Blocked? Don’t Fight It

I struggled with writing this article all month. Ideas came to mind only to fizzle once I began researching them. Then when one finally took root, some unidentifiable force ran interference between the page and me while simultaneously tapping its wrist with its finger and the floor with its toe, saying, “C’mon! You have a deadline!”

Blocked when faced with the blank page yet pressured by the tick-tick-tick that sounded more like a time bomb than a clock filled me with panic and my head with “what ifs” that multiplied like rabbits: What if I don’t make my deadline? What if my article isn’t helpful? What if I sound stupid, or pompous? What if people don’t like it—or me? What if … what if … what if … ?

Sound familiar?

I’ve long ago learned that the creative spirit cannot be forced to perform according to my, or anyone else’s, dictates. Nor does it give a rip about deadlines. Rather, it’s like a stream of water breaking away from the river and carving its own path through dry land—it moves when and where it will and at its own pace. Trying to “push the river,” as I call it, only results in drowning in my own frustration. So, stymied, I did the only thing I could: surrender. And then I did the next best thing: I parked on the couch and lost myself in my current guilty pleasure: episodes of the series Brothers and Sisters, along with a hefty bowl of salted caramel ice cream. Since I couldn’t write, I may as well relax and enjoy myself, I reasoned.

After an hour of blissful escapism, there was a scene where Nora and Kitty were commiserating over a bottle of wine, when Nora said, “You won’t do anyone any good by pretending to be less than what you are.” I bolted upright as if struck by lightning. Grabbing my pen and paper, I began writing, “what ifs” finally in the backseat, where they belong.

I can’t explain how Nora’s well-timed words broke through my block, but I know it had something to do with my surrendering. A power struggle with writer’s block never ends well for the writer, as, like struggling in quicksand, the block will always win. Rather, I’ve learned the only way out is to lay down my will, give up the fight, and let the creative spirit lead me through the chaos of creativity—this time where it wants to go, not where I do.

I no longer view writer’s block as an enemy. Rather, it’s a reminder that once again I’m trying to play it safe and control the uncontrollable. I don’t know about you, but I like guarantees, such as readers’ and editing clients’ positive reactions, and am sometimes leery of veering off the beaten path. But playing it safe requires that I be less than who I am, and as Nora said, then I won’t do anyone any good. And doing others some good, even in a small measure, is why I write and edit in the first place.

The Necessity of Slowing Down

Fast food. Microwaves. Speed dating. Twitter. Life today runs like the scrolling electronic tickers at the bottom of financial television shows. And writing is no exception. Just the other day, I happened across a book online touting how to write, market, and publish a bestseller (of course) in less than three months!

I don’t know about you, but everything in me resists this frenzied and ever-increasing pace. Although I may appear calm and steady, inwardly my default setting is a cross between the Energizer Bunny and that aggravating, cymbal-clanging monkey who does a back flip every five seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned how to achieve and maintain my equilibrium, but the lure to the Land of Busybusybusy is relentless, ever nipping at my heels.

So hearing novelist John Dufresne speak about the necessity of slowing down this past weekend at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute was like chocolate raining from heaven. Referring to his book Is Life Like this? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John said of the subtitle, “It’s a lie. I can’t do it.” (Apparently, his editor insisted on this subtitle over his protestations.) He then went on to say, “Slow down. Take your time,” and described his process for doing so. In the midst of my running from one information- and camaraderie-rich session to another, this successful, prolific author confirmed what my frazzled spirit already knew but needed reminding yet again: Slow. Down.

We’re told that moving at warp speed is a necessity if we are to achieve the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. But it’s a lie. All that brings meaning and beauty to life is not accomplished overnight. As it takes time for a fetus to develop in its mother’s womb before it’s ready to be birthed into the world, it takes time to create a transformative work of art, be it a book, a painting, a sculpture, or a rose garden. Ideas and stories, like babies and flowers, need time to incubate and germinate in the dark before they are thrust into the light of day.

So slow down. Take your time. Nurture your babies, literary and otherwise. Don’t push them into the world before they–and you–are ready. You’ll know it when you both are.

