Creative Advice, Pickle Lemonade, Writing Tips

Pickle Lemonade: Getting Blocked

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It was delicious, fyi.

This is a new series of posts that will deal with making the best out of a bad situation. Because when life gives you lemons, you can definitely make lemonade. But when life gives you pickle juice…wtf are you supposed to do with that?

If you’re a creative individual, you have probably run yourself into walls on several occasions. The dreaded ‘block.’ Sometimes it’s a full on creative constipation: nothing comes out no matter how much you try and you’re just stuck in an uncomfortable funk. Other times, you start a piece, get halfway through and then have no clue how to move forward.

No matter which one you’re dealing with, it sucks. Nothing, short of a nasty rejection or an asshole-ish piece of ‘constructive criticism,’ feels worse than just not being able to create when that’s all you want to do. But there is a particularly fresh hell to the latter. You’ve jumped into a new project with all the vim and vigor of a newborn god, you’ve gotten right into the thick of it and then…you have a half-made mess of meat and gunk that it supposed to turn into a life. You stare at it, completely at a loss as to how to breathe air into this amalgam of half-formed gobbledy-gook.

What do you do now?

Here are a few tricks you could try to loosen up and get to that sweet, sweet place of completion.

  • Re-establish the end goal: This works with both writing and visual art. For a story, it can be, “I want this character to die and this character to parade over his corpse.” For a painting, it can be, “I want this red wet wheelbarrow with white chickens.” Sometimes you have to know the end destination before you get on the road.
  • Work backward: Once you have an idea of where you’re ending, think about what needs to lead up to that. This doesn’t have to be fully formed or permanent, but just decide what needs to happen to get to that place you established as the end.
  • Give it some space (but not too much space): Maybe your piece needs to do its own thing for a while. Maybe you’re suffocating it with your constant dialogues about ‘what it should be’ and ‘why don’t you love me enough to finish yourself.’ That’s annoying me just thinking about it. Step back and do something else. Even an hour away can make a big difference. And when you come back, bring chocolate. On that note, though, don’t give it so much room to itself that you never come back. That way leads to tragedy.
  • Get back to your roots: Ultimately, no matter what ‘audience’ you’ve decided you are creating for, your enjoyment and personal fulfillment comes back down to what you would want to consume. Look at books, movies and pieces of art that touch you. Think about what makes you come back to them time and again. Is there an element there that your own work is missing? Build off that. Just make sure you don’t copy. Then you’re being a dick.
  • Write about it: Get out a piece of paper, open up a new Google doc, or just turn on a voice recorder and start talking it out. Be frank and open with yourself about your goals for the piece that’s giving you problems. Ask yourself why you got into it in the first place. What was the ideal scenario for after it was finished? What scenes did you really want to show? Where is your life going? Actually, keep that last one for another project entirely otherwise you might be stuck there all night.

Have you gotten stuck on projects you’ve started? What finally kicked things loose? Did you keep going with it or did it turn into something else entirely?

 

Creative Advice, NaNoWriMo, Writing, Writing Tips

Editing a Monster: Index Card Therapy

I’ve mentioned before that I’m still editing my monster of a novel I did during last year’s NaNoWriMo. And y’all? I do not like editing. I am not good at it. Ask me to write something – anything – any length – and I’ll do it. Ask me to take that mountain and whittle it down into a terrarium, and I lose my damn mind.

As I consider this crazy, meandering thing, I’ve found that I have a lot of characters. So I’m trying a technique that uses a tool I’ve read about many writers employing when they are working on books: index cards.

Here is the process I’m using. For now. Until I get tired of it. But you might find it helpful!

  1. Take an index card. Write the name of your character on the blank side, including possibly a picture if you have one or a brief physical description.
  2. On the back, it’s bullet list time. Write down what part you want that character to play — are they the hero? The villain? Someone’s foil?
  3. Next, write down what they want, ultimately. Their best case scenario. Where they seek to find themselves.
  4. Write down a few of their favorite things and who they are most linked to in the story.
  5. Write down what you like about the character. Maybe it’s their dialogue. Maybe it’s just the fact that they seem like someone you would want to be friends with (or, on the other hand, someone you’d like to be running from).

Now, take the cards and lay them out on a table or flat surface. How does your cast look? Did you struggle to find things to write about them? Are there characters you could put together into one MEGA AWESOME CHARACTER FUSION? If your book was a movie, would you want to see it?

Over the next few weeks leading up to NaNoWriMo, I’d like to talk more about my editing process. If there are any aspects to this you would especially be interested in hearing about, leave me a comment here or head over to my Facebook page! Or Twitter! Or homing dolphin!

Creative Advice, Writing, Writing Tips

Woe is You, Maybe, But WHOA is Me!

I read a piece in the New York Times today that I found during my nightly looksie of the Twittersphere. It was tucked away between political ramblings, San Diego Comic Con calm down and adorable doodles. It was about writers and their perspective on their body of work, and how there seems to be this constant malaise after pieces are done. According to this writer, at the end of the day, writers can’t even stand to look at what they’ve done, and there is this terrible feeling of disappointment.

