WFMAD Day 14 – The Magic Word That Destroys Writer’s Block

 

Sorry for the delay in this post, you guys. Some random, flatulant demon farted near an underground cable yesterday and temporarily removed my website from the Internet. A crew of dedicated technicians expelled the demon and worked feverishly through the night and so here we are.

Thanks for your patience.

(If you ever see a demon in the grocery store, DO NOT let him buy beans. Thank you.)

Where were we?

 

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Oh yeah. Writer's Block.

So – you have this dream about writing, or you're living the writing dream and you've actually sold your first book and now you have an advance and a contract and a deadline, and ….. the words won't come. Or you find that you are suddenly seized by the urge to alphabitize your spice rack by Country of Origin, or seek the perfect three-bristle, squirrel-hair brush that is the only way to clean the thing that you screw a lightbulb into.

You are in the throes of an evil spell.

 

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Ouch.

In my experience, Writer's Block comes from:

1. Fear

2. Empty-Well Syndrome

3. More Fear.

 

Fear can be broken down a little further into these flavors:

1. The fear that the words you are about to write are less than Pulitzer-Prize or best-selling quality. In fact, they are so stupid, your computer might blow itself up out of shame if you type even one more word.

2. The fear that you don't have the talent to do any of this and that you are $200,000 in debt for your undergrad and MFA degrees and you are only qualified to load commercial dishwashers.

3. The fear that your ideas are so boring people will sue you because after they read two pages of your manuscript they'll fall into stupor, fall down, and get a concussion.

There is only one solution.

 

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Seriously, you guys. Get a grip.

Yes, it's scary. Yes, you might not get this story published. Of course you're to going to be rejected and criticized and people are going to say mean things about you on the Internet. You have very little control over that.

You have TOTAL control over how you deal with your fears.

1. Focus on the process, not the outcome. This is boring and hard, which is why people prefer to fret about their Internet platform and Amazon ranking. Snap. Out. Of. It. Writers write

2. Think about the next step, not the entire race. When you start to hyperventilate because you don't know how to get an agent, grab yourself by the ear and shift your focus to the next chapter that is begging you to write it. Or the next paragraph. Just one more sentance, if necessary. Baby steps.

3. Be grateful you're not a neurosurgeon. This is the best thing about writing!!! We get to fix the sucky parts!!!! (Neurosurgeons have to get it right the first time, poor sods.) So write that crappy draft, that bloated dialog. You'll fix it later, no worries!

4. Recognize that working on an oil rig is much harder than writing. If you have the time and space in your life to even think about writing a book, then you have an abundance of blessings. Count them. Write them down.

Pouring roof tar in Lousiana in July is hard. Teaching ninth grade is hard. Writing is awesome – you get to play with your imagination and create entire new worlds.

 

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What was that Filling The Well thing I mentioned above?

It is very easy to burn out as a writer, especially if you succeed in being published and then face relentless deadline pressure. Filling your creative well is the only solution to burn-out. You need to read (for fun, not research) – read outside your genre, read books from other cultures and countries, read poetry. Listen to music. Indulge your senses. Make something with your hands. Draw, paint, weave. Buy yourself a coloring book and pretty pens and stay inside the lines, if that makes you happy. 

That's it in one word: happy.

When you are trapped in fear or anxiety or self-loathing, you cannot create. Embrace the only guarantee granted to all writers: making stuff up is fun. The more you can stay centered in that joy, the more you will write. The more you write, the better you'll feel; the better you feel, the more open you become to new ideas, and all of sudden writing becomes something that you look forward to again, instead of somethng you dread.

 

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Non-fiction prompt – Write down how you are going to fill your creative well this week. Include one field trip; trip to a museum, concert, movie, pumpkin patch, etc. After your "well time," freewrite about the experience.

Fiction prompt – Write a scene in which a frustrated writer takes a four-year-old to the zoo. Focus on the stream of consciousness that naturally flows from the child.

 

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 13 – The Roots of Writer’s Block

 

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Writer's block is so feared, that I wonder if all writers should avoid even saying or writing the words, the way that Macbeth is known in the theater as "The Scottish Play." Maybe we could call WB "The Dread Condition" or "The Foul Muse."

A few writer's don't believe in The Dread Condition, like Joyce Carol Oates, author of roughly 20,000 novels.

 

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She has a point – trying to write about something before you are ready is like trying to get a car to run on orange juice. But in my experience, there are other flavors of The Dread Condition. 

Fear of Being Less Than Perfect – Your Amazing Idea is amazing as long as it stays in your head. When you sit down to a keyboard, however, your fingers can't move. Any string of words you dream up comes so freaking far from your amazing idea that you give up and google "French Foreign Legion." Maybe they'd hire a failed writer.

Fear of Having No Talent – Every word you type is accompanied by screeching from the rabid bats fluttering around in your brain. They call up images of people from your past who doubted and judged you and made you feel like a rather small, rather dim-witted, naked mole rat. They scream that you are worthless and you're wasting your time and you are going to die, homeless, under a bridge, surrounded by shopping bags filled with empty pages. Your little paws shake so much that you can not type.