Reflections

As I reflect on this past year, I have had the privilege to bear witness to the achievements of many writers—and, in some cases, I have had the honor as an active participant in them. Some finished writing a book, and some started writing one. Some are days away from publication, and some are researching their options. Some created blogs and author websites, and some submitted to publications and contests. Some branched out and developed their skills in another genre, and some marketed their newly published treasure through readings, speaking engagements, social media, and book signings. And some are now brainstorming, researching, or actively writing their next book, and some are doing the same with their first book.

All of these are admirable achievements, and each one was accomplished through perseverance, commitment, and desire to communicate to the world through the author’s gift of writing. I applaud them all and am blessed to have each one of them in my life.

Wherever you are in your journey, I celebrate you. May you follow your heart in 2015.

Burnout

“If you don’t take some time off, your work is going to suffer.”

This inner admonition sliced through my murky, overwork-induced fog, snapping me to full, present-moment attention. The last thing I want is for my work or my health to suffer, and I had been diligent about taking time for and good care of myself. Still, my workaholic tendency to forge ahead like a steamroller gaining momentum had kicked in without my realizing it, and I was dangerously close to hitting the wall.

I was burned out, a very real condition that entrepreneurs of all stripes—and that includes writers—are prone to when their passion, coupled with an overdeveloped work ethic, blinds them to the reality that they are driving themselves way too hard.

Two months ago, I wrote that today’s authors are expected to be entrepreneurs; gone are the days when writers focused solely on writing and PR and marketing people did the promoting and marketing. Alas, today’s authors are responsible for it all, whether they traditionally or self-publish. Running in all directions and wearing all the hats, which for some may be exciting and invigorating, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism, depression, and a host of other maladies if one is not mindful of maintaining balance and a healthy perspective.

I’m grateful I took heed before my work had suffered and/or I had done serious harm to my physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Perhaps the fact that I was aware of my tendency to overdo helped me hear the instruction to slow down and pay attention to it—before it was too late.

And that’s the key to avoiding burnout: know thyself. First, know your basic nature. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need regular downtime to recharge your batteries. Second, know what downtime means for you. For some of you that may be white-water rafting with forty of your closest friends, for others of you that may be curling up with a good book with nothing but silence and solitude for companions. And third, know those pitfalls that ensnare you and those temptations that lure you into the rocky shoals when you least suspect. One of mine is “Oh, this will only take a minute.” Before I know it, an hour or more is shot because, along the way, I’ve stumbled across a few more things that “will only take a minute.” And, of course, this is in addition to that day’s initial to-do list.

Finally, take time for yourself daily, or at least weekly, and do those things that relax and refresh your mind and body and revive your spirit. And above all, listen to your inner wisdom. Loving what you do will result in a heap of ashes if you don’t love yourself first.

Platform and Marketing: The Difference

Recently on Facebook, one of my friends posted a photo of his book cover with the caption “On sale now…” What immediately followed, along with the 51 “Likes,” was a flood of comments: “Where can I buy it?” “Where is it on sale?” “Is it on Amazon?” “Is it available in kindle version?” “I want it on kindle version too!” One of his friends even shared it on his own FB page, saying, “He’s finally publishing!”

I, too, was excited. I read his rough draft two years ago and encouraged him to publish. This man is a survivalist and a world traveler and has tales to tell that not even Hemingway could have made up. I read further through the comments, hoping to find out where his book is available.

Then I came across his comment: “its not for sale … i just put it up there as a joke.” This, too, was met with a flurry of comments, one of which summed up the collective outrage: “yer a #@* … that would be a book a good few folk would like to read.” Frustrated, I couldn’t resist adding my own two cents. I wrote, “You have what every author dreams of—a market and a platform. You really ought to publish your book.”

In publishing, the first half of the battle is, of course, writing a good book; the second half is platform and market. Writers are often confused by what is meant by platform and market, and sometimes think they are the same thing. But they are not. Platform is an author’s visibility and reach to a specific audience to whom the author has a reputation as an authority in a specific area. Using my Facebook friend as an example, his platform is solid, as he has high visibility and reach with at least 300+ “friends” on Facebook that span the globe. In addition, his blog and YouTube videos, all pertaining to his adventures in the wild and life on the road and showcase his survival skills and gift for storytelling, have a significant following.

