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.

Attention to Detail, or, Cass is an obsessive freak

So I’m almost done with this round of revisions. I’m at the point where I’m doing the penultimate read-through, which will hopefully make sure I catch any continuity errors created by my changes thus far and that I fill in any major omissions from the points raised by the editorial letter. Then the final read-through before sending things back to Sarah will be on hard copy, which is the best way for me to catch the tiny typo-like things. (Or places where I “pull a Cass” — leaving a sentence unfinished because I got distracted partway through writing it).

This round has involved a lot of filling in the edges of my worldbuilding. Sarah had a lot of questions about the world of Aven, about the political and religious systems, the economy, social classes, etc. The social history, really, the demographics and dynamics at play. These are things that I have swirling about in my head when I’m writing, but I hadn’t really pinned them down in specifics yet — because I hadn’t had to in the same way I’d had to be specific about, say, geography. It’s the sort of stuff I love — and the sort of stuff I actually sort of fear writing down, because too much of it can turn an otherwise sensible chapter into an encyclopedia entry. (I say this as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun as a child, so it doesn’t always occur to me that other people might not find that sort of chapter interesting. It’s something I have to check myself on — or be checked on by others).

But sometimes I just plain need that encyclopedia entry, at least for my own head. In order to find the places where I can drop a casual reference, hint at a larger world, I need to take it out of the blurry background noise of my brain and shape it into something concrete. And frequently, I find I need to do that sort of brainstorming by hand.

Thing is, once I get started, it’s a little hard to stop. Sometimes, that means I end up with notebooks stuffed with lists and diagrams. Sometimes, it means I end up with a 13X300 spreadsheet detailing every single magically-gifted citizen of a fictional incarnation of the city of Rome.

Just, y’know. Hypothetically.

So, as a quick update and a teaser, I thought I’d share what a few of those world-building documents have looked like over the past couple of weeks. Plus, a chance for y’all to see just how bad my handwriting is.

The blood going to it: On Depressed Creativity

I use to write like this. It was 10 months ago. I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different. I’m sorry, we don’t know each other but there aren’t that many people I can talk to about it. I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s no blood going to it. I’ve never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look.

That’s a quote from Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, and it’s something that’s long resonated with me.

I haven’t blogged here in the past couple of months, and I wish I could say that’s because I’ve been devoting all my typing to productive writing. Some days, that’s been true. Many days, it hasn’t been. Many days, it’s been a definite struggle to put myself in front of the laptop and get even a few hundred words down.

Part of it has been my everyday life being quite busy, both at the day job and socially. There are, after all, only so many hours. But part of it has been depressed creativity. It’s hard to find the love, to find the juice, to find the blood when you feel stagnated. Being on sub is a rough place to exist as a writer, especially one hoping to make a solid debut. (There aren’t as many posts covering the submission process as there are for querying, but there are some fairly good ones out there — and this one absolutely nails what it feels like). Writing takes a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of energy. When you feel like the wheels are just spinning in mud and kicking up gravel, it’s hard to keep going — hard to feel like the words you’re carving out are anything worthwhile.

But. You have to.

More accurately, have to.

I wrote over 3000 words yesterday, and 3000 today, and all actually on the correct project, not scattered all over the place in drips and drabbles of assorted nonsense. These have definitely the best writing days I’ve had since mid-May.

It reminds me that I can. It reminds me of my ability and of my passion for the words. It reminds me that I have stories inside me that want to be told.

And it reminds me that I need to suck it up, cupcake. This isn’t a game for whiners or quitters.

The Paleontology of Plotting

As I jubilantly expressed on twitter last night, I’ve found a plot!

