Monday, November 14, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough...

"Dawn in the Elf Forest" color study, a mood painting in progress.

Sometimes, no matter how often or well you've written, the going gets tough. Projects that would normally be a walk in the park turn difficult. Easy, generous deadlines loom and seem impossible. What causes this problem?

The answer is that writer's blocks are varied. There can be any number of reasons, usually personal, why your writing isn't going well. One way to tackle this is to do a freewrite as a warmup.

If you're doing Nanowrimo, you can put your freewrite into brackets and keep it in the text. That's not cheating. Heck, if you have a writer character, let your character struggle with the block and put your freewrite in italics as the character's writing.

Just start to complain about everything that interferes with your writing. Whether it's that you feel insecure or whether you're physically tired, too stressed and worried about other things, comparing your work to others, any reasons you have why you're not writing. If you write them out, they'll start to disentangle.

Each one may look more solvable after it's down and you can see what it is.

Insecurity is vague and difficult to determine. It's a feeling. There are often external reasons though. Critical comments from people close to you or someone making fun of the whole idea of Nanowrimo might have brought you down.

It's easy to think that you're immune to social pressure, yet wind up hurting because it affected you anyway. We're human. We do respond to the thoughts and feelings of other people and may be very vulnerable to personal criticism. After all, you could be doing something productive like watching television.

That sounds like a joke. It's not. How often in life do family or spouses complain that you don't spend enough time watching TV with the family? Writing takes solitude.

That leads to another source of that insecurity. If you're usually putting it on with other people, once you're alone there's a frightening lack of feedback.

Who are you when you're alone? What do you really think of the people in your life or that face in the mirror? Do you feel abandoned, fear that no one would love or like you if they knew you well?

When you're alone, you face the risks of introspection.

Alone, if you ask "Who am I?" the only answers can come from you. Anything about your life that came from convenience or compromise can be questioned.

Writing a novel will draw out these things. Characters will reveal sides of yourself that you ignored, took for granted or were entirely in denial about. I have a character who's a passionate believer in the paranormal and another who's an extreme skeptic with a fear of the paranormal.

I had to ask myself again, am I a deeply religious pagan or am I a skeptical materialist? Do I fit either of those labels? Which of these characters represents my view?

They both do. I'm a deeply religious pagan who doesn't expect magic to contradict science. I can always see real causality in the events that are coincidence or synchronicity too - and it doesn't matter, because in all the complex ways that human beings interact, what you do comes back to you three times.

I find myself facing regrets about choices I made in youth, from personal ones like not going to San Francisco immediately once I was legal age to ethical ones about whether I was too bitter and agressive as a youth. My characters share my flaws as well as my strengths.

That inner journey is part of the job for writers.

We have to look at the world the way it is, look past the stories we're told to see the things behind the stories. The more honestly we look at ourselves and the world, the richer we can tell the stories that help people face its troubles. There's a reason conflict drives good stories.

They're other people's troubles that take our minds off our own. They often provide solutions, as we get excited and think we'd make a better decision on the spot than the hero did. Or that we'd notice some telling clue or detail the hero overlooked. Truth is, we wouldn't, not if the story's written well. We might be just as easily distracted or confused. We don't have the context of reading the outline or having genre expectations in reality. We have to just take life as it is.

Life in a novel is structured for beauty and meaning. Events are larger than life and more intensely focused on the novel's theme. Inevitably, those themes mean something to the author who's writing them. They may be simple themes you learned as a small child, but they matter a lot.

Worrying about whether the story's good enough is counterproductive.

It won't be. No rough draft is a publishable novel any more than cake batter can hold up to being iced and decorated. The exception seems to happen when someone who routinely edits in process goes slowly through the story apparently getting it right on the first go. That's because they edit while they're writing, not because the original text that flows up out of the right brain is perfect on creation.

It doesn't matter what your theme is. Some readers will get into it and think it's cool. It doesn't matter what your genre is, all genres have readers. It doesn't matter how personal the conflicts in your novel are - a grand discovery in novel writing is that your deepest personal conflicts are common to the rest of humanity.

Loved ones dying or leaving us, the pain of conflicts with people we love, the frustration of struggles with more powerful enemies, that comes into every life. Some people have less trouble than others with some things. A person who grew up wealthy may not understand the survival struggles of someone on the edge of poverty firsthand, but they still might care.

Be yourself. Write what matters to you. You aren't alone after the first page - your characters are there grabbing your attention and carrying you on into their lives too. Relax and enjoy their company.

I've been running into massive slowdowns and difficulty this month since I distorted my process and started editing immediately after writing. They're different processes for me. Both can be enjoyable, they just take completely different states of mind.

Changing gears too often leaves me feeling insecure about whether the story's any good. It breaks my concentration, I can't be in the story writing it or standing back to judge the prose at the same time. Some writers do. I'm just not one of them.

So the experiment of writing this Nanowrimo and editing it in the same month isn't working. All it did was grind down my joy in process to the point where I don't even feel like working on it tonight. If I let go of trying to get it perfect and just lose myself in the story, I'll come out with a good one. I can edit in December or the rest of the year.

I can set a schedule and start working on previous novel drafts, editing those for publication and set this one aside when it's done. That might be the solution to my recent block.

Some of it is exhaustion. I've been going out a lot and when I do, sometimes I wind up too tired to do much. This afternoon though, I found myself sketching rather than writing because I wanted to just goof off and relax. I needed to recharge with creative activity and working on "Trouble in the City" didn't feel like relaxation.

I've gotten too stressed about the deadline. That's ludicrous if I can bang out a novel over 50,000 words in a three day weekend. I might even still achieve my goal of at least one editing pass during November if I get back to just writing the book and don't backtrack to make edits.

So if you're doing this for the first time, consider your method. If you outlined and it feels like the book's already done, perhaps you need to try writing by the seat of your pants. If you tried pantsing and keep getting lost with no idea of what to do next, you could take a few hours to put together an outline that you can rely on. Use the method that works for you and don't worry about how other writers do it.

We all come to the same place afterward, we all create the same thing: novels with a coherent structure, a plot, a theme, characters. Your path to that is as unique as you are. If an experiment doesn't work, it's a failed trial.

I learned again that my best method is to completely forget about quality and just tell the story, edit when it's done. So I'll go back to that and pick up my word count. Right now I'm about a day behind, but next chapter I'll be caught up again and anything after that will start soaring into my usual overachiever range.


  1. Your writing posts are vastly encouraging, Robert! I have not stuck to my initial goal of using NaNoWriMo as a ploy to finish Brainsick, but I did bust out 1,160 words in a couple hours (with edits) sometime last week; I felt like a champ. I just need to keep at it.

    I often reflect on what aspect of my personality each of my characters represents, too. It's fascinating to see how they've grown with me.

  2. I totally agree, Robert, just tell the story:)

    That's the only place for a writer to start.


  3. Wow, thank you! Jillian, keep going. Your story is wonderful, you have a devoted fan waiting for more of it! Go go go! So glad you continued it!

    Dee, thanks. I didn't get to write today because other stuff demanded all my energy and I lost half the day to a mega-nap, but tomorrow's always another day.