Kate Flora: Something happens to a lot of us as September approaches. Conditioned by anywhere from 12 – 19 years of going back to class each fall, we start thinking about getting serious about our work. Knuckling down to postponed projects. Finally writing that story or novel. Below are some thoughts from a handout I give my students at the end of a six-week writing class:
Write something you would like to read
Always remember that the enemy is not the badly written page but the empty page.
Think Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, and the shitty first draft.
Those Pesky Editing Heads
You know the ones, they keep giving advice, and criticism, and fuss and fidget about every sentence you write until your head spins and you can’t write a word? Think about turning off the editing heads long enough to let you get something down on the page that you can work with.
Consider doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month) in November, where the word count forces you to write with obsessing. Remind yourself that getting it down is more important than getting it right. You can use rewrite to make corrections and improvements.
Remember that perfection is not possible.
Show, don’t tell and other things we’re told that are true
Or, as one of my students once said to another: I now know how I’m supposed to feel, what I want you to do is make me feel it.
Specific is better than general. Details make a scene feel authentic. Remember that as long as you avoid the “data dump” readers love lore.
Be true to your ideas and your characters, not your story. Don’t bend your characters to fit the story, bend the story to fit who your characters are. Let the actions and the conflicts arise from who they are.
Treat your reader honestly. Don’t hold back a lot of secrets. You can mislead, using the shell game of clues and action, or an unreliable narrator, but don’t lie.
Remember, when you’re in a snarling, sweaty lather, that this is supposed to be fun. It’s only a book.
Where Do You Write?
Are you honoring your passion for writing by creating a good place to work? Remember that no one will make your writing time for you, and others won’t respect your desire to write if you don’t.
Dedicated place – remember that sometimes having a particular place where you write can become a part of the writing process.
Rituals: Going there, sitting down, opening a notebook or a file, all of these ordinary actions can become a form of ritual which may help you get back into what you are writing. Many writers also have the practice of rereading and editing what they wrote in the last session to start the writing flow.
What’s around you: Consider whether there are things you can do to make it more appealing or inspiring—a bulletin board with notes to yourself, or pictures which relate to what you are writing or something you want to write. A quote that raises a question. A quote that uses the language you would like to use. Something someone has written or said that inspires you or challenges you.Conversely, you might post a picture of Kanye West, who brags that he doesn’t read. Sometimes an “I’ll show you” attitude can also help to get going.
My writing teacher used to say that any writing session should be at least two hours—the first hour to shed the world and focus the mind and the second hour to really get down to the writing. Only you will know what works best for you, but trying to build in a few sessions of dedicated time is important. Don’t have two hours? Don’t worry. A regular practice is what is most important. Check out Stephen P. Kelner’s book, Motivate Your Writing and Kenneth Atchity’s book, A Writer’s Time.
Work with a set of realistic goals.
Do set deadlines but be sure that they fit with what you know about your writing style and how much time you have. If, for example, you can set a goal of five pages a week, in a year, you’ll have novel. In a month, you could have a twenty page short story. Setting a word count or page count gives you a positive feeling of accomplishment as those pages pile up. It also helps to still those pesky editing heads. You can tell them you’ll get back to them just as soon as you reach your goal. With luck, the words will flow and you’ll write more than five pages.
Save Everything – even when it feels like you’re writing gravel or the story takes an unplanned turn. Another time, you may want to recycle what you wrote there. Or you may reread the pages at a future date and decide, with a bit of editing, that they aren’t so bad.
Write You Are Meant to Write:
Be sure that your material is something you care about. You need to:
Care about the personality of your characters;
Care about the themes of your story;
Care about what’s at stake
Because if it doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to your reader.
Some thoughts about breaking the log jam:
Make a calendar/spreadsheet/whatever and chart each scene: time of day, characters, what happens. Try to plot out the next five to ten scenes. Sometimes working scene by scene can be less overwhelming than chapter by chapter or than trying to envision the whole story.
Consider learning about how to use a storyboard with yellow stickies you can move around to rearrange scenes and chapters
Some writers use Scrivener to organize their writing.
Print out and read the book or story straight through until now. Reading hard copy can give it a different feel.
