My Hands Are Out Of Shape

You know what really, really stinks?

Finally, after months and months, really getting the urge to write again.

Having ideas flowing and inspiration coming and actual words happening when you put fingers to keyboard.

Creating narratives and having characters responding and the glorious creative juices flowing juicily.

And then…

AND THEN…

Finding out that after months of barely touching the keyboard except to write the odd tumblr post, your once-brisk typing fingers are slow and your sturdy novel-hammering-out hands have become creaky, fragile things that start to ache after only a few thousand words. I swear, I’ve lost eight words a minute off my typing speed, my accuracy is down, and the backs of my hands are burning along every tendon after only 1200 words! (Admittedly I did nearly seven thousand yesterday)

Where has my writing stamina gone? Now that the brain is finally willing, the flesh is proving abominably weak!

Oh, well. No pain, no gain, right? Time to tape ice-packs to my hands, get coffee, and keep at it!

 

 

Writer’s Block And You

I am still super, super blocked, thanks to the Bucketloads-O-Stress that the fates have been dumping on me, but I am ridiculously proud of the fact that I managed a couple of hundred words of bad fanfic yesterday. Hopefully the dam is cracking!

When you’re truly stuck, sometimes it helps to fall back on my All Purpose Writing Advice, and just make some words. Any words. If you can get something down on the page, no matter what, it can start cracking the dam that Blocked has set up on your creativity. I used to get into haiku-exchanges with bored co-workers, that was fun. But whatever you do, don’t start beating yourself up over not being able to do your ‘real’ writing, because that almost always just builds the damned dam up even higher. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that writer’s block doesn’t exist, or that this or that method is the only way to get around it!

Your brain works how it works, and there are a million things that can affect it, from depression to tiredness to boredom to self-doubt, all the way down the list to diet and exercise. (An undiagnosed food intolerance, for example, can do a truly hideous number on your brain, I speak from experience). The best advice I can give is that you should read all the advice you can find, think about all the things that you do that might make it better or worse, then try everything and see what helps and what doesn’t. The scientific method is best! If powering through keeps you going, great, do that. If you need to take a break to write some Ratchet/Clank slash, sure, go nuts. If you need to stop and sort out some daily-life stress before you can create again, that’s fine.

Take the time to figure out what works for you, then keep doing that. I like long walks listening to my ipod, writing bad poetry, reading books in whatever genre I’m writing in to get the mindset going (and find tropes to subvert) and eating a lot of chocolate. Those are fun things to do and I recommend trying them, but they won’t work for everyone.

Everyone has their own process. You’ll do better with your own than with someone else’s, no matter how good a writer they are.

Writing Away From Home

John Scalzi says that you’re not fooling anyone when you take your laptop to a coffee shop, and insofar as taking your laptop to a coffee-shop to write in order to get laid is a fool’s endeavour, he’s not wrong. (I do recommend the book –  it’s fun, informative, and a steal at $6)

But coffee shops aren’t a bad place to write, all the same. My NaNoWriMo group meets throughout the year at the Milton Coffee Club, where they are extremely nice to us and let us take up half the back area and all the powerpoints for most of November and sit there for eight hours taking up tables and making noise. They even donate prizes for our November competitions, which is just lovely of them. But even if you don’t have a close personal relationship with the staff, a coffee-shop can be a good place to write. They often have power-points, they supply caffeine and meals, and if you scout around a bit for a place with comfy seats, you’re good to go.

I personally like writing in the library, though I can’t do that as often now that I have a small child. But I used to go there a lot – again, they have free power, air-conditioning, comfy seats, and reference books galore. You can’t get coffee there, but it’s still pretty nice.

Writing on the train is another favourite. I used to get a lot of work done on the train going to and from work, when I was working. It’s a pre-blocked period of time in which your range of available activities is pretty limited, so if you do get public transport to work – especially if you travel in off-peak times when trains and buses aren’t so crowded – it can be a great time to churn out some words with few interruptions.

Parks can be nice, if weather permits, but the seating isn’t as comfortable, there’s more bugs, there’s no power, and nobody is going to bring you a vanilla latte. You can bring your own, of course.

Where do you write, if not at home?

Blocked, Stuck, or Swinging Free

Disclaimer: This is all stuff that I have experienced, that I’ve found works, and so on. As always with any creative enterprise, your mileage will vary. If this is useful to anyone, yay. If not, I’m sorry.

