Tag Archives: writer’s block

Regularity


Been thinking a lot about regularity, lately … or more correctly, the lack thereof. (No, not that kind of regularity. THAT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.)  Regularity is what made me so productive over the past couple years; it kept me clipping along on my novels, it kept me in good upkeep with my running, it kept me making good decisions with food and working out.

But lately, I feel like that shopping cart with the one gimpy wheel; things are mostly swell, the machinery is mostly functioning as intended and you can certainly still use it to get your shopping done, but there’s this constant pull yanking me off course. It squeak, squeak, squeaks on every turnover like nails on a chalkboard in the back of my brain, it thump, thump, thumps like the fingers of a bemused god on the top of my skull.

And even when I am working as intended, things feel off. Like a bit of gravel stuck in the bottom of your shoe. Like a vacuum cleaner with too much hair clogging the brush. Like that leaky faucet that won’t stop dripping no matter how many times you take the damned thing apart and fix it.

I’m getting my writing done, but not quite in the quantity I’d like, and it’s not coming as easily as it seems like it ought to. I’m getting my runs in, but my pace isn’t what it should be, and I can’t seem to shake off the aches and pains. I’ve fallen off the wagon entirely with my workouts, and my diet … well. My diet has always been pretty terrible, but lately it feels like it’s more terribler than ever.

I just can’t get regular.

I don’t really know what to put it down to. New job? Maybe. Malaise and spiritual indigestion over the election? Could be. The natural ebb and flow of all things? Sure.

I dunno. I feel out of my groove, which is no big deal — these things usually work themselves out. The fact that this particular thing hasn’t yet worked itself out makes me … uneasy.

Not much else to say about it just now. Just trying to give this thing, whatever it is, a shape so I can pick and prod at it.


Fly Away


I’ve had to kill more than a few flies over the past few days.

Part of it, I think, is that the little buggers feel the end of summer coming on, and they’re trying to get indoors before the cooler weather comes. And part of it, of course, owes to the fact that the building I now work in was built in the 70s and shows every sign of it, down to the poor ventilation and the likely hundreds of nests and colonies in the walls. My room is always host to some six-legged creature or other, and this week, it’s been flies.

Which are the hardest things to deal with, it turns out. Mosquitoes you can catch in a closed fist. Bees drone along and then hover in space. But not flies. Flies catapult themselves through the air like UFOs powered by technology that shatters physics.

I remember reading once upon a time that flies have all kinds of extra sensory organs — from their tiny little antennae to the hair-like structures on their legs and body to their 800-faceted eyes — which make them one of nature’s most talented getaway artists. They end up with the reflexes of a cat that can see into the future, so that you’re always just a snap too slow, you always seem to strike the air just behind them. It’s almost as if they can sense that you’re about to swat them, and they leap out of the way.

Turns out, the actual air pressure created by your rapidly descending hands is sufficient to push the little critters out of the way; in other words, the act itself of swatting at the fly increases the fly’s odds of escape. The only way to counteract this is to anticipate where the fly is going to jump to and try clapping your hands at that spot, rather than aiming at the fly itself.

Which is a mug’s game, right? You can’t predict which way a fly is going to jump, any more than you can predict which way a flipped coin will land or which face a tossed die will fall on.

Still, guessing — even guessing wrong — gives you better odds than striking straight at the thing itself.

And there’s metaphors here, aren’t there? Life is a moving target, and all that. And by the time you think you’ve drawn a good bead on something, it’s moved along and you’re swiping at the empty air.

Sure feels like that lately, anyway. Working on this new story, it feels like the real thing — the good stuff, the soft, nougaty center of this idea — is buzzing around my head, lighting here on a bookcase, there on a lamp, occasionally on the skin of my scalp. But every time I try to nail the thing down, it flits away effortlessly, and I can almost hear its tiny, incessant insectoid laughter. And I bang my head away against some weak facsimile of the story I want to write and curse the muse for not dropping any of her glittery inspiration turdlets in my direction.

But then I strike off in a totally new direction; rather than trying to write the story I thought I was writing, I make a hard left and take the story in a new direction, and for a few blessed days at least, I get to bottle the lightning. I trap the fly between my hands and work gleefully while it bangs itself silly trying to escape.

And of course, it does. It escapes again. You can’t hold onto these things any more than you can hold on to a fistful of the ocean.

But you keep grabbing onto it all the same, as long as the story cries out to be told.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be flailing around like an insane person trying to swat this storyfly.


LightningStruck


Often, I rail against the mortal writing sin of “waiting for inspiration.” The fact is, you can’t count on inspiration. The muses are busy little bees, and if they only turn their divinely inspiring faces your way even every few months, well, you should consider yourself lucky. But you don’t get things done by sitting around, waiting for that to happen. Novels are not written with a muse perched over your shoulder, hmming and ahhing as you get to the good bits, putting whiskey into your hand just when you need it, and yanking you out of your stuffy crapsack apartment every now and then for the fresh air you so desperately need to keep the creative juices flowing. The muses have better things to do, and you should have better things to do than to sit around waiting for them.