To get a sense of the rhythm of your writing, read it into a recorder or your phone and then play it back. Read it to someone else. Have someone read it to you.
Stuck and thinking you’re unable to go forward? Write a scene you know you will use later on.
Teeing off the above, if you don’t know how to get from Chapter One or Page One to The End, write the scenes you do know and then think about what you’ll need to write to connect them. Then start writing those connections. There is no one “right” way to write your story. There is only your way.
Write the ending, then go back to where you got stuck and write toward it.
Apply butt to chair. Remain until 500 words are down. Repeat at your next writing session. Even if it’s crap, a synergistic “something” will often happen that will show you the path. Remember those first painful trips to the gym when you’ve been delinquent? Your writing muscles will get stronger.
Go back to the first chapter and read through what you’ve already written, editing as you go. It helps to find the momentum again, and to continue on. Pay attention to your character. Did you get off track? Is your character not acting like him or herself? Is anything happening that matters? Have you gotten stuck because your own story is boring you? Shake things up. Let your character do something unexpected.
Sometimes pulling something out and wrestling with it can make it start to work. Practice the type of “riff writing” Elizabeth Lyon describes in her excellent book on revision, Manuscript Makeover.
If your character is still misbehaving, take him or her for that ride in the car and ask why the character is behaving in that way. Seriously. The first time I heard writers say this, I thought it was crazy, but you need to be writing characters you want to spend time with. Characters, just like employees, can be fired if they’re not doing their job.
Remind yourself that brain surgeons don’t often complain about surgeon’s block, and pilots have to keep flying the planes. Remember that just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you give up. Most things that are worth doing are hard. So if you’ve written your 500 words for days and are still getting gravel, take out your trusty copy of Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s What If? and do some exercises.
Take yourself on an artist’s date and see if refilling the well might help. The world is full of fascinating things that may get you writing again.
…An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a your creative child…
Excerpt from The Artist’s Way, page 18 Julia Cameron
When all else fails, try ironing. Smoothing things out and creating order may either inspire you or the repetitive tedium may send you gratefully back to the keyboard.
Tons of good advice!
Great post, Kate! I’m at the ‘reading out loud” and “editing hard copy” stages right now. One you didn’t mention … searching for weasel words and then killing most of them …. and the work goes on!
Thanks Kate! Just what I needed.
Excellent advice. I may pass it around
Feel free to pass it around. If it helps a sister writer…I’m pleased.
Ditto what everyone said. Thank you!
Wow! This is the most impressive condensed bit of excellent advice I’ve ever seen. Printing and saving it to Pocket. Kate, you’ve outdone yourself!
You are too kind, Michele.
But you know that in the mystery world, generosity is very common, so why not share?
When all else fails, try ironing – I love it! I have used lawn mowing for the same purpose on more than one occasion.
My favorite line in this terrific post: “don’t bend your characters to fit the story, bend the story to fit who your characters are. Let the actions and the conflicts arise from who they are.” This is so, so true.
Another great post with so much to chew on, Kate. Thanks!
I was once told to ‘fire your inner prosecutor, or hire an inner defense attorney’ while writing. I’m reading L.A. Blues to Beth every night and that’s really helping get up to speed again. Thanks for all the really good stuff in this one.
Great advice, as always Kate. And for those who don’t iron, try washing dishes by hand. Also, may I add one more alternative to the daily goal setting? Working toward a set number of words or a set number of pages has always struck me as rather arbitrary, and possibly counter-productive if it results in reaching that goal and stopping dead. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the way it’s supposed to work. In any case, what works best for me is setting a goal of one SCENE a writing session. Sometimes its roughing out a scene, sometimes revising a scene, and sometimes expanding a scene, but whatever stage I’m at and whatever length the scene ends up being, at the end of the writing session I have a little section of the book that is complete in itself. I find that very satisfying. Then I make notes for the next scene, so I’ll be ready to go when I sit down to write again.
Wonderful advice! My biggest problem is the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee that keeps screaming, well, you know. We are hardest on ourselves, and have to get over that! Keep writing. <3
After a crazy summer, I too am thinking, “School’s starting…time to get to work.”