Tag Archives | writing blocks

How Words Get on the Page

It's Sunday afternoon, and it's hot here in Portland.  My nephew is visiting on his way from an internship in Washington D.C., back to law school in California.  And he, my husband, and my son, are all at my daughter's learning how to make beer on this glorious afternoon.

And where am I?
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Writing this at my computer, obviously.

But the bigger question would be why I'm working on this beautiful afternoon.  Um, that would be because I procrastinated just the wee-est bit on a ghostwriting project and found myself up against a deadline.  I really needed to get my client a chapter by Tuesday at the latest, and I had no other time but today to do it.

Here's the truth: I procrastinated because I didn't know exactly how to do the chapter.  It had to present the themes of the book in the context of the "author's" biography and I was clueless as to how to proceed.

So I procrastinated.

Until I was up against it.

And then came the time when there was no other choice but to start in.  Guess what happened?  Yeah, you're right.  As soon as I actually began engaging with the chapter, the words came.  And I got the chapter (at least a rough draft of it) done and sent off to the client with time to write this blog post, too.  (I'm heading over to my daughter's for wine and a barbecue once as I'm done writing this).

This experience was a good reminder to me that the magic happens when we engage with the words.  That writing gets done when we write.  I know, duh.  But I forget this far too often as I wring my hands and obsess about my WIP.  And I'm certain that it happens to you, too.

So next time, you're stuck, try writing instead of staring out the window.  Trust me, it actually does work.

What do you do when you are blocked or procrastinating?  Do you have anything that helps you get through these states?  We'd all love to hear about it.

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When Something Isn’t Working

When something isn't working, there's a reason.   Doll_head_snow_264063_l

I know.

Duh.

But how many times have you sat at your computer, beating your head against your desk, trying to make something work that isn't working?  Trying to force a character to do something she doesn't want to do, or writing a scene in a location that just doesn't resonate with you, or creating a plot point that seems forced and unnatural?

I've done this a million times, doggedly writing even when the nagging voice inside of me informs me that something is wrong.  Something isn't working.

And often it takes quite awhile before I listen.

It happened again earlier this week.  I've been diligently getting up to work on my novel first thing every morning.  I love, love, love the idea for the plot of the novel.  But I've not been able to wrap my brain around the protagonist.  No matter what I did, I couldn't bond with her.  Couldn't feel her voice inside me or get it onto the page.  But I kept writing, telling myself that the voice would come.  Except finally, one morning, I realized that what I was writing was so dull and lifeless that nobody, even me, would want to write it.

Now, I know full well that it is not a good thing to listen to such voices when you are writing. Except for when it is.  

When you are writing and writing and begin to feel like your driving a car on snow and you can't get any traction, it is maybe time to take a wee break and ponder. Which is what I did.  Luckily, on the day I decided it was time to hit the brakes and quit spinning my wheels, I had an appointment with my coach.  We discussed the problem in detail and I finally realized that I was trying to force myself to write about a character in a profession I knew nothing about and didn't care to learn.  So that gave me the freedom and the courage to start over–not with the plot, but with the character.

But, here's the deal.  If I hadn't been writing, I wouldn't have figured out that it wasn't going to work.  If I had sat around thinking about it, I'd still be sitting around thinking about it.  I wouldn't have discovered that there was a reason for my writing paralysis.  And so, even though in some ways I've gone backwards, today I'm a happy camper. 

Because knowing what's wrong lights a path to change it.  And, figuring out that there is something wrong in the first place is sometimes the most illuminating moment of all.

What about you?  How do you figure out when something is wrong?

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My Old Friend Paralysis

Yesterday, all writing and other activities came to a screeching halt.  This happened suddenly.  One Everystockphoto_155435_m minute I was in the middle of a writing session.  The next minute I was paralyzed.  I realized that everything I had written was complete and total crap.  And that there was no use writing anymore, ever, for the rest of my life, because any new words that I put on the page would be even worse. 

Because of this epiphany that I could no longer write, I turned my attention to my to-do list, as long as always.  But nothing on it interested me. 

"Buck up", I told myself.  "It isn't supposed to interest you, it's your to-do list."