Fear of the Countless Mind-Numbing Fears That Chase Around and Around In Your Brain So Fast It Feels Like A Blender Set To Pulverize – Yeah, you're a mess. 

 

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You are a normal writer.

Everyone deals with fears like these, along with a few thousand others. Getting published does not make them go away. In fact, it can make things worse, because it sets the bar even higher.

Children make art, sing, invent stories, and dance as easily as they breathe. Somewhere along the way, many people lose the easy grace that is the natural partner of creativity. This has a lot to do with the judgement and criticism that happens in school. Our work is held up and compared to others. We're trained to strive for a high grade, one that can be evaluated and measured according to metrics and rubrics. There are fewer and fewer chances to strengthen our creative muscles and they wither.

But the desire to create does not.

Your writer's block is a painful response to old training. That training can be undone. You can get back to the ability to create with the ease of childhood. How? I'll tell you tomorrow.

 

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Non-fiction prompt – Indulge in your worst writing nightmare, the biggest fears that interfere with your work. Write it all down, all of the bad things that you fear could happen to you if you write your story. Then set the piece of paper on fire, dump the ashes into the toilet and flush.

Fiction prompt – Take a character from one of your favorite books, someone who had to overcome a fear and take a chance. Write a fanfiction piece about that character and how her life would have turned out if she had not confronted her fear and done the hard things. 

 

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Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 12 – Start at the End or End With the Beginning?

 

 

Question: "I'm terrible at writing endings, how do you move past that?"

 

I have an advanced degree in Struggling To Figure Out How To End My Book. I am both an expert at this question and I dread it.

 

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But I'll give it my best shot.

The endings to my historical fiction novels are somewhat easier than my YA books. FEVER 1793, CHAINS, and FORGE are all grounded in historical fact and populated with fictional characters. The historical events that I use as the scaffolding for the book give me at least part of the conclusion of the external plot line. I outline my historical novels fairly heavily to ensure the right balance between the fiction and the historical facts, so it's easier to figure out where I want the book to end and how the characters will get there. 

My YA novels are much more fluid. I start with a character whom I care about and a situation which makes that character's life difficult. I do not outline at all; I explore the story as the first draft unfolds in my head and on the page. While this probably makes extra revision work for me, I have no interest in outlining my YAs. I love the magic of watching the character grow, without knowing how the story ends. 

 

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Goosebumps author R. L. Stine starts with the titles of his books and outlines heavily, so he always knows where his story is headed. It certainly works for him.

If you are stuck, rudderless, in your story, try this. Write a synopsis. Can't do that yet? Then use editor Cheryl Klein's handy-dandy Plot Checklist. Fill out what you can and you'll quickly see where and why your story doesn't have a clear resolution yet. 

 

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Please don't beat yourself up if the plot of your story doesn't leap from your head onto the page all neat and tidy. Sometimes it takes a lot of exploring and digging and pondering before your character is ready to fully share who she is and what's bugging her. In every book I write, I generally throw out 200-300 pages of scenes and chapters that don't work. Was that wasted effort? Of course not! It's all part of the adventure.

 

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Non-fiction prompt – Freewrite about a book you've read or a movie you watched that had a rotten ending. How would you have changed it? Did the author or screenplay writer screw up a plot choice or a character choice?

Fiction prompt – Using R. L. Stine's technique, write a title and a one sentance description of how a story ends, then outline it backwards to the beginning.

 

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Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 11 – Do Writers Need An Internet Platform?

 

 

A couple of great questions came in the other day:

"How important is your internet presence? How has it changed over the years? [How important do you think it is] to new writers?"

Oh, man. This requires one of those "on the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand" answers.

 

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The first version of my web site (complete with static black-and-white line illustrations!) went live in 1998. I only had a dial-up connection. Social media hadn't been invented yet. Authors were still sending post cards to announce the publication of new books. I was a couple years away from getting a cell phone.

(I KNOW! Dark Ages, right?)

I kind of miss those days.

For one thing, I had more time to, you know, write. And read books. And let my mind drift, spin, and wander, picking up words and ideas along the way. 

For another thing, the ignorance of the other ten bazillion authors out there and how they were spending their time was rather comforting. I knew authors because of the books they wrote. I barely knew about Amazon and had no clue about relative sales rankings of books. BookScan hadn't been invented yet.

It was a simpler time.

 

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But not necessarily better.

A couple of years ago I invested a lot of time and some money into creating a robust, information-packed website that offered readers everything they needed to know about my books and probably more than they wanted to know about me. 

I found my way to social media, too, which I love because it allows for real-time, direct communication with readers. For the record, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Goodreads.

(Whew! Exhausting just to link to all of those!)

