Bad writing days

The fabulous Robin Wasserman was recently asked these two excellent questions:

  • Is your mood affected by whether you have a good writing day or a bad writing day?
  • When you’re having a bad day, do you conclude that your entire life must be somehow defective?

My answer is a big fat yes: YES!

Especially to the first question. I’m extremely foul to be around when the writing isn’t going well and a total delight when it’s going swimmingly. On good writing days there are rainbows everywhere, the birds sing, and a large bowl of fresh mangosteens shows up out of nowhere. It’s magical, innit?

In fact, I’d be really surprised to discover writers whose moods are unaffected by how the writing’s going.1 I imagine this applies to most other professions. Very few of us can get home after a crap working day and just shrug it off.

I cannot tell you how often I have had the following conversation with my various writer friends:

Me: How you going?

WF: My life sucks! Everything about it is misery and woe. I might as well kill myself.

Me: Writing not going well?

WF: It is the WORST BOOK EVER WRITTEN! Anyone who claps eyeballs on it will contract the most horrible disease known to humanity! Or they will cease to be able to read. Or die. My book will kill them DEAD! My book is the end of civilization as we know it! Why was I even born?! Aaarrrggghhhh!!

We writers are a neurotic whingey bunch.2 When we are in that kind of state it’s best not to remind us that the day before we thought it was the best book ever written. All you can do is nod and smile and make sympathetic noises and offer us food or liquid we find particularly comforting.

Only when we’ve calmed down is it safe to mention that we have expressed similar sentiments in the past. That, in fact, we have said the exact same thing about every book we’ve ever written. And yet we managed to finish those books without the world ending.

The only time the good writing day = joy; bad writing day = horror isn’t true is when I’ve been working too hard. Writing every single day, for long hours, for weeks, for months on end to meet a deadline can do my head in. As it goes on and on and on, even when I’m happy with the words I’m producing, I become increasingly grumpy until I finally send off the millstone manuscript and earn myself some writing free days, at which point the rainbows, singing birds and mangosteens reappear.

Only to disappear when I go too long without writing. And repeat.

How about youse mob? How say you to these questions?

  1. Though given how people can disagree about pretty much anything I won’t be that surprised. Truly, I know someone who hates fruit. Seriously, all fruit! I know! I couldn’t believe it either. []
  2. Obviously, except those lucky sods who only have good writing days. []


  1. Iris on #

    I AGREE!!!

    on all accounts, even to writers being a neurotic, whingey bunch.

    And somehow, it’s always easier for me to write when I’ve got a deadline, I suppose because deadlines discourage procrastination, at which I excel. Hmm, they also encourage writing at two in the morning, which is when I start saying the penguins live in Alaska …

  2. Phil on #

    Hi Justine, my first time posting though I’ve been lurking for ages–I really enjoy your blog!

    The worst, I find, is circling in, getting ever closer to beginning the book, having it all on the tip of your tongue (tip of your fingers?) and yet not quite knowing how to start the blasted thing. How to open the floodgates. I just went through two weeks of false starts, agonizing hours where I sat before the comp researching extraneous stuff on the net, trying to pick out the right songs to listen to, wondering at which point to pick up the narrative thread, from who’s point of view, etc.

    Which made for an exceedingly frustrating time. I don’t think I became grumpy, but rather I was simply worn out, as if I’d just sat through a five hour exam and was pretty sure I hadn’t done very well. But it finally clicked on Monday night, and yesterday I continued to race along, so since then I’ve been feeling decidedly more upbeat!

  3. Maureen Johnson on #

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. What’s a “bad writing day”? Is it an Australian thing?

  4. Patrick on #

    I find that ‘bad writing days’ simply means that I have run out of Rum.

  5. serafina zane on #

    definitly. though i think good writing days affect me a lot more…i’ll be in an irrationally good mood.
    but if writing’s not going well, as one of those unpublished people who live without deadlines, i just go do something real-lifey, like read a book or blare music or patch jeans (can you tell i’m not writing so well today?) or i’ll switch projects til i find something i can write well.

    but the biggest mood changer is when i’m starting a new story—i go into the whole coma deal and laugh at odd intervals and am unaffected by real life horrors because i have reached that level of joy.

