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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Writer’s Block(s) Redux

Years ago I wrote an essay for my site called “Writer’s Block(s),” wherein I said I don’t find the term “writer’s block” to be helpful.

I stand by that, even though I’ve now gone through a period where, if I were inclined to use that term, that’s what I would have called it.

In 2020 I was hugely productive. Some writers found it very difficult to write last year, but I was in the camp that took refuge from the world by escaping into ones of my own creation. I wrote two novels (The Liar’s Knot with Alyc, and Night Parade on my own), plus ten short stories, three flash, one fanfic, one short story for L5R, various short adventures for Sea of Legends, and my ongoing Patreon essays.

Given that, it wasn’t surprising that after I rounded the corner into 2021, things slacked off. I’d been working really hard, after all, and you can’t do that nonstop forever. I’d already decided to slow my roll on short fiction because I was writing it faster than I could sell it, so taking a break from that wasn’t a problem. Besides, I had The Mask of Mirrors out in January and Night Parade two weeks later, so there was a stretch of literal months where I was doing promotional events every week, usually two or three of them. That eats brain and energy and I know it, so giving myself time off from producing something new was good self-care.

But.

Round about late February, I realized my ability to brain creatively was not regenerating. I’d taken two months off and I still had no more energy for writing than I had before; if anything, I had less. I’d written my final L5R story and a couple of pieces of flash, but for the former I had the benefit of all the existing story momentum and the latter were . . . not impressive. More importantly, I had a story due to an anthology, and I was having the worst time getting it done.

Well, there could be multiple reasons for that. And I knew perfectly well that I had a plot problem in the story which I hadn’t yet solved — so naturally I couldn’t move forward on it. I made myself sit down and I figured out a way around that problem, which let me write a little more . . . but then I ran into a new problem, which slammed me into a second wall.

And then I reached a point where even trying to make myself think about the problem induced a flinch reaction in my brain: god, no, please don’t make me.

This was . . . not good.

If you saw the day in mid-March where I asked on Twitter for cute cat pics and the like, that was the day I realized I wasn’t simply tired, and I wasn’t simply stuck on a bit of plot and everything would be fine once I sorted that out. Something had gone wrong in my head, that merely sitting back and waiting wasn’t going to fix.

But the gist of that original essay is that calling the issue “writer’s block” accomplishes nothing. It’s a description of symptoms, not a diagnosis of cause, much less a cure. I had to figure out why my head had gone wrong, on a global level that went well beyond being in a plot corner with a single story.

I mean, pandemic. That was a pretty obvious culprit. But “pandemic” wasn’t really an answer, either, because there was a pandemic before and I still wrote, and also what exactly about the pandemic was the bit stabbed into my brain? There’s been discussions about the lack of novelty involved in being locked down, which can be particularly deadly to creative work; that seemed like a good angle to investigate. My first-line response was to spend a whole day doing things like working on a jigsaw puzzle, playing piano, and otherwise engaging in activities I hadn’t done in ages, which definitely helped to lift my immediate mood, even if it didn’t fix everything.

What about environmental factors? I figured winter had something to do with it — I’ve known for decades that I don’t respond well to a lack of sunlight — but merely rounding the corner into daylight saving time hadn’t brought the improvement I hoped for, so I got more aggressive about seeking out light. We recently got a swing for our back patio, and the weather was nice enough for me to sit out there, so I started making a point of doing that every day (light + a new place to sit, i.e. novelty). In fact, the trainer I see has a list of elements that play into good health — things like nutrition, sleep, and so forth — and sunlight is on that list, so my “homework” from him for a while was not to lift weights or anything like that, but to get at least twenty minutes on the patio each day.

I also started taking a vitamin D supplement, on the theory that a deficiency in that nutrient has caused sluggishness in multiple people of my acquaintance, and overdosing on the stuff basically requires you to down a whole bottle in one go, so why not supplement for a while and see if that helped.

And that story I was stuck on? Well, I had a deadline, so I did have to push through, rather than just shelving it until I felt better. But I talked to Alyc, who not only helped me work out the problem I’d been stuck on, but made a suggestion for another detail that wound up fixing a problem I hadn’t even gotten to yet. Which unclogged the brain ducts enough for me to get the story done, with a small extension from the editor that gave me time enough away to revise the draft as it needed. So yes, “fix the story” was part of the solution, along with other things. (Full disclosure: I held off on making this post until I heard back from the editor with revisions, because a part of me was afraid that I’d turned in something visibly sub-par. But he’s delighted with it, so I feel much more comfortable publicly discussing the problems I had along the way.)

