What’s Missing In Your Writing?

August 29, 2014

computer writer's blockA pen, a pad of paper, a computer. What else could a writer need?

Feeling stuck, blocked or resistant often comes from not having what you need. Your resistance is there because something important isn’t. You need something to move your writing forward: it might be reassurance, support, time, training, experience, tools.

Looking for a new tool or technique can be a trap. Installing Scrivener, for example, can take distract you from actually writing until you know how to use it. And Scrivener isn’t going to write your project if you don’t show up to work with it.

But there are times when you really do need a new tool or technique. Today, I am profoundly grateful for both.

New Tools and Techniques Help Me See New Possibilities

novel in progress 3I’m revising my novel using scene cards (that is, index cards with one scene per card and one card for every scene in the manuscript). The new technique is to revise my novel at the level of scenes, not at the level of the hundreds of pages in the manuscript.

When I lay out the scene cards on my dining room table, I see more of the story than I ever could trying to look at manuscript pages.

I also give myself an 30,000 foot view with a Word table that identifies the POV character in each scene, a fragment that describes the main action in the scene, and the timeline (e.g. Card 1 happens on Day 1, Card 12 happens on Day 3, etc.). At this level, I can see where to add new scenes for a new POV character. I can also see scenes that are probably no longer necessary.

I could never do what I’m doing at the level of words on the page.

For example, I deleted three entire chapters today. I haven’t altered the manuscript yet and I might salvage some of the dialogue from those scenes to copy somewhere else before I hit the Delete key. But I wrote Delete on three scene cards and pulled them from the deck. When I start working with the manuscript again, those pages will go.

I wouldn’t have the courage to contemplate deleting those chapters without agonizing over the great stuff that’s there. At the level of sentences and pages, I’m too attached. At the level of sentences and pages, the way the story is in the current draft seems to be the only way the story could unfold.

51FS4ND305L__AA160_I wish I’d created scene cards first instead of drafting my way through, but I didn’t know about this technique when I started this novel. I learned the foundation – e.g. dreamstorm and create scene cards as you imagine an entire novel at the level of scenes, rather than trying to outline (with the analytical mind) or just sitting down and drafting your way through – from Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. (I used this method to write a novella.)

Student Requests Led to New Tools and Techniques

I’m developing new tools and techniques as I beta test exercises for a new class I’ll teach this fall. Many students who took one of my Entering the Flow classes have dreamstormed and created scene cards for memoirs and novels. Some of those students requested a “next-step” Flow class to help them transform the cards into a draft; some created a draft and want a “next-step” Flow class to help them revise it.

I am deeply grateful to those students for nudging me to create a new class, which meant creating new exercises, which in turn led me to create new tools and techniques. Of course, I also thank the Loft’s Education Department for accepting my proposal for Revisiting the Flow.

I needed my students’ requests and the Loft’s support as much as the new tools. I know I wouldn’t be as far in the revision as I am without them.

What are you missing? Tools and techniques? A community of writers to nudge you forward? New ideas and exercises? Reassurance and support? You can find these things in many places, including in a Loft class like Revisiting the Flow or one of the other marvelous classes the Loft offers.

I hope to see you at the Loft. If I don’t, I hope it’s because you’re in your writing space moving your story forward.

Three Myths that Cause Writer’s Block

August 27, 2014

trumpet canstockphoto14437804This morning while I walked the dogs in the park, a young man sat on a park bench playing riffs on his trumpet.

Because I’m an introvert, I often have more involved conversations with strangers in my head than I do in reality. In my head, I said, “I used to play trumpet. But I’m not like you. I was never good at it.” (What I said out loud was “Good morning.”)

I quit playing trumpet because I believed three myths about creativity. The facts that I was 14, the only girl in the brass section of the junior (aka remedial) band, and two boys always teased me during band practice may have played a role in my decision to quit. But if I didn’t believe the myths, those facts wouldn’t have mattered.