Still, though, on some days the car just won’t start. Some days, you’re in between projects, and your routine is shattered, and you’re unsure what to do, and even the thought of opening up that blank document and screwing it up with your words is enough to send you into an existential spiral of doubt and dread and you go binge-watch Orphan Black instead. Some days, it’s hard to believe that you ever thought of yourself as a writer at all. Who does that, anyway? Who has the time or the creativity to turn out stories day after day, to think up new characters and conflicts, to flesh out entire worlds? It can’t be done. The authors who’ve done it are either fake people — computer-simulated AI programs that analyze market trends and tailor the storylines to what people really want to read. Or maybe they’re just independently wealthy people who don’t have to hold down jobs or families or any other inconveniences of living in modern society. That must be it.

These are the days that break a lot of folks down. They’re the days that broke me down in the past. “I just don’t feel like writing today, so I’ll start the new project tomorrow.” “I’m not sure what to do with this scene; I’ll just ponder on it until I figure it out.” “The story’s kind of up a tree. Maybe I just need to let it be for a while.” The problem is, momentum matters. “Tomorrow” turns into the next day, then a week, and so on until the novel you are writing turns into the novel you were writing, once upon a time. “Until I figure it out” becomes “until I feel like it,” which becomes the trash fire of “maybe I’ll get back to it one day.” “Letting it be for a while” likewise becomes “dust on the shelf.” You’re writing, you’re writing, you’re writing, and then poof, you lose the spark, and all of a sudden, you’re not writing anymore. You’re waiting.

For what? For the magic to happen?

Keep waiting. There is no magic in this world outside of the magic we create, so if you want inspiration, you have to seize it where it comes and drive it in front of you like a herd of goats when it doesn’t.

It shames me to admit (though I must) that I’ve been waiting for a while. Sitting back, letting my tomorrows turn into one days, letting my until I figure it outs turn into until I feel like its. I’ve had excuses. Good excuses, even! It was the end of the year; I was focused on wrapping up at school. I had just finished the AI edit, I needed some time to decompress before the next project. I wasn’t even certain what the next project wanted to be; how could I just start working on something with no guidance, no map?

Well, valid excuses turn into crap ones the longer you stretch them out, and I’ve stretched mine for about a month. And I wish I could say that I have seized gumption by the scruffy nethers and started shaping my creative expression like a sculptor with a particularly pliable bit of clay. That I hoisted myself by the bootstraps and threw myself back into the habit and started crotchpunching the sharks out of my way.

But the sad fact is, it took a visit from the muse to kickstart me into motion again.

Lightning, Thunderstorm, Storm, Weather, Clouds, Nature

Somewhere between trolling the internet, not thinking about writing too much, and mowing the lawn, lightning struck, and all of a sudden my brain is like a pack of jackals scrabbling against the inside of my skull. All of a sudden, the story demands to be written.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gotten started up again, but there’s no telling how long it might have taken. That scares me. More than a little bit. It’s humbling, this thought that for all I preach about the virtues of sticktoitiveness, of writing through every day even when the writing sucks, I got mired in the morass myself.

But you know what?

I’m writing again. And you know that thing they say about gift horses.

Jump on and ride them till they throw you.


The Beer-Can Fix


Beer Can, Marine, Waste, Moss

One of my favorite moments from Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle comes around the end of the first third of the book. The dysfunctional family, composed of an alcoholic engineer father and a tree-hugging lunatic religious mother and their four kids, inherits a relatively palatial house in Phoenix. (I’ll point out that the mother is a lunatic who happens to be religious, rather than a religious person who is, by extension, a lunatic). The house has termites, though, and before long the floors become unstable, to the point where a misplaced step results in somebody’s foot going through the floor. This proceeds until it can’t any longer, at which point the father enacts a fix which is simultaneously brilliant and idiotic. He buys a six-pack of beer. Downs one. Uses his tin snips to turn the can into a little metal tile. Then hammers the can down over the hole. This process repeats anytime the family kicks a new hole in the floor, which is often. It’s the height of pragmatism — he’s going to drink anyway, so why not use it to fix the floor — and ridiculousness — picture the lovely parquet floor pockmarked with Budweisers and PBRs.

And I have a similar favorite moment in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dude’s hog has a problem with its steering. They know that the repair that’s needed (some sort of ionized stripping installed around the axle or whatever) will be prohibitively expensive; several hundred bucks. The narrator points out that the repair can be effected — not as a stop-gap measure, but well and truly fixed — by snipping a beer can open, cutting it to fit, and wrapping the strip around the steering bits (I don’t cars, sorry NOT SORRY). The beer can, which is oxidized (or un-oxidized or whatever) on the liquid side so as to safely contain the beer, serves as a perfect insulator that won’t break down or rust over time. But the dude isn’t about to have his brand-new motorcycle, the epitome of engineering, repaired by a lowly can of beer. He doesn’t accept that it could work. So he drives it with the janky steering until he can overpay for a “proper” repair.

