Showing posts with label writer's block. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writer's block. Show all posts

09 February 2020

Another world: Writing a Mystery Book



I wrote a new book. Except it’s not new anymore. I wrote it 2 years ago. Edited. Reedited. and yes, did that multiple times. Sent it to an editor and then another. Reedited.

Now it sits in my computer and I have a problem.

It’s not the book that’s the problem: it is the mystery novel that wanted to write.

The main character was written as a rebellion against the need to have a woman detective who is either a drunk or who sleeps around because she’s deeply damaged. Because, you know, that makes her interesting. I wrote her as someone who has lived a life with troubles – because that’s what life brings - but is like the women I know and love. They may be damaged by life but are not busy damaging others in their life. Women who I’ve looked up to. Women who make me laugh. Women who force me to think.

I wrote the things I have learned from friends, patients and my own life. There’s domestic violence to racial profiling of Muslims. I tried to write it as others had lived it. I told the stories that I have heard - the ones that had made me hold my breath in fear of missing a word.

I’m on my final edit. The problem is me.

During the writing and editing, my dearest friend was ill and then died. My father was ill and then died. My mother is now ill. All this has required time and energy to help during their illness. Time to deal with the loss.

Here is the crux of the problem: when I write I do little else. I enter this world and disappear for hours on end. I live it, breathe it and reality pales in the face of the world I’ve created.

Now, my reality has jagged edges, and cuts into this world. Sawing into it until it disappears like morning mist in sunlight. When it’s gone, I can’t get it back.

My ability to concentrate - to enter other worlds - was how I’ve done everything of value. It was as natural as breathing. It’s how I studied medicine, how I spent long hours with patients and trained, it’s how I parented by disappearing in the world of my children.

All the best things in my life were dependent on not having a reality so jagged that it sawed through every thought.

So, my book and I are now on separate worlds. I have no idea how we will live on the same planet again.

Recently, I decided to research writers block, thinking there may be suggestions that help. Unfortunately I found none. Advice like ‘Find the right surroundings’ mean little to me. I can write and have written anywhere. ‘Silence your inner critic’? That’ll be a cold day in hell. I’ve met her and write anyway.

 I could go on.

Except I can’t.

With the book that is.

Here’s the next problem: I write in my head anyway. I’m always revising and thinking of the book. Except when I sit with my book. That is the worst - to write but not write. 

So, instead of my book I’m writing an article about writing my book, which is amusing but not even that coerces me enough to write.

The one thing that keeps me hoping is coffee. The night before I have a day with even one block of time, I go to sleep with visions of coffee and writing. It won’t be tomorrow because there is far too much to do.

Maybe Monday?

20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder


Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.


16 February 2016

Creative Drought


I don’t usually talk about writer’s block because I’m more like a machine. Working in the emergency room? I’ll do 500 words before or after my shift. Not working? Bump it up to 1000. More if possible, but set the bar low so you can always hit the target. That was my recipe for years.

Usually, if the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to non-fiction or poetry and get the job done. I can write about a patient I saw or the cuteness of my kids without batting an eye.

But recently, I’m not feeling it.

Only once before did I take a break from writing, after a death in the family. I’d been forcing myself to keep going, keep marching, soldier, at 2000 words/day, until I mentioned it to Kris Rusch/Nelscott, and she said something like, “I’m surprised you’re still writing. You could make yourself hate it that way.” Slowly, I let myself recuperate.

I found myself trying a few creative things like sketching or baking. The funniest example was that I made a zucchini chocolate chip cake with treats baked inside. My friend forgot to tell one of the construction workers who ate it and ended up chewing on a ring. And eventually, I started writing again.
Author Allie Larkin talks about balance here.
This time, it’s much more insidious. After burning myself out in December, and now starting a new job as a hospitalist, where I have to work every day, looking after admitted patients, instead of working erratic hours as an emergency doctor, I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing this week. I was working on a back pain book in January, so it’s not like I was overflowing with outlandish ideas before that.
This is not going to be a cheery list of ten ways to break writer’s block. Just a note that I’ve been here before. I had to refill the well, and then I carried on.

I recently picked up a book by David Whyte called The Three Marriages. His theory is that during your lifetime, you will generally marry another person, a career, and yourself.

