How to Write With Your Back Against the Wall

There are a lot of quotes on writing in need of correction, like this one:

If writing isn’t fun don’t do it.
If writing isn’t fun don’t do it. do it anyway.

You’ve probably heard this old chestnut:
If you don’t think writing is fun you’re not cut out for it.
If you don’t think expect writing is to be fun all the time you’re not cut out for it.

A work ethic is one of many things that separates hobbyists from professional writers (the others include: talent, an education, connections, a body of work, and luck).

It’s been raining all week. I haven’t felt like writing the entire time. I just wanted to lie on the couch and binge watch all the TV shows my friends are always assigning. I forced myself to write the first paragraph of a new chapter, some setting description to remind myself where the story was going.

I’m one of those writers who pauses in the middle of a scene so I’ll have somewhere to go when I come back. I kept adding details to make my life in the future a little bit easier. I wrote some dialogue and decided to press on until my characters finished their conversation. When I wrapped up the chapter I was working on I realized I had to set up the next one.

Needless to say I never did hunker down and watch Arrested Development.

It’s the weeks when I’m convinced I’m burned out that I get my best work done. Here are some of the ways I trick myself into getting started.

2. Let's see where this takes us

Life Hacks to Get Your Writing Started

Take It to the Notebook

Sometimes you need to take the “formal” out of your writing formula. You need to trick your mind into thinking you’re dabbling instead of writing. This can be hard to do on a computer screen where the text resembles the format of published work. This is why you should keep a notebook on hand. Your handwriting is far less formal than Helvetica or Times New Roman.

A notebook is the perfect place to workshop ideas before committing to them. If you’re working on a novel you shouldn’t just start journaling and expect to stumble upon something.

Stockpile a Term Arsenal 

If you’re writing a first person story think about some of the phrases your character is likely to use in different situations. Jot each of their preferred terms in your notebook. Draw a checkmark next to the ones you end up using. Not only will this help you find your narrator’s voice, it will help you figure out how to start the next sequence.

Here are some questions to help you figure out what expressions you should be listing:

– What lingo does your hero use to describe their surroundings?

  • What inside jokes do they make at the other characters’ expense?
  • What professional jargon seeps into their casual conversations?
  • Where do their favorite metaphors come from: sports, gambling, or the bible?
  • What famous phrases are they likely to quote from movies?
  • What generation-specific slang does their circumstance call for?
  • What are their dumb default phrases, the dad jokes they’re always telling that never connect?

Brainstorm Bullet Points

If you’re afraid the next scene you’re working on will be too boring, but you can’t cut it because it reveals obligatory information, list a series of “what if” statements. They might help you make the scene more interesting.

  • What if a character teased a reveal they were saving for later?
  • What if a character who was set to be cooperative in the scene was given reason to be conflicted instead?
  • What if there was a sense of urgency added to the event, like a blast door coming down, a ticking bomb, or a fire?
  • What if there’s room for subtext: gestures and language that reveal the characters’ secret thoughts about each other?

Hit PAUSE at Just the Right Moment

This was Hemingway’s life hack for making the next day of writing easier.

He said, “Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day… you will never be stuck… But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

My addition to Hemingway’s hack is to give yourself options. Utilize the comments feature of your word processor and list some details in the margins (in MS Word it’s under Menu BarInsertNew Comment).

Use this space to list potential developments. Think of it as a choose your own adventure for your next day of writing. This is just in case you forget some details while you’re sleeping.

3. Okay I'll Write

Take It Outside

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk writes in public. He refuses to chain his muse to a schedule. I imagine him going to parties with a notepad up his sleeve, a reporter getting the scoop on his friends. I picture him dressing up as a priest so he can take a memo pad into a confessional, or posing as a bartender so he can jot closing time quotes on napkins. Palahniuk’s party going process is perfect if you’re an extrovert. If you’re an introvert try…

The Egg Timer Method

Speaking of Chuck Palahniuk, another trick he recommends trying when you don’t feel like writing is to set an egg timer for an hour and write until it rings. If it’s still not working for you you’re free to leave, but hopefully you’ll be so enthralled that you’ll keep going.

