Sunday, February 21, 2010

Breaking Through the Wall

"I have a love-hate relationship with the writing life. I wouldn't wish to have any other kind of life…and on the other hand, I wish it were easier. And it never is. The reward comes sentence by sentence. The reward comes in the unexpected inspiration. The reward comes from creating a character who lives and breathes and is perfectly real. But such effort it takes to attain the reward! I would never have believed it would take such effort."-Journal of a Novel, December 15, 1997, Elizabeth George, Write Away

"I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done." --Steven Wright

The idea of being a writer would appear to be a glorious, magical journey, akin to traipsing through a field of daisies on a spring day. Blowing bubbles, twirling under the clouds and then… inspiration strikes and with a wave of our hands, the novel appears before us like a rainbow in the sky.

Or… we spend hours, days, months, years, pounding away at the keyboard, pounding away at the wall lodged in our thick skull as we struggle in vain to reach that novel tucked deep within our souls.

The writer's life ain't easy. Moving past the proverbial Writer's Block is as much fun as a root canal. And at least that has a time limit!

"We conquer, not in any brilliant fashion, we conquer by continuing." --George Matheson

When writers hit a wall, the greatest idea in the world won't help. We need more. We need to break through and we're not sure how to do it. This is our personal Dark Night of the Soul—when we need to push onward down that rocky path despite the lack of light.

And how exactly do we do that? First thing we need is to examine exactly what writer's block is.

To my mind it's a two-parter. The outer symptom is that we're feeling stuck. We're stumped because we've reached an impasse and don't *see* what comes next. The inner cause for this symptom though is often simply fear. Fear that the next sentence will be mediocre. Fear that as we type, the words will turn to gibberish. Fear that unless we are struck with a brilliant spark of inspiration we can't write.

Inspiration is lovely but it's perspiration that counts. Many writers will admit that their most inspired moments turn out after reflection to be just so-so. While the prose that seemed humdrum while slogging through a slow day actually turned out pretty darn good.

A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”

“Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.”

“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

From On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

There are two things one can do with writer's block. One is step away. Take a breather. Live life for a while and take the pressure off.

Many people hear voices when no-one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. --Meg Chittenden

Sitting cooped up with nothing but our imagination and our writing tools can be crazy-making after all. We may just need something to jar us out of our slump, to give us fresh perspective, to help us reawaken the delight within our souls.

I have learned as much about writing about my people by listening to blues and jazz and spirituals as I have by reading novels.Ernest Gaines

For me, it's music. When I pull away and listen to a favorite tune, I feel transported and rejuvenated. For my friend Cathy, a stroll through the fragrant redwoods gives her a lift and brings her a sense of joy and comfort. Maybe for you it's repotting a plant or hitting a garage sale, repainting the living room or getting a massage. Hmmm… sign me up for that last one!

That's step one. But it doesn't get us writing again. What can we do to actually GET back to the process of writing once more?

The answer is simple, frustrating, annoying and obvious.


The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Spender said, "The best thing is to write anything, anything at all that comes into your mind, until gradually there is a calm and creative day."

We're training our mind to respond to our hand movements. Whether it's typing or scribbling long-hand on legal pad, our brain is geared up to associate the mental process of writing with the physical process. Now, sometimes the block is resolved by the foray away from writing. We come back and just *know*. And sometimes money does magically appear on the front lawn (I joke but once I looked out my kitchen window andactudally did see a twenty dollar bill fluttering down to the ground!).

The real test though is in the writing. Which is rather a pisser. *heh-heh* To think the problem and the solution might just be the same!

"People on the outside think there's something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn't like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that's all there is to it." ---Harlan Ellison

So you sit down and write. If you're stuck with a scene, you tell yourself that you will come up with six possible ways the scene could go. The choices can be totally wacky, unbelievable and implausible.

Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." --
Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland.

This is where we need to realize that writing is both a linear and creative process. When we're stuck and we keep trying to approach the scene with a linear perspective, we find our self pushing against the wall.

"You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created." --Albert Einstein

The above quote applies to writer's block as well. Which is why a change of scenery often unblocks the mind. By letting go of the linear, logical, rational perspective and just writing those six implausible scenes, you are freeing your mind from the constraints. You're giving your creative self permission to color outside the lines. You know what this can do?

How about… Free You As A Writer. Or… Awaken the spontaneous brilliance that leaves your jaw gaping and your skin tingling. *wink*

While Writer's Block is often simply fear dressed up as procrastination, it's also an amazing opportunity. It's almost as if our soul is whispering, "This particular path is okay but there's another close by that's so incredible you'll feel transported." You may be "stuck" but in truth there could be a touch of intuition that *knows* there's an alternate idea that's so freaking cool it'll blow your mind.


So… Go for it. Take those breaks and then get back to work. Listen to the music within your soul, take a deep breath and Play. Dream up impossible scenarios and tell yourself that anything goes. Give yourself permission to color outside the lines and you might just find yourself dancing in Wonderland.