By marrying yourself, you listen to your heart and what you want, not the external demands of money, prestige, or your partner’s demands. That can be hard to do. When I was sick but still dragged myself to the Cornwall Public Library’s annual party to celebrate volunteers, one of the coordinators asked me how I was doing as a person. Not as a doctor, not as a writer, but as myself. And I was silenced, because it feels like people approve of my accomplishments, but most of them don’t know the human being underneath.

After burning out, I decided not to flagellate myself anymore. I will do my best. But if the words don’t get written every single day or night, I won’t fret. I’ll just write again the next day.

The flip side is that during this week as a hospitalist, I haven’t made the time. But that’s okay. I wanted to spend my energy on medicine this week, and I did. My time is up on Tuesday, and then I have 24 hours before I start up as an emergency doctor again.

Buddhism talks about not getting fixed on ideas and labels about ourselves. “I am a writer.” “I am a doctor.” Labels change. Life is long. Things are fluid.

What about you? Have you ever encountered writer’s block? What did you do?

13 November 2014

My Worst Case Of Writers Block


About four years ago, I got laid off from the job I held for fourteen years. I had severance, so this actually turned out to be good. After about four months, though, I'd started to lose interest in everything. Especially writing.
It had been a few years since my original publisher imploded, and my then agent failed to sell Road Rules, the Leonardesque road trip caper I'd written on a dare. I had no clue what to do next, and I didn't really care. I fired my agent and decided to just give up writing.

Fast forward about six months. New job doing what I'd trained for instead of being stuck doing only what my old employer wanted me to do. I started to get an interest in writing again, but what to write. A new Nick Kepler novel? A follow-up to Road Rules? A pre-9/11 thriller I'd been toying with? None of these really captured my interest. But I wanted to write.

Finally, I just sat down and wrote the autobiography of a rock musician character a friend and I used to kick around when we were in our late teens. The beginning was interesting, reminding me of one of those Stephen King novels that flash back to the characters' childhood days. The real challenge was writing the character in the late fifties and early sixties as a kid and giving him time in Vietnam. And then one weekend, with nothing scheduled or planned, I sat down to write about his adventures in late sixties London.

When I stopped on Sunday evening that weekend, I'd written 17,000 words. Not 17,000 words total in the manuscript. 17,000 words from Friday evening all the way to Sunday.

Very rarely does anyone write that much, and I wouldn't submit these pages for any publication. Besides, I borrow liberally several historical figures, some of whom are still alive.

Since that time, the book or mock autobiography or whatever you want to call it has served to give me time writing original work when I'm between projects. It also had an interesting side benefit. I soon was rereading the next novel I wanted to submit for publication (for which I now owe an agent revisions). I started writing almost constantly.

I've always heard that one should write through writers block. That's actually the easy part. The hard part is finding what to write.

13 March 2014

Robert Benchley, Please Come Home


(We've been out of town, and so, here's a reprint of one of the classic works on how to write, by the master, Robert Benchley.)

