Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finishing the Book – Mental Blocks

Last time, I wrote about organizational problems that get in the way of finishing your writing. Mental blocks can be another major factor. In fact, it is the one I hear the most about from other offers.
Often, they are problems, such as looping and dithering, that can occur any time in the writing process, and I’ve offered tips on dealing with these throughout this blog.  Five challenges, however, seem to be the bane of those just trying to get finished, so I’ll offer suggestions on each.
Exhaustion. It is possible to get burned out on a story, or burned out on writing. The work can be all absorbing, demanding, and lonely. Or you can just become tired of the kind of writing you are doing. There are natural rhythms to scenes and segments, and you can get out of synch. And sometimes, everything becomes too familiar. You just want that voice in your head to shut up.
The first way to avoid exhaustion is to set your expectations correctly. It is much more likely that you will get tired of a work if you believe it should already be done. Books have their own lengths and gestation periods (which, admittedly, can be modified by a publishing deadline). I write out the hours (based on past experience) expect for phases of the project, and then I add 50%.
Exhaustion also tends to afflict pantsers more than plotters because they tend to write in surges. Steady pacing, with a consistent word count, can help you avoid physical and mental exhaustion. Don’t try to sprint in a marathon.
If you already are exhausted, cut down on your daily work count and do something entirely different. I switch to nonfiction, but, from what I see with other writers, music, drawing, and other creative endeavors seem to do that most to heal and revive.
No answers. Many writers feel that they’ve run out of ideas or painted themselves into a corner. It isn’t true. Your imagination has not died. Your muse has not abandoned you. As I simple test, I ask authors to provide ideas for other writers who are stuck, and they always come in a flood.
Seeing that creativity is alive and well is often enough, but, if not, ask different questions about the story. Rephrase. Zoom in (for a finer question). Zoom out (for a broader question). List ideas on paper or say them out loud. Stand up. Walk around when you look for answers.
Despair. This is usually expressed by the question, “Why did I start this stupid story in the first place?” Well, you did. And you are into it. And you are committed. And you are a professional. The finished work may be awful. So what? Finish anyway.
Leftovers. Those who hop around to write the luscious parts should not be surprised when all they are left with are those required transition scenes, the bits where clues must be planted, and blocks of narration.
First, reconsider whether these parts are definitely needed. Often the work succeeds without them. Elmore Leonard says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Maybe you did that automatically.
If that feels wrong, brainstorm how they might be made more interesting. Can you include emotional content? Surprises? Can you surprise yourself?
If neither of these help, lean on your professionalism. Set a word count goal and grind it out. As one writer delicately put it, sometimes you have to defecate masonry.
Fear of failure. Though often hidden, this may be the most important reason why books don’t get finished. A finished book can be judged. And, if it is first draft, the judgment will be harsh.
But you can’t fail. A finished book, even if it is lousy, is an achievement. It moves you further down the road as an author and an artist. It builds capability. And you never have to show it to anyone. Virtually every author I know has a completed manuscript that never will see the light of day. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not a failure.
There are other problems – literary promiscuity (the urge to take up with a new manuscript), distractions, and jealousy. I’ll go into these at another time since I need to finish this blog.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Every Other Friday - Melanie R. Meadors

Melanie R. Meadors spent her formative years never truly deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now that she is an adult, she continues to defer that choice by living vicariously through the characters in her stories. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines over the years (here's one written under a pseudonym), and have earned placements in a number of contests. In the past year, she has shifted her concentration from speculative fiction to historical romance. Her novel His Roman Heart's Desire has consistently been a finalist in many regional RWA contests. She lives in central Massachusetts with her family, dozens of roses, two guinea pigs, and four neurotic rescue rabbits.

Tell me about His Roman Heart's Desire.
His Roman Heart's Desire is a historical romance set in the time just after Caesar's assassination. Before now I have mostly written science fiction and fantasy short stories, so the new genre and length took some getting used to, but I'm having a lot of fun working on it.

What drove you to write His Roman Heart's Desire
I studied Classics in high school and college, and always found the disparity between the Romans we "see" (the rich patricians) and those Romans who remain invisible (the slaves, freedmen, and plebeians) fascinating. History is written from the point of view of the winners, and I often wonder about the other side. How did the actual majority of the people experience life, versus the rich politicians? I explore this in my book, as well as the concept of neighbors helping each other, people using their resources for the greater good.

Who did you write it for? 
I wrote this book because the story made me feel good. These characters have problems, and by working together, they improve life for many people (and they fall in love, as an added bonus!). I love ancient Rome, and wish there were more romances set in that time period. So I wrote it for myself, but I hope that others will appreciate it, too.

What were your biggest obstacles?  
When I started this book, I really worried about the book being accepted by publishers.  Historicals not set in England, or that don't feature Highlanders or Vikings, etc. are harder to sell to a publisher. I struggled with whether or not I should set it in a different time period/location, so much that I ended up blocking myself. 

