Saturday, March 14, 2015

Getting The Writer's Mind Back on Track

Coming off of what I sarcastically have dubbed my "brush with death"--yes, I'm doing just fine save for the fact I got all of the pain resulting from any invasive procedure but none of the benefits considering my nerves were never ablated--I'm back in the writing studio today watching a new litter of kittens from our rescue mission and staring at a blank page. 

Writers share that experience daily. At some point, all of us sit at our computers and stare at a blank page.  It may be a new story, or a new chapter, or even just a break in the storyline rolling through our minds. And while some authors may not experience a hitch at the sight of a blank page, I'm willing to bet that most of us do. 

And why not?  We all have and friends...near death experiences due to anesthesia--why is it so strange that occasionally the sight of a blank page can throw us off-track?

(Darn page is still blank) 

With all of the distractions in everyday life and the ease of burning an hour or two on the Internet, it's a wonder that writers get anything done at all. And we do--once we get past that blank page staring us in the face. 

Over the years, I've developed a system of refocusing my writing energy that seems to work for me. I'm a pantser, not a planner; my stories play out in my head and I just type what my imagination dictates.  I always know where I'm going--the conclusion of the story. I just never know how I get there,or even how many chapters/pages/books it'll take me to do so. So when that blank page stymie happens to me, this is how I combat it. 

1--Stare at the wall. I can write anywhere, including poolside in the summer, under a tree in the fall, and in the kitchen during the holidays. I've even written while tending bar. But if I'm suffering from a momentary case of writer's block, I always go to my study and sit at my desk. My desk is in a corner of the room, facing the wall. The only things I see are what I have deliberately placed there--timelines, research, scene ideas, pictures that remind me of the plot/characters or inspire my world. There's no TV in my writing study, no books aside from research materials, and the only music available would be on my non-verbal classical music play lists--which I put together specifically to invoke a certain mood. The idea is to shut out the external distractions and immerse myself in  the world I'm creating. Nine times out of ten, this works for me. 

If you don't have a designated writing space, I recommend that you create one. You don't have to use it every single time, but if you have a no-interference spot where you can retreat, where there are no distractions and no opportunities to distract yourself, that blank page won't stay blank for long. 

2--Cleanse your writing palate. Sometimes, a major story needs a few days' rest to percolate, or that blank page is reflecting the blank spot in your story--one you can't easily surmount. If that's the case, instead of pressuring yourself to WRITE ON THAT DARN STORY NOW, take a trip somewhere else. Write something completely unrelated--a short story, a poem, a letter to an old friend, a blog post *coughcoughAHEMcoughcough*. Even a grocery or to-do list can shake things up enough in your mind to get you working again.  In the end, it doesn't matter what you write as long as you write something every day. 

I use my blog as a jump start to my writing blocks--kind of like a warm up exercise. Once the fingers are moving easily on the keyboard and the words are rolling out onto the new post page, I usually find that I'm priming myself to return to whatever writing task I'm working at the time. 

3. Research doesn't count as a distraction. That old writing maxim--"Write what you know"--? It doesn't mean that all your fiction must be based upon your personal life knowledge. What it means for spec fic writers is "Know what you're writing about." For example, I was watching an online documentary from the UK about a haunted inn, and the host of that show referred to Lady Jane Grey as Henry VIII's wife. 


Since Lady Jane Grey was ten when Henry VII died and his great-niece, and since she was literally in the nursery while he was still alive, how could ANYONE present themselves as an expert on ANYTHING if they make a factual error that egregious? 

Same thing goes for your writing. Sure, it's great to have two moons for your home world, but you'd better have a good idea of how that would affect said home world. Tides. Calendars. Seasons. Orbits. Giving your hero a six foot long broadsword sounds good and all, but if your hero isn't physically superb, he/she is going to have issues waving that sword around for hours--especially in full plate armor. And while it's fantastic that your heroine is a woman of power, you can't save her from the guillotine in 14th century Scotland--since the guillotine wasn't invented until the late eighteenth century in France by a doctor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

So if the words just aren't coming, turn your mind to some other part of creating the best story you can. Research. Flesh out your world-building. Fact check what you've already written. Because believe me--at some point during this work (which is essential anyway) an idea will probably spark something in your mind, and words will go onto the page--whether those words are corrections of previously written scenes or a brand new scene doesn't matter. You're still accomplishing something positive for your WIP. 

4. Sometimes you need a break... Not everyone has the luxury I do, of having the ability to write at any time of day or night. Most of you have day jobs, kids to ferry around, hectic and agitated homes to deal with. And while your writing time might be sacred--mine was when I was working, ferrying kids, and dealing with a hectic and agitated house--sometimes you're just not able to turn your brain off and get down to putting words down on that awful blank page. 

Don't be so hard on yourself. 

The easiest way to suffer a serious case of writer's block, one that lasts for weeks or even months, is to beat yourself up over it. Sometimes, you just have to take a step back and recuperate.  So if you have to step back, what do you do? 

That's easy. EDIT.

Start on page one. Pull out your grammar book or website, and get rid of all those grammatical errors. Trust me--they're there. I would say that easily, 98 out of 100 submissions I received in the past six years was grammatically unacceptable. Some submissions were unreadable. I'd say that fully half of the submissions I received were deleted before I had read the first chapter for poor grammar/spelling. And as editors go, I was pretty lenient. (Reading abnormally fast is a big help.) Doesn't matter how great the storyline is, if your submission is riddled with grammar, syntax, usage, and spelling errors, your story will hit the recycle bin. Editors get so many submissions these days--they're overwhelmed with them. An editor may have 100+ manuscripts on their desk when they open yours. And that they're/there/their error on page one is probably enough for most editors to toss your book. You need to go through your story with a fine-toothed comb if you want an agent or an editor to bother with reading it. 

DO NOT RELY UPON SPELLCHECK OR GRAMMAR CHECK SOFTWARE. For one things, they're incapable of spotting homonym errors like they're/there/their or won/one or accept/except. Know when to use farther and further, or effect and affect. Believe me when I tell you that it doesn't matter how proficient you were in high school or college English. I've been a professional editor for a decade, and I will still find errors in my manuscripts to correct. You will too. 

Well, I think I've written away my blank-page-itis. I'm ready to start my second writing block of the day at 5 pm--so I have fifteen minutes to check on newborn kittens, get my bottled water, and pull up the research I've done on this particular chapter in my WIP. My writing blocks are four hours, twice a day--sometimes more if I'm on a roll. Today feels like a rolling day to me. And if you're not having the same luck, take a deep breath and figure out what might work best for you. Just remember--no page stays blank forever. 

You'll get there. I promise.