How Cass Gets “Unblocked”

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Today’s prompt for #winterlitchallenge on Instagram was “Tips to beat writer’s block”, and I realized… I have some feelings about that.

For one thing, I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think if writers are honest with themselves, what they call “writer’s block” is really an excuse. If I’m not writing, it’s not that I’m “blocked”. It’s generally a lack of time or focus. Lack of time can’t always be helped: I’m a human with a life. I absolutely do not ascribe to the maxim that if you don’t write every single day of your life, you’re not a writer. I write or do something related to writing most days, but work, family, vacations, reading, self care — these are all important, too. Sometimes, though, I’m just not making the time, and I have to be honest with myself about that if I’m being avoidant.

When the real problem is a lack of discipline — being unwilling to sit down and do the damn work — that’s worth examining! If I’m reluctant to engage with a project, that’s usually a symptom of deeper problems that need working out before I can continue. See my thoughts on tossing out Book Two’s outline for an example of that. I’d gotten nowhere on that project in a year. Something was wrong. Fixing it meant being willing to rethink a lot.

But, the situation’s not always that dire. Sometimes I just have butterfly brain. So, how do I refocus myself? Here are some of my tips when my attention on a project feels scattered or when I’m having trouble figuring out where the story goes:

  1. Change POV: An excellent tactic for me, because my books are all multi-POV to begin with. There’s a scene in Book Two that I was excited about conceptually, but that I just couldn’t seem to get written. Then I realized: It shouldn’t be from Sempronius’s viewpoint. It was way more interesting through the eyes of his freedman, Corvinus. Voila! As soon as I tried that, 1700 flowed out of me in a single hour. I think this can work even if you’re writing a single-POV book, though. It might not be material you end up being able to use in your manuscript, but writing a scene or a monologue from another character’s viewpoint may help you find what you’re looking for from your POV character.
  2. Move to different scene, earlier or later in the narrative: This is, honestly, my primary tactic. I’m a completely non-sequential writer. It can be messy sometimes, but I cannot imagine trying to write a book in strict chapter order. If I’m not feeling a certain scene on a certain day, I bounce somewhere else. If you are a sequential writer, this may still be worth a try! Dive into a scene that takes place before your book opens or after it closes. Again, you may not use that material in the manuscript, but broadening your perspective may help you see the needed connective tissue in your plot.
  3. Listen to music that inspires you: I am a fanatical playlist maker. I have them for books, characters, moods, all kinds of things, and I often find inspiration in the songs. Sometimes it’s just thematic — I need to write an action scene, so I’m going to put on the Indiana Jones soundtrack. But sometimes I find something more direct. Recently, “The Greatest Show” and “Come Alive” from the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman have given me a wonderful new direction to spin my space opera in.
  4. Impromptu dance party: If you find yourself blocked in the middle of a long writing session, you might just need to move. I like spontaneous dance parties, but do whatever will get your blood flowing! Run around the block, throw a ball for the dog, go for a swim, whatever. Getting the physical fidgets out can help you refocus mentally and creatively.
  5. Take a shower: I mean, c’mon, we all get our best ideas in the shower, right? Step away from the computer and go somewhere your electronics can’t find you. Let the hot water wash over you and let your mind wander.
  6. Go for a drive: A lot of the shower advice applies here as well, though this can also overlap with listening to music that inspires you. I’ve worked out plenty of plot snarls and had scintillating character ideas on the highway. I talk to myself in the car a lot. I even act out conversations between characters, testing out the dialogue and cadence. Just make sure you can either keep it in your head till you get back home (a talent I’ve developed over the years — by repeating it a few times, I can keep about two pages’ worth word-for-word, when necessary) or that you have a way of taking verbal notes! Keep your eyes on the road!
  7. Write a myth/legend in your book’s world: Historical, fantastical, contemporary — we all have myths. They might be religious in nature, they might be urban legends or ghost stories, they might be , but whoever your characters are and wherever and whenever they live, there are stories in their lives, too. Take a step away from your manuscript and write one of those! Maybe even in the voice of one of your characters, as though they’re telling it to someone else. This approach helped me flesh out the world of Aven and its magic a lot. I’ve rewritten the founding myth of Romulus and Remus for Aven’s purposes, and I’ve worked on some of the other great Roman legends as well. The framework I used was Aula telling bedtime stories to her young daughter, Lucia, so I got some character work in as well, but it also helped me flesh out historiography of Aventan culture. (And — I’ll eventually be sharing those stories on Patreon!).