Have you bought into any of these creativity-crushing myths? Any one of them can be the source of writer’s block and other forms of resistance.

Myth #1: You’re supposed to be “good at” everything you do. If you’re not naturally talented, not naturally good at it, whatever it is, you should give up and go find something you are good at.

Truth #1: You can’t be good at everything. You can learn a lot and have a lot of fun doing things you’re not good at when you stop believing that you’re supposed to be good. A primary point of Process play is to mess around with something you’re not good at.

Being good is not nearly as important as getting better. First drafts truly are supposed to be shitty. That’s why you write another draft.

Toddlers do not give up trying to walk because they aren’t good at it.

Myth #2: It’s supposed to be easy. If you don’t immediately and effortless get good at something, you should give up and do something that is easy.

Truth #2: Sometimes creativity is effortless joy. Sometimes it’s just plain hard work. It’s supposed to be challenging – that’s what keeps it interesting. Believing it’s supposed to be easy all the time only makes it harder.

As David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote in Art and Fear “The artist’s life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because he imagines it to be fast.”

Myth #3: Anything less than 30 minutes of practice is pointless.

Truth #3: If only I’d known about the power of 15 Magic Minutes back then. You can write entire books 15 minutes at a time.

If I’d stopped worrying about not being any good, it would have been easier to practice for 10 or 15 minutes a day. I might never have been “good at” trumpet, but I might have discovered how fun it can be to play without worrying about being good.

What did you give up because you believed these myths? Entire genres like poetry or fiction or nonfiction? Entire art forms like painting, dance, music, comedy?

Which of the things you gave up do you want to explore and possibly reclaim first? Which might be fun to mess around with now that you know you’re not supposed to be good, you’re just supposed to play?

New Book Update: An Unexpected Breakthrough

August 22, 2014

fist bump wirters blockKudos to me! I reached my target to create a scene card for every scene in the novel I’m revising. The pile of index cards is over an inch high. I wanted to complete this stage in August because it’s an exercise I’ll ask students to do in my new online Revisiting the Flow class.

But of course, that brought me back to the challenge of transitioning to the next stage. As I’ve said before, transitions are tough. This one was tougher because I was in the doorway, clutching the jams and struggling not to go through.

In other words, I experienced a tiny bit of writer’s resistance to moving on.

What’s the Hold Up?

hold upI’ve known for several months that my main character’s daughter, Katy, needs to be developed. In the current version, Katy isn’t much more than a pawn I moved around to create conflict for my main character, Peregrine.

I brainstormed and dreamstormed Katy’s character even while I was creating the scene cards of the current draft. I “saw” her (in a dreamstorming session) with a boyfriend, which opened all kinds of juicy questions: who is he, where is he from, what are his intentions with Katy, who’s side is he on, will he be involved in Katy’s capture or her rescue?

I’ve explored whether this man is a dangerous and secret antagonist for Katy and her mother or simply a self-serving scoundrel. I’ve pondered just how bad things will get for Katy. And pragmatically, how many tertiary characters do I want to add to interact with this secondary character?

I circled this uncertainty for several weeks. One day’s brainstorming took me one direction, the next day’s freewriting pushed in a different direction.

I love the “aha” thrill of discovering new stuff – “Oooh, what if he’s spying on Katy? Or he uses Katy to spy on her dad?” But…

At first, I wasn’t ready to make choices; I needed to keep dreamstorming to let ideas percolate.

chase tailAbout two weeks ago, I had the nagging sense that I was chasing my tail. My freewriting was more an exercise in rephrasing the same questions in different ways than discovering new possibilities.

I needed to make choices so I could keep moving forward with the revision. As I said before, choosing is difficult for me – I’d much rather keep my options open.

I couldn’t figure which way to go. I couldn’t see how to fit (“shoehorn” might be a better verb here) the new stuff of Katy and her “bad boy” into the current draft. I need to shift something and frustrated that I couldn’t figure out what.

