to refilling the creative well. It doesn’t matter what you choose, because ultimately we all come back to the same blank page.
It might come down to figuring out what you’re frightened of. For me, that was not doing my characters justice. Not being able to tell the story I wanted to tell. Not expressing those emotions or being able to affect readers ever again. Once you know the particular problem that’s holding you back, you have a better chance of finding a solution that meets your own needs. Using myself as an example again, that meant really getting to grips with my own purpose for writing the first draft. I needed to give myself permission to accept imperfection – and politely ask myself to get out of my own way in order to make some progress.
The great thing about writing is that once you start, new ideas and solutions that you never thought of before will come to you. They might come slowly, awkwardly, and fogged-up, or in a rush of clarity. But have faith that they will find you. Writing involves making use of different elements in our brains compared to thinking and planning, so it makes sense that when those areas light up, we can end up resolving problems that previously seemed insurmountable.
5. Check in with yourself and your own wellbeing
Have you ever heard the saying ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’? I think the same applies with writing. Before you start beating yourself up about your slump or your lack of progress, make sure you check in with yourself. Have you been eating properly; getting enough sleep; staying hydrated; moving your body in ways you enjoy; and taking time to do things that bring you joy? We can only push ourselves for so long before something inside us snaps and says, ‘no more’. Sometimes slumps can be a consequence of that. It’s important we treat ourselves kindly. If that’s hard for you, try to imagine yourself as a small child, and ask them what they need from you right now.
Writing slumps are completely normal, and we all experience them at one time or another. But if your slump extends to other areas of your life, or if you have been feeling low or not quite yourself for some time, you may want to consider reaching out to a healthcare professional for support. It’s very easy when life gets hard to start blaming ourselves, or to minimise our own pain for the sake of getting through it, or because we have others who are relying on us. But your welfare is important too. So, amidst the rush of life, make sure not to forget that.
Now, let’s flex those writing muscles together!
Meet Lily Rooke
Lily Rooke (they/them) is the author of the LGBTQ+ dark fantasy Bloodwitch series, of which 'The Dying Light' is currently published. Look out for the second part in the trilogy, 'We Become Shadows', coming soon. Lily lives and writes in Tokyo, Japan, and writes about neurodivergence and queer identities. Typically anxious and surrounded by half-finished mugs of herbal tea, they love reading, watching anime, and experiencing the world from a safe distance.