If the problem is that you’ve lost enthusiasm for a project, then you need to approach it a different way. Why isn’t it exciting you anymore? Because if it’s not exciting you, it’s sure not going to excite a reader. Is it the characters? The plot? Does it feel like a retread? You may well need to step away from it for a while to figure all of that out. I have an alternate history project I’ve been working on off and on since 2006, and this is the problem I keep reaching: I get “blocked” on it because I have great characters and a great world, but no plot.

Overall, I would sum up my advice on feeling blocked as doing one of two things: dig deep, or try something new. You either have something bothering you about the story that needs rooting out, or you just need to look at it from a different angle for a little while.

Visualizing FROM UNSEEN FIRE

Tonight’s #17Scribes Twitter chat (and yes, I’m still part of that group even though my debut got moved two days into 2018 — they refused to part with me!) was focused on visualizing elements of our novels. I put together some image sets, and I thought I’d share them with y’all!

First off, how I picture lovely Latona: blonde and angular, a deceptive blend of delicacy and strength:

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Then… not really how I picture Sempronius. He’s not supposed to be ridiculously handsome! But I keep finding all these gorgeous actors who would be great at playing him…

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And the supporting cast. From left to right, the faces I imagine as resembling Gaius Vitellius, Ama Rubellia, Autronius Felix, Merula, and Vatinius Obir.

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Some pictures of Rome, the city of which Aven is my AU:

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And some of central Iberia, where about a third of the book takes place:

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And finally, how I imagine the interior of the Vitellian domus. Wouldn’t you love to recline on those pillows and share a good gossip… or a flirtation?

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I had a new idea…

I had a new idea…

Still very much nascent, but there are a few images, perhaps a few beginnings of characters and conflicts starting to swirl around in my head.

Podcast Recommendation: The History of Rome

The History of Rome

This podcast, apart from being a wonderfully entertaining and comprehensive documentation of the Roman Republic and Empire, was also a major source of inspiration for me before I began writing Aven. In that October before NaNo 2011, I discovered this podcast and listened up through what had been posted at the time. With that percolating in the back of my brain, Sempronius Tarren and his schemes were born. The world took shape, the alliances and rivalries grew, and the echoes of the ages resounded in my mind.

How Star Wars Changed My Life

I mentioned a while ago that I really ought to tell this story on this blog at some point, and since I’m sitting here watching this movie on my parents’ enormous-screen TV, cozied up on the couch with the company of two terriers, basking in the warm glow of a Christmas tree while torrential rains fall outside, I thought… sure? Why not today?esbbest_11

I somehow made it through much of my childhood without seeing Star Wars. I’m not sure why. I watched a lot of Disney as a kid, but not to the exclusion of quite everything else, and I was definitely getting into live-action sci-fi by the time my age reached double digits. I was eleven years old in January of 1997, when the movies were re-released in theatres. I was already of pretty persistently geeky inclination, but it hadn’t yet found its true channels. I was, at that point, mostly just an unfortunate and awkward sixth-grader. In social studies class, I sat in front of a boy who would eventually become many things to me — friend, arch nemesis, boyfriend. We were discussing movies one day before class when he turned to me with a horrified expression and exclaimed loudly, “You haven’t seen Star Wars?!” His incredulity was so perfect, and tinged with such a mixture of disdain and taking-of-offense, that I promptly decided I must have been missing something tremendous. I convinced my mother to take me that weekend.

I was entranced. Despite the five-year-old kicking my seat the entire 121 minutes, I could not have been more enraptured. Afterwards, I sat there in the theatre, watching the credits roll. I’d never paid much attention to end titles before, yet there I was, thinking, This is it. This is what I’m meant to do.

