Tag Archives: craft

Five Reasons to Write Flash Fiction

My Work In Progress is an Urban Fantasy novel that I’ve been writing for over a year, and I struggle to find enough time every week to work on it. And yet every week I spend two to three hours writing a 1000 word short story, a piece of flash fiction, to post on my site.

Isn’t that somewhat counter-productive?

Wouldn’t I be better off working on my novel for those hours?

Possibly. But here are five reasons I choose to write flash fiction each week.

1) Variety is the Spice of Life

My novel is awesome. If you know me in the meat-world and have ever made the mistake of asking, “So, what’s your novel about?” I’ve probably talked your ear off about how awesome it is. But here’s the thing: it’s a very specific kind of awesome. I love my world and my characters, but sometimes I want to write about someone different. Call me shallow, but I like to play the field. I want to write about vampires or wish fairies or zombies or something else that doesn’t feature in the world of my novel. So when a creepy, arrogant, domineering vampire wanders through my imagination, I don’t ignore him or tell him to go play with someone else. I get down and dirty with him in a thousands words or fewer and then return to my novel. 

2) Creativity Begets Creativity

The great thing about creativity is that it’s a bottomless resource. There’s no Great Creativity Shortage of the 21st Century to worry about. In fact, creativity in one thing often leads to creativity in another. If you’re struggling with your writing, go bake a cake. Or draw a picture. Or do some finger-painting. (Seriously, if you haven’t finger-painted since you were a kid, you have no idea what you’re missing out on.) It’s like jump-starting your creativity-mobile. Or setting a match to your creativity-powder. And other exciting metaphors. But you don’t have to wait until you feel your creativity starting to wane to take advantage of this. Writing  flash fiction that is unrelated to my novel helps keep my creative mind ticking over and means that when I get the time to work on my novel, I spend much less time staring at the screen wondering what I should write next.

3) Experiments are Fun

Ever wonder what it would be like to write a story from the point of view of the bad guy? Or how it would feel to live inside the head of a psychopath? Ever read a book and think, “I wish I could write like that!” or wonder just how many rhetorical questions you could put in a single paragraph? Flash fiction is a way to explore those things! For example, I have no desire to write a novel-length horror story but I quite enjoy experimenting with the edges of the horror genre in my flash fiction. It’s also a good way to practice storytelling techniques that you aren’t currently using in your longer work. Experiment with first person, close third person, distant third person, or omniscient Point Of View. Get a feel for the difference between past tense and present tense. Feeling adventurous and experimental? Try writing a whole story in future tense. Write a protagonist of the opposite gender than you usually write, or of a different age group, or tell the story as a computer program or a series of Tweets or Facebook updates. Build your craft and broaden your experience without committing yourself to something long-term.

4) Shopping in the Ideas Factory

Once upon a time, I thought I had a brain in my head. Then one day I realised I actually live in an Ideas Factory. Like most writers, the question “Where do you get your ideas?” is best answered with another question: “How do you get the ideas to stop?!” Every news story, overheard snippet of conversation, and everyday item spotted in an unusual place prompts a flurry of ideas and What Ifs to go careening through my head. What if the phone number displayed outside the vacant building is really the number visiting vampires have to call before they’re allowed to hunt in this suburb? What if the tree really did get up and walk in front of the moving car? What if the child is right and one day she turns into a shooting star watching over the Earth and protecting it from monsters? They never stop! If I was going to turn every one of my story ideas into a novel, I’d have to live to at least two hundred. Except, of course, I’d keep having more ideas. So I guess I’d need to live forever… Or I can go shopping in the Ideas Factory once a week and bring one of those ideas to life.

5) Basking in the Afterglow

Working on a novel is a long process. Even those people (who I’m secretly jealous of) who can whip out a first draft in ten days have to go back and revise and rewrite their work. And I’m not one of those people. Still, I get an amazing sense of satisfaction when I complete part of my novel. Writing one thousand words in a sitting makes me cheer and pat myself on the back. Finishing a chapter makes me want to dance around the room. There are milestones that can be celebrated. But…. It’s not like you’re really finished, is it? Especially when you’re still working on your first draft. But a couple of hours spent on a piece of flash fiction and POW. Finished. Smug sense of satisfaction enabled. It feels really, really good to hit that ‘Publish’ button. And every time, the warm feeling of writing afterglow reminds me how I’ll feel when I finally get my novel finished and back I go to the grindstone, motivated and feeling like a writer.

