Pain and Productivity

by Christina Lay

I’ve been trying to write about this subject for a long time, but it’s one of those topics that has always been little too personal, a little too close to the bone, to get any objectivity on. I start writing and I get defensive. But tonight as I sit down to write a post due tomorrow, and another due the day after tomorrow, grim reality hits home once again.

Damn, I say. And then I wonder, is there anything helpful to be gained by shining a bit of light on this back-riding monkey of mine? Well, let’s take a look at where I was when I first tried to write about it, nearly two years ago:

I’m here because the voices in my head have driven me write this blog. These are not the ordinary writerly voices of characters whispering dialogue and plot suggestions to my fevered imagination. These are the voices of The Committee. You know, the raging discussions about shoulds, wants, have-to’s and why-the-hell-nots. Some of the voices come from bottles: pill bottles to be exact.

No, I’m not an addict, but I could be. Sometimes painkillers (legally obtained, mind you, NSA internet scanning friends of democracy) are my best friends. At other times, they lurk in the kitchen cabinet like an evil troll under the bridge, luring me to my doom.

The conversation goes somewhat like this:

Me: Damn, my back/neck/hip hurts, but I need to write.

Cyclobenzaprine: If you want to get any sleep tonight, you’d better take me now.

Fairy of Good Intentions: But if you do that you won’t be able to concentrate long enough to finish that novella/blog post/chapter/submission.

Tramadol: Or you can take me and not give a shit.

Troll of Unworthiness: Suck it up, loser! Only the weak and worthless let a little back pain interfere with the relentless pursuit of their dreams! Not only should you not medicate, but you should stay up really late!

Coffee: I’m up for that.

Fairy of Good Intentions: If you’d listened to me, you would’ve finished yesterday instead of watching Veronica Mars on Netflix.

Me: Okay, Cyclob you win, but I’m going to stay up late and write gibberish thanks to you.

Troll: Well, as long as you suffer for your art.

I’ve often wondered how much more productive I’d be without this chronic back pain of mine, but let’s face it, I might not even be a writer if I didn’t have the physical limitations that I do. I might be a ballerina or one of those annoying Globe Trekker people. I might be a different person, in other words, so it’s useless to speculate or write stupid blogs about.

Frieda Kahlo is one of my inspirations. Not because I’m a huge fan of her work but because she overcame great physical challenges to create it. I know my problems pale in comparison, but I’ve set her up as a challenge to myself when the pain and the painkillers conspire to distract me from my goals. And the goal is always to get something done. There is always the next something. The next story. To stand still, to medicate, is to let the story die.


Whoa. Melodramatic and bit sad. I’m happy to say that overall the intensity of my chronic pain has lessened and I don’t face these kind of nights nearly as often. And with a little perspective, I can now see that what is sad is not that I am tragically afflicted with a bent spine, but that I am so damn hard on myself.  The only thing that dies when I fail to write is my sense of humor.

I’m not sure where I got this fear of stopping. Maybe I was a shark in a previous life. But there, now I’ve done it, I’ve pushed through the pain to write about pain and ask, how important is productivity? How important is making deadlines? We can only face one hurdle at a time and answer the question anew every time, but the important thing to remember is to be easy on ourselves, no matter what we decide to do or not do.

I know I’m not the only one who feels driven to ignore the body’s warnings in order to keep moving, to achieve, push, strive and continue on when really I should just lie down with an ice pack on my neck. The world will not end if my ShadowSpinners post is a day late. The story will not die. The words might be different tomorrow, as I might be different. Less grumpy, more refreshed and ready to write, ready to play in the garden of my imagination.

Why Write Anything?

by Matthew Lowes


If we’re going to make something, let’s make the things we want to see exist in this world. If you’re writing a story, whatever the genre, write the story you want to read, drawing from the deepest motivations you can find. This is the best way I can imagine of both insuring some measure of originality and significance to your work, as well as an ongoing enthusiasm for doing it. And really, anything else is short changing yourself and everyone else as well.

