Get out of jail–er, writer’s block–card

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To escape writer's block, douse the raging fears and critical inner voice, and find a route to fresh thinking. For me, that route has been to write to my friend, Pam, and explain what's blocking my writing.

How my BFF helps me escape writer's block

Dear Pam,

Here I am again, writing to you because of writer’s block.

Have I ever told you what magic it is, tapping your powers to unblock my thoughts and words?

When I have overwhelming doubts about my writing, the blank page stares at me. The curser blinks, taunting me, and I can’t move forward.

What works for me every time is to start writing to you, just as if we were on the phone, only on paper. I know I can joke with you, confess my fears and stumble along, and something happens. It’s like the doubts and fears vanish. My pen and paper melt away and I am in tune with my novel.

It’s been a long, successful escape for me, spanning decades.

It started in high school during study hall. I’d be procrastinating, avoiding work on an essay or report, unable to decide on a theme or position despite the looming deadline. In lieu of disaster, I stumbled upon this method of turning to you, and you have never failed me.

Let me count the ways you have helped me.

 #1. Reassurance.

Dear Pam, I have discovered fiction, and am so excited I’m paralyzed. I’m writing my first novel. It’s a time travel. I know the setting is England, but I can’t decide on which time period I’d like to visit. What makes me think I can write a novel? Okay, let me show you some time periods I've considered, and why...

 #2. Making decisions.

Dear Pam, On the advice of a literary agent who loves my writing but doesn’t represent my genre, I’m leaving the time travel genre to write a straight historical romance. I’m agonizing over dialogue. If I try to be accurate to the fifteenth century, only a few people will understand it. If I write with contractions will I be a laughingstock?

#3. Finding focus.

Dear Pam, I’m writing a contemporary women’s fiction novel loosely based on my mother’s trauma with Alzheimer’s. I’m scared, so scared I can’t plot the darned thing. What I’m sure of is …

 #4. Trusting my vision.

Dear Pam, my first book released! I’m writing about Gypsies, and rather than arm-candy, they are my protagonists. I want to make it a character-related series, but this second novel just sits there, frozen after the first chapter. I worry that the hero is too bigoted to be likable. Do you think it would be helpful if I...

 #5. Moving forward.

Dear Pam, I’m in the saggy middle and sinking fast. I’ve written myself into a corner, and I’m trying to find the way out. I can trash all I’ve written and start over. There has to be another option, though. Let me see. What if I…

You get the idea. I tell her my problem. Like a Dear Abby column, I lay it all out, crying on her shoulder, and in the process I discover my own answer. I have never sent any of these letters, but they always give me new ideas. It’s a simple strategy that works.

I’ve heard of other ways to break writer’s block that may also work for you. One friend of mine relies on showers to get the thoughts flowing. Works almost every time, she says.

Another has a special tea she brews and places on her desk with three lit candles.

Another walks in the park. Yet another meditates.

Many of my friends believe in the power of BIC (butt in chair), not budging until the words flow and if desperation sets in, writing stream of consciousness or drivel until ideas are nudged into motion.

Thank you for always being there, Pam.

And how about you? How do you escape writer’s block?

Writer’s Stew and the Snake

I might be the only writer suffering from information overload, but I doubt it. I subscribe to several writer’s blogs, as well as RMFW, RWA, etc. I read a ton of great information on writing every week including mechanics, marketing, story structure—you name it. I go to as many workshops as I can, glomming on to handouts and PowerPoints, because it’s such fabulous information from seriously experienced writers. I know I have issues with my writing that need to be fixed and I’m getting amazing How-Tos for it.overload

But all this information causes its own problem. Here I am, trying to figure out how to write the best possible novel, and I’m assailed by things I know I need to consider in order to make sure MY novel is head and shoulders above YOURS (sorry, but that’s real life, man). It leaves me thinking I’ll never be able to absorb, let alone remember, it all.

