The Only Way To Write…

I spent all day stuck, not writing, because I couldn’t work out a way for the Doctor to meet Miss Hartigan… I couldn’t work out how to do it, where to do it, when. All day, gone. Pissed off. Then I sat down to write, with no solution and… thought of it! Immediately. Obvious. Simple. If I’d started sooner…Ah, the only way to write is to write. For all my banging on about what to do if you’re really stuck on something, there’s nothing dumber than sitting there writing nothing at all. Stupid bastard job.

Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale

I love this quote from Russell T. Davies.  It lingers in the back of my mind all the time, because I have lived it often enough to know it is true for me, and I find it immensely comforting that someone who has had as much success as him, still struggles with it.

So today, I sat down to write, facing two scenes that were overwhelming me. Well, I thought, the only way to write is to write…

I wrote one scene, and quickly realized that the other scene didn’t need to happen. I could get the emotional punch from this one, that I was worried about dragging out over two different scenes. Woo-hoo!

I focused on the characters and one prop in the room, along with one piece of information I wanted the readers to glean. And I wrote.

It’s not perfect, but it’s written. And I think it has some moments.

Here’s one:

Jimmy flung himself into Audrey’s chair, swiveling it around to glare at me. “What in the hell do you think you’re playing at?” It started as a growl and ended as a roar. The thin partition walls of the office shook as his words battered their way through them, no doubt to the delight of Wee Kevin, sitting on the other side.

“Wh-what?” I managed. I was trembling now, and that sparked a curl of anger deep in my stomach.

“I’ve just got off the phone with Pat McGillivray.” The growl was back, but with the promise future shouting. “And he tells me that you’ve been in there accusing [REDACTED] of murder.”

(Yeah, this one’s a murder mystery…)

And that’s what I remembered about writing today. That the only way to write is to write.

Stupid bastard job ;)

Carnegie Libraries

When I was growing up, the biggest town in the area had a lovely library known as “The Carnegie Library”.

When I worked at the local newspaper, I would be regularly dispatched to The Carnegie Library, which held the paper’s records both on paper and on microfiche. I would first leaf through the vast albums holding old papers, and pick out a fun/odd story from the edition from 150 and 100 years ago. Then I would go into a back room, mount the film on the viewer and scroll through more recent issues for a story from 50 years before.

At the time, I just thought “Carnegie” was our library’s name. It wasn’t until I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania and discovered that its library was also a Carnegie  library that I started to get curious.

Andrew Carnegie, via wikipedia

Of course, its all about Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron and philanthropist, who funded the building of libraries all over the place and famously opined that you should spend the first third of your life on your education, the second third making as much money as quickly as possible and the last third giving as much of that money away as you can.

And today, my novel’s protagonist went and spent some time in one of those Carnegie Libraries.

Everything is material…

Digging Deep

So, I’m in the middle of the novel. This is where all the fun stuff I’ve been setting up (characters, places, victims and suspects) has to be stirred and allowed to marinade, without getting boring for me or the reader.

I have to make things difficult for my heroine, in other words.

Part of me doesn’t want to, because conflict is messy and difficult and I tend to shy away from confrontations in real life. And what good is fiction if it’s not an escape from reality?

Well, there’s a school of thought that says fiction is more about reality that reality is! We use fiction to experience life’s discomforts in a safe way. If I want readers to be pulled in, I need to do that for them. So as the author, I guess fiction is double-ly NOT about escapism.

Oh well.

So, to help me drill down into the emotional heart of this section, I dipped into Donald Maass’s excellent The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He explains a topic (in this case “the emotional midpoint”) and asks you lots of pointed questions about that scene.

When I was in workshops Don lead a year ago, he led a whole ballroom full of writers though this process. Unlike when I’m reading his books, I couldn’t skip the exercise (well, I could have, but then it’d just have been me, sitting looking around and a couple of hundred other writers making their manuscripts better). I found it so ridiculously helpful to sit there and scribble backstory and exploratory notes, that I don’t skip over these parts of his writing books any more.

(I used to tell myself I was ‘saving them for later’. You can guess how often I came back and did the exercises.)