So here we are, roughly two months after I started trying to figure out what was off in my head and how to fix it. How are things going? Well, in April I finally rewrote a story I’d drafted in 2019 and had meant to redo ever since then (the idea was solid, but the execution was meh at best). And I also popped out a piece of flash I’m quite pleased with. And I started revising another story whose polishing I’ve been putting off. More pertinently, one evening recently I decided I’d done plenty of work during the day and sat down to read . . . only to wind up scribbling notes and even writing material for a side project I’ve got going on. In other words, I was excited enough about that project to spontaneously generate ideas for it when I wasn’t trying to extract them.

That’s what my brain looks like when it’s working right.

Now, I will be the first in line to say that I’m lucky: this problem wound up being relatively quick to resolve. I do not appear to have developed major depressive disorder or anything else that would require medical intervention to fix. My home remedies sufficed, at least for now, and they sufficed in a fairly short time — call it a few weeks before I started feeling like I was on my way out of the pit, and a bit over a month before I felt like I was back on my feet. Not everybody has that easy a time of it.

But I stand by what I said before. If I were to rewrite “Writer’s Block(s)” today (which I may do), it would be to change the presentation of the points there, not the points themselves. I had to dig past the surface of “I’m having trouble writing” and even the surface of “well, pandemic” to get to the potential causes and the changes that might help mitigate them. My first attempted solution (taking time off) didn’t work; okay, what should I try next? If it isn’t just low-grade burnout, if it isn’t all the promotional stuff taking my time and energy, then what is it? What path might get me back to where I want to be?

We have to ask ourselves these questions. Simply waiting and hoping the problem will go away on its own will only fix a minor subset of the possible causes; some of the others may get worse, as the failure to produce exacerbates the stress. Sometimes you need to crack the whip over your own head, and sometimes that will only drive you deeper into the hole. Sometimes you won’t know what works and what doesn’t until you try.

But you can try, and eventually — hopefully — find your way back out again.

Sequencing

More and more, I feel like what I wrestle with in plotting novels is not figuring out what should happen, but what order it should happen in.

This is almost certainly prominent in my mind right now because of the Rook and Rose books, which, with their multiple points of view and interweaving strands of plot, pose more complex sequencing challenges than a single-pov novel with a more linear narrative. The same is true to a lesser extent, of The Night Parade of 100 Demons, where the two protagonists are pursuing the same main objective, but with side plots lacing through and around it. Even in a straightforward book, though, sequencing can be a question, because I also wrestle with this on the level of an individual scene. When more than one thing needs to happen, which deserves the highlight provided by being positioned at a key spot? Which one leads more naturally into the other? Are things easier or harder for the characters if they go in a certain order? Does that create an echo or a contrast with the way things went elsewhere? Has there been too much of the (metaphorical) color yellow for a while, and we need some blue to break it up before we go back to that?

I’ll use the first Star Wars movie as an example. In the early part of that film, the sequence goes: Luke acquires droids; Luke follows R2-D2 and meets Obi-Wan Kenobi; Obi-Wan invites Luke to go with him and learn to use the Force; Luke declines; Luke goes home and discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed; Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan after all. You could, if you wished, change the sequencing such that the Stormtrooper attack comes earlier and Luke escapes with Threepio and Artoo. Then he goes to Obi-Wan for safety, learns all the stuff about Leia, and accepts Obi-Wan’s offer the first time it’s made, because by then he’s already lost everything at home.

And that would work! It would just work differently. The structure would be less mythic (because Lucas was following Campbell’s model in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, where the Call to Adventure is often refused at first), and it would radically change the tone of Luke’s initial encounter with Obi-Wan, since then he’d be a fugitive grieving the loss of his family. It would also change your perception of Luke as a character: as the story is structured in reality, he dreams of getting off his podunk farm — but when the chance to do that is offered to him on a platter, he turns it down because he’s a good kid who doesn’t want to leave his aunt and uncle in the lurch. If you remove the aunt and uncle before the choice appears, you never see that side of him; indeed, it won’t feel like Luke is making much of a choice, because there’s already no reason for him to refuse (and plenty of reason for him to agree). But that doesn’t mean the other sequence doesn’t work; it all depends on what effect you’re trying to achieve. Not everything is aiming to be mythically structured, nor centered on a good kid with both dreams and a sense of responsibility.