A Tangential Exercise Provided a Breakthrough

Not knowing what else to do, I tried one of the exercises I designed for the new Revisiting the Flow class: I listed the fixed points in the novel.

doctor whoIf you’re not a Doctor Who fan, the term refers to events in history that cannot be altered, not even by the Doctor.  For writing prose, I define fixed points as the scenes that the author knows in her/his heart of hearts are essential. Changing these scenes would mean writing a different book.

If you want to try this, just list the scenes you know have to be in your story. Don’t look back at your draft, notes, outlines or anything else. Off the top of your head, what points are fixed in the time and space of your story?

Because I listed the scenes without looking at the cards or the manuscript, I wasn’t narrowing from a huge list to a small one. Creating a list out of nothing helps keep the number of fixed points reasonable. I wrote the list a few days ago and put it in the pile of novel-revision-stuff.

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough. I saw how some of the Katy and her “bad boy” scenes could fit without over complicating the story. I saw it because I had unconsciously detached from a scene that is not a fixed point no matter how much I love it.

When I realized that the poignant goodbye scene between Katy and Peregrine didn’t have to be where and how it is in the current draft and that it might not even need to be in the novel at all, other possibilities opened up. If Peregrine isn’t there with Katy when Katy placed under military arrest, she can learn about Katy’s capture in other ways and from other characters, including Katy’s “bad boy.”

This opened the door for “killing darlings” at the level of scenes.

Now I’m excited about creating cards for the new scenes and re-ordering the cards in that section of the novel. The revision not insurmountable now; it’s a fascinating puzzle again. (Intellectually I knew it was a puzzle all along, but that’s sure not how it felt.)

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play with my story now.

Only the Good Get Blocked

August 19, 2014

billy joelCome on Virginia Woolf, don’t make me wait,

Perfect writers start much too late.

I’d rather laugh with the hacks than languish with the saints,

To the hacks, fans have flocked,

You know that only the good get blocked.

(Apologies to Billy Joel)

I am a fan of Robert Olen Butler. I’ve recommended From Where You Dream and the dreamstorming method he describes there to a LOT of students and coaching clients. I also warn them to read with a grain of salt because in addition to the outstanding insight and advice Butler provides, he also offers occasional examples of disturbing literary snobbery.

In addition to dismissing all genre writing as beneath a true literary artist (excuse me Mr. Butler, but your novel My Spaceman looks an awful lot like science fiction to me), he writes:

“Bad writers never get blocked… I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they’ve got to get to the unconscious. But they’re not getting there… writer’s block of that sort is the most common kind among writers who have any talent.”

I object to Butler’s assumption for many reasons, not the least of which is the negative impact this can have on impressionable, young writers who might, in an attempt to be cool, experiment with procrastination. As many of us know through painful personal experience, procrastination is a gateway drug to hard-core writer’s resistance.

Then there’s the fact that this sort of “block” could more accurately be identified as the Incubation stage of the creative process.

But most objectionable is the elitism behind the idea that only certain writers get writer’s block. In Butler’s version, only good writers have the taste to not impose bad writing on the world; they’d rather selflessly endure the pain of writer’s block than inflict imperfection on their readers.

According to other writers, writer’s block is an excuse used by self-indulgent, lazy, unoriginal writers who don’t have what it takes. “Real writers” push through.

The argument that “I’ve never been blocked; I don’t know any real writers who’ve been blocked, therefore there is no such thing as writer’s block,” is equivalent to “I’ve never had polio and no one I know had polio, therefore polio doesn’t exist.”

The truth is that all writers experience some form of resistance at some time. Some of us call it writer’s block. Some of us call it “waiting for inspiration.” Sadly some don’t realize how natural it is to feel this resistance and end up calling it a day on the hope of being a writer.

There is nothing inherently noble – or damning – in being blocked or feeling other forms of writer’s resistance. There is no need to endure it as a badge of honor or to hide it in shame. There is only the need to find your way around it.