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Writing Lessons from Janice Hardy

If you’re a writer and you don’t know the name Janice Hardy, you really should. If not for her books, then certainly for her blog:  The Other Side of the Story. This is one of my absolute favourite writing blogs, and I never miss a post.

On her blog, Janice provides a safe environment full of gentle encouragement, practical advice and a backlog of information on everything from generating ideas to improving your writing craft and submitting for publication. She runs an excerpt critique each Saturday (which I’ve taken advantage of in the past), and answers each and every comment left on her blog. Janice is a true “writing hero”, seeming to take every writer under her wing and help them learn to fly.

In the time that I’ve been following Janice’s blog, I’ve come to respect,  admire, and trust her. But there was always a little voice in the back of my head that wondered: ‘This is all well and good, but do you practice what you preach? Does your writing live up to your own standards?’

Janice writes Middle Grade fantasy — not genre that I would usually read! But I set out to find the first book in her Healing Wars trilogy: The Shifter.

This took quite some time to find. Eventually, I discovered that the book was released in the UK (and Australia) as The Pain Merchants. Or, rather, I suspected that it was. So I tweeted Janice to confirm, and she responded almost immediately in the affirmative. (Seriously — this is why I love both Janice and Twitter!) Within a couple of days, I had my hands on her book.

So, does she follow her own advice?

Let me answer your question with another question. Let’s say you were writing a book aimed at 10 – 14 year olds, set in a fantasy world, and you wanted to do the following:

  1. Describe the inside of a temple, including seven distinct statues.
  2. Introduce the religion of the country where the story is set.
  3. Give a brief indication of the political situation.
  4. Communicate the personality and beliefs of the main character.

How many pages of exposition do you imagine that would take? How many paragraphs of trying to “show, don’t tell” before you’d got your message across? Well, Janice Hardy does it in 260 words:

I crossed the geometric flower gracing the middle of the room — six overlapping circles centred under a seventh. The glazed tiles sparkled even in the weak light from the arched windows. Curved wooden benches radiated outward, two rows facing the seven alcoves where a statue to each Sister stared with blank eyes.

On the left, Saint Moed had her twin swords crossed above her head, though she’d done nothing to defend Geveg against the Duke when we needed her. Beside her, Saint Vergeef had one hand in a basket of pears, the other outstretched in offering. Cruel when so many went hungry. Saint Erlice had the smug look of one who never told a lie, not even to make someone feel better.

The right side wasn’t much better. Saint Vertroue planted her staff in the marble block at her feet, both hands gripping it and daring anyone to try and get past her. So much for her fortitude. Many had passed her and she’d never once pulled her staff from the stone to stop them. Saint Gedu patiently leaned against her alcove, clearly in no hurry to save anybody from anything. Saint Malwe smiled modestly, lids and eyes cast down as if embarrassed to have folks worshipping at her feet.

In the centre of the six was Saint Saea, hands open as if apologising. The mother of mercy; the grannyma of “sorry it had to turn out this way”; the one who made you think that this time it would be different.

Saints and sinners, this was the creepiest place in Geveg.

After reading this excerpt, I took that little, doubting voice outside and shot it.

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Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Much like Stephen Watkins, I don’t like giving writing advice. I am, on the other hand, happy to talk about the way I write, the tips and tricks I’ve learned, and my opinion on anything from crime writing in the 1930s to the future of ebooks. (That doesn’t mean I’m always right, of course, it just means I’m opinionated.) So that’s how I found myself writing about Proactive vs Reactive characters last week.

I’m really glad that people found it useful reading, and I was delighted to have as many comments as I did. Amongst the comments was this statement from Ben Trube:

I’m struggling with breathers and where to drop into the action in my current revision right now, and would love to see an expansion on that theme.

So, because I’m opinionated I care, this week I will again be sharing my opinion on an aspect of writing.

