Breaking Through Writer's Block
Evil, isn’t it? But the good news is that it doesn’t exist. When you think you see it, feel it and fear it, there’s a choice. It’s one you, as a writer, control. There are steps you can take to move forward and write.
The first, and I think the most important step, is to stop criticizing yourself. As writers, we dwell in words and sometimes they talk back to us. Some unattractive things that go through my head include, ‘That’s stupid,’ ‘Everyone will hate my writing’ and the all-too-famous, ‘I’m not good enough.’ I’ve been known to shout, ‘Shut up!’ to those voices. What I’m writing now can always be changed. My creations aren’t written in stone – literally. As long as I’m thinking and putting words down, I’m good enough. Not only am I good enough, I’m great! I love the quote from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”
If full sentences aren’t coming to you, try making notes. One word at time will work. I like to use verbs. What are the consequences of this verb happening to my characters? When my protagonist slips while walking on an icy sidewalk, what might happen? A broken arm? A wet bottom? Knocking down a stranger? My verbs are ‘slips,’ ‘walks,’ ‘breaks’ and ‘knocks (down). I pick my favorite and start writing. Even if it’s garbage, I’m still writing, still moving forward – which is the whole idea.
Another favorite technique is to plot the story backwards. When I know how it’s going to end, I list the events that need to happen to make it work. If that’s too complicated, sometimes I will focus on what needs to happen before a specific plot point. A lot of writers think this is weird. Maybe it is. It can also be weirdly successful.
You are a writer and no one else can tell you otherwise. When you meet someone who asks what you do you, say, “I’m a writer.” Don’t say, “I’m an accountant,” or “a fireman.” A writer is a person who writes. Inevitably, they will ask if you’re published. You don’t have to say, ‘No,’ and blush. Say, “It’s in progress.” That’s the truth, because it is.
It’s December. If you need to know which December, it’s 2019. Like all of my winter holiday seasons, it’s busy, loud and distracting. As I slip some pies into the oven, a river of new ideas for my novel appear. But just as I’m about to turn around, grab my phone and make some voice notes, my grandson attaches himself to my hip.
‘Gran, Gran!’ he says loud enough to be heard in China, ‘Did you see the epic light show the neighbors put on?’
I open my mouth to answer and before I can get a word out, he grabs my hand. ‘Come on! Come see!’
Of course, I want to go with him. His joy is my joy. He’s found something he thinks is truly magical and I won’t spoil it for him because I’ve seen it every year for the last 11 years in a row. We run outside and watch as colored lights circle the yard in time to the rhythm of Christmas carols.
I make all the suitable grandma noises. ‘Ah, it’s that beautiful? Wow!”
Then in flash, we’re back inside and he’s pestering his mom for a cookie.
Our little sojourn outside took less than five minutes but my flow of ideas has evaporated. My holiday joy turns bitter. Why am I letting this bother me so much?
Is my book more important than my grandson? Absolutely not. He lives in New Zealand doesn’t get here very often. How can I balance my creativity with my love for my family?
What could I have done to prevent this bitter feeling? It’s giving me a stomach ache right before dinner. There are a number of possibilities. The first one that comes to mind is to focus on my genuine priorities and let my book ideas sit on the back burner. But then another idea comes to me. I could have asked him to wait a minute while I made a few quick voice notes. I envision him dancing around saying, ‘Come on! Let’s go!’ And I also envision him learning to give. Although he’s a little guy and is eager to share his discovery, by giving me just a minute, he is recognizing someone else’s needs and desires. This is the first step in learning empathy.
May the blessings of the season be with all!
As soon as your first book is published, you automatically become a small business owner. You’ve to get out there and peddle your book, not in a greedy, slimy way, but as a professional with something good to offer. No one will buy your book if they don’t know it’s available.
You will need to create a compelling, engaging author web site. It’s the most important element in your book marketing strategy. So what makes a good web site? Before you begin planning or hiring a designer, you should consider the purpose of your site. It’s likely you’ll want to communicate with your readers so a sign up form should be easy to see and complete. For sales, be sure to link your books to online retailers. Ecommerce is another choice. Let your readers buy your books directly off your web site. You’ll need to also link your site to all of your social media platforms.
And now for step two: choosing a domain name. This is not as straight forward as it seems. Experts recommend buying the domain under your name with your contact details and credit card number. Be sure you’re listed as the registrant and have a ‘back door’ access via a user name and password. Be flexible and think ahead about your domain. Again, experts suggest that you should use your own name (or pseudonym) and not a book title. That is, unless you’re not going to write any more books. You’ll want to be able to add your titles as you go along. If your name is taken, try something similar but not identical. If MarySmith@gmail.com is taken, consider MarySmithPictureAuthor@gmail.com Some platforms offer a dedicated email option for an additional fee. In this example, info@MarySmithPictureBookAuthor.com would be used.
