Today I sat at my keyboard trying to decide what to write. I reached deep into my creative mind and I looked straight into a pure blank wall that reached far beyond my peripheral vision. I actually have been looking at this wall for days now and today I came to the conclusion that I am really tired of looking at it, but I had no idea how to get it knocked out of the way. What was this thing anyway? Why can’t I pull even a simple sentence out of my head?
I sat at my desk a good portion of the morning wondering what the heck was wrong with me. As I have shared with all of you before I am REALLY good at procrastinating and a talent for finding things to do other than writing. This huge grey wall is the problem. It is a wall that quietly sits at the tip of my nose and is expansive. The grey is the color of a day that is cold, dull, cloudy, and not quite snowing. You know those days. There are no leaves on the trees and the grass is brown and, if you live in the burbs, all of the houses are tan. This is my wall. It covers the whole of my mind.
After plowing through an entire bag of M&M Peanuts I had a break through…..I built this ugly gray wall in response to frustrations I have been facing in my writing. Enough is enough. I needed some help so I reached out to my wonderful writing friends at Delve Writers and posted this:
Some advice please….
Whenever I “finish” writing something I don’t really like it and it makes for motivational problems to write something more. I am in a constant state of frustration and this leads to not writing. I’m sure I’m not the only one with this issue….if you too have this problem what do you do to move past it?
I want to emphasis that I know I’m not alone in being stuck like this and I am sure there are a vast number of writers (if not all) that are in a constant state of frustration at some level or another. There were many responses to my post with many words of wisdom, but there were two links in particular that really rung true for me.
Ira Glass on Storytelling is a quick video giving advice to anyone who is embarking on a creative future. This particular piece struck a cord for me in that I need to be reminded, on a daily basis, that I’m at the beginning. I know what is good and what sounds good in a story and right now I hear a lot of bad coming from my creations so I have to keep plugging away to get to that point if being good.
“Why Writers are Procrastinators” is a fun piece by Mary McArdle that describes me to a tee. At times I feel like I am the Queen of Procrastinators and it is great to finally know why. I want to be at the end of the creative race without doing all the training and I figure that if I sit around long enough I will magically get there. HA!
Tonight I sit at my keyboard with a happy set of fingers itching to get back to it. If you are anything like me then take my advice….don’t sit staring at a blank wall. Not only is it boring, but it really doesn’t do much to get the creative flow going. If you don’t already, find a group of amazingly talented writers to share your burdens and successes with. There is no one else that will really get it like another writer. If all else fails, paint that wall a different color. Yellow might be a good color to start with then add some green, blue, and just a hint of red to give the scene some tension.
Many of my friends (who are gluttons for punishment) participated in NaNoWriMo back in November (that’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you who are smart enough not to be writers). I, as smart a person as I am (and not smart enough to not be a writer), chose not to participate. November has to be the absolute worst month of the year (right after December) for me to write anything. So, I watched from the sidelines as all of those crazy writers pounded out 50,000+ words in the course of a single month. This number is another reason I chose to sit on the sidelines. To achieve the unachievable mark of 50,000+ words I would have had to have written at least one thousand six hundred and sixty six words per day from the first day of the month to the last. I’m lucky to get one thousand one hundred and two words whipped out on a frenzied day of writing. Therefore, I watched everyone else write.
I did feel a little left out of the whole madness like when Alice fell down the rabbit hole and everyone else was left behind. She had all the fun of shrinking and growing going to tea and keeping company with smiling cats while everyone else sat by and watched. What’s the fun in that? Recently I got a email from someone inviting me to a 28 day writing spree where participants sign up to win amazing prizes ranging from a huge “Atta boy!” to priceless webpage badges that can be proudly displayed with all of the other amazing writing awards. This I might be able to do, I thought to myself, until I opened the page and read the fine print. I would have to write a blog post everyday so that by the end of the month I would have 28 blog posts (29 if it were a Leap Year, but alas it is not so we are stuck with a mere 28). Folks, I’m a realist and I know my limitations, and there is no way under the sun, clouds, moon, or forecasted snow that I will get a blog post done 28 days in a row.
With my head hanging low I left that website and promptly forgot about it until yesterday, and when I thought about that webpage again I realized that it was the first day of the shortest month of the year that only lasts 28 days. In my usual state of elderly forgetfulness I couldn’t locate the email, the website, nor remember what the 28 Days of Writing was really called so in a rush to make myself feel just a tiny bit better I made one up. It is called (can you guess?) 28 Days of Writing and it is filled with only one requirement and one reward.