Robert Benchley, “How to Get Things Done”
from Chips off the Old Benchley ©1949

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is "Don't you wish you knew?" and a pretty good answer it is, too, when you consider that nine times out of ten I didn't hear the original question.
But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, writing and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes, I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls disguised as Louis XIV or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. "All work and all play," they say.
The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
The psychological principle in this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
Let us see how this works out in practice. Let us say that I have five things which have to be done before the end of the week: (1) a basketful of letters to be answered, some of them dating from October, 1928 (2) some bookshelves to be put up and arranged with books (3) a hair-cut to get (4) a pile of scientific magazines to go through and clip (I am collecting all references to tropical fish that I can find, with the idea of some day buying myself one) and (5) an article to write for this paper.
Now. With these five tasks staring me in the face on Monday morning, it is little wonder that I go right back to bed as soon as I have had breakfast, in order to store up health and strength for the almost superhuman expenditure of energy that is to come. Mens sana in corpore sano is my motto, and, not even to be funny, am I going to make believe that I don't know what the Latin means. I feel that the least that I can do is to treat my body right when it has to supply fuel for an insatiable mind like mine.
As I lie in bed on Monday morning storing up strength, I make out a schedule. "What do I have to do first?" I ask myself. Well, those letters really should be answered and the pile of scientific magazines should be clipped. And here is where my secret process comes in. Instead of putting them first on the list of things which have to be done, I put them last. I practice a little deception on myself and say: "First you must write that article for the newspaper." I even say this out loud (being careful that nobody hears me, otherwise they would[Pg 253] keep me in bed) and try to fool myself into really believing that I must do the article that day and that the other things can wait. I sometimes go so far in this self-deception as to make out a list in pencil, with "No. 1. Newspaper article" underlined in red. (The underlining in red is rather difficult, as there is never a red pencil on the table beside the bed, unless I have taken one to bed with me on Sunday night.)
Then, when everything is lined up, I bound out of bed and have lunch. I find that a good, heavy lunch, with some sort of glutinous dessert, is good preparation for the day's work as it keeps one from getting nervous and excitable. We workers must keep cool and calm, otherwise we would just throw away our time in jumping about and fidgeting.
I then seat myself at my desk with my typewriter before me and sharpen five pencils. (The sharp pencils are for poking holes in the desk-blotter, and a pencil has to be pretty sharp to do that. I find that I can't get more than six holes out of one pencil.) Following this I say to myself (again out loud, if it is practical) "Now, old man! Get at this article!"
Gradually the scheme begins to work. My eye catches the pile of magazines, which I have artfully placed on a near-by table beforehand. I write my name and address at the top of the sheet of paper in the typewriter and then sink back. The magazines being within reach (also part of the plot) I look to see if anyone is watching me and get one off the top of the pile. Hello, what's this! In the very first one is an article by Dr. William Beebe, illustrated by horrifying photographs! Pushing my chair away from my desk, I am soon hard at work clipping.
One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or[Pg 254] "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture. What a lot one learns simply by thumbing through the illustrated weeklies! It is hard work, though, and many a weaker spirit would give it up half-done, but when there is something else of "more importance" to be finished (you see, I still keep up the deception, letting myself go on thinking that the newspaper article is of more importance) no work is too hard or too onerous to keep one busy.
Thus, before the afternoon is half over, I have gone through the scientific magazines and have a neat pile of clippings (including one of a Viper Fish which I wish you could see. You would die laughing). Then it is back to the grind of the newspaper article.
This time I get as far as the title, which I write down with considerable satisfaction until I find that I have misspelled one word terribly, so that the whole sheet of paper has to come out and a fresh one be inserted. As I am doing this, my eye catches the basket of letters.
Now, if there is one thing that I hate to do (and there is, you may be sure) it is to write letters. But somehow, with the magazine article before me waiting to be done, I am seized with an epistolary fervor which amounts to a craving, and I slyly sneak the first of the unanswered letters out of the basket. I figure out in my mind that I will get more into the swing of writing the article if I practice a little on a few letters. This first one, anyway, I really must answer. True, it is from a friend in Antwerp asking me to look him up when I[Pg 255] am in Europe in the summer of 1929, so he can't actually be watching the incoming boats for an answer, but I owe something to politeness after all. So instead of putting a fresh sheet of copy-paper into the typewriter, I slip in one of my handsome bits of personal stationary and dash off a note to my friend in Antwerp. Then, being well in the letter-writing mood, I clean up the entire batch. I feel a little guilty about the article, but the pile of freshly stamped envelopes and the neat bundle of clippings on tropical fish do much to salve my conscience. Tomorrow I will do the article, and no fooling this time either.
When tomorrow comes I am up with one of the older and more sluggish larks. A fresh sheet of copy-paper in the machine, and my name and address neatly printed at the top, and all before eleven A. M.! "A human dynamo" is the name I think up for myself. I have decided to write something about snake-charming and am already more than satisfied with the title "These Snake-Charming People." But, in order to write about snake-charming, one has to know a little about its history, and where should one go to find history but to a book? Maybe in that pile of books in the corner is one on snake-charming! Nobody could point the finger of scorn at me if I went over to those books for the avowed purpose of research work for the matter at hand. No writer could be supposed to carry all that information in his head.
So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles of the books. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a[Pg 257] shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command written in the sky: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.
In order to put up the shelf, the laws of physics have decreed that there must be nails, a hammer and some sort of brackets to hold it up on the wall. You can't just wet a shelf with your tongue and stick it up. And, as there are no nails or brackets in the house (or, if there are, they are probably hidden somewhere) the next thing to do is to put on my hat and go out to buy them. Much as it disturbs me to put off the actual start of the article, I feel that I am doing only what is in the line of duty to put on my hat and go out to buy nails and brackets. And, as I put on my hat, I realize to my chagrin that I need a hair-cut badly. I can kill two birds with one stone, or at least with two, and stop in at the barber's on the way back. I will feel all the more like writing after a turn in the fresh air. Any doctor would tell me that.
So in a few hours I return, spick and span and smelling of lilac, bearing nails, brackets, the evening papers and some crackers and peanut butter. Then it's ho! for a quick snack and a glance through the evening papers (there might be something in them which would alter what I was going to write about snake-charming) and in no time at all the shelf is up, slightly crooked but up, and the books are arranged in a neat row in alphabetical order and all ready for almost instantaneous reference. There does not happen to be one on snake-charming among them, but there is a very interesting one containing some Hogarth prints and one which will bear even[Pg 258] closer inspection dealing with the growth of the Motion Picture, illustrated with "stills" from famous productions. A really remarkable industry, the motion-pictures. I might want to write an article on it sometime. Not today, probably, for it is six o'clock and there is still the one on snake-charming to finish up first. Tomorrow morning sharp! Yes, sir!
And so, you see, in two days I have done four of the things I had to do, simply by making believe that it was the fifth that I must do. And the next day, I fix up something else, like taking down the bookshelf and putting it somewhere else, that I have to do, and then I get the fifth one done.
The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at that newspaper article the first thing Monday morning.