Finding a plot is rarely, I think, like tripping over an unconsidered trifle or discovering a lost item during a ramble through the woods. It’s more like paleontology. You know there’s something under there — at least you’re pinning a lot of hope and faith and hard work on it — but there’s no guarantee that it’ll turn out to be worth finding, or that it’ll be unique, or that it’ll be something anyone else wants to look at.

paleontology_dynamic_lead_slideFirst you dig deep, just to make sure you’re in the right place. I’ve tried starting a few different projects since finishing my last round of Aven edits, and none of the others have gotten past this stage. Sometimes you just plain realize that you’re digging in the wrong spot. That can be frustrating, but I think it’s an important awareness to have. Better to let go of something that isn’t working early, shift your location, and try again, rather than spending valuable hours of your life just moving dirt around. When I back off of a project, it doesn’t go away entirely. I just put a pin in it, hoping — intending — to return later. Aven started life in 2007 as something completely different. I never wrote more than about 10k on it, though, before I realized it wasn’t coming together at all. In 2011, I started over from scratch — and that’s the project that’s carried me through several Nanos. I tried again, and that time I struck true.

So, once you know there is something there worth unearthing, you chip away until you can see the shape of the thing. Is it the thing you thought it was? Or a slightly different species of story? Is it contorted oddly in some place? Is it tangled up with something else? Do you have as much as you thought, or are there bits missing? For me, a lot of this happens in the process of writing itself. I am, in Nano terminology, a pantser, not a plotter. I discover so much while actively writing. It’s not the framework that suits everyone, but it’s wonderful to me — it helps make sure that when I sit down to work, I’m always excited for it.

Then, finally — and this might not happen until later editing phases — you get out the tiny brushes, and you clear off every last bit of debris. Get rid of everything unnecessary so that your final project really gleams, bright and brilliant. This might take a damn long time, and it requires a lot of close focus — but the reward isn’t just a cohesive and impressive whole. You might also learn something new about individual moments, just by spending so much time honing them. I often don’t even write an outline until this point, especially now that Scrivener makes it so simple to keep notes on what happens when — but once I’ve got the shape of a thing generally patterned out, then the outline can be useful to spot gaps or places where some scenes might need to be shifted around — to line up the vertebrae, if you’ll allow me to keep extending this metaphor. (I really love dinosaurs, so it comes easily).

Last night, I jammed a shovel into the earth, and I came up with the first sign that, yes, there is something worth uncovering here.

This is doubly exciting because it doesn’t happen to me a lot. I am, in defiance of Aristotle, a writer who puts Character first. All my stories start with character — as did this one. Perhaps it’s because I am, in some ways, too much a historian. I tend to see people, and the conflict I like best comes out of them crashing into each other. Which is great in my head, but doesn’t always involve the sort of fast pace or high-stakes-drama that the genres I write in require. Fantasy wants the strong beginning, middle, and end that history rarely has — since it, y’know, goes on indefinitely in either direction. It needs, if not an explicit quest, something quest-like, something that drives the characters beyond the bounds of their normal life. So as I was moodling around this new project, I started to feel a familiar pinch of concern: Yes, Morris, you’ve got some interesting personalities milling around an intriguing setting. Some of them like each other and some of them don’t. But what are they going to do?

But, this time, in finding character, I found a new system of magic. And in finding that system of magic, I found the Exciting Incident — the first shape of an object I can start chipping away at — a cataclysmic change, really, for my main characters, something that disrupts their paradigm and forces them to construct a new one, against the ticking clock of threats from without and within.

And that, I think, shall be the challenge that drives the book.

It also gave me a working title, which is super-helpful, since naming things gives them power. So at least for now, this WIP will be called The Seventh Star.

Mind you, I’ve got a what, but I don’t yet know a lot of the how. I have some characters that I don’t know how they fit into the plot (and they might not ever — Aven had its share of discarded characters who were great in my head but never made it to a page anyone else saw). I still have a lot of tinkering to do when it comes to working out the magical system. I need to do some research about a particular kind of warfare and city defense. I’m not quite sure what the end game’s going to look like. But that’s okay. I’ll find out.

So enough nattering to you all about it. I’m off to spend a weekend digging!

#WhyNaNo?

For anyone who missed it, there was a pretty incredible National Novel Writing Month chat on twitter today: #WhyNaNo. It’s part of #NaNoPrep — a chance for veteran Nanoers to talk about what keeps us coming back and to convince the potential newbies to join in the madness. The conversation was lively and inspiring, and it got me thinking about my own reasons for Nanoing over the years.