First, and most important, I must write each and every day of the month. It doesn’t matter if 5 words are written on Facebook or 20,000 in any one of the novels or short stories that I have in the pipeline. I just have to write every single day during the month of February. The reward? Well, this is the best part and, of course, my favorite. After all why do all of this work over the course of 28 days (remember 29 in a Leap Year) without some kind of reward? So, after much thought, pondering, and pacing around in a quick circle I decided not to decide what the reward will be other than it will be something fabulously custom designed.
“What?” you say, “What if I want to play your game too? If I can’t have a reward why should I play?”
My dear reader, I can only say in reply, “I hope you do play my little game. You will have a reward and it will be like nothing you have ever experienced in any contest you have ever entered.”
Your reward is whatever you want it to be. Give yourself a massage, a cup of hot chocolate, a steak dinner, or even a million dollars. Just spend 28 days writing and dreaming about what it is you are going to give yourself at the end. Will it be a new car, a new snow shovel, or a new pair of gloves? Consider a cigar, a top hat, or new shoes. Anything you want is the reward to you. No cheating on the fun. At the end of each day ask yourself, “Have I written today?” and if the answer is a “Yes!” then give yourself a gold star for the day. When February 28th comes to an end take a look at your calendar and when you see each and every day shining with a golden star you will know that you have accomplished something that few can say they have, “I have written for 28 straight days, and I deserve something for that.” Then, on the very first day of March be sure to give yourself that “pat on your back” and place a golden star on your own shining reward. WELL DONE!
Has your writing ever come to a screeching halt and froze at a point just before impact? Days follow that turn into weeks and soon, not only has a month gone by, but you are into the next year already. Cripes! A new year already? What to do? You have already circled your desk 60 times and opened your laptop 12. Your masterpiece lays in darkness, waiting to come back out and see the light. Your mind has been occupied by an evil entity forcing you away from your desk to do any, and all, of those wonderful things that lurk around the house. The dishes are piled in the sink, the mounds of laundry are rolling out the door, the vacuum is collecting dust which is curling into dust bunnies, and the teetering piles of paper must be put away immediately. Oh, and let’s not forget the dreaded bathroom! Hey, any excuse to keep the writing at bay.
Does any of this sound familiar? Call it writer’s block, call it procrastination, or call it “I don’t want to write today so I’m going to do all the dreaded things I have been avoiding since my last writing binge.” Charles Bukowski said it well:
I recently recovered from this dreaded phenomenon that afflicts most writers (and to those who have never suffered from it….I hate you!). I’m here to tell you that there is no cure but time and a few nudges (ok, they were full on slug fests) from good friends and fellow writers. I was running full steam toward the end of 2013 and pounded out some amazing scenes in two novels that I had been working on. Then the holidays hit right along with some pretty awesome excuses to put off writing. After all, how could I sit down to focus on writing when the dogs needed special ribbons to reflect the joy of the season?
Depression quickly set in as I stared at the computer. NOTHING! I cursed the curser (yep, I just wrote that….get over it). I sat at my computer at the beginning of January and started this tirade and now it is the end of the month and I think I can actually finish it and move on. I quit compulsively cleaning and decided it was high time to just spit some words out.
As I slop out this last paragraph I am feeling refreshed. The words are slowly coming back and the gloom of winters deep freeze seems to be thawing a bit. I like the feeling of my butt in the chair and the sound of the keyboard. The block from the holidays has finally released its grip and I am ready to go. I can only hope that at the end of 2014 I don’t find myself in this same situation and having to say, “CRIPES! It’s 2015 already!?”
For the past half year or so I have been a member of Delve Writing. We meet virtually once a week and are a group of writers who support one another to achieve our individual writing goals. Every week our moderator (I work with co-founder Aaron Brown) gives us some tasty treat for inspiration and then we dive into our goals and the challenges we face meeting those goals. At the end of each session we “dig-in” on a single challenge that we have been hitting and pick it apart in an effort to find a solution or at least give the sufferer a glimmer of a solution.
This morning we had a lively session filled with ideas for a magical helicopter to fly all of us to the top of Mt Evans where we could attend Hogwarts and write wondrous books that sell themselves along with discovering the usefulness of a Feedback Loop*. One of the dig-ins was “How to Brainstorm with Yourself.” Most brainstorming sessions I have ever attended comprised of three to ten people in a conference room with the doors closed and gallons of coffee. The idea of brainstorming alone presents a unique problem that if you run out of ideas then there isn’t anyone else there to kick in a new thought or angle. What if you are trying to come up with an idea for a new story idea and you have no clue of what to write about in the first place?