THE END

11 May 2013

Losing the Edge


Lately I've been reading a lot of mysteries by James W. Hall. His series protagonist lives in the Florida Keys and enjoys, among other things, tying fishing lures. In Hall's fifth novel, Buzz Cut, the hobby has become sort of a business venture, and the lures don't seem to work anymore. They won't catch fish. Here's an excerpt:
His flies had lost their allure. He had always tied them for himself. Sold his extras. The compulsion behind each one was the simple desire to snag his own bonefish. To concoct his own bait so appetizing it would guarantee the thudding strikes and wrenching excitement he had relied on for more than thirty years. But he'd lost something, tying them exclusively for others. His fingers committing the same act, tweezers and scissors, Mylar and feathers, hackle and ribbing. Everything exactly the same. Identical to the eye. But now they were duds. Failures on some level so subtle, so subatomic that only the fish could see it.
That got me to thinking. Can that kind of unconscious burnout happen in other creative endeavors as well? Can it happen in writing?

Sure it can.

The Over the Hill Gang


How often do you find that certain authors whose work you've been reading for years suddenly don't seem to write as well or as compellingly as they used to? I won't call any names here, but I can think of at least half a dozen bigtime novelists whose latest work doesn't seem to be able to deliver the same punch that their earlier (and sometimes earliest) books did. The style and voice are the same, but the stories themselves just aren't as entertaining. They don't pull you in and hold you the way they once did.

If that's true--and I believe it is--then it's certainly a contradiction. One would expect a craftsman of any kind to get better the longer he or she practices that craft. So the question is, what could cause a writer to lose some of his or her appeal, and effectiveness?

Part of it could be the fact that doing something--anything--day after day, year after year, can grow boring for the person doing it. The old saying "familiarity breeds contempt" was probably meant to apply to relationships, but it could also apply to fields of endeavor. The quality of the product can be directly proportional to the level of enthusiasm of its creator. I recall reading someplace that the cars that go through the assembly line on Monday usually don't turn out as well as those assembled later in the week.

Or maybe, as in the case of the fly-tying fisherman, the artisan starts doing things more for the end user than for himself or herself. I realize we should all try to "write with the reader in mind," but we must also write in a way that pleases ourselves. I've said that even if I knew I would never publish another word of fiction, I would continue to write it anyway because spinning these tales is so much fun to do. For me it's therapy as well as recreation. The process itself is enjoyable and satisfying and relaxing.

