Behind the Story: Writer’s Block

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Writer’s Block

I’m going to surprise a few people with my opinion, but…

I don’t believe writer’s block exists.

I don’t believe there’s any mystical force that takes hold of your brain and prevents you from churning out words.

I don’t believe in muses or creative juices running dry.

Instead, I believe there can be things you’re not doing as a writer that inhibit your ability to create.  But I think this inability to create is self-inflicted and can also be self-cured.  Below are reasons I’ve identified for why writers find themselves unable to write:

1. Exhaustion or Poor Health

Even if you’re just sitting at a desk, writing takes energy.  Your brain has to be rested and fully-charged in order to take part in the creative process.  If you’re not taking care of yourself, then your ability to create can be affected.

Are you getting enough sleep?  Are you drinking enough water?  (Your brain is 80% water and dehydration can cause headaches and sluggishness.)  Are you exercising and getting fresh air?

I understand that sometimes taking care of yourself can fall to the back-burner when you have a full-time job or deadlines to meet, but taking care of your health is important.  I’m not perfect in this area either.  I definitely stay up too late, much too often.  But I’ve also noticed that I do my best writing when I’m rested and healthy.

2. Lack of Brainstorming, Planning, Outlining

I don’t know why writers think they can always sit down at a computer and words will magically flow out of them.  That the story and the characters will mystically take control.

Of course, I’ve been writing and had a scene surprise me, or a character behave differently from what I’ve planned.  But you can’t rely on your subconscious brain to tell the whole story.  The story is coming out of your brain.  Therefore, if your brain has neglected to think about where the story is going to go next, then of course you’re going to get stuck.

Sometimes you have to sit down and think about what’s coming next in your novel.  When I get stuck, I make lists.  I make lists of conflicts or bad things that could happen.  I make lists of things my character still needs to learn before the end of the book.  I make lists of what I know still needs to happen before the climax.  Always, before I’m even done with my list, I get unstuck and know what I want to write next.

Brainstorming, people.  It’s awesome.  I make my middle schoolers do it.  You should, too.

3. Lack of Research/Too Much Research

I kept research separate from brainstorming because I think it’s an entirely different beast.  I’ve seen writers get burned on both ends by this one.

Research can help get your creative juices flowing, whether it can inspire a setting or give you ideas of conflicts your protagonist might encounter.  If you aren’t doing any sort of research, then you’re limiting yourself.  You’re limiting your writing to your own experiences.  There are countless times where a little research has gotten me unstuck creatively.

However, at the same time, some people end up doing a whole lot of research and very little writing.  You have to limit yourself in your research.  I like to come up with a set list of questions that I need to answer, and if I catch myself straying too far in my research, I can easily get myself back on track as well as know when I’m done looking stuff up.  I also try to not research when I’m in the middle of a writing session because it will interrupt my groove.  I’ve taken to leaving comments/notes to myself in my story of things I need to look up when I’m done, rather than pause to search the internet.

4. Laziness and Lack of Self-Motivation

“I don’t feel like writing today.  I’m not in a creative mood.”  Sound like a writer you know?

I love writing.  If I could do it full-time, I’d be the happiest girl in the world.  However, are there days that I don’t feel like writing?  Of course.  Are there days where I’d rather watch a Downton Abbey marathon or curl up with a book I’ve been dying to read?  Yes.  Writing is still hard work, and sometimes I just want to relax.

However, I make my butt get in the chair, even when I don’t want to, and I write.  Usually the first twenty minutes are rough.  But after I’ve gotten down a couple hundred words, I will usually make it to a full hour and maybe even a thousand words.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write more often than just “when the mood strikes you.”  And there’s seriously no better feeling as a writer than to sit down thinking “you’re not in the mood” and then to crank out a scene that you LOVE.

If you struggle with motivation, there are several things you can do.  You can set up a reward system for yourself.  I love buying myself a bouquet of flowers for my desk when I’ve met my word count goal for the week.  You can set up a calendar and give yourself a sticker for every day that you sit down to write.  You can allow yourself a favorite warm beverage or piece of candy… but only if you’re writing.

Some people work better by limiting something until they are done or rewarding themselves with activities.  For example, I’m not allowed to go to this website until I have this many words.  Or I can’t watch this TV episode until I finish this scene.