When I say ‘useful’, I don’t mean ‘easy’, and I’m quite proud of myself for pushing through, this morning. I not only fleshed out some possibilities for my character, I then switched into writing mode and finished off a scene i had started last week, then started a new one (for a total of 1267 new words. That’s 5500+ this month. Not spectacular, but chipping away, and not bad when I remember I researched, wrote and submitted an 1800 word article to a paying market, at the same time.)

I am trying to remind myself that it doesn’t all have to be right in the first draft. But I do need things to be roughly in the right places, and for the right reasons, so this kind of prep work is really useful.

I’m getting ready to be finished with this novel. Since I know what the big climax and conclusion are going to be, I feel a writing frenzy approaching. Some day soon, I’ll wake up, desperate to be finished. I’ll have two choices. I could give up, or I could realize I’m so far invested in this now that I really have to finish it, at which point I’ll feel compelled to write as fast as I can until I at least reach the end of the story.

After that, i can allow it to sit and stew for a bit before I come back to it with fresh eyes.

And that, I hope, is how this is going to work from here on out.

Switching It Up

Sometimes it can be good to create a writing routine:

  • Write at the same time every day
  • Write in the same place every day
  • Light the same scented candle
  • Play the same music for each project
  • Use these triggers to trick your brain into understanding that This Is Work Time

And sometimes, if you’re like me, all that repetition and familiarity sends your inner rebel into a tailspin.

I’ve been succeeding quite well with the writing routine recently, so today I deliberately stayed out, took my laptop with me, and sat and wrote in a public place for two hours. Haven’t been near my desk, with its scented candle and its bluetooth speaker and its perfectly-handy gadgets.

It was great!

(I used to feel back about my inability to stick to a routine, but now I have the Gallup/Clifton StrengthsFinder on my side. Apparently one of my skills is “Ideation” and the assessment encourages me to ‘make small changes in home and work, to keep you interested”. Ha! ‘Scuse me, I have to go and move the couch again…)

Confident Writers, We Hates Them

Today I got to interview two full-time writers who have multiple published books, awards and a movie deal or two between them.

I got a lot of good stuff from them, most I’m saving for the article I’m contracted to write, and most, sadly won’t make it in. It was all great stuff. Very inspiring.

(And no, I’m not going to tell you who they were. Yet.)

But one of them (who has published 14 books in the past 20 years and has had at least one movie made, based on them) ended our conversation by talking about started the next book, confessing, “I’m a nervous wreck…always.”

Then this accomplished author said something that I loved so much I wrote it out and stuck it to the wall, so I can see it from my desk:

People who are super-confident about writing? I don't trust them!

When The Student Is Ready

When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.

Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project:  DIY MFA.

This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.

But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.

I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!

Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?

Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read there books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears, as my old mate the Buddha apparently never said.

If you want to get in on the remaining webinars in Gabriela’s current series, here’s some info:

Perfect Your Plot, Structure Your Story – December 14

Rock Your Revisions – December 21

 

(Some links on this page—the webinars and the one to Scrivener—are affiliate links, but I never recommend anything I don’t believe in 100%.)

Being Kind To Future Julie

This morning I was working on a non-fiction project that has a real deadline and real paycheck attached.

After a couple of days of feeling under the weather it was a real joy to wake up feeling fine and energetic today.

But I did not let that fool me. I knew that there was still a real danger of me allowing myself to get derailed, stuck or caught in a loop of procrastinatoin if I wasn’t vigilant.

So I did all the things I’m supposed to do: I got dressed in clothes that are semi-professional looking; I put on my tiny, desktop humidifier with the hinoki essential oils (which Is supposed to make me smarter, but which in reality is just something I’m using to trigger my brain to understand that We Are In Work Mode); I gathered all my notes and decided to focus only in a certain slice of the project; I activated Freedom to stop me accidentally surfing Facebook; and I set a timer for 45 minutes, to create some urgency and to promise myself a break. I even made a coffee date with a friend for this afternoon, so that I knew I couldn’t catch up on any missed time, later.

Sometimes all this works, and sometimes it doesn’t,

Today I decided to try another technique I’ve seen in productivity manuals. I tried to focus on Future Julie and how happy she would be when she has a finished draft that she can let sit for a few days. I thought about how grateful Future Julie would be when not struggling under the weight of a huge amount of work, and how happy she would be that she could work on what remains, with a lightness that would not otherwise be there. I picture Future Julie finishing up a really kickass article because she wasn’t horribly stressed.

