Laziness and fear—a writer’s two great nemeses—do their best to keep us stuck in the writing rut.
by K.M. Weiland
Usually, it’s a very comfortable rut. All our characters are down there with us, keeping us company, cooking up tea, playing chess, and just generally having a happy ol’ time. Life isn’t very difficult, since we never have to force ourselves to reach higher or stretch farther. We get to sit in our comfy swivel chairs and watch our stories replay themselves, with slight variations, over and over again, like TV Land marathons.
Actually, you say, that doesn’t sound so bad. What’s the big problem here?
Well, I’ll tell you. The problem, in a word, is: stagnation. And where stagnation lives, art dies.
We get to sit in our comfy swivel chairs and watch our stories replay themselves
As Writer’s Digest editor Jessica Strawser pointed out in her February 2011 Editor’s Letter:
…the best writers are the ones who never stop trying to get better—the ones who set their egos aside, no matter how successful they are, and challenge themselves to push the limits of what they can achieve.
Whether they consciously realize it or not, most writers have one particular story they’re meant to tell, and they tell it over and over again all their lives.
For example, Charles Dickens’s body of work represents a deep concern for the poor and indebted, and my own fiction often carries a theme of redemption through self-sacrifice. It’s important to recognize and understand this inevitable repetition—but it’s also important to understand that these repeating themes are no excuse not to be forever pushing the boundaries of our craft.
It’s important to recognize and understand this inevitable repetition.
Novelist Joe Meno, in an interview with Mart Castle, explained the difference:
The thing I love about [Dave Eggers and Denis Johnson] is their willingness to try and reinvent themselves from book to book, especially Johnson, who’s written crime/noir books, science-fiction-inspired books, books about drug experiences, spy-influenced material. I’d hate it if someone read one of my books and thought, this is exactly like the last thing he wrote. … It’s a goal I have, writing books with very different styles and tones.
Thanks to laziness and fear—and often oblivion—it’s much too easy to fall into comfortable patterns that eventually descend into blatant repetition. So how do we know when we’re teetering on the edge of a rut? Following are some signs:
1. You find yourself reusing familiar phrases.
2. You write stories that fit only into one particular niche.
3. Your stories return to the same thematic arc over and over.
4. Your writing is no longer challenging.
5. You never experiment with POV, tense, or style.
6. Your characters are all the same person (except maybe they have different hair colors).
7. Your stories all begin and end in basically the same way.
8. You’ve stopped studying the craft.
One or two of these symptoms aren’t necessarily indicative of a problem. But if you find yourself nodding your head at three or more, it may be time to take action and evaluate how you can push yourself out of your comfort zone and make your next story an exciting new adventure—for both you and your readers.
[box] K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.
She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.[/box]
Jamie Campbell is an author, screenwriter, and television addict.
Jamie is proud to be an Editor for The Story Department.
Her latest series Project Integrate is out now.