I also find that setting up a schedule to write at the same time each day, and then recording in my planner how much I accomplished is helpful.  I like routine and I like keeping track of my progress.  I’ll record my word counts for the day as well as time spent brainstorming or researching.  I’ve also recently started recording time spent blogging, in part to make sure I’m balanced in how much time I’m spending on writing vs. blogging.

I hope this post helped you in offering strategies for being successful as a writer, especially if you find yourself struggling in any of the above “blockages.”

What are your opinions on writer’s block?  Do you disagree with me?  Did you find any of my tips or self-cures helpful?

Let me know what other writing topics you would like to see on Behind the Story!

Why it’s Critically Important to See Brave on Opening Weekend

This blog post is my attempt to awaken you to an issue, and to explain why it is so important that you see Brave on its Opening Weekend.

This is an issue that’s really important to me, and something I wasn’t aware of until I read this post by Shannon Hale.  I highly, highly recommend you read her post.  I kind of wanted to copy and paste the entire thing into my post, but that would be silly… so here’s a few of her main points:

  • Hollywood appeals to a male audience (even in animated films) because they assume guys won’t see films with female main characters whereas girls will watch anything.
  • If you were to look at the cast of characters of animated movies made in the last 10 years and count the number of male characters versus female characters, the ratio (about 1:10) would be completely imbalanced and unrealistically heavy on male characters.
  • The roles female characters do have in the story reinforce negative stereotypes in society for women: girls aren’t leaders, girls aren’t important enough to be main characters, girls don’t matter to the story, girls aren’t interesting, and girls aren’t funny.
So here’s my plea.  Pixar has made 12 feature films.  This is the first movie Pixar has made with a female main character.  Money sends a message to Hollywood, and Hollywood measures success based on a feature film’s opening weekend.
Here’s two scenarios:
  1. Brave has a solid opening weekend (because it’s Pixar and Pixar has a solid reputation), but Brave does not make as much money as other Pixar movies have made in their opening weekends.  This will send a message to Hollywood that having a female main character hurt sales and was a weakness of the film.  Pixar is then hesitant to make more films with female main characters.
  2. Moms and Dads, girls and guys, show up on opening weekend to see Brave.  Sales are high and equal to those of other Pixar films.  Hollywood sees that the gender of the main character is not a weakness/strength, and Pixar is encouraged to make more movies with strong female characters in lead roles.
This is why it is CRITICALLY important for all of us to support Brave in its opening weekend.  Please, send a message to Hollywood that we like to see girls in movies just as much as we like our boys.
And feel free to do your own post or link to my post to spread the word!  Support Brave this weekend!


*Sidenote* Japan doesn’t have the same gender issues as the US in their animated features.  The ratio is far more balanced and frequently have female lead characters.  I showed the movies Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery, Spirited Away, and The Secret World of Arrietty (which all feature female main characters) to my majority male 11-12 year old students this year, and the kids LOVED them all.  And my heart melted a little when the boys in one class were cheering for Arrietty as she scaled a curtain with hooks and proclaiming how strong and ‘epic’ she was.  Boys WILL WATCH movies with girl characters.

A Major Dilemma: Where to get Books

Normally I do a “Behind the Story” post on Thursdays, but I think this is much more important.  Anyone who cares about books should read this article regarding the publishing industry: Publishing Ecosystem on the Brink: the Backstory.

I really do recommend reading the whole article (it’s not terribly long).  But it essentially discusses how Amazon has been bullying all booksellers (both Indie and chains) as well as publishers (both Indie and the Big Six).  It also details how Amazon becoming a monopoly would be a very bad thing for new authors.  (I also did a post earlier in the year when Borders closed and discussed why brick and mortar stores are important.)

I already felt confused regarding where to get my books, and now after reading this article, I just feel even more confused.

Here are my options when it comes to buying books:

Amazon via my Kindle: I adore my Kindle.  I’ve had one for three years now, and it’s convenience is unmatched.  But I obviously feel a huge sense of guilt for two reasons.  One, every time I buy an eBook, I’m taking money away from traditional book sale and traditional book stores.  Two, I now know that Amazon is a bully, and I don’t like bullies.  But I love my Kindle!  *super duper sad face*

Indie Bookstores: This is my favorite place to buy books because I know I’m supporting great people.  My favorite Indie Bookstore is Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, Delaware.  But I don’t live in Delaware, and I only go there maybe 5 times a year.  I always make a point of buying a stack of books when I’m in town, but it’s not local.  I’ve yet to find an Indie Bookstore in my area to frequent.  And then there’s the fact that Indie Bookstores may not always carry the book you’re looking for.

Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million: These are the two chain bookstores that I have in my area.  I used to frequent Borders, and that was my favorite.  But obviously that is no longer an option.  BAM is cool.  I’m just getting to know them now that Borders is gone.  I was super impressed with how well stocked they were and bought a chunk of my Christmas gifts there.  I’ve never been as big a fan of B&N.  I frequently can’t find the books I’m looking for, and the store that’s near me is always crowded and terrible for browsing.  But now that I realize they are Amazon’s big contender and possibly the hope of brick and mortar book stores, I feel a lot of pressure to support them and do some of my purchasing there.  Then again, I also don’t have space in my tiny place to store tons of books… eBooks are more convenient.

The Library: Another fantastic option.  Libraries are fantastic.  Librarians are some seriously cool people.  And free books are a gift.  But popular books often have wait lists, and then there’s the whole date due back thing.  I can’t read books at my leisure.  And sometimes I want to own a book.

So when it all comes down to it, I feel like I’m being pulled in so many different directions when it comes to where I get my books.  
Do I go with what’s cheap?
Do I go with what’s easy?
Do I go with who I want to support?
Do I really have the strength (and wallet) to boycott Amazon?  I don’t know if I do.  I just got a new Kindle, and I love it.  And I’m just a poor teacher who makes diddly squat.

So complicated.  And I don’t think writing this post helped firm up any resolution on where to get my books.  But maybe it helped you?

Feel free to comment.  I’d love to discuss and hear your thoughts!

And feel free to share my post or the article!

New Kindle Touch

Two years ago, my big Christmas gift was a Kindle.  I still think paper books are great.  They smell good and have pretty covers and all.  But my Kindle is amazing.  I don’t have room to store loads of books.  Books are heavy to pack or travel with.  And the ease of downloading a book from the comfort of my couch in 60 seconds is pretty freaking awesome (especially when you finish a cliffhanger first book in a series and want to immediately start reading the next one).

I wish I’d started using Goodreads before I bought my Kindle, because it has a nifty feature that lets you keep track of how many books you’ve read in a single year.  (For 2011, I read 63 books!)  I wish I could see the difference in how many books I read post-Kindle versus pre-Kindle.  I am absolutely confident I read more now than I used to.  I carry my Kindle everywhere and read everywhere.  You’d be amazed at how often you find yourself waiting around and can get in 10-20 minutes of reading time.
So when Amazon announced a whole new line of Kindles before the holiday season… I was very tempted to upgrade.  And after reading reviews and doing my research, I asked my parents for the new Kindle Touch as my big Christmas gift this year.  (I did not get the Kindle Fire, which is more like a tablet because I read soooooo much and my eyes would feel the strain of a backlit screen.  E-ink is more eye-friendly if you’re doing a lot of reading.)
I am in love with my new Kindle Touch.
It is sleeker, smoother, and smaller than my old Kindle.  The touch screen makes navigation and note-taking so much easier.  I used to have to navigate a page using a little nubby joystick thing which was slow and imprecise.  The touch screen replaces this and makes interacting with the page (scrolling, highlighting, note-taking) so much simpler.  I have yet to encounter any glitches (and I’ve been playing with it quite a bit!).  It is a glorious, beautiful device.  Plus the new screensavers are super pretty!  
No more creepy Emily Dickinson!
Hello pretty close-up shots of typewriters!
If you’ve been thinking about buying an e-reader, do it.  Best thing I ever did.

Response to Maggie’s "A Proper Education"

Maggie Stiefvater rocks my socks.  I heart her.  Glad that’s out of the way because I’m about to agree and disagree with her a little bit.

Maggie recently blogged about her education to become a writer in a post titled “A Proper Education.”

Some points I agree with, but others I don’t.

AGREE
Maggie brings up the 10,000 hour rule.  That you must spend 10,000 hours at something to become an expert in a field.  I totally agree with her on this.  People who spend the most time working at something will be the people to succeed.  It’s crystal clear to someone who is a teacher: the more time a kid spends on something, the closer they are to mastering it.