And then I think, maybe I don’t have to. There is this really cool secret technology I know about. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it so I’m going to give it to you right now. You’ll thank me forever. It’s called a “save” command. You use it to save those words of wisdom on your computer (or you can “print” – it works for hard copy if you roll that way). You can even sort & index the articles by topic.

I know, right?

If this “Great Computer Secret” isn’t enough to cure your info overload, there’s always the fact that YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ALL IN THE FIRST DRAFT. You can refer back to that wisdom when you’re at the end of the story and want to make sure you used that serial comma correctly, have Mother capitalized in the right places and not capitalized in the wrong places, can review your story arc, or see if you used the full range of senses.

Wow. Who’d a thunk it?

I know there are those truly remarkable authors who write from beginning to end, write THE END, and send it off to their editor/agent who can’t find more than a comma or missing quote to complain about. But I’m not one of those, and odds are, you aren’t either.

I have a file on my computer I call “writing tools.” I have it sort-of indexed, enough so I can skim through the articles and pick up pertinent items that struck me as weaknesses in my writing when I first read the article. I read through these when I’m in the “stewing” mode—when I’ve gotten to the end of the story and am letting it stew for a week or two before starting to edit with fresh eyes. I’m sure (at least I hope) that over time, because I’ve recognized them, I’ll overcome most of my weaknesses. But until I do I need to be reminded of them. BEFORE I hit SEND and have that cringe-worthy moment when I re-read my submission and just notice that I just have that issue with using the words “that” and “just,” or wrote “sit down” or “stand up” when you can’t really do it any other way, or all the other simple but ingrained ooopsies we each have.

Crystal skull snakeI’m not going to stop reading those blogs or going to those workshops because I know I have a lot to learn about writing. But I’m going to strategically use the tips I glean, and apply them if/when I need to, instead of letting that overload suck me into a quagmire of information. In case you have the same problem, I’m throwing you a snake (hopefully, you watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and get that I’m doing you a favor here and, by the way, you’re welcome). Now, get going and Write On!

I’m Guilty – Throw the Book At Me (I really need to catch one!)

JudgeYep. I’m guilty. I didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. I stopped writing and started doing yard work. With a shovel. I became enamored with a battery-operated sprayer for my weeds. I couldn’t resist the siren call of the annual plant displays at every store in town, including the pharmacy. I found a cute little raised bed garden kit and made it my own. And I didn’t write.

In my defense, I did manage to submit two already-written stories to Colorado Gold, but I don’t think that will be considered justification for letting me off. My self-imposed sentence is to put my butt in chair and shackle myself to my computer and get some words on the page.

I know that if we, as writers, were truly judged on how easily we are led astray, the docket would be filled with regretful authors being handed long sentences (hah! I didn’t even notice this the first time around!). Whether it’s catching up on all your recorded Game of Thrones or Walking Dead shows with a box of pizza, summer vacation planning, gardening, or another fun in the sun summer activity, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you’ll write later. But then you’re tired, or it’s time to fix dinner, or pick up the kids at the pool or summer league.

Hold up your right hand (if you’re writing, you can skip this part), and repeat after me: “I solemnly swear to set up a schedule to get at least 5,000 words on the page per week.” Ok, maybe 2,000 words. I am swearing, I guarantee (but then I do that all the time). Are you with me? Can we make a pact to close the curtain to block out the beautiful sunshine, turn on some music to drown out the birds singing, and turn up the A/C so we have to wear sweaters and pretend it’s deep, dark winter and there’s nothing to do but write? Or, I guess I could just put on some sunglasses, take the laptop out to the patio with a nice cold drink and hang out with the nice birdies and butterflies while I write. gardening graphic

Yeah, like that stupid weed that had the gall to grow over there will let me. Or the lawn that grew two inches overnight….

Sigh. It’s going to be a long hard row to hoe to keep on the straight and narrow this summer. But I’m going to try, because I want to be good and ready for Colorado Gold. How about you? Let’s Write On!

 

The Writing Habit

If you want to be a productive writer, then you need a habit.