First: Learn about narrative structure. There are a number of different ways to structure a story, and I’d suggest reading about all of them. (Although they all really break down to: Stuff happens, then it gets worse, then it seems to get better but really gets even more worser, then it ends either well or badly.) Some structures will suit you better as a writer, some will suit this story better than that story, and some you’ll read about and promptly forget because you think they’re stupid.

As a starting place, allow me to recommend Janice Hardy’s post explaining the Three Act Structure. You can find it in two parts: here and here. (Plus, Chuck Wendig just posted 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure. How convenient!)

Second: Find a way to think about narrative structure that works for you.

I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can tell you what works for me. If my method appeals to you, use it. If not, please don’t tell me I suck — just move on and find something  else you like. And feel free to share it with all of us.

I like to think of a story as a living thing. A good story, whether it’s a book, movie, episodic TV show, joke, comic books, computer game, or roleplaying games, should have a life of its own. It should breathe.

And that’s how you work out where to put your rising tension, and where to give everyone a break.

Breathe in; breathe out; breathe in; breathe out.

What’s do you do when you’re startled or stressed? You breathe in.

What do you do when you have a moment to rest or relax? You breathe out.

A good story will breathe. There will be conflict, tension and surprises (breathing in), and there will be quiet moments to plan, recover, and celebrate (breathing out).

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing in without pausing to breathe out? Me neither. But I suspect either your lungs explode or you have a heart attack. Neither is good. If every scene is full of tension and suspense, and the poor characters never have a chance to catch their breaths, your readers won’t either. If your reader is exhausted by halfway through your book, what do you think the chance is that s/he will finish it?

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing out without breathing back in? You pass out. In life, your body is starved of oxygen. In reading, your mind is starved of excitement. But whether your reader is dying of suffocation or boredom, s/he is probably not going to leave your book unfinished.

Now, the rhythm of every book is not going to be the same. The breathing of a thriller is going to be very different to that of a sweet, coming-of-age story. So, how do you (or really, how do I) make sure the story is breathing at the pace it should?

  1. Write the book. Keep this in mind while you’re writing if you like, but get your first draft on paper. This is more useful for revising.
  2. Make a list of all the scenes in your story.
  3. Note next to each one either “in” or “out”.
  4. Look at the pattern. Are there a whole string of ins or outs? Is the flow different at the beginning to the end? Is there anywhere that you think inserting an extra breath in or out would improve the flow of the story?
  5. (Optional — I do this, but my sanity is sometimes questionable.) Breathe, following the pattern of your book. See how you feel — are there any places where you’re breathing in too much without respite? Are there any places where you find that you don’t have enough breath to breathe out for as long as you’re supposed to? Also, don’t hyperventilate unless you’ve got a paper bag handy.

Note: I came up with this method while running roleplaying games. When you’re crafting a story with a group of people, you have the opportunity to watch their facial expressions and body language with each new character, plot point and twist that you reveal. After a while, I realised that I could tell when I needed to arc up the tension or introduce some down-time just by taking note of the players’ breathing and the set of their shoulders.

It took quite a bit of experimentation to get it right — but that’s what you do with a group of friends, right? Experiment on them?

When writing, there’s no “instant audience”, and no way to easily tell how the tension will affect a reader. It took me a while to put together this breathe in; breathe out method of tracking scenes, but it’s worked well so far.

What do you think? Does this sound interesting, or just plain insane?

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Capturing Your Voice

Many years ago, when I was gainfully employed (and paid in money instead of love), I managed a large department store specialising in fabrics, craft goods and homewares. I had about fifty people working for me, each of them with their own unique personality and style. But, as time has gone on, many of them have blended together in my memory. It happens. But there’s one man who I still remember distinctly. Not because of anything he did, or his work performance, or because we socialised. No, I remember him because of his voice.

Paul* was a man in his early fifties. He was tall (slightly taller than my 6’2″), with great posture and distinguished grey hair. He grew up in London, but emigrated to Australia when he was a young man. Although he’d replaced his English accent with an Australian one, he still spoke in a slightly more… “plummy” way than most Aussies. And the way he expressed himself was priceless.

I remember one afternoon in particular.

I was due to finish work at 2:00pm, but got caught up with some admin work. At 4:30, I was just making my way through the store to the front door. That’s when Paul pounced.