Maggie’s big argument seems to be that creative writing programs are not the end-all-be-all of getting a writing education.

“But I think that there are lots of ways to accomplish those [10,000] hours. You can self teach. You can apprentice. You can take classes. You can workshop. You can get a writing critique partner. You can steal someone else’s brain.” 

I agree that all of the above are important to a writer’s education. (Perhaps with the exception of brain stealing–  😛 )

Here’s where I start to disagree:

“I reckon before I post this, I should emphasize that I have nothing against degrees in Creative Writing. If you think you need one to keep you motivated or to structure your education, go for it. But it’s not the way I learn. And I’d wager in some cases it can do more harm to an introverted creative person’s psyche than good. But the most important thing is: they’re pretty much invisible when it comes to getting your book published. Your education, however you manage it, is the process: the book is the result. Agents, editors, readers: they don’t care how you got there, just that you did.”

The whole “if you think you need one” bit comes off a tad on the condescending side.  But knowing that she hasn’t been through a writing program, I’ll try not to hold it against her.

Because I happened to find a writing program that I consider a total blessing.  It has provided me with:

  • A nurturing creative environment
  • Companionship and writing peers that I respect
  • Mentors whose guidance has helped me develop my craft
  • Classes that have stimulated growth in me as a writer because they forced me to stretch myself outside my comfort zone
I know not everyone can afford to pay thousands of dollars to take college/graduate courses, and I should consider myself lucky that I’ve been privileged to do so.  But I really don’t think I would have grown as a writer as much as I have in the past two years without my graduate program.
I adore my graduate program.  And I do think it’s made me a better writer.
But I will concede some points she made:
  • A writing program could be damaging to someone if they don’t find the right program.  I’ve heard horror stories about elitist writing programs that do more damage than good.  Persevering through that kind of program just for a piece of paper is not worth it.  Especially if you aren’t growing as a writer and having your self-worth as a writer torn apart.
  • A piece of paper won’t necessarily mean you are more qualified.  (Though I do think it will give you some street cred.)  There will be different levels of skill coming out of my program.  One piece of paper for each of us won’t mean we’re all equally skilled.  Your work will speak for itself.  I think that comes back to the 10,000 hours thing.  People who put in more hours will be more qualified, and that includes the hours you spend putting into your coursework.  If you truly take advantage of a writing program, then you do build up hours towards your 10,000.
I know Maggie’s post was not meant to be a personal slight to writing programs.  She just wanted to say that you can become a good writer without one.
But I sincerely wish that everyone could experience what an amazing writing program can have to offer.  I was lucky enough to find a perfect fit.  🙂

The Importance of Conflict

I’m taking a class on Newbery award winning books, and I’m reading some fantastic award winning literature for children.  Some of the books are truly out-of-this-world fantastic, such as:

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose

But some other books on my reading list I’m having issues with.  And they have have something in common: lack of conflict.

They’re written beautifully.  They have big themes.  They have style and voice.

But I really take issue with the lack of conflict because it makes me ask: so what?  Why are we reading about this character in this moment?  So what?  Why is this event important?  So what?  How is this character learning, changing, growing, evolving if they don’t face any challenges?  So what?  Why write this story, about this character, in this moment?

If there isn’t any conflict, then the story itself loses immediacy, urgency, and importance.  Where’s the risk? Where’s the possibility of failure?  Why should the reader root for success?  And then why should that success mean something?

Stories that lack conflict also lack pacing.  And perhaps this is why the Newbery has been criticized as being a bunch of “great” books that kids don’t read.  Pacing is critically important in engaging child readers.  Without conflict, without tension, without risk, keeping the pages turning is near impossible.

The Newbery committee typically focuses on the following criteria in literary fiction:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Hmmmm.  Development of plot.  Seems to me that’s where conflict should go.  Or perhaps it could go under delineation of character. (As without testing your characters, how can you see what they’re made of?)

However, maybe conflict should get its own category.  I’d argue it’s important enough.  Aren’t some of the most memorable characters in classic literature made memorable through the challenges they face? Would Romeo and Juliet be as memorable without the feud between their two families?  Would Jane Eyre be as memorable without her internal struggle between passion and morality?  Would Pip be as memorable without the conflict between his superficial values and his conscience?

