Friday, October 26, 2012

Five Tips for Overcoming Writer's Block

Yesterday I spoke with a Paranormal Romance writer friend who was struggling with the dreaded 'Chapter Seven Blues'.  What happened, she asked, to the easy thrill of seeing her scenes appear on the screen as if by magic? She'd been in butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard mode for days, yet had written nothing.

Was her Muse on vacation--or had she left for good?

While my friend is an accomplished woman--successful in everything she's attempted in life--she's fairly new to writing. Her first book came easily. She got tons of requests at her first conference, has sent manuscripts to several agents, and will no doubt sell very soon. She'll be a success--as long as she keeps writing.

But the worry in her voice was bone-marrow deep, and it was real.

I can relate to that fear. In the five years I've been writing, I've had moments of soul-grinding doubt: About my writing ability, about the story I'm working on, about my willingness to keep going as the rejection letters pile up.

It's impossible for me to be creative when I'm fearful. For me, fear is the underlying cause of writer's block.

Oddly, the rejection letters provided a great lesson on how to regain creativity. Which brings me to my first tip:

1) Write what you're excited about.

After the first rash of rejections I nursed my wounded ego for a few days, then emailed a well-known author, asking for her take on things. Should I begin the second book in a series I hadn't sold yet? Spend my time revising the rejected piece? Keep everything the same and send it out to more agents?

She wisely advised not to give up on the first piece, but to set it aside temporarily and dig into a project I'm really excited about.

I did, and after a week or two something strange happened: While immersed in the new manuscript, I realized what changes would strengthen the earlier piece. With my new perspective, revising the first piece is a snap. This week I'll finish revisions, query more agents, and then get back to the new manuscript.

2) Skip the (blocked) scene and write another.

If a scene isn't flowing, maybe it doesn't work. (More about that here.) Rather than pound against a brick wall, I've found it helpful to skip past a scene that won't cooperate and write the next one in my head. The skipped scene might be wrong, or it might be 'filler'; a scene that conveys information without adding to the story.

Some editors recommend identifying your weakest scene and finding a way to delete it. Better, perhaps, not to write the darned thing in the first place!

3) Write a scene you won't let anyone see.

If this sounds weird, you're probably right. But sometimes I'm so focused on writing for my perceived 'audience'--usually an imaginary agent or hypercritical editor--that I play it too safe and get bored. And if I want to write bored, I'll go to work composing insurance brochures (and make a lot more money.)

But what if I throw caution to the winds and write that graphic death scene? (Ewww...the blood dripped where?) What if I get inside my killer's head as he plans his next abduction?

If I have the courage to write what I'm afraid to, chances are it'll be exciting. Maybe I'll use the scene, maybe I won't. But at the very least I'll jumpstart my creativity--and maybe find it's fun living n the edge.

4) Put a (limited) moratorium on writing.

I don't know if this works for anyone else, but when I'm writing a lot and accomplishing little, I'll sometimes force myself to close the lid and step away from the laptop. This may be terrible advice for those with twelve unfinished manuscripts under the bed, but if your problem is fear (and it's ugly twin, perfectionism) a little fresh air and perspective might do wonders for your Muse.

For me, trail running opens a channel to the infinite possibilities in the universe, and when the (short) moratorium is over I'm eager to capture all the great ideas flooding my brain. Obviously, the only way to become a bestselling novelist is to FINISH THE NOVEL, so these enforced breaks have a definite start and end time (or date.)

Speaking of overcoming writer's block by not writing, here's my next tip:

5) Read a book by a great author in your genre.

If my Muse is out to lunch, I feed her beautiful words by authors I admire: Elmore Leonard's amazing dialogue, Harlen Coben's strong emotions, Dean Koontz' ever-tightening coils of suspense, Dick Francis' condensed, twisting plots. And for dessert: Scott Turow's multilayered characters, whose backstories melt on your tongue like sweet creme brulee.

When I read wonderful writers, I try not to compare my own crude attempts with theirs, but instead to appreciate the variety of voice and style; to celebrate how each of these authors succeeded by getting very good at being themselves. And when I finish a good book, I'm somehow inspired to pour myself into my own manuscript, to listen to my characters and tell their story to the best of my ability.

If fear is the poison that causes writer's block, the antidote is love. Love of story, love of my characters, love of the process of telling the stories inside my head. And there's one truth that works when fear keeps me frozen.

By writing today, I'll be a better writer tomorrow.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Are you being watched?