So once you know what’s going to happen in a story, there might still be decisions to make. Some things have to go in a certain order; Luke has no reason to visit Obi-Wan before he acquires the droids, and if they ran into each other for some reason, it would be an empty scene, with much less for them to talk about. (Movies in particular can’t really afford empty scenes, but even novels shouldn’t have them: if the sole reason you’ve got for an encounter is “to establish that this character exists,” ask yourself if you can just wait until there’s something to do with him.) But I think that for all but the most driven thriller plots, there’s often wiggle room. If the blue bit of plot will provide your character with a safety net for the dangerous thing in the yellow bit, is it better to do the blue part first? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s more exciting if they don’t have the safety net, but if the character is someone who simply would not risk doing the yellow thing without a fallback plan in place, then delaying the blue might seem like bad characterization for the sake of drama. Whether you’re looking at the larger narrative arc or the flow of a single scene, it’s all going to depend on the material at hand.

Which is why my novel-writing process increasingly features index cards with bits of plot scribbled on them. Those are very convenient for shuffling around on the floor, test-driving different sequences to get a feel for what will play best.

Nature details: how do???

I have a confession to make: I grew up in suburban Dallas, and I simply Do Not Grok Nature.

On the metric of effort-to-result, putting details about nature into my stories is probably one of the most labor-intensive things I do. And I don’t even mean long, rapturous passages of lyrical description about fog creeping over a pond at dawn or something like that; I mean that unless I make a conscious decision to go do some research, my characters walk through forests of Generic Trees, listening to Generic Birds make Generic Noises. When I do the research, it winds up being half an hour of effort for half a sentence of result.

I’m making an effort to improve at this, and having discussed it with some writers, I think a large chunk of what I need is simply better resources for the information, or better ways of finding the resources. Field guides are helpful, but even more helpful are books or websites that talk holistically about a specific landscape, so that I get integrated information like “down by a watercourse you’ll see these trees and these birds and these flowers,” rather than separated lists of all the trees found in a region, and all the birds, and so forth. I feel like this is relatively findable for the United States, but much harder for other parts of the world, especially non-Anglophone parts. Any recs for such things? I mostly use this for secondary-world purposes rather than this world, but I’d love to be able to have characters ride across grasslands that look more like Mongolia than Nebraska, or cope with environments like tropical jungles that we mostly don’t have here. Could be formal field guide-type stuff, or just somebody writing with really evocative specificity about not just the mood of a place, but the specific flora and fauna to be found there and how they behave.

(I know one bit of advice is “get out there in the naturez yourself!,” but that would mostly only help me learn to write about the northern California landscape. I do get out in the naturez, but I can’t just go hang out in Mongolia whenever I want.)

Units of Fiction IV: Attention and Focus (Chapters)

(This is the fourth post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part III.)

As I said at the beginning, this whole series of posts sprang out of a conversation I was having with other writers about chapter length, which included some discussion of deciding where to start and end a chapter, i.e. where the breaks should come between them. After three posts mostly about other things, we at last come full circle back to the original question.

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Units of Fiction III: Attention and Focus (Scenes)

(This is the third post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part IV.)

The second post of this series looked at the ideas of attention and focus, and how those apply to the structure of a paragraph. Now let’s turn those same lenses onto scenes.

First, the notion that a unit asks you to sustain your attention until its over. Scenes don’t require the same degree of concentration from the reader as a paragraph; if you put a book down in the middle of a scene to go refill your water glass, you probably won’t have to start over at the beginning because you don’t remember where you left off. But ideally, a scene should hold the reader’s attention without pause, and not let them up for air until it’s done.

One of the ways it can do this is through unity. We no longer hold to Aristotle’s classical unities as such, but in some ways the concept is still alive today at the scene level: we do generally expect unity of viewpoint, as I mentioned before, and we have a tendency to default to unity of location and time as well. When the characters shift location or a lot of time passes, we often insert a scene break to signal the transition and skip over the intervening gap.

But that isn’t the only way to handle those shifts. You can also use the narration itself to signal movement or the passage of time. How do you know which approach is better in a given situation?

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Units of Fiction II: Attention and Focus (Paragraphs)

(This is the second post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I; Part III; Part IV.)