I don’t know that I even knew what I meant by that at the time. I’d always been creative, always a natural storyteller, but something about Star Wars crystalized it — perhaps just making me consciously aware as I hadn’t been before that that sort of creation really is something a person can do for a living. But why that movie, and not something else? Something about it was magical to me, captivating and alluring. I loved the majesty of it, the galaxy-wide stakes, the sheer scope of the epic. I loved the high drama, the interplay of love and hate and friendship and betrayal. I loved the little moments of unexpected humor caught up in all ofthat. But I think what I liked best was the completeness of that universe — how big it was, how much room there was to play in, how many stories there were yet to tell. I wanted to create, and I wanted to create things like that: stories and characters that people would love, worlds they would want to live in.SW on set

In the meantime, though, I started playing in the universe already set-up for me. I started buying the novels and visiting the online forums. I devoured every supplementary material there was to find. I learned the reference guides by heart, memorized thousands of facts and details that are still locked somewhere in the recesses of my brain (and which I’m pretty sure are the reason there was no memorial space left for trigonometry). When I found fanfic and role-playing, it was really just all over. There was no extricating myself after that. The character I created then, in AOL RPG chat rooms at the tender age of eleven, became the heroine of my first novel, and traces of her certainly still surface in my current works. It was pretty cringe-inducing to start with, but I’ve still kept all my old notebooks — however embarrassing they might be now, I also still have a great deal of affection for those early days.  I can look back and see so much growth, from the self-insert instincts and derivative styles that I think all young writers start with, progressing to more and more creativity, more sophisticated storytelling. I can see how Leia Organa and Han Solo informed not only my ideas of heroines and heroes, but of love stories. I can see how my obsession with learning all the trivia helped me to keep world-building details straight once I started creating my own universes to play in. And it’s while I’ll never disparage fanfic and other derivative activities, either as purely recreational activities or as training for something more. I owe Star Wars and its derivative worlds too much.

I eventually moved on to other genres and other obsessions, but Star Wars was what started it. In the full throes of captivation as a teenager, I watched at least one of the trilogy at least once a week. Now it’s probably not much more than once a year — but I still return there for inspiration when I feel like my creativity needs a kick-start. It still works. Something about these movies gives me a shove between the shoulderblades. And, as today is proving, while a lot of the trivia I absorbed in those early years has been relegated to my brain’s archive folders, I can still recite pretty much the entire movie start-to-finish. I’ve gotten sixteen years’ worth of joy, entertainment, and inspiration out of this series, and I’m sure I’ll get many more. After all, A New Hope‘s 40th anniversary is coming up soon — and it’ll be my 20th anniversary as a fan. I’m sure there will be all kinds of celebrations, and I intend to find a way to take part in them.

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Pinterest Inspiration Board for Aven

Aven Inspiration Board — Also a great way to catalog bits of research to keep in mind.

The Painting That Started It

Before I began work on Aven, I had been entertaining the idea of a Roman-set fantasy for a while. It seemed to me that there was so much untapped potential there. Since so many fantasies get the typical western-European medieval/early-Renaissance treatment, but with Rome, you get so many different things — a more diverse population (not that, say, 12th century England was entirely homogeneous, but nothing to hold a candle to Rome, which had substantial populations from all over the Mediterranean and beyond), a complex religious system with archaic rituals and competing cults, a better (though by no means ideal) situation for women, layers upon layers of socio-economic-political strata, and, y’know, sanitation. I love my med-Ren studies, but limiting the fantasy genre to that aesthetic is just silly.

The thing that really triggered Aven in particular, though? Was this picture:

The Baths of Caracalla, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899

The Baths of Caracalla, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899

It’s my second-favorite painting of all time (after Titian’s Venus d’Urbino). I love how much of a story there is in those three women: the excited perching of the lady on the left, leaning in to impart some gossip or political news; the languid interest of the central figure; the piqued curiosity of the young lady on the right. The baths were such a social place for the Romans, much moreso than modern spas, and for both men and women, they could be important places to conduct business negotiations and political intrigues. There’s so much detail here, and so much personality, that it sparked in my mind and got some gears turning.

So, from Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Baths of Caracalla sprang the idea of the Vitelliae sisters, on whom I could hang my ideas for a Roman-based fantasy story.

Inspiration Board for The Antares Project

Inspiration Board for The Antares Project

A lot of fashion, some gadgets, some maps, some history — all perfect to get me in the mood for working on this project!