In this age of social media, online reviews, sales rankings, marketing platforms, focus groups, and target audiences, not to mention a widespread obsession with social status and material success, it’s perhaps all too easy to lose track of why we would write something to begin with. So ask yourself: why do you want to write this? Really get into it, with whatever current project you are on. If you find a really good answer that doesn’t draw on thoughts of success, I guarantee that work will become more interesting.

Not that social media, markets, and reviews and all that are inherently bad. It can all be useful, and careful use can maybe help you make a buck from this crazy racket. But their best use, I would argue, is not in your creative process. Someone who writes a book about vampires because vampire books are selling well, is only writing a book about book selling and nothing else. Forgetting all that, and the fact that vampires were more a thing of the ’90s, if you have an idea for a vampire story you really want to read, then I say go for it, especially if you have an even deeper reason for wanting to write it.

Of course, most writers would like their stories to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience. Whether this is a touch of narcissism or not I don’t know, but either way I think the desire is ennobled by a pure creative spirit. Sure I want to be entertained, but I also want to read stories with a vision beyond sales, by writers who had some motivation deeper than popularity, broader than recognition, and more profound than success.

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey


Eric Hooked Up and Meditating

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

A few months back, several people suggested that I write more blogs about “your brain hacks.” At the time, I found that sort of amusing because all the writers I know do the best they can with what they have. We are all born with our physiological predispositions (talent), and we all work hard to adapt body and mind to the tasks we value (skill). So, I sort of figured everyone has their own brain hacks. I still do.

Recently, I made a little speech in Eugene, Oregon about how writers can use tempo tools to influence their creative states, idea production, and writing speed. After that speech, a good friend reminded me that I had promised to write about brain hacks. So, I took a look back at my world and my experience and considered what things I had to learn to do in order to write stories.

Here’s the thing. When I teach, I can’t teach things I do but don’t know I do. I can’t teach things that come to me intuitively. I can only teach the things I had to consciously learn. Whether by luck or by some perverse curse, I had to learn a lot. Again, whether by luck or curse, I had to learn to overcome certain physiological limitation of mind and temperament. Many writers do. Mindfulness meditation has been a huge help in overcoming my personal limitations, but that’s another essay.

So, here’s a brain hack I had to learn.

Creativity is a learned skill. It is a verb: to create, created, creates, creating, will create, had created, have created, will have created.

The brain is a pattern matching and inferencing system. It recognizes patterns, cross-references them, and correlates them to experiences. The activity in the brain can be, somewhat erroneously, described as interacting ripples of potential. When rippling troughs meet peaks, they cancel out. When peaks meet peaks, they amplify. When amplified ripples reach a certain threshold, we become aware of the “thought.”

So far, so good. That’s all automagical. We don’t even know it’s going on.

However, many people, writers included, believe without consideration that if the thought they have more-or-less fits the shape of a problem they have, they are done. Sometimes, they are, but my brain was a bit bent out of shape from the start, so I had to learn to express a thought, abandon it, and find another one, and another one, and another one… I had to learn to keep finding new ideas until I found one that would work really well in text in a story that would then be interpreted by the pattern-matching inferencing system riding around in the reader’s head.

Many writers call this “finding the third alternative.” Personally, I wish I only had to find three.

Instead of the normal three, I have to find ten, twenty, fifty.

Enter a guy I’ll call Brian the Brain Guy (BBG). He’s a psychologist who hooked me up to an electroencephalograph in order to study the ripples in the brain during creative activity. I won’t go into the tech or what happened, but I will say that it caused me to look at my creativity tool, my brain, differently than I had. I stopped thinking of it as a piece of standard equipment that either worked or didn’t, and I started looking at it as a tool that could be modified, sharpened, and improved. I learned that it could be trained.

