Friday, November 14, 2014

Nothing is coming out—pass me some dynamite!

This impromptu post is in response to a Facebook query all about dealing with blockages. No, not the kind you treat with prunes and high fiber cereal, but the sort of blockages writers get. Not that prunes and high fiber cereal are such a bad thing, because, after all; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So we're going to be exploring all the ways to keep your butt on the seat and your fingers on the keyboard that don't involve playing Candy Crush on an I-Phone while tying up the john. This is about mental constipation in writing, and how to keep the words flowing freely. You can get plenty of info on physical ailments by reading Web MD, but don't blame me if you find out you have all the symptoms of some obscure disease.

Just please don't use writing time to look it up, okay?

First of all, let it be known that I am primarily a fiction writer, and I'm not yet making a living at what I do. Heck, I can't even pay the cable internet bill for a month on what I earn a year. That said, writing of any kind is indeed hard work, in the sense that you must buckle down and produce something for the time invested, and all work sometimes sucks. I really love writing, but there are days when not much gets written no matter how hard I slave away at it, and I want to toss the monitor out the window and go crochet or something. 

So it's okay to have an off day, as long as you are making an honest effort to get something on the page. If you start having off weeks turning into off seasons... well yeah, you're in trouble.

Usually I have at least a little something to show for the time invested, and I can tell you from experience, all those 'little somethings' add up over time. I just finished a novel and turned it in, but it took me 5 days short of 9 months to write. That doesn't seem like such a long time until you consider that this one topped out around 68,400 words, and that should translate to somewhere well under 200 pages—basically a small book. The funny thing is, the novel and my latest grandchild-to-be (it's a girl we have been told) were competing to be born over the same 9 month period. The book won the race, but not by much, since my DDIL is due on the 22nd of this month. They both got bigger in small increments as the days turned into weeks and then months. The only difference is DDIL just got more pregnant looking over time, while I was busy every writing session, trying to squeeze out a little more story. Picture a 9 month pregnancy, where you're in labor every time you sit down at the keyboard. Ugh!

Yeah, that's too much like work, but that's how it's done. I have a feeling that's a good part of what's behind a lot of cases of writer's block. This writing stuff is hard and sometimes downright painful. You need to be able to concentrate and sometimes push the thoughts out of you. Some days not much happens. You learn to accept that and keep trying, because the idea is to stay in the groove so that when the ideas do reappear—and they invariably will—you've developed good enough work habits that you're already getting them down on the page.

A lot of that book I worked on was written on days when I had maybe an hour or two to get something done. I chose to write, because its important to me (and I hate housework). I could have been napping or watching TV, playing an online game, maybe even reading something for pleasure. I'd rather be writing, because I still cling to the dream of someday making enough money to hire a housekeeper to do that other stuff I'm ignoring. 

My life is incredibly busy these days, and I've had to give up the majority of my writing time to do other things that can't wait—like babysit my grandson. He just turned 1 year old on the first of September, and he climbs, crawls fast, and is learning to walk. Yeah, even when he's in the play yard, no turning your back on him or he's stacking toys to stand on and reach something, or bombing the dog with big plastic blocks. I write when he's napping, and after he goes home, providing I can keep my eyes open long enough. Some days I go to his house, and write when I get home, if it's not too late. That novel was lucky to gain 300 words in a session. Many times it was 40-50 words and I just couldn't get any more done. That's still 40-50 more than it had when I started. They do add up.

Even without babysitting, my vegetable garden, and the usual family gatherings and crises that make life interesting in a wonderfully perverse sense, every day has its own distractions. That touted empty-nest bliss I figured to be in once the boys were grown and on their own has somehow eluded me. There are people in my life that I love and adore who need me, and things in my real world that pile up and threaten to go critical (laundry and dishes, I'm looking at you) if I don't take the time to deal with them. Working from home has its advantages to be sure, but it has its handicaps too. 

People, for whatever reason, tend to think that it's perfectly all right to interrupt me every 15 minutes or so to report the progress on the big, ugly, hairy spider hunt, or what all the crazy politicians said now. I work in an open floor plan kitchen and dining area in the ell on our house, where foot traffic comes in the main door behind me all the time, and folks want to congregate (mainly because the fridge is in here, and half the interior of the rest of the house is torn apart). I am at ground zero for impromptu entertainment, which gets even more likely as the weekend approaches, and those with 'real' jobs get to kick back and relax. Unfortunately, that is also the prime time for me to work, when there's not a high demand for my chief cook, bottle-washer, and babysitting services. So I either put on headphones with some very loud music and try to tune it all out, or I give up and resolve to find a later time to make up for the lost opportunity. 

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely do want to spend time with family and friends when they are available. I just can't seem to get them to grasp that they're standing around in my office right now, telling jokes and asking me about the ball game when I'm supposed to be at work. Try that at your day job for a couple weeks and see how much you accomplish.

