Writing is an Act of Courage

I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage. It’s almost a matter of physical courage. The second you have a brilliant idea, you make a point to remember it. Those of us who write know that never works. Ideas are fleeting. So we rush around looking for a pen and pad. Maybe we’re in the car, so we try to pull over and grab our notebook from the glove box. If you’re lucky enough to get in front of a note pad or laptop almost always what was brilliant before is somehow not so brilliant as you go to write. It’s as if you had a certain piece of music playing in your head that simply will not translate onto paper. And so you fail. You never really get that perfect work of art out of your brain.

What we cannot do as artists is consider the entire process a complete failure. First, do not call this phenomenon writer’s block, which means “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” Although writer’s block happens to every writer, it is not the end of your creative life. It can be simply a matter of timing. Some ideas need to percolate longer than others. It’s just not time to write yet. It can be a matter of fear. Truly, writers are often fearful of rejection, and for a myriad of reasons. It’s not just a matter of  fearing you’ll never get published. Writing is a very personal undertaking. Even when we don’t realize it, we’re bearing our soul. We all have “back story,” and we’re all prone to leaking information about our lives, our loved ones, our deep, dark secrets. Being genuine is risky. I’ve heard it said most writers don’t have a writing problem; they have a telling problem.

So what is writer’s block?

Jerry Jenkins lists the four main causes of writer’s block in this order:

  1. FEAR. What if I fail? Solution? Keep publishing. Don’t stop. Embrace the fear, because it is legitmate. Humble yourself. Writing is hard work. It’s a lonely profession. Fear can be a great motivator.
  2. PROCRASTINATION. This is a big problem for me, as it is for most writers. Procrastination is inevitable, so find ways to fight through it. Jenkins embraces procrastination as an asset. As long as you develop a writing habit, those times you’re away from your writing desk your subconscious is working through the story.
  3. PERFECTIONISM. Many writers struggle with perfectionism. Stephen King suggests you never show your first draft to anyone. A writer friend of mine refuses to discuss a project during the first draft, saying it spoils the process. Your first draft is for an audience of one: you. Many writers, including Jenkins, insist you need to write your first draft and edit later.
  4. DISTRACTIONS. Without fail, every time you sit down to write, even if it’s your “scheduled” time to write, something intrudes on your concentration. It can be a person, a pet, a phone call, social media. So ask yourself how important your writing dream is to you and take a stand. Select a specific writing time. Turn off all other media. This is not the time to use social media or do research. This is your freestyle writing time. Period.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”—Stephen King.

Sometimes We Just Can’t Seem to Write!

There are days when I can’t wait to write. I wake up just minutes before the alarm, clicking off the switch before the piercing sound busts my ear drums and puts me in a 1984 sort of mood where everything is thought for me. Everyone tells me when to get up in the morning.

So I grab a coffee, black, and head to my writing area. You know, that place where you feel most comfortable and were you meet your muse. (Especially on a good day like I’m having right now.) I am working on a project that I hope will become a young adult novel. The main protagonist, a sixteen-year-old girl, has been hanging around with a boy who has really gone of the deep end with addiction. He is part of a group that seems to love drugs and street crime. This young man is Brad. He loves her very much, but he has been been trying every substance and drug he can get his hands on. He smoked a lot of Spice one weekend and ended up taking all his clothes off and running around the neighborhood. The cops took him to the hospital for evaluation.

So my muse and I have been going all out. I haven’t slept much in the past three weeks. When an idea hits me, I turn on my laptop and start banging away. It’s really a kind of banging at the keys. This, of course, is the first draft. It isn’t too much of a mess though. I think I’ve been writing this story in my head for over ten years. Maybe more. I lived most of it. I felt changing the main character to a female would improve the story line and give everything a different viewpoint.

Sometimes, however, when we’re writing, we get stuck. Writer’s block! It will cause doubt. It will fill us with fear. We writers have an internal editor that shows up during the first draft and tries to tell us it’s all crap. It will never sell. This is not the best seller you were hoping to write. In fact, you will never finish anything worthy of being published. So, we sit there staring at the blank screen, listening to all this non-existent criticism and prediction of failure. Trust me, this is when it’s time to turn off the laptop, put on a bathing suit, and go swimming. Stay for hours. Think about the story, but in a non-exposition manner. In other words, don’t think about writing it. Instead, think about the girl. Her situation. Who will save her? Feel the emotion of the situation. Don’t think about being stuck. And whatever you do, don’t us the phrase “writer’s block” at all.

When you’re stuck, your only job is to relax. Let the tension seep out of your neck and shoulders, and run down your back, into the pool water. Float on your back and look up at the sky. Take in all its wonder. Settle your breathing. Feel the sun on your body. Don’t picture yourself sitting at your laptop. Too soon to go back there. Get out of the pool, dry off, and sit in the sun reading a book. What? You didn’t bring a book? What kind of writer are you? Go to the library and take out a new novel. Come back to your lounge chair and read. Oh, I don’t know. Read till you fall asleep. (Sunscreen, my friend!) Then go home. Read some more. Perhaps something other than the novel you just got. Put on an album. You do still own vinyl records don’t you? A good recommendation? Hall and Oates. Abandoned Luncheonette. Listen to the whole album. Sing along. Go to bed. When you get up tomorrow and have free time to write, try it again.

