5 Ways to Strangle Your Creativity

stranglerVineWhat a Pain…

Your inborn creativity is probably a large part of what makes you a writer. Situations, characters and settings pop into your consciousness like bubble from the bottom of a boiling pot. You are also probably driven to a certain degree by a compulsion to bring new things out of your brain and into the world.

What a pain in the neck!

All that stuff rattling around in your head, not to mention that nagging voice going “Write, write!” like some shriveled, cantankerous maiden aunt, is just a drag.

Killing Creativity

Here are five ways to choke off that pesky creative gift:

  • Make writing a hit-or-miss affair. Forget about making a commitment to write on a regular schedule. Write when you feel like it, or when it’s convenient, or when there’s nothing good on TV. Sure, you’ll spend most of your time trying to get your narrative voice tuned up and remember what happened in the story last, but who cares? It’s a casual deal, right, this writing?
  • Don’t read. This includes craft books, fiction, non-fiction, magazine, the newspaper, and package labels. Get as much information and entertainment as you can from broadcast media. The farther you get from the written word, the less inclined you’ll be to bother with it – and the less able!
  • Avoid art in general. Stop listening to music. Limit your broadcast consumption to fact-based programming. Stay away from art museums, and if you happen on a piece of public art, either ignore it or make fun of it.
  • Never take time out. Don’t sit back and let your mind wander. Don’t daydream. Keep every minute of every day filled with some productive activity, like polishing your doorknobs or picking the lint out of your rugs with tweezers and a magnifying glass. Work lots of unnecessary overtime.
  • Do it somebody else’s way. If you must write something creative, don’t do it in your own, unique fashion. Find somebody else’s method and follow it like you were its slave. For example, take the Hero’s Journey model and follow it exactly, and write from 4:30 until 6:30 every morning, even though you’re not a morning person and it’s more natural for you to write in shorter bursts.

I hope you’ll be able to find the fortitude to smash your creativity flat. If not, well, shucks… you’ll just have to write and enjoy yourself, I suppose. My sympathies.

Happy writing!

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Trouble Spots: The manic tale of a young man's escape from Hell.
The manic tale of a young man’s escape from Hell. Think: action, laughs, outrageous demons, and even romance. Or don’t think at all—it’s up to you. Available at most online bookstores.
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The Unexpected Moment in Novel Writing

privetHedgeThe Privet Hedge of Writing Semi-Doom

Many times, when you’re writing or rewriting your novel, you’ll hit a brick wall. Well, maybe not a brick wall; more like a tall, thick privet hedge. You can’t seem to climb over it or dig under it and the sucker extends from horizon to horizon. It’s not exactly writer’s block, this condition. With writer’s block, you’re standing in front of that hedge and you’re certain there’s nothing on the other side and there’s never going to be (at least that’s the way I think of it, and it’s my blog, so there). This is more like writer’s blah. You’re pretty sure there’s something on the other side, but you have no idea what it is or how you’re going to get there.

A Real-Life Examplereallifelogo

Now that I’ve whiled away a little of your time with an analogy, let me give you a concrete example. (Yeah, yeah, I know… about time.) I’m currently in the process of planning my second novel, based on the assumption that I’m going to finish my first one before I shuffle off to the eternal Buffalo. (So I’m an optimist. Sue me.) I had a dandy start for the thing all drafted up in full prose, with shooting, blood, crazy characters and a briefcase full of shrunken heads. Unfortunately, upon doing further planning, I discovered that none of it worked, except that case of heads. Damned if I was going to let go of that. Trouble was, I didn’t know how to get the case into the hands of the hero, which was a problem, because I was pretty sure the whole plot revolved on that one circumstance.

I tried all my usual tricks. I stared at the ceiling. I wrote a few outlines. I did some free writing. I prayed. I cast the bones and threw the stones. I banged my forehead on the laptop.

All this availed me nothing.

Let-GoLet it Go (Not the Song, for Once)

Finally, I just walked away from it. After all, it’s novel number two and I’m just in the planning stages—there’s no hurry. A few days later, that beginning started nibbling at the corner of my brain again. I was doing something more or less mindless—driving, gardening, playing with a loaded handgun, something like that—and I decided to give that matter some play in the old brain, just on a casual basis.

And, boom! A new beginning presented itself. I don’t know if it’s the be-all, end-all new beginning, but it’s something to work with for the moment, at least. What a relief!

unexpectedMomentThe Unexpected Moment

It was an unexpected solution at an unexpected moment. I think it worked because:

  1. I had let the matter rest a while.
  2. When I thought about it again, I wasn’t trying so hard, I was just casual about it.

