Archive | Writing Process

What it Takes to Be a Writer: Part Three

You’ve revved up your brain, planted your butt in the chair, and now you’re ready to write. I sometimes envision this moment as that of a piano player: you place your fingers on the keys, expecting great music to pour forth….and nothing happens.

You freeze. You don’t know what to write. Or the words won’t come. Or you are so damn critical of the words that do come that you shut down the computer and decide to go clean up dog poop in the backyard.  Because dealing with that kind of shit is better than dealing with the crap you’re putting on the page.

Ahem. I have news for you. Writing crap is good.  Writing crap is desirable (at least in a first draft). GETTING ANY WORDS ON THE PAGE AT ALL IS YOUR ONLY GOAL.  So do it. That’s my first bit of advice:

Write Crap

Just write, even if that means reminding yourself how awful you’re doing as you go. My first drafts are full of all caps exhortations about what terrible work I’m doing. Like: THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE AND IT’S REALLY STUPID. Once I’ve gotten it out of my system, I can carry on with the rest of it.

Here is an unedited glimpse of what I wrote yesterday as I tried to get going:

Okay I’m just sitting here with the cat, staring at the computer.  What the f#%k. Staring never got the writing done. Just write something. This is where prompts are really handy!   Start with the image.

And I did. I started with the image and the scene flowed from there.  Writing crap, and reminding yourself of it, is incredibly freeing.

Write Crap Often

Like, every day. We already talked about making time and conserving energy for writing in part two.  Do your best to write as often as possible. It makes a huge freaking difference, I’m not kidding.  Doing this, you gain momentum. You have that lovely feeling that half of you is living in your fictional world.  And because of that, you’re in love with the real world you actually do inhabit.  And when you are in love, you want to spend more time with your beloved, correct? So you will be eager to return to writing your novel.  And that, my friends, is the power of writing every day. (Even if it’s crap.)

Plan Ahead

I’ve proven to myself over and over that I procrastinate and get distracted when I don’t know where I’m going.  This is why I like to write a loose outline for the plot of my novel, and why I’m such a huge fan of character dossiers.  The other thing I like to do is write notes to myself. I do a lot of “writing about” the project in my journal, and I just about always write little notes to myself in the manuscript as to where to go next.  Then when I open the file first thing in the morning, I know where I’m going. I often diverge from my plans, but at least I have a way in to get started.

Employ Systems

There’s lots of help out there for writers.  You can download Freedom, which will turn off your access to the internet for a predetermined amount of time.  You can use a Pomodoro timer that allows you to write in spurts (or just use your phone’s timer).  You can use Scrivener.  The point is, there are all kinds of tools out there that will help you in your daily writing. Find the ones that work for you and use them.

So there you have it. What are your favorite tricks to get words on the page?

2

Preparation is Three-Quarters of the Battle

Tour_Eiffel_Wikimedia_Commons_(cropped)I’m leaving for France (Paris and Ceret) soon. I’m not one of those people who pack and repack a week ahead. No, you’ll find me throwing clothes in the suitcase the night before.

But, and this is a big but—when the time comes for me to commence said throwing, I will know exactly what I’m going to take. (Okay, because I’m a terrible packer and a confirmed right-brainer, there will be last minute changes and additions.) Because I’ve been thinking about what I need to take clothes-wise, book-wise, and technology-wise all month.

Chance favors the prepared mind.  And the prepared packer. And the prepared writer.

At least I think so.

I know there’s an endless debate between pantsers and plotters.  (For the record, a pantser is one who flies by the seat of his pants when writing, and a plotter is one who plans everything out.)  And, seeing as how I have a completely somewhat loose approach to organization and house cleaning and the like, you would think I would fall down on the side of pantsing.

But I have learned through many years of experience that when I pants, I get into trouble. Not that I don’t love it, because I do. What could be better than allowing your mind and fingers to ramble down shady lanes and sunny byways in strange worlds? But the key word here is ramble, because that’s exactly what I do. Ramble along with no worry for the strictures of plot or character. Or showing a cohesive setting. Or anything but my rambles.

And one cannot write a novel without worrying about plot or character or setting.  Or one can, but one will need to do a lot of rewriting when one is done.  I do love rewriting—but not when I have to figure out how to make a shapeless lump into a story.

