Nancy: The Over-Planner’s Approach to Cold Starts

When all else fails, you could try warming up the process with ‘a wee dram’.

Creativity is fleeting. Stories are ornery. Words are elusive. Writing is just damn hard.

Or so it seems on those days when the writing mojo is nowhere to be found. Diana Gabaldon refers to her approach to combatting this common writing problem as her cold start process, which she discusses in this clip. This week, we ladies are discussing our own cold start processes. So here’s Nancy’s guide to unsticking when stuck, in 4 simple steps.

Avoidance. When it comes to  bad writing days, I’m a firm believer in an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. In other, words, I try to avoid them. At least, I do my best to avoid one of the leading causes of these creativity blocks: not knowing where to go next.

One of the things I found fascinating about the Gabaldon clip is that at the end, she announces that she realizes where her character is physically for the next scene. If I didn’t know where my characters were going to be for each scene of the next act, let alone the very next scene, I would spend most writing days crying in a corner. The joy that some creators find in writing in the dark and tunneling their way to their story would break my brain. It simply Is. Not. My. Process.

I always have plans. Lots of plans. In the past year, I’ve become a devotee of planning my stories using Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method. Other planning tools I love: spreadsheets, project planners, Jennie Nash’s two-tier outline…You get the idea. When starting a manuscript, I plan the big picture (major and minor act turning points). Then each week, I break down what I hope to accomplish for the week by scenes, do a brief sketch for each scene, and adjust my plan at the end of each writing day. (Some pantsers out there just felt a little piece of their souls die – sorry, friends!)

Still, there are days that all the plans in the world won’t get the words flowing. When that happens, it’s time to pull some other power tools out of the handy-dandy writer’s toolbox.

ValidationPlanning isn’t infallible. I know, I, too, was devastated to learn this! But take heart, my planning compatriots. There is always time to redirect course, and if you’re just not feeling a particular scene, it might be time to validate its place in your story.

When Justine does this, she pulls out her notebook and sketches out everything she knows about her scene, what might need to change, and whether it even belongs in the story. I follow much the same thought process, but tend to do it while pacing the floor and capturing notes on a white board. Sometimes you find a key – emotional or otherwise – that unlocks the scene. Other times you realize you don’t need the scene (or in my case, an entire subplot). Regardless of how you do it, if a scene bores you, trips you up, or blocks your brain, put it through its paces. Make it prove it belongs in your story.

Confrontation. If you’ve done an honest assessment of your next step in the story, found it to be solid, and are still struggling to write it, you could be facing another common writing block culprit: fear. Writers are chock full of fears. Fear of not finishing. Fear of finishing. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of disappointing readers. Fear of the emotion we have to face on the page. Fear of the thing living under our bed (okay, that might just be Stephen King’s fear). Fear of the world finding out we’re imposters!

What all these fears have in common is they’re in our heads. That’s not great news, though, as we writers spend a lot of time ‘in our heads’. It’s sorta the job, right? But you can get past the fear, or least continue working through it, if you’re willing to identify it, confront it, and do some work to quell the worst of it. For tips on how to do this, you can start with this article.

RestIf you have a solid, validated plan and aren’t being weighed down by fears but the words still won’t come, maybe you’re just tired! We tend to think of writing, creating, and in fact most of our life pursuits as requiring continuous states of activity. But creativity in general, and perhaps writing in particular, also require downtime. And that doesn’t mean walking away from the computer for five minutes to look out the window and ponder your story. It means actively disengaging your brain from your story.

This is one of those times when I need to apply the ‘physician, heal thyself’ adage. I am terrible at recognizing when I need a mental break from my story. It brings up all sorts of anxiety, which over time I’ve come to realize is a fear (another one!) of not knowing how to get back to the work. Which is crazy, because I’ve taken involuntary breaks from writing (aka, the day job) for extended periods of time, and have eventually figured out how to get back to it every single time.

The block that comes from needing rest tends to occur when you’re making the most progress and, out of the blue, you collapse, lose focus, and can’t find the words. The natural tendency is to chastise yourself because you were doing so well and now you’re failing! Next time this happens, try being kind to yourself instead. Give yourself a day or two – even longer if you’re really burned out – to actively engage in other things. Read some books. Take long walks. Commune with nature. Meditate. Exercise. Have lunch with friends. Whatever fills your creative well, concentrate on that instead of your story, just for a short time. I promise you’ll be able to come back to the writing, and your story might be stronger for it.

You’ve noticed by now that I have multiple approaches to overcoming days when the story eludes me. That’s because I’m a firm believer that there are multiple causes for those tough, scary, wordless writing days. The trick is identifying what’s happening on any given day, digging into the writer’s toolbox to work through it, and getting back to work as painlessly as possible.

And when all else fails, you know my go-to solution: coffee. Or Bourbon. Or coffee with Bourbon, if you prefer. You do you.

Have you used any of these ‘cold start processes’ on your tough writing days? Think you might give some of them a try?

Nancy: Oops, I Did It Again

This could be me in March.

There I was, just whistling down the primrose path, working through the problems in my manuscript that I’d identified during a Revision Sprint class and the subsequent weeks of revision. I didn’t mean to do it. Really, I didn’t think it would happen! But as I updated the final scene sequence of novel 1 of my Victorian Romance series, the next to last step (last step being read-through/proofreading) before sending it to a content editor, I realized it had happened.

I am in love with my story.

