Posts Tagged 'Overcoming Writing Blocks'

Eating an Elephant

eat an elephant

I’m sure most of you know the old adage, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. ” Well, my next step in my writing rehab program, as outlined in my Overcoming Writing Blocks book, was just that.

Having dealt with the distractions in my environment, I moved on last week to the writing project itself.  First up was to break the task into “bite-sized units.”  For a novel,  that would be chapters or possibly “Parts,” though so far I have not been thinking of this book in  terms of “Parts.” For now I took the average of the number of chapters in each of my six books — 42 — as the number of chapters in Sky.

I’ve already written six of them, which  leaves 36. At a rate of 2 chapters per 3 weeks,  with time out here and there for holidays and trips, I would be done with a first draft around May 1 of next year.

Whether that has any tie to reality or not, I have no idea. But it’s a start.

Next was to come up with a “Purpose Statement.” For fiction writing that would be one’s main story question for the tale. In working through developing this,  many things came to light about the world I’m building and this plus the next step “research reading and taking notes” (which I take to also include work in developing the parameters of one’s make-believe world) sent me off for most of last week gathering all my scattered notes and ideas into folders with the intention of going through the collected material and deciding what I want to keep and what I want to toss.

In the process of all this I realized that I am no longer interested in the linear set-up of a single empire beneath my fictional planet’s surface with the heavenly city floating above as I had originally envisioned. There have to be various nations to carry out what I’m wanting to do,  and in fact in the chapters I’ve already written there are already at least two other national entities mentioned. So I see that this concept was there all along, despite my initial plans.

I’ve been taking all my note cards and entering the notes on them into one of my many world building documents, or if I’ve decided not to use that material, simply throwing it away. It’s been very productive work. Not when it comes to chapters written, but as regards the fundamental shift the story is now taking. Once an optimum number of the world building questions have been answered, I’ll be able to turn my attention to the plot…

The fact that I’m making this fairly major change, in addition to much new material I’ve gathered from miscellaneous reading, news events and my own increasing understanding of some of the spiritual issues I was wanting to deal with, I’m beginning to see there might have been a reason for my stall over the last few months… years? … that goes beyond mere burn out, life distractions, or lack of self-discipline…

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Freedom!

freedom128

Continuing the story of what I’ve done to manage my environment…

Having taken care of most of the problems around the house, I turned to my biggest distraction of all — the Internet.  The thing that is sitting right there as I type.  Where I can hit a wall, and be sitting there staring at the screen, struggling to find the words I’ve lost and suddenly my hands are opening the email, or worse, Internet Explorer. Drudge… Powerline… The Diplomad (my favorite)… One link leads to another… and another…

And before I know it an hour passes and I’ve done nothing except sit there, getting stiff, getting tired of sitting, getting tired of reading and when I finally drag myself away from it, whatever I  was working on is now Far, Far Away.

I have tried before to deal with this problem — going so far as to pull the plug on the modem just to deny myself Internet access. But it’s in the other room, it’s a pain to get up and do it, a pain to have to go back and plug it back in when I’m done, then wait for it to go through its rebooting process.  And that’s if I don’t manage to drop the cord behind the cabinet it’s sitting on. Or forget to replug it entirely.

Plus it cuts off my hubby’s computer from the Internet as well, meaning I can’t use it when he’s around. And sometimes when I plug it back in, the connection doesn’t come back right, so then I have to reboot the whole computer.

And, even with all that, it’s too easy to get up and go in there and plug it back in, when I really, really don’t want to work.

Well, I did some research on distractions faced by work-at-homers or “telecommuters,” as they’re officially called, and in the course of that discovered the most amazing software.  It’s called Freedom. It works with Macs and PC’s and with only a few clicks you can protect yourself from