What a Surfing Pig Can Teach Writers

August 14, 2014

surfing-pigI promise to connect the surfing pig with writing resistance via the intriguing tangents I’m about to lead you through.

When I was a kid, I hated going to bed. I especially hated going to bed in the summer when it was still light outside. I was the youngest kid, so I was supposed to go to bed first. My brother was two years older than me and took it as a personal affront and an injustice of Biblical proportions if I wasn’t in bed at least a half hour before he was.

I knew stuff happened after I went to bed, stuff I didn’t want to miss out on. I devised ingenious ways to sneak out of bed and watch what was going on.

I still resist going to bed. I always think “Just one more page, just one more chapter…”

When I read this in John Medina’s Brain Rules:

“Sleep makes us exquisitely vulnerable to predators. Indeed, deliberately going off to dreamland unprotected in the middle of a bunch of hostile hunters (such as leopards, our evolutionary roommates in eastern Africa) seems like a behavior dreamed up by our worst enemies.” (p. 153),

I knew it! sleep danger writers blockI knew there was something primal behind my resistance to sleep. The thing I could be missing could be essential to my survival.

Medina goes on to say “There must be something terribly important we need to accomplish during sleep if we are willing to take such risks in order to get it.” (p. 153)

While you’re pondering that, take a look at this video of polar bears and dogs playing.

Cue Kama, the surfing pig.

In Play, Stuart Brown lists species after species that play – dogs, cats, bears, wolves, rats, monkeys, ravens, hippos, bison, deer, even octopi – then asks the question “Why?”

“Animals don’t have much leeway for wasteful behaviors. Most live in demanding environments in which they have to compete to find food, compete with other species, and compete to mate successfully. Why would they waste time and energy in nonproductive activity like play? Sometimes play is even dangerous. Mountain goats bound playfully along rock faces thousands of feet high, and sometimes they fall. As a mountain goat mother might say ‘It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.’” (p. 30-31)

Brown does provide a list of reasons why animals play. And Medina and other experts can cite benefits of sleep without a problem. (I’ve previously posted reasons for writers to play and reasons writers need sleep.)

We spend a third of our lives asleep. It’s hard to say how much time we spend playing, but any time spent needlessly exposing ourselves to danger seems too much from the evolutionary standpoint. Certainly there must be ways to get the benefits of sleep and play without exposing ourselves to such risk.

From a strictly evolutionary perspective, sleep and play are frivolous. Which makes me think that there must be more to life than mere survival.

So here’s that writing-related point I promised: There are times when writing feels like an overwhelming risk; that’s when your limbic system takes over. Your limbic system cares only about survival. But you are willing to risk your life sleeping and playing because there is more to life than work and survival.

If Kama the pig can joyfully get on a surfboard, surely you can find the courage to write for the sake of the something more that writing brings to your life. After all, no one ever wiped out, fell off a mountain or got killed by leopards while writing.

Questions are the Answer for Writers Who Resist Research and Writers Who Can’t Stop

August 12, 2014

overwhelmBecause writers who resist research often have only a vague idea of what they’re looking for, the task overwhelms them. They don’t know what they’re looking for, so they don’t know how to start, where to go looking, or when to stop.

Writers who get in stuck research, on the other hand, are so engaged with the search itself, they are undaunted by a lack of specificity. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for; they still know how to start and what to do. But just like writers who resist research, they don’t know when to stop.

The problems look different: one group doesn’t start, the other group doesn’t stop. But the source of the problem is the same: neither group knows exactly what questions they’re trying to answer.

The solution is also the same: both groups need a list of open-ended questions to guide their research. (Writers who resist research may also need help with the technical skills of how to research.)

Consult the Map Before You Go

map1A list of open-ended questions is your map. The first step in the creative process, First Insight, is to draw your map. The second stage, Saturation (aka research), is to follow your map as far as you need to go.