Eventually, I decided that the book would not be as good if I sacrificed one of the main things about it that I loved. There are so many options available in publishing now that I feel like writers are more able to follow their dreams rather than forcing their dreams to fit someone else's mold. 

The other big obstacle was just finding the time and energy to write. My son has some special needs (listing them kind of looks like alphabet soup), and so we decided to homeschool him. I'm very glad we made that choice, but the days can be exhausting, leaving me with little energy at night to write!

What are your productivity tips?
Don't fight your life. Sculpt it to be what you want, but don't try to force it, because you'll just become depressed. What really worked for me was making a life plan, a chart with about four concrete goals (in all areas of life--family, finances, work, etc.) for the next five years on it, and then listing some steps toward those goals. 
When I am faced with a decision, I ask myself, will this lead me toward accomplishing one of those goals? If not, I say no. This allows me to focus my energy/time/money on the things that are really important to me. 
I also write up a schedule that has every member of the family on it, so I don't accidentally plan to write during a time my son needs me, and also so other members of the family know what to expect. Then I hang it up so everyone can see it. 
This backfires sometimes, like when I want to slack off and my son says, "Mommy, aren't you supposed to be writing now?" It kind of increases accountability. And I always make sure I schedule in some down time. I literally have a time slot every morning that says, "Veg out," because I need that!  I think everyone does. 
Make your schedule work with your life plan. Make sure you are doing the things that are important to you, that fulfill you.

I love that you post your schedule for all to see. Do you have any questions for me? 
What's your pet peeve excuse people give as to why they can't write?

What advice would you give to someone who sets a goal, but is unable to fulfill that goal? For example, if someone realizes that there is no way in heck they are going to complete NaNoWriMo or another such challenge, what would you say to them?

On the first question, I actually am pretty accepting of excuses if people are trying. An excuse that doesn't seem to be very strong is often a placeholder for something else -- like the terror of sharing fiction or avoidance of an emotionally difficult scene. The only thing similar that gets under my skin is when someone who has never written declares that he or she could easily write a novel. Or, worse, when they disparage someone who has. Finishing a novel is hard work, and i represents unusual if not extraordinary discipline and dedication.

 External goals are great -- commitments to writing partners, deadlines for contests and requested submissions, NaNoWriMo -- they all provide an impetus to get to work and finish a set amount every day. But the truth is that your development as a writer and your faithfulness to the story you're telling are what matter most. If those are being taken care of, the rest is secondary. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Finishing the Book (Article, Chapter, Scene)

It is a lot easier for me to get started than it is for me to get finished. Piles and files of bits and pieces testify to this. Some of the work is experimental or done before I got more methodical, but I still find that, when a work is 80-90 percent done, barriers appear. Some of these are physical (hard disk crashes, corrupt files). Some are environmental -- life events and illness. Some are creative or conceptual, such as painting myself into a corner. Most are in my control and could be considered organizational or psychological.

Yesterday's barrier was definitely an organizational problem. I had set myself the task of rethinking the structure of my current novel. This required inserting scenes and mostly complete scenes that were sitting in an auxiliary file, as well as reordering for effectiveness, tension, and stakes. This was an ambitious goal, but I was working against a timer not a word count goal or even a requirement to complete the to-do list. This usually reduces stress, but not yesterday.

The starting point didn't feel right. I had a list of scenes, in full sentences, ready for shuffling. My intent was to cut-and-past until the flow felt right. With over 30 scenes to reorder, the list looked too big. This was especially true since a few remained to be written. I stopped my timer and paced.

Moving around helps me to think. I have another work that exists as an outline of Post-Its. Was that a good option? I looked over a blank Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Would filling that in get me going? By the time I was finished pacing, I had decided to put all the scenes onto index card. It was a gut decision that forced me to write out each scene sentence, but it worked. Something about the tactile experience of lining up, shuffling, and reshuffling those cards, made a difference for me. Scenes found new places. A few scenes were cut. Some holes were visible, and I created new cards for those.

I did one more thing. I marked each card to indicate the level of completeness. Scenes to be written got empty circles. Scenes partly written got checks. Completed scenes got Xs.

I'm on my way now, with a quick check (and a few changes) after sleeping on the new structure. I've added reminders on emotions, as well as some ideas on what might happen.  Now I'm methodically going through adding text to incomplete scenes and writing the new scenes, all in sequence. 