So, I plot. And write up character dossiers. And draw maps of locations and diagrams of houses and offices.  I call all of this prep work and I actually enjoy it. Sometimes I think I enjoy it too much, as I can get so engrossed in it that I never quite get to the writing of the novel.

It occurred to me, as I pondered what clothing I should take to Europe, that it might be helpful to share what I consider to be the bare minimum of novel prep work, because it’s been awhile since we discussed this.  So here you go (and remember this is a minimum. You can do a lot more if you wish):

Character Dossiers.  I fill them out for all of my main characters and do at least the rudiments (appearance, personal traits) for the minor ones.  Because all story starts with character, this is time well spent and often helps me come up with plot ideas as well.  It is also helpful to know who is going to tell the story and if it will be in first person or third.

Setting Sketches. I need to be able to see where my character lives and works.  This goes for big setting, such as the overall city she lives in, and small setting, such as her home and office.

A Loose Outline. And by loose, I mean loose. I’m not one of those people who plans out every single beat and action and character thought. I do like to leave some room for surprises.  A simple list of potential happenings will do.

Really that’s it. I know, you don’t see research on the list. That’s because, like technology, I’m on a need-to-know basis with it.  When I don’t know how to do something on my computer, ask the Google How do I do _______________ ? I always get a quick answer.  Same thing with research.  At least for the first draft you do not want to get mired in a lot of facts you might not really need. (And if you’re writing an historical, my hat’s off to you. And you’ll need to do a lot more research.)

Since I just finished my rewrite, I’ll be prepping a new novel myself soon. Can’t wait.

While I have you, are you a pantser or a plotter? What do you think are the advantages of your approach?

Photo from Wikipedia.

4

The Tyranny of Word Count

Every morning on my calendar I note how many words I’ve written (my main fiction writing time is early in the morning).  My goal is 1500-2000 words a day, which is a nice pace for me. If I’m on, I can hit 2K easily, but on off days, 500 words is a stretch.  Counting words is a great way to remind yourself of how much you’ve accomplished, and of course you know that what you focus on, grows. (I imagine myself staring at a page of words, willing it to multiply like the dandelions on our front yard.)

And its not just the daily word count that we focus on, but we think about it in other ways as well.  We fret and stew about how many words a book should be.  How long is a novella? How long is a short story? If I go over those standard word counts wills something bad happen? And so on and so forth.

And so even though I love checking in on my daily word count notations, I sometimes think they can become a bit tyrannical. And result in bad habits. Tell me I’m not the only one who:

  1. Writes complicated sentences–because they entail more words.
  2. Use two words when one will do. Because, word count.
  3. Catch myself repeating something and then letting it stand. Because, you know why, word count.
  4. Endures excruciating moments when I’m straining for just 100 more words to meet my quota.

Okay, okay, I am writing raw as coal-before-it-becomes-a-diamond drafts.  And I know that the value of rewriting is inestimable.  But still, sometimes I wonder if there’s a better way to keep track of it all, or if I really do need to keep track? To answer that last question first, when I’m writing regularly, I think it’s important to have metrics.  The novelist J.T. Ellison says that we must “touch our story, think about it” on a regular basis, and I agree. (Regular basis=daily.)  Keeping a word count reminds you of the importance of this.  When I wring my hands and tell myself I’m not much of a writer, all I have to do is flip open my planner and there it is, ink black and white (well, okay, color from gel pens), proof that if nothing else I do get up and throw words at the page regularly. And if there are lots of blank days with no word counts listed, I am reminded that I’m slacking.

But is there a better way to keep track? I suppose I could write to the end of whatever scene I’m working on and list how many scenes or chapters I’ve completed.  But often when I end my writing session at the close of a scene, I close myself off as well. (Hemingway famously ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.)  And of course, there is rating yourself by time as well.  If you’ve sat at your computer for two hours, you’ve done your job.  Except one could easily sit at said computer for two hours and not write a word.  I know, I’ve done it I had a friend who did it.

I dunno. Maybe you can tell me a better way?

The truth is I’m the worst goal setter in the world.  The standard advice to block out time for writing on my calendar doesn’t work for me, because I rebel against myself.  As in, look at my calendar and say, meh, don’t feel like doing that today. This is clearly a variation of the childhood refrain, “I’m doing it because I want to and not because you tell me to.” Yep, childish as all get-out, not to mention counter productive.  I actually love to set elaborate goals, goals that even the most vigorous Type A personality could never meet.

