Tuesday, August 9, 2011

TUES TIP: Exposing the Mythical Beast Called Writer's Block (i #amwriting r u #reading?)

I have to say it up front, I've never suffered from writer's block. I'm 50 years old (yes, I admit it!) and I've been writing since I was 9. There has never even once been a time when I couldn't write--or not for lack of inspiration, anyway. Only for lack of time (see today's earlier Tuesday Tip post for ideas on making time if you're married and have children. An author who focuses on how to get around those roadblocks to your writing career without balance can end up in divorce court!)

When I've lacked for time to write in the past, if it goes on long enough, I can actually become physically ill. I get so much bottled up inside of myself that I want to write and don't have time to disgorge, it literally hurts me. Now that I'm older and have spent 20 years in resource management, scheduling and budgeting for DoD and other IT environments, I'm able to avoid such irresponsible mismanagements of my time -- and careless disregard for my health! Regular bouts of writing are necessary to my good health! (grin)

Despite not experiencing this phenomenon myself, I've heard from a lot of writer friends over the years that it exists. They hate me when I reply Writers write! If you're not writing, you're not a writer! because really, they think they want to write and just can't. I assert that the "want" and "can't" don't co-exist but rather, the latter rationalizes why the former is a lie. A lie to oneself, but a lie nonetheless.

I've never had a day go by when new characters, new plots, new stories coming up in my head. It's actually kind of noisy up there sometimes ! If you really wanted to write, you would--in your head even if not on paper or computer keyboard. That "writing in my head" is why I become ill. I'm so distracted, so stressed out trying to "hold onto" all of those stories I want to write, I become ill from the emotional duress.

If you really want to write, your stories will unfold in your mind. You'll conceptualize new stories or at least, new characters or scenes, while doing physical work (or while working out at the gym) because once you get your blood moving in your body, guess what? Your brain's getting part of the blood supply and your mind is going to race most easily when it's fully-oxygenated. It's a physical fact. Give your brain oxygen and it will function. Allow yourself to become physically sedentary and your mind will be less acute.

It might happen gradually, but lack of physical fitness is one of the worst plagues to assault authors in all writing fields. After all, most writing is done sitting down. You just have to get up and move now and again. Read over how I and other writers I met used to handle this by checking this morning's Early Bird Bonus Tuesday Tip.

So what stops these people who insist they have a disease called Writer's Block? Well, they are literally dis-eased. They are not at ease with motivation for writing. They might not even know what it is! They are probably not feeding their Muse.

Instead, they're out there looking for new story inspirations instead of listening to what they already have rattling around inside their imagination. They're playing the monkey-see, monkey-do game trying to chase after the last big fad. Trust me, a monkey cannot do it. Writing the Next Breakout Novel takes a real person, with real goals and real motivations.

Inside each of us is a reason we are driven to write. It's what makes us feel exhilirated by the task when we're "on a roll" instead of panicked when the words won't stop. And hopefully, everyone reading this has experienced that sensation of "the words won't stop" at least once in your writing life. It's totally my drug of choice!

The drive or motivation to write might be different for each person--in fact, it almost definitely is different for each person! No two people get pleasure from anything in the exact same way, so you have to ask yourself, what's your motivation for writing? Are you one of these 5 kinds of writers?
  1. Are you looking for attention and validation from your peers?
  2. Are you looking to get rich quick and for the least amount of effort?
  3. Are you looking for a way to get a small, but steady income from a residual stream?
  4. Is your writing just a means to another end entirely--such as, selling a non-literary product (like a car or a vacuum cleaner)?
  5. Are you writing as part of a larger business--such as, marketing or other consulting services?
Each of those reasons is perfectly valid, in my opinion--except the second one. Anyone who thinks writing is a means to getting rich overnight is either a sleazoid or flat out delusional. Publishing as a business industry, is one of the most-cutthroat and least-lucrative businesses out there, especially for an author. Lets take a look at the other kinds of motivations, in turn, and discuss how to overcome that particular kind of blockage.

Motivations 4 + 5: Cost of Doing Business

This person is really writing sales copy, not fiction, so I suggest you visit sites like Copyblogger for tips and templates on how to write effective copy. Sometimes, having a template as a starting point, for sales copy, is really all it takes to spark inspiration alive again. The single-best tool for coming up with "inspired" copy, of course, is to brainstorm ideas with other people.

If you're writing sales copy for a living, and run into Writer's Block, you need to break through it. If you've got no coworkers (are a freelance copywriter), then you've got a serious problem--one that affects your bottom-line ability to continue doing business. You've probably signed a contract guaranteeing delivery of some words by a specific time and date. You need to suck it up and find a way to come up with some words. If you don't find inspiration from Copyblogger and other internet marketing sites, you might need to take more drastic measures.

