Writing when you're Out of Ideas

November 21, 2014 by Amy Groening


If you’re a writer and you use social media of any kind, chances are you’ve heard of, and may have been enticed into participating in, NaNoWriMo this month. I know I was—and so were many of my colleagues here at Word Alive Press! I hadn’t taken part in NaNoWriMo for years, partially because when it comes to fiction, I feel like I’ve been wandering a Creativity Desert for years now—for all that fiction is my favourite writing form. Sure I’ve written papers, news articles, blog posts, collaborative stories, and seminars on a variety of subjects, but write a novel? By myself? Now that was an entirely different story. Which I started on November 1st of this year.

The moment I started writing, I was reminded why it had been so long since I’d written fiction. Mainly because I suck at it. Or at least, I thought I did. How is it that every idea I’ve ever written is so awful? I thought to myself, typing furiously just to hit the daily wordcount goal. Surely I can come up with something better—absolutely everything I read is better than this drivel. Didn’t I used to have creative bones in my body? How is it possible this is the best I can come up with? And so on.

Unsurprisingly, when you’re faced with a big wall of Awful Writing and your Idea Bank is showing numbers in the negatives, it seems entirely logical to stop and leave the writing to someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Which is ironic, since in my line of work, not a day goes by without getting to hear some fantastic story from a completely novice writer who claims they had no idea what they were doing when they started their book. You’d think I would know better by now, but I’ve let my creative fields lie fallow for years, and when November 1st rolled around I was convinced that the only thing I was capable of producing was a rather large patch of dirt.

But, just this once, I forced myself to keep going: hating every minute of it, recognizing that every word I produced was tawdry, stale, and dry as dust—and then dismissing those misgivings; I had a task at hand. Suddenly it didn’t matter that my novel was not worthy of ever seeing the light of day. My goal this year was not to write a good novel, or even an “okay” novel, or, admittedly, really even something that could be called a novel. My goal was simply to write 50,000 words in a month. And somewhere around the 12,000th word, my dry-as-dust pile-of-dirt novel took a deep breath and spluttered into life.

It felt like coming home. This was the thing I had been missing: the centre of it all. For years, I hadn’t let myself get past the first few pages of a story, because, let’s face it, the first few pages of a story tend to be pretty bland for me; I’m a sketch artist and I had begun to mistake my sketches for my entire body of work. The fact that the first little bit of a story for me is flat-out terrible isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean my writing bones are broken; it just means they haven’t been flexed in a while, and they haven’t been moved in the ways I’m trying to move them—they’re still learning these new steps and they’re rather clumsy, but we’re still heading in the right direction. The characters I’m creating may seem stiff as clay statues for the first few chapters, but this just means I’m still molding them—they’re lifeless because they aren’t fully formed and ready to contain a breath of life…yet.

It may seem simple but it can take quite a while for a novice writer to understand a concept like this, and even though I may have “known” it, technically, and may be constantly encouraging those around me to keep writing no matter what, it’s one thing to stand outside the body of someone else’s work and see the merit in it, and quite another to recognize that spark when you’re enveloped in your own.

This is one of the reasons I’m a staunch believer in NaNoWriMo (for all that I was afraid to enter it for years): it is a thing that forces you to keep going. In all my other writing, there has been a thing to force me to keep going, whether it be that it was my job, that someone else was collaborating with me and invested in the project as well, or that there was simply a deadline of some sort involved, there was always something.

Whether or not NaNoWriMo is your thing (hey, it can’t be everybody’s cup of tea), if you’re having trouble getting going or think you’re out of ideas and lack the motivation to push yourself, take the first step and at least make yourself find a motivator. It could be a writer’s circle. It could be a different contest (ladies: you know the WJOF Search for the Next Great Canadian Female Writer is on right now, right?). It could be any sort of assignment, challenge, relationship, or community that keeps you going. Just find that thing that keeps you motivated. And, as always in moments of discouragement, remember this quote by Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

About this Contributor

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Amy Groening is a project manager at Word Alive Press. She is a passionate storyteller with experience in blogging, newspaper reportage, and creative writing. She holds an Honours degree in English Literature and is happy to be working in an industry where she can see other writers’ dreams come to life. She enjoys many creative pursuits, including sewing, sculpture and painting, and spends an embarrassingly large amount of time at home taking photos of her cats committing random acts of feline crime.