Nancy: The Days That Make Writing Worthwhile

Why do writers write? It’s a question non-writers often ask us, a topic we sometimes approach with fellow scribes over a drinks at the bar during conferences, and one we sometimes ask ourselves – accompanied by gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair – when we’re having a dark night of the soul. (Writers suspect we have more dark nights of the soul than non-writers; non-writers suspect writers are just being dramatic when having what normal people call bad days.)

Bad things sometimes happen during those dark nights of the soul. Creativity runs dry. The writing stalls. Imposter syndrome sets in. Or maybe it’s always there, and this is just its chance to step out of the shadows and taunt us. The story dies on the vine. We question ‘why write’, as well as ‘why not quit’. Yeah, drama.

But it’s always darkest before the dawn, the sun also rises, there’s got to be a morning after, etc., etc., insert favorite cliche here. (That’s another writerly thing. Don’t worry, it’s just a placeholder we’ll fix in the rewrite.) When the words start flowing and the story gains new life after a few days or weeks or months of tough slogging, it’s nothing less than euphoric. There’s nothing like a day of story breakthroughs to make a writer say ‘I can’t quit you’ to writing all over again.

I had one of these wonderful days recently, but it only came after weeks and weeks of false starts and what felt like hour after hour of wasted time. Intellectually, I understood why two projects – one first draft and one revision of a completed draft – were stalling. Life stress, political activism, working on a new writing approach (Story Genius), learning a new-to-me writing software (Scrivener). And, oh yeah, working on two books at once. Still, I was frustrated by my own shortcomings.

Then came last Wednesday. Glorious, wonderful Wednesday. My Story Genius assignment for the week was to write quick thumbnail sketches of the next four scenes of my story (I’d already written scene 1), then turn those sketches into scene cards (this is a method described in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book). I had scene 2 in my head, but after that, the story was pretty nebulous. But a funny thing happened after I sketched out scene 2: I figured out what needed to happen in scene 3. Then scene 4.

By the end of the day, I’d sketched out the first 14 scenes of my story! And I realized I was looking at the entire first act of my novel. The story now has a shape. But more than that, I’ve captured notes about how actions and realizations and incremental changes in this first act will play out in future scenes and affect the story’s climax and final act.

With a renewed sense of writerly purpose, I’ve waded back into the pages of my revision-in-progress (I’d call it my RIP, but that sounds like we’re back to the dark night of the soul). I can now see that I was blocked on that one not because I don’t know how to fix it, but because I know how hard and painstaking it’s going to be to get it right. Like healthcare, who knew this writing thing could be so hard, right? Ahem. At least I’m getting over my snowflake self and getting back to work.

There is one casualty of this black moment followed by writing redemption. Turns out I can’t quit writing, give up on the stories of my heart, or do the sane thing and write one book at a time, but I can quit Scrivener. Again. I know it works for so many writers. I know it makes formatting e-books so much easier. I know all the cool kids are using it. But I can’t do it. This is the third time I’ve tried, and the third time I’ve failed. That’s it, Scrivener. Don’t call. Don’t text. Don’t email me about software updates. We’re through.

Phew, that feels better! Now, tell me, fellow word-nerds, what’s up with you? Are you dealing with any writing obstacles? Making any progress? With quarter 1 of 2017 officially behind us, do you have any plans or goals for quarter 2?

8 thoughts on “Nancy: The Days That Make Writing Worthwhile

  1. What a great day, Nancy, congratulations! I’m excited and happy just reading about it.

    I’m wrestling with a difficult scene, and it’s exactly as you described above. I know what it needs, I know how it ends, but it’s really difficult to get it right. I’ve scrapped two attempts and am hoping the third time will be the charm.

    Oh–and I’m with you on Scrivener. Boring old Word suits me just fine. And if I recall correctly, Nora Roberts still uses WordPerfect. Many Roads to Oz, and all that 🙂

    • Jilly, I know you’ve read Story Genius. Just curious if you’ve tried the scene card approach to your scene? I didn’t use them to write my romance story, but I might create them retroactively to ‘check’ that I’ve captured the elements and cause/effect trajectory in each scene. If you haven’t tried that yet, it might unstick you :-).

  2. Congratulations on your breakthrough, Nancy! Fourteen scenes outlined is huge! I’ve been working pretty well, but I’m afraid that I’m writing scenes that, as much fun as they are to work on, will have to be cut down the road. And I think I’m stalling about starting the hard bits that have to come next. But, hey. Discovery draft. It’s okay to have fun.

  3. Great job!

    I don’t use anything but the software that came on my computer. Word 2010, I think, and then I have various folders for photos and Excel for story bibles. (Usually separated into places, people, timeline and magical weapons/power ((if any)).) I wind up keeping notes in a Word file, too, and just using the search function a lot. (Ctrl F).

    I’m in a weird place. Sometimes I don’t know why I keep trying to write, because I am not managing a lot of it. But when it comes, it’s such a miraculous feeling of being a conduit. I hardly know where it comes from.

    When it doesn’t come, it feels like I’m stepping on my own dick. I don’t even have a dick, but you know, it’s painful and klutzy. I might give up too easily, and I don’t know what that says about me.

    It’s so worth it for those few times a year when I can do it it, though. Maybe one day I’ll find the proper balance that lets me work more faithfully.

    • I keep my ‘word file’ type of notes in Evernote so I can capture thoughts anytime/anywhere (assuming I at least have my phone with me). Other than that, it’s Word, Excel (like you, for story bibles, but also for conflict boxes and other plotting tools), and white boards for mind maps. Here’s the scary thing: I haven’t created a single spreadsheet or mind map for the new story. I’m going to try to get through the discovery draft without them, following the Story Genius, character-driven cause and effect approach. My stories have been coming out as over-analyzed and under-emotionalized, so I’m putting down the plotting tools for the time being. I’ll report back at some point about how it did or didn’t work for me.

      There is something about the siren song of those good writing days that keeps calling us back, isn’t there? Whatever it takes to do it, keep writing! We love your stories and the world needs them!

      • I may have to learn to accept that I’m a hobby writer — that I write short stories, and I write them when I feel like it. Maybe if I can write two or three stories a year, that’s enough, really. (-: If I live to my grandmother’s age, I could build up 50 or 60 stories in that time, easy.

        (-: And then if I stay flexible, it just might happen that I actually finish something that’s in long-form!

        (-: Thanks for the words of encouragement!

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