And I found myself tipping my head and feeling really, really sad.

During my twenties, I owned the whole image of ‘serious’ writers as these downtrodden, perpetually anxious, sighing lot. “Writers are supposed to be miserable,” I was essentially told. “Happy writers aren’t good writers.” Being a writer meant, if the ‘classic’ examples were to be any indication, hating the process, loathing the words themselves and doing it because it was a calling. For if we did not, then who would? It all came off very masochistic. And not even in the good way.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to the twenty-something me, shake her a little and go, “Yeah, okay, that’s garbage. Stop looking at that shit and go write something you’ll love.”

And I don’t just mean the content itself, but the whole process. Write something you’ll love making. Write something you’ll look forward to looking at. Write something that you can hand off to a friend and be like, “Hey, man, I wrote this thing. All of these words came out of my brainstuffs!” Don’t look at what you’ve written as some sort of reminder of your mortality or some posse of gargoyle antagonists sitting on your shelf, waiting for you to go to sleep so they can whisper thoughts of fear and failure in your ear. Put party hats on your books. Sure, the early stuff probably is ripe with terrible prose, but laugh at it the way you would at baby pictures.

Yeah, dude, we’re all going to die (unless someone is here and willing to give me robot parts, because seriously, sign me the eff up). So if you’re going to take on something as your art and you are going to be spending at least a decent portion of your waking hours doing it, then maybe you ought to at least like it, right?

5 Things, Writing, Writing Tips

5 Writer Reminders

  1. Not everything is going to be awesome. Still keep writing, though, anyway. You never know when one of those rocks is going to be a gem.
  2. Look at the world through the eyes of your pen. Make note of how things are, how things make you feel, and then put it into your work.
  3. If you are writing anything, you are doing more than a huge population of people in the world. Perspective: appreciate it.
  4. You can’t write all the time. Still try to.
  5. You are your own worst enemy. Worse than the rejections, worse than the critics, worse than all the people who smile and nod at you. Because they get to be outside of your head until you let them in.
5 Things, Writing, Writing Tips

5 Ways to Improve Dialogue

1. Go outside and listen to people talking. Restaurants, coffee shops, shopping malls and sporting events are all great places to see how people interact naturally. Make note of their emotional states and patterns of their speech. Do they pause at certain points? What words make them slow down or react?

2. Decide where your character is from and then seek out material from those locations. Youtube is a great resource for this. If it’s a language you know, listen to the radio stations for that area. If it’s a completely new place (a fantasy land or foreign planet) get a few ideas of what earmarks their local language may have.

3. Read your dialogue out loud. With others, if possible. You can usually tell immediately if something sounds contrived or unnatural. Is the emotional force of the scene being communicated in the words, or is the conversation too flaccid? If you can, try to improvise with people and record what works.

4. Learn how to format dialogue in prose. This may sound like a ‘duh’ but I can’t tell you how many issues I’ve seen that have been caused by lack of clarity resulting from poor dialogue tagging and misinterpreted writing.

5. Tap into how you feel. When two lovers are talking to each other, do you get warm fuzzies? Do you get nervous when the hero and the villain are at each other’s throats? Do you get teary when characters are saying goodbye for the last time? Even if you aren’t having a dramatic response, your heart should have some sort of reaction to your writing. If it’s not, ask yourself why.

Creative Advice, Writing Tips

Managing Writing Goals

My office is filled with the sound of constant tapping, and I am aware that I have been at this for hours now. I check my word count. So proud. I scroll through the pages. It’s good. Very good.

And then I think of another project.

And another.

And two blogs.

That have been untouched.

I fizzle. My writing heart deflates like a cartoon balloon, pbbt-ing into nothingness.

Sometimes I can keep writing despite this sudden paperweight of anxiety and uncertainty, but it is hard. So, I took some time out to start piecing apart my goals and projects, and I would encourage you to do the same if you find yourself going, “This is all well and good but what about [other project]? Should I be doing that?”

  • Stop and ask, “Who am I right now? What is important to me?” If the answer is, “I am a person with a very hectic day job and I need the escapism that writing can afford me,” then maybe it means that you should manage your time more around pleasure writing than searching for marketing ideas.
  • Pick three flavors. Your writing life is an ice cream store. You get up to three scoops. No more. So which ones do you want to try right now? If you want to edit your book, manage your blog and finish that short story, maybe you could wait to start that parody zine.
  • Ask yourself if the problem is you or the clock. Do you actually not want to be doing a given task, or are you just poorly managing your time and energy? Step back with a spreadsheet that has your day broken down by 15 minute increments. Color-code everything that you have to do, and then break up the rest into what you want to do. Stick to that.
  • Always keep a sticky note of “Do Unto Others.” It’s one thing to lose sight of your own projects, but if you have a commitment to someone else, be sure that you are factoring that in.