Like what? Turn off the computer, get up and walk outside...and keep walking. I kid you not. You might have become blocked because you were trying too hard. Even if you're physically fit, you might just need to get your blood moving to think straight and there's always that Gestaultian psychology to fall back on. Let your back brain work on the problem while you do something else. Take a 20-minute walk (at least 20 minutes to really separate your mind from your keyboard) and just stop thinking about the problem. Or try to stop thinking about it. Trust in the Gestault ^_^

If you are stricken by an epiphany 20 blocks from the office and don't think you can hold onto the brilliant idea, jot it down on a piece of paper. If you don't have one, you can always pick up a stick and write it down in the dirt. Actually writing the "perfect words" and reading them to yourself (repeat 3 times) will help firm up the phrasing in your short term memory until you can get back to the office.

I'm also serious about turning your computer off, though. Part of the process to regain your motivation is to make yourself "impatient" to get back to work, making it something you're eagerly anticipating. Having to wait for the computer to reboot will actually help get your creative juices flowing again. It's a trick of the mind, but sometimes you do have to play mind games with yourself to things moving again, right?

1. External Validation

This person is a true artiste, not merely a writer. They are doing "art for art's sake." I did this for a while, I have to admit, and although I never had writer's block when I was thus motivated, I know how to solve it for my fellow artistes: join an online writer's forum.

There are literally hundreds, probably thousands, on the web. Just start Googling for one. If you want to join in a conversation and not actually have to upload any samples of your work, you can join a publisher's site, like Authonomy or in the SF field, Baen's Bar over at Baen's Books.

Those two forums have very lively conversations going on all the time. Groups where writers "talk about writing" as opposed to doing it. That sounds a little condescending to say it that way, so let me be clear: this is a valid motivation for wanting to write fiction.

More to the point, lack of external validation for someone thus motivated will definitely cause them to become "blocked." They aren't getting what they need--affirmation to keep going--so nothing flows. This person needs an audience. One of my favorite artistes (a photographer working under the stage name "Van Darkholme" who specializes in male bondage, of all things) wrote it best in my opinion.  Art deserves a witness. And so it does! I quote this to people all the time. You've probably heard me say it here before. Now you know where I got it from (haha)

Sometimes, a fiction writer has no need to ever get published--or is happy to just give it away free forever and ever. They aren't in it for money, they're in it for validation. There is nothing wrong with that. They just want to write and share their words and hear that other people have read it and validate them as a writer. Some of them brightly enrich our world so don't go dismissing their art as "worthless" simply because they don't charge money for it. All forms of art do, indeed, deserve a witness.

3. In it for the slow and steady revenue stream

This is, I believe, where I currently fall. I still get a rush out of writing, an actual adrenaline rush and endorphin high but I know I'm also looking for the revenue stream. I'm not looking to get rich quick and I don't want to write sales copy--I like fiction and fiction likes me--but I do want to make money. A little money, enough to pay the bills and let me write 24/7. That would be sufficient revenue to make me extremely happy, and the happier I am, the more I'll write so once I get it started, I know in my heart of hearts, I'll be "set for life." It's all relative.

So I set out to figure out and learn methods for establishing revenue streams with my writing. I found a lot of options. I even tried several before settling on my current mixed-bag of methods. I'm blogging (and selling it on Kindleblogs) and I'm currently working on two new Romantic Suspense novels in a series. Series books sell. I'm also editing some old scifi work (in a series) to get even more titles released under a pen name faster than I can finish the two romance novels! I wish I could write short stories and I'd churn a few of those out, too, maybe make up an anthology of my own and some from friends for us to give away free as a lead-in to our for-pay books. I don't do shorts. I don't know how to write in 500 words or less. Can't you tell? Okay, that's flashfic but even 3000 word chapters in a novel are a struggle for me (mine tend to be in the 5000 to 8000 word range)

Truth is, I'm writing more now that I'm actively selling and marketing myself as "Webbiegrrl Writer" than I was even 6 months ago when I was just as-yet-unpublished author, Sarah R. Yoffa, editing my first release (my orphan child, as I call Dicky's Story because it's so different from anything and everything else I write--or ever will write).

I think becoming active again--using the blog and non-fiction writing as an impetus in a structured fashion--did it for me. I had to just start doing it and then I've just kept doing it. I never succeeded at this method before now but this is the theory behind the highly-successful annual event called Nanowrimo--or National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It's held each year from November 1-30, and although it started in the US, it's become even more popular over in the UK. That is to say, the Brits have outpaced us Yanks in the word counts nearly every year for the last 5 or 6 years.

The idea behind Nanowrimo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Those particular 30 days are pretty busy for Americans--our Christian "holiday season" begins with Thanksgiving the 3rd week of November--but phenomenally, writers across this country are gathering in coffee shops, libraries, living rooms and demanding the right to write! It's a fairly awesome energy on the web site, too. They have forums and groups and you can friend your fellow nano'ers to encourage each other. There are even "friendly" competitions.

I did Nanowrimo once, in 2006 and will never bother again. Why? First of all, I'm extremely competitive by nature. That's not good for comaraderie among writers because of my second reason for not bothering with Nanowrimo again: I finished on Nov 12th. *snicker* Sorry but churning out words is just not a problem for me! You really ought to know that by now. You've just read how many screens of this article?

