Remedies: Beating Creativity Block

A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope… she keeps writing anyway.   –Junot Diaz

Writer’s block is creativity block and it can be frustrating.  Many writers claim not to get it at all.  More power to them, I say.  Unfair are those same writers’ claims that it doesn’t exist at all.  I have never broken a bone in my life–but does that mean that the malady of broken bones does not exist?

I do get blocked from time to time.  When I am being creative on a regular basis, I find my bouts of the Block occur less often.  But they can still crop up.  Most often, they occur when I am feeling under-the-weather, mentally or physically tired.  Tapping into the Muse is all about tapping into your own subconscious.  Therefore you have to be in a healthy mental/physical state in order for this process to occur.

Some of my remedies for beating Creativity Block:

  • Look at the Work in a different format:  If you work in mostly an electronic medium, then printing out your work in a physical manifestation– that you can manipulate and annotate–can have a powerful effect on  your ability to “see” where your work is going.
  • Draw a Map:  Sketch out a place that figures in your work: the character’s general neighborhood, a country or continent on a fantasy map, the floor plan of a house or castle, etc.
  • Change your weapon: If you write in pen, switch to a pencil or start typing.  If you write on the computer, pull out a notebook full of blank, creamy irresistible pages screaming to be filled by your hand.  Let your words run freely off the tip of your pen without fear of self-editing.
  • Set doable, consistent short term goals for yourself: Set a small but consistent daily word count or scene goal for yourself and push yourself to stick to it even when you don’t always feel like it.  It all comes down to putting your butt in the chair and doing.  Some days, you’ll notice yourself going over your goal without you having noticed.  Forming the habit of production goes a long way to stave off creativity block in the future.
  • Graphically organize:  Not sure where your story is heading?  Set up a chart, a bubble map, a diagram, a flowchart, a calendar or some other graphic organizer that depicts characters against a time frame (or by location or some other qualifier)
  • Word Count sprint: Set up a small period of time (1 hour at the most) in which you will write x amount of words.  Check out the hashtag #1k1hr on twitter to see where others have done similarly.
  • Visualize:  Spend fifteen minutes before a writing session by closing your eyes and visualizing a locale in your story.  Without worry of where you will insert it, begin your writing session by typing out a description of this place–include ALL the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel.  If you feel inspired to keep going, give a brief history of the place, listing the three most important events to have taken place there.
  • Mix it up: Pit one element of your story against a qualifier it does not normally compare with.  In other words, describe a place in relation to time, or a character with respects to the five closest relationships that character has ever experienced in his/her life, etc.
  • Lists:  Make a list of 20.  It can be 20 of anything.  Head the list with the question that the list is answering.  “What are the 20 things I know about this character?”  “What are the 20 most interesting things about this settiing?”  “What are the 20 most interesting things that happen during this plot?” etc.
  • Be Flexible: Your creativity block might be your Muse’s way of telling you that you are headed in a wrong direction.  Go with the flow and see where it takes you.  But stay disciplined: Don’t allow it to distract or deter you.
  • Believe in yourself : Believe you can do it.  When you believe, you can achieve.

90% of life is about showing up.    –Linda Lael Miller, best-selling author

Do you have a remedy for helping you with creativity block that I haven’t mentioned?  What is it?

Much Ado About Noting

“A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope… she keeps writing anyway.”  –Junot Diaz

One thing I’ve noticed as I begin to associate more with other writers is that our processes tend to be wildly different.  What one writer does and works so well for her may not necessarily work very well for another.  It should not be cause for concern or insecurity.  It should not be a superstitious profession–just because Writer A writes chronologically (in a linear fashion from scene to scene) does not mean another writer can or even should work that way.  And by all means, don’t adopt a process just because you heard a published author explain this is what he does.  It’s only what works for him.

The one true answer is that there IS no right way.  There is no write way, either.  It’s an art and everyone has their process.  It would be so much easier if there was one way to write–if it were some way to fill in the blanks on another writer’s process and presto-bravo, you have a successful piece of work to publish.  The process can even change drastically for the same writer from one project to the next.

Writing a novel can be every bit as much a journey as it is a destination.  And exploring your process can be every bit as soul-searching as exploring yourself–your motivations, your dreams and your foibles.