In the first post of this series, I talked about the mechanics and pacing of where to break between paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. But “you have to start a new one under these conditions” and “merits and demerits of short vs. long” doesn’t get you very far; there are still enormous aesthetic decisions involved in where you choose to place your breaks.

(This is where I start flailing vaguely in the direction of articulating things I know, but have never tried to explain.)

As I said in that first post, I think this is largely a matter of regulating your reader’s attention. Unpacking that more, I think there are (at least) three aspects to this:

  • A unit, be it a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter, asks the reader to sustain their attention until it’s over. The intensity of that attention varies — more for a paragraph; less as you go up the scale — but if they’re going to look away, they should ideally do that when the unit ends, not partway through.
  • A unit is a way of signaling to the reader that there is a relationship between its component parts. Units whose component parts are unrelated are usually less effective — and again, that’s most true at the paragraph level, and less so as you go up the scale.
  • Finally, a unit guides the reader’s attention to particular points of focus. This is primarily true at the beginning or end of the unit.

Because the operation of each of these things differs significantly between sizes of unit, let’s take them one at a time, starting with paragraphs.

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Units of Fiction I: Mechanics and Pacing

A discussion among my fellow writers of chapter length and where to break (or not) got me reflecting on how little writing advice there is for thinking about this — and then from there I fell down a rabbit hole of realizing how even less advice there is for the sub-units below the chapter, the scene and the paragraph. (Or the higher-level units, the part or the book in a series . . . but that’s going to have to be a separate bit of pondering.)

This is stuff we’re apparently expected to learn by trial and error. You write stuff, and you notice — somehow — that breaking in certain places works better than others, and so you improve. Nobody ever really taught me how to think about these issues, beyond a few very basic mechanical points, and so as a consequence I’m not even sure how to articulate what it is that I do, even though I’m relatively pleased with how I’m doing it. This is the first in a series of posts that constitute an attempt to figure that out by talking through it out loud (so to speak), and I hope it will be of use to other people.

Note: what I have to say here is geared toward fiction writing, but certain aspects of it would apply to nonfiction as well, whether that be a blog post or an academic article.

Organizing it is a little bit hard, though, because I want to talk about all three of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, and some of the points apply to all of them, but some don’t. Which means it’s not ideal to separate them, but it also isn’t ideal to tackle them all at once. I’m going to do a little from Column A, a little from Column B; I’ll start out with talking about the aspects where they’re the closely related, then break it up for where they diverge. Which also means this is going to be a multi-part discussion — four parts in total, with one being posted each day. (Edit: Part II; Part III; Part IV.)

So with that context out of the way . . . in thinking about this, I’ve come around to the opinion that there are three major factors at play in how we decide to break up the units of our tale. Those are: mechanics, pacing, and attention. And of those three, I think attention is both the most subtle and the most important.

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4thewords, Fan Art, and Pride!

For nearly two and a half years now, I’ve been using 4thewords, which is a writing gamification site. You queue up monsters and defeat them by writing — or, if you’re me, by copy-pasting the words I’ve written elsewhere — which gives you XP and various item drops, which you then use to complete quests and progress in the storyline.

I think I’ve mentioned this site here before, but I’m bringing it up again for three reasons:

1) I know a lot of people are having trouble writing right now, and if gamification and pretty graphics are the kind of thing that can motivate you, this might help.

2) The people who run this site (a very small cadre based mostly in Costa Rica) are really good about trying to make things inclusive and welcoming. Case in point: right now we’re in the middle of a 25-day special Pride event, amped up from the usual 10 days because so many in-person Pride events have been canceled. There is all kinds of related gear to customize your avatar with, including no less than fifteen palette swaps to represent a bunch of different Pride flags — not just the most well-known rainbow but flags for bisexual, non-binary, polyamorous, and other identities. This year they also wrote code for a virtual Pride parade, which you can choose to have your avatar march in; mine is there, decked out in straight ally gear (and a giant feather butt fan I picked up during the Carnival event a while back).

3) AND THEY GAVE ME AND ALYC ROOK AND ROSE FAN ART

Ahem. What I mean to say is, they’ve also responded to the pandemic by helping to support site users whose book releases may be affected. I tossed my name into the hat back when I thought The Mask of Mirrors was going to be coming out in November, so this is now more in advance of the release than I expected it to be, but . . .

4thewords promotional image

They made a wardrobe item that’s inspired by a mask in the novel!

