I doubt myself as a writer a lot. Despite knowing this is part of the fear-before-leaping process after finishing a project, I doubt myself anew each and every time. After all, who do I think I am to write a novel? To create lives and conversations and homes and tragedies? These questions do not go away; no book gets easier. How could it be easier to splatter yourself on the page for not only others to see but yourself? Even if your work is not about you or your life or anyone in it, your work is still you. Every time you create, you are confronted with the shape of your soul and brain. Whether you’ve done it once, or seven times, or twenty-five times, it does not get easier.
So last night, when I was keenly feeling this doubt, I did what I always do. I turned to books. I opened the door on my bookshelf and knelt before my little writer self-help section (see above). The first book I opened was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I have been reading this on and off for a couple of years, and every time I pick it up, whatever section I open is exactly what I am going through. I opened it to “Doubt is Torture”, and read:
“If you want to write, write…have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor and a deep patience that you are doing the right thing.”
I immediately got a pen and sat back down. As I read, looking for guidance on how to keep pushing through this, on how to write when I absolutely did not want to plot but when I knew I needed a road map, my doubt was soothed. Inspiration would come in time. And it did.
Here is something I’ve learned: I found that I am inspired by nonfiction more than fiction. I have read a ton recently and while my best friend always wants to write after reading beautiful language, I remain a fat, happy voyeur–a reader. To be inspired to write, I need the left side of my brain stimulated. Another writing buddy told me that she loves the way I write about writing, and I think this is because dissecting writing gives me my life-force. During my drought after my last completed novel, I’ve been turning to other means of creativity to try and loosen that muscle, like attempting guitar and piano (ha) and drawing, which I don’t really do anymore, because it’s less of a struggle for me. I can look at something I’ve drawn and see the flaws and how to fix them. With drawing, I can tangibly see that practice makes (an approximation) of perfect. Writing is harder, and unfortunately, more gratifying for that exact reason. I learned last night that while some people like writing because they know they are good at it, I like it because it’s harder for me than most other things. Here is something else I’ve learned: my writing process is not linear or in any way organized. Here is something else I’ve learned: Everyone does this differently. Here is something else I’ve learned: The act of writing itself will not get easier.
What does get easier is understanding your process, which allows you more compassion with yourself. Goldberg assures the writer that “each [book] will get better because you have all the more practice behind you.” But I affirm that the more you write, the more you understand how you work and how you’ve grown with each terrifying leap into a new book.
Below are 2 practical and 3 unusual ways to help overcome writer’s block. Most of these revolve around immersing yourself into your story, while some suggest taking a step back. Sometimes all you need is a seed of inspiration to have you busting through that writer’s block like the the Kool-Aid man. Ah, apologies. Only people who grew up in the 90s or earlier will get that reference.
1. Draw your characters. Or draw the warehouse or stronghold or spy headquarters in your novel. Design the room your gentleman frequents, or even more intriguing, the room your lady finds respite in. Or just doodle something entirely irrelevant to your novel and let your mind wander.
If you don’t like to draw, Pinterest is a great way to stimulate visualization of your work. If you want to be a perfectionist about it, here’s a how-to to make a really professional, themed storyboard for your novel. Below is the board I am working on for my novel, The Seer. As you can see from my board, there are foreign landscapes and travel in the novel. Because The Seer takes place in faraway places and dated societies, Pinterest has aided me in going to those places and seeing those societies.
2. Read. You’re probably rolling your eyes, writers. But truly, stop drafting/editing/revising and take some time to read. And read outside of your comfort zone at that. Here’s a WriterUnboxed post on the benefits of changing up your reading habits. I never read biographies, but I’ve picked one up on my favorite author, Charlotte Brontë (Harman, 2015), and have gotten loads of inspiration for my Gothic romance WIP, Wrathmoor. And from the smallest things too:
“Patrick Brontë’s [Charlotte’s father] quirks included…having a ‘volcanic’ temper that he sometimes relieved by firing his pistols out of the back door ‘in rapid succession’.”
3. Make a mix tape/CD/youtube/spotify soundtrack for your novel. There are songs I will forever associate with certain novels of mine, because they belong, heart and soul, to those characters. For instance, Loreena McKennitt’s Beltane Fire Dance will forever be associated with the novel mentioned above, The Seer, and Apocalyptica’s Metallica covers are being hardily applied to Wrathmoor for the good ole’ Metallica rage expressed through a mid-nineteenth-century-approved instrument, the cello.
