When Throwing Yourself Off A Cliff Stops Working

by Christina Lay

I’ve confessed before that I am the type of writer who works without an outline. The term is Panster, as in “by the seat of your pants”. That’s not entirely apt.  When I start writing a book, I have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. I have a character in a setting with a problem. I know what they want and what’s standing in the way of getting it. I might have a love interest, an antagonist, or a really screwed up family already waiting in the wings. In other words, I’m not flying blind. Chances are, I’ve visualized several scenes in my head. The protagonist’s voice is firmly established. I’m ready to roll.

 

Where the seat of the pants part comes in is the fact that I have nothing written down except a few ideas, snatches of dialogue, and character notes. I have not worked out how the plot is going to progress. I haven’t solved any transitions or tangled plot issues, because I don’t even know what they are yet.  So the first draft is an exciting ride, a test of imaginary agility, and without fail, a mess of epic proportions. But what can I say? That’s how my creativity stays sparked.

And it works, usually. Using this method, I’ve completed about 15 novels and novellas. In recent years, I’ve been able to complete two novellas in a year. However, I recently had the experience of spending over a year writing the first draft of one novella, which turned into a novel along the way (that was part of the problem, but not the only one). Mid-way through, I became well and truly stuck. This is nothing new. It happens with every novel, usually several times, and somehow I wail and claw my way through it.  But this time was different. None of my usual tricks seemed to work.

My first trick is quite clever: I write things down.  Yes, I actually open ye olde spiral notebook to a fresh page and compose a bare bones outline, chapter by chapter, going over where I’ve been, projecting outward to where I’m going, and trying to see where exactly I went wrong. If I’m lucky, this works the first time and I can see where I pushed ahead with an idea because it was shiny and not because it had anything to do with character motivation or a natural sequence of events.

With a particularly tough nut of a plot problem, I might have to re-do this outline more than once, seeking out transition problems between chapters, seeing where I get bored (guaranteeing the reader will too), looking at the fork in the road where the entire juggernaut trundled off in the wrong direction.

In most cases, I don’t do much backtracking or heavy duty rewriting until I reach the end of the first draft. “Fix it in the rewrite” is a mantra that carries me through many a dark day. But sometimes the quagmire becomes too deep, the plot too murky, to keep going. I hate this. I have a deep aversion to stopping, losing momentum, becoming distracted. This time, I had to admit I’d done the outline analysis trick several times. I had to stop. Walk away. Get a fresh perspective. Take another running leap at the thing and fail get again.

One might wonder why the book didn’t become a drawer novel at this point. After all, I’ve got several in the queue, all better and shinier and much, much easier to write (surely). But this book is the fourth in a series. A fourth promised long ago. A deadline crossed and vanished over the horizon. I’ve even had readers query about it, for crying out loud. Plus, I really want to finish the damn book.

So my second trick of taking a little break and letting my subconscious percolate without my interference didn’t work either. Months went by with very little activity at the keyboard. I approached the novel again with my new outlines. Failed. Started to think I’ve forgotten how to novel altogether. That I’d reached the end of my creative juice. That the first 15 novels were a fluke.  That I suffered brain damage while under anesthesia. I was getting desperate. But not desperate enough to write a real outline. That’s just crazy talk.

As it happens, while I suffered through the winter of my Worst Novel Ever, my cohort here at ShadowSpinners, Eric Witchey, wrote this blog. In it, he points out a simple fact: just because something worked once, or multiple times, is no guarantee it will work again. Ironically, the example he uses is hang gliding, literally throwing yourself off a cliff. How annoying, but also such an apt description of my current predicament. I couldn’t figure out why doing the same thing I’d always done before wasn’t working.

I made some changes and tried a third trick. I abandoned the spiral notebook and the linear outline for 3 x 5 cards. On it, I wrote each key scene and the major plot point it represented.

I abandoned my desk, and spreads the cards out on my living room floor.

I sat and stared at them.

The cat chewed off the corners and rearranged them under the coffee table.

Cats are terrible editors: don’t listen to them!

 

I stirred them around and identified the scenes that were shiny, but not helpful. The scenes that had been grafted in from another novel idea, because shiny. The scene that just didn’t fit in with the flow. The one coincidence too many. The disposable scene. The gap that made no sense.

And the one thing that I had to do, absolutely had to do, was start rewriting from the very beginning, even though I’d come so close to finishing the first draft. There was no point in going forward because the entire thing had to be reworked.  At first I tried to preserve my words (precious, precious words!), but those words (so many words) were holding me to plot points that just didn’t work. So I murdered my darlings and buried them in a folder called “cut bits”. (This is a game we writers play: pretending that someday we’ll salvage those wonderful, wonderful words).

At last, I broke out of the quagmire and began to progress, ever so slowly, through the rewrite.

Here’s a fourth trick, one that I wish for all writers to have the wherewithal to do every now and again, whether they are stuck or not.  Go on a retreat.  There is nothing quite like solid hours—I’m talking eight hours a day for several days—to push through to The End. I only recently went on a four day retreat and one year after I began it, I finished the first draft (cue fireworks). For tips on how to have a successful retreat, read Lisa Alber’s blog here.

Now in this case, the first draft consists of several mini-drafts, but I reached The End, the plot seems to hold together, and now I can go back and begin to clean it up.

So the point is, when things get tough, and I mean really tough, the answer is not to quit, but to be willing to do things differently and admit you don’t have all the answers just because you’ve attended five thousand hours of writing workshops and read 872 books on the craft of writing.

The mind is a funny thing, and so is creativity, and so is storytelling. Get a different perspective. Change your methodology. Write in a different place. Start over. Let your cat decide (but not really). There are so many different ways to get past a roadblock. The only way to guarantee you won’t get around it is to stop trying.

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

-End-

Free Yourself From Your Work

by Matthew Lowes

rainbow-road

The experience of hesitation just before one starts writing is something all writers have probably felt at some time. Whether from doubt of our abilities, the fear of what might come out, or the aversion to collapsing our grand nebulous ideas into something concrete, we hesitate, sometimes only for a moment, and sometimes for a lifetime. In the middle of a big project, doubt may seize us and again we hesitate, certain the work is a mess. Likewise, when we have expressed ourselves freely and fully, we may hesitate to rewrite and to put it out there, to let others see what we have done. And all these fears, all these doubts and hesitations, spring from one simple thing. We identify ourselves with our work.

In this day and age, when we are encouraged to brand our work and our identities to suit the market, this tendency to internally identify with our work finds ample reinforcement. It may prevent some from writing all together. It may prevent some from finishing a great book. It may prevent some from doing their best work, from fully opening themselves to writing the most challenging, most daring words they have to offer. And it may prevent some from sharing with others what they have written.

Of course, one must be critical at times, especially when learning the craft and while in the midst of doing any edit or rewrite. But to cling to this criticism or to identify ourselves with any work, is not only to suffer, but to stifle our own creativity. The creative mind is free and open, unlimited by any expectation, and unhindered by self doubt or personal identification with any work, past or present.

Don’t allow this tendency or pressure to identify with your work to stand in the way of your creativity. Whenever you feel this hesitation or doubt, just remember that you are not your work. The work itself is just a stream of words on a page, just symbols on paper. And while you have a right to the act of putting these symbols down and arranging them as best you can, you do not control the origins of this act, nor its ultimate ends.

Our own true nature will always be beyond all words. So free yourself from your work, whether it is the work you are about to do, a work in progress, or the work that you have already done. Our work is really not our own anyway. For we do not know what thoughts will arise in the act of creation, nor from whence they come. It is all a spontaneous happening. Just allow it to happen.