Do-it-yourself web sites are popular. Generally, they’re easy to figure out and the web site is free, although there is likely to be a charge for your domain name. (Just as a quick observation, domain names expire, usually once a year. Keep a close watch on your email.)
A blog is another essential element in a good author web site. But if you encourage your readers to read your blog, DO IT! Nothing will turn off a potential reader than finding a blank page.
Once you get a list of interested subscribers, communicate regularly. At least once a month. Once a week is even better. Even if they don’t read every word of your newsletter or blog, it will keep your name out there. There are a lot of bulk email options available. One of the most widely known is Mail Chimp. Do a quick search of your choices and pick one that fits your needs and your budget.
The Authors’ Guild recently did a study and discovered that published authors, whether traditionally or self-published, spend an average of 7.5 hours per week on marketing.
But before you can do any of this, there is one critically important step you must take: FINISH YOUR BOOK!
The beautiful graphic on this page is by Raul Varza of Unsplash
Winter doldrums getting you down? No wonder. The Super Bowl is over and it’s cold. Snow, rain and wind don’t make it any nicer. Plus, it’s still dark in the evening and a long way from Daylight Savings Time.
If you need a reason to party, check out Chinese New Year. Although a lot of Chinese celebrate it, the holiday is actually the Lunar New Year. People from all over Asia celebrate it, including those following the Buddha. However, the religious aspect is no longer center stage.
It occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice. You’ll be able to kick up your heels up for 15 whole days until the next full moon.
The Chinese Zodiac calendar is a bit different from what we use in the West. It consists of 12 animals. A specific animal is associated with an entire year. This year, 2019, is the Year of the Pig. Chinese philosophy suggests that it’s bad news for anyone born in these years: 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995 and 2007. The year you meet your zodiac sign is an especially unlucky one, and you're more likely to encounter a variety of hardships.
The Lunar New Year brings a fresh start. The evening before, families will clean their homes to get rid of any ill fortune. They will then gather for a 'reunion dinner’ where they will commemorate the year that has passed. This is considered the most important meal of the year, and is often compared to Thanksgiving in the USA.
On the first day of Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, people abstain from bathing or cleaning to avoid washing away any good fortune.
They honor their elders, too. Personal visits and small gifts are part of the tradition.
Fireworks and parades conclude this great festival!
You can beat the doldrums of winter by connecting with family and celebrating the Lunar New Year. It’s TODAY, February 5, 2019. Get your dancing shoes on!
Your dream of being a published author is out there. It really is and it is within your reach, whether you realize it or not. The time is NOW to finish, or maybe start, that book that has been in your heart forever.
Aspiring authors often ask me how to actually accomplish this. They tell me that life gets in the way. Their jobs, kids, household maintenance, relatives, taxes and more make it impossible to write.
The answer is simple and they know it. Make a choice and just do it. In this day and age of electronics, a keyboard isn’t essential. Anyone can use voice recognition on their phone when they’re driving, cooking dinner, folding laundry or weeding the garden. The secret to successful writing is to blend it into everyday activities and allow your thoughts to become words.
Another option is to set a specific time of the day to write. Make it a habit, like brushing your teeth. Your brain will settle into a pattern and expect you to produce text at that particular time. This practice will create the discipline you need to write your book. Among professional writers (and others), it’s referred to as B.I.C. Butt in chair. Or maybe on the treadmill, using voice recognition, or typing on your laptop using a treadmill desk.
The key is to keep going. If you’re stuck on a plot point in your novel, you can pause but that doesn’t mean you stop. If you’re writing a thriller, start working on something completely different – a children’s picture book or a non-fiction piece on Stephen Hawking. Keep your mind focused on the writing process and eventually that plot point will come to you.
Just don’t stop. Please don’t stop.
You have something important to say and I can’t wait to read it.
That awesome photo above is by William Stitt on Unsplash
I love talking to my writers. So why is my blog always late? I aim for the 15th of the month. But, sigh, today is the 19th. If any of you have the answer, I’d love to hear it.
I think it may have to do with my difficulty in deciding what to write about. As a political junky, it would be easy for me to head down that path. However, that would alienate half of you so that doesn’t seem like a good idea.
My second thought is thankfulness. It is the holiday season, you know. I’m grateful for many things middle class Americans have – a roof over my head, clothes to wear, food to eat and my family. When I look deeper, I see that I’m thankful for the Earth and all her gracious gifts – the blue sky, the carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange of the trees and plants, the flowing of her rivers. I’m also grateful for time and movement. I read recently that there is no time without movement and no movement without time. Our planet is turning through our solar system and the solar system turns through the arms of the Milky Way and that turns throughout space-time. Since we are constantly moving, it means all things change. Life is impermanent. Everything will evolve. That means whatever is bothering me will pass. I will change, my circumstances will change and my existence in the universe will change.