“Ah, Jo,” he said as an opening line. I was running late, so I tried a quick smile and wave in order to escape. It didn’t work. Paul merely continued talking in his smooth, almost-English accent. “It’s quite a welcome coincidence that our paths should cross this afternoon. Does the day find you well?

“Yes,” I said. “I’m just heading home.”

“Ah…” he said, drawing out the vowel sound. “Well, it’s certainly a pleasant day to be leaving this establishment at such an early hour, and I would not like to come between you and a surely well-deserved afternoon off. However, since Fate has decreed that we should meet here amongst the aisle of our fair craft section, perhaps this would be a suitable time for me to consult you about a matter that has been weighing heavily upon my mind of late. If you would be kind enough to spare me a few moments of your oh-so-precious time, I would be most appreciative.”

He paused here and looked at me. Expectantly. I’m not going to lie, I had no idea what he was waiting for. It’s not that I was ignoring him — far from it. I’d listened to each and every word, and been lulled into a sense of peace by the smooth cadence of his speech. After a moment, I said, “Yes.” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“I’m ever-so grateful,” Paul went on. “I’m sure that a young lady like yourself has a great many plans, and a great many responsibilities resting upon your shoulders, and I am appreciative that you would be prepared to put them on hold for a few moments to hear what I have to say. And, in fact, it’s exactly the thought of plans and responsibilities that weighs upon my mind. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I have, in fact, been working for this company for quite some time. When I started, of course, things were quite different. There was a great deal less paperwork, for one thing. But it certainly isn’t my place to question the march of progress, and I have adapted to the changing environment around me as, of course, has everyone else.”

“Yes,” I said again. I had no idea where he was going with any of this, but all thoughts of actually leaving the store had vanished.

“Time changes us all, they say, and in my years I’ve come to think that they are right on that count. Perhaps my dislike of paperwork is merely a sign that it is I that needs to change. But I digress.”

He paused here. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was supposed to comment. I didn’t.

Paul went on, “As I said, it is the thoughts of plans and responsibilities that weigh most heavily upon my mind in these days. As you know, I take great care to ensure that my schedule is kept up to date. However, there is always the odd occasion where Fate or Chance steps in, and the best laid plans of mice and men, if you catch my drift.”

“Yes,” I said.

I didn’t.

“Ah, well then,” Paul said. “Perhaps then, it would be fitting to elaborate further upon the unexpected delight which occurred just last night. I received a phone call, you see, from my youngest daughter. I’m certain I’ve spoken of her before, either in conversation with you directly or with our colleagues as we ate lunch.”

He paused for an answer. “Yes,” I said again.

“Then it should come as no surprise to you that I was overjoyed to hear that she would be visiting us in the near future, venturing forth from her apartment in Sydney to journey here and spend some time with her parents. It’s always a pleasant thing when one’s children announce these things, especially where there is no great event to prompt said visit. However, the announcement has also left me feeling that I’m in quite a bind, as she has decided to arrive on our doorstep next month and I have, of course, taken no provisions for welcoming her home at this stage.”

I nodded. I still had no idea why he was telling me any of this.

“It would be quite a shame for her to come all this way, and to be forced by necessity to spend her days lonely and alone in our house, while–”

“Oh!” I interrupted. “Would you like to apply for leave?”

“Ah, yes, the inevitable application process that one must–”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Take as much as you like. Lorraine will give you the form. See you later, Paul!”

And I left.

Poor Lorraine probably had to listen to the entire story again.

I never asked.

My point here is not that Paul could string a simple query into a 30 minute exercise in frustration (although he could), it’s this: Years later, when I’ve forgotten everyone else I worked with, I remember Paul. I remember the way he spoke, the words he used, the sound of his voice.  I would recognise his speech patterns anywhere.

And that, my friends, is what people mean when they talk about an author’s voice.

It’s the combination of style and flow and rhythm and vocabulary and grammar and stuff that makes your writing yours. It’s the thing that people will remember about you.

You don’t need to find your voice. Or create your voice. You just need to capture it.

Because you’ve already got it. It’s right there, inside you. Release it on to the page, allow it to grow and mature (as you do the same), and then grab it with both hands.

Easy as a poke in the eye with a sharp pie.

 

* Paul may or may not be his real name. I’m not telling.

