Attention, white blood cells…

I’m fighting something germy today. Head is filling with barbed wire, throat with slugs, body is bruised as if a hit squad of ghosts beat on me all night long with tennis racquets. I’m supposed to run a race on Saturday, so this is not allowed to happen.

I’m almost through the final plot overhaul of my WIP. If I don’t pass out from an overdose of tea, I should finish plowing through the last quarter today. This is an extremely detailed outline – about 120 pages long. I guess it’s a cross between an outline and a first draft. I don’t write my YA novels this way, but this is a historical middle grade, and I had to make sure that the story lines of the personal story of the main character and the historical events mesh perfectly.

The mailbag is bulging, so I must start dealing with it again. And this is a totally excellent question, so here goes.

A. F. writes: I’ve just made the decision to face my fears and actually tackle a novel. It’s been my secret wish since I was a little girl, but it’s
the one thing I’ve been scared to try. But as Mr. Freeman says, “Fear is a great place to begin art,” so here I go.

My question is this: How do you thwart self-consciousness when writing prose? All of the fiction I’ve attempted has either been over-thought that it’s dead on
the page, or so naked that it’s all but unreadable. I want to tame the latter to defeat the former, but I feel like the words that I write are judging me. I’ve outlined the crap out of the story I want to write, so it’s already over-thought, and I’ve only written a few pages and it’s already trying too hard to be Literary. Does that make sense?

It makes total sense to me. The danger in being a sensitive, well-read, thoughtful, intelligent person who wants to write a novel is that you are sensitive, well-read, thoughtful, and intelligent. My guess is that as you write, the gremlins in your mind start yelling at you, laughing at you, and saying nasty, spiteful things about your prose, your ambition, and your passion until you are ready to flee the keyboard in tears and get a job at the local widget factory or office pod. Am I write? I mean, right?

You have a form of Writer’s Block. You have Imploding Expectations Writer’s Block, which is a truly sucky variation of the beast.

I will quote She Who Is Wise, Anne LaMott, on this one: “… awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would read a close friend’s early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of “Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!”” (p. 31, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. The chapter is called “Perfectionism.”)

Here’s the deal – nobody writes great stuff in a first draft. And if there is someone out there who does, she can’t be my friend. I write crap in the first draft. A LOT of it. And the second. And the third. And usually by the fourth draft, I start to get a clue, to understand the character deeply, to be able to hold all of the narrative threads in my head at the same time. Writing is not magic. Writing is work and it always takes us longer and is always harder than we want it to be. Take control over those gremlins. Use their power to write strongly-worded letters to politicians. But do not allow them to beat you up anymore. It’s a draft. It’s only a draft. You will make it better later.

One more idea: label this draft the Over-Thought, Literary Draft. There is nothing wrong with that. Write out a note to self, that when you revise, you’ll take out all the pretentious stuff to uncover the story underneath. Then write it. And be gentle on yourself, please. The world is harsh place. Your writing can be a place of serenity, humor, and kindness. You can do this work.

BH and I had a date last night. We went to see An Inconvenient Truth. I tend to be suspicious of politicians and am as cynical as they come, but this shot me through the heart. Go see this movie. Ask for the DVD for a present. Start talking about what you can do to make our world healthier. (The movie was shown as part of the Oswego Film Group series. If you live up here, check them out, too.)

Looking for more great quotes about the freedom to read and the dangers of book banning? Check out today’s Shelf Life column.

Now I will go ask BH to construct a sling for my head, which feels like it’s the size of a weather balloon and is wobbling on my neck in an alarming manner.

16 Replies to “Attention, white blood cells…”

  1. Bird by Bird is a fantastic book. I love the part where she talks about seeing the story through a one-inch picture frame, and the concept of writing as someone pushing pictures to you under the door until you figure out what it all means.

    Anyway, thanks for this–I’m struggling with something similar, and it’s good to hear it again!

    Feel better. :o)

  2. I have problems with that too. I think the best thing to do when you’re writing a rough draft is to WRITE it, not edit. Edit after you finish the draft, not while you are writing it. And then edit some more. Tell yourself you can edit it a bazillion times once you’ve actually finished writing it. Try not to edit as much as I do though or at least take breaks; I’m an obsessive editor and it’s very unhealthy; I lose quite a bit of sleep because of it. Editing for 30hrs straight (except for potty breaks and microwaving cups of tea) is not a good idea.

    My least favorite kind of writer’s block is the kind you get when you are so burnt out that it feels like your words have evaporated. Not only are there no words, but there are barely any thoughts either. Your head is just empty save a few tumbleweeds. I had that for over 6 months recently; it was awful.

  3. It’s good to hear that someone has been through that and come out writing. I haven’t written in four months and was terrified that the words would never come back. >.<

  4. Yeah, that cold is going around. I have it too.

    An Inconvenient Truth is a truly excellent film. Quiet, thoughtful, well-documented, shocking. Saw it up at a dinner-(movie)-theater up in Bar Harbor, Maine.

  5. I feel like the words that I write are judging me.
    Wow, what a beautiful way to say that. I can relate.

    Laurie, the slugs-in-throat thing has me thinking of Harry Potter. I am disgusted and entertained at once. I hope you’re feeling better in time to run.

  6. Kristen Stewat in the Speak movie

    This is way off topic, but it’s been bugging me for awhile. It’s about the movie Speak, do you know if Kristen Stewart read the book before they started filming? Also, did you get to talk to her while you were visiting the set? What’s she like? I’m asking you all of these questions because she’s my favourite actress after I saw her in Speak and love all of her other movies that I’ve seen. You and Jessica mentioned her a few times in the commentary, but nothing about if she read the book. One more thing, on the DVD there’s a behind the scenes bonus feature (I think that’s what it was called) and you’re talking about how the idea of speak came to you in a nightmare. Who was the girl behind you in the blue t-shirl and white shorts while you were talking? Thanks so much if you answer, it would make my day! I hope you feel well enough to run, good luck!

  7. Re: Kristen Stewat in the Speak movie

    I know for a fact that she did NOT read it before filming. She was very busy on-set and I was only there for a couple days so our only interaction was a brief “hello.” I was most impressed with her maturity and obvious talent. I’m very proud she represents Melinda.

    Don’t know who you’re talking about in the blue shirt – I don’t have a copy of the DVD hanging around. I’ll try to look for one.

  8. Re: Kristen Stewat in the Speak movie

    Dont tell anyone but i kinda wanted to ask you some of the same questions.
    Is this the girl? The one on the right? I think she is Kristen’s double.
    Free Image Hosting at

  9. Re: Kristen Stewat in the Speak movie

    Yes, that’s the girl I was asking about. I didn’t know that Kristen had a double. Thanks.

  10. Re: Kristen Stewat in the Speak movie

    Bravo! Good call! that is exactly who it is – Kristen’s body-double, who was used for setting up shots, etc.

    I sure look tired in this photo. I think I will take a nap now.

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