Nanowrimo 2006 was fun and exciting but I didn't see the point because I didn't need the impetus. To make it worse, even setting aside how badly I felt about unfairly "competing" with my fellow nano'ers, I had 68,000 words on November 25th (Thanksgiving Day that year) and by Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th) I had 95,000 words. This was a problem because not one of those 95,000 words were even in the story I'd set out to write. I trashed the entire thing. What a waste!

I got so sidetracked by Tuckerizing friends and "participating" in word count competitions and nano parties, I didn't even pay attention to what I was doing. I didn't delete the files because the characters--at least, the main characters, not the Tuckerizations--were valid and I'll refer to them again. I did, however, start the story again from scratch in January of 2007. That's the Lacey / Rainey Story, about 2/3 done and sitting stagnant since July of 2010. I need to finish it. I need an 8th day of the week. *eep*

The key for most people in this motivational category is to just start writing. I know most of you out there who've suffered this disease are shaking your heads at me, but I'm not kidding. I didn't say to write good words or even words you'll keep. You can just delete them this evening before you go to bed. Not a problem. Tell yourself, assure yourself, you can always write 1200 better words tomorrow. And hit that delete key. In fact, do that on purpose even if they were "okay" words. Just kill them. If they were actually the single-bestest rightest words ever, your brain will churn them out again. I promise!

Most people don't--erm, won't--do that. You don't have to write the perfect words on the first pass. You just have to write all of the words in you. Get it out. Let it flow, unimpeded, and let yourself become immersed in the story. There are no "wrong" words for you to write. There are only "better" words for you to edit in later (LOL).

I repeat, later.

Editing is about being destructive and objective while writing is all about creation and getting inside the work, being subjective by design. Don't try to edit yourself at the same time you're trying to motivate yourself to write more. Just write. Just let it go and write. Let yourself become immersed in the story, become the characters, really see and hear and feel their stories. Put yourself in the story!

Let Yourself Get Carried Away by Your Story
(Just don't let your friends and family find out!)

Here's a funny anectdote from my earlier life. One day, back in the 1980s when I was writing my SF Technothriller series, I came home from work with some exciting news and wanted to share it with someone. I had 2 roommates at the time but the house was empty so I wanted to call someone. The first person I thought of was Joshua Andrew Caine. I picked up the phone and stopped. I couldn't remember his number. I actually went so far as to open the drawer under the phone (yeah, olden days, we had landlines that sat, stationery on a countertop!) and open up my address book and try to find his number.

I remember how I was actually puzzled by the fact that I couldn't think of it off the top of my head. I always remember phone numbers! It's a quirk of my brain. I figured I was just so excited about this news (I don't even remember now what the heck was so "exciting" but there was something) that I was frazzled enough not to remember his number. I couldn't wait to hear what he thought about my news though so I thumbed through the pages to C. Nothing. J? Nope. Where did I write his number down? I must have it somewhere!

Then I remembered. He's one of the major characters in my SF technothriller series. Yeah, he doesn't exist. I made him up!!! I stood there, in my kitchen, phone in my hand with no number to call. LOL!! I was so embarrassed. Good thing none of my roommates was home or they would've laughed at me for a month.

Thirty years later, now *I* can laugh at me for it. Come on, laugh with me, then realize that getting that close to your characters can actually be enough to keep you driven to the point you write an entire novel in 3 weeks! I wrote Book 2 of the series (or with the new "prequel," it'll be Book 3) that following winter, in 24 days while on 30 days' medical leave after having had some elective surgery. Hey, all I could do besides sleeping was sit up for a few hours with my hands raised to the table height. What else was a writer supposed to do but type?! I didn't rip any stitches out that way--not until I started laughing at my own jokes. Literally tore a stitch in my side. I love reading my books, especially the scifi series.

Crashing Through Writer's Block

If you don't want to blog or do NaNoWriMo, just write a Facebook post. Talk to your friends--in writing--about what you're doing, how you're not writing and how it makes you feel. Write an email. Really describe what you're going through in fine detail. It'll be therapeutic. For you, anyway (LOL be sure to tell your friend up front you need to vent a little and give them permission to just trash the email)

Don't want to bother your friends with bleeding all over the page? Fine. Write a poem to a flower. It really doesn't matter what you write. It matters that you write. Writers write. If you're not writing, then something inside you is not right. Here's another idea. Write a letter to your protagonist and tell them how you miss them and wish they'd come back to see you really soon. Tell them how heart sick their absence is making you. Take it seriously and they will, too, and you'll be writing about them again before you know it! Allow society's rules for "acceptable behavior" to stop you with inhibitions and self-conscious censoring and you'll be all alone with your blocked up mind. Just you and the crickets up there.

Speaking of missing my characters and wanting to spend time with them, I'm going to spend the rest of today writing. Or editing. Or both. Between Ze'evi + Mags Ch 2 and doing the edits of Ch4 in my SF series, I have a full day of rich rewards ahead of me!

Next Time....

Readers:  Stop back on Friday for the freebies and save the date in two weeks for a special Freebie Friday feature helping to launch Danny Gillan's new book, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" which just hit the stores yesterday.

Indie Authors: This week's submissions thread is now open. Click here to submit your book to the feature.

Asking for a Sale

Since we're talking about that this week, I have to be sure to do it, myself!

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