Usually, I dodge organizational problems by following my processes (collected in my process diary). Common organizational problems include:
  • Not knowing what your next step is. When the time dedicating to writing comes up, this can freeze you in your tracks. Which project? Which scene? Compose? Fill a hole? Rewrite? Since I always have too many ideas (especially for new projects), this one was the bane of my existence. That's why I always decide what I will write the day before, not minutes before, my next writing session.
  • Not having an approach for the next piece of work. As a writer, I'm always learning. I find new ways to look at my material, and this sometimes demands that I find or develop a new process. For instance, it was years before I had a file of "junk words" I could use to methodically polish my text. (And I am experimenting now with using AutoCrit Editing Wizard to help me with this job.) Right now, the biggest target I have is building a tool box for improving emotional content in my work. I have a few techniques, but I'm trying to develop more.
  • Having too many options for the next step. In a way, this was what got me dithering yesterday. I knew there were other options for working on my structure. If I'd only had one technique, I would have pushed forward with it.
  • Having the wrong approach or doing it out of sequence. My process diary is a graveyard of approaches that did not work well for me and ended up being rejected (or severely modified). Someone else's favorite approach may not work for you. And some approaches do not work for all material or for you whole writing career. And, at times, material that will ultimately be improved with a process, is not ready for it when you think it is. Often this is because another step was not executed correctly, but sometimes it is just a quirk driven by story, character, or circumstances. I often find jumping back to an earlier process or forward to the next process in my journal can be the answer.
  • Having an approach that is not detailed enough or too ambitious. I am a big believer in divide and conquer. In particular, I found that process steps for short stories needed to be looked at more closely and better defined when I began to work on novels. And with more ambitious works, a process step may require more from me than has ever been the case. In those instances, I have had to scale back a day's work so that the step got the attention it needed.
I would have made progress if I had gone with my original plan, but I had time yesterday to reconsider and follow my gut. If I had not had that time, I would have moved forward, but not as productively. Process is a tool, but the writer's instinct is valid. As long as the instinct is not an excuse for procrastination, it can help you work more efficiently.

Psychological barriers are the other main reasons for not finishing a work. I'll discuss them in my next post.

What stops you from finishing a work?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

More Interviews and Guest Posts

The Every Other Friday interviews continue to be the most popular feature on this blog. Since I posted the first five, I've added four more.

The most popular post of all (by far) has been the guest post by Gwen Hernandez.

Write Faster with Scrivener

To which I have been able to add another wonderful (and popular) guest post.

What I Learned from Doing NaNoWriMo (Rochelle Melander)

And, since I last chronicled these posts I've guest posted again myself.

The NaNoWriMo Survival Kit

Adding to my other two guest posts.

How to Write FAST
Drafting a Novel in Fifteen Minutes a Day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Building Opening Sentences - Something appealing/Something appalling

Tell the audience what's going to happen - that was the advice of choreographer Jerome Robbins to Stephen Sondheim about how to open "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The result was the wonderful, fun song "Comedy Tonight."

When I saw this in a bio of Robbins broadcast this weekend (and I am paraphrasing since I don't have access to the original), I couldn't help but thing of how Thackeray and other novelists of his time would begin chapters with spoilers like "In Which Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign." I've written in the past about how titles and subtitles (including "In which" beginnings) can launch writers into their drafts. It's also possible to construct first sentences (for books, chapters, and scenes) that can get the juices flowing.

Many writers freeze when the get to first sentences because there is so much pressure to set the scene, create a great hook, and introduce the character perfectly. If such a sentence comes to you, fine. If not, that means you're human. Get to work putting the story down and worry about the perfect opening sentence when you are rewriting you work. Here are five approaches:
  1. Call me Ishmael. (Moby-Dick) - Write down something the character says. If you can get a character talking, he or she is likely to keep talking for a full scene. Take advantage of that.
  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice) - Start with a premise, your thesis (if you know it). Most of us had to do this is school so the words that follow, the proofs, should come easily. This approach works well if you have something to say.
  3. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. (The Trial) - Begin with the protagonist's problem. Then move on to what it means to him or her. What might be done to solve it.
  4. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. (The Good Soldier) - Make a promise to the reader. Make it as big as you dare. And then try to fulfill it.
  5. It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451) - Start with a sentence that is charged with emotion. If you have a visceral reaction to it, you can ride that emotion through the sentences that follow it. Once you establish an emotion, you can turn it, for even more fun.
Now, any of these approaches might give you exactly right sentence or one that would never work. It doesn't matter if it gets you started. Since getting started seems to be the bane of most writers, that's a good thing. You can find 100 opening sentences on infoplease.

If all of these leave you scratching your head, try answering these versions of the journalists' questions.
  • When and where does the scene take place?
  • Who is this scene about?
  • What happened to him or her?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why should I (the reader) care?
Be specific and clear. And, again don't worry if you need to change your answers later on. Just get started.