Market, on the other hand, is the group of people who want the information, stories, etc. from that author and will buy his books, attend his speaking events/book signings and seminars/webinars, and tune in to his televised or broadcast interviews. Again, using my FB friend as an example, his market is other survivalists/world travelers (and wannabes) along with personal friends who are salivating for his book, which is filled with salacious yarns and fascinating yet highly practical survival tips and techniques.

In traditional publishing, agents and editors are looking for authors who have a solid platform and an eager market clamoring for their book. And in self-publishing, these are just as important. But don’t despair if you don’t yet have either one. Building a platform and finding your market takes time, patience, persistence, ingenuity, and consistency. Keep showing up and don’t give up. My FB friend’s platform has been literally years in the making. And now it’s paying off.

The Write Stuff

One of my favorite people, agent-turned-author Nathan Bransford, blogged last week that writers “kind of have to have” an addictive personality. In his view, compulsive drive is necessary to finish something, whether it is a book or a crossword puzzle. My immediate reaction to Nathan’s premise was “No, they don’t!” as the stereotypical image of a writer well into his cups slouched over his keyboard with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a burning cigarette within easy reach filled my head. We certainly have our literary greats who fit this profile, such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but not all writers have addictive personalities. Or do they?

I recently spoke with one of my clients, a twice-published author, who said, “I’m finding that I’m now running a small business, whether I want to be or not.” And she was so right. Published writers today are–and must be–entrepreneurs. So this got me to thinking. Nathan says that writers “kind of have to have” addictive personalities, and I’ve long known that in today’s world published writers must be entrepreneurs. Is there a connection between the two?

Fueled by curiosity, I hit the Internet to research the characteristics of addictive personalities and those of entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by my findings. Both addictive personalities and entrepreneurs are:

  1.  Risk takers
  2.  Nonconformists
  3.  Passionate, at times even obsessive

Of course, this is not to say, or even imply, that all entrepreneurs are addictive personalities any more than all addictive personalities are entrepreneurs. What it does say, though, is that there is a connection. But whether these common traits prove to be the right stuff (self-empowering) or the wrong stuff (self-destructive) depends on various factors. But that’s a topic for another time.

None of us are perfectly well-adjusted; we all have our guilty (and not-so-guilty) pleasures and proclivities that we believe we can’t live without. The difference is the degree that we can’t live without them. So in the interest of good mental, spiritual, and literary health, all writers would be wise to tack to the wall above their writing space The 12 Steps of Queryers Anonymous, one of the most clever posts I have ever read. Of course, my personal favorite is Step 6: Became entirely ready to pay freelance editors to fix our manuscript.

I’m assuming that Nathan Bransford was referring to writers who seek publication in some form, and I’ve taken the same approach here. But remember: being a successful writer is how you define it for yourself.

Writing Groups: The Right One

Last month, I attended the UW-Madison Continuing Studies Writers’ Institute, which was tremendous. The last presentation of the Institute was a panel discussion about how to keep our enthusiasm for writing alive after the conference. Spending two or three full days attending back-to-back sessions all pertaining to writing-related topics, surrounded by and hobnobbing with editors, agents, bookstore owners, published authors, and other writers, breathes new life into our writing dreams. We realize once again that, yes, they are possible. We, too, can one day be the next Michael Perry or Anne Lamott, and we are flooded with renewed passion to make those dreams come to fruition. But then we get back to our everyday lives, and before we know it—poof!—our enthusiasm and passion—along with our dreams—have gone up in smoke.

So how do we maintain our passion and enthusiasm for our writing post-conference? At the top of the panel’s list: join a writers group if you haven’t already done so.

A good writers group does several things:

  • takes you and your writing seriously
  • encourages and supports your accomplishments
  • helps you become a better writer through praise and constructive criticism
  • helps you stay focused by providing a deadline—the kick in the pants all writers need
  • refers you to copyeditors, proofreaders, cover designers, editors, agents, and writing classes and conferences

Having a consistent, equally committed group of people in your corner, and you in theirs, is a key factor that fuels the flame of enthusiasm in a writer’s spirit. Without it, all writers—and their writing dreams—perish.