So, I started ringing a bell every time I began writing. That is, I started to type, then I rang the meditation chime, then I continued typing. I typed as fast as I could, and I worked furiously until I fell into that magical trance of creativity called a flow state.

Fast forward a few years, and my brain has been trained to enter flow state when I ring a bell.

Here’s another hack.

I took a page out of one of my teacher’s playbooks and started using a metronome during brainstorming sessions. I start it slow, and I have to come up with an unjudged new idea for each tock of the metronome (an app on my phone now). Then, I increase the tempo. Automatically, the brain that has been delivering an idea per tock at slow speeds ramps itself up to present new ideas at the new pace. For the brain geeks who want to try this, I start out at a tock every ten seconds: six per minute. My fingers can’t keep up anymore at about fifteen per minute. My brain is willing, but my fingers are not fast enough on the keys. Considering that my original, uninfluenced pace was about one new idea per fifteen minutes (and sometimes per week), that’s a huge improvement.

Because when BBG had me hooked up he was observing and measuring particular wave forms, I started paying attention to biofeedback tools for inducing and maintaining those wave forms. This was particularly important to me because it helped me reduce the amount of medication I needed in order to manage the bent brain problems I mentioned above. Back then, it was hard to find such tools. Now, they are freely available on the internet. Here’s a link to one such “entrainment video” I use. Try it. Relax. Just let it run quietly while you are creating.

Don’t let it run while you are editing. Different brain states. Oh, and run it very quietly. The brain doesn’t need it to be loud. In fact, the brain will pick up on it even if you think you can’t hear it. I’m running it right now at volume 1 on my headphones. I have to concentrate on it in order to hear it.

Caveat: Some people experience mild dizziness the first few times they listen to a recording like this one.

Finally, I will give away the biggest, best brain hack I have ever learned.

Intuitive writing comes from the subconscious mind. It flows effortlessly through the fingers to the screen or page. It requires no thought, and when we come up for air from successful, intuitive sessions, we have no sense that time has passed.

Conscious writing requires self-aware thought, planning, execution, and repetition. We know we are doing what we are doing, and time drags out like the slow-motion shootout in the Matrix.

Before I give you the big brain hack, I want to say something important. In my personal experience, there is no quality difference between the two modes of production. Conscious, intuitive, or mixed, each has a distinctive, physiological feel. The results of the different creative modes are different in content. However, my records show that, at least for me, the revision time needed to take raw text to a sold story is exactly the same either way. The techniques applied are a bit different, but that’s all.

Okay, here’s the big brain hack.

The subconscious makes use of everything we are exposed to. EVERY FREAKING THING.

The more we consciously understand writing and creativity, the more the subconscious has to work with. People who avoid reading about writing, reading other writers, or studying creativity are limiting the raw materials available to the subconscious. The more we expose ourselves to grammar, punctuation, meta-descriptions of story, methods, processes, and techniques, the more likely those skills are to manifest in our flow state sessions—drawn straight up from the subconscious mind.

My best advice to the writers I meet at the conferences, seminars, and lectures I do is to constantly learn about the craft of writing. Immerse yourself in it. Practice techniques until they become part of the deep self from which dreams flow. Then, let it flow!


Eric’s Upcoming Speaking Events:

The Accidental Blog


By Cheryl Owen-Wilson   Following is how this blog was born, even though I tried to blow it off. I really did try. I’m on vacation, I reasoned. I deserve an entire day of no obligations. I’ll do it tomorrow, what difference will one day make? You get the idea.

So there I sat mid-day today reading my friend, Lisa Alber’s newest book, “Whispers in the Mist”.  I was quite content in the fact that I could just let the blog go for the day. I’d intentionally kept this book unread until I had time to spend an entire day immersed in the misty fogs of Lisfenora, Ireland, where the book takes place. And I was there, happily reading away, when the atmosphere in her novel caught me, spun me around, and said, the weather in this book is as much a character as the actual humans are. So I blame you Lisa, for giving me a perfectly good idea for a blog, that I now have to write so I can get back to finishing your amazing new book.