There are people out there who say there is no such thing as writer’s block. These people are as profoundly mistaken as those who say PMS doesn’t exist because they don’t get it. (It does. Oh, it does.) Ignore them. I have been struggling hard lately, which is why I was thinking about this.

Blocked = can’t write, but can’t write doesn’t necessarily = blocked. Can’t-write comes in flavours. These are the three flavours I’ve run into, how I define them, and what I do about them if I can.

Level 1: Swinging free

You’re ready to write, but you don’t know what to write. Your story has run out of oomph, or you’re between projects, and you’ve got plenty of enthusiasm but no clear idea of where to put it. Your wheels are spinning but you’re going nowhere.

I usually go in search of inspiration. Reading new books, watching new movies (or old favourites), debating the fine detail of characterization in comics with like-minded fans… there are lots of things that make my brain go ping. If it doesn’t happen right away, I flick through my Little File of Big Ideas, or take a nap, or just declare the day a brain holiday. It’s frustrating, but it usually goes away if I don’t fret about it.

Level 2: Stuck.

You’re working on something and you bog down. The plot’s gone limp on you, the characters won’t move, or you can’t figure out what to do next.

If I’m stuck on a particular scene, I tend to have the best luck rewriting from a different character’s POV. That often shakes something loose. Relocating the scene can sometimes help, or if you really have to, just skipping it and going on with the story. Hopefully when you come back it’ll be unstuck.  If it’s the story itself, an outline can sometimes help if you have one – refer back not to what you’re supposed to be doing now, but what comes *next*. A reminder of where the scene should be leading can help. If all else fails, sometimes just writing something else for a while can help. Take a break and write something funny, or macabre, or anything that’s a big mood shift from what you were stuck on. A change is as good as a rest, sometimes.

Level 3: Blocked

Blocked is the full Can’t-Write. It’s not just not knowing what to write, or having trouble with what you are writing, it’s sitting down and having *nothing*. Your imagination has gone dormant, you feel as creative as a banana slug, and you can’t shake any words out of your brain at all. That’s where I am now, and it’s happened to me quite a few times in the past. Being sick will usually do it, at least temporarily. For me, it’s often linked with stress and/or depression.  And for good reason! When you’re depressed, brain activity drops quite dramatically. See?

So thinking is hard. And creating is even harder. And for a writer, not being able to write leads straight to a cascade of frustration, self-doubt, and you guessed it, more depression. So the more blocked you are, the more blocked you can get.

The only thing I’ve ever found that helps is accepting that I’m not going to be writing for awhile, and trying not to worry about it while I work out the source of the stress and try to sort it out. If I can keep from beating myself up about not being able to write, and feeling miserable and like a failure because of it, it’s easier to get back to it when my brain’s back online, because I have less self-reproach to slog through. (you never, ever get that stuff out of your shoes).

There are lots of other reasons for blockages, but a surprising number of them tie back to being under some kind of pressure. If it happens, don’t blame yourself! Try to identify what outside pressures are putting strain on you at the moment. If it’s something you can fix, like getting your taxes done, then go ahead. If it’s something that’s just got to pass in its own time, like exams or being sick, let it. But don’t beat yourself up for not being Wonder Woman and able to do everything at once all the time. Sometimes you just have to wait for the bad weather to clear, and that’s okay.

But when it does clear, get your butt back in that seat and write.

My Dreams Judge Me

I’ve always had quite vivid, often peculiar dreams. An enduring favourite remains the one in which I was attending Hogwarts, which was located in Brisbane’s Myer Centre (a shopping mall, for foreigners), and was berating Professor Xavier for reading my email. Really, I swear I actually dreamed this.

The most recent one of note – aside from the one in which I married James Bond, and when I woke up couldn’t think why because there are SO MANY FICTIONAL CHARACTERS I WOULD RATHER MARRY, but as far as I recall I was doing it to spite my actual husband who *does* like James Bond – is the one I believe I have previously mentioned, in which I attended a writing seminar with my friend Miranda on the art of writing Choose Your Own Adventure stories, which was going very well until the zombies attacked. (Wow, that was quite a run-on sentence. I considered fixing it, but it’s so magnificently long that I thought I should preserve it as an example to future generations.)