What sort of tactics do you use to manage your time? Are you good at keeping track of everything or do you get easily distracted by the squirrels?

5 Things, NaNoWriMo, Writing, Writing challenge, Writing Tips

Looking Over My Shoulder

It’s been three days since NaNoWriMo ended, and it all feels very weird. There’s this huge gap in my day-to-day schedule, like going from taking classes to summer vacation. When I’m not at my day job, I feel aimless. I’ve started keeping lists just so I don’t feel like I’m not doing anything at all.

NaNoWriMo was really, really hard. I did the bare minimum, writing almost every day with the exception of a day or two in the first week as well as Thanksgiving. I was never scrambling to catch up on more than a few thousand words, which I am obscenely grateful for. High five, November Katie.

Here are 5 lessons I learned from NaNo 2015:

  1. Never be afraid to go in without a plan. A general idea is great, sure, but the real magic truly does come when you pick up from where you left off and springboard into a random event. How your characters react may end up being super natural because even you didn’t know it was coming!
  2. Decide what you know you can do each day and make that your goal. I know now that I can comfortably write about 1,000 words in roughly an hour. Sometimes I get a momentum and head forward, others I get really ‘meh.’ But now I know I can do that, and I’m going to use that as my baseline.
  3. You have time. Now, I know I’m saying that from a place of not having kids, but I think in general that people have more time than they realize. When you are trying to fit in a specific amount of work each day, you’ll be surprised where you can carve out the opportunity. It’s just easier to say “I don’t have time.”
  4. You can do it. Just don’t get caught in analysis paralysis. It’s easy to go, “Oh god, I don’t know where this scene is going to go. I don’t even know if this book is good. Should I start over? Maybe I should go to veterinary school instead.” Just open the document and start writing. Pick up where you left off and go, even if it’s just to a scene where one of the characters goes to the bathroom. It’s something, and something will happen after they go to the bathroom.
  5. Take every ounce of writing advice with a grain of salt. Not even that. Half a grain of salt. A thought of salt. There is so much “guidance” out there telling you what is the “right” way to put a book together and how “wrong” it is to do something and how a certain method is the way “all writers do it.” By all means, listen, but try different things. Break rules. Say, “Thanks, dude, but I’m going to do this instead.” Nobody is 100% right. Because otherwise every book – every style, every voice, every story – would sound exactly the same.

Phew. Now what, world?

Writing

Writing Tip: It’s Getting Drafty

It’s been a while since I talked about writing, but I wanted to get back to my “roots” a little with this post. It’s a topic I feel like I wish I had really understood better when I was getting started writing, because it involves something that gets thrown around a lot: drafts.

If you did any essays in high school or college, you know basically what a rough draft is. It is the first down and dirty start to finish. It’s where, after you’ve mapped everything out, you write the story itself. You may feel in the middle that it’s really not going so hot, but you keep slogging through it anyway. Usually, the end kind of sucks because you’re like, “I’m so sick of this, and I just want it to be over.” Your story loses its virginity on the rough draft, and sometime it’s okay but more often than not it’s a hot mess.

So next, we have the first draft. This, for me, is when I go through the rough draft and figure out where things aren’t making sense, where dialogue is coming up short, and which parts really need to go. I like to get this draft done pretty much on the heels of getting the rough draft complete, because even though I know I was tired of writing the thing, I still have that clear picture of how I want this to go, and I’m going over the sketch in ink. Also, this is where I catch a lot of those crazy commas that seem to pop up everywhere.

Also, the first draft is what I give to people to look at. And you need to give your work to people to look at. I used to think I didn’t have to. I used to believe that I would catch everything. But I didn’t. And you won’t. And I love you and I support you but you have to find at least one person who you can trust with your (he)art. Be straight with them. Tell them you are scared. Tell them you don’t want to get hurt. If it’s a group, go to a few sessions beforehand and get a feel for how they roll. Some groups are big into the “we just want to get everyone writing,” Feel Good Inc. motivational song and dance. Others are gritty and believe that to get a diamond, you need to beat the crap out of some coal. Hint: your story is the barbecue bait, baby.

After you’ve gotten people to look at it, you can start to hammer out your second draft. “What?!” you shriek. “Another draft?! What the flatbread sandwich?! This should be the last!” See, the second draft is where you’ve dotted all the i’s, crossed all the p’s, cut the q’s. You know what suggestions to take and which ones to politely decline. Then…you stop.

Stop. Put it away. Take it off your desktop. Stick it in a drawer. Go outside. Have a beer. Hug a friend. Don’t touch that story again for at least a few days, a week, even a month if you have other things you can work on. You’ll know it’s been long enough after you do this a few times.

Then, BOOM. Final draft time. Go through it again. Is the story solid? Are there any characters that could get the ax without affecting things? Does your dialogue make you feel squirmy? Is this something you would yell at your friends to read, or would you announce its publication in a sort of mumbly way? Fold, stamp, send.

How many versions does your story go through? Is there a system that works for you? Tell me about it!