Why are these moments banging against each other in my head like literary pinballs? Well, I’m nearing the end of the edit on my first novel, and I’m ironing out the last few problems. Spoiler-free, the problems are: I’ve got some characters who pull a disappearing act when they shouldn’t, and others who don’t pull a disappearing act when they should. I’d been mulling the problem for a few days when a startlingly simple solution struck me.

And then today it struck me that maybe the solution was too simple. Too pat. Too surface-level. Maybe I was patching my busted floor with a spent beer can. So I find myself wondering whether I’m fixing these last few problems “properly”. Whether, a la The Glass Castle, I’m using ridiculous if not trashy easy fixes for problems that need deep, structural focus and foundational repair. Or, whether, a la Zen, I’m overthinking things and the beer can is not only adequate, but more elegant and simple than a highfalutin ground-up rethink.

At this point it’s probably impossible for me to know. I mean, I didn’t catch this mistake on my first read-through (nor did one of my readers, actually). My wife caught it. (Thanks, wife!) So the fix probably will look equally fine to me.

There’s only one thing that’s actually clear in all of this.

Beer fixes everything.

If only I liked beer.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Categories Are Crap


I’m not NaNoWriMo-ing, as I’ve said before, but I do have a thick skull full of dubious writing tidbits for those of you out there scrambling to make your 50k. (What are you, at 10k today, pushing for 12? Maybe a bit further along to buy yourself a breathless, red-eyed day off over the weekend? You poor souls.)

Today’s rumination: categories are crap.

Let’s be clear: your work is going to be categorized, and it should be categorized. Eventually. Categories matter: without them, we’re never going to be able to get our works into the hands of as many readers as we’d like to. But (and here’s where my novice chops are going to show, maybe) I don’t think categories matter until it’s almost time to publish. Because categories are for readers and editors and publishers, so they know where to put and where to find and how to push your book.

But for you? The author neck-deep in a 50k slog that needs to be completed in three weeks? (Or in the midst of a 100k slog that you’d like to complete this year, more conservatively.) You can give a big middle finger to categories.

“Oh, I’m writing an urban sci-fi horror YA cyberpunk thriller.”

No, you’re not. You’re writing a story about some kids with computers that spawn monsters who drag their souls into the dark web and sell them for Bitcoins. (Copyrighted!)

“Me? I’m writing an alternate-historical period piece romance / spy novel.”

Negative. You’re writing a love story between secret agents in a made-up setting where you can make up any rules you want.

But what’s the difference? I hear you cry. Why not pick my category now, so I know how to write it the piece as it grows?

In this humble writer’s opinion, putting a category on your work is like putting up a fence in your yard. On the one hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. On the other hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. Putting a category on your work means that you’re saying, this stuff belongs in my story, and this other stuff does not. It means, these sorts of things can happen in my story. It means, I’m going for this specific feel in my story.

Which, again, is great … for later drafts. Later drafts are the time to think about audience, about marketing, about where your story fits. But to think about this stuff during the first draft, or even the first round of edits, is suicide. To use the fence metaphor, you’re marking out clearly defined areas where your story can and cannot go.

But why would you do that during the first draft?

The first draft is hard enough without arbitrary lines criss-crossing the landscape telling you you can’t go here. The first draft is a brutal hike through overgrown jungle with a machete, it’s a solitary sojourn through unforgiving desert.  Boundaries are a great way to bog down, and if you’re NaNo-ing, you can ill afford to get bogged down. (To be fair, even if you’re not NaNo-ing, getting bogged down in your work sucks — lose your momentum and you lose your motivation to continue.)

The first draft is a baby bird learning to fly — it needs all the clear space it can get to figure itself out. Your story needs the space — you need the space — to breathe, to try new things, to make a hard left and run the story into a ditch, to cut back right and drive it through a building. You make that harder on yourself if you’re locked into categories, into preconceived notions of what your story can and can’t be before you’ve even written it.

Stories are living things that change as they grow. I started my just-finished draft of a novel thinking I wanted to write a YA sci-fi coming-of-age piece, and I ended up writing something a lot more like a survivalist cyber-horror fate-vs.-free-will story, if any of those things are actually things. One way or another, I’m a lot happier with the story I wrote than the story I was trying to write. Further, I noticed that every time I got stuck in the novel, it’s because I was trying to force the story or the characters to do something out of character. I can’t have this happen in a YA novel, I thought, but when I let go of that constraint and just let it happen anyway, the story moved along just fine.

Don’t get me wrong. That first draft is a mess. It needs tons of work, and the time will come when I will refine it down and decide what neat little boxes it fits into. But if I’d gotten hung up on the categories, I don’t know if I could even have finished it.

Your story wants to be something.

You have to accept the fact that maybe you don’t entirely know what that is yet.

But, just like a teenage daughter, if you try to force it to be something it isn’t, it’s going to rebel and bring home a guy with a mohawk.

Don’t let your story bring home a guy with a mohawk.

Let your story be the guy with the mohawk.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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