Anyway, I dreamed about attending a writing seminar, which was nice of my brain, since I can’t afford to go to real ones just now, but given that I’ve never had any desire to write a choose-your-own-adventure story I’m puzzled as to why that was the subject. I actually learned some things, too, which only goes to show that my subconscious doesn’t skimp when it comes to suspiciously brawny writing instructors who also fight zombies. I wrote down what I had learned, which mostly boiled down to ‘how you can plan the structure of one of these suckers so it won’t fry your brain’ and passed it on to Cult-Leader Kess who runs our writing group. It got used last night, which made me happy!

And I finally figured out why my brain had done this to me. I’m a pantser, not a planner, and I often fall foul of the Pantser’s Bane – a floppy middle section and lost plot direction. So my subconscious dragged me to a seminar on the one genre  that has to be planned. That I can’t just blithely assume will work out as I go along.

My dreams judge me. And now I kind of want to write a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Foiled! And Writing Romance.

My daughter, who usually sleeps until seven or eight, was up at twenty to six. I swear, she has an uncanny ability to tell when I’m trying to adjust the routine she established.

However, I did decide on something to write yesterday. Romance! Well, fantasy romance. I really stink at contemporary.

Why romance?

Well, as mentioned in previous posts, fan-fiction doesn’t always prepare you for certain things. Like world-building, for example. I need to practice that, but it’s hard. So it occurred to me that a more structured form, like romance – and believe me, the forms/tropes/standards are super important in romance, to the point where publishers actually name their preferred tropes in their submission guidelines – might make it easier. If I’m working with a known trope and structure, it gives me a framework to build my world on.

I used to read a lot of romance. I veered off into epic and urban fantasy after that, and then alt-history, but I still revisit fairly regularly, although some of the current trends are not to my taste. Anyway, I like it as a genre, and it’s the only one that really shares my passion for dialogue-driven plots. It’s all about the people.

My one previous attempt to write romance was a dismal failure, but that was during a NaNoWriMo in which my first two ideas bombed, I was flailing blindly, and my primary characters spent most of the novel named Fighting Princess and Sexy Pirate. Which is incidentally a handy tip – if you’re really stuck on naming a character, give them a job description instead and keep writing. That gives you time to get to know them and think about the name without losing momentum on the story. The descriptions are easy to remember, unlike a bad name, and easy to search-and-replace later.

Anyone raising their noses at romance, incidentally, has no idea what they’re talking about. There are very few pro authors who will not tell you that romance is one of the hardest genres to make it in. A romance novelist who only brings out one novel a year is kind of a slacker. Someone trying to make her name needs to manage two or three. Every year. I’m honestly not sure I’ll manage it this time, either – and I need to read some more to get my brain and vocabulary back in the game – but while I think writing to category will be easier for me than leaping straight into epic fantasy, because I like the structure, never think romance is easy. It isn’t.

But it is, if you can make it, where an awfully big chunk of the money is. Which I think is where a lot of the contempt from more ‘literary’ readers comes from. Romance is so commercial, right? Formulaic pot-boilers, right? No. Well, some of them are. Every genre has them. But a lot of them are awesome and memorable stories, and are worth trying.

Off to try for awesome and memorable now. And to try to remember how ‘alpha male’ goes. They grunt, right? They always used to grunt. And be stoic, I definitely remember stoic.

 

Commitment

I want to establish a good writing routine. I used to write every day – I used to get testy if I didn’t, actually. Failing to siphon off the creative impulses had the same symptoms as failing to top up my caffeine levels. Crankiness and a lot of twitching in the finger regions.

And then I got out of the habit. I went from a stressful job with long hours to having a baby and I tell you what, the little monkeys really do completely destroy any previous routine. I got more writing done starting work at 7:30 every morning than I have been with a little girl who usually sleeps until eight. And that’s because the *routine* is gone, I think. I don’t get up at the same time every day. I don’t spend 80 minutes on the train every day, which was prime creative time. I don’t eat or have coffee regularly either, and that’s probably not helping.

She’s nearly three. It’s time to stop using her as an excuse to not have a routine. So I’m going to start setting an alarm, and actually getting up. If I get up at six, I will usually have at least two hours before anyone else is up and demanding attention. During that time I will do the following:

1. Write blog every day.

2. Either write original work or edit same for at least an hour every day.

3. Answer blog comments ( a lower priority, since I can do them more easily than anything else, but they will get done during the day)

Of course, now that I’ve committed to this, she’ll keep me up until 3 am.  And I’ll have to get up and do it anyway because otherwise people will see the time-stamp and KNOW I FAILED. (Public shaming is an excellent motivator)

Wish me luck.