But what if you're writing under a tough deadline? I once heard a well-known novelist tell a group of beginning writers that "your first novel will probably be the only one that's really fun to write--and might be the only one that you're ever completely satisfied with." The reasoning is that if that first novel is successful, your agent and publisher will probably want another book from you every year. Maybe more. And when that happens, what started out as play can quickly become work. All of a sudden you have responsibilities, your audience and your publisher have expectations, your hobby has become gainful employment, and your merry romp in the fictional clover is now a real job.


(By the way, when I say "first novel," I'm referring to published work. All of us have stories and novels that never saw the light of day, and for good reason. I suspect that many famous authors have a few unpublished books--truly first novels--stuffed underneath their beds or in the back of their closets.)

The Top of the Hill Gang

I can think of several ways that writers might prevent or recover from "losing their edge." Intentionally or not, some authors seem to have extended their popularity--and probably their careers--by writing in different genres (Larry McMurtry, Nora Roberts, Evan Hunter), writing both series and standalone novels (Harlan Coben, Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais), creating more than one series (James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, John Sandford), writing both novels and shorts stories (Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver), and collaborating with other writers (James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich). It might also be said that authors like Thomas Harris and John Irving stay at the top of their game by going more than a year--sometimes several years--between novels. However effective these kinds of things are, I suspect that they are done more for personal reasons than commercial reasons. Maybe they ward off the boredom we talked about earlier.

In closing, let me mention that some authors seem to have kept their ability to thrill and entertain throughout their careers. Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Greg Iles, and Dennis Lehane come to mind, and I think some of Michael Crichton's later books were as strong as some of his early ones.
As for Stephen King, his novel The Stand remains one of my favorites, but his 11/22/63, published 33 years and thirty novels later, was just as good, and possibly better. That's comforting news to me, in more ways than one: King and I are the same age--well, he's two months older--so maybe if he can still think clearly, so can I.

Hey, I'll take inspiration wherever I can get it.

27 August 2012

What Do You Do?


Jan Grape
Since I have been lazy and unproductive and not feeling like my usual self (and who do you feel like, Jan?) I decided to see if my fellow SleuthSayers will help with this column.

What do you do when you have writer's block. Or you sit down to the computer to work on your latest project and your muse is asleep or your brain is empty or whatever you might happen to call the weird thing that happens to all of us at some time or another?

What Do You Do?

I remember hearing Sue Grafton speak at a conference once and she said sometimes she sits down at her desk, fires up her computer, and sits there and sits there and sits. After a while she types "The." And maybe that's all she types for several minutes, maybe even a hour. But, she has committed to sitting at the computer for four hours each day. And some days she just types nonsense after "The." The quick red fox jumped over the fence… maybe. And somehow words start popping into her head and she starts typing.

So I decided to test Sue's theory, "The…" I sat here for a while and suddenly I began typing. "The man sat down, ordered a drink, talked small talk to the bartender and after a few minutes the man tells the bartender 'I just killed someone.'" Okay, that's pretty good. Who is this man? Who did he kill? Why did he kill? And why would he tell a stranger, the bartender this? Maybe Sue's onto something here? Who knows?

I also looked at a book on my shelf called Break Writer's Block Now! by someone named Jerrold Mundis. I don't know who this person is and have no idea when I bought the book, but it's autographed so I probably bought it at some mystery con I attended years ago. He sorta gives the same idea. After telling you to have a few minutes of meditations or relaxation before you start writing, then sit down and just start writing. He advises to use a pen whereas nowadays we almost all use a computer. But he says just keep the pen moving. It doesn't matter if your words make sense, or what you're writing about. You can write about last night's dinner, or a part of a letter or a journal or just stream of consciousness, whatever. Just keep the pen moving. After a few minutes, finish your sentence and put a period. Then sit back. You have finished this exercise. Now read the next chapter in the book.

Another wonderful book I have it titled Techniques of the Selling Writer, by a man named Dwight V. Swain from Oklahoma. I met Dwight at a writer's conference and later when we had our bookstore, Dwight came to Austin and did a book signing. This book was first published in 1965 and the copy I have is from the 5th printing in 1988, but most of his techniques are as true today as then.
He specifically mentions how as writers, we allow other things in our everyday life take over. The kids, the bills, the spouse, the headache. And one big thing you have to try your best to do is realize there is a creative part of the brain and a critical part of the brain. You have to keep those two apart if possible. Face your fears. Build your self-esteem. Don't demand too much. Again, it's almost the same as others have said.