Not this kind of habit:

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THIS kind of  habit:

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Yeah, I know, we writers are creative people. We like to have muses and write when we're inspired. We want all of the rainbows and unicorns and leprechaun gold while we're at it. Habits are boring and stifling and structured, for God's sake. We get enough structure from our day jobs and our family responsibilities. Writing should be spontaneous and fun and happen when we're really feeling the love.

This is all true UNLESS you want to write professionally. Because here's the fly in the ointment, my friends. If you want to be published - and continue to be published - then writing becomes a J-O-B.

Yep. I said it. Writing professionally is a full on responsibility.

Sure, it's still fun - some of the time.

Magic still happens - some of the time.

The Muse still sings songs of enchantment and wonder that get you lost in Storyland - some of the time.

But that isn't going to cut it if you're trying to build a career. Your capricious Muse won't help you meet deadlines, and neither will fitful inspiration. There will be days when writing feels like the last thing on  the face of the planet that you want to be doing. There will be days when it feels hopeless, pointless, and maybe even stupid. This happens to every writer, even, I dare say, to those who are highly successful and appear to have "made it."

You have to find a way to write anyway.

I am going to offer a caveat here. Yes, there are days when "writing" means thinking. There are days when the best thing you can do is step away from a manuscript and take a walk, do some brainstorming, or talk to a friend. Some writers take regular, planned days off from writing, in order to rest and refresh. This advice is for writers who are struggling with getting the writing done.

I've talked in previous posts about setting priorities and finding your focus. These things are hard.  I'm not sure what Life has against writing, but I can tell you that Life does not want you to write. It will throw things at you overhand, underhand, and sideways. It will screw you over six ways from Sunday. If you wait for those wonderful, golden moments of sheer writing bliss to be handed to you on a silver platter, you're going to be waiting until you're in the ground and fodder for the worms.

Ever notice how you don't have to carve out time for your habits? If you're a morning coffee drinker, you don't have to think about that in the morning. Imagine if, when the alarm went off and you managed to drag yourself into the kitchen, you spent fifteen minutes debating about whether or not to make coffee.

God forbid. That would be one question too many in your decaffeinated state. Nope. Before your eyes are open, you're fumbling through your morning coffee ritual. Maybe you were really smart and loaded the coffee pot the night before.

Everything in your morning routine - from taking a shower and brushing your teeth to getting dressed - happens pretty much on auto pilot. These things are habits (at least for most of us.) We do them every day, whether we feel like it or not.

A writing habit serves the same purpose. If you have made it a habit, when your allotted writing time comes up, you write.

You write whether you feel the writing love or not.

You write whether you're brimming with inspiration or feeling jaded and tired and beset by doubt.

Writers write. Regularly.

Some of you are going to tell me that your days are too unpredictable or that you don't have time. If this is true, chances are it's time to rethink your priorities. If you REALLY WANT TO WRITE then you will find a time to fit writing regularly into your life. But I will also tell you that something else that you love may need to go, because we don't get anything for free.

Even when you've developed the habit, there will be days where writing doesn't happen. There are probably days when you don't get dressed or brush your teeth, and maybe - gods forfend - days when you don't drink coffee. Life is like that. But the thing about habits is that once they're established, they are hard to break. So if you have a Writing Habit and you miss a day, you'll find your way back to it the next day, or the next.

When you don't write, you'll feel that something is missing, just like when you forget to brush your teeth. Words will get written.

Chances are, once you establish it, this is one habit you'll never want to break.

I'll be teaching a class on getting writing done at Colorado Gold 2016 called Write Now: Making Space for Writing in a Busy World. It's scheduled for 8 am on Sunday, which is either appropriate or ironic, or maybe both. 

Staying Positive in a Negative Industry

It can be difficult for a writer to keep her chin up. For a person who needs to be sensitive enough to reflect the most compelling attributes of humans and humanity through story, the harsh landscape of a writer’s world can be difficult to endure.

Like our beloved characters, writers contend with a multitude of external and internal conflicts seemingly hell-bent on keeping us from our personal MacGuffins.