4. Take a day off. Or a week. Seriously. Either from work, or from your writing, or both. Sometimes all you need is a reboot to come back to your work with a fresh eye and mind.
5. Make a map. So your novel has an epic scene in a Buddhist temple or maybe a battle on a mountain side? Or maybe it has a ton of townships, cities, and ports. Make a map. You can do this the old fashioned way. For my fantasy WIP, Blood of the Realm, I dyed watercolor paper with tea water to make an approximation of parchment. I may or may not have referred to Tolkien’s Middle Earth for inspiration.
You can also take a more modern approach. If you own the PS3 game FarCry 3, you can use the map feature option for your novels! Writers, even if you’re not a gamer, this game–which would surely be on discount now–might be worth it solely for this feature. The game takes place on a tropical island amid the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There are countless combinations of different landscapes you can create and landmarks. You can even adjust the time of day and weather. It is one of the most unique and immersive ways, in my opinion, of diving into your own story.
After finishing my 6th novel in January, I had been pretty stagnant, just working on rewrites to an older novel, and nary a poem or short story in sight. But since I took vacation from my job, unearthed the “soundtracks” for my novels, and reading a lot, including things outside my usual reading repertoire, something has opened inside of me, creatively.
Have you ever tried any of these block breakers? Any others to suggest?
This past year or so I’ve learned that writing is a lot like gardening, for me anyway. I love plants, and I tried my damndest to be a nurturing, green-thumbed plant momma. Unfortunately, I used to kill literally everything I touched, which was 3 hanging plants inside, a couple of standing plants (those deaths were more due to the cats chewing on them), an entire herb garden, potted trees, and cacti. Yes. I killed a cactus. Well, two actually.
Yet somehow, now, I am the proud mother of a thriving succulent, Elysium, boxed leaf Euonymus, a tomato plant, a Croton, and a tree.
(If anyone knows the name of the tree on the bottom, please let me know)
What is the secret of my newfound knowledge? Let them do their thing. Only help them out (water, soil) when it looks like they need it. Letting them be was something I didn’t want to accept before. I wanted to fix them before they were broken. I didn’t give them a chance to know what thirst was before I smothered them with my love.
I was editing a short story (for the millionth time) to submit to a journal, and I realized I was digging around sentence-level deep, trimming nouns, adjectives, and adverbs like a Norelco on nitrous. And I wondered, at what point is it too much? At what point do we need to just let it go
so it can breathe? Like a good port. Like a first-born child on their first day of school (nobody cares by the second one, right?). This is why we have to walk away from our work. I don’t know yet how much I mutilated that short story, because I’m afraid to look at it, but I think I might have done something akin to the time I killed one of my plants by giving it Gatorade as a plant food substitute. What? It’s got sugars…electrolytes. Okay, that was my early green-thumbing-it days, people. And it was like 4 drops! How was I supposed to know plants were intolerant to Cool Blue Gatorade?
Anyway, here are 5 ways to free your inner bard without the invasive, mouth-breathing editorial projection of ourselves in our ears–or was smothering mother the metaphor we were going with?–destroying something before it has the chance to live.
• Timed-writing: I am that naughty writer that reads what I just wrote before continuing on. It’s a problem. Timed-writing helps though, because I feel the crunch and just let my fingers fly on the keyboard. It has the potential to unearth things you might have otherwise censored if you were allowing your inner editor to fill your writing space with his onion breath.
• Free-writing: Do this in conjunction with the first one or without a timer. It helps. Seriously.
• Write long-hand: Something about this method of composition, also, discussed here, opens up creativity channels you never dreamed you could access. When writing like this, you are more likely to not only be more concise with your writing because of the hand cramps, but more natural and less likely to go back and brave your horrific handwriting (is that just me?) to reread, risking premature editing.
• Music: One word, two syllables: Pandora. Be careful with that Dubstep though. You don’t want this to happen.