And that brings me around to getting along with family at Thanksgiving. For many, old wounds of the past surface with people we don’t see regularly. Competition, envy and greed are just some of the issues that pop up. But everything changes and our feelings can grow into compassion, if we will let them. We are not the same as when we were children and we will not be the same as we age. Besides, there must be something good about our relatives. If nothing else, we share the same DNA.
Greetings from Texas to all my writers and readers!
Can you possibly believe it? I’m on time this month, posting this today, October 15, 2018.
For those of you who blog, I’m sure you’re well aware of the challenge of figuring out what to write. Given the political climate in this country, it would be easy to wander down that path. And those ideas who alienate half of you. That’s not what I’m aiming for. My desire is to build a community of authors, both published and aspiring, who understand the task.
I understand the task and I have to laugh when I think about where I was when I started, 30 years ago. I first got the idea to become a writer when I was reading novels, mostly chick lit and it was easy to tell how the ideas were connected – how the setting revealed the back story and vice versa. Writing a novel seemed easy (ha!). All I needed to know was what happened to whom, when and where. Then voila, novel finished.
Boy, was I naïve. The longer my stories got the more confused I got. It was (and still is) simple things like: what was that guy’s name again? Did I already say that? Or did I say something different?
It didn’t take long for me to develop a deep respect for authors. As you might guess, I’m a pantster, not a plotter. I wish I could be a plotter and hold all those details in my head. But my imagination can’t ever make up its mind. I always see all kinds of combinations and permutations of possibilities for my characters – in who they are and what they do.
I’ve now migrated into helping others succeed, which brings me great joy. Life is too short to not do what you love. I hope my Wise Words for October support your writing efforts.
Be safe in all this rain and write on!
Barbara (Mother) Wilson
Inexcusable, I know. I missed last month’s blog and I nearly missed this month’s. But to understand why, you’ll need to know a little about my personal life. You might not give a rat’s ass about what goes on in my life. Here you go, anyway.
I have been married to the same man for 40 years. That’s four decades of ups and downs with a little screaming here and there but mostly connectedness. We have two grown children. One lives in New Zealand with his Scottish wife and my only grandson, who will turn five at the end of September. My son has had quite a number of health challenges including losing his colon at age 20, several back surgeries and severe migraines. Health care in New Zealand is free (or nearly free) so that’s a relief for all of us.
His problems pale in comparison to our daughter, who until very recently lived in Alaska. Five years ago, she was injured in a sledding accident. She shattered her knee and the bone directly below. When she had surgery to put in a plate, the doctor screwed up and severed her femoral nerve. (If you don’t know what that is or what it does, look it up.) The bottom line is that her left leg will never be the same again. The doctor’s mistake set off a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. (You can look that up, too.) She needs almost constant care. Happily, she’s just moved down to Texas with us and bought the house across the street, where she lives with her ginormous guard dog. (See the photo.)
I know this sounds like a bad movie. But it’s all true. (For those of you who are interested, there’s more. But I’ll skip that for now.)
The bottom line is that life is fragile and it’s easy to spend a lot of time and energy wishing things were different. As my son says, “The essence of all misery is want.” Constant dissatisfaction can ruin the happiness that lies right in front of you. If you accept your life as it is and relish the joy in a child’s smile, the beauty of flowers and the taste of a good meal, your life gets easier. Trust me. I know.
P.S. Yes, my daughter won a malpractice suit but did not get nearly as much as she deserves. There’s a cap on pain and suffering in Alaska.
P. P. S. This blog is late because I’ve been helping my daughter move into her house across the street. Forgive me?
I’m psyched! I’m about to write a new book. It will be about… Hmm…what should I write about?
I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible time getting started. Once I actually produce some text, I’ll have another, better idea and I start over. And over. And over. You get the picture.
The only way I’ve been able to cope with this hamster-wheel experience is discipline. Oh, I know that’s an awful word but it works. However, (isn’t there always a ‘however?’) I have to know where I’m going. For me, that requires a lot of walking around the block or on the treadmill. It also takes faith – faith in my ideas and that they are all good. I believe I can craft a story about what I have decided to write about.
Last month, I shared the opening paragraphs from Daryl Wood Gerber’s FINAL SENTENCE.* She’s an expert at sneaking her details into the story so her readers barely notice.
Here’s another example from that book:
“So excited,” she (Aunt Vera) repeated.
No kidding. The striped walls of the bookshop blurred together; I felt trapped in a kaleidoscope. Chipped walls painted baby blue, olive green, and a weird fleshy pink color flashed around me. Normally, I liked twirling and dancing. I (Jenna)3 adored music — rock and roll, country, and big Hollywood musical classics. My mother used to play the radio full blast when she drove me to art classes, and we would sing and car-dance to our hearts’ content. But I had returned to my childhood town of Crystal Cove less than an hour ago, and I hadn’t found my sea legs yet. Warmer than normal August temperatures weren’t helping my equilibrium.