Perhaps at the top of every writer’s list of roadblocks, there is the often dreaded rejection, a seemingly never-ending parade of “No” echoes around every turn. Agents, editors, magazines, conferences, bookstores, reviewers, even other authors. If being a writer is primarily about connecting with the readers waiting for your story, some days feel like there are a hundred gatekeepers standing between your characters and the people waiting to meet them.

And yet, for all the disappointment in every rejection, the sting, the bite, the venom that slow drips into the writer’s heart is not the actual “no.” It is the poison laced through all the words unsaid. It’s what we fear drives that “no” to our doorstep again and again—judgment. Of our work, our ideas, our thoughts, our abilities, maybe even ourselves. The people with the power to say no formulate judgments we are rarely privy to. We are instead left to our own imaginings about why we have failed to make the cut.

And writers have excellent imaginations.

Enter the writer’s psyche. If ever there existed the worst hot mess of internal conflicts, it surely took root and sprouted from a writer’s self doubt, anxieties, fears, and the ever dreaded peer comparisons. We fear these no’s may be based on negative judgments that are correct.

What if I suck?

What if I can’t write?

What if it’s me?

Am I horrible, vile…not mediagenic?

What are all the things “THEY” are not telling me thus making it impossible for me to revise these personal imperfections and failures?

A writer can end up mighty frustrated.

I hate this.

I hate writing.

I hate publishing.

I hate wanting this thing that doesn’t seem to want me back.

Maybe…maybe it’s time to quit.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If yes, I have some good news for you. It doesn’t have to be this way. More importantly, it shouldn’t.

I happen to believe it is possible to stay positive despite all the negativity. But first off, inhale, exhale. Again. Deeper this time, really fill those lungs, hold it…now let it out. Do this several times an hour.

Next, don’t quit writing. If you truly love it and are not just hoping this is a get rich quick exit strategy from a demoralizing soul sucking job you’re hoping to escape, don’t quit writing. If it is just a escape plan, make a better plan.

Realize this:

Writing is a terrible way to try and get rich quick.

Writing is a terrible way to try and get famous.

Writing is a terrible way to try and feel important, special, unique, talented, or better than other people in general because there is ALWAYS someone else more special, unique, and talented than you and chances are pretty good you will end up in the same room with this person. Likely you will be listening to them read aloud from their amazing, New York Times Bestselling, National Book Award winning novel.

If these are the motivations that drive you to the keyboard, you are probably wasting your time and setting yourself up for failure because your sense of “success” is contingent on criteria that is either controlled by outside forces or dependent upon who else is in the comparison pool with you.

Write because you love story so much you are compelled to try and create it yourself. Be motivated by the desire to live a creative life. If this is why you write, you will NEVER fail. You can NEVER be rejected by outside forces. Outside forces are not allowed to interfere with this, they don’t get to control it, they cannot say no to it. I dare them to judge it. This love is yours, you decide when, where, and for how long to live in a space of creative energy and output.

Secondly, try to wrangle that spinning, spiraling, better-future-seeking brain of yours. The worrying, obsessing, hoping for that big break so you can finally be whatever it is you think you’re not already—STOP. Right now, in this moment, you are already amazing. An agent won’t make you any better of a person than you already are. Neither will an editor, or an award, or a book deal. These are only things and other people you may one day co-work with on projects (who have their own neuroses and personal hang-ups I might add). When you get an agent, you will wake up the next day exactly the same person you were the day before. If you win an award, you will take it home and hang it on your wall…eventually it will get dusty just like all the other crap in your house. If you get a book deal, you will one day find your hardcover book on the remainder shelf being CLEARANCED for 3.99. Try not to confuse other people’s opinions and the bestowing of plaque shaped things with your own feelings of self-worth and personal validation. Other people change their opinions and things don’t last. Keep your power and decide for yourself if you’re a good enough writer or not. And if your answer is that you are not yet producing your best work—learn to get better, then do it.

“But,” you might say. “I need these people and things in order to achieve the writerly goals I’ve set for myself. I need an agent to open the gilded New York Literary Gates and awards to prove to the readers that my stories are good and worth their time and monies.”