Why (quoteymcquote)Why did I start to Nano? To show off. 2001, senior year of high school, and I mostly wanted to prove that I could. And I did! Though it was far from good — a lot of self-indulgence, a lot of waffling, a lot of fanfiction muddled with original stuff (not that there’s anything wrong with fanfic). But I did 50k in a month, and it felt good. My friends and I read bits of it aloud at lunchtime and giggled a lot, and their encouragement kept me going.

Why did I keep Nanoing? I discovered how much I liked it. And I wanted to keep showing off. In college, it was pretty easy. For as much as college students complain about overwork, even at William & Mary (where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1693), I had free time. And finals weren’t till December, which left me days after Nano to write those papers. So I kept pounding out stories that, in retrospect, weren’t very good. But some of that went to creative writing classes as well, and one of them held the seed of a project that I still turn over in my mind every couple of years, hoping to find the right angle on it. And someday I will.

Why did I stop Nanoing? Graduate school happened to me. And a working adult life happened to me. Man alive can those things, however wonderful they are, suck the ability and the energy for creative writing out of you. Particularly, in my case, because I was doing so much academic writing (and still do, at work), which is an entirely different skill set. My graduate thesis left no room in  my brain for creative endeavors, and for the first year I was working, it was just too hard to come home and make myself sit down in front of a blank screen again. I gave up on Nano for a couple of years the same way I’d given up on almost all creative writing.

Why did I start Nanoing again? Because I hated that I’d given up on creative writing. I knew I still had stories in me. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was eleven, and I hated that I’d lost sight of that. So I used Nano as a kick in the ass to find it again. And it worked. Aven began life in Nano 2011. It bears little resemblance now to what it was then, but that was the start. I immersed myself in a new world for the first time in years, and I gloried in it. I got back into the habit, and I’ve managed to keep it up in the three years since. 1667 words a day no longer scares me. 3000 words a day is a stretch, most of the time, but I know it’s not impossible, so it doesn’t scare me either. One Sunday during this past summer of revisions, I managed over 6000 words in a day. That Nano was a major step on the path of turning me into a working writer, not just someone who daydreams about being a writer. I made myself do it, discovered that I could, and decided that I must.

Why do I keep Nanoing? For the joy. It’s still a great activity. I’ve Nanoed and Camp Nanoed these past few years, with varying degrees of success. I used the Camps of the Summer 2012 to finish Aven‘s first draft, so those went well. But sometimes I fall on my face — life gets in the way. Or, it’s been a month where editing and revising Aven took precedence over creating something new. I don’t beat myself up about it — I know I have the habits now. I know I can’t write 3k or even 1k every single day of my life. But Nano got me into the pattern of doing it regularly, of always working on something, new or old. I do like being able to participate properly in November, though — there’s a delicious energy to it, the mania of keeping up, the excitement in the forums, the challenges and sprints and encouragement on Twitter.

Why will I Nano this year? If I do, that is. It will depend on where Aven is, really. It’s likely that it will be out to editors, and I’ve learned that the very worst thing I can do is look at the manuscript while it’s out with others, because that will just make me crazy. So, if that’s the case, I’ll Nano, for the joy, and for something to keep me occupied while we’re waiting to hear back. It’ll be a challenge this year, since I’ll be spending the first week of November at Disney World — but I’ll give it a go anyway. Just to see what I can do.

So how many of y’all have Nanoed before? What drove you to it? What have you gotten out of it?

Writing Habits Questionnaire

Saw this over at Jodie Llewellyn’s blog and, well, I’ve always been a sucker for a good survey, so here goes!

1. Typed or Handwritten?

Mostly typed these days, though it was not always so. Between the ages of 11 and 18 I filled about two dozen five-subject notebooks with reams upon reams of handwritten stories (a lot of Star Wars fanfic, a lot for various Broadway musicals, but a lot of original stuff, too). At first it was because I didn’t have a computer of my own (oh, the days of sharing time on the family desktop), plus it was, well, easier to sneak writing in during classes, since it just looked like I was taking notes. I know; I was terrible. My punishment is that I never learned how to calculate terminal velocity. (At least writing fanfic during class kept my narcoleptic self awake).