If you think you're being watched, you probably are.

And the watcher is likely a novelist.

Writers use every occasion for 'people' research: Family reunions, board meetings, grocery store lines. No one is safe when we're on the hunt for a new character--which is all the time.

For instance, my family is headed to a certain Ozark Mountain theme park, which will be filled with folks who'll wind up in my stories. I'll borrow bits from each person, combine this characteristic with that facial expression, mash them together in my twisted imagination and...Bam! 

New scene, new character.

Take that woman next to me in line--tiny, well-coiffed, permanent smile. She's not as perfect as she seems. The backpack she's wearing has a secret compartment (they really should check better at the gate), and inside that compartment are two Glocks. Her ex-husband's here with his latest squeeze, and she's loaded for revenge.

That man over there? Hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, grey-faced. He can't look anyone in the eye, doesn't respond when one of his four grubby kids tugs on his arm. His wife died last month, and he's barely holding it together. He's trying to talk himself out of the desperate plan endlessly circling in his mind. But the headlines next week will be tragic.

Yet, it's not all gloom.

That frumpy, unassuming woman next to the corn dog stand...the one in green sweatpants, who just bought cotton candy? She's going to break up a drug ring by listening to her intuition. No matter what that county sheriff says, it's just not normal to have so many strange cars out at the Mackey place. She'll have to bake a few pies to get people to listen, but her cousin-in-law Sueann is married to a DEA agent, who pokes around just to keep peace in his home. What he finds is a crooked sheriff with ties to a Texas drug cartel.

No one is safe from the prying eyes of a novelist.

So the next time you're in line at the DMV, look around. If someone glances at you, then looks away, beware.

You could be in someone's next novel.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Monday, October 15, 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the AK-47

I don't usually stray into serious topics, but today is different. As a writer, I love to create my own reality; painting worlds that don't exist, balancing the Karmic ledger so the bastards always get theirs.

But sometimes the heroes are real, and the bastards worse than any I can dream up.

Last week, a fourteen-year-old girl was shot by men who accused her of dangerous, radical behavior and crimes against society.

Her name is Malala Yousafzai. Her crime: Writing that girls deserve to be educated.

Malala lives in Pakistan, and in 2009 her valley was overrun by the Taliban. Girls' schools were burned, women were harassed for leaving their homes unaccompanied by male relatives, men were told to grow beards and keep their wives and daughters in check.

Malala--who was eleven at the time--started a diary. She described how it felt to see her prospects for the future change before her eyes, to face threats and intimidation for wanting to attend school.

"I have the right of education," Malala said in a CNN interview (read story here.) "I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up."

The diary turned into a blog which was picked up by CNN and published anonymously. But Malala's identity became known when she was awarded Pakistan's first Peace Prize, and the Taliban warned her father to keep his daughter silent.

But Malala refused to put down her pen.

Last Tuesday, Malala was riding in a vehicle. The van was stopped by men with guns. They asked which one was Malala Yousafzai.

Then they shot her in the head.

She's in a hospital; alive, unconscious. Who knows whether she'll ever have the life she dreamed about. Whatever the outcome, she paid dearly for using her pen to fight for the rights of women and girls.

Tomorrow, I'll compose another essay about writing. I promise I'll try to be amusing and informative and lighthearted.

But today I write for Malala, because she can't. 


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Shot Rang Out, and In Walked Dirk...

Tall, handsome, with curly, wait, make that straight blond hair.

But maybe he's not that tall. I mean, Johnny Depp is only five foot ten. But if Dirk looks like Johnny Depp--swarthy, mysterious--then he ought to have dark, curly hair.

Okay, it's dark brown. Medium-length. Curly.

What's Dirk/Johnny wearing, though? Red flannel shirt and jeans...or a smooth-cut tuxedo? Think...(Taps chin thoughtfully).

Got it! He's in board shorts. Tanned, shirtless, showing off those Oh-my-God-are-those-photoshopped-abs. In fact he looks just like Matthew McConaughey; rumpled, unshaven, fresh off a surfboard and ready for a roll in the sand.

Except McConaughey's tall, which means Dirk/Matthew has to be tall...and blond. But at least he'll get to keep his longish, curly hair.

Although it would look nice short, like Daniel Craig's. And maybe with eyes like his...pure ice.

Dirk/Daniel has blue eyes, definitely.