Maybe this is a sure-fire tool for me, maybe it’s not, but it worked once, so I’m going to try it again. Maybe it could work for you, too.

Keep writing and good luck reaching “The End.”

What to do When You Can’t Write Fiction

Sleepy novel writing man at computerUnable to Write

Times there will be, my fellow part-time novelist, when you’ll sit down at the keyboard, notepad, stone tablet or whatever and find yourself unable to write fiction. Maybe your muse is out drinking, or you’ve got writer’s block, or you didn’t get a wink of sleep the night before and your mind is about as nimble as a bowling ball.

A Ten-pointer

Your time is limited, so you don’t want to waste it. In hope of helping out, here’s my list of things to do when you’re unable to write.

1. Free write

Just sit there and let those stupid words come out. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, any of that stuff, unless it just happens on its own. At least you’ll keep the gears oiled and, who knows, you might turn out some free-form poetry.

2. Write badly

This is one of my favorites, as I do it so well. Move on to the item you have planned to write and let the suck-fest begin. Give yourself permission to stink and to make only half the progress you wanted to. The world will not come to an end and you’ll have something to go back and fix later.

3. Edit

Your mind may be a gelatinous sludge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read. Take that manuscript and read it sentence by sentence, hunting down those misplaced commas and run-on sentences. Try reading sentences backwards – you’ll be surprised what you catch.

4. Plan

If your beat sheet is all done, take it out and look over it. Does it make as much sense as the last time you looked at it? You’re in poor shape, so don’t make any big changes. Just make notes and come back to them later.

5. Research

I like research because it makes me feel like I’m working on my novel without actually writing anything. That, and I get to surf the web looking for God knows what. The hard part here is getting distracted by social media and whatnot. Just don’t.

6. Dream up the next one

You might just need to step away from the novel you’re writing now. Fooling around with plans for your next book is a productive way to do that. Scribble ideas, play with an outline, sketch a character or two – you know the drill. It’s productive, it’s fun and it gives your aching brain a break.

7. Stare at the ceiling

It’s okay to stare at the wall, if you want, too. I don’t recommend the floor because that much looking down is bad for your posture. Just relax and let your mind amble through your story, all or part of it. Yes, you’ll find yourself thinking about how nice the walls would look if you painted them puce, but when that happens just bring yourself back to the story. You might be surprised at the things your subconscious shows you about the work.

8. Character and world definition

I have a hard time with these types of exercises, myself, but you might be a writer who thrives on filling out the questionnaires out there that help define characters and settings. If you are, this can be an excellent way to use your time. Even if your characters and setting are already defined, you can sharpen aspects of them or at least just get them recorded somewhere in an organized way.

9. Read about craft

There are plenty of good books on fiction-writing craft out there and a slew of good blogs, too. Give yourself the gift of some reading time and there’s a good chance you’ll improve your writing. Stephen Covey readers may recognize this as “sharpening the saw.”

10. Journal or blog

This is another great way to keep the writing machinery lubed up. I like to write about writing in this space, so occasionally I do that when I’m incapable of fiction. You can use a journal to record observations of real life to be used in your later work or whatever you like.

So, there you go, ten ways to get through those times when your dreamship turns into a scow. Good luck, and if you have any good ideas to share, let the other two readers know in a blog. Thanks!

For Novelists: A Planning and Re-planning Tool

A matrix of numbers unlike the novel planning matrix.
No, not this one.

A Novel Planning Matrix

Thanks to Some Fine Writers

To kick this post off, I want to thank one of my favorite writers of the last several years, J. K. Rowling. It is from her that I swiped the novel planning matrix I’m going to describe. I’ve taken this writing tool and tweaked it to suit my own style, and right now I’m using it to plan the structure for the second draft of my first novel. I also want to thank Roz Morris, author of Nail Your Novel, who really clued me in to using a beat sheet, of which the matrix is a fancified example.

Columns in the Novel Planning Matrix

This bad boy has six columns. Here’s what they are:

  1. ID: The number and name of the scene. I like setting up the matrix so the ID number changes automatically when I move a row, and because the numbers can change I like having a name to identify the scene as well. ID is useful for keeping track of what the heck you’re doing.

  2. Time: When I get around to it, I’m going to put the timing of the scene here. Working out the timing of it all will be a post, I think! Time is useful for making sure things happen in logical sequence and for building towards a satisfying climax.

