Tag Archives: writers block

My week in Write

Image by Grant Snider

I’m away from home this week, spending some time away in seclusion to work on my WIP. I’ve always wanted to do this, cloister myself in a pretty place where I can be alone to create. I’ve been here since Monday and so far, I’VE FUCKING WRITTEN EXACTLY TWO PAGES!! This is sooooooo far away from the page count I wanted to accomplish (somewhere between 50 and a jabillion), and I feel like a cross between a rank amateur and the worst kind of slacker. BUT, I did have a bit of a breakthrough today. I’ve always thought that when so-called “writer’s block” hits, it’s because you’re approaching the page wrong, and what you need to do is take a 180 degree turn and come at it from another direction. So between that and a) making chicken salad from rotisserie chicken b) watching the shitstorm on the news c) eating cold pasta out of the leftover box from the restaurant, and d) pulling my pants up because I forgot to bring a belt, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I found out sometimes to go forward, you need to go back, and just the like foundation of a building, give your story enough support so what comes after doesn’t crumble. Turns out you can’t write all that foreshadowing if you have no structure for it to cast from. So I had to go back and give all those twists and turns a solid basis, and NOW, my story makes so much more sense. In fact, as I originally wanted to do, I’ve set my story up for at least another, if not one more, sequel. Now all I have to do is write it, but you know what? Once you’ve got the map, it’s so much more easy when you know where you’re going.

By golly, I do think I’ve reached the cocktail hour. Cheers!

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Tips from the MFA Pit, Part 2 – Writer’s Logic

Guess what?! The font of advice from the MFA pit just keeps spouting! More valuable info from an actual MFA in Creative Writing mentor to actual MFA students! This week we’re looking at writer’s logic, that little voice in your head that shouts, YES! KILL HIM! I DON’T CARE IF HE’S THE BEST CHARACTER YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN! HE MUST DIE! DIE, I SAY! Mwwwahhhha-ha-ha!! Anyway, this student was having thesis issues, as they couldn’t figure out what direction to take their characters, who were turning out static and one-dimensional. Consequently, the student couldn’t get comfortable with the thesis they were already fifty pages into. I suggested at maybe they weren’t really into the story, that maybe they should consider on writing in genre-that seemed to be the focus of most of their reading (MFA programs have a LOT of reading in the student’s genre or concentration) So they took me up on that idea, but still…
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I’ve been reading your pages and I’ll get back to with comments this weekend, if not before. The important thing is you’re more comfortable with this story, and that’s good. It means you’re finding which genre is right for you. And  you’re right—you will get to a point where the story just pours out of you. The characters will be telling YOU what they want to do. That’s because by that time your story will develop its own logic, and the characters will start acting the way that you designed them to act. Their actions will seem more realistic to how they would react in certain situations. If one character likes to think things through, they won’t suddenly act rash. You will know what direction to send them in as you’ll know that’s how they would handle a certain situation. The same thing with plot elements. You will know intrinsically what the end result will be, because the logic of your story will drive the plot in a certain direction. I’ve heard writers say, “Oh no, I think I have to kill Character X.” They don’t want to, but event sometimes force your hand, and it wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t. “X and Z have to fall in love.” Because if they didn’t, your story wouldn’t make sense. In essence, you’ll just know. I maybe have said this before, but this is why I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. It’s not that you’re stuck. It’s just that you’re fighting the logic of your own story. If you let it flow like it should, it almost always works its way out. The key is not fighting it. When you don’t, chances are your plot will free up and your story will start flowing again.

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And I have to tell you that my advice to this student has seemed to have worked up. They’re well over halfway into the new book and genre, and the story is indeed flowing well. It may turn out I’m just the best writing mentor ever!