But I couldn't connect with a single item on it. Instead, I sat at my desk, paralyzed everywhere except for my over-active brain, which told me I was an impostor, a failure and stupid and unattractive to boot. This went on for a few minutes until I finally got up and cleaned the kitty litter.  Did some dishes and straightened the house.  These are all chores that generally go undone until I run and do it all in a panic at the last minute before someone gets home.  By the time I'd exhausted all the mind-numbing chores, I had only a few minutes left to write.  I forced myself back to it, and got some words on the page.  They weren't words that I was happy with, but they were words on the page.  By then, it was time to go to my acupuncture appointment, thank you God.

My acupuncturist, Hana, listened to my whining, told me I was probably having a healing crisis (I've been doing lots of acupuncture and hypnotherapy lately) and stuck extra needles in my crown and third eye chakras.  During the rest time, I dozed and snored for awhile, and then I woke up and started thinking about the novel.  Thoughts and ideas flooded in.  Oh wonderful movement, which feels so much better than being stuck!

I came home and made notes, not only on the novel but the entire process of being stuck.  And here are some of the antidotes I came up with, just in case this ever happens to you:

1.  Choose something, anything to do or work on, it doesn't matter what.  This is the Tough Love antidote.  May not be pleasant, but it will probably work.

2. Get in touch.  Maybe you've lost your connection.  Meditate.  Go deep.  What do you really want to write?  What do you really want to do at this moment?

3. Get away.  Go for a walk, clean the kitty litter, do the grocery shopping, whatever.  Sometimes just getting up from my desk allows the ideas to flow again.

4.  Move your body.  Take a walk, do yoga or Qi Gong, dance, march in place.  It is amazing how moving the body can sometimes loosen a logjam in the brain.

5. Take a nap.  If all else fails, sleep.

6.  Do something that gives you confidence.  Go back to something you're really good at and work on that for awhile.  It'll give you a boost.

7.  Listen to a motivational CD.  Never underestimate the power of some rah-rah attitude!  I put a CD in on my drive to acupuncture and it was already helping to lift my mood by the time I got there.

Okay, so those are my suggestions.  Anyone have an antidote to add?

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True Confessions, or Coaching Myself

I'm struggling.Book_work_teacher_238276_l

I'm having a hard time writing my next novel.

There, I've admitted it. 

I, the one who constantly harangues you to write every day, to keep the momentum going by checking into your project on a daily basis, I, that very same person, am having a hell of a time working on my novel every day.

Don't get me wrong–I am writing every day.  I get up every morning and write in my journal, I work on contracted projects, and I write a blog post every day.  Oh, and I write stuff on social media, though I'm not sure we can say that really counts. 

So I'm writing every day, and writing tons.  It is just that I'm not doing what I love to do, what I feel I've been set on this earth to do (well, partially, because coaching writers and blogging about writing is definitely part of my mission).  I'm ignoring my true love.  And we all know what that means.

My true love is dying.

And that makes it even harder, because if a project feels like it is dying, than who wants to spend time with it?  And so the vicious cycle gets established.

It is not that I don't have time for it.  At great effort, I have carved out a bit.  But during that time I am not writing.  Instead, I am re-reading the first chapter repeatedly, telling myself how very brilliant it is.  I make lists of things I should do for the novel (like, um, write it).  I jot notes about potential scenes.  Fill out character dossiers.  Convince myself I need to go sit on my office chair and take a nap meditate about the overall arc of the plot.

All this is great, but it is not writing.

Yesterday, after reading–yet again–the first chapter, I realized it is because I'm second-guessing myself.  I'm worrying about whether the work is good, whether than trusting the process.  Of course it isn't good, it is a first draft!  All it needs to be is enough to hang a story on.  And it is.

So I've decided what is in order are some words from the wise, ie., me.  It is time to coach myself with some tough love.  Here's what I've come up with for my marching orders:

1.  Remind Myself.  Of what?  That the last novel was once a first draft, too.  Yesterday I scrounged around and found the original scene list I had written for Emma Jean's Bad Behavior.  Shocking how different it was.  Oh, the seeds of the finished novel were all there, but the original scenes I had laid out were very, very different.  I found this comforting, because it reminded me that the process does, indeed, work.

2.  Use the Time.  What's been happening is that I get to my allotted novel-writing time and when something doesn't happen immediately, I feel guilty for wasting my time and make myself go spend it more gainfully.  But creativity takes time, and when working with the large span of the novel, this is especially true.  So I'm using the time I've set aside every day, even if it means staring off into space while thinking deep thoughts about the novel.

3.  Turn off the Internet.  Yeah, right.  I hear this works well, but I wouldn't know, because it is not something I am constitutionally capable of achieving. 