  6. Justine on #

    Maureen: You’re so funny.

    Note for everyone else: The dialogue above is verbatim MJ.

  7. Jana Stocks on #

    Hah…yes. I hate the bad writing days and tend to carry a little black rain cloud over my head. My husband and children flee from before me, leaving out tributes of chocolate before hiding in their bedrooms and hoping the writing storm will pass.

  8. Brad Listi on #

    Sorta reminds me of the question: Is writing a lonely job?

    I always argue that it is, but only on shitty writing days, when my brain is malfunctioning & my characters aren’t really saying anything.

  9. Patrick on #

    A bad writing day is nothing compared to the NE Patriots losing.

  10. Brad Listi on #

    Heh. I would have to agree, except for me it’s the Green Bay Packers. When they lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship game, I was despondent for a week.

    Seeing as the Patriots met the same fate in the Super Bowl, you obviously can feel my pain. Perhaps we should hug it out.

  11. Patrick on #

    There wasn’t a Superbowl this year. It was cancelled.

  12. heather on #

    i suppose it’s good to know i’m not alone in that bipolarism but still, those low days suck my soul. thank goodness for those rainbow-ridden, bird chorus days.

    i believe this is my first post, been lurking for a bit, so: hello! and great stuff.

  13. Ann on #

    *cough* Same here: Long time lurker, first time poster.

    Yeah… Total agreement. Except I don’t have to deal with deadlines, so I make like Serafina and go do something else. Like read your blog, which of course, is the reason for my existance. ; )
    But yeah, normally when I can’t write properly I write pages of random nonsense until my writing ability reappears. I have pages of stuff describing my toothbrush and explaining why I prefer metric to US customary measurements. <_<

  14. cuileann on #

    I love this post. How sadistic does it make me to love writers’ blogs because they produce such hilarious posts when they’re struggling?

    As to other careers, I thought immediately – in a femtosecond! just had to throw in that word – of a quote I read in a ballet dancer’s journal. Something like, “You know, you wake up and the sun is shining. Then you have a bad class and your day is ruined.”

  15. Erin on #

    I completely agree, though like Serafina, I don’t have deadlines. I mainly end up doing something else like reading random blogs across the Internet, typing up possible reviews for my book/story all saying how bad it is, and writing random other things. (I have about six documents label, “The story I was randomly writing because my novel is horrible.”)

    Then again, when I get out of my bad writing day, and I suddenly have an idea my mood’s not much better, just completely different. I can randomly shout out, “Hey, that would work!” pretty much anywhere and then start planning out chapters out loud, having full conversations with myself. This could be anywhere from inside the safety of my home office or in the middle of a restaurant, store, library, etc. where people generally look at me like I’m crazy, but aren’t we all? Then after I have this fabulous idea written down, I have an incredibly scary happy mood for a few days before I convince myself that everything I’ve ever written is horrible again.

  16. hillary! on #

    Your writer friend sounds alot like Libba Bray and MJ, all in one. Very scary combination.

  17. atthecross on #

    yipes. as much as i love writing just about anything and everything, i am attempting a trilogy that i recently got SO FURIOUS at that i seriously considering chucking it at the next teacher to assign a project! so yes, the thing is, at first i never struggled with those horrible writing days that are almost as terrifying as bad hair days. unfortunately, the frustration kicks in eventually!! well thats why u need friends to encourage u and be good for ur ego!!

  18. alys on #

    It’s uncanny, how right you are. I’ve had that exact conversation with other writers.

    When conversing with non-writing friends, though, they can’t seem to tell that me being in a bad mood means it is NOT THE TIME to be asking how the writing is going.

    (And hah! Caps are good sometimes.)

  19. Barratt Miller on #


    Not only does my writing affect my mood, but my mood affects my writing. If I’m having a bad day in general, my writing goes poorly. If I’m in a good mood when I start to write, it’s usually goes well.

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