Snowmageddon awaits

It was sunny and clear this afternoon in New Jersey, and unlike the photo to the left, snow-free. (Though that’s to change soon as a blizzard is barrelling up the coast) The wind was relatively calm, and from my window I could see all kinds of birds pecking at the feeder and except for the barren vegetation, it could have been almost be anytime of the year. But it isn’t, and I don’t need to step outside into the low-twenties chill to feel the hollowness of the season in my bones. After the choreographed optimism of the New Year fades into the mundane, what are we actually left with? Only the anti-climatic yawn of the Dead of Winter and the ennui that follows.

Maybe it’s just a sugar crash after all those Christmas cookies, but last fall’s good intentions and best laid plans now seem as sensible as earmuffs in August, and you’re left staring at a whole lot of letdowns. What happened to that get-up-and-go, those ideas that seemed so workable, those plans set to be implemented as soon as the everything got back to normal, post-holiday? Instead, you’re quickly finding out that things don’t really change, that everything goes comfortably back to the way it was, or more often than not, gets just a little bit worse.  You’re finding yourself just a little more broke, a touch fatter, a tad less cheerful and a whole lot lazier. A stretch on the sofa feels more natural that an extended stretch at laptop, and when you do find yourself in front of a screen, it’s more likely for Netflix than for fixing that severely flawed manuscript.

Not that you haven’t tried. To fix that manuscript, I mean. But everything you seem to write is crap. As it was the last time you looked at it just before Christmas. When you told yourself you’d make it better next month. When you had more time. When everything calmed down.  After the New Year. When all that holiday hoo-hah is behind you and you can finally think again. In January. Because in January the Universe presses the big RESET button and all wrongs get righted, everything gone down goes up, all promises are kept. When the Muse of Inspiration suddenly infuses us with glorious plot threads, miraculous turns-of-phrase and endings so sock-blowing that ever-elusive editor you queried back in the fall suddenly jumps from your proposal and screeches “MY GOD! THIS IS GONNA MAKE US MILLIONS!”

As if. So what to do?

Beats me. I’m depressed, remember? Deads of Winter tend to breed brain-deadness. Or at least that’s how it feels from here. All I can offer is this isn’t my first Dead of Winter, that I’ve made it through several, and there’s just something about January that breeds contempt. And invariably, things do pick up by February. Maybe it is all that holiday crap we ingested and like a six-year-old on Halloween night, we just need to sleep it off.

Here’s hoping. Back to work….

 

How can you call yourself a writer when writing’s the last thing your doing?

vintage-frustrated-writerOver the summer I started a new book, banging out enough for a proposal then kind of put it aside when the sagging middle showed up early. Being well-acquainted with that particular pain in the ass, I knew it was just a plot problem in search of a solution. So I went to a writers retreat, and with the help of a friend, hammered the issue into submission. With copious notes and a new outlook on the project, I felt ready to jump back into the swim, then my day job reared its ugly head. Suddenly, time became of the essence, and again, the manuscript moldered. Still, I told myself I’d get to it as soon as things eased up, and then another work-bomb exploded immediately followed by a family crisis. All of a sudden,  writing became as superfluous as whipped cream and a cherry (in most circles anyway),  and I knew if I was ever going to get back to it, I’d need to resolve what was in front of me first. Not that that realization made me feel any better. I fact, I still felt quite the slacker. Because In the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t the day job or the family or anything else I could use as an excuse.  I knew it was facing that sagging middle again, and I was terrified the plot prop I devised would hardly lift it an inch. And therein laid the rub.

To be a writer, one has to write, and no one has shouted that louder than me. But how can I preach the mantra of writers’ write when I had a novel just lingering in my hard drive, bereft? Was there something genuinely wrong with me, or was I just a hypocrite? Because surely one can’t still be a writer and not write at all?

Real life intrusions aside, every writer faces dark moments when the impetus eludes them, and I’m not referring to what’s commonly known as Writer’s Block. What I mean is when the will to write is gone, when doubt overwhelms you, when you can’t even think of yourself as a writer. Most often, times like these occur after a rejection, whether from a teacher, editor or agent, but more likely from a rebuff totally unrelated to anything literary. Rejections of this kind cloud judgment and sap confidence, eating away at the one fact that should always keep our writing mojo in perfect sync: that in the literary world, it’s never about you.  It’s always about the work, and it’s that work that sustains us. No matter how terrible or disappointing or unreliable things seem, at least there’s the writing, being the one reliable recourse that will always shape itself to our moods, and more than likely, become better for it.

