Sunday, June 12, 2011

Slumps Were Made to Be Broken

For these past few months, I've been in a writing slump. I barely wrote anything. I hit a metaphorical brick wall with my manuscript, which I then chucked at an actual brick wall. I didn't even read publishing blogs. I didn't know what I wanted to write next and how I would ever get back into the swing of things. I was slumping hard.

I'd like to think several writers go through the agony of slumps. Writing is like exercising. It's really hard to get back into it when you've been avoiding it for a while. And when you do try to write, it comes out like mush. Popular writing advice has always been "write every day," and I do think that's true. But it can take some false starts before we get ourselves to that point. And until then, we slump. The best thing about slumps is that they end. They are never permanent. Even the Red Sox won a world series after almost a century.

There are 2 stops on the road to ending your slump: the Savior and the Turnaround. The Savior is when you see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's maybe a day or late night when you get the urge again to be creative, and you scribble away for a few hours. It could be a one-time thing, like being inspired after watching a movie but then the high wears off by next morning. You know your slump isn't over yet, but you now know you have the power to break out of it. The Turnaround is when you harness that power and turn things around in successive creative sessions. A marathon weekend brainstorming your next novel maybe, or a week of hitting up a coffee shop every night after work to write.

Writers are not the only ones who find themselves in slumps.

Recently, Universal Pictures found itself in a rather enviable position: in a 6 week span, it released 3 films that crossed $100M domestically. Kiddie film Hop has earned $108M; Fast Five has sped off with $205M and counting; and Bridesmaids is at $124M with no end in sight. Reporters are claiming that Universal's slump is over. After 2 1/2 years worth of costly flops like Land of the Lost, Funny People, Duplicity, Green Zone, Robin Hood (I could go on...), Universal has come roaring back. All of the major studios have endured slumps. A few of the recent ones:

  • Universal - 1998. 
    • The flops: Blues Brothers 2000, Spice World, BASEketball, Meet Joe Black, Babe: Pig in the City, Primary Colors. No film grossed more than $45M.
    • The savior: Patch Adams, released Christmas Day. It opened at #1, stayed there for 2 weeks, and grossed $135M. 
    • The turnaround: Universal had a much better summer in 1999 with the string of hits The Mummy, Notting Hill, and American Pie
  • Disney - 2004
    • The flops: The Alamo, Hidalgo, The Ladykillers, Raising Helen, Home on the Range. Much was made about the fact that documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which Disney refused to distribute, had grossed more than all of Disney's films that year. It was a huge comedown from 2003, when Mickey and co. had the 1-2 punch of Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean.
    • The savior: The Village. Despite the critical drubbing, it scored Disney a badly needed #1 opening and $114M gross that July.
    • The turnaround: That fall, The Incredibles and National Treasure cleaned up at the box office, occupying the #1 position for a combined 5 weeks in a row. 
  • Fox - 2008
    • The flops: Space Chimps, The Rocker, Australia, The Happening, X Files: I Want to Believe, Babylon A.D. Fox was the only studio that summer without a $100M grosser. It went 7 months without a #1 opening and 9 months without a blockbuster. 
    • The savior: Max Payne. The Mark Wahlberg action film hit #1 in October, giving Fox a pulse at the box office.
    • The turnaround: Marley & Me and Taken both opened at #1 in December and January and had leggy runs, ending with $140M+ each. That summer, the studio released 3 films in a row that earned $170M+ apiece.
  • Paramount - 2003/2004
    • The flops: The Stepford Wives, The Manchurian Candidate, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Paycheck. Paramount had a 2 year slump without any big hits. Sure, they had minor successes like Mean Girls, School of Rock, and The Italian Job, but no blockbuster that studios need to pay for the midrange films. 
    • The savior: Lemony Snicket, Paramount's only $100M+ grosser in 2004, and its highest-grossing film from the past 2 years. Though, with $119M, it was not the franchise starter the studio had hoped for. 
    • The turnaround: Summer 2005. Paramount had back-to-back smashes with The Longest Yard and War of the Worlds
So as you can see, even multibillion dollar enterprises go through slumps. The key is working through it, rather than accepting it. Yes, the studios didn't have a choice. They had to keep making films. We don't have to keep writing. (although we should!) But if you look at the movies that got these studios out of their slumps, for the most part, they aren't risky films. They are safe bets. Proven franchises. Proven box office stars in the types of films audiences want to see them in. To help us writers get out of creative slumps, we should go back to what always inspires us. Reread a book you love, or listen to an artist that usually inspires you on repeat. Try writing something short in your favorite genre, just to get the creative muscle working again before circling back to your WIP. Have faith that your slump will end. I know for me, after a few months, the creative thoughts and ideas bubbled back up to the surface. They were always there, and they were tired of being ignored. Finally, I got myself back into a position where I could listen to them again and put pen to paper.

Have you ever had a bad creative slump? Are you in one now? How did you get out of it?

(all Box Office figures pulled from

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