All of this to discuss note-taking.  I prefaced this post with the discussion of process because I have a good friend who does not take notes because she figures that if she forgets some idea that comes up, that it was probably unimportant or a bad idea anyway.  For a while I considered that and purposely did not take notes, hoping it would somehow help my writing or my process.

What I discovered, instead, is that because not taking notes works for her does not necessarily mean it would work for me.

My mind is constantly going and my Muse is constantly dropping bombs on me in the most inconvenient of places.  For this reason, I find keeping a little notebook with me absolutely essential.

What do I write in there?  Kernals of ideas for scenes, fragments of dialogue that I “hear” in my head (yes, I do have voices in there), names that I’ve come up with, sketches of floor plans or maps of small areas, snippets of research.  I’ve pasted visuals and printouts in the notebook.  Ideas on writing or quotes I want to remember later for inspiration.  Anything I consider noteworthy.  Literally noteworthy.  As in worthy of my taking note of it.

I recently learned in some training for my day job that we retain 100% of what we learn/hear for the first 24 hours but without taking notes, that information drops down as far as 10% per day to end up somewhere around 2% of the original thing we want to recall at the end of the week.  Revisiting notes taken during sessions is essential for learning and retention.  Sessions of written reflection are particularly important for adult learners.

Since I do work full time during the day (and even some evenings), I can’t dive for my laptop every time I feel inspired.  I must rely on my active imagination during times of boredom to give me the impetus for when I do have the free time to get to my work.  I can sit down, page through my notes for the week and see what sparks in me the idea for a scene I need to write.

So an important lesson I’ve learned: learn from the professionals but do not attempt to emulate them.  Because my friend, a successful author, does not find note-taking worthwhile for her, does not mean such is the case for me.  Lesson learned.  See.  You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

This blog gets its name from the catchphrase of NaNoWriMo, “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon.”

And, for the past five years, I’ve set the majority of extra-professional life aside to participate in the phenomenon.  It has, in my opinion, paid off.  I am a much better writer than I was when I did not participate.  I must qualify that statement by saying that I never stopped writing during the other parts of the year, either.  I write year-round.  I just don’t live, eat. breathe and inhale it like I do in November.

I proceed at a much more measured, leisurely pace.  Normal writing process is an amble through a wooded park where I stop and admire the posies, inhale the fresh pine scent, and listen to the birds sing.  November is a mad, breathless dash across a dirt track, dust crunching under my feet, heart knocking in my chest.

It makes me a better writer.  I’d never ever want to show anyone else my November efforts, however.  My writing during that month is, to put it nicely, a diamond in the rough.

It will take much cutting, much care, much polishing to make it something worth enjoying.  But the effort has made it all possible.  Without the words, without the first draft–which, for me is more of a roadmap than anything else–there is nothing to edit, shine and make pretty.

So here’s to the 50,000 words I have just written.  Here’s to 50,000 more and a finished manuscript, soon.  Soon.  And then, here’s to the courage to attack it with the pencil, eraser, scissors (all virtual, of course), to make the necessary adjustments.

Here’s to producing a thing of beauty.

Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo: Write or Die

There have been many things said about National Novel Writing Month.  Mostly good but some bad (the most ludicrous of which, in my opinion: that people should be concentrating more on reading rather than writing.  That there are already enough writers out there to satisfy the demand  for the “dwindling number of readers.”  This argument is mind-bogglingly simplistic and precludes the assertion that most writers are avid readers to begin with, otherwise they would take up some other hobby, like fishing or golf.  And even then, those people would likely read copious amounts about fishing and golf.  It also excludes the notion that the act of creative writing, in and of itself, is a worthy endeavor, even if publication is never pursued).

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the November crush, and likely the most obvious one, is to force my creativity to the point where it comes out onto the keyboard whether awful or not.  NaNoWriMo is the equivalent of a writer’s marathon and sometimes it really feels like it.  Whatever comes out on the page during the month of November pretty much stays  on the page until its time for revisions and editing.

It is easier to edit words that already exist–even to the extent of completely re-writing them, then it is to pull words wholecloth out of thin air.  The hard part is getting them down, committing your ideas to paper, even tapping into that Muse that is your unconscious thought (though I like to personify mine and I’ll touch on that in a later post.  It really helps, though, to think of your muse as a person or animal).