And for some unknown reason, writing to word count, tyrannical as the process is, works for me. It is the only thing I’ve found that keeps me productive on a regular basis.  And so on bad days I groan and strain and complain until I reach at least 1,000 words and on good days I pat myself on the back when I easily sail past 2K.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. (And if it was, we’d be bored.)

What metrics do you use to keep track of your progress?

And by the way, for the truly nutty among you, my friend Milli Thornton runs 10K Days for writers every month, twice a month. There’s one coming up tomorrow (July 20) that I’m participating in, and one this Saturday as well.

Happy writing!

 

10

Writing More is Easier

pencil_notebook_writing_237689_lYes, you read that headline correctly. I am going to set about telling you why writing more is easier than writing less.  KEEP READING. I know you were about to click away when you read that writing more bit. But stick with me.  You can throw tomatoes at the end if you like, but at least give my brilliant and thought-provoking words a ponder.

Years ago, (not even going to tell you how many), when I was learning to drive, my sister would sometimes take me out to practice. (Seeing as how she was only three years older than me, that would be illegal today.)  There was one curvy stretch of road fronting the air base that tended to be traffic free, which is where we headed. As I got behind the wheel, my sister urged me to step on the gas, saying “Driving faster is easier than driving slower.”

While the fact that I had three older sisters to share such helpful tidbits  might explain a lot about me, it also illustrates the principle of writing that I want to share: more is better.  But first, let me mention another example, that of meditation.  Yes, yet another topic you don’t want to hear.  I’ve experimented with meditation for years and never managed to get a regular practice going. I’d sit down for five or ten minutes, as the experts told me, planning to gradually increase my time. But here’s the deal: nothing happened. I felt no effects from it. Only when I regularly carved out twenty minutes of time to practice did the benefits begin to accrue.

And now back to writing.  I have been a bit stymied with my WIP.  This first draft is a mess, complete with all caps notes to myself like THIS IS THE WORST PIECE OF CRAP EVER AND THIS SCENE MAKES NO SENSE.  I’m not kidding.  I was rocking along, forcing myself to write 500 or 1,000 words a day.

But one day, I managed to eked out 2,000 words. And suddenly I enjoyed writing it again. I set a goal of 2,000 words a day (generally accomplished first thing in the morning) and started flying.  Not only were the words piling up, but I fell in love with the story and the characters all over again. The more I wrote, the better I felt.  Truly, committing to a higher word count a day became easier than trying to get excited over 500 words.

Here’s why I think this happens:

  1. Mental momentum.  When I get more accomplished each day, I think about it more.  The characters pop into my brain throughout the day, and I find myself scribbling notes often.  By writing more, I’m engaging my brain more.
  2. Encouragement.  Man, its nice to see that word count pile up.  I was despairing that I’d ever write a eke out a full novel with this story and suddenly I have 75,000 words.
  3. Writing fast.  In order to accomplish my goal, I have to write fast and not worry too much about getting it perfect.  This allows me to get the story on the page and push through the doubts. Much better than wringing my hands because I don’t know where to go next
  4. Writing breed writing.  Or, the more you do, the more you can do.  Just like energy breeds more energy–its all true.
  5. It gets easier. The more you write, the easier it is–and I mean this in terms of having ease as you are writing. If you only write a little bit once in awhile, your writing habit is rusty and it is hard. But if you’re writing a lot every day, you get into the rhythm of it and fingers fly.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it because it is true. So say I.  What say you? What’s your word count goal?

Also–a note for regular readers.  Do you remember a post I did recently called Meditation for Writers? It would have been since the start of the year, or at the very end of last year. I am certain I wrote the damn thing, but I can’t find it to save my life.

Photo by len-k-a.

12

Committing the Cardinal Writing Sin

manzana_original_adan_241995_lForgive me, father for I have sinned am sinning.

I am committing one of the cardinal writing sins.

I am three-quarters of the way through the first draft of my next novel, and rather than writing all the way to the end, I am starting over.

I hear your gasps.  I see your open mouths.  I understand your shock and dismay.  Because I feel it, too.