4.  Short assignments.  The novelist Darnell Arnoult talks about this.  She advocates giving yourself short assignments about your characters or points in the plot.  Stuff you can write in 15 minutes, but which will help you gain understanding of the project.  I know this works because one of my short assignments made it into that brilliant first chapter which I have read and admired so many times.

So those are what I'm working with.  Anybody want to take a turn coaching the coach and tell me what works for you?

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On Not Having Time to Paint

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For Christmas, I asked for and got paints.  I got acrylic paints, canvases, a cool wooden box to put the paints in, paintbrushes, one of those round plastic palettes, a couple books on painting.  Just looking at all these art supplies makes me tingle with anticipation.

I've been feeling the urge to paint for awhile now, and so getting all this for Christmas made me really happy.  After the rush of the holiday was over, the tree down, the decorations out of the way, I took over an extra table in the guest room for my art.  I arranged all my paints, found an old mug to stick the paintbrushes in, set the books out for easy reference.  The art supplies look good there, all ready to use.

And so far all they are doing is looking good.

Because I haven't touched them.

Not once.

My daughter actually made a semi-snide reference to the fact that I wanted the art supplies so bad and hadn't yet used them. 

"I was gone in Nashville for a week and a half," I pointed out to her.

She backed down quickly and I felt pleased with myself for being right, and having such a good excuse for not having spent any time with my paints.  But later, when I was opening the shades in the guest room so Lieutenant, one of my new cats, could sit in the window, and look out my eye fell on the paints.  And I realized that being out of town was just an excuse.

  • I have other excuses for not painting, too.  They include:
  • I have to get my messy office organized first
  • I have to work
  • I have to watch American Idol
  • I have to go see a movie with my friend Paula
  • I have to go out to dinner
  • I have to go to Eugene

Good excuses, all.  But the fact remains that they are just excuses, and there is one real reason why I've not yet gotten out the paints.

  • It is because I am scared.  And because I am scared, here are some of the things I tell myself:
  • I'm not a painter
  • I don't know how to paint
  • I won't be good enough
  • It won't be right
  • I won't be perfect
  • I don't know what to do first
  • Someone might see me doing it and expect me to be good

Dumb, stupid excuses all.  And because I am a person who tends to think that everything that happens in my life has meaning, I am not only looking deeply at my resistance to painting, but also likening it to writing.  It gives me renewed empathy for the writers that I coach, for those of you who desire so strongly to put words on the page, for everyone who hesitates before committing pen to paper. 

Because my experience with not paint makes me empathize with everyone who is not writing.  So let's make a deal, shall we?  I'll paint if you write.  Okay?  Easy.  We can do it.  I know we can. 

***Besides writing, my favorite thing to do is coach creatives to become prolific and prosperous writers.  I'm working on getting my coaching page up, but in the meantime, if you're interested in hiring me, just email me.  You'll find the address at the top left of this page.

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Summer, Travel, and the Art of Not Writing

I've been a bit distracted lately, which has caused me to Not Write.

First of all, it is hot.  Not like 90-degree hot.  Oh, no, that's not good enough for us.  We are suffering through 106+ weather, which is hot, hot, hot.  It is so hot that we poor Portlanders don't know what to do with ourselves other than shut ourselves up in air-conditioned rooms–which runs counter to the Portland creed of All Outdoors, All the Time.  So the pug and I are mostly confined to the one small room in my house that has an air conditioner.  And we are so very grateful that we have it or else we would be staying at a motel.  If we were lucky enough to find one that had a vacancy.  As it is, I barely slept last night.

Besides weather, I've been distracted by family.  This is a good distraction, unlike the first one.  I'm fortunate to have two sisters.  (I miss my third sister, who died December 15, 2007, terribly.)  Sis #1 is a former flight attendant who lives in Phoenix.  Sis #2 lives here in Portland and is a fabulous graphic designer, should you be in need of one.

This weekend, Sis #1 came to visit and stay at my house.  We had such a great time!  But great times are not necessarily conducive to great writing.  As a matter of fact, when one is having great times, one can easily forget that one aspires to be a great writer.

