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?

Kay: Hitting a Wall

I’d been progressing well on the WIP, galloping along at what for me is top speed, until this week, when I hit a wall. I’d written through my first act and was heading into the second, otherwise known as the Middle. And in my case, although barely begun, the Sagging Middle.

I queried my critique partners, who are only too familiar with the problems of Phoebe and her errant friends and fiancé. What to do? I asked. Within minutes, I got a reply.

What’s your story question? Patricia asked.

Ah, yes. What was my story question?

It’s not good if you don’t know your story question. A person can go down a lot of rabbit holes if she doesn’t know what she wants to say. Continue reading

Nancy: Have You Forgotten Someone?

‘Tis the season of giving and caring, at least for most people in the States. We’ve just passed the annual milestone of stuffing ourselves silly on Thanksgiving Day, and have entered the mad dash toward the holiday finish line of gift-giving and merry-making. Along the way, there will be holiday parties, too many drinks and more rich food, and (sometimes too much) time with extended family.

At its best, this is a time of reflection, of being thankful, and for thinking about and hopefully doing something to help those less fortunate. At its worst, this is a time of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and even depressed. With so much to do and finish and remember, it’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves.

Unfortunately, lack of self-care and self-compassion isn’t limited to the holiday season. For creative types, it’s easy to fall into harsh self-criticism traps year-round, which can shut down creativity in no time. Continue reading

Michaeline: Happy Thanksgiving!

Hearty Thanksgiving Greeting 19th century girl in a dress and apron, harvesting very large pumpkins.

Thanksgiving — and writing time — can be whenever you say it is. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

So, today I’m at a community center about an hour away from my home, helping to prepare (and then eat!) a Thanksgiving feast. I’m not the boss; my friend M is in charge of that, and has everything totally organized, from laminated stuffing recipes to the table design chart.

In Japan, Thankgiving Day (US) and Labor Thanksgiving Day are nearly the same time, but they don’t often coincide — and even if we are lucky enough to have them fall on the same day, we have to work on Friday. So, a big Thanksgiving feast is in the cards, but a recovery day is not.

Even when everything is perfect, it’s not. So, we are doing it on a Saturday, near the holiday. About 60 or 60 people come — there are old folks chatting at the tables and little kids crawling around under the tables. . It’s a great chance to catch up with people I haven’t seen for a whole year, and they always have news I haven’t heard. This year, we’ve had four marriages in our group. One year, it was the Year of the Babies, with four babes in arms, passed around so parents could partake of the turkey.

Let me just bludgeon you over the head with a moral for a minute: even when things are perfect, they often are not. Writing is a lot like that, isn’t it? We have grand expectations about how it SHOULD go, but sometimes my best writing takes place when I had no expectations at all.

Like a good feast, writing takes planning. You’ve got to have writing materials, and it helps a lot to have a period of time set aside.

But like a good feast, it doesn’t have to take place at the optimum time — whatever that fantasy describes. It can take place three days early or two days late. It’s still good.

I’m wishing you all a very happy Thanksgiving, no matter where you are on the time-space continuum or what you celebrate. There’s a good chance that the time is now.

Nancy: On Gratitude

In the US, it’s that time of year again: the beginning of the holiday season. First up, American Thanksgiving. From an historical context, this holiday and the ‘facts’ we Americans know about it have their problems. In the modern era, the day has become associated with overeating, dealing with disagreeable relatives, and watching a lot of football. But at its core, both historically and currently, there is something truly lovely that Thanksgiving reminds Americans to do – be grateful.

Speaking for myself, fellow Americans I know, and the general aura we project as a nation, we are not great at gratitude. So, an annual holiday that reminds us to give thanks – whether we do it in a spiritual or secular context – isn’t a bad thing.

Earlier this year, I began a (sporadic) practice of meditation to help focus my energy and calm my nerves in these…er…troubling (to say the least) times. One of the most interesting guided meditations I’ve done is to be used before a meal. It leads the listener through a series of gratitude exercises, thinking about each person who ‘touched’ the food – from planting to harvesting, to packaging and shipping, to stocking shelves and checking out food at the store – and being grateful for the way each of them contributed to getting that food in front of you. Even for the most basic salad, it takes a village to make a meal.

As I’ve gotten back on track with my writing and have been following the Jen Louden’s GSSD (Get Scary Shit Done) program, I’ve been reminded by her lessons and my own reflection to be grateful for all the things that allow my writing time to happen, from the weird way my brain works to create story, to the amazing technology that allows me to get it all out onto the page. Even during a crappy day of writing, I can find reasons for gratitude. I’m grateful when I have the strength and energy to show up, the support of other writers when the going gets really tough, other stories to read for inspiration and solace when my own story is stuck (like my WIP is today). And it turns out, I’m reaping a whole host of positive things from simply finding and reflecting upon a reason to be grateful every day. Continue reading

Jilly: Three Things I Learned at McKee’s Story Seminar

I promised to report back on last weekend’s craft marathon, otherwise known as Four Days of McKee—three days of the legendary Story seminar and a further day dedicated to the Love Story.

It was physically grueling. I can’t remember the last time I spent four eleven-hour days in a row sitting in a lecture theater, and it’s been more than thirty years since I had to take notes longhand. I treated myself to a new notebook and pen for the occasion.

It was mentally challenging. I had mixed feelings about Mr KcKee’s teaching style (to say he has strong opinions, robustly expressed, would be to understate the case), but no reservations about the quality of his analysis. Even though much of the material was familiar to me and I only made extended notes where I thought it necessary, I still filled more than sixty pages and went home every night with a head full of new ideas.

I could blog for the next year or more about the things that I learned, but three nuggets top my list of things to chew on, because I think they will be especially useful to me when I get on to writing Alexis’s prequel story. All three were superbly illustrated during the final session of Story—a six-hour scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca and again during Love Story’s breakdown of The Bridges of Madison County.

Continue reading

Michaeline: Writing with The Fool and The Magician

A court fool; a cat has dragged down his tights, and you can see the bottom of his buttocks.

The Fool (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A bright, handsome magician at his table, ready for transformation.

The Magician (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The first major rule of writing with tarot cards is: don’t believe everything that comes up will come to pass.

So silly really, and I must lead with the disclaimer that I don’t really believe in fortune-telling methods to predict the future. I do think these methods help us clarify our own thoughts about a situation, but nothing predicts the future.

So, when I gave my daughter a pack of cards and she wanted to read for me, it was extremely foolish to ask, “How will my current story affect my future?” Honestly, this sort of question really does nothing for a person – if the answer is positive, one can start to coast and not do the necessary work. If it is negative, well, then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I have to say, the tarot is often not very kind about my writing aspirations.

But no. I thought, “This time, the tarot will love me. This time, it will tell me how good it’s going to be.” Really, anyone who has any acquaintance with Lady Luck knows how stupid that is.

New pack of cards; first reading. Never cleansed – but should that make a difference? I don’t think it should! My daughter spread the cards on the floor and mixed them around with both hands, then gathered them up and asked me to cut the cards. I did.

I don’t remember the exact details. I should have Continue reading