Are you bedeviled about how to begin? How do you construct your opening sentences?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Every Other Friday - Marian Lanouette

Marian Lanouette was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and is the seventh child of ten. Unbeknown to her parents, at the age of five she started reading the "New York Daily News" stories about the murdered nurses in Chicago and the investigation. Marian followed the story every day as authorities rushed to solve the brutal crime. It had caught her attention and her imagination. To this day she stills checks her closet before going to sleep. Marian thinks it was on that day the mystery lover was created.

Marian's first book If I Fail, A Jake Carrington Mystery was released September 2012, and will be followed up in January 2013 with the second book in the series, Burn in Hell, A Jake Carrington Mystery. Each book is a mystery with romantic elements because, to quote Marian, "Life is both mysterious and romantic."

Tell me about If I Fail.
If I Fail, A Jake Carrington Mystery combines mystery with romance. The first in the series. I'm happy to report it's been in the top 400 on Amazon for police procedurals for the last five weeks.

What drove you to write If I Fail
Jake's story popped into my head one day and wouldn't leave until I wrote it. I had to put another story aside to get this one down on paper.

Who did you write it for?
This might sound corny, but I wrote it for Jake thinking "okay here's your story, now let me get back to my other one." He had other plans, and his story became a series.

What were your biggest obstacles?
I'd have to say learning the business of writing. I took refresher courses in grammar, POV, and characters to spruce up my writing. I also sought out professional organizations to network with other authors.

What are your productivity tips?
I write full-time and treat it like any other job. I get up, exercise, and I'm at my desk writing and editing for six hours each day. I set word goals and don't leave the desk until I achieve them. I also limit my time online -- otherwise it’s a pit that grabs a hold of you and doesn't let go.

Do you have any questions for me?
I loved the classes that you've given at the CTRWA - What tips would you give to increase ones productivity?

My attention to social media for promoting my book [has] taken a lot of time away from my writing. I try to limit it to one hour in the morning, one hour at lunch, and free for all at night, but lately it's taking me 2 hours just to answer email or respond to tweets and Facebook. (It has to be done, not complaining), just need to know how to manage the time for it all.

I strive for a minimum of 2,500 per day but know I can achieve more.

Few people would complain about 2,500 words per day, but you are far from alone in having social media as a distraction. If you are losing time from your writing, that is a real concern. The writing must come first, both in the hours working on the manuscript directly and in the hours of rest and reflection away from the manuscript.

I would worry about whatever in your brain says "It has to be done." If your first book is making you take two hours a day in responses, how many hours will you end up dedicating when you second book comes out? Fourth? Tenth? 

When I first started teaching (chemistry) I took more hours writing notes to students on their homework than I did preparing for classes. Bad mistake. I learned out to curb that fast. And the results were better for everyone. Social media is fun (and it can be a good tactic to build audience at the beginning of your career), but it is not the main show. Not everything needs an extended response. Not everything needs a response. Some things can be handled with form letters. Or do what execs do, and hire someone to take the bulk of the work for you.

I hope this helps. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The NaNoWriMo Survival Kit (Guest Blog)

Today, I'm guest blogging The Write Now! blog with my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit. Stop by and make a comment or ask a question.

For more on NaNoWriMo, check out my series.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Shock Treatment for Storytellers

The further you get into a novel, the more likely that the essence of your story will hide from you. Side characters want to tell their stories. Main characters wander into dark alleys. Outlines and note seem to be written in a different language. 

Some sort of shock treatment is in order.

My first resort when this happens is to return to my List of Ten for the book. I almost always find a potent reminder of why I wanted to tell the story to begin with.  And, more often than not, I add to the list before I leave it, renewing my enthusiasm and focus.

Sometimes I interview my character or write him/her a letter. This get the voice of the character back into my head (and often the problem is shutting it up).

Recently, I was teaching my Flash Fiction course, and we got into a discussion about setting. With Flash Fiction, setting can make or break the story, and my main point was to think of places where interesting things happen. Some obvious ones are police stations, hospitals, weddings, funerals, and battlefields. But, if you think less dramatically, you can think of places and situtations where conflicts occur over mundane things. In the class, we talked about people trying to renew their drivers licenses, buying suits for teenage boys, blind dates, and so on.

Make the list long enough, and you're apt to react strongly to one of the places or situations. You'll feel that nibble of inspiration. The next step is to put someone into the place or situation who surprises the audience. We workshopped an emergency room in the class and ended up having two people arrive who had been sewn together -- arms, sides, hips, legs, and feet. The didn 't get along, and their stories on how this happened didn't match.

What we ended up with was drastic, but entertaining.

Think of how you might take this route to get to the essence of your story. What is the place or situation that will put your character into the most uncomfortable position. Can you include an element that will surprise your reader? What conflict could push it as hard as possible? Could you write this as a Flash Fiction (1000 words or less) story?

If so, your story will come back to life, and you'll have a reference point as you go forward. You also may learn more about you character and what your story will be.