“Too-ra-loo,” my aunt sang merrily. Her turban flopped to and fro. Copious strands of beads clacked against her phoenix amulet. Her royal blue caftan flared out around her large frame. “I have such a good feeling about our new venture. Sing with me. Too-ra-loo.”
“Too-ra-loo,” I croaked as I tried to slow her down by skidding on my heels. Three-dollar flip-flops didn’t win the prize for gaining traction. Why couldn’t I be a tennis shoe person? Except when exercising, I never wore them. “I’m feeling seasick.” The breakfast burrito that I had wolfed down on the short drive south from San Francisco was rebelling.
“Oh, my, you do look a little pookie.” Without warning, Aunt Vera released me.
Like a top, I gyrated out of control and landed chest-first against the shop’s ancient oak sales counter. Air spewed out of me. My butter yellow T-shirt inched up over my low-slung cutoffs. I wriggled the T-shirt down and checked my body for broken bones — none as far as I could tell, but my abdominals would ache for days.
Aunt Vera clapped. She wasn’t a sadist; she was ecstatic. “I’m so glad you said yes.”
Yes, to moving back to Crystal Cove. Yes, to moving into the cottage beside her seaside home. Yes, to helping her revitalize the aging cookbook shop that resided in the quaint Crystal Cove Fisherman’s Village.
From 350 words, we get more details. The shop they’re cleaning is a bookstore focusing on cookbooks. This implies that Vera loves to cook and loves to share her passion with others.
We know it is summer and the town of Crystal Cove is not far from San Francisco and is along the coast. We also learn a very important fact. Jenna struggled with her decision to move there.
As a writer, you can tell that Daryl knew exactly who her characters were and how they relate to each other. Her first draft might not have been so specific but by the time she got to her final draft, she had cemented the details.
As you plow through your drafts, it’s wise to use this example as a way to communicate clearly with your readers.
P.S. If you missed WHERE TO STUFF THE STUFF PART I, check it out here.
*Reprinted with permission from the author. Wood, Daryl Wood, FINAL SENTENCE. Penguin Group, USA, 2013.
Developing the story before the story begins and knowing where to put it is challenging. It’s easy for it to become repetitive or inconsistent. That’s a quick turn-off for your readers.
Many writers create a complete backstory only for themselves. It informs the decisions the characters make. It adds depth as they write and helps them establish a relationship between the characters and the readers. Once an author has firmly settled on the basics of ‘who, what, when, where, how and why,’ the writing begins and details are dripped in as the story develops.
One of my favorite examples comes from FINAL SENTENCE,* a cozy mystery by Daryl Wood Gerber.
“Aunt Vera, stop twirling me,” I yelled. But she didn’t. She continued to spin me in a circle. My eyes pinballed in my head. My brain whipped my cheeks — right, left, right, left. I didn’t ordinarily wear braids, but cleaning up a shop that closed thirty years ago, over a year before my birth, was almost as dirty a business as having a garage sale. I had dressed for the occasion: cutoffs and T-shirt, so I wasn’t worried about my clothes.
“Stop,” I repeated.
My aunt cackled with glee. “Jenna Starrett Hart, I am so excited.”
Because I had established myself in the advertising world as Jenna Hart, I had used my maiden name even after my husband and I got married. I decided not to change it to his, which was Harris. Hart…Harris. They were too close to mess with.
In less than 150 words, we learn a lot. We know both characters in this scene are women. Their names are Jenna Starrett Hart and Vera, who is Jenna’s aunt. Jenna is in her early 30s and is comfortable enough with her body to wear cutoffs. It’s likely she cares about her appearance.
She is, or was, married. This creates questions in the readers’ minds, “What happened to her marriage? Is her husband with her? If not, why?” This important backstory detail encourages readers to turn the page.
We learn Jenna previously worked in the advertising business. This snippet of information tells readers she’s college educated, social, creative and can meet deadlines.
The setting is an old, vacant shop and because they’re cleaning it, it’s about to be reopened. The mood is happy, expectant.
By the time Daryl Wood Gerber had typed her first page, she’d provided enough details to engage her readers without the dreaded, ‘information dump,’ many new authors fall into.
Mother Wilson suggests you try this with your own work. I’ll be back next month to review another section of FINAL SENTENCE and discuss successful backstory strategies.
Write on everybody!
*Gerber, Daryl Wood, FINAL SENTENCE, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013; p. 1
Interested in Daryl's books? Check out her web site here!
Barbara (Mother) Wilson is a writing coach for aspiring authors. She'll keep you and your book moving toward publication. Don't ever quit!