First Insight is all about asking open-ended questions. (Stages of the creative process are described in Chapter 4 of AWB.) Don’t skimp or rush through this stage. Before you move to research, you should have a written list of at least seven open-ended questions.

If you’ve done extensive research on your topic before, you may be tempted to think you don’t need to research at all or that you only have one or two questions to answer. If you don’t ask new questions, you won’t see new connections. You can regurgitate what you already know in derivative writing, but you won’t write creatively.

Revise the Map as You Go

editUse the list of questions to focus and direct your research. Record what you discover, where you discovered it or what sources prompted your new ideas and insights.

What you discover will prompt new questions, which revises your map. Be sure to add the new questions to your written list.

Get Lost Anyway

Even with the best of maps and most carefully predetermined routes, you can get lost. Which is great because creative insight is more likely to be found when you let yourself get a little off the trail you thought you’d follow.

lostSometimes following what seems to be an unrelated tangent can take you right where you need to go. It’s difficult to know in advance if a tangent will be worthwhile or not.

You can’t know in advance which questions will lead to answers, which will lead to more questions, and which will lead to dead ends. There will be parts of your research that never make it to the draft and that’s a good thing.

If you could predict exactly where your search would take you, you wouldn’t need to take the journey.

But don’t let new questions lead you endlessly. Don’t turn the map over and start drawing on the other side. As you invent new questions, ask yourself if they truly are related to the questions you started with. If not, push yourself to stop researching and start incubating. (See Chapter 4 of AWB for details.)

Whether you resist research (as I once did) or you prefer to stay in the research forever, a list of open-ended questions is your best guide to writing a piece you’re proud of. You still may not know exactly where you’re going and the route you take may not be exactly what you originally thought, but you’ll know where to start and when to stop.

Writers Who Resist Research and Writers Who Can’t Stop

August 6, 2014

questions canstockphoto7418437 (2)Writers who don’t like research often don’t know how to start.

Writers who love research often don’t know when to stop.

Paradoxically, the solution is the same for both types.

Stuck in the Research

Some writers will you they get stuck in the research because they love it. Whether they know it or not, many writers get stuck in research not only because they love it, but because they’re resisting the next step in the creative process, which is Incubation.

To enter Incubation, you have to embrace uncertainty. You have to accept that even though you have all that information you gathered, you don’t know how it all fits together. Incubation is uncomfortable for everyone, but it can be excruciating for writers who like research.

puzzle piecesTo make the transition from research to Incubation, you have to be able to recognize when you’ve gathered enough puzzle pieces. You have to know when to push yourself from doing what you know how to do – collecting puzzle pieces – and start doing what you don’t know how to do – figuring out how the pieces fit together.

Some writers don’t know how to stop researching because they can’t tell when enough is enough.

Stuck Avoiding Research

Many writers who resist research think it will be boring, tedious and uncreative. We can’t find an intriguing way into the research, so we try to skip that stage and go from idea (First Insight) to drafting (Verification). This rarely results in good writing.

Make no mistake: every writer must do some research regardless of genre. When I was young, I thought I’d write fiction where I could make everything up. But of course, good fiction requires all kinds of research.

So I thought I’d write fantasy and science fiction so I could really make it all up. But fantasy and science fiction require just as much, if not more, research. Even memoir and poetry require research. It’s a different kind of research, but it’s research nonetheless.

quicksand canstockphoto0054324 (2)Research-resistant writers try to jump ahead only to get frustrated when our drafts drift aimlessly or lose energy or focus. It can look like we’re stuck in the drafting phase. Truth is, we have no business being in the drafting phase until we do some research.

Research is the stage where we gather the puzzle pieces. How can we expect to put the puzzle together if we haven’t gathered enough pieces?

Want to Get Unstuck?

It doesn’t matter where you get stuck. Stuck is stuck. My next post will explore the solution that gets both research-loving and research-resistant writers out of resistance and back into motion.


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