Here’s the story.  I am known to expound on the virtues of the writing process loudly and often, at least among certain groups.  By the writing process, I mean this the following.  You do some prep work, such as character dossiers and a loose outline, and you write your first draft (also known as the discovery draft) from start to finish, emphasis on the finish.  And then you ponder and make notes and ponder some more, and return to the manuscript and write the second draft.  You rinse and repeat as many times as necessary, ending with the revision draft, in which you concentrate on word choice, deleting adverbs, and grammar.  All the little things.  Then, and only then, do you consider your manuscript complete.bulgaria_sinner_saint_51020_h

Any deviation from this process is frowned on in my world.

But here I am doing it.  I am planning to launch into the second draft before completing the first.  I have good reasons, I swear it! From the start, I’ve known this draft was lacking in everything a few things, such as, oh, voice and plot and interesting characters.  I started it on a whim while in France last year, and had written several chapters before I really started thinking about where I was going with it (do not try this at home).  I knew I had issues and yet I liked the main character and her arc a lot and so I plunged on.

But the antagonist was a soft, sweet Mama-bear type.  And the love interest was too perfect.  And I had a whole sub-plot going that really didn’t combine with the main plot.  At all. Sigh.  While in Nashville last week, I did a ton of journaling and writing about, which is my way of thinking through issues with my fiction.  And I came up with ideas that pop the whole story open and make it all sparkly and shiny.  Ideas that I love.  But my antagonist is totally different now, and the love interest’s imperfections make him a new character.  That stupid sub-plot is gone and there’s a whole new location.

Often, you can come up with ideas for big changes in your novel and keep writing as if you wrote the first three-quarters of the story with those ideas in place.  But the changes that I have in mind seem to me to be so innate that I need to begin again.

So that’s what I’m going to do.  HOWEVER, I just received rewrite notes from an editor who is very interested in The Bonne Chance Bakery and so I am setting everything else aside to work on that.  Maybe–just maybe–I will change my mind about starting over in the interim.  I have agonized over this a fair amount.  But I highly doubt it.

What is your usual process? Have you ever started over on a project before finishing it? Do tell!

Photos by intrusoft and KevinWalsh, both from everystockphoto.

0

Parsing for Plotters: Three Methods

First off, I probably need to explain my headline.  

For starters, I'm a plotter, as opposed to a pantser, though I'm not a terribly serious, must-know-everything plotter.  I know most of you know the difference between a plotter and a pantser, but there are always newbies among us and so I shall pontificate:

A plotter must likes to get the story lined out (be it novel, short story or article) ahead of time, before he starts writing.  

A pantser likes to sit down and write and see what happens.

Mlab-gary-hamel-1921221-h

Pantsing makes plotters shiver with distaste.  You get stuck in black holes, they cry! You waste time going down story lines that don't pan out! You get to the end and nothing works because you didn't know where you were going!

Plotting makes pantsers shudder with disgust.  If you already know the story, you get bored writing it, they say.  You don't leave any room for the magic to happen! You are not as creative as we are!  

Okay, okay, maybe they don't say that last bit.  But they think it.  

Anyway.

I am a plotter because I've wasted way too much time trying to make books come together that I haven't thought out.  I'm a plotter because if I know where I'm going when I open a file to write, I get way more done than if I don't.  I'm a plotter because I know that even having a loose outline to follow still allows for the creative magic (the walk-on character, the unexpected plot twist) to happen.

And since I am a plotter, I am also a parser.  Even if you are a pantser, you are likely a bit of a parser, too.  Allow me to explain myself. By parsing, I mean figuring out all the shit that goes into a story.  And let me tell you, in a novel, there is a lot of it.  Which means a lot of parsing.  At least for me.

I am not the kind of writer who sits down, does an outline, then follows it.  I sit down, do an outline, write some, realize the outline doesn't work, parse, and then rinse and repeat.  And also, there is parsing a plenty when it comes to figuring out that outline.

Parsing

So, this is an article about parsing.  Because, it occurred to me while talking to a client the other day that there are three kinds of parsing.  (Maybe even more, but these are the ones I have identified.)

You may prefer to thin while parsing.  You may prefer to write while parsing.  Or you may prefer to talk while parsing.  Let's look at each style:

Writing parsing.  This is what I like to do, and what makes the most sense to me.  Writers write, right? I'm a champion writing parsing.  I feel spirals and journals with notes on my WIP and have tons of files saved on the computer as well.  I think through my fingers (to the point that if I'm to retain information, I need to take notes) and so this kind of figuring out works well for me.