And I would reply, “No you don’t. Well written stories that readers like to read prove to them that your stories are good and worth their time and monies. Guided passage through the Literary Gates and awards are one way to get your stories to readers, and for sure it was once the only way. But now, there are other ways too. Most readers don’t know all the gory details that happen behind publishing curtains anyway, they only know a story they love when they read it. Get that story to them by any means necessary. You may find that love from your readers is the only external validation you ever really wanted in the first place.”

Find your personal center, remember why you started writing in the first place, then try like hell hold on to it--no matter what.

Is My Middle Looking a Little Fat?

Bite me, for any of you who answered with an automatic yes.

Scruffy middle aged man in his underwear with flowers and candy for Valentines Day, puckering up for a kiss. Isolated on white.

To those who didn’t, whom I still like, yes, I’m talking about that soggy middle we all have to suffer through at some time in our careers. Until this book, the damn one I’m currently trudging through, I didn’t believe those who whined about their middles.

Then the middle…came and look at me now….

So I was whining, I mean, discussing this phenomenon on facebook the other day (yes, instead of writing) and I had a few interesting ideas for how to lose the baby fat:

1)  Kill someone or something. Get blood on the page, and a lot of it.

Aside from the obvious, that writers are a bloodthirst lot, this idea does indeed have merit. Action, whatever it is, engages the reader. Especially if who you choose to kill is someone already important to the reader. Honestly, there is nothing worse than two characters doing nothing. And since my characters have had lots of sex already, I might as well kill someone. Watch out, sidekick best friend.

2)  Go off to an exotic port of call.

I’m talking metaphorical, unless you’re writing the next version of The Love Boat. In other words, take the characters out of the familiar and drop them somewhere you as a writer haven’t gone. I tend to get stuck in one type of story, usually with a murder spree, which isn’t going to work in this contemporary romance, so I need to push my edges, find out what else I have up my sleeve. Oddly enough, it’s fluffy bunny and your card…(This would be where you go oooohhhh and ahhhhhh).

3)  Drink whiskey.

This happens to be my favorite option. However, I will admit, it doesn’t help you firm up that middle. It just makes it easier to stay on your diet of crappy words. Okay, scratch this one. It’s a Band-Aid, not a real fix.

4)  Step back and evaluate.

It’s about the middle when a weird thing happens to me. For a brief moment, the haze of delusion lifts and I see my writing for what it is. Junk. I’m a terrible writer. Just look at all those split infinitives and dangling modifiers. Who wrote this crap…? Oh, right. It was me. I wonder if there are still any openings for professional mourners available? I have a feeling self-doubt and fear are driving my middle depression. Therefore, I must take a step back, and evaluate the actual story. Is it as bad as I think? Probably not. Have I taken a poor turn in plot? Perhaps. Now what do I need to do to fix it? By taking a realistic look at what needs to be done, I help lift myself from the middle and toss back on my rose-colored glasses (the special ones that say I’m an okay writer).

5)  Stop being a wussy and write.

This is my best practice. Throw it on the page. It might not make the revisions, but the only way out of the middle is to write until you hit the end.

 

How do you avoid the middle sag? Word crunches? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Getting Your Priorities Straight

"We all have the same number of hours in the day."

I don't know about you, but when somebody says this, I generally want to kick them in the shins or slap them with a large, dead fish.

It always seems to get said with a self righteous air, as if the person uttering the words has everything in their life perfectly under control. They are never late for work. Never miss a deadline. Never find themselves scrambling to fulfill an obligation at the very last second.

The fact that the words are true just makes them more irritating.

Unless somebody has invented a time machine and is doing an incredible job of keeping it hidden in their garage, we all get the same allotment of twenty-four hours in a day. Except this week, of course, when those of us living in misguided countries have an hour stolen from us, but that's another story.