Welcome to writing!





A Word About Dialogue

Use dialogue as conflict. When it comes to dialogue, snub those warnings from your computer that announce “WARNING! Improper English.” Read your dialogue aloud. The best test is to have a friend read it out loud and you just sit back and listen. Does it sound natural? Does it add conflict, reveal character or simply sound like they are sitting down to a hum-drum cup of tea? Cut the tea unless it’s a vital ritual or the murder weapon. If you don’t have friends to read for you, then record yourself and play it back. Most smart phones have recording apps. Make your dialogue as authentic as possible. Each character should express himself or herself differently. Use contraction, fractional sentences, one-word answers, slang, disruption, silence, and cagey replies. Use attitude and tension to create conflict in your dialogue and on the page. In other words, keep it real.

On The Finished Draft

How many of my followers have wrestled with the question, “When is the draft finished?” I read the following on the blog page for Sweet Tree Review. The piece was posted by Hannah Newman on December 1, 2015. I believe you will find it very instructive.

When is the draft finished? There is a time in most writers’ lives when this question appears. Sometimes it’s when you’ve read and reread, edited, written, rewritten, torn apart and rebuilt the draft so many times you could recite the whole thing by memory – or at least the problem sections. Sometimes it’s a piece you’ve spent more time with than any piece that came before it. Sometimes it’s a second draft (although, not often). Suspicious elation sets in. Is this it? Is this how this piece goes? Is this where I stop?

As a freshman in college, I was obsessed with this question. How would I ever know when a piece was done? I asked every professor I knew, each author I had the privilege of meeting. Without fail, they indulged me. They tried to explain to me that you had to know there was nothing more to be said, no other way to say what had been written. I didn’t understand then that there is no clear answer to this question. I was frustrated by my lack of guidelines, frustrated that I didn’t have a number of drafts to count down, a number of edits to make.

Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” What Leonard understood when he said this is that the draft is only done when it no longer matters to you that it is finished. It is done when the question you are asking changes. It is done when you are no longer a part of the question.

At the Chuckanut Writers Conference last summer, I had the privilege of hearing Kristiana Kahakauwila’s keynote address. She began her address by explaining that the question she was going to try to answer was one that she was continuously asked by her students – How do you know when the draft is done? She eloquently and succinctly wove together her experience, advice, and process, captivating the audience with open admission that she didn’t know one answer. Instead, she shared her own method. She said that for her, the draft is done when it is no longer a part of her and is, instead, its own being.

When we ask if the draft is done, we are asking if we have done enough. We are asking if we have done our jobs as hopeful writers. We are asking if we can move on. That is not the right question.

It does not matter how many adjectives you erase, how many commas you move, or how many times you rewrite the first and last paragraph – there is no benchmark you can hit, no finite amount of time the draft requires. What matters is whether or not you have given the story its voice, whether or not you have given the story the power to be separate from you.

Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Novels begin not on the page, but in meditation and daydreaming – in thinking, not writing.” I’m inclined to agree with her, but I think it is fair to recognize that while novels and stories may begin this way, they end this way as well. The writer’s work may be done with the last word on the last page, but the draft is only done when the story stays with the reader long after that.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

I found this on Pinterest. Very good stuff.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialog.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said,” such as “he admonished gravely.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Some Writing Tips

Here are some writing tips that were originally posted by Emma Coats, a story artist at Pixar.

You have to admire a character for trying more than for their successes. Keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. (Kill your darlings.) What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal with what you put them through? Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, so get yours working up front. Finish your story. Let go even if it’s not perfect.

When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you. You’ve got to recognize it before you can use it. Remember, putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, even if it’s a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth. Get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. Give your characters opinions. Passive or malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. Why must you tell this particular story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against them. Conflict is interesting. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on. It’ll come back around to be useful later.

You have to know yourself. The difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great, but using coincidences to get them out of it is cheating. Look at the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange them into what you do like? You have to identify with your situation and your characters. What would make you act that way?  What is the essence of your story? What is the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build your story from there.

Now get to work. Whatever you do, write.

Some Simple Suggestions (Kurt Vonnegut)

I stumbled upon something recently relative to writing. It was a list of suggestions from Kurt Vonnegut. They are quite ingenious and rather helpful. He says a writer should use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. A writer should give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Vonnegut says a writer should be certain every character wants something, even it it is only a glass of water. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. Vonnegut says no matter how sweet and innocent your leading character is, you should make awful things happen to them. This may sound a bit sadistic, but it helps the reader see what they’re made of. When writing, compose your work to please just one person. Vonnegut says if you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. You should start as close to the end as possible. I’ve read this advice before. Don’t waste time on too much back story. He also says readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on in the story, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.