Five Poisons That Paralyze Your Writing

chemistBill O’Hanlon was the speaker at the SouthWest Writers first Saturday meeting of 2014. O’Hanlon is the author of Write is a Verb: Sit Down, Start Writing, No Excuses and has authored or co-authored 35 other books. Besides being a prolific writer, he’s the kind of speaker who makes you laugh and think and get motivated to follow your dreams. In the case of his January presentation, he suggested five poisons that many writers succumb to and the antidotes to overcome them.

1.  Perfection Poison
Writers who fall prey to this deadly poison get lost in their desire to make sure everything is perfect before starting to write. This might include acquiring the right computer and the programs to go with it, fixing up a writing space, waiting for the right time of day or night or season to write, acquiring writing skills, amassing research (everything must be known before starting).

Antidotes
♦ Give yourself permission not to be good (to write the worst book ever).
♦ Be willing to be radically edited, torn apart and made better.
♦ Start writing.

2.  I-Don’t-Have-Anything-New-To-Say Poison
This is another lie writers might tell themselves, and it can stop them from penning the first word: All the stories have already been told. But no one can write the story like you can – you have a unique style, voice, and slant. Every musician is limited to using the same 12 notes, but listen to the uniqueness of what each produces.

Antidote
♦ Remember that everyone is profoundly weird – embrace your weirdness.

3.  I-Don’t-Have-Time Poison
This is probably the excuse writers use most often not to write. With so many demands on our time, it’s easy to let this poison take over and keep us from our writing dreams.

Antidotes
♦ Do something writing-related everyday, even if it’s only to sharpen pencils.
♦ Make a commitment, set your priorities. If you want to write, you’ll make the time – even just 5 minutes a day.
♦ Consider: Maya Angelou wrote at her kitchen table before going to work, with children crawling on her lap.
♦ Consider: Bill O’Hanlon wrote 10 books in 10 years and had three kids to support and nurture.

4.  This-Will-Never-Get-Published Poison
Understanding why you write is key to overcoming this poison. O’Hanlon believes four things motivate or fuel your writing: being blissed, blessed, pissed, or dissed. He calls these a Writer’s Energy:

1. blissed – you love to write
2. blessed – you’re encouraged to write
3. pissed – you’re angry enough to write (righteous indignation)
4. dissed – [prove someone wrong and] turn that sensitivity into fuel for your writing

Antidotes
♦ Figure out how to write without knowing you’ll get published.
♦ Try again, fail again, fail better.

5.  I’m-Not-In-The-Mood-To-Write Poison
You’re not inspired to write. Your muse is just not showing up. What if the muse never pays a visit?

Antidotes
♦ Show up and the muse will, too. Start writing, it will take care of those moods.
—  F. H. Bradley: The mood in which my book was conceived and executed, was in fact to some extent a passing one.
—  Madeleine L’Engle: Inspiration comes to you while you’re writing rather than before.
♦ Treat it as a profession – do the job and you’ll find your groove.
♦ Remember: the more you write, the better you get.

Wherever you are is always the right place. There is never a need to fix anything, to hitch up the bootstraps of the soul and start at some higher place. Start right where you are. ~ Julia Cameron

What have you found to be the best antidotes for the poisons that paralyze your writing?

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Image “Chemist With Test Tubes And Flask” courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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12 Tips to Topple Writer’s Block

KeyBreaksChain2Writing a novel belongs to that category of thing – like surviving the Hunger Games, and eating an entire large pizza by yourself – that appears to be impossible but actually isn’t….Being a novelist is a matter of keeping at it, day after day, just putting words after other words. It’s a war of inches, where the hardest part is keeping your nerve. ~ Lev Grossman

Sometimes we writers slam into a wall and can’t figure out how to scale it and keep running and dodging through the rest of the obstacle course to reach the final scene. Sometimes the ideas stop coming. Or the words that find their way onto the page shrivel up and die before the ink is dry. Maybe we don’t know the characters well enough. Somewhere between the lines, we’ve lost the passion for the story. Whatever the reason is, it’s a real thing. And it happens to most writers sooner or later.