Some of us have a lot more living to cram into our time allowance than other people do. Some are contented with a slow and steady space. They go to work, come home, pet the cats, eat a tidy, low fuss dinner, watch TV and go to bed. I don't personally know anybody like this, although I'm told they exist. I don't think I've ever met anybody who felt they had more than enough hours in the day. People only trot out the "we all have the same number of hours in the day" statement when they're talking to somebody else.

My point is that until Science and Magic get their acts together and create a time turner, we're going to have to muddle along with not enough time to do All The Things. We can try, and sometimes even pull it off for awhile, but sooner or later we have to sleep. And the body, mind, and spirit will all rebel at some point if we push too hard, and find a way to force us to slow down. A rest enforced by physical illness, depression, anxiety, or some other system breakdown will slow us down more in the long run than a more reasonable pace.

So what's the answer, then, for those of us overwhelmed by the drive to do everything?

I think it starts with setting priorities.

I ran into a Facebook meme the other day about this which was pretty simple and brilliant. Every time you catch yourself saying, "I don't have time," change those words to "That's not a priority." And then listen closely to yourself.

"I'd love to write but I just don't have time," becomes, "Writing is not a priority."

"I know I should read but I don't have time," becomes, "Reading is not a priority."

And - harsh reality time – maybe these things are not priorities for you. Maybe your priorities right now are raising kids, building a career, and binge watching The Walking Dead. No problem. If those are the priorities, then do those things.

Or, maybe, The Walking Dead can wait, and writing could fill that time slot.

It's all about awareness and choices. You can find writing time and reading time, you can find time to play with your kids. You can find time to clean your house from top to bottom and do Pinterest crafts and bake chocolate chip cookies. But you might not be able to choose all of those things, all at the same time.

CHALLENGE

Take a few minutes, five at the most, to jot down a list of priorities, things like career and family and writing. Don't get deep into the weeds on this – just jot them down as they come to you, in no particular order.

Got your list?

Great. Now pick the top five. This part is harder. Be honest and ignore the niggling guilt if your true priorities aren't what you think they should be. Also be aware that priorities shift. Maybe family was the top priority when your kids were little, but now they're in college and you're focused on another goal. It doesn't mean you don't love your family if another priority rises to the top. It just means you are choosing to focus your energy elsewhere. Arrange your top five in order of current importance, with number one being the thing you would keep if you were forced to relinquish the others, and so on. Hold onto your finished list. Pin it on your bulletin board, or stash it wherever you keep such things. Whatever works for you.

Now, for the next week, observe how you spend your time. How many hours spent sleeping? How many hours on the internet? How many hours with the family? Watching TV? Writing? Reading? At the day job? Cleaning house? Jot down notes at the end of every day and make sure you account for all 24 hours.

At the end of your week of time observation, sit down with your priority list and your observation notes and compare them. How much time are you spending on your priorities? How much time are you spending on things that didn't even make the priority cut? If your priorities and how you spend your time match up, chances are you're feeling reasonably good about what you accomplish in your life. If they don't, my guess is that you're feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

The next step is to figure out how to focus your energy on the things that matter most to you. This comes at a cost, by the way. We don't get anything for free, and no matter what we'd like to believe, we can't have it all.

I'll be talking more about this next month.

 

Why Do You Write?

Voices-In-My-HeadIs it because you can’t stand all the voices in your head shouting to be heard, fighting with each other for dominance, pushing and shoving to get out (oh, is that just me?). Do you write because you want to be a best-selling author with a bajillion dollars and an agent and editor who send you chocolates and good wine weekly? Or is it just because you like to write, think you’re pretty damn good at it, and know there are readers out there that want your stories?

Personally, I DO want to make money writing. So far my book sales have, at best, kept me in Happy Meals. My newspaper and magazine articles have provided a bit more revenue, but not much. It costs money to be a writer – you know, those pesky expenses like membership fees, contests, ink, paper, conference and workshop registration, etc., and I sometimes struggle just to break even.