What are your fears? That no one will like your work? Okay, so maybe no one likes this book, but what about the next one? Is the earth going to shatter if you don't sell this one?

Build yourself esteem. That's often easier said than done. But try to be around people that you like and that like you. Tell jokes and listen to them laugh. Have coffee with people that make you happy. Keep thinking you're a writer and a good writer and soon you'll feel like you are.

Don't demand too much. Accept yourself as you are today. You're an okay writer, but you know if you keep this up for 5 years or 10 years that you'll be a better writer. Don't get frustrated because you're not Sue Grafton or Stephen King. You may not ever be in their category but you still can be a damn good writer if you keep writing.

And finally, my last word. Give yourself permission to write. You may have obligations, family, spouse, job, bills whatever that keeps you busy with that other life but if you intend to keep writing, then give yourself permission to do so and keep writing.

Anyone have ideas, suggestions, thoughts, fellow writers?

14 April 2012

Hills and Valleys




All of us who are writers are familiar with the ups and downs of the writing life. Sometimes ideas seem to come as easily and frequently as the electric bill, and making stories out of those ideas seems even easier. Other times, your mind goes blank (I should probably avoid Etch A Sketch comparisons), and you wouldn't recognize a good idea if one crawled up and bit you on your writing hand. The same thing applies to marketing your completed stories. One week, or month, or year, you might have a run of unusually good fortune--acceptances, publications, awards, etc.--and the very next week, or month, or year, might be as dry as a lizard in Death Valley. It's feast or famine, when you're hot you're hot, when you're not you're not, and when it rains it pours. (I'm trying to come up with even more cliches, here. Give me a minute . . .)



A Failure to Communicate

There have been more articles written about writer's block than anyone would ever want to read, but the fact is, sometimes you do find yourself without the words or ideas you need. It lasts longer for some folks than for others, but I've known a few writers who say they weren't able to produce what they call meaningful work for a year or more. I sympathize. That would not only be tough, it would probably be enough to make you wonder if you might be more suited to some activity other than writing. Carpentry, maybe, or gardening or photography.

I can honestly say it hasn't often happened to me, in the eighteen years that I've been writing for publication. Some times are better than others, sure, but so far I've seldom found myself in a position where I didn't have workable ideas for stories, or the ability to sit down and turn those ideas into manuscripts. What I have had are periods when I wondered if I would ever again sell a story. I guess that happens to most writers, now and then.

The Little Train That Could

There is, of course, a fairly reliable treatment for both conditions. First, if you're not able to write anything that you think is good . . . write something bad. Write anything, as long as it involves putting words on paper or screen. I've heard people say that's the only cure for a blocked imagination. If you do enough directionless, pointless writing, I'm told that you'll eventually start writing something that is good, or at least you'll be able to go back through the crap that you just wrote and change it up and make it good. (Or you'll quit completely, I guess, and never write again, and if that happens, you probably shouldn't have been doing the whole I-want-to-be-a-writer thing in the first place.)

As for the second problem--not enough sales--I think the answer is to just keep submitting material. Over and over and over. If it's stories, send in the manuscripts; if it's novels, send in the queries. Reject the rejections. The summer between my sophomore year and junior year in college I sold dictionaries door-to-door in Michigan, and our student bosses--"crew leaders," they were called--offered us a profound piece of wisdom: Don't ever try to sell something to someone with a pit bull in his yard. Just kidding. The piece of wisdom was: The person who gets the most no's also gets the most yeses. The salesman who knocks on the most doors makes the most sales. That's almost always true, and sometimes it applies to life (and fiction submissions) as well as to dictionary peddlers.

For those of you who have also experienced these ailments (derailments?) firsthand, what do you do to get the word train (or the marketing train) back on track? Are there better ways than the ones I mentioned? I'd enjoy hearing your take on this.

On the Home Front . . .

This has been a good year for me so far, in terms of story writing and story sales. I hope that run of luck continues. But I also realize it might not, and in that case I can only hope I'll keep the confidence that's required to keep writing and keep submitting manuscripts.

I recall yet another saying, one that I think I might have mentioned in a past column at the Criminal Brief blog, but I like it so much I'll mention it again:

There's a lot of attrition among writers--so don't attrit.