Okay, enough wallowing in it. Ass in chair, bitch. Now.

Addiction: Writer

37ac708e8dee8de4ff3e1ecf73ed6944I’ll bet you thought I was going to write something about watching the RNC Convention tonight. Because who’d bypass the chance to shout about those toxic twins of the GOP, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, rockin’ Cleveland this eve. Well, sage observer you’re wrong wrong wrong. No idling in deep thought or in front of a television tonight for me. I have bigger fish to fry!

As a writer, you’ve probably had people say to you, “I’d write a book if I only had the time!’ or “Where do you get the time to write?” I’ve heard those gems to the point of distraction, and I usually answer, “When you’re a writer you find the time.” I know I’ve gone over this before, but here it is again–when approaching a project, clear your schedule and set up an immovable block of writing time, make sure your friends and family are aware of that block, and then enforce your boundaries. This is a common sense approach, and most of the time, it works. But what if real life does intrude to the point you find yourself NOT writing for an extended period of time? And when it does, how does that make you feel?

The reason I’m mentioning it is that’s exactly where I’ve found myself. As an academic, especially with the start of school looming, I’ve had a million minutiae to attend to, finalizing syllabi, finishing curriculum, coordinating crazy professor attire, etc., damn near sending me skittering off the cliff of sanity. This can happen to any writer when the noose of family, job or real world responsibilities begin to encroach on your fantasy time (let’s face it; we’d rather live in that world than “reality”. When it does, the worst of the worst could happen–you start not feeling like a writer. You’ve abandoned your routine and as the plot and pages start to fade, an ennui sets in that makes you so doubt yourself, you feel that tenuous identity slip away.

Here’s another thing I’ve said more than a few times: writers write. But if you’re not doing it, how can you possibly call yourself one anymore? If that very statement gives you the shakes, than congratulate yourself: you’re taking yourself–and your craft–more seriously than you realize. And if you are, then to get back into writing like a writer, start thinking like one and prioritize.

Above all, ask yourself how important writing is to your health and well-being. If you feel about it the way I do, you’re not quite right when you don’t write, so you’ll find a way to get it back into your routine. The craziness can’t last forever, so start planning for when things return to normal, and if that means perhaps taking those extra two or three weeks to finish what been occupying your time, then do it or you’ll never be able to concentrate. If you’re able, fix a deadline to restart, but if you find yourself open-ended, then again–ask yourself how important writing is in your life. If you can’t picture life without it, then you must make time for it–during lunch, after the kids are in bed, the first thing in the morning, between episodes of Mr. Robot–but do find some time for it somewhere. There is one intractable rule here: writers write. We are addicts in our own inimitable way, but it’s an addiction, when it’s done well, the world–and your own world–is so much better for.

Now that I have that out of the way–onto the DNC! (Hoo boy, I’m such a liar.)

What am I doing? No Effing idea

6c1e0c571b3446778fce1e30f6a1de9eIf you regularly read this blog you’ll recall I finished a book a couple of weeks ago. So yesterday, being the self-flagellating writer that I am,  I started a new book.  This one is going to be longer than the last one, over 100k words and a much more intricate plot. Normally I fly out the gate, the words shooting out of me like verbal vomit. (Okay, gross allusion, but think the alphabet, not masticated grilled cheese and tomato soup). Most of the time, the first three chapters are the easiest I write as I always have the opening in my head, and within a couple of days I usually have them down. But with this book? I spent all day and ended up with half a page. Half a page! I should be totally ashamed of myself. I once wrote a 50,000 word book in five weekends. So what’s the deal?