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BWF: The Journey of the Book

Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 1: The Journey of the Book

Panelists: Linda Jaivin (Author), Gaby Naher (Agent), and Shona Martyn (Publishing Director of Harper Collins Australia)

The idea of this session was to look at the process of producing and publishing a book from three viewpoints – how the author writes the book, how it gets to the agent and what she does with it, and then what happens from the publisher’s perspective. It was a fascinating session, and one of my favourite of the Festival.

The first thing that struck me when this session began was, in fact, not what was being said. Instead, it was the overall appearance of the panelists. I’m not someone who generally judges on appearance, so please don’t judge me in return. BUT… Let me describe the scene.

I’m in an auditorium looking at three ladies seated behind a long table. There are no name-cards to indicate who is sitting where, and introductions haven’t yet been made. I don’t know any of the three ladies by name or reputation, and although I’m sure I looked at pictures of them online when I booked the session, I certainly don’t remember who is who. But it takes me about 3.5 seconds to make an educated guess.

The panelist on the left is wearing a knee-length, black dress with stockings and sensible shoes. She’s wearing minimal jewelry (only her watch was obvious from a distance), and no ornamentation in her hair. Her make-up is subdued and professional, and her nails look neatly manicured.

The panelist in the centre is wearing a very stylish grey pant-suit with heels. She’s got a cream-coloured silk scarf around her neck, a long, eye-catching necklace, and a sophisticated hairstyle.

The panelist on the right has bright orange hair which is pinned on top of her head in a messy bun, flamboyant make-up, and dangly earrings. Every item of clothing she’s wearing is a different colour, including purple, orange, green, blue, and pink.

Not surprisingly, panelist #3 is our author, #2 is our agent, and #1 is our publisher. I found the fact that I picked this so easily interesting because I’d never really considered whether I needed to have a “look” as an author. If I’m asked to chair a panel one day (fingers crossed!), what am I supposed to wear? Should I have a style worked out in advance? If I don’t look particularly flamboyant, will people assume I’m a business-oriented publisher rather than a creative author?

What do you think? Is it something you’ve considered?

Moving on to the actual talking bit…

Linda Jaivin got the session started, talking about herself, her books, how she got into the business of writing for a living, and so on. And I can honestly say that she was the most vibrant, enthusiastic and fascinating person I’ve ever heard speak. She was so full of life, I was fairly certain that extra bits were spilling on to the floor around her. (I hoped some would magically find its way to me, but that so far doesn’t seem to be the case.)

She told the story of how she read a book when she was a teenager, and had the sudden revelation that “books are more than just stories”. Words are magical things that can take you away from yourself, put you some place new, let you have an adventure and learn from it, and then take you home again. A novel is a gateway to something greater.

Linda hadn’t really considered being a writer initially. She went to work in a library because “she loved books”, and then decided to study Chinese history and Chinese language. Back then, China’s border were still closed and there was absolutely no point in studying about a closed country. So, why did she pick those subjects? “It was just one of those crazy things you do because it’s really interesting,” she said.

She wound up working in Taiwan, writing book reviews for a newspaper through a series of really unlikely events that could only happen in real life, because no-one would believe them if it was fiction. And from there she started to write.

Her advice to new writers included:

  • There are a lot of places that teach creative writing. Don’t do it. Don’t study creative writing. You can learn how to write on your own. Go and study something real. Study something you’re interested in. You’ll have more to write about and, if you’re lucky, what you study can also get you a job to pay the bills while you’re writing.
  • You have to be serious about every aspect of your career. That includes the boring parts like keeping track of what you’ve spent on writing-related things for tax purposes.
  • It’s the spirit of play that keeps us going. Don’t do a job that eats your brain.

Gaby Naher was next up. She was really interesting, and I found myself falling in love with the idea of an agent all over again. She was passionate, articulate, and talked to and about Linda as a business partner. She clearly loved the creative side of writing, but was very practical and realistic when it came to talking about the business side.

“Anyone who works in the arts community is always wondering where their next paycheck is coming from,” she said, and she clearly meant it. She left a position as a successful editor at a publishing house to work as an agent, and took a pay cut in the process. But she loves the freedom, the flexibility, and the chance to spend time with authors.