However, notice that I said a good writers group. By “good” I mean one that is the right fit for you. For example, if you prefer a more structured format, a loose, informal one will most likely set your nerves on edge. And if you’re a gregarious Chatty Kathy, a group of serious No-Nonsense Neds will not be your crowd. As with dating, where we all must fish awhile before finding and hooking the “right one,” sometimes writers must shop around before they find the group that is the “right one.” So be patient. As in dating, the right one is worth the wait.

For those of you who don’t yet have a writers group, here are some helpful resources to aid in your search:

  • your local library
  • independent and big-box bookstores
  • writing.meetup.com (search by zip code)
  • www.writerscafe.org
  • start your own, in person or online Continue reading

Blah, Blah, Blah, Or How Much Dialogue Is Too Much?

The dialogue bubbles that appear on my smartphone in texts has got me thinking about dialogue (again), so I want to continue this topic from last month.

In response to last month’s article, one of my subscribers asked, “How much dialogue is too much?” That’s a good question and one that has no clear-cut answer. It all depends on the scene and the characters involved. However, there are two questions you can ask yourself to help ensure that your dialogue is concise, effective, and efficient.

1. Could more information be revealed through dialogue?

Many details, such as a character’s education level, age, and outlook on life, can easily be reflected in the words and tone in which he or she speaks, and thus alleviates the need for distracting backstory or asides. For example: “I ain’t got no time for all this gobbledigook!” This character is most likely elderly, uneducated, cantankerous, and cynical—all of which is conveyed in only nine words.

2. Can important information be revealed through actions or the use of punctuation rather than spoken words in the course of dialogue?

In other words, show rather than tell, a mantra all writers are familiar with. For example, through action:

“It’s time to leave.” Susan rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.

(rather than) “It’s time to leave,” Susan said, frustrated.

Through punctuation:

“I walked in the door and—”

“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim said.

(rather than) “I walked in the door and fell over the rug.”

“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim interrupted her.

In both of the above examples, the writer shows the reader vital information that adds depth and nuance to the scene without taking the reader out of the scene to tell him or her pertinent details.

Finally, a good practice for determining if your dialogue is too lengthy or includes too much detail is reading your scene out loud or, better yet, having someone else read it out loud to you. Often our ears will catch what our eyes don’t. Even if we struggle with writing dialogue that flows and sounds authentic, we know it when we hear it—and when we don’t.

 

Just Say It

Dialogue is one of the trickiest elements of writing. The ability to capture on the page the natural flow of speech and conversation is a skill that comes naturally to some writers and evades others. But never fear. Writing dialogue well can be learned.

There are three components to dialogue: words of speech, cadence and flow, and dialogue tags, all of which together can reveal the character’s personality, temperament, ethnicity, and current emotion or mood. Here, I’m going to address dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are the two words at the end or in the middle of a line of speech, e.g., “said John” or “John responded.” Their main purpose is to keep the reader informed as to which character is speaking. But when they are overused, they tend to interrupt the flow of conversation and thus distract and irritate the reader. The first rule I abide by is this: When there are only two characters in a scene, it’s not necessary to include a dialogue tag every time each character speaks. However, in lengthy scenes of dialogue, do add them occasionally to keep the reader up to speed as to who is speaking. And of course, in scenes containing more than two characters, including dialogue tags more often is necessary.

The second rule I adhere to like glue: use any word apart from said sparingly. I came to accept this rule kicking and screaming because, in my own writing, I loved using the diverse tags that (I thought) added such color and depth to my scenes. Clever words like opinedelaborated, and divulged along with everyday words like explainedinterrupted, and replied. However, as an editor, I now embrace and laud this rule, as I’ve seen over and over that these tags often distract from the narrative and, yes, even sound pretentious. And in most cases, they are redundant and therefore unnecessary. In the course of the dialogue, it is typically apparent that a character is opining, elaborating, divulging, explaining, interrupting, or replying.

So remember: go easy on the use of dialogue tags in scenes containing only two characters and refrain from overusing various words in dialogue tags. Often, a simple “said” is sufficient.