Taking a Swing at Those Writing Slumps

by Jamie Todd Rubin

I knew from a pretty early age that I would never make it to the big leagues. I wasn’t a bad ball player, mind you, but there was just some quality that I lacked that others had that would make the difference. My younger brother, for instance, had that quality and went on to play baseball through college and even into the semipros. But I also realized that I probably didn’t want to be a big league baseball player. My talents, what little they might be, lay in other directions.

I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

The difference between being a science fiction writer and major league baseball player might seem enormous, but I was a science fiction fan, you see, and just like a kid who is a baseball fan, I wanted to be just like my heroes. I also had a glimmer of hope that while it was probably impossible for me to be a major league ball player, it just might be possible for me to become a science fiction writer.

There are some remarkable similarities between being a science fiction writer and a baseball player, especially when it comes to the “writing” part of the job. Both require a good knowledge of the field. Science fiction writers are often science fiction fans who have gone on to try writing. They have read the classics and do their best to keep up with the science fiction being published today. Both take an enormous amount of practice for most people. (Of course, there are prodigies in both but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.) And both require perseverance and the ability to overcome adversity and–in the case of writing–lots and lots of rejections.

But even if you do all of those things, there are still times when a writer, just like a baseball player, will find themselves in a slump. This goes for the seasoned professional as well as the unpublished beginner. And unfortunately, for writers, when you find yourself in one of these slumps, you often must face it alone. There is no hitting coach standing outside the batting cage telling you to lower your elbow or choke up on the bat. Perhaps one of the most important things a writer can learn is how to coach themselves through this tough time. Here are three things that I do when I find myself in a writing slump:

1. Write every day during the “slump”. I generally try to do my writing very early in the morning while the rest of the family is still sleeping. With a full-time day job, this is the only time I can reasonably expect no interruptions. I aim for 2 hours of writing each morning, but more recently, I’m looking to get out 500 words. If I do better, great. But it’s that 500 words that I am aiming for. When I am in a slump (and I’m just emerging from one now–or so I’d like to think) I have a tendency to not want to sit down and write in the morning for fear of finding that I am still stuck and that nothing is working. But writing, like anything else, takes practice–and for a brute force writer like myself, it takes enormous amounts of practice. If you want to become a better hitter, you can spend hours at the batting cage. To become a better writer, you need to spend hours writing. The one thing I know that will certainly extend my slump is if I stop writing. So if the writing isn’t going so well, use that as an excuse to keep at it, to try and make it better the next day. It may not seem like you are making progress but learning to get back in front of the keyboard when things aren’t working is an important part of making it as a writer.

2. Learn your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The strengths will tend to be the things you are naturally good at: dialog, action sequences, etc. When you are struggling, work on those areas that you are weakest. My recent slump had me conflicted over point of view. I kept questioning whether the story on which I was working was being told from the right point of view. I’d finish a scene and it seemed okay, but when I thought about it, I was convinced it was being told from the wrong point of view. So each morning I’d get up and I’d write the scene again, telling it from another point of view. All of this writing was throwaway, in the sense that I wasn’t going to use it in the story. But it was good practice and in this kind of practice, I could start to see things about point of view that I’d never noticed before and that was helpful, not only in the story I was struggling with, but in future stories. It’s probably not too difficult to learn your strengths and weaknesses. As members of a writers group, you’ve got people hinting at them all the time–if not outright telling you. Listen to that feedback, even if you disagree with it.

3. Get out of your comfort zone. I am a science fiction writer. I tell people that is what I am and that is how I think of myself. But in my recent struggles, when the science fiction is not working well, I decided to try something new. I started writing two short fantasy stories, one a kind of humorous contemporary fantasy, the other involving more traditional wizards and dragons, but in a hopefully non-traditional way. I know about (and have read) very little fantasy. I’m not familiar with all the tropes and am likely making some annoying assumptions to people who are long-time fans and readers. But I am getting out of my comfort zone. I am writing every day, getting in my 500 words. And I am having fun doing it. Part of the problem with a writing slump is that writing gets to the point were it is no longer fun. It is frustrating. Breaking out of that by breaking out of your comfort zone may help get you to the point where writing is fun again. I have no idea if these two stories will sell anywhere, but I’m having a good time writing them.

Not everyone is comfortable with sports analogies and I used the baseball analogy because I’ve been a lifelong fan and I loved to play when I was younger. But I also think that some of the discipline I learned playing baseball helped me to become a science fiction writer, especially the importance of practice. Other analogies fit as well, whether it is playing a musical instrument (something I’ve never done) or learning to fly an airplane (something I have done). Practice may not make you perfect, but at least in my case, it took an imperfect writer and made me into the science fiction writer I always wanted to be.

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Apex Magazine & Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal. His most recent story, “If By Reason of Strength…” has been released as an e-book through 40K Books. Jamie vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.