That is our first public piece of fan art for this series. And the Festival of Reading is going to continue for 44 days (not counting the eight teaser days they had in the weeks preceding the Festival itself), each of which comes with its own special reward.

So basically, it’s a really wonderful and supportive community, and a fun way to motivate yourself for writing, with a story about questing to save the world from a corrupting Dust. It says quite a bit that I’ve stayed active there for two and a half years, alternating between normal quests and the regularly-scheduled special events. I would link you to neat features like the Pride parade, but I think you have to be a subscriber to see those; however, the subscription cost isn’t very high, and there’s even a community pool where people who can manage a little extra donate subscription time to be distributed to users who might not otherwise be able to afford it. If it’s something that might be useful to you, I encourage you to check it out.

Deferred rewards

One of the things that makes a writing career difficult is that all your payoffs are deferred.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Each day, or whatever schedule you work on, you add some more to the pile of words. Go you! But if you’re not someone who lets people read the draft in progress (I’m usually not, though there have been exceptions), then you do that work in a void. And it’s a long, long road to having a completed draft, so you’re in that void for quite a while.

Then you finish your draft. Go you! Now maybe you let somebody read it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that this isn’t the end of anything; it’s just an intermediate stage. There’s revision, and that’s before the novel even heads out into the wide wide world.

Ah, but surely you get payoff when you sell the novel, right? Go you! Except . . . what “selling a novel” actually looks like is generally that your agent sends you an email saying “here’s what they’re offering,” and you say “that sounds great, let’s do it!” Whereupon your agent haggles for a while, because that’s their job. Or maybe this is the next book in a multi-book contract you already signed, at which point this stage doesn’t even really happen, because it happened years ago.

Assuming it’s a new deal, eventually somebody sends you a contract to sign. This comes probably weeks after the offer you said yes to, if not months. Is this the payoff? It doesn’t feel much like a payoff. On the one hand, you kinda sorta sold the book a while ago; on the other hand, you haven’t been paid yet, much less seen your book in print.

Some number of days or weeks after you signed the contract, money shows up. This used to be in the form of an actual check, but these days lots of people use direct deposit instead. So instead of a Real Live Check, you get an email saying “hey, we’ve deposited this money in your account.” Is that the payoff? Literally, yes; emotionally, no.

Edits.

Copy-edits.

Page proofs.

Somewhere in here, you get a cover. Awesome! It mostly has nothing to do with you, since at best you got to offer some ideas that your publisher may or may not have listened to, but at least it’s shiny! Meanwhile you’re busy with something else.

And then, one day, FINALLY, months after you got paid, months after you sold it, months or maybe even years after you wrote the book . . . it’s on the shelves! Everybody is so excited!

Except for you. I mean, sure, you’re happy. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t cool to hold your very own book in your hands and see your name on the cover. But . . . as a payoff for the long marathon of writing the thing, it isn’t much, because it comes way too late. By the time it arrives, you’re already doing something else. You’re in the void of a different book, probably, and when people talk about “your new book,” you have to remind yourself which one they’re talking about. To them, the one that matters is the one they can buy. But that’s not the one eating your time and attention anymore. And psychologically speaking, a reward that’s massively deferred from the behavior that earned it is pretty much useless.

This is why I’m coming around to the opinion that it is hugely important to set up some kind of ritual for yourself — in whatever form works for you — that celebrates the milestones. Two years may go by between finishing the rough draft and seeing the result on a shelf, but if you’ve done something meaningful to mark the achievement of that draft, or the other landmarks along the way, then you won’t run as much risk of the job starting to feel meaningless. If the way the circumstances work isn’t going to reward you in a timely manner, then you’ve got to do it yourself.

Things they never teach you

Writing advice books tend to go into great detail on things like how to structure your plot, or develop character, or describe things, or whatever.

They do not — in my limited experience; hence this post — bother to say much about how to decide where to break chapters, scenes, or paragraphs, apart from telling you to start a new paragraph if you’re switching speakers in dialogue. Maybe a vague nod at “cliffhangers are exciting!,” but that’s about it. You’re just supposed to figure that stuff out as you go, apparently. Or else (and this is entirely possible) it never occurred to the writer of the writing advice book that there’s an actual skill buried in there.

But I haven’t read a huge number of writing advice books, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that someone out there has at some point unpacked this stuff for the reader. Any recs? Because it’s one of those things that I do instinctively, without much ability to articulate how the decision-making process goes — and since I enjoy teaching writing, being able to articulate it would be useful.