That's enough to constipate your mind and send you out to look for a 9-5 day job with a weekly paycheck and benefits. If you want to write from home for a living, you better get creative with your time and tough with the people who just don't get it that right now, you really are at work.

Now the original poster on Facebook said he had great ideas and thoughts for his non-fiction writing, but couldn't seem to get them onto the page when he sat down to work things out. I find that happens to me too, and it's why I have paper and a pen near me at all times. That way I can just jot something down as it comes to me (good for grocery lists too, BTW). Those wonderful ideas always come at the most awkward moments, when you're up to your eyeballs in some messy situation, just about to fall asleep, or driving down a busy highway. Maybe a small recording device would work better for some. Bottom line is: Note those ideas somehow now, and then when you sit down to actually write something, pull them up and try to connect the dots. A lot easier than spending an hour trying to recall that fabulous idea you had Tuesday after lunch.

If it's actual writing skills that are lacking, a community college refresher course—even if it's creative writing—might just be the ticket. If you think about it, even non-fiction writing is trying to sell an idea, product, or service via words. So you must learn the basic concepts of making prose sentences come together in coherent and interesting ways in order to get your point across. You need to be able to spell, use appropriate punctuation and grammar, and have fundamental editing skills. A good course will cover all the basics to writing coherently as it focuses on how to turn ideas into stories. Hey, even advertising copy tells a very short story. Extra practice can't hurt and it's not a big investment in time or money. If it does nothing more than get you to use your time wisely and shows you where to go to find alternate ways of expressing yourself in words, you're ahead of the game. 

Just for the record, I am a two time high school dropout with no college level education whatsoever. Because I gave up the job I had when I was first married to stay home and raise my kids, I decided to explore my options for a later life career. When I settled on writing as that goal, I took two correspondence courses while my sons were very young. They are now both in or near their 30s. The rest I learned on my own, mainly from being an avid reader and practicing my writing skills on a regular basis. I still use ideas I learned and habits I developed based on what those courses taught me. I didn't as much learn to write from them as I did learn to work hard at writing on a regular basis in a somewhat organized fashion. 

When I sit down at my desk, I know I am here willingly to accomplish something. I have a whole set of little ritual things I do that tell my mind we are now in the work zone and must get to it. It's a tough business and often not rewarding, but I feel good every time I complete a project. That's my motivation for tackling the next one.

You learn to build on that sort of thing. I kept picking away at that novel, which is in a sub-genre of adventure fiction that I always loved but had never tackled. I can't say more than that right now, but I can tell you that it required a copious amount of research to make it sound even passably authentic, as there is a historical backdrop of sorts. That meant lots of time and energy in Google searches and reading articles, and occasionally turning to a reference book for facts or inspiration. There were entire weeks and months where I utterly despaired of ever learning a 10th of what I should know to tackle it. Yet over time, I began to understand the distinct jargon involved, and I would recognize things when I saw them in print elsewhere. That translated to progress, and the last 1/3 of the book got written far faster than the previous 2/3 had been. Along the way, I learned some interesting facts too. How can you go wrong if you also broaden your general knowledge base?

When you're writing with the hope of someday being able to support yourself doing that, and weeks and months go by with little feedback and no fat checks in the mailbox, it can get discouraging. That can make it hard to find the motivation to sit down and get something done. If I was just in this for the royalty checks and the fan response, I would have quit writing a long time ago. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate every cent my publishers have sent me, and I hang on every word my fans and reviewers take the time to share—even the negative stuff. But when I sit down here to spin a yarn, my main concern is: Will this be a story I can be proud of, and would I have enjoyed reading if someone else had written it? 

When I close the files and walk away for the day, it's with the sense that I just created a brand new scene or three never before read. That's something special in a world where machines stamp out plastic copies by the millions, and television and movies serve up rehashed programming based on what worked for someone else. That thought makes writing worthwhile to me.

When I die, I will leave a trail of unique fiction behind me. Hopefully those books and stories won't die out as easily. Maybe they won't change minds and hearts, or inspire needed revolutions, but no matter... we can't all be movers and shakers. I am content to have offered someone else a chance to escape from the pressures of the real world for a while by reading them, as I did when I wrote them. If even one other person finds some peaceful entertainment via something I wrote, then I haven't wasted my time. Maybe my example might encourage another person to spread her or his wings and try writing too.

The biggest motivator for me is knowing that no matter what I do, life will go on. I'll get older and eventually pass from this world. So I've written a lot stories while I am still alive, and filled entire books with them. That's something many people talk about doing, but few ever really get to. I did, and I still am. I'll be pounding keyboards into dust (this is my third keyboard in 4 years) and bearing down to bring all those weird and wonderful ideas to life on a page, until the day they haul my lifeless carcass out of here. I figure there's far worse things I could be doing.

So pass the dynamite, and get ready for a huge, earth shattering kaboom...

Write On,