And today, at least, it  worked.

 

 

Future Julie Thanks Past Julie

[NB The Amazon links in this article are affiliate links]

The Playlist of The Book

Spotify thumbnails for Spiked!The novel I’m currently writing is set in 1986.

To get me in the mood, I created a custom playlist in Spotify, containing all kinds of groovy chart music that I was listening to back in 1986.

I looked up the UK chart hits from 1985 and 1986 and picked out all the stuff that I didn’t absolutely hate (interestingly, most of the stuff I left out was the stuff that my American friends remember fondly: American hair bands and such).

You can listen along, and then, when you read the novel, you’ll be sure to recognize the songs that get name-checked in the story!

Open the Spiked! playlist in Spotify

Recharging The Batteries

Batteries
I love sitting alone in a room, with just my ideas and the silence and the limitless possibilities of my imagination.

But there are days when I really envy people with bosses, and other people looking over your shoulder, and all the trappings of a job, to keep you honest.

On days when I am tired, or under the weather, or when I make the mistake of looking at the news before I start work, it can be hard to force myself to switch into creative mode. Which project to work on? Let me think: which one feels the least like heavy lifting? None of them? Well, there’s no one watching, maybe I’ll just watch a clip of Colbert…and this video of some actor being interviewed, and this news show about something depressing…and how can three hours have passed?!

Recharging The Batteries

The best thing I can say about today – work wise- is that I did some recharging of the creative batteries.

[update: 7:09 pm: Success! I went out to a coffee shop and fired up the laptop. Something about only having 40 minutes stripped away all the insecurities and I added a few hundred words to my novel. More fun than that: I had my character flipping through some photographs of suspects only to discover a face she never expected to see! I hadn’t expected to see it either, and it certainly puts the cat amongst the pigeons…but not in a way that overly-complicates things. Just makes it more fun. Wheee!]

I read this interview with Ridley Scott about replacing a Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in a film that is coming out next month. The man turns 80 next month and his work ethic and excitement for what he does, leaps out of the words.

And I watched this interview with a great Gerwig, who was super-excited about doing more of her work.

The absolute best thing about the day, though, was getting to walk into town through perfect autumn weather, for a sneaky wee lunch date with my man. (Aw!)

The Antidote To The News

Whenever I let the misery of current events get to me, there is no better cure than to tune my brain to someone who is doing what they do, and doing it with love and zest and near-maniacal passion. I don’t even care what “it” is. There is something energizing and kind of sexy about anybody doing something they love.

So: What do you do to recharge your batteries?

Storyboarding

One of the reasons I write is to get the ideas out of my hamster-wheel brain and into some kind of organized form.

It’s one of the reasons I like writing non-fiction. Fiction is a blast, but non-fiction feels like solving a puzzle.

MIND MAPS AND SOMETHING MORE

When I’m in the early stages of a project, I’m a big fan of the mind-map. You know, those big spidery diagrams that allow ideas to spill out of your brain in any direction, and land, semi-bundled, on branches on the page.

Usually, that’s enough to keep me on track.

Today I was working on an article and I felt I needed something a little more structured, but I can’t get behind a simple list. Lists just feel so…linear. And un-visual. (That’s not a real thing, is it?)

I’ve been taking notes in Penultimate — the Evernote hand-writing note-taking app. I discovered, when I clicked ‘new note’, that they offer a ‘storyboard’ template, along with their ruled pages and blank pages and dotted pages and all kinds of other templates.

So I gave it a try.

And now my article is neatly divided into four sections with goofy sketches a the top to remind me what each section is meant to be about.

StoryBoarding

Now I’m thinking that might be a better way to go for my novel revision, too.

A CHANGE IS AS GOOD AS A REST

I’ve heard people talk about storyboards before, but I could never see how I, a non-artist, non-film-maker, could make them work for me. I’ve been around long enough to know that if I try something just because it sounds cool and new, my productivity drops off while I learn the method, then it may never be a method I need.

But sometimes I get kind of stuck and need to try something new. That was me, today.

I was faced with the prospect of being overwhelmed by a wall of notes. Creating these storyboards, complete with sketches, helped me signpost my way through them.

FORCING IT VS. FINDING IT

Sometimes forcing something new into your process slows you down. Sometimes trying something new reinvigorates your process.

Today’s experiment was a win.