Like many agents. her message about self-publishing and indy publishing was a simple “don’t believe all the hype about what they seem to say. It’s too early to tell what the future really holds.” But when talking about traditional publishing, she said, “It’s still no picnic.”

The final statement Gaby made was one that has stayed with me. She was asked about how she chooses the clients she’ll take on, seeing as she doesn’t get paid unless their book sells. Gaby talked briefly about needing to feel passionate about a project, and then said, “But it’s always a risk. I gamble for a living. That’s just what I do.”

Lastly, Shona Martyn, publishing director of Harper Collins, had her chance to talk. She talked about how, with limited budgets that publishers have these days, the marketing department often has a bigger say in whether a book will be published than the acquisitions team. If marketing doesn’t think they can sell the book, the publisher won’t offer a contract. Her point was that, from the moment a book is written to the moment it’s published, “It’s a long process of persuasion.”

In saying that, Shona made it clear that the books that really break out and make a lot of money are always the ones that no one expects. So don’t try to write for a market. Write something you really care about.

Shona’s parting words were also quite interesting from a business point of view, and something that I (and probably a lot of other authors) hadn’t really considered. She said, “If we give an opportunity to a book we don’t think will work, it means we’re turning down another book that might.”

Overall, this session was a fascinating insight into three different perspectives on the publishing industry, and a great introduction to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.

Rated: 5/5

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Five Ways Writing is like doing a Jigsaw Puzzle

 

Last Saturday night I had a phone call from my sister. “Hey Jo,” she said. “I just bought a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I don’t know why. I haven’t done one this big before. But I was thinking… We should have a competition. Do you have any 2000 piece puzzles you can do?”

Did I? No. Besides, it’s not much of a competition if we’re not doing the same puzzle, is it?

2000 Pieces of Healthy Competition

(As a note, it didn’t occur to me to say ‘No’ to the idea of a jigsaw competition. More about that another day.)

So I got all the details from her and planned to pick up the jigsaw from the local Toy & Game shop the following day. “Sure, have a head start,” I told my sister. “You’re going to need it!”

Over the last 11 days I’ve spent a goodly portion of time working on this puzzle and reflecting on the ways assembling a jigsaw is like writing. So, here goes:

1. It’s never as simple as just ‘sitting down to write’. There are always obstacles that need to be overcome.

Obstacle 1:

Sunday morning, off I went to the local Toy & Game shop (who will remain nameless) to buy a copy of the jigsaw. I was eager not to let Sister have too much of a head start. I browsed the jigsaw aisle. Slowly, my excitement began to fade. They didn’t have the one I wanted. Not to be defeated, I went over to the counter.

“Excuse me,” I said politely to the scruffy young man standing blank-faced behind the counter. “I was just looking for a particular Ravensburger jigsaw, but you don’t seem to have it. If you order it in, how long is it likely to take?”

The young man (teenager, really) turned to look at me blankly. His face remained expressionless for a moment, his jaw slack. Then he spoke. “We don’t order things people want anymore.”

I stared at him. Either he’d just said the most ridiculous thing a salesperson could ever say, or he’d uttered some kind of deep truth about the steady decline of bricks & mortar businesses in favour of the internet.

After a minute of silence, he added, “I suppose I could call some of our other stores. Maybe you could drive to one of them.” I thanked him, told him I’d order it online (he looked relieved), and went on my way. It took me until Tuesday to get a copy of the jigsaw. I did buy it online. On Ebay. And I got it $10 cheaper than if I’d purchased it in the store.

Obstacle 2:

The box said the completed jigsaw would be 98cm x 75cm. I measured my coffee table. Not big enough. I measured my dining table. Not big enough. Damn it. I didn’t have a flat surface big enough for the stupid puzzle. Except…

The only space big and flat enough was the floor. So into the spare room I went. I moved some furniture and lay a blanket on the floor. One work table coming up!

Obstacle 3:

Have you ever tried to do a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor while a rambunctious 4-year-old excitedly tries to help. It’s time for “I just wanted to look at the pieces,” and “I think that one goes over there,” and “Oops. I fell over in the middle of the jigsaw.”