“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping
When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.”
Dr. Seuss

Here are just a few of the many ways weather can enhance your fiction:

Atmosphere or Mood: My writing contains many references to the Deep South of Louisiana. From heat that flows around you like cane syrup, sticky and sweet, to rain that hits so hard you have welts on your skin for days. My characters are steeped in the slow pace caused by my home state’s oppressive heat. Lisa used the fog and mist instantly associated with Ireland to draw readers into her evolving mystery. Many horror writers use storms under the cloak of night to create the appropriate atmosphere. What type of weather could you use to draw your readers in?

“Summer in the Deep South is not only a season, a climate, it’s a dimension. Floating in it, one must be either proud or submerged.”
Eugene F. Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim

“The rain thundered down so heavily that Pritam could imagine that space itself was made of water and was pouring through rents in the sky’s tired fabric.”
Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path

Tension: My writing mentor forever lives in my brain. This is one of many things she whispers while I write. “Just when you think you have enough tension in your story, make more.” My characters are human with human limitations. I have to give them plausible situations, believable responses. But when I throw the unpredictability of weather into the equation, well, that is a whole different set of rules. Hurricanes have been featured in my stories. They’ve possessed gale force winds that left fathers dead in branches of the only cypress tree left standing, and chickens flying past second story bedroom windows. “Twister” is one of my favorite movies. Given the recent weather in my home state, which caused extensive flooding, I now have a new story percolating. Imagine what creatures a spontaneous flood could unearth! What natural disaster might befall your characters? What would they learn about themselves, or others, as a result?

“Dark and pregnant clouds gave birth and fist-sized stones of hail hammered the earth.” ― Michael R. Fletcher, Beyond Redemption

“The November evening had a bite; it nibbled not-quite-gently at her cheeks and ears. In Virginia the late autumn was a lover, still, but a dangerous one.”
J. Aleksandr Wootton, The Eighth Square

Irony: It doesn’t always have to be nighttime and raining when the bloody corpse is discovered in a field, amongst trees who’s naked limbs reach to grab any passers by. What if it’s a perfectly beautiful day and your protagonist is strolling leisurely through a field of wild flowers? She’s just reached down to pick a flawless daisy when she notices the ruby red liquid dripping from its white petals and looks around to see severed limbs nestled within the field of vibrant spring colored flowers. A bright, sunny spring day filled with bloody body parts makes a very interesting contrast. So next time you go for the dark and stormy night switch it up a little, and see where it takes you.

“It is a common fault of men not to reckon on storms in fair weather.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince


“It’s so dry the trees are bribing the dogs.”
Charles Martin, Chasing Fireflies: A Novel of Discovery


In conclusion remember, unless atmosphere/weather happens to be an actual character in your novel, don’t drown your reader with too much of it. Small doses interspersed to give the proper setting, or steer your character in the right direction, are all that is needed.


“one day you stepped in snow, the next in mud, water soaked in your boots and froze them at night, it was the next worst thing to pure blizzardry, it was weather that wouldn’t let you settle.” ― E.L. Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times


I do hope you write a vicious storm, snowy blizzard, sun-baked day, torrential rain…the variations are endless, into your next story. As for me, I’m going to cozy back up with Lisa’s book. The atmosphere outside where I am vacationing, here on the Oregon coast, is perfect. A fog is rolling in and I can literally feel the waves pounding below my balcony.


Have you found other ways in which weather has enhanced your own writing or a favorite book?

























Is a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray


It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:


Is Writing Fun?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Is Writing Fun?

Well, yes. And no.

Writing is fun when I’m engaged in a project that I’m excited about, when the words flow, the characters come alive, I have time and solitude in which to immerse, and the muse and I are aligned as one.

Writing is not fun when there are too many distractions, when the plot holes develop, when I’m tired and the words are stuck like molasses in my psyche, when I feel like everything worthwhile has already been written, when I feel like a fraud and/or incompetent, and when I feel all that pressure to compete in the marketplace.