Whether you’re trying to finish a first draft on your own or are involved in a large-scale endeavor like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where word count is paramount, you’ve got to find a way to keep going.

There are a lot of techniques that can be used to bust through writer’s block but many of them involve not writing, like taking a break to draw a map of your setting or design your book’s cover, or hashing out your problems with a writer friend or group. Or switching to a different project altogether. These are all good ideas, but the following list of tips is focused on keeping you writing on your current work in progress – the one that’s actually giving you grief.

  1. Write a scene in long hand – it means transcribing it onto a computer file later, but it could be just enough of a change to help break through the wall.
  2. Write a scene from a different point of view character, even one you haven’t used yet or thought to use at all – a secondary character, a love interest, the antagonist, the protagonist’s dog, the biggest maple in the forest.
  3. Write flashbacks – here’s a way to dig deeper into your characters, where they came from and what shaped their lives.
  4. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, determine where that errant branch began to grow and start writing again from that point. But don’t throw the old stuff away, it may be useful in the future.
  5. Switch your point of view style and rewrite a scene or two – first person instead of third, third person instead of first.
  6. If you can’t decide how a scene should play out or your story should end – pick one way and write it, then go back and write another, decide later which one works the best.
  7. Write out of order – who says you have to write chronologically? If you’ve got a scene in your head that’s vivid, write that one no matter where in the storyline it’s supposed to happen.
  8. Play with a scene that doesn’t feel quite right, and you may just find the perfect way to move forward. As they say, sometimes the best way to move forward is to rewrite the past! ~ Rochelle Melander
  9. Write an entire monologue with your main character if you have to. Spend a chapter just exploring the life story of an antagonist. Write a scene with nothing but dialogue between your hero and your villain. Write a steamy love scene between your favorite couple. They don’t have to be scenes in chronological order. They don’t even have to end up in your book. But they will help you to keep going. ~ Marie Lu, NaNo Pep Talk, Nov. 21, 2013
  10. Switch into a telling mode if you need to. This allows you to “tell” the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to “tell” helps you keep moving forward. ~ Robin LaFevers
  11. Without stopping, give your characters a reason to change. Incite them into action. ….you’ve got to keep them moving and the tension must be taut, so drop bombs. Problem after problem. Anything and everything….Nothing short of potential death. And then, you and your characters must have a way to get out of the story. Solve their dilemma logically. Sure, twists and turns to ramp up tension, but aliens can’t land out of the blue with an antidote. ~ Susan Arden
  12. Pull out that book of writing exercises – and do them with your cast of NaNo characters. Who knows, maybe you’ll find the secret ingredient your story was missing?  ~ Rochelle Melander

If any of these suggestions can help you break through the wall or help you understand a character better or where the story should really be going, it will be worth the time spent deviating from “the plan.” And if you’re participating in NaNo, it gives you the benefit of adding to that golden goal of writing 50 K words towards the first draft of a novel.

What techniques help you bust through the dreaded writer’s block?

A Writer’s Approach: Plotter, Pantser, Hybrid

CampNanoPlannerBadgeCampNanoPantserBadgeIt’s been said and much debated that there are two kinds of writers – those who outline and plan before starting a writing project (plotters) and those who dive in and write “by the seat of their pants” (pantsers). Many writers, myself included, are hybrids who fall somewhere between the two, combining the traits or techniques of both to one degree or another.

…imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3×5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. ~ author David L. Robbins

Plotters have a lot of tools and techniques at their fingertips to help plan out their stories:  outlines, scene cards, storyboards, character profiles and personality charts. Many plotters have folders filled with things like diagrams and photos, notes on history, culture, and languages. There are two possible problems in this type of approach. First, a writer could get so bogged down with accumulating information, building plot structure, and the need to plan, that he doesn’t write. And second, creativity could be sacrificed for structure, leaving the story as lifeless as a textbook. The positive side to being a plotter-type is a writer will always know what the next step is. He will not suffer from writer’s block. And by the time the first draft is complete, he won’t have to worry about things like plot holes and continuity issues.