In the end, when we think about fictional heroes, is it really their hair/eye color/build we remember? I say NO (except, maybe, in the case of McConaughey's abs.)

When I think about Depp, it's his sensuality I remember. And the way he talks--stringing his words together in loose abandon, like he's had a few pints. He listens, brings you roses. He's a long, slow weekend--with room service.

McConaughey, on the other hand, is a day at the gym. Lots of sweat and charm...and testosterone to burn. He's lovely--like a gladiator on display--but exhausting. And, like the gym, a few hours goes a long way.

Daniel Craig--the newest Bond--is harder to pin down, because there's a vulnerability beneath that stony exterior. He's a visit to the Louvre, followed by an intense, public argument that leads the best make-up sex you've ever had. And, while you're sure it's not going to last, you can't imagine living without him.

Now, a quiz: What does Dirk look like? (No peeking!)

Next question: In the second part, how many physical adjectives did I use to describe Depp, McConaughey, and Craig? (No, don't look. Just think!)

Okay, I went back and checked. We settled on short blond hair and blue eyes for Dirk, and I counted two adjectives: lovely (McConaughey) and stony (Craig)--neither of which describe hair, eye color, or build.

So maybe when I write about Dirk...

...I shouldn't worry about the color of his eyes.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Saturday, October 6, 2012

And those FBI agents are such nice people...

One of the best things about writing fiction is doing research.

While gathering information for my current project I've been privileged to speak with several detectives, an assistant police chief, a former State Police officer, various gun enthusiasts, and the crime scene expert who had the sad distinction of working the Columbine shooting.

On a previous story I spent an hour over coffee with a kind lawyer who covered all the intricacies of a defamation lawsuit, and then helpfully suggested ways to paint someone in his estimable field as corrupt and evil.

Thanks to these folks I know more about blood spatter, fingerprints, and arrest warrants than I ever care to use. (Ditto on the lawsuits!)

I'm sure I'll get details wrong--and in some cases, might willfully ignore facts to juice up the story--but their patience and willingness to share knowledge leaves me deeply grateful.

If you're reticent about contacting experts for background information, I'd suggest starting with the organization that gave by far the most welcoming response: The FBI.

You think I'm kidding?

How's this for great customer service: My first call was answered by a real human--a special agent, I suppose--who apologized and said he wasn't able to answer my question, but connected me with someone who could. The next step was simple, and the person was professional, helpful, and extremely courteous. Two calls, I had what I needed.

Try that with your phone company!

Yes, I love being a writer. I love letting my mind wander to dark, creepy places; love imagining wild romance and danger from the comfort of my cozy study.

But it's also darned fun to start a dinner conversation with, "You know, those FBI agents are such nice people..."

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Monday, October 1, 2012

Step one, two...Cry, one, two. Step one, two....

Editor Sol Stein says the only job of the fiction author is to produce emotion in the reader.

Oh, that clears it up.

But after working through Margie Lawson's module on character emotion, I finally understand why editors decry long stretches of exposition (or as I call it, explaniation). No matter how well-written, pure narrative cannot be experienced. The more I 'explaniate' (as opposed to having my characters experience the pain/joy/terror of the moment) the longer the reader endures a story devoid of emotion.

Which explains why, on rainy days, I don't curl up with a mug of Hazelnut coffee and my treasured edition of the Maytag dryer operator's manual.

But Ms. Lawson goes many steps further. In her lesson, she shows HOW to produce emotion in the reader, and how to keep from spoiling our work with too much exposition. Using examples from writers like Harlen Coben, Lisa Gardner, and C.J. Box (who is in line to be my next literary crush), Margie points out what works...and then shows how removing key elements destroys the emotional impact of a passage without affecting the meaning.

With. Without. Read it again. Now read it aloud.

"See the difference?" she asks.

Oh yeah.

I've written scenes that 'felt' strong (and plenty that didn't), but never understood what made them effective. Ms. Lawson has shown me how to intentionally replicate what works and eliminate what doesn't. The key, according to Ms. Lawson, is to show the POV character's physiologic response: Dry mouth, racing pulse, feet frozen to the floor by panic.

But it's more than flooding the story with adrenaline. Creating authentic emotion is a complicated dance of body language, dialogue, description, cadence, and fresh writing. And she takes the writer through a systematic process to identify each element and address deficiencies. After a few lessons, I'm feeling the rhythm.

If (like me) you have two left feet when it comes to writing emotion, perhaps Ms. Lawson can help.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!