This was the question posed to our group and it was so amazing to see the ideas flood our meeting providing quite a few resources for story ideas. I haven’t had the time to check into all of these, but it is on my to-do list that, although never ending, I hope to get to next week.
- Look for intense moments in life. Being born is about as intense of a moment as you can get in life and it is right next to watching a loved one die. Do a little wandering through your life and pick out as many intense moments as you can find and write them down. These are just the beginnings of an idea list.
- Ask yourself “if” questions. The questions need to be thought provoking or at least questions that lead to a more extensive answer. No “yes or no” questions here…they don’t trigger ideas. Some examples of leading questions might be: “If I’m the last person on the planet what would I see?” “If my car sailed over a bridge what would that moment between the bridge and the ground feel like?” “If a ghost came to me and asked for help, what would they need help with?”
- Play with attractions. This is another part of your idea list. Write down one word bullets of things that you are attracted to. Have you spent your free time rock climbing, skiing, or parasailing? Maybe you love wandering through art museums, antique shops, or garage sales. What sorts of things attract you? What gives you a jolt of adrenalin? All these combined, or separate, can give color to a great scene or short story.
- Pam McCutheon’s Brainstorming Kit. I have ordered her kit but haven’t received it yet. From what I understand this has flashcards with ideas on them. You pull a card and write on that idea. Once I get her kit and test it out I’ll have a new blog post for it.
- Duo Trope’s Calendar. If you have never heard of Duo Trope then you are missing out. This resource for writers is chalk full of everything a writer needs for publishing. There isn’t enough space here to go into all the details, but trust me when I say, “Check it out!”
- Make an idea list. I am a list person. I have notebooks filled with to-dos, dones, and everything in between. I do have an idea list too. It is a very simple handwritten bunch of scribbles that have every story idea I have ever considered. So many times I’ve thought of a great idea that I might consider writing about and as soon as I think of it I forget it. These days (my mind is as old as dirt) I forget many things faster than I can think them up so I have learned to write them down. Now, when I haven’t a clue for a story I pull out my list and run through them to see if anything strikes my fancy.
Brainstorming is really just time spent with yourself pondering the next great American novel, or the next great short story by YOU. On the other hand, it is nice to just grab a friend and take them out for coffee and toss around a few stray thoughts and see what floats to the top. Remember that you are the one who has to write your great novel so be sure your brainstorming sessions bring out the best in you. Your story may take you on a helicopter ride to a magical land filled with ideas that float through the air waiting to be discovered by you. Pluck one of those ideas down and start writing.
*Note: Watch Delve’s blog for their exploration into a Feedback Loop – Coming Soon!
In the comments of my previous post, my friend Mardra posed the question, “”When is it done?” I would like to take a guess at the answer (keyword, guess). I am working on a short story (that’s the one I keep talking about) that I had thought was done at least 5 times and with each new revision I think, “OK, this one is done,” and with each new revision my editor says, “Its not done yet Kathie.” Her notes are copious, “Bring out the reason we should care about your character. Where is this taking place? What kind of room is it? Put more emotion into the world around your character.” There are days that I’m with Mardra, “I just wish that when I want a piece to be done bad enough it will miraculously be good enough.”
As writers we all write, and re-write, and revise, and grumble, and pace, and write some more. Our own, self-inflicted pressure to make it perfect adds to the already daunting task of getting the story done and each word can be a monumental task to get onto the page. On the other hand, there are times the words flow faster than we can type and we find ourselves panting as we race to get each scene on paper before the inspiration is lost.
After all the blood, sweat, and tears have flowed into our work is there a time that we can say it is done? I feel I’m pretty solid in my answer when I say, “Maybe.” I go back to the theory that “there’s always room to improve.” I know Mardra doesn’t like that particular professor, but he does have a point. If there wasn’t room to improve there would be no reason to re-write, revise, and grumble our way to a piece of writing that might be done, one day, MAYBE.
I have spent the day writing. This morning was dedicated to a short story that has been in the works for about a month now. When I hacked out the initial version I was so excited. I gave it to my editor for her seal of approval. I got it back with all my delusions of granduer wiped from my mind.
When I finished today’s writing session I proudly informed her that I thought my story was done. She looked at me (without even reading it) and with a smile said, “I doubt it’s done.” Wait, WHAT? I have re-written this story four times and she tells me it’s not done? I trust my editor’s judgement, painful as it is to hear and If it wasn’t for her I would have called it done after the first draft. Now that I’m on #4 I can see how the story has more life blown into it, but does it really need improving?