There’s never a perfect time, place, or environment to write. (Unless you’ve got a special writing room with a lock. In which case you have my undying envy.) Find ways around your obstacles, learn to ignore or overcome distractions, and remember that small children can easily be bribed with chocolate.

2. When you sit down to write, it may seem overwhelming. That’s okay. Don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

Have you ever opened a box with 2000 jigsaw pieces in it? Until 8 days ago, I hadn’t. My first thought was “Holy bejoly, what have I gotten myself into?” I ran my fingers through the pieces, trying to figure out where to start. I randomly picked up two pieces to see if they would fit together. One was blue and one had squiggles all over it that was probably writing.

Then I sat back, picked up the lid, and looked at the image of the finished jigsaw. I decided to start with the edges, and then do all the squiggly writing. Time to start sorting.

Regardless of whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, have a plan. Maybe it’s a 100-page outline. Maybe it’s a “brief history of the world” in 50,000 words. Maybe it’s a series of index cards, or notes in Scrivener (or another writing program), something just a vague plotline in your head and an image of a character or scene. It doesn’t matter. Choose the plan that works for you, but make sure you have one. Otherwise you’ll either find yourself trying to mash together two random elements in the story or you’ll be so overwhelmed and confused you’ll give up.

3. Track how much you’ve done, not how much you’ve got to do.

It took me a few days to get the edges and the writing done. Then I decided to do the water, and started sorting through the pieces for blue bits. My husband happened past the room and commented, “Wow. You’ve done really well. But isn’t it funny how when you look at the pieces you’ve got left, there doesn’t seem to be any less?”

I hadn’t really noticed. But then I did. The box still seemed as full as it had been when I started. I had this sense that I’d never finish, that there were just too many pieces, too much to do. And so I stopped for the day.

Writing is a mental game. Don’t focus on the 95,000 words you’ve got left to write, or the months of revising ahead, or the difficulty in finding an agent, or the future of publishing. Congratulate yourself on having written the first 5,000 words. That’s more than you’d done last week.

4. Your peer network should help you feel good, not bad.

My sister and I talked on Saturday night, one week after the challenge began. (It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get the jigsaw until Tuesday. The challenge started on Saturday.) We were both a little reticent about sharing our progress initially.

 “What if she’s done more than me? What if I’m losing?”

So we didn’t talk about how much we’d done, we talked about the process we’d been following. We’d both started with the edges (obviously), but then we went in wildly different directions. I did the squiggly writing, then the water, then the white circles, and was working on the map. She’d started with the outside circles, then moved on to the white circles and the water, and was starting to work on the squiggly writing.

We didn’t talk at all about how much we had left to go. We talked about what we’d done, the challenges we’d faced, how we overcame them, the process we were following, and shared tips on the sections the other hadn’t done. We talked about the obstacles we’d needed to overcome. (She also didn’t have a table big enough so had built herself a coffee table to suit, she had commitments every evening after work, and she’d run out of beer.) Mostly, what we did was encourage each other.

When I hung up the phone, I still had no idea who was “winning”, but I went back to my puzzle with renewed vigour.

Your peer group (whether they’re a critique partner, writing group, online buddies, whatever) should give you encouragement and challenge you to improve. Having a peer group is an integral part of writing. Without one, it’s easy to feel like you’re all alone, slaving away over a hot keyboard. But if your peer group makes you feel bullied, useless, incompetent or stupid, ditch them. If your peer group tells you everything you do is wonderful (and you don’t believe them), ditch them. Find a new group of writers to hang with, either online or in person. It can make all the difference.

(Note: Don’t ditch them as friends, family, or colleagues. Just stop using them as your peer group/critique partner/beta reader.)

5. Set a deadline. Then share it with your peer group, friends, family, and random strangers on the street.

My brother called a few days ago to say that he would be passing through the area (none of my family lives within 600km (380 miles) of each other) on Saturday, and to check it would be alright for him and his girlfriend to crash the night.

“Of course!” I said. I was delighted to have heard from him. He’s great company, and his girlfriend is awesome.

Then I realised… I’ve got my puzzle set up on the floor of the spare room. I can’t move it without breaking it into itty bitty pieces. (2000 of them, to be exact.) And I don’t have anywhere else for Brother and Girlfriend to sleep. So that means…

That means I have to finish the jigsaw before this Saturday.