• Imbibing? Just kidding. Unplug: This may not seem relevant, but hear me out. My inner editor jumps out all the time—“what’s the word for that again? Look it up” or “You should probably know a little more before you start writing about that, Poser”—taking me away from my work. If you shut down access to the web and all the many distractions that come with it, or at least restrict yourself, you set yourself up for unhindered writing time. With Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter constantly pulling on your attention, you will return to your writing and reread what you just wrote to remind yourself what the deuce you were doing, which leads to unwanted editing. See the connection?
Recently, I developed an addiction to Twitter as I have started to understand how great of a platform it is for writers to connect with each other. But it’s time to set a limit on Twitter usage of once a day for less than an hour, ideally. I’ll let you know if I make progress with this.
So unplug. Silence your phone and tell the others in your house that you’re going away for a while. Or, it could be as simple as hiding distractions on your screen. I found this free app called Poe that clears everything from your screen while you write. I already have Scrivener which does that too, but Poe boasted a word count and timer feature I got all aquiver about. You have to scroll over the charms and click the word count charm to see the time clock and word count goals, which I guess is kind of good since you’re trying to avoid distractions anyway. Scrivener has been unable to replace Microsoft Word in my heart as my old standby word processor, for whatever damn reason, but Poe is nice when I really want to block everything out. Beware the wonky formatting.
Have any tricks to add to shut that snarky inner editor up? Add them in the comments. Or if mine helped you see the light, let me know. Whatever you do, get a handle on that inner editor now, or Samuel L. Jackson will find you.
This argument has been raging for centuries at least. I do not presume to tell anyone to change their process but to present the sides, devil’s-advocate style, and justify why I lean the way I do between these two. My prewriting, novel-planning method is in a constant state of flux as I try to pin it down and find what works best for me, so my goal is to present you with the sides and what I have learned of both approaches thus far.
To plot or not to plot…
In the article, “Revising your writing again? Blame the modernists” , Craig Fehrman writes that “during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. ‘I am like the tyger (in poesy),’ Lord Byron wrote in a letter. ‘If I miss my first spring, I go growling back to my jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.’ ” This is really the crux of the argument between these two approaches: organic composition is perceived by some to allow for freedom of the creative faculties where outlining inhibits that creativity. While this all-or-nothing mindset of Byron’s seems an extreme perspective, there are authors today that still seem to identify with this approach.
The organic method
In a 1992 Writer’s Digest article, Steven King says of his process,
“There’s no outline, nothing like that. That freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else. Hey, to me it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.”
This “paint-by-the-numbers” comparison probably derives from the assumption that is tidied up at the end of an outlined novel complete with a red ribbon; every loose thread is pulled together into what might seem to be a too tight braid. Life just isn’t like that—there are often loose threads never addressed again. While not all outlined novels have to feel stiff or too tidy, the opposing organic approach is King’s process and for him, it has paid off.
Another example of a successful writer sharing this perspective is the poet Robert Frost. In his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”, he makes a valid point about artistic honesty and relevance to the human condition: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Again, this seems to have worked for the poet laureate.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Stephen King and Robert Frost is John Grisham. According to Tony Vanderwarker, in an article written for WU, John Grisham is a stickler for an outline—but a good one. One you put your damn soul into. While Grisham is of an analytical mindset (accounting major and former law practitioner, as the article indicates), his strict outlining guidelines are invaluable. In most cases, the egoistic writer needs to hear Grisham’s advice regarding one’s initial outline draft (yes, multiple drafts of an outline may be required):
“Throw it out, start over…Takes too much ink to get it going.”
This simple, little statement has been in my brain since reading this WU post—and now you know how long I’ve been procrastinating on writing this blog post (Doh!). If you’re writing any type of modern novel, with the exception of maybe surrealist concepts or some short stories, you’re going to have to outline for a controlled, relevant flow of information. Even if you initially create organically, you will eventually go back through to do some cutting, rearranging, theme-searching (like soul-searching, but this one hurts), in short, revising/rewriting. As a novice, I never considered that everyone—anyone worth their salt at least—does this. But that I am no where near an expert no longer quite a novice, I have learned that very very few authors never reexamine their first draft, even fewer never change a word of their manuscript.
