I recently rediscovered the joys of swimming in the ocean. In Northern California, this means plunging into the Pacific, which is bitingly cold. The water when it first hits your feet is almost unbearable, and it takes patience to go deeper—skin tingling as the salty waves reach your belly and then your chest and your shoulders.
On my most recent trip to the seashore, I waded into the dark blue waters until I was neck deep. In the distance the line of the horizon was broken by undulating water, which swelled in front of me—rising up, up, up higher than my head, leaving me no choice but to dive into and through the water.
I had delved past the line of breaking waves. Nevertheless, with every swell of water I wondered, Is this the one that will curve into a wave too big for me to handle? Is this the one that will crush me?
Entering the ocean is always a risky business. The ocean is immense. It obeys its own laws, rhythms, and tides. At any moment, it can push you under and sweep you away.
Many times as a child, I’ve braved the shallow water along the shore, leaping through the waves. Many times, I’ve been surprised by a wave larger than I expected and tumbled, caught in a seemingly never-ending spiral of water, buffeted against the sand and rocks below, bubbling foam swirling all around with no sign of which way is up. Anyone who’s been submerged by a wave has experience a moment of terror, a moment when you realize you might not surface at all.
As I returned to the shore after my most recent ocean swim, I began to think about how the risks faced by writers and artists seem to parallel the risks of the ocean. The act of creating prose, poetry, or other forms of art can sometimes feel fraught with danger. Yet, we continue writing, continue creating, continue delving into the depths.
Last year, I jumped into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the hopes of washing myself of self doubt and depression resulting from years of struggling through a novel that just wasn’t working. The challenge of writing 50,000 words on a new project — something fun and exciting — was meant to help me shift away from a need to achieve the perfect novel (or perfect for me, anyway).
Writing last year’s brought the joy of writing back. The Monsters I Keep is apocalyptic YA horror novel about a teenage girl trying to survive in a world full of monsters. The way the novel was shaped allowed me to tell the story in shorter snippets (more aligned with how I write as a poet). The story presented it’s own challenges, but it was also a pleasure to write, providing a world I was eager to dive into.
It was also a story that I didn’t finish. Last year during NaNo, I managed to write some 40,000 words. Over the course of the following year, I added several thousand more. The first two parts are fairly well drafted, but the third part, the conclusion needs to come together.
Last year, when I started The Monsters I Keep, the world was a different place. I wrote the first two parts of this novel before COVID and all the chaos that 2020 has wrought.
Now, looking back on the themes of isolation and facing off against a world full of monsters hits a bit different. Turns out, I have new levels of personal emotional experience to draw from.
As I start in on part three of my character is coming back to people. It seems strange somehow — after experiencing everything this year has had to deliver — to be writing the section of the novel that’s about coming back to hope.
Then again, maybe it’s the perfect time to be writing about hope.
Good or bad, I’d like to finish The Monsters I Keep. It will still be only a draft, one that will need significant amount of work to make fully readable. But if I can pull this off, then it will be first full novel draft I’ve completed. That would be an amazing accomplishment.
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? How is it hitting different for you?
It can be hard to put words on the page at the best of time. The inner critic can rear its head, bringing on self-doubt and uncertainty, which leads to a feeling that many people call writer’s block.
However, these are not the best of times. Many folks have been shut in at home due to shelter-in-place orders, which might seem an ideal situation to increase productivity and get writing done. Instead, increased feelings of stress, uncertainty, and depression can make it harder to be creative, compounding the problem.
My own writing process has been hit or miss over the past few weeks, with stretches of no writing being marked with sudden bursts of creativity. Since I’ve been dealing with my own ambiguous feelings towards being creative, I thought I’d share a few tools or methods I use to address the feeling of being blocked when it comes up.
Not all of these ideas are going to work for everyone, so feel free to use or discard them as you see fit.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is in full swing, with writers around the world diving into their novel or rebel projects. Words are spattering themselves upon page like rain — either in drizzles or downpours. Plotlines are taking root. Characters are waking up and blossoming into shape. Scenes are growing lush and vibrant.
At least, that’s the blessing I send out to all my fellow writers this month.
When I announced my intentions to partake in NaNoWriMo this year, one of the main methods of preparation was to eliminate all future considerations — all the little thoughts of what this new novel might be or become. In my first four days of working on the project, I have managed to get ahead of my daily goals, reaching just over 8,500 words. Along the way, it has been interesting to observe the little games my mind started playing, jumping past the present to future possibilities. Each time, I had to rein those thoughts in and find a way to keep writing.
Brain Game One: Future Success — The first day of working on my new novel was incredibly successful, which was a surprise and a delight. It had been a long time since I had such a smooth writing day, and I was proud of the words I wrote and the direction the story was taking. My brain, noticing me reveling in the pleasure of my success, immediately began jumping ahead. THIS would be the novel, this will be the one to achieve an agent and a publisher, oodles of money and awards, and —
Knock it off, I told myself. None of that matters right now. All that matters is here in the story. Who is this person you’re writing? What comes next? Stick to writing in the now.