Now, being in love with your story in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, during the long, dark days that try writers’ souls, sometimes the only thing that keeps us going is our love for our stupid, ugly, misshapen mess of a (kind of, sort of, almost) story. But to spin the story mess into gold, at some point most writers will want input from other smart people, fresh eyes on the story to catch what we who are too close to it just can’t see. Those other people might be individual critique partners, members of a critique group, or a content editor (as ladies Jeanne and Jilly).

For this particular story, I plan to work with a content editor. Sounds great, you say. Should help clean up the hot mess, you think. So what’s the problem? you might ask. Continue reading

Nancy: January Accountability Thread

It’s now February. Of 2018. February 2018. I need to sit with that for a minute, because I really can’t believe January 2018 has headed for the exits. But here we are, on the first Monday of a new month, and you know what that means: it’s accountability time, people!

As I prepared today’s accountability post, I scrolled back through previous posts on this thread, and realized I just started doing the First Monday accountability posts in June 2017. I recently heard the past year described as feeling as though we lived it like dog years – that 2017 felt like seven long years. So maybe it’s no surprise I thought I’d been tracking my accountability for well over a year, but nope, this is only the ninth time I’ve shared my monthly goals.

Perhaps a bit more discouraging, though, was Continue reading

Nancy: When Your Book Is a Moody Teenager

You’ve probably heard some writers say their books are like children. If that’s the case, my current WIP is definitely in the cranky teenager stage.

In it’s nascent stage, I was content to nest and let the story incubate, finally letting it hatch when I knew the idea was ready to come out of my head and onto the page. Then there were the heady, frenetic days of discovery, of getting to know this baby story, of giving it guide rails and parameters as it grew from a blob of words to a someday-could-be-a-readable book, in the form of a weirdly gawky and awkward (I will not use the word ugly!) first draft. Then I assessed and worked and sculpted some more, until I had a reasonably stable story world and through line. In that process, I’d weeded out some unnecessary subplots and exposed some minor plot holes. (And had begun to mix my child metaphor with a gardening one, but stick with me!)

So now my book is on the brink of adulthood. The story is pretty well-formed. It’s easy to see what it will be when it’s finished and where it will find its niche in the world. But there’s stuff still to be done. This is akin to the stage of parenting where we have to nurse broken hearts and teach safe driving and prepare our almost fully-grown progeny for life in the real world. But we’re so close. Easy peasy!

Said no parent of teens or writer of books EVER. Continue reading

Nancy: A Journey of a Thousand Miles

You know how that journey begins: with just one step. While it’s a cliche, it can be a helpful one, especially when you’re staring down the barrel of a 100k-word novel, overwhelmed and blocked, ready to curl up on the sofa and get lost in ten hours of Netflix and a box of chocolate sea salt caramels. Not that anyone here has ever done that. (Ahem.)

I got a reminder of the importance of breaking down a long, difficult journey into do-able steps his past fall when I took a course called Get Your Scary Shit Done, taught by Jen Louden. We all need different motivators and encouragement at different points on our creative journeys, and fortunately for me, GSSD came at just the right time for me. I not only completed the project I’d identified for the 7-week course (writing an Act of one of my many writing projects), I finished early and started on the next mini-project (planning the next Act). As is often the case in a motivational program, it’s not so much that the material was brand-new, never-before-seen information; it’s that it was framed and organized in a way that made me use knowledge I already had in a different way.

I’ve recently returned to the 7-week course week to overcome the last mental obstacles I have in finishing my HFF series book 1 revisions. In the first week of the course, one of the core activities is Continue reading

Nancy: Into the Great Unknown!

A few weeks ago, Jeanne told us about her plan to release The Demon Always Wins in September (yay!). In the comments section, I asked about her publishing schedule, and then jumped back into some deadlines for the day job and never got back to the conversation.

But with Jeanne and Jilly nailing down their 2018 self-publishing plans, the need to batten down the hatches with my own plan has been looming large in my mind. Like many of the ladies, I’ve joined Marie Force’s self-publishing loop, followed the work of self-publishing guru Mark Dawson, and tried to keep up with the ever-changing book marketing landscape. I’ve also had another great resource in some friends who moved from traditional to self- or hybrid-publishing, including Mindy Klasky, whose book The Rational Writer: Nuts and Bolts I discussed in a writing tools and resources post.

The take-away from all of this data is I know a lot of the what of self-publishing, and a good deal of the the how. The missing data, though, is the when. Continue reading

Nancy: January (2018!) Accountability Thread

Wow, here we are in a whole new year. Choosing watchwords. Taking stock of 2017. Making plans for 2018. So in this accountability thread, I want to look at the big annual picture before I set my January goals. And as for accountability for my December goals? Well, to paraphrase Jeanne paraphrasing Robert Burns, the best laid schemes of mice and writers…you know how it ends.

Say the Word

I struggled with a watchword this year, trying on a few possibilities: focus, dedication, gratitude. None of those are bad, and in fact I do hope to incorporate all of those in practice this year. But none of them felt like a thesis statement for the year ahead. Then while thinking about something entirely different, something I now can’t even recall, I thought about how happy I am when I discover am surprised by the turn a story takes, get to see how other writers create story, or try to decipher how to complete a challenge (mental or physical). I get such joy from the sense of wonder these experiences engender, and I knew that was it, my 2018 watchword: wonder, as in ‘to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe’. Continue reading