Outline now for revisions later
Revising and outlining go hand in hand, especially with regards to the charges laid against them; they are, after all, the more logic-driven, homework-feeling aspect of writing. Because of this logical aspect of both, outlining now can greatly assist in the revisions/rewriting that will come later. Once you take that raw, unformed idea that sprung forth from your head ready to take on the world like Athena from Zeus’s sick, sick mind, you have to mold it. It saves you time for you later to make sure your plot is on a track now, in the first go-around. Many would argue this, outlining, inhibits creativity. But
something to keep in mind about outlines is that you create them, and you can change them too.
But even then, it might still inhibit some. For me, someone who does not like thrashing in a sea of epistemological uncertainty, especially in the calling I have decided to invest my life in, it works. My own “outlining” is usually just future scenes written out in some rough order in which they’ll happen. But I will say that experimenting with more in-depth outlining for my rewrites and future novels, I have noticed a change in my work, in the direction in which it flows—more focused, less distracted. Middle-of-the-road outlining, as I have termed it, just means setting yourself up with a structure-awareness program as you go.
My critique partner and best friend, OstiumUnity, pretty much outlined her latest novel, Undertow, scene by scene. While she may not be a flighty writer, I am a flighty reader, and I always ask ten thousand questions. Some having to do with faults in logic she may not have seen, but usually it’s just me overthinking it from a writer’s perspective. Before she told me that she had outlined– something she had not done to the same extreme before–I found myself in awe of how much smoother and polished her work seemed, how few questions I had, and how much I could just sit back and be jealous of her mad writing skills—I mean, enjoy the novel. Not only does Undertow feel so thoroughly developed but also natural and right.
Still wondering why I used the term “organic” versus outlining?
The first time I had heard the word “organic” in reference to literature was in one of the most difficult classes of my collegiate career, a little undergrad class called Critical Approaches to Literature. I was terrified, especially when our professor told us to go home and look it up. The next day, after my unfruitful search, she enlightened us: Organic Unity was what Aristotle attributed to a work with a beginning, middle, and end, in which every part of it is inseparable from the cohesive whole. If one part is subtracted from that interdependent whole, the entirety falls apart. Though I use the term organic as natural or unplanned, in this context, I feel my proposal lends itself to this concept of Aristotle’s Organic Unity more than writing without an outline.
While I believe outlining does not necessarily hinder your writing process in lieu of this organic unity, I don’t know that I could ever pass Grisham’s Guantanamo-Bay-esque outlining camp. Incorporating some outlining into your prewriting approach could end up being very worth the payoff though, and I hope I have demystified and de-structuralized it a bit to make it less off-putting.
Prewriting and preparation are about what works for you and should be a sacred ritual. It should be tailored to what inspires/benefits/encourages/prepares you. If you set pen to paper and just let it take you where you want, then by all means, surprise the hell out of yourself. If you plan every minute detail and that seems to be working for ya, then plan away. Or if you’re somewhere in the middle on this, for both organic writing and outlined writing often lean on one another—the situation of most writers, I suspect—then keep on keeping on.
Finally, if you humbly came to this post because what you are currently doing does not seem to be working, then, hopefully, some of the pros and cons of both approaches and the experts’ opinions laid out here help you find the path of stress-free, productive, not-throwing-you-cell-phone-because-you’re-procrastinating-with-twitter-at-your-cat* composition.
*(or dog, if you’re a writer you probably have one or the other. It’s easier for them than humans to deal with our type)
Rewriting is HARD. Rewriting will make you want to throw your computer out a window. I keep telling myself there’s some sort of formula here, there’s gotta be some equation for success, completion, and contentment with this novel that I am missing. Unfortunately, there is not. All you can do is chew your cuticles until their bloody and hope you’re making some headway.
I was talking to a friend about a novel she’s dabbling with, and I told her about my rewrite hell. Her reply was, “I don’t want to have to do that. I want to get it right the first time.” The thing is, I don’t think this dabbling friend is quite to the point where you start seeing your work with a different eye, one that isn’t looking from behind rose-colored glasses of our own can-do-no-wrong greatness. Rather than irritating me, like this might have in the past when I would have felt inadequate given that I have to rewrite my novel, I was actually relieved. I wasn’t foolishly throwing myself into a titanic endeavor (this ship won’t sink! Shit…it has sunk) when I began penning this work. I also thought my novel would be good to go when I finished. Because I started writing, whole-heartedly believing in what I was doing, I now have something worthwhile to rewrite. I laid down a foundation in which I could see theme, character, and plot in their rawest forms and extract them to distill them to perfection. My point is, rewrites are a big part of being a writer, and the sooner you accept that, the less crazy–I mean, the happier you’ll be. 🙂 <–see? Happy.