  3. Main Character: The character from whose point of view we see the scene. Main Character is good for being sure your fiction isn’t populated by empty furniture.

  4. Purpose: The purpose the scene plays in the novel, what it’s supposed to show or make happen. Filling in purpose helps you figure out what’s more or less important and what should be ditched altogether.

  5. Action: Here’s where I put a brief description of what happens in the scene. Sometimes the events are in sequential order, sometimes they’re in the order I thought of them. I also put notes about things to fix, rethink or foreshadow here, in a different color.

  6. Conflict, Pace, etc.: This is a catch-all column I use to hold information about the scene that isn’t action. Conflict, of course, records what the point-of-view character is up against; there could be more than one thing. For Pace, I use number, 1 for very slow, 5 for very fast. I suppose 1 could translate into “not much drama or action, maybe some reflection or preparation,” while 5 could “high drama and more action than a barrel of blood-sucking, tap-dancing, mutant killer monkeys.” I’ve been having some issues with theme as I rewrite, so I’ve been using a note for “Theme” in this column, too, recording how each scene supports (or should support, at least) the theme.

A Picture of the Novel Planning Matrix

Okay, so here’s what it looks like. This is the matrix I’m using to re-plan my novel for its second draft, so it’s full of notes in red-brown. Try to resist the temptation to steal my brilliant ideas… yeah, right. Anyway

It’s Easy!

The matrix is pretty easy to whip up in the word processor of your choice, as long as it has a tables function. You could also use a spreadsheet program, although I find those a little lame for heavy text applications like this.

I love devices like this because you can tweak them all you want and make them your own, which I hope you’ll do if you like this. If you don’t like it, maybe it will inspire to come up with something that better suits your style.

Got any cool tips or tricks for planning or re-planning your novel? How about giving us all a break and sharing them in a comment?

See you next time!

Recalling the Fiction Writer’s Childlike Imagination, Part 1

A girl playing with soap bubbles has the imagination a fiction writer needsWhat a writer wants: childlike imagination

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. “ Einstein

“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. “ King James Bible

That icon of scientific discovery, Albert Einstein, recognized the primacy of imagination over knowledge. I think that might be because imagination inspires you to seek knowledge in the first place and to see it in new ways. Jesus got it right when he recognized that minds of little kids are much more like heavenly minds that old, mucked-up ones. Imagination is a writer’s number one tool and kids have the purest and most free.

A childlike imagination is what we want, but when you’re all grown up, it can be hard for your imagination to flow freely, even if you’re a hard-working part-time fiction writer. Maybe it’s because you know too much, or think you do, and every idea you have gets shot down by some fact or probability. Maybe it’s because you’ve come to feel you know almost nothing and you feel unable to build a bridge into the vast, dark sea of your ignorance. (I am in the second category, if you’re wondering.) Maybe it’s because you’re just tired. (Put me in that category, too.)

Remember when we were kids? Our imaginations could take us anywhere. We could be angels or dragons, football stars or fairy princesses. We could stare off into space during Math class and ride off to any number of wondrous places. (At least that’s what I did, which might explain why I’m a writer now, and not an engineer.)

Lack of inhibition

When my son was about three, he attended a ballet performance in which my wife (she of infinite lovely awesomeness) performed. At intermission, he hopped out of his seat, walked up onto the stage and did a dance in front of the curtain. The crowd went wild!

We adults would cringe at doing anything so forward, but my boy yet lacked all the inhibitions we pick up along the way. He wasn’t worried about being wrong, or being weird, or not pointing his toes. He was in the grip of enthusiasm, which fired his imagination, which led to the creation of an original dance.

Inhibitions are pretty useful to have for an adult. They curb your behavior and keep you more or less within social norms. Everybody gets along a lot better that way. The trouble is, that those useful inhibitions are usually accompanied by some that aren’t so useful. Most painful of those for a fiction writer is any inhibition that squashes the lively imagination. You can become hesitant to write about things because you’re afraid of being wrong, or weird – of not pointing your toes, so to speak.

Recognizing the problem

Ask yourself if your writer’s imagination has become inhibited when you hesitate to write something because:

  • It might make you look silly.
  • It might hurt somebody’s feelings.
  • It might offend a particular group.
  • Your mother or somebody else from whom you seek approval might not like it.
  • You think something isn’t appropriate for someone of your seriousness, talent, maturity, or what-have-you.
  • You have an intuitive desire to put something into your story, but you aren’t sure it’s “right.”
  • You have an idea, but your fingers pause over the keyboard and you’re not sure why.