A long time ago I discovered the cure for Writer’s Block, or rather I discovered it doesn’t really exist.  So-called writer’s block only happens because you’re doing something wrong. It could be any number of things from writing outside your character’s logic, to veering too far from the ultimate goal. But I found the surest way to “cure” it was to turn things 180 degrees around, to give your character a perspective from the other side. If they’re going North, have them go South, if they’re running away from something, have them run toward it instead, don’t let them get that promotion–get them fired instead or better yet, quit. Have them act instead of react or visa versa. You’ll never get anywhere by skating the perimeter. Bust through it and see what happens.

But I digress. Because I don’t have Writer’s Block. I have something so much worse. I have stared this new project right in the eye and I have come back intimidated.

Has it happened to you? Have you had this terrific plot rolling around in your head so you do all the prework, plot the story to two sequels then clearing your calendar, you finally sit down to write. Then all at once the enormity of the thing starts looming over you like the Empire State atop Everest and you start cringing, that expanse of white screen as terrifying as an Arctic blizzard, and you wonder how the hell you’re ever going to get out. So now what?

I suppose I should take the advice of a friend of mine, so simple it almost seems ridiculous: Just write the book. Just write the book. Just write the book. She has it on a sign over her desk so she never forgets it. Just write the book because if you don’t, like a car that never leaves the driveway you’ll never go anywhere, and you’ll sure as hell never get the book done if you don’t.

So I will just write the book, but that in no way signifies I have any idea what I’m doing!

 

All systems stop

Brick wallRight now I’m in the process of editing my latest book, and for the most part, it’s rolling along superbly. I have a terrific premise, stellar characters, lots of quirkiness and some great dialogue. I always keep in mind the big picture–the one thing I want to accomplish and how it all will eventually end up. For one reason or the other I can always visualize the last scene, where the characters will be and the affecting bon mots that’ll roll off their tongue which will hopefully, linger in my readers’ minds. And then three-quarters of the way in, I turned around and just like that! I ran face-first into a brick wall.

Stopped. Not stalled–I’m talking dead motor. I couldn’t move an inch and worse than that, I didn’t know why. I thought at first I was stymied by the research, as there’s some technical devices I’m using that needed to be clarified. But that wasn’t it either, and it wasn’t the pacing, because it was going along at such a rapid clip I made a conscious effort to slow it down. Then it hit me (metaphorically): I couldn’t go on because I didn’t know one of  my characters well enough. And when you don’t, how could you possibly know what they’ll do next?

According to Nancy Lamb in The Art and Craft of Storytelling, “how your characters act and react–how they think and feel; how they handle obstacles and respond to people, places and things is story.” Agreed. I have some great characters. They’re colorful and full of nuance, they have interesting backstories and deliver some killers lines. Yet…and this took me a bit of thinking to figure out–they’re still one-dimensional. I’m working with them, but I don’t really know them. I’m hitting that wall of what-to-do-next because this far into the book I can no longer write them observationally, or how the opposing characters see them. I have to write them motivationally or how their unique combination of nurture, nature, inclination and quirkiness force them to do the things they do.  So I stopped and thought about the plot situation my character was in, and that’s where I found my moment of clarity. I couldn’t predict what he’d do next because I’d yet to give him justification. Oh sure, I knew his present because I had observed it through the eyes of the other characters. But I wasn’t well-enough acquainted with his personal history to give him a motivation to react the way that would advance the story. So to help that along, I devised a little checklist to run him through.

Personality  – Is he aggressive or passive? Confident or shy? Is he willing to take chances, or does he like to play it safe? Cheerful or moody?

Defining Traits – Is he a geek or a loner? A leader or a follower? Fun or a bit of a wet blanket? Is he cold? Is he liked or feared, and how much does that matter to him?

Family – Is he close to them or estranged? Married or does he want to be? Any children? Youngest, middle or oldest? Pets?

Interests – What is he passionate about? Any hobbies? Political? A patron of the arts? What does he really dislike? And how does this conflict with the other main character?

Clothes – Does he dress nattily? Or like a slob? And what does he observe in others?

Body Language – How is his handshake? Does he always make eye contact? Does he walk confidently or does he cower?  Does he listen?

