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.
On Monday night I attended YA Thrills & Chills at Books Inc. in Palo Alto, where three fabulous women writers — Nova Ren Suma, Lauren Saft, and Katie Coyle — gave wonderful readings of their newly released books and talked about why they write YA and their writing process, and what books they’ve enjoyed lately.
Book Description (from Goodreads): On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.
On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.
Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…
What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?
“I think it’s such a great compliment when people are scared,” Nova Ren said, explaining that she was too close to the process while writing the book to feel fear of what she was writing herself.
I attending this event because of my love for Nova Ren’s past novels, most notable Imaginary Girls, which I still obsess over from time to time. So, I was freaking out a little (read: a lot) to be able to meet her in person and it was fascinating to hear how she approaches the writing process, which she described as part pantsing, part outlining. Nova Ren said the opening was important for her. “I need a way in. To find the right voice.” For the The Walls Around Us, she explained, she spent several months of a writing retreat just working on the right paragraph, trying to find the right voice. Once she found that, act one of the story flowed out fairly quickly. Then, after completing the first 50 pages or so, she would outline the rest of the book heavily in order to work it to completion.
Book Description (from Goodreads): Some girls will always have your back, and some girls can’t help but stab you in it.
Junior year, the suburbs of Philadelphia. Alex, Mollie and Veronica are those girls: they’re the best of friends and the party girls of the school. But how well does everybody know them–and really, how well do they know one another? Alex is secretly in love with the boy next door and has joined a band–without telling anyone. Mollie suffers from a popular (and possibly sociopathic) boyfriend, as well as a serious mean streak. And Veronica just wants to be loved–literally, figuratively, physically….she’s not particular. Will this be the year that bonds them forever….or tears them apart for good?
One of the fascinating things about Those Girls is that Lauren Saft wanted to step away from the good girls who tend to populate YA novels and instead focused on the party girls, the ones who drink and smoke and have sex and get into trouble, the ones who are most often get painted as the villain in stories. But they have their own stories, Lauren explained, they have their own insecurities and dreams. Although I ran out of funds and, thus, could not buy a copy of Those Girls, it’s gone on my TBR list to read at a future date, because I’m fascinated by those kinds of characters, too.
Lauren Saft said her writing of Those Girls started with the characters. She had a clear understanding of those girls, their voices, their relationships, and she was really clear on who they were. She mentioned that writing has been described as driving down the road in which you can only see so many feet ahead of you. “I didn’t really outline this book. I just sort of put my foot on the gas and drove,” she said, explaining that she was surprised when it all worked out by the end.
Book Description (from Goodreads): Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed “Rapture,” all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn’t know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country roadtrip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivan Apple isn’t looking for a savior. She’s looking for the truth.
“I did what nobody should ever do,” Katie Coyle said about writing Vivian Apple At the End of the World, explaining that she join a writing contest, to which she submitted the first chapter of the book and a detailed synopsis. At which point, she proceeded to do nothing with it, assuming she wouldn’t advance any further. But lo and behold, the contest representatives called up and told her she was a finalist and the completed novel had to be submitted in three weeks — which she did. Another eight months of editing resulted in the novel I now have sitting on my bookshelf. Based on her reading from the first chapter, it’ll be quite good. As a fan of apocalyptic stories, I don’t often see rapture tales, so I’m excited to see where this goes.
My plans and good intentions would have seen me continually working on the Novel in Poems I started in November. While procrastination has certain reared its multitude of heads, I did sit down to get to work a couple of times, only to sit at the screen feeling stymied. This is something that happens often for me as I get into the middles of longer works, when I get lost in the woods of where it could go and start feeling unsure of which way to turn.
As I usually do in such situations, I tried to make my through by setting down ideas of where I want to go, drafting out a kind of a rough outline for the rest of the story. It’s like pulling out a map, figuring out where I’m at and planning out which trails I want to head for. This process usually helps guide me forward. At the very least, I feel good about having put something down on the page.
Coming back to the Novel in Poems, however, I still couldn’t find my way back into the story, which calls for another stratagem. Sometimes moving away from the computer and working on good old-fashioned pen and paper helps to kick start the mind in a different direction. The idea is that I’ll print out existing pages and start reworking them, while jotting down ideas for future chapters. At least that’s what I’m hoping.
The only flaw in this plan is that I don’t have a printer at home — an entirely silly thing not to have as a writer, I agree. Thus, I’m going to go ahead and buy myself a new printer as a personal Christmas present this year.
Speaking of awesome presents for writers. My fantastic friend and roommate bought me StoryBox novel writing software for Christmas. I don’t know much about it, but I’m excited to try it out and see how the outlining aspects of the program works. If anyone has used this before, I would love to hear your thoughts.