"If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow." --- Louis L’Amour

Let's make this a spectacular week, everyone! We're approaching spring and all its glory. Let's give the stories that dance in our heart freedom to spill out on the pages. We can do it. Why? Because we're writers, that's why!

So tell me, how have you 'broken through the wall'? What methods do you use to move past writer's block?

Chiron O'Keefe

Also featured at Pop Culture Divas!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Art of Revision

"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." - Douglas Adams

Ah, yes. Deadlines. Whether self-imposed or connected to a contract, the time limit we've chosen is dependent on an often overlooked and deadly serious aspect of writing—the art of revision.

"It is perfectly okay to write garbage--as long as you edit brilliantly." - C. J. Cherryh

Like most writers here, I want my first draft to be brilliant. *smile* It isn't. Surprise, surprise. But writers aren't alone in that expectation, nor, apparently, in that assumption. How often have I received an email and been shocked at how poorly it's worded? Too often to count. Typos, run-on sentences, lack of punctuation. Honestly, I'm flabbergasted at times. To me, this equals stepping outside with a piece of toilet paper stuck to my shoe.

Zipper agape, spinach in the teeth, hair mussed, lipstick smeared, shirt inside out, nothing to me is more embarrassing than careless writing. Careless because so much could be, and would be, caught with a simple read-through. And lest you think this slipshod writing is situational, here's a sad fact. I've read dozens of emails from corporate execs that display such poor grammar that I wonder how such sloppiness can generate any respect.

The truth is simple. Writing is not a one-step process. To be a successful writer is to be a Re-Writer. Our ego must be gently pushed aside (or ruthlessly shoved out of the way—at least by the third manuscript!) as we hunker down and stare at our prose muttering, Could it be better? Is there more I could say? Is it enough? Is it clear?

"Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it." --- Colette

This is where our innocence must be lost, at least to some degree. Writing is such a magical process. Weaving rainbow tapestries in the sky, spinning tales out of gold and watching them shimmer before our eyes is a rare delight. Except what we see is often colored by what we know about the story—it's not necessarily what we've actually written. Which is why we experience that rude shock when those marvelous critique partners who are brave enough to be honest scribble in the margins, "Huh?"


"Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it... " - Michael Crichton

Write, edit, and revise. Along with Goal, Motivation and Conflict, this might be the most important three-step rule that exists. There's no avoiding it and no matter how brilliant your first draft seems, there's usually room for improvement. Thank Goddess for critique partners!

"At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance--that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be--curiosity--to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got it or not." - William Faulkner

When in doubt, create a special file for all those snippets you cut. Especially in the beginning. Nothing can be more traumatic to a beginning writer than to cut out large swatches of Truly Brilliant Writing. Easier to saw off a limb. If that's how it feels, don't beat yourself up or cause any undue anxiety. Instead, move it to your special "cuttings" folder. Later, you can peruse the material to see if it's needed. Some authors find that a passage that cluttered one story fits beautifully somewhere else. Others just file it away for peace of mind. Whichever suits your comfort zone is fine. It's YOUR book, Your writing. Do as you please.

"I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters.

I find that three or four readings are required to comb out the clich├ęs, line up pronouns with their antecedents, and insure agreement in number between subject and verbs...My connectives, my clauses, my subsidiary phrases don't come naturally to me and I'm very prone to repetition of words; so I never even write an important letter in the first draft. I can never recall anything of mine that's ever been printed in less than three drafts.

You write that first draft really to see how it's going to come out."
James A. Michener

Another reason to celebrate and embrace the art of revision is simple. Knowing we're going to rewrite the damn thing anyway, why not push forward and get those pages down? This is why the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is so popular. Get that idea down while the creative juices are flowing! Write, Edit, Revise.

In fact, I could come up with a whole phrase based solely on the word Write:

Write (the damn book), Revise (for the first time), Incubate (the plot and), Type (those extra scenes to plug up the plot-holes and), Edit (once more).

Then start the whole damn process all over again. Hah!

"I have written - often several times - every word I have ever published." - Vladimir Nabokov

"Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It's like passing around samples of sputum." - Vladimir Nabokov

Hmmm… I wonder how many revisions Vladimir's last quote required? *heh-heh*

As one ancient philosopher intoned while perched on a mountain top (with her trusty laptop): "It's a lovely day to revise."

Here's to another productive week!

Have you ever encountered such messy writing you were appalled? Or *gulp* reread something you've put out there in publication or on the web only to wish desperately you'd taken the time to re-read it more carefully? Do tell!

♥ Happy Valentine's Day, Everyone! ♥

--Chiron O'Keefe

Also featured at Pop Culture Divas

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dirty, Little Secrets or Another Guilty Pleasure

I'm blogging today at Pop Culture Divas! Check out my guilty pleasures and share yours. *wink*

See you there!


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Do You Believe in Magic?

"Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue… And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true…" --Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg

Do you believe in magic? Since my wild and exuberant youth, my curiosity has always been tinged with a passionate belief in magic. As a child, I stared in mirrors, scooting as close to the glass as possible, hoping for a glimpse into the 'other world' I was certain existed somewhere, somehow.

Perhaps this is what drove me and countless others to write. The awareness that there is more to reality than what we perceive. There are inner worlds we must explore through our creation. Call me crazy but I believe the land of Pern—constructed within the delightful mind of Anne McCaffrey—exists as surely as any so-called 'real' memory I've ever cherished. What is the past but a memory? What is the future but a dream? The only true reality is this exact moment. From that perspective, you and I hold the power within our imagination to create any world as real as this one.

Hmmm. Food for thought.

We are the music makers.
We are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;--
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.--
Arthur O'Shaughnessy (Ode)

Still… writing takes effort. Not only the sheer physical stamina required to pound those keys for hours at a time, but the perseverance and courage to push past our blocks, our fears, our insecurity and past the expectations from others. It's an intriguing quandary every artist faces. The joyful exuberance springing from the idea of creation coupled with the internal struggle resulting from the act of creating.

I think there are two keys to being creatively productive. One is not being daunted by one's fear of failure. The second is sheer perseverance.--Mary-Claire King

The greatest masterpieces were once only pigments on a palette.--Henry S. Hoskins

Trouble is the effort sometimes casts a shadow over the exhilaration. Even worse, our apprehension can make our fingers freeze in their tracks. Here's two thoughts to help move past the fear.

First, reawaken the magic within.

When we are writing, or painting, or composing, we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions, and are opened to a wider world, where colors are brighter, sounds clearer, and people more wondrously complex than we normally realize.--Madeleine L'Engle (Walking on Water)

Instead of worrying about the length of your book or whether the chapters are snappy enough, focus on the heart of your story. Invest some of those writing hours in dreaming about your story. Whether you're penning a sensual romance or dark paranormal, you are crafting your own world. In order to make it real, you must live in it at least part of the time. The more you focus on your story, the more concrete your world becomes. This is why a great way to get unstuck is to 'free-write' about your idea. Write about unexpected encounters and fanciful scenes outside of the story but within your novel's world. Or just let loose with a stream-of-consciousness flow where you explore a variety of 'what ifs'. Since the actual process of writing can sometimes require us to shift into a mechanical mode, we need to consciously and purposefully ignite the flame within our souls. Say it with me: I'm Creating A World!

Your world. Your characters. This your creation and you can do exactly what you want.

Which leads to our second thought.

This Is Your World.

When you take charge of your life, there is no longer need to ask permission of other people or society at large. When you ask permission, you give someone veto power over your life.--Geoffrey F. Abert

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.--Herman Melville

It's one of life's greatest ironies that people continue to believe they know how to write your book. Whether it's friends or loved ones, crit partners or publishers, every author has encountered someone who 'knows better.'

They don't. Not to say we shouldn't take in all suggestions and weigh them carefully. Feedback is vital when learning how to craft a book. However the ideas are yours alone. The hardest books to write are those based on the thought, "I could write a book like That Author did!" Many first time authors start off that way (I certainly did). Not until book two, three, or four, do they begin to write their own books. Yet even long-time authors feel the pinch of expectation. As the market ebbs and wanes, professionals chime in with their own ideas of what works and what doesn't. If the expectations spark excitement, that's good. However, if you find your enthusiasm flagging and frustration growing it could be because you've stepped away from your book and began to write someone else's.


This Is Your World.

Every author wants to compose a story that elicits giggles or tears and sweeps a reader away. I've said it before and I'll say it again—write first, edit later.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.--Scott Adams

Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.--Mary Lou Cook

You need three qualities most of all:

Passion, patience, and perseverance.

Passion—the tingle of wonderment at the magic you are creating—is essential. Unless you're excited about the story, no matter how brilliantly crafted, your story will leave others cold. Remember, delve into your tale even when you're not writing. Pump up that excitement!

Patience. Yes, we'll get frustrated, bored and restless. Keep writing anyway. *wink*

Perseverance. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. The triumph comes when we cross that finish line.

Most of all, have fun! After all, if it's not fun, why do it? Sometimes coloring outside the lines is just the thing. Not only can it spark fabulous and unique ideas, when we stretch our imagination we experience a sense of liberation. This is Your World. Explore the outer edges even if your story will be centered in the middle. You need to know what lies in the shadows, whether you include that in your story or not.

When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on Earth. So what the hell, leap!--Peter McWilliams

So… ready to begin a new week?

All glory comes from daring to begin.--Eugene F. Ware

Speaking of Worlds, any fictional worlds you are particularly fond of? As a child, I probably spent more time in Oz than the real world. As mentioned, I'm also an inhabitant of the Land of Pern and invested many hours in the Piers Anthony's Land of Xanth. How about you?

Chiron O'Keefe

Also Featured at Pop Culture Divas!