No pressure or anything. But let me tell you, every spare minute I have, I’m fitting pieces into the puzzle. Will I meet the deadline? Absolutely. Even if I’m up all night Friday.

If you don’t have a deadline, it’s easy to procrastinate. Or spend time designing new ways to outline, or new systems for recording information, or researching, or cleaning your desk, or whatever else you do when you know you’re supposed to be writing but instead find a productive way to avoid it. So set yourself a deadline and tell everyone about it. Give people permission to check up on you. And then work to achieve that deadline.

(Caveat: Make your deadline achievable based on your situation, and don’t be bullied into doing otherwise. Watching an unachievable deadline fly past is akin to motivation-suicide.)

So, how’s the jigsaw going? See for yourself: 

Look how much I've done! Three days to go.

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Because it’s NOT writer’s block, that’s why.

This week has been one where I spent a lot of time thinking about my WIP and where the story and characters are going. A walk-on/walk-off character has more potential and is important than I suspected, I’m about to write a major magical battle and really need to pin down the old “how magic works” stuff, and I’ve been struggling a bit with some of my protag’s reactions to events (really, how do you react when someone shoots your best friend in front of you?).

…as a side-note: guns and magic. Does it get any better?

Anyway, I’ve spent more time “thinking” than “writing” this week. (I don’t know why those words are in quotes. Don’t judge me.) And everywhere I looked in the blogosphere, someone was posting about “How to overcome Writer’s Block”. Is this the universe’s way of telling me something? Or just a coincidence? Should I be reading these blogs and making notes?

No.

Because it’s NOT writer’s block, that’s why.

#

Back before my boys were born, I had a paying job as a travel agent. Now, being a travel agent is not easy. Sure, you get to sit on a chair typing stuff into a computer and talking on the phone for most of the day. But it’s a very competitive, commission-based industry where the largest barrier to success is often yourself.

I was good at my job. I loved talking to people, recommending holiday destinations, finding the best deals/packages, and making suggestions. I had an incredibly loyal client base, heaps of contacts in the industry, and all the Keys to Success.

But sometimes… sometimes I’d have a bad day. Or a bad week. Or, on occasion, a bad month. I’d work for hours finding a good deal, but the client would book it on the internet. (Aaargh! Curse you, interwebz!) Or I just couldn’t find the right flight/hotel/deal. Or I struggled to build rapport with people. Or my mind was elsewhere.

And not once — not once! — did I jump up and down and scream, “It’s not my fault! I’ve just got trave agent’s block!”

Instead, I did something useful.

I figured out where I was going wrong, and I fixed it.

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Writer’s Block is just a fancy, self-absorbed way for writers to say: “I’m not writing. Something’s wrong and I don’t know what it is.”

So here’s my tips for overcoming the mythical beast Writer’s Block in 3 easy steps:

1. Identify the problem.

  • Is it a lack of skill or knowledge of the craft? Are you not sure how to write what you want to write?
  • Have you lost sight of where your story is going? Or what your character’s goals are?
  • Is your mind/focus elsewhere?

2. Identify the solution.

  • There’s heaps of information online about just about every facet of writing. Figure out what’s giving you trouble (eg. structure, plot, realistic characters, dialogue, conflict, POV (point of view), etc.) and do some web searches. Buy some books.
  • It’s time to step back and do some planning or outlining.
  • Work out what it is you’re focusing on, and whether it’s more or less important than your writing. A cluttered desk, new hobby, or the new season of Glee probably qualifies as “less important”. A new baby, impending marriage or sick relative probably qualifies as “more important”.

3. Use solution (b) to overcome problem (a).

  • Read. Research. Make notes. Practice. Then go back to your WIP feeling more equipped.
  • If you haven’t written an outline, write one. Interview your characters. Make notes. Design the history of the world. Whatever you need to get you back on track.
  • If your focus is consistently on something in the “more important” category, give yourself permission to either take a break from your writing or significantly reduce your writing output without penalty. If your focus is on something in the “less important” category, you need to sit down and consider your priorities. If you want to write, write. If not, don’t. Realise this is a conscious choice you’re making, not the byproduct of a mythical malady.

Thoughts? Comments?

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