1. Hands Up

Closing Thoughts

When I used to write poetry I’d find myself running out of the shower to jot my ideas down. I kept notepads in my work shirts, and covered my hands in words when I ran out of paper. As a poet, I was on call for whenever my muse needed something dictated. I waited for inspiration to strike and dropped whatever I was doing when it did.

Now that I’m writing narrative fiction my greatest moments of inspiration come after my ass has gone numb, after I’ve struggled through the introductions of my scenes, and I’ve been laboring for some time.

Sometimes writing needs to feel like work before it becomes fun again.


My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!

After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a  store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.


21 thoughts on “How to Write With Your Back Against the Wall”

  1. Thanks Drew, what a great post!! I liked Hemingway’s advice in particular, about leaving your writing before you run out of ideas. I’ve been writing all day, I’m on a roll, my eyes are burning, I should have gone to the bathroom an hour ago. ‘Desist, Gina, desist,’ I say, but I am on a mission-I have to finish this damn M/S so I can escape this room and go out into the world and enjoy my life.

    1. You know you’re on a roll when you hold your bladder. Conversely you know you have writer’s block if you go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. 😉

      Thanks for reading.

  2. “Sometimes writing needs to feel like work before it becomes fun again.”
    Truer words are seldom spoken. I also went to poetry/free verse when the fiction wouldn’t flow (or when I just didn’t “feel like it”). So, to get even, my muse decided to make the poetry my new passion. But things have changed some – I now carry a small personal recorder so when those ideas hit at the most inopportune times, I can record them and listen to them later. Otherwise, as I’m sure you know, I’d never remember them. I am, though, still waiting for that all-consuming-passion for writing to hit again.
    Unlike you, I like to quit at the end of a chapter so I’m wide open as to where to go when I start the next one. My problem when working on the novel was I’d finish a chapter while ideas were fresh, so I’d start the next one. Of course, I couldn’t leave it unfinished … I’m sure you can see where this is headed.
    Whatever “motivational tools” you use – keep using them. You have the gift, the ability – as long as passion burns in your soul, I believe you will push yourself to get it released.

    1. I still dictate verses into my phone’s notes app using the speech to text feature. I have a surplus of poems that I’m not sure what to do with.

      I’m glad you liked the piece. My methods for jumpstarting my progress aren’t universal. They’re springboards and sometimes they don’t always work for the genre I’m working in.

      Thanks so much for reading.

  3. Love all the little tricks. Some new ones in here too. I have the opposite problem in a way. I can’t stop writing. I set the microwave timer to remind myself to eat, drink a glass of water, and take a shower.

      1. Except you should see the spider webs in my house and the piles of laundry that don’t get done either. I’m still seeking that elusive balance:)

  4. Great tips to add to the writing arsenal. Hemingway’s “pause button” is a valuable practice for all writers to use. Your “New Comment” addition makes this trick even stronger. Thanks for sharing!

    1. My writing day usually wraps wit me writing those comments in the margins. 😉

      Glad you found something useful in this article. Thanks for reading.

  5. My newly released book, “The Best Advice So Far,” was not plot-driven. But all of this (post and comments alike) makes me want to start into a novel tout de suite.

    I love writing. I love writing and composing music. I love learning languages. I love mentoring kids. And none of these – or a host of other endeavors – is always easy. They each take commitment and discipline. But I kind of look at it the same as solving a logic problem or doing a jigsaw puzzle: there are times when it feels easier and times when its hard work, but the hard work is just as much part of the fun of finishing. It’s what makes a challenge … challenging. Doing a toddler’s six-piece block puzzle is EASY – but it’s not FUN, because there is no challenge or sense of accomplishment to it.

    I always finish reading your posts with a lot of respect for you, Drew. Not only do you turn up fresh – and FREE – content here regularly, as well as putting hours into your themed graphic elements … you are also writing books all the while! Your commitment is inspiring, appreciated and, frankly, just “wicked awesome” as they say here in Boston.

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