So write or die… write as much as you can, as fast as you can, for as long as you can.  If I could carry this pattern out to the rest of the year I’d be in great shape.  For all my previous efforts and for what is in the future, I know that even the process of writing, even if it doesn’t amount to anything tangible now, will make me the better writer in the end.

I hope to be done with my first draft of Violette by the end of December, barring serious holiday intrusion.  January and onward will be for revisions, edits,  and creation of the second draft.  Then, crits with partners (hopefully if I can find some reliable ones who are on the same wavelength as myself), and beta-reaers (again, if I can find any willing).  The third draft (and onward) will depend on the general reader reaction and my own gut feelings.

I suspect there will be changes, though.  My characters are already hinting at it to me.  The more I look and question, the more I uncover hidden motives, past traumas and secret ambitions.  Sneaky characters.  I had a feeling they were going to do that. 

Well, after November, I guess we’ll have words! (the spoken kind, at the top of the voice, and, hopefully more of the written kind as well).


Where do you get your inspiration and ideas for anything ranging from story arcs all the way down to snippets of dialog?

Well, as mentioned previously in this blog, I tend to have an, umm, temperamental muse.  I suppose that is the most politic word for it.  (Sorry dear, no offense).

She thumps me over the head whenever and wherever.  Her favorite place to get me used to be when I was driving alone in the car.  Most of the time, I was listening to a piece of music and some flash of an idea would come to my head.  I found myself diving for a notebook whenever I could, scratching things down on the on-ramp to the freeway as I wait for a green light, ideas thundering through my head faster than I could catch them.

A lot of times, it’s like fishing in a rushing river with a big net.  Only the big stuff stays in the net and all the other stuff streams through the holes faster than you can catch it.

Inspiration can come from all over.  Books.  TV.  Movies.  Historical Research.  Sometimes an arc of an idea will flash into my mind and, full bloom, a scene appears.  This isn’t always a good thing because even if the idea seems sound, fitting into a work in progress where it was not previously imagined can be tough.

I recently had a scene that I had written ahead of time, with the Muse standing at my shoulder poking me in the back whenever I got something wrong.  Later, once I had gotten to writing up my synopsis (about a third of the way through the word count on the first draft), my idea and the placement for that scene had totally changed.  I found myself altering not only the setting for the scene (from the upstairs bedroom to the heroine’s secret outdoors hiding spot–yeah she’s that kinda girl) to what they were arguing about (In the first version, he was upset about rumors he’d heard that she might be getting engaged to someone else.  In the altered version, he had already had it confirmed that she had agreed to marry someone else–for many reasons other than the ones he was assuming).

It takes trust and flexibility to be able to chase the Muse, as Alice did, down the rabbit hole and trust that it will be okay at the bottom.  First drafts suck.  They change and morph as much as a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel.  I don’t think many who don’t write understand that process.  Many assume that “revision” means you are going back over the manuscript crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s and fixing spelling and grammar errors.

Not so.  Yes, those things are part of the process.  But once my first draft is done, it’s still going to be messy.  I’m going to need to smooth out all the bumps add a whole lot here, delete a whole lot there, before I can even begin to make it shiny and presentable.  I have no doubt that the story will morph several times between now and then.

On the one hand it can be frustrating but on the other, I’m rather excited about it.  I can’t wait to see what it will become.  Like a baby you hold in your arms, waiting to see glimpses of personality and individuality.  Right up until those terrible-twos tantrums where it actually happens and then you are holding your hands to your head and going WTF was I thinking?

Writing is a process–lengthy and difficult.  It can be fun if you keep the right mindset.  It can be infuriating–easily so.  Inspiration comes not only in the beginning when you are laying down the groundwork, but as you go over and over the draft where you get flashes of insight into your characters or a character suddenly changes on you, having hidden himself until he knew he could trust you.  (No I’m not schizophrenic nor do I suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder though it may sometimes sound like it).

The truth of the matter is, as with everything, unless you keep an open mind, you have no room to grow.  Conversely, unless you have strength of character, there will be no structure, design or art in what you do.

Here’s wishing you (and myself) many “muse-bombs”* in the future.

*Note : “Muse-Bomb” is a term I borrowed from Holly Lisle from her writing course, “How to Think Sideways”

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