I have learned a great deal through this writing process and I am more aware of the pit falls the novice writer can fall into. The goal in doing this short story is to improve my writing skills and get my mental gears turning when I dive into my book. I thought it would be good to save each draft of this story separately so that I can go back to review how it has has developed over the course of editing. The before and after snapshots in this piece really tell the story of my story. Take a look at the opening paragraph.
The first draft….
This morning I woke in a hotel room. The streaked windows were clear enough to see down to the wet streets and blowing trees. A gloomy day at best. I went to the lobby for the usual coffee, powdered eggs, slimy sausage and a bland bagel. The breakfast was always the same, the lobby always the same, the people always the same. I carried my tray back to my room for a solitary breakfast sitting by the window looking out at the dark day. After my shower I dress appropriately for the morning and in my reflection I see my black dress, black sweater, and black shoes. Always the same.
The fourth draft…..
The sheets are fresh and crisp. My head burrows deeper into the reaches of the white cave. A sweet melody plays from the alarm that contradicts the dreary day ahead of me. Peeling my eyes open I fumble my fingers to slide the alarm into silence. Today presses heavy against my chest allowing only short shallow breaths. I trudge to the closed curtains behind which hangs a gloomy day. Water runs down the window pane in torrents. Beyond are streets slick with rain and mammoth trees hanging low from the weight of the deluge. The window mounted cooler kicks in with a blast of cold air pushing me back into the room to dress. I prefer to ignore the need to move forward in the day.
Both paragraphs tell the reader that this is about a person who is in a hotel room and it is raining outside. What the first draft fails to do is bring feeling into the story. By the fourth draft not only is it raining outside, but everything about the weather is also a part of the gloom of what the character reluctantly faces in the day ahead.
I once knew a speech teacher who never gave his students an ‘A’. He explained that to give an ‘A’ was to restrict the student from improving. An ‘A’ implied they were perfect and there was no need to strive higher. I think my editor follows this same theory and she is right, this story isn’t done yet and there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The other day, on arbitrarydustbunnies, I posted this quote as a stand alone entry:
“The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.” The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby has page after page of beautiful descriptives that paint a masterpiece of words. Fitzgerald has taken a simple moment and filled it with life in a single sentence. I was there, breathing the night air right along with Nick listening to the symphony of sounds.
Another passage from the book takes the idea of a telephone jangling in the background, as if it were an additional guest at the party, and twists it into a tight ball of nerves preventing anyone from ignoring it.
I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking but I doubt if even Miss. Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy skepticism, was able utterly to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind.”
The story captivated me from the first chapter to the last word, and, in the end, I was left saddened. This world of Gatsby, Daisey, and Nick was painted in my mind through the written word, and with the last letter, I had to leave.
Hugh Howey’s series of books, starting with “Wool” followed by “Silo”, and ending with “Dust”, have captivated audiences around the world. “This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: they are allowed outside.”
The story moves with grace and vigor mixing the sweet elements of love with the sour taste of life. Tragedy mixed with triumph intermingled with challenges that keep the reader on edge. Howey’s well developed writing style will pull you into the world of the silos. The reader can taste the grease in the air and smell the heat of the bodies as they race up and down the spiral staircase connecting the deepest places of the silo to the highest reaches.
Howey does not rehash information from previous books with each new volume. It is refreshing to not be bogged down with re-stated details from the past allowing the reader to jump in with both feet and in the blink of an eye and find themselves still reading into the wee hours of the night.
At the end of the Omnibus Edition of “Wool” Hugh Howey was asked “Why are these books so cheap?” His reply, “Because I’m a big fat nobody, that’s why!” It seems safe to say that Hugh Howey is no longer a “fat nobody”. He has made his mark on the science fiction genre that will remain for a very long time.
The other day I posted about those pesky verbs that take the color out of telling a story. I gave you all a prompt sentence to re-write and put color to: While playing pool with friends, Mary thought about Jake .
I’m sure everyone is still busy working on something awesome for this writing prompt and I have finally finished mine. Here it is:
She lined up her next shot. CRACK! The colored balls scattered in every direction across the sea of green felt. Each ball slowly rolled to a stop short of their respective holes. “Crap!” With burning eyes she slapped the stick to the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. Talking to no one, “What was he thinking? “
How would you bring that sentence to life? Add it to the comments if you like.