So, what’s a writer to do? I know I have decades of writing ahead of me - like I said, there are a lot of voices in my head just waiting to get out. I can wait to make my writing fortune, but I DO intend to make it. What I’m not going to do is write AT the money. I won’t chase what’s hot right now, because readers are inherently fickle. They can turn on a dime. I’ll write stories about characters and events I like, because that’s the only way I can make myself sit down and put tens of thousands of words on paper. I’m not saying I don’t occasionally write an article for a publication that’s about something I’m not terribly interested in, but that’s a couple thousand words, and I consider it honing my craft to be able to distill two hours of interviews or a day’s worth of research into those few thousand words.pencil-stump

I’m not selling out, I’m doing what has to be done in order to do what I really want to do. Personally, I can’t afford to pay for my writing habit out of my household budget. Our family’s income just doesn’t allow it. Yet.

How much writing income is enough for you? Do you just want to see your name on a book cover – no matter if it’s E-book or print or if you don’t make a dime on it? Do you need it to be on the shelf at your local bookstore? Do you want to hit the bestseller list? Have a framed copy of a ginormous royalty check on the wall? For me, it’s each of the above, and all in good time.

I wish all this for you – or whatever it is that floats your writing boat. And I hope that you remember the other writers around you when it happens and that you revel in any success they have. Offer them your help, advice, hope, and a shoulder to cry on, just as other RMFW’s have done and will do for us. Maybe volunteer for the organization? And, most of all, Write On!

Guest K. Ferrin: The Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do

I was about nine years old when I wrote my first story. I was very excited about the assignment, I loved writing even then. But what I remember most clearly is the lightning strike of inspiration I got when the story idea popped into my mind. It seemed to come straight out of the aether - some gypsy-voodoo-black-magic that I’d somehow managed to get on me or to step in. It felt as if it had come from out there, rather than from inside of me. From that instant I was hooked, I wanted to write novels.

Like many authors, I continued to write over the years. Also like many authors, I never finished a novel. I wrote while I rode the wave of inspiration but when inspiration abandoned me I abandoned the story. For decades I left villains at their peak, deserted heroes at their point of greatest weakness, relinquished half written stories to the shadowy depths of my hard drive.

Somewhere after that first lightning flash of inspiration I’d picked up the habit of seeing writing itself as gypsy-voodoo-black-magic that came from out there. And if it came from “out there” that meant I had no control over it. If the muse stopped weaving her magic what could a mere mortal do about it?

This sort of thinking infected me in all sorts of ways. When I was nine I wanted to be a writer. By the time I started college I’d given up writing and wanted to be a biologist or chemist. I left college with a BS in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and by the time I started working in my first “real job” it was in technology.

Meandering paths are not uncommon when we’re young, but what might not be so obvious is that, for me at least, the spaces between those bullet points were because the shiny rubbed off. Things got hard and I sometimes lost my motivation. There was no magic, and there should always be magic… right?

So instead of working hard for what I wanted most, I spent my time working a little for what came easiest. It was easy to blame the fickle muse for this. To hide the path of least resistance within the guise of magic-from-the-aether. To claim I was an artist following the path of inspiration. But eventually I started to wonder about this muse of mine. What kind of sick bitch was she to start me down one path only to yank the rug from under me and send me careening off in some new direction?

Now, to be clear, we should follow our inspirations. Inspiration is an expression of our intuition, it tells us where our passion lies, where our talents reside. But believing that people accomplish things because they’re gifted with gypsy-voodoo-black-magic is a mistake. The truth is that finishing stuff is hard no matter who you are. And it takes a lot more than inspiration to carry things through to the end. The truth is, finishing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.

Inspiration is designed for the start. Sweat, dedication, and courage are designed for the finish. I’d lived my life waiting for the magic. I’d made the mistake of believing all I needed was that magic and I’d forgotten all about sweat part.

But the actual writing part, the doing, is sweat and courage. It’s showing up every single day no matter where your muse is. Some days, the magical ones, words flow like warmed honey. Other days it feels like you’re crawling across a mile of used needles, bloody hospital scalpels and poo.