Except, here's the deal.  Even when one is Not Writing, one is still writing in some way or another.  And though in many ways I haven't been writing, in many ways I have.  To wit:

The first thing I had to do in advance of Sis #1's arrival was clean the house.  I'm a lousy housekeeper, because most of the time I wander around thinking about writing and can't be bothered with cleaning.  But the one good thing about housecleaning (and its the only one I can think of) is that it gives you plenty of thinking time.  Never underestimate the amount of thinking time that it takes to commit words to paper.  As a matter of fact, I believe the need to think deeply about writing is one of the primary causes of writer's block.  It is hard to think deep thoughts, especially if one has had even a tiny bit too much wine the previous evening, or if one is dehydrated from blastedly hot weather.  So, thinking time is good.  Which probably means I should rethink my plans to hire a housekeeper so I never have to clean again.

Secondly, on Saturday we took a drive up to the wonderful town of Hood River, a wind-surfing mecca on the Columbia River about 60 miles east of Portland.  I love this town.  The main street is full of cute shops, not the least of which is a fabulous bookstore, and great restaurants.  We happened into the Hood River Hotel, an historic landmark, and decided to eat there on a whim.  Good choice–the food was fabulous, very French bistro-ish. 

Travel is excellent for producing ideas, even a minor little day-trip.  I find it all inspiring.  Not only the part about being in a different place or culture, but the part about being in transit.  The motion of driving or flying often seems to jar loose something deep inside (maybe some of those profound thoughts) and I find myself scribbling madly.  That didn't happen this time, but it could have.  Had it not been so hot.  For real, travel forms new ideas in one's brain that may pop up days, months, or years later.

And, now that my sister has returned home and the heat wave has descended upon us, I have spent the last few afternoons ensconced in the one air-conditioned room with my computer.  Have I gotten any writing done?  A wee bit.  Like this blog post.  And some editing here and there.

(Speaking of which my friend Linda Busby Parker has posted an excerpt of my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, on her blog.  Check it out–just head on over here and click on the Novel Gallery page.)

But I digress.  To return to the point of this post, as writers we are never really Not Writing.  So even if you feel you are Not Writing, give yourself a break, stop for a minute and ponder what other things you are doing that might be contributing to your quest to be a great writer.  I bet you'll be surprised.  And most important–quit beating yourself up about Not Writing already.  The more you beat yourself up about it, the harder it is to get yourself back to it.

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Ah, But Here’s the Rub

A couple months ago I wrote a post titled Write Three Pages a Day and You’ll Be Happy.

This command, and the post I wrote about it, are all true.  I believe this statement with all my heart, because I believe that as writers, we must write regularly to be happy.

However….

Upon rare occasion, there may come a day, when you realize, as youmdutifully write your three pages a day on a daily basis, that you are lost and meandering.  In a dark wood, wandering, so to speak.  Unsure where those three pages a day are taking you, if anywhere.

Not that this has ever happened to me, mind you.  Just sayin’ it might happen.  It just might.

And you will need to be prepared if it does.  Because when if this happens you might inadvertently feel worse for having written your three pages then if you’d not written at all.  Here you are, diligently writing, yet you seem to be wandering far afield.  No plot appears.  Your characters are aimless, boring creatures.  Your words like dead and flat on the page.

What to do when this happens?

I don’t know, really.  The truth is, nobody does.  Feeling lost and uncertain where you are going in a project is an occupational hazard.  Rare are the writing projects that write themselves.  Wonderful as they are, they can be a curse, too, because if that happens to you even once, you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing and hoping that it will happen again.  It might.  But then again, it might not.

But even though I don’t really have the answer, I’ve managed to muster some suggestions.  So here we go:

What To Do When You Don’t Have a Clue What You’re Writing

1. Cry.  I am sort of kidding about this, but sort of not.  Crying is very cathartic.

2.  Remember that the only way out is through.  You know what this means. Keep writing.

3.  Trust.  This is related to #2.  You must trust that the story will out, that the cream will rise to the crop, that the….you get the idea.

4.  Go back to the basics and plan.  Ask yourself questions about the characters, or interview them.  Put scenes on 3 by 5 cards and arrange and rearrange them.  Make a plot outline–work fast and just write down everything you know about what happens next.  Or write up some scene guides–noting all the physical details of the scene, who is in it, where it takes place, what will happen, what the scene needs to accomplish and so forth.

5. Take a break.  I know, I know, I’m forever harping about writing regularly.  But once in awhile you can let yourself off the hook and take a little break.  As long as it is the pause that refreshes and not the time you quit working on the novel or screenplay forever.

6.  And finally, for some fresh inspiration, download Chris Guillebeau’s free ebook called, The Art of Nonconformity: A Brief Guide to World Domination.  I think you’ll enjoy it and find it useful.

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