Something to think about if you’re a writer.  One of my favorite pieces of advice is: to be MEAN, be CRUEL to your characters.  Make them face their biggest fears.  Throw everything you can at them.  I love that advice.  When I do it, my characters become more alive, writer’s block isn’t a problem, and the plot moves at a steady pace.

Now if I can just get the Newbery committee to acknowledge conflict as its own crucial entity in the selection process…

Borders Closing and Tips from an Agent

If you haven’t heard, Borders will be liquidating and closing all its stores.  The filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and after no bids (…or bailouts *cough* *cough*) they are going under.

This is TERRIBLE, and let me tell you why:
Borders was the 2nd largest book retailer in the U.S. and has left Barnes and Noble with an overwhelming monopoly.  I’ve never been as big a fan of B&N.  They have more limited seating in coffee areas, and their coffee is more expensive.  (At Borders, I earned free coffees too!) Depending on the store, I have also found they often have a more limited selection of certain genres (Their graphic novel section is pathetic–just one skinny bookshelf).  And now the purchasers of books at B&N will control what titles you see on shelves.  You can’t go to another store to see if there is a different selection of books.
This is going to take a huge hit on the publishing industry.  All of a sudden there are 400 stores not selling books.  There are 400 stores not promoting books.  There are 400 fewer stores to do book events and signings.  This is going to HURT.  I don’t even know what the implications could be in the next few years.
There will be 11,000 people losing their jobs.  This is also 11,000 people whose job it was to read books and recommend books.  We are losing a big chunk of the population who promoted book sales.
And while this could be very good business for Barnes and Noble, it could very well be the beginning of their death as well.  People could become frustrated by the lack of availability of books in stores and turn to eBooks and online more so than ever before.  If people see this as the direction things are going anyway, then why fight it anymore.  Borders closing may be the push people needed in hopping on the eBook bandwagon.
The whole thing frustrates me.  I love my Kindle too, but I don’t want to see brick and mortar bookstores disappear.  I still make an effort to buy books in stores, especially my favorites, or books as gifts, or books for my classroom.
If bookstores are going to survive, they are going to have to take a new approach.  If I were in charge of revamping the bookstore industry, here’s what I would do:

-Hire event planners.
-Hold events and workshops. 
(Some free, some not.  I have a plan of attack ideas there, too.)
-Plan events and workshops that pair well with books.
-Sell those books.

Get people back in the stores by doing things that online or eBooks CAN’T DO.  Socialize, food and drink, hands-on opportunities.

If anyone would like to hire me to plan book related events, I am willing and able.  I could plan book events that would rock the industry’s world.
Speaking of the book industry, literary agent Quinlan Lee came to speak to our grad program on Monday night.  Here’s some of what she shared with us:
What an Agent Does:
  1. Support our clients
  2. Help manage your career
  3. Negotiate your rights
  4. Be your advocate
She spoke about how her job is much like that of a real estate agent.  People are hunting for the perfect house.  Publishers are hunting for the perfect book.  People have spent years building, remodeling, living in, and loving their home.  Writers have spent years writing, revising and loving their manuscript.  A real estate agent knows the housing market and matched buyers up with sellers based on what each is looking for.  A literary agent does the same thing.  They know the publishing industry and match up publishers and writers based on what they are looking for.
An agent also makes sure that you are treated fairly by publishers and plays bad cop when necessary.  You want your publisher/editor to love you.  So let the agent do the fighting dirty work for you so that a publisher still wants to buy your books and work with you in the future.
She advised to have confidence because editors need you.  They need people to write great stories.
Her tip for a dream manuscript is the 5 page rule.  You have to make the reader want to know what is going to happen next in the first five pages.  Hooking them in the first page is even better.
What they are looking for in a manuscript:
  • it’s timeless
  • award winner potential
  • timely
  • action driven
  • suspenseful
  • high concept
  • fun
  • page turning
  • thought provoking
  • fresh theme
She also said all the publishers are asking for “Boy Middle Grade.”  Funny, action-packed, pre-teen books.  (Like Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Capt. Underpants)
Overall, I thought she was very encouraging and realistic.
Time to get writing!