This is just a short list as you can go on and on, but by the end you will end up knowing your character a bit better. And when you do you can finally sit back and relax. They’ll take it from there.

 

My Post-Holiday Sugar Crash

BirdfeederIt’s a sunny morning in my neck of New Jersey, and unlike the photo to the left, snow-free. The wind is relatively calm, and from my window I can see all kinds of birds pecking at the feeder and except for the barren vegetation, it could almost be anytime of the year. But it isn’t, and I don’t need to step outside into the mid-twenties chill to feel the hollowness of the season in my bones, especially when the Weather Bleaters are predicting a Snowmageddon for the weekend.  Sorry if I’m being a bit of a Debbie Downer, but seriously, after the choreographed optimism of the New Year fades back into the mundane, what are we actually left with? Only the anti-climatic yawn of the Dead of Winter and the mind-numbing ennui that follows.

Maybe it’s just a sugar crash after all those Christmas cookies, but last fall’s good intentions and best laid plans now seem as sensible as earmuffs in August. What happened to that get-up-and-go, those ideas that seemed so workable, those plans set to be implemented as soon as the everything got back to normal, post-holiday? Instead, you’re quickly finding out that things don’t really change, that everything goes comfortably back to the way it was, or more often than not, gets just a little bit worse. (Like waiting for that first paycheck of 2016? Times like these make you wish you’d majored in creative accounting and not creative writing.) You’re finding yourself just a little more broke, a touch fatter, a tad less cheerful and a whole lot lazier. A stretch on the sofa feels more natural that an extended stretch at laptop, and when you do find yourself in front of a screen, it’s more likely for Netflix than for fixing that severely flawed manuscript.

Not that you haven’t tried. To fix that manuscript, I mean. But everything you seem to write is crap. As it was the last time you looked at it just before Christmas. When you told yourself you’d make it better next month. When you had more time. When everything calmed down.  After the New Year. When all that holiday hoo-hah is behind you and you can finally think again. In January. Because in January the Universe presses the big RESET button and all wrongs get righted, everything gone down goes up, all promises are kept. When the Muse of Inspiration suddenly infuses us with glorious plot threads, miraculous turns-of-phrase and endings so sock-blowing that ever-elusive editor you queried back in the fall suddenly jumps from your proposal and screeches “MY GOD! THIS IS GONNA MAKE US MILLIONS!”

As if. So what to do?

Beats me. I’m depressed, remember? Deads of Winter tend to breed brain-deadness. Or at least that’s how it feels from here. All I can offer is this isn’t my first Dead of Winter, that I’ve made it through several, and there’s just something about January that breeds contempt. And invariably, things do pick up by February. Maybe it is all that holiday crap we ingested and like a six-year-old on Halloween night, we just need to sleep it off.

Okay, whine over. Back to work.

 

Grrrrrrrrrrrrr…

Woman shouting in surprise

I’m always writing something. If it’s not this blog, I’m jotting into my journal (yes, paper, I still have one of those) or slaving away on one work-in-progress or another. While the first two are usually seat-of-my-pants entries, which to me, are about as much effort as launching into a brand new box of Skinny Cow Chocolate Truffle Bars  (have you had these things? Almost orgasmic, and a ridiculous 100 calories! With NO artificial sweeteners either!!), lately my WIP has been leaving me somewhat frustrated. Granted, I’m not very far into it, only about thirty pages or so, but I’ve been so stuck on minutiae, examining every word and phrasing, that I’m hardly making any progress. Seems I just keep picking it apart and rewriting over and over, staring at it so closely and critically I can practically read the coding on the screen. I’m telling you, my inner editor has gone off the deep end, and it’s nearly driving me nuts. What’s a writer to do?