Talking parsing.  This kind of parsing can happen in a critique group, with a writing coach or teacher, your agent or editor, or with a trusted family member or friend.  It can be incredibly helpful to brainstorm out loud and throw around ideas for your story in these situations.  And, a note of caution: I find this works best after you've gotten some notes and ideas, and maybe even some scenes, down on paper.  Because I've also had the experience of talking the story out before its time.

Thinking parsing.  Thinking is one of the most underrated of activities for writers.  Sometimes you just need to have a good think.  You need to ponder how things go together, what happened to a character to make her so cranky, or what's going to happen next in the story.  

Probably all writers utilize all these methods at various times, but most will also lean toward one, as I do.  Knowing which you are most comfortable with will help you move forward on your WIP because you won't be spinning your wheels trying to make notes if what you really need to do is put your feet up and think.

So, which are you?  A writer, a thinker, or a talker?

 Photo by jurvetson.

6

When You Don’t Know How to Write

Painter_sidewalk_easel_596182_hYears ago, as a freelance writer, I wrote a lot of articles about art.  One of them was about the Makk family of artists, who lived in Hawaii.  The big thing I remember from this article happened while I interviewed the Eva, the matriarch of the family. She told me how when she was a young artist she had images in her head that she wanted to paint–but it took her a long time to figure out how to get those images onto canvas.

I could relate.  As a fledgling fiction writer, I often had trouble translating the stories in my head onto the page.  And even now, after writing fiction a gazillion years, sometimes I just can't quite get what I'm writing to work right.   I have the idea in my head.  I can see it.  But when I put it on the page, it is dead and lifeless.  Something about it doesn't work, and I moan and groan and wring my hands and decide I'm going to sell yarn for a living.  Or get a job in a restaurant.  Or something, anything, other than writing. At times like these, I need to remind myself how to write all over again.  

But the great thing about writing for so many years is that I've figured out a few things about how to get myself out of these situations.  And so I offer them to you.

1. Write a scene.  Often, deadly boring prose is written in narrative summary, which is, as the name implies, words written in summary.  She spent the afternoon reading on the couch, is an example.  Or, six months later, the baby was born.  You glide over a short or long amount of time or compactly explain some information.  Narrative summary most definitely has its place–it is a useful technique for all manner of things–but when it is used too often it results in big yawns.  Writing a scene, which incorporates dialogue, description, action, and interiority, will be much livelier and it may be just what the writing doctor ordered.

2. Try a line of dialogue.   Have one of your characters say something.  This can often lead you into a full-blown scene, or a half-scene, which is a bit of narrative summary with a line of dialogue as its anchor.  This link has great definitions of half-scene, scene, and narrative summary.

3. Copy exactly.   Take out your favorite novel or memoir, prop it next to your computer, and copy a scene word for word.  You know, of course, that I offer this as an exercise only and you aren't going to use this plagiarizing for anything but your own learning purposes.  This is kind of an amazing way to get the cadence of writing into your brain and heart and is a great learning tool.  Try it.  You'll be amazed at how much you glean from it.

4. Copy and rewrite.  A variation of the above.  First complete #3, then take the scene or paragraph and rewrite it in your own words, maintaining the same idea and actions as the original.  Another surprisingly fabulous learning tool.

5. Read.  Take a break from your struggles and go read a book.  Nine times out of ten, this sends me running back to the computer.  Its as if I just need to refill myself with words.  Note: reading blog posts, gossip sites, news articles, or anything on the internet DOES NOT COUNT.

6. Take a class.  If you are a true rank beginner, a class is going to be your best starting point.  If you are an introvert or don't have time for an in-person class, there's a ton of great offerings online, and many of them are self-paced.

7. Hire a coach.  Like me.  This would sound incredibly self-serving but for the fact that I'm not taking on new clients for the time being–unless you call and beg me on bending knee, in which case I'll consider it.  But whether it is me or someone else you work with, a coach can point out your strengths and weaknesses and help you learn to implement more of the latter.

So there you have it.  Oh, by the way, you might also be interested in my post on What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write, which inspired this one.

What do you do when you don't know what to write?

Photo by moriza.

4

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write

Thoughtful-creative-moved-22614-lSo there you are.  You've cleared your schedule and made time to write.  The kids are farmed out, the dog is asleep, your partner is happily watching something stupid on TV.  You open a file, place your hands on your keyboard, and ….. nothing happens.

You don't know what to write.  And when you don't know what to write, writing doesn't happen.