Brain Game Two: Future Editing — As I continued on the second day, I found myself discovering the characters and what would happen to them through the act of writing. I allowed details and traits and events to evolve throughout a scene, allowing contradictions to take place and letting them lie, knowing I could come back and visit it later. My brain, however, would not let it be, insisting on telling me all the ways the previous passages would need to be fixed and fixed immediately.
Thank you, I told myself. But let’s worry about those things at another time. We’re focusing on the first draft. Let’s write in the now.
Brain Game Three: Future Failure — The process of writing is always shifting and not every day will flow smoothly. It was inevitable that self doubt would make its appearance, and it did on the third day. My brain fell right into lock-step, questioning whether these words would be good enough or whether this would just be another novel to sit languid in a drawer, ever unfinished.
Hush, I told myself. Everything’s okay. It’s a draft. It doesn’t have to be good enough. Just keep going, stick with the story and see where it leads. Write in the now.
. . .
As the month continues, I’ll have to face thoughts like this over and over again. It’s a continual process of pulling myself back to the present moment, taking a deep breath, and writing from where I’m at in the her and now. For the moment, I’m just enjoying the act of writing — which is exactly what I was hoping to get out of my NaNo experience this year.
If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or working on any kind of creative projects this month, let me know how you’re doing. Do you find yourself fighting future thoughts? How do you deal with such thoughts and keep moving forward?
. . .
Note: This was first published in A Seed to Hatch, my (semi)-monthly newsletter on the writing life and things that are interesting to writers. If you enjoyed reading this, please check out the archives and/or subscribe:
It’s been a long while since I’ve read a book on the craft of writing. Although I’ve often found such books valuable, in a way, I had grown out of them, focusing more on the act of writing instead of reading about it. But Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer was recommended to me recently with such fervor that I immediately picked it up — and discovered one of the best books on writing craft that I’ve yet to read.
Wonderbook is aimed at writers of speculative fiction, but is valuable to writers of any genre. The main chapters of the book cover the full range of the writing process, including Inspiration and the Creative Life, The Ecosystem of Story (point-of-view, dialog, and other story elements), Beginnings and Endings (with VanderMeer’s novel Finch as a main example), Narrative Design (plot, structure, etc.), Characterization, Worldbuilding, and Revision, along with a few interesting appendices. The chapters discuss the theory and practice of writing, while also providing inspiration, prompts, and writing exercises.
I particularly appreciate that VanderMeer does not prescribe The One Way to Write Them All, but rather cites a multitude of sources and examples to present the many sides of any method and, in fact, many sidebar items either question or direct contradict the view of the main text. In addition, the book offers essays and interviews in which fantasy authors — such as Neil Gaiman, Catherynne M. Valente, George R. R. Martin, and Karen Joy Fowler, among others — each with their own viewpoints. In this way, Wonderbook offers a toolbox of approaches to writing that the writer can pull from in order to discover what works best for them.
The illustrations, maps, charts, and artwork throughout Wonderbook, provided by a number of artists but primarily Jeremy Zerfoss, are a key way that it guides its readers through the murky waters of writing terminology, methods, and advice. They provide playful visual diagrams or inspirational asides that are valuable in and of themselves, making specific aspects of the writing process more memorable.
I was hoping to narrow in on a chapter and provide a more detailed look some of Wonderbook’s great advice — but I’ve run out of time, as the library is demanding its copy of the book back. But I just preordered the revised and expanded edition, so I’ll soon have my own copy to peruse at my leisure.
I will point out, however, that Wonderbook had an immediate practical effect on my writing life. While in the middle the section on Revision, I read a bit noting that one of the ways people get stuck is forcing themselves to write the story chronologically — even though it’s just as viable to start at the end or jump around while putting together a draft. I knew this already, though perhaps in more of a theoretical sense. I can’t immediately think of a time when I have applied this to writing my own fiction (essays, yes, fiction, no). But being reminded of this option to jump around in a text launched me into action.
I have a novel that I have been sitting on, after burning out on it a while back. At the time, I had given myself permission at the time to take a break and then come back to it later (that the “later” had turned into over four years is another story). All this time, I have been waiting for the right time to come back to the text, figuring I would need to do a major overhaul of the beginning in order to work through to the end — an expectation that kept me stymied.
While reading Wonderbook, I became so inspired by the idea of writing out of order that I jumped up and began writing down the climatic scene of the novel — a scene that has been playing in my head over and over again for ages. Those thousand words have put me back on the footing of maybe finally getting the novel done. (“Done.” Hah. We’ll see.)
To sum up I’ll say, this excellent and would be a welcome addition to almost any writer’s shelf.