No doubt there are other symptoms I could list, but I hope these help. After all, you can’t fix a problem you haven’t recognized. If, armed with this list or your own list, you realize your imagination is becoming restricted, you need to do something about it. I’ve got a few mental yoga moves to help loosen us up, which I’ll talk about next time.

Meanwhile, how about letting me know how you recognize when your inhibitions are getting the better of your imagination? I could use the advice! Thanks.

The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 2

Fence representing a writer's limits

Accept your limits

Here’s a continuation of my thoughts on finding balance for the part-time fiction writer.

The limit of one

Look carefully at yourself in the mirror. How many people do you see? I’m guessing one. That’s the one person you have to count on for getting all your obligations fulfilled. That probably means that, unless you have very few things to juggle or are Superman, there are going to be days when you’re going to have to let the writing go.

Not writing on a day you had hoped to hurts. You’ve got that peculiar writing energy all ready to go and then—bam—you have to put the brakes on. To me, it feels like preventing myself from sneezing when I have bad hay fever. If you let it, this feeling will drive you nuts.

When this happens, first remember your priorities. Next, remember that image in the mirror. You are just one person and you can only do so much. Accept that limitation and you’ll feel a lot better. You’ll also have more energy to devote to your fiction the next day, since you won’t have squandered it on anxiety.

The limit of gifts

When I was young, some well-intentioned older person told me “you can be anything you want to be.” I thought the proposition sounded fantastical at the time, and experience proved me to be right.

The fact is, you can’t be anything you want. I am a man of average height and weight, below-average coordination (way below), and a natural bent for things like reading. There was never any chance I could be a pro basketball player.

The fact of limitations extends to writing. You can’t be any kind of writer you want. (Well, you can be, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at it.) For example, I don’t have much of a gift for short fiction. I have tried it, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I am not clever enough to figure out twisty endings and not patient enough to polish a tiny gem of a plot until it sparkles.

On the other hand, once I started writing a novel, I felt like I was home. A novel gives you a broad field and a long time in which to play (although I suppose you could write a novel that takes place in a closet, in a minute). I can handle a novel. I can also handle non-fiction of up to a couple of hundred words, but I am not particularly fond of it, so I don’t do it much, except in this blog, where I can ramble on about fiction writing. Again, my mind just doesn’t work that way – it’s much happier dreaming stuff up.

Dismay not!

Don’t be dismayed because you have one limit or the other. Be happy! Your limits give you a clearly defined playing field. They show you what you’re best at. Take that best thing and run with it. You’ll be brilliant!

If you liked this post, please check out the related ones:
The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 1

The Part-Time Fiction Writer’s Juggling Act – Part 1

Juggling writing and life tasksBalancing Writing and Everything Else

Writing fiction and juggling everything else in your life is a challenge. Many of us part-timers have day jobs, families, religious duties, fitness routines, volunteer duties and more to juggle. A few of us even have social lives.

Not only do these non-writing activities take time; most of them come with people attached – people you care about and so can exert a strong pull on your attention. It’s not that they’re bad people, or against you; on the contrary, they value and support you (thus proving their judgment astute). Chances are, you want to accommodate them somehow and in some cases, you must (or, say, get fired). Is it possible to juggle writing and everything else in your life?

I think so, because I’ve been doing it for nearly two years now. Here are some guidelines I hope will help you.

Set your priorities

Take some time – preferably before you start this whole crazy journey – to think about what’s really important in your life. What speaks most to your core values? Spending time with your family? Devoting time to religious duties? Maintaining your health and fitness? Excelling at your full-time job? Writing is bound to be in there somewhere, but be sure it’s in its proper place.

Let’s assume you make family number one. Then, on those days when you have to take little Nimrod to the doctor instead of writing your 1,000 words, you’ll have the comfort of knowing you did the most important thing. You’ll be able to get back to writing the next day with a lot less anxiety. The same goes for ditching something that’s a lower priority in favor of your fiction.

Do your best and be happy

The surest way to make yourself miserable in your craft is by trying to live up to some impossible standard of greatness. I wasted years trying to measure up to my literary heroes before I wised up and took my talents just as they were, instead of trying to shape them into somebody else’s mold. I’m not suggesting you throw grammar, style, plot, character, etc. out the window. I am recommending you apply yourself to all aspects of your fiction to the best degree of which you are capable and then letting it go. Not only will you be happier, you’ll get a lot more writing done.