This can occur whether you are starting something new, or in the middle of a writing project.  And no matter when it happens, it can stop you cold.  Maybe you're trying to parse out the plot of your novel, or maybe you're partway through and you thought you knew where you were going but suddenly you don't.

One of the single best pieces of advice I can give you, writer to writer, is this: always know where you are going next.  (My daughter-in-law drove up to Bainbridge Island last weekend to hear one of her favorite authors, Annie Barrows of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society fame speak, and guess what?  That's the exact same advice she gave.)  I'm experiencing this first hand as I get up and work on my new WIP every morning.  The days I know where I'm going next, my fingers fly.  The days where I'm not sure, I meander.  And on those meandering days I get nothing done.

But what if you find yourself at the page and you don't have a freaking clue what to write?  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Write about your project.  Don't worry about writing within the project, write around it.  I always keep a spiral handy for notes and "writing about" sessions.  These help me clarify where I am and can get me back to the project at hand.  I thought everyone did this, so much so that I'd never bothered to mention it–but then we had a long discussion about it in the writing group I lead and to most, it was a novel idea.  Go figure.  Anyway, for me, inspiration always comes through the writing itself.

2.  Use a prompt.  Yeah, I know.  But they work.  There are tons here and a million other places on the web.  The thing to remember about using prompts successfully is to not make yourself hew to them religiously.  By this I mean, use them as a starting point.  Doesn't matter if the prompt is about a cat and you write about dogs.  The idea is to get you getting words on the page.

3.  Fill out a character dossier.  This is another thing I thought everyone did.  Turns out, not so.  I have standard character forms I've developed from a variety of sources over the years–and I invariably find myself figuring things out as I write fill them in.  (If you need a template for that, just email me and I'll send you mine.)

4.  Remember, nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is valuable just to plunge in.  Put your character somewhere and start writing.  It may not turn into anything at all, but then again, it might.  And even if you don't use it this time around, maybe it will work itself into your next WIP.  Who knows? The muse works in mysterious ways–but she's happiest when you meet her partway.

5.  Also remember that maybe something is wrong.  If you are in the middle of a project and you don't know what to right, consider that something isn't working.  Maybe you've conceived the scene wrong, or it belongs in a different place.  Maybe it needs to be in a different location or with a different set of characters.  In order not to get stuck here, either move on to a different scene, or write something else–play around with a short story or an essay, for instance.

6.  Make a list of what you know and don't know.  Approach this like free writing and set a timer, then write down every thing you can think of that you don't know.  Ask yourself questions.  Make odd connections.  See what comes out on the page.  You know more than you think, you just need to unlock it from within.

7.  Change up your routine.  I rarely listen to music while writing, but at the moment I'm listening to a soundtrack that purports to zap you into the right brain and allow the words to flow.  It seems to be working! (Though I must admit I found the bird calls on it a bit distracting at first.) I've written recently about how working outside every morning has improved my writing.  So try something different–it may give you inspiration, and that's really what we're talking about here.

8.  Write a description.  Some people love it, some people hate it, but writing it is good practice.  Maybe you'll actually use it somewhere–or maybe it will spark the words you're looking for.

9.  Walk away.  If all else fails, go do something else.  Take a walk, mow the lawn, pull weeds, something.  It amazes me how often I don't know what to write next, get up from my chair, and find myself running back to the computer because everything has clicked into place.

10.  Keep a writer's journal.  Carry a journal around with you and take notes.  I don't do this as often as I should but when I do, it makes me happy.  Write about the woman with magenta hair and tattoos sitting next to you at the coffee shop, make notes on dialogue.  You can do this quickly, in phrases and lists, or elaborately, whatever your pleasure.  Then when you're sitting back at your desk, despairing because you don't know what to write, flip through it for inspiration.

So….what do you do when you don't know what to write?  Please share in the comments.

Photo by corpitho.

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The Love-Hate Relationship With the Creative Process

MosaicHeartBeing immersed in the creative process–writing a novel, creating a class, knitting a sweater, planting a garden–is my most favorite thing in the world.

Until I hit a block.

And decide that the novel stinks, nobody will want to take the class, the sweater won't fit, the garden won't grow.  And then I hate the creative process.

I was reading about this very thing on another blog this morning when it hit me.   The tension between the love part and the hate part is what keeps us working at it.  If the creative process–say, your writing practice–was all good all the time, you'd get bored.  And if it was all bad all the time, you'd get frustrated and quit.