2. Cursive or Printed?

Hybrid. Sort of a connected print, I guess? Perhaps because I used to handwrite so much, my handwriting is, er, pretty distinctive. Here, I’ll just show you…

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Yeah. It’s been described many times by various unconnected people as “beautiful, but completely illegible”. I can read it. (Most of the time). And there are patterns to its oddities. Internal vowels tend to disappear. I forget to dot ‘i’s — or else I will dot an ‘i’ that got omitted in the word itself (this happens in my signature all the time). Anything with a lower loop is going to seriously encroach upon the line beneath it. I show a definite right-leaning slant. I have a really strange tendency to add serifs to capital letters. The words “if” and “it” often morph into single characters, as has “ng”. And any word with more than one loopy or bumpy letter in a row is just pretty well doomed to turn into a helpless squiggle (another problem with my signature).

All of which is why if I actually need to handwrite for someone else’s eyes, I tend to use block letters.

3. Show us your favourite pen.

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Blue ink Pilot G-2s all the way, baby. Since, like, ever.

4. Where do you like to write?

The beach. Not literally on the beach, sand not being particularly conducive to laptops, but my parents have a house on the Outer Banks, and it’s pretty much my favorite place in the world. I either write upstairs, at a lovely big table, or out on the deck. Both are comfy, conducive to spreading out any reference material I need, and within easy distance of the snack cabinets and drinks cooler.

Unfortunately, with that option only open to me about two weeks out of the year, I spend most of my time writing at the card table that currently serves as the centerpiece of my living room. I have a desk. But it’s currently in a room I don’t like being in as it’s mostly used for storage, so… yeah, lack of functionality there. I also sort of feel like it’s worn out its styling for me.

Here’s my desk at my day-job office. I just switched to this one from something much larger and bulkier, and I quite like this — something like it would be okay for home, though I’d really love if it could be something convertible to a standing desk.

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5. Who are your five favorite authors in terms of authorial style?

Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, Jacqueline Carey, Julia Quinn, Preston&Child (counts as one). A couple of those do, I know, trend towards somewhat effusive prose and overblown rhetoric, but, well, so do I.

6. What are you your three favourite books on writing?

Honestly? I haven’t read many. None that I could tell you the authors of off the top of my head. I know I had a couple of really excellent screenplay writing guides back in undergrad, but screenwriting is a different beast. The pattern and form is everything; originality is of less value. Mostly I figure when it comes to novels, you get better at writing by writing and by reading a lot of excellent voices (see above). Not through instructional guides.

7. Have you ever competed in NaNoWriMo?

Many times! Off and on since 2002. I think the years I missed were when I was directing a play, when I was writing a Master’s thesis, and… I can’t remember the third, but I feel like there was one. And I’ve done several Camp Nanos, too, often to help round out projects I started during Nano proper.

8. Have you ever won NaNoWriMo?

Several of those many times. Every time in the last few years, since I’ve been out of school and have been able to get really serious about my output.

9. Have you ever had anything published?

Fiction? Working on it. 😉 Nonfiction – a couple of articles and papers in my day-job field, along with 18 teacher’s guides which my company has self-published.

10. What projects are you working on now?

Working on the second book of Aven, since we’re currently subbing Book 1 to publishers, so that if, y’know, all goes well, I’ve got a head start on myself. Also working on The Antares Project, a steampunk novel (in case all doesn’t go well with the first project; I’m a firm believer in always having another project to fall back on).

11. What is your soundtrack to writing?

Documentaries. I actually have another post in the pipeline about this, but I’m someone who definitely needs background noise. Sometimes special-made playlists will do the trick — I tend to make new ones for new projects, characters, themes, etc — but often, I turn to Planet Earth, The History of Britain, and others of that ilk. I like them because I can tune them out so readily, but when I need a brain break, I can tune back in and learn something.

12. Do you have a writing pump-up song?

The second half of this:

Here I go and there’s no turning back
My great adventure has begun

I may be small but I have giant plans
To shine as brightly as the sun
I will blaze until I find my time and place
I will be fearless
Surrendering modesty and grace
I will not disappear without a trace
I’ll shout and start a riot
Be anything but quiet