A pantser needs to plot on the fly so she can stay enthralled with her story. Her creative psyche requires a challenge in order to operate optimally. ~ author Kathleen Baldwin

Pantsers tend to throw themselves into a story and go for it, letting the characters reveal themselves and the plot unfold as they go. There are two main problems that can arise from using this approach. One, the story – though truly character-driven – often suffers from either too little or too much plot. The main plotline can become convoluted or there might be so many sub-plots it’s too hard to keep track of them all. And halfway into the project, the characters can easily drive the story into a corner. This leads to the second problem. The very nature of pantsing means the writer doesn’t know where the story is going and that can translate into writer’s block and unfinished projects. Pantsing is a fun and creative way to write, but at the end of the first draft, much research still needs to be done, along with structuring, etc.

Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report…a marvel you have just witnessed. ~ author David L. Robbins

So it seems that too much of a good thing is not so good a thing. Enter the hybrid writer. Not to say a plotter isn’t creative or a pantser can’t write a coherent story, but combining the techniques of both could make for a better story overall. But whether a writer tends to be a plotter-pantser or a pantser-plotter, story plot and structure still need to be addressed at some point in the process.

Author Janice Hardy takes a hybrid approach to crafting stories. She creates the framework first but keeps the story fresh in her mind by giving her characters free rein within the structure (see her excellent article “Going Both Ways: Outlines for Plot, Pantser for Character”).

In my own writing, I jump into a story without an outline but only characters and a vision of the story landscape as a guide. After a few chapters of writing this way, I usually know where the story will end up and I begin a loose outline. I continue to write and craft my outline, adding notes to aid in continuity and reminders for research. This process keeps me moving forward but leaves room to let the characters drive the story. I still have work to do after the first draft is finished but catering to the way my pantser-plotter brain works is worth the extra effort at the end.

In the article “Writers – Plotters or Pantsers” author Trish Jackson discusses the differences between the brains of a plotter and a pantser. She believes plotters predominately use the left side of their brain which controls logic and order. They’re more likely to create a detailed plan and write plot-driven stories. Pantsers tend to be more right-brained – creative but disorganized – and tend to write character-driven stories.

woman_spinJackson’s article also includes this moving graphic. To see if you’re right- or left-brained, watch the spinning woman. If she spins clockwise, you’re using your right brain. If she spins counter-clockwise, you’re using your left. And if you can change the direction of her spin, you’re a little of both – and probably have hybrid tendencies.

If you find yourself struggling with a writing project, keeping a tight grip on your writing approach could be the problem. A consistent struggle with writer’s block or finishing a project might be helped by stepping over into plotter territory. And if your story seems a bit on the lifeless side or you’re not enjoying the process, letting your pantser-self loose for a while could be the answer.

 In the great debate, are you a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid?

Pick a Throwaway Title and Keep Writing

Writing2In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know what it will be before beginning the manuscript or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain. I knew one would come to me in time.

There came a day, though, I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

I had already brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if that was settled it would help me move forward on the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering most of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one, The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson, that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without spending any more time and frustration trying to choose an actual title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title – and the book became Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. A very catchy title (and don’t ask where that came from), but now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes to include with each chapter name, I found this: 

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before. Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello This New Mountain.

“Dirty Underwear” is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title to something I’m working on. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one, not liking the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

What are some mind tricks you use to make sure you get things done (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late)?

Beginnings: Choosing a Book Title

Along with the first tentative outline for the memoir This New Mountain, I brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if I had that settled it would help me move forward with the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering many of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one – The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson – that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know right away what it is or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir. One would come to me in time.

As usually happens when I write without a title, there came that day I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without actually choosing a working title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Don’t ask me why (because I don’t have an answer), but within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title: Dirty Underwear. No, you’re not allowed to ask why.

So the book started out as Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. Catchy title. Now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes I wanted to include with each chapter name, I found this:

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before.

Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello (thank goodness) This New Mountain.

Dirty Underwear is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one just because it doesn’t want the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

Do you have a mind trick you use to fool yourself (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late), or am I the only strange one out there?