Each platform has a slightly different audience. Some months I post a lot. Other months, not so much. If you wanted to pin me down to real numbers, I guess I spend less than an hour a day on social media. More during those periods when I am blogging daily, like WFMAD, or on booktour, or for special events, like raising money for RAINN. Less when I'm feeling burnt out.

Now to your question: how much time and energy should YOU be investing in social media and your Internet presence?

Answer: Less than you think.

 

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If you are not yet published, but actively submitting, I can see the point in having a website that gives information about you so a curious editor can look you up. I don't understand why people post details about their unpublished manuscripts online. It's not like editors and agents have thousands of minions combing the Internet in search of your story. 

Social media should be fun and rewarding. If you are tweeting or blogging only in the hopes of building an audience, that is going to come across loud and clear and make you seem crass. If you connect with other soon-to-be-published authors and you have fun promoting each other's books, that's awesome. 

I suspect that a lot of new writers put energy into their internet presence because it feels like a constructive thing to do and it is much easier than working on their book. Because writing books is hard. Writing books is so hard that it dredges up all of our anxieties and insecurities and it makes us feel small and scared and lonely.

(This does not change, by the way, after you get published. In fact, it gets worse.)  

 

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Want a recommendation? 

Cut the amount of time you spent on social media and reading blogs about writing and getting published by 75%. Yep. If you spent 10 hours a week on that stuff, then from now on, spend 2.5 hours. Use the time that you get back for writing your novel and for reading great books. That will make your chances of getting published much stronger than any Facebook post ever will.

 

Non-fiction prompt – What kinds of things on the Internet make you a better writer? Be specific – how do they help? What kinds of things make you anxious and fretful about your work or your position in the Universe of Creative People? Do you have the courage to take a three-month hiatus from social media and devote all of that time to reading and writing? What are the steps you'd need to take to make that happen?

Fiction prompt – Your character is an 11-year-old boy, kicking a soccer ball to himself against the wall of an abandoned building. What happens next?

 

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Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

 

WFMAD Day 10 – When A New Idea Seduces You

 

 

Buzzfeed recently published a cute piece called "The 14 Stages of Writing A Book."

(Go ahead – take a minute to enjoy it. But hurry back.)

 

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The only thing missing is Stage 10.1: "When Another Story Idea Seduces You."

You know this stage, right? You're working on your story, faithfully crafting page and page, even on those days when the spark isn't as bright as it used to be. Even during the weeks when you have regrets. 

But you can't help yourself. Your thoughts begin to drift.

Maybe you committed too soon. Maybe you should have played around with some of the other ideas longer, you know, just to make sure that your Work In Progress was really The One. Maybe you weren't cut out for a novel this long. It's just so demanding, so annoying, so… 

And then it happens.

 

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Another Idea comes along. Shiny. Seductive. Bewitching, even.

This New Idea gives you an electrifying, come-hither glance. You swallow hard. This is why you shouldn't have committed so soon to your WIP. This Idea is MUCH BETTER! The characters are more interesting, the plot is thrilling, heck, the dialog will practically write itself!

 

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You clear your throat. After glancing around to make sure no one is looking, you scribble down a brief description of the New Idea (although a brief description can in no way do it justice.) You put the file away and go back to your long-suffering ever patient WIP.

You both know that something isn't right between you, but you don't dare talk about it. You try to spice things up; write in a coffee shop, or experiment with a different POV for a few chapters, but try as you might, you can't help thinking about….

 

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The Shiny. The New Idea. The siren song that threatens to destroy all of your work, but who cares? You throw caution to the wind! You start that new book, commitments be damned! You write with passion, with purpose, for months and months.

And then…..

You can see where I'm going with this. 

Shiny new story ideas will always be hanging around the edges of your imagination, waiting for you to stumble so they can seduce you. This is either a manifestation of fear or a giant red flag that your story took a wrong turn a little while ago.

If you give in, chances are that you'll soon be at Stage 10.1 again. 

It is much easier to start a novel than it is to finish one. Finishing requires that you not only figure out what should happen in the middle of the story, but you have to figure out how to end it, too. WICKED HARD! 

If a New Idea is calling your name and you are desperate for a break. then give it five minutes. Sketch it out and put it away. If it keeps calling, then give it five minutes a day – AFTER you've given the best of your writing energy to your WIP. No more than five minutes. 

If you are not desperate, then give the New Idea five minutes of writing time (a friendly conversation, not flirting), then don't look at it again until your WIP is totally finished and you are ready for a new challenge. A monogamous relationship with your manuscript can be surprisingly rewarding.

 

Non-fiction prompt – As fast as you can, jot down ten ideas for books you want to write, limiting yourself to one sentence or phrase per idea. Then return to the idea that feels the easiest to describe more fully and give yourself the rest of your fifteen minutes to expand on it. 

Fiction prompt – Put your character is a scene in which her commitment to something is tested by something that is shiny and seductive and new. BUT – it can't be a romantic or sexual relationship with another person. Frame the age-old struggle of commitment and betrayal within a different context.

 

elizabethtaylor

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…