So here is a list of a 6 tips to surviving the sea of madness, self-doubt, joyful torture, an grueling work of rewriting:
1. Every time you have that moment of pure self-doubt, that moment of ‘why do I think I can do this? What on God’s green earth made me think I could be a writer?’, just ask yourself what else you enjoy doing this so much? What gives you as much of a reward after expending so much sweat, blood, and tears? That’s right. Nothing. And THAT is why you keep doing it.
2. In the vein of #1, read one of your favorite books. Recapture the magic you felt when you first read it. Remind yourself that the magic of that novel, in part, composes your own writerly spirit, and that now is the time to pay that great novel/author tribute.
3. When have trouble getting something out, when that blinking cursor mocks your every false start, just walk away. Do something else, something completely non-related to writing. Some people say TV kills creativity *cough* Stephen King *cough* and sometimes they’re right. But I often find that things that move me, including awesome television programs, offer inspiration, open up my well of creative impetus. It is sometimes in those moments that you aren’t obesessing about your rewrite that you find a way to fix a particular problem or get a eureka moment.
4. Write long-hand. This is something I recently embraced while slogging through the torturous rewrites of my first novel, The Prey and the Predator. Every time I sat down to my computer, all I wanted to do was copy and paste from the old document, which I’d promised myself I would NOT do. The whole point of rewriting was to bring the entirety of the work up to my current writings standards, to update the pieces that I wrote when I was fourteen years old and have been repeatedly cut and resown back together throughout the years, to smooth everything out. The exact way to NOT follow through with this is to cut and paste. So though I refer to a printout of my most recent version of the MS and my newfangled chapter-by-chapter outline, when I restrict myself to writing long-hand, I am wont to create something that contributes to my new, tightened premise that is more focused and succinct.
5. Submit what you feel most uncertain about to a trusted friend. Be this a critique partner or just a friend/family member who willingly reads your stuff and usually enjoys it. Ask them to be honest with you. After forcing out my first chapter of my rewrite, all the while asking myself the questions I mentioned in #1, my critique partner admitted that she felt like she was betraying me by liking it so much. But it is this encouragement, her genuine interest in it, and her helpful suggestions of what could be improved that made me realize it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined it to be. I was just so crippled by fear that I couldn’t see past that to the reality of the situation.
6. Research and network. This is a lonely calling we have rooted ourselves in, for better or worse. It makes a world of difference to feel connected to the wide writerly world out there, other people enduring the same struggles as ourselves and even people seeing success erupt from those hardships. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest, check out the articles on Writer, Unboxed, browse through others’ blogs and comment. It’s a good way to make a writing friend, a new connection in the writing world, a new synapse in a network you will continuously be growing. I feel so in tune to the writing world right now that it’s starting to get downright creepy with Writer’s Digest mirroring whatever my current concerns are. This article for one, assures me that everything I’m doing is just what I’m supposed to be doing. Also, at the risk of sounding like an advertisement for Writer’s Digest, the latest issue had tons of great articles in it on topics I was just fixating on: “What Literary Journals Really Look For”, “34 Markets for Genre Short Stories”, “Science Fiction & Fantasy: Balancing Exposition in Speculative Fiction”, and the eeriest, as I was just wondering what this genre was all about anyway, “Exploring the World of Steampunk”.
Just be open to connections with people, which may mean researching, branching out, and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to your online presence via comments on blogs or writing websites. It meant so much to receive an invite to write together sometime from a new friend in the blogosphere; it was all I needed to hear in that moment to assure me that all of this, the public presence though all I want to do is hole up and write, the tweeting, and tumbling (that I never update. Shhh), maintaining this blog, are all worth it. Because there are other people out there, just like me–just like you–who are also afraid sometimes but are genuinely good people sharing in the same struggle.
Did my reassuring, calming Bob Ross tone come through this post and inspire you to keep slogging through your own rewrite hell? What are your methods for coping through these perilous times?