First, a little self-criticism, followed by a bit of analysis. Editing, intrinsically, is always a good thing. Seat-of-the-pants writing, or as I like to refer to it, verbal vomit, will only take you so far. It’s like making popcorn: you always end up with a lot of old maids (talk about an anachronism, but you know what I mean). If you don’t get rid of them, you’ll end of breaking your teeth, and in your writing, your rhythm. I tend to edit often as I write, re-reading line after paragraph after page in each writing session, and more often than not, I find a lot of superfluous prose I can trim away. Ultimately come up with cleaner, more elegant writing. The problem arises when the editing impedes me from getting further into my story, and I end up shaping and reshaping the same piece of clay so to speak, which is where I’m finding myself now. Why in blue blazes am I doing this?!

Now comes the self-analysis part. I’ve determined there are a few factors. I’m thinking because of school my writing schedule is a bit more erratic,  so I’ve sort of lost my momentum.  But I’m hardly one of those people out there who say they’re too busy to write because, personally, I never understood that. Usually I’m too busy not to write,  as I’ve always found it a challenge to snatch blocks of time I could devote to writing, whether in the early morning hours, during breaks between classes or somewhere between dinner- and bedtime.  As is the old adage: if you want something done, give it to a busy person. Applies to me, because truly, I’ve never missed a deadline, and I always get things done. So why now?

Perhaps it comes down to self-confidence, and maybe I’m lacking a bit at the moment, which I’m sure all writers wrestle with now and then. Sometimes we lack the conviction it takes to be confident in our abilities, and since writing is such a lonely exercise, it’s not as if we have a boss or coach standing over us prodding us on. Or maybe I’m a bit cowed by that Great Unknown that lies beyond those obsessively crafted words, but how will I know how truly wonderful I am if I don’t move past them? Writing means many different things to writers, but don’t let anyone ever tell you it doesn’t take courage to bring out in the open what we’ve created so deeply within us. Sometime I think it takes the courage of a soldier. And yet, we still do it, don’t we?

 

Frustration, you ol’ sycophant

22bdcd424ceaf4cf9d7b2f114d7e462dIf you’re going to call yourself a writer, then please acquaint yourself with the meaning of frustration. There’s so many applications and levels of it, the longer you contemplate the word, the more varied the strains. There’s the frustration you feel when you start, with your characters, the opening line, the title, the voice. Then there’s the continuity, the plotting, the criticism you get when you get cocky enough to let someone take a peek, or when you have to toss out a whole chapter because your research was flawed. Then you get to the inevitable saggy middle where you get frustrated trying to dig yourself out of a black hole, and when you finally do, you find that half of what your wrote has to be rewritten. Then as you’re sliding down that slippery slope to the mandatory Dark Moment, you find it’s more café au lait than espresso, and you’re going to have to turn that Everyman into a bastard if you’re ever going to make your plot believable. But nothing’s worse than tying it all up at the end, when in order to avoid that oh-so-easy Dickensian conclusion, you have actually have everything make sense, which, let me tell you, is about as easy as straining tar. Still, somehow you eventually make it all work, and before long, you’re exhaling a big sigh of relief and typing the end. But isn’t all the cruelest cut of all, because then is when the real frustration begins.

Rewrites, edits, proofreads, rewrites, edit, edit, edit. Format. Submit. Reject. Submit. Reject. Submit. Reject, reject, reject. Beat yourself up. Tell yourself you suck as a writer, spend the next three days binge-watching Family Guy and eating tater tots and canned frosting, until you can’t stand it any longer. So you pick up that paperback that spent more time being hurled against the wall than in your hands, but which ultimately restores your writing mojo through its horribleness when you cry, “I can fucking do it SO much better!” ignoring, of course, it spent three months topping the New York Times List. (Sigh…there’s JUST no justice in the world, is there?) So what’s a writer to do?

Listen, sweeties, if you came here looking for answers, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Except maybe if you’re going to call yourself a writer, you just might as well get used to frustration. As patronizing as it sounds, you’re also going to have work around it if you’re ever going to get anywhere, so you might as well just keep writing. Though you should remember that just because frustration is a writer’s constant companion, it doesn’t mean you have to make it your BFF.

Hang tough, stop bitching, ass in chair. Writer’s write, after all.