On a panel last April I was asked: “Will you ever retire from writing?” I’m sorry I gave the answer I did. I cited Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame, who said that when he quit the show he was going to move to the south of France and write books nobody would read.  That sounded glorious to me at the time, as I was struggling with editors, publishers, agents, marketing, and trying to write all at the same time. But I didn’t speak very eloquently about why that quote stuck with me.

What I should have said is: Do retired tennis players still play tennis?

Today I have fifteen books in print and am nearing the end of my writing career. I have the luxury of not worrying about much on a professional level. I write what I write. I abandon projects with abandon. I don’t cater to deadlines or others’ expectations. I don’t read my reviews (never have), and I don’t care what other people think of me or my work.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, I struggled in the industry like everybody else.

Today, writing is fun for me. I’m working on a project now that makes me laugh out loud when I write, and at the end of the day I am wrung out and can’t wait to get back to it again tomorrow. There is no bleeding into the keyboard. There is no howling angst. I am not pouring my heart and soul into this work, I am playing, joyfully, with the talent I have been given, and I love it.

Will this project be successful? It already is.

So. What about you? Is writing fun?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

img_6420By Lisa Alber

You know what’s funny? Since my last post here on ShadowSpinners, my second novel launched–woohoo!–but I’m already so far beyond the fact of it, that I’m not going to tell you about the book, WHISPERS IN THE MIST. Easy enough to get information online, if you so desire.

I spent most of my summer feeling harassed by the specter of the public life (readings, launch party, etcetera) and stressing out about promotion and publicity tasks. Plus, August was shite-meet-fan deadline time for my next novel, you know, the untitled one that’s coming out next year around this time? Yeah, that one. And, frankly, book launch was getting in my way. I wanted it done and gone and behind me, which only added to my stress.

After awhile, I imagined WHISPERS like a baby too long in the womb: Get this bloody thing out of me! A tad dramatic, true, because it’s thrilling to have a book come out, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’d practically forgotten what WHISPERS was about because I was so immersed in the next next novel.

My head at the beginning of August: I have to talk about WHISPERS now? Yeesh … Can’t I hole up with my deadline for the next novel? Really, I’m frantic about handing it off to my editor in decent shape. The manuscript needs so much work. It’s an utter tragedy, and the ENDING ISN’T RIGHT!

Plus, I have a day job (alas) with big August deadlines every year, wouldn’t you know it. Plus, for some reason everything the publisher might want and need from me (in addition to the manuscript and authorial book launch tasks) landed in the hopper in August too: flap copy, book cover discussions, proposal for next books. Yee gads.

I’m happy to announce that in the wee hours of Thursday, September 1st, I emailed my editor the manuscript for Novel #3, a.k.a next next novel. And that was it. The black-out curtains closed on Lisa the Author for a full week. I looked forward to a last summer-hurrah (but really, what summer?) Labor Day weekend full of zippity-do-da-nothing that included a marathon of “The Affair,” season two (recommended if only to see how the screenwriter plays with point of view), reading for more than ten minutes in a sitting, and sleeping.

img_6463It’s been a restful week, but the new school year has begun and I’m already behind! I probably should have started writing the next next next novel (pub date 2018–isn’t that crazy?) by now. The other night a character revelation popped into my head, so that was a good sign. I bought a new organizational notebook (Christina, you might like it!). I have my first task list in said notebook. I need new business cards and need to prepare for a reading tomorrow night and next week I’m flying to New Orleans for a huge conference and need to–what?–something …

Hold on, wait–the next next next novel! Before I know it, it’s going to be a year from now, and I’ll be freaking out all over again. Number one priority: write first draft. This will be number one priority (and home squalor be damned) for the next, oh … nine months? Do you think I can finish the first draft by June 2017?

So, let the school (writing) year begin!

What’s on your list as the school year begins?