You see, finishing has nothing to do with inspiration and has everything to do with hard work and the courage to keep to your path. It’s refusing to give in to the blank looks you get from people when you tell them you’re a writer, it’s continuing with your efforts even when you see no results. It’s not glamorous. It’s actually quite ugly. It often involves crying. There’s almost always blood. But after all of that, at the end of the day, when you have finished, it is pure magic.

 

GetAttachmentK. Ferrin started writing fantasy just after learning her ABCs and has never looked back. Magicless, a young adult fantasy novel, was published in 2014. Across the Darkling Sea, book one of her Ling trilogy, will be available in April of 2016. She lives at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, two dogs, and a relentless craving for pie.

I Have an Idea

"Where do you get ideas for books?"

I've been asked this question a lot, and I have to admit it bewilders me. I don't know what actually spawns them, but the suckers are everywhere, like ants at a picnic, like wasps at a barbecue.  They come to me in the night, born of dream fragments or of lying awake worrying about the state of the world and the creatures in it. They pop up out of books I'm reading. They lie in wait on pages of newspapers and magazines, on the TV screen, in snippets of casual conversation.

They love to present themselves when I'm on a writing deadline for another project. Those particular ideas emerge from the ether, floating around my head scattering fairy dust and singing a siren song of distraction.

I don't know about your writer brain, but mine works like this:

I scan through Facebook, see a picture of an amazing underground cave that has plants growing in it, and I get an idea for a fantasy set in a subterranean world.

I see a story about a missing woman on the news, and I get a thriller idea about a woman who fakes her death and goes into hiding, probably to protect her family from the aliens who are blackmailing her.

I'm at work in the clinic and the doctor takes an extraordinarily long time in the room with a patient.  I start wondering, "What if they're both dead in there? If they were, how could it have been done?"

I walk outside and see icicles hanging from the eaves, beautiful but lethally sharp and pointy, and think they would make a fabulous murder weapon. Or we're burning dead wood on a bonfire and I have the same thoughts about a sharp ended stick...

Oh, and the day we discovered new orders had been entered in the chart of a deceased patient? Clearly a zombie story with a humorous twist...

You get the idea. (Ha. See? Ideas lurk all over the place.)

The difficulty is not in finding ideas. What's tricky is distinguishing a good idea from a bad idea.

In my younger days, if an idea hit me I used to just dive in and start writing, emerging from a creative frenzy only to realize that what seemed like sheer brilliance unrivaled in the history of mankind had fizzled out into nothing. Ah, youth. There was time for such foolishness then. I had a gazillion years in which to write every idea that came my way, and I wasn't writing professionally. I had the hope of being published, but not the expectation. That is a very different sort of thing.

These days I need to be a little more selective.

Here are a few questions I use to decide whether a story idea is worth my time or not:

  1. If I write an idea down and leave it alone for a week, am I still excited about it when I look at it again?
  2. How much energy does the idea have? Is this an idea I'm going to want to spend the next year of my life writing, rewriting, editing, publishing, promoting - or if I commit will it start to feel like an ill-advised Vegas wedding?
  3. Are there actual plot possibilities? Can it support a story arc and a cast of characters? Or is it just a bit of fluff that might be fun to add into another idea?
  4. What are the odds that anybody else will want to read it? (Consider this one with caution. It's impossible to predict what readers are going to latch onto, and trying to predict and follow trends is a quagmire.)
  5. How many times has it already been done? The truth is, most ideas have already been written in one way or another. If an idea burns in my writer soul like a little sun of inspiration, though, I'm going to write it anyway.
  6. Consider genre. If you're writing purely for the sake of Art (which is a wonderful thing) discard this bit of advice. If you're seeking publication, or are already published and want another contract, you've got to at least think about genre. Where does this idea fit in the grand scheme of things?

After you wisely consider all these things, if you're like me at all you'll still end up writing something like my Dead Before Dying - a weird, misfit paranormal-mystery-thriller-with-cozy- elements, born of a Twitter conversation and a joke about a geriatric vampire. And maybe, if it makes you happy, that's okay.