A well-known psychological principle is that of intermittent reinforcement, and that's what we're talking about here.  This principle states that reinforcement is doled out in an intermittent manner is far and away the strongest motivator.  Why? Because we never know what we're going to get, and we're always hoping for the good outcome–the wonderfully satisfying writing session as opposed to the time when you sit and stare out the window.

But we're also talking about tension, the lifeblood of all stories.  It's what keeps readers turning pages, the tension in the story itself and the tension the author has embedded in the story.  Without tension, or conflict, there is no story, its a simple as that.  Which is why, of course, the news is full of awful stories about horrible things happening.

While it is frustrating to hit the lows of the creative process, if you just remember that its all a cycle and the highs will soon return, I think you can ease yourself through the times you hate everything you create.  Remind yourself that the work would not be nearly so compelling if it were all easy, all the time.  

And take yourself back to the page once more.

How do you handle the lows of the creative process?

Photo by Carbon NYC.

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Are You a Right-Brain or Left-Brain Dominant Writer?

ElliottBayBooks

A Stack 'O Writing Books

I learned a different way of looking at my writing this weekend, a way that I think will help inform how I plan and plot a novel. (One of the things I love best about writing is that there's always something new to learn.  It's impossible to be bored by it.) I'm thinking this thing will help you, too, so let's discuss.  But first, some background.

This past weekend, I went to Seattle with my daughter.  We took the train up and back (the best way to travel), stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel downtown, and reconnected with an old friend and met her new family.  (One of the most adorable two-year-olds on the planet, second only to my own granddaughter.)

One of the best times we had was Saturday afternoon, when we hung out at the new (to us) location of Elliott Bay Books.  The bookstore is dotted with large tables at which you can while away the afternoon.  Which is exactly what we did. It felt like the height of luxury to spend a couple of hours doing nothing but looking at books.  My daughter perused books from the design section, and I pulled out stack after stack of titles from the writing section.  I read through many of them,  took notes from some, and ended up buying two:

Naming the World, and other exercises for the creative writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston.  I remember being at AWP years ago right when this book came out. It is comprised of brief essays and accompanying writing exercises from a wide variety of writers.  I'm always looking for exercises for myself and my students–I'm not sure why I haven't bought this one earlier.  It is excellent.  (I especially love the section of Daily Warm-ups at the back.)

PlotWhispererThe Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson.  I've read her blog, but for some reason shied away from the book, which has been out a few years.  I'm only a short way in, but the book is excellent.  And the thing that has grabbed my attention is the distinction she makes between left-brain dominant writers and right-brain dominant writers.  To wit:

The left-brained writer thinks in language more often than images and is quite comfortable with action.  He might also be analytical and detail-oriented.  Alderson says that if you crave action and "spew out dialogue at will" you are a left-brained writer.

The right-brained writer thinks in pictures rather than language and likely starts his writing developing characters or emotional moments in the story.  He takes a more intuitive approach.  If you fall in love with your characters and love to ponder theme and meaning, you are more right-brain oriented.

Raise your hand if you recognize yourself in one of the descriptions above.  Me! Choose me!  I'm a right-brained writer through and through.  I can't think of a novel or story I've written that didn't start with a character, and because of this I also have a few abandoned stories littering my computer, because I didn't know how to develop action for the character.

It doesn't matter which one you are, but it helps to figure that out from the get-go.  Because just as I've struggled with action in my stories, the left-brained writer will struggle with getting character emotion and detail into her work.  And if you know that going in, you'll know where your weaknesses lie and you can figure out how to correct them.

You'll know that if your left brain tends to be more dominant, you'll need to learn to focus on character, imagery, and emotion.  Conversely, if your right brain rules the roost, you'll have to focus on plot and goal and structure.  (There are ways to do this without freaking yourself out.)

Alderson has an interesting offer on her website.  (I'm in no way affiliated with her, just intrigued by the info she's presenting.)  It's called Writing a Story Takes You on an Epic Journey, and since it is in beta, it is really inexpensive (like $14.99, amazing). 

So that's what I learned this weekend.  Does the concept of left-brain dominant and right-brain dominant writers resonate with you?  Which are you? Do discuss in the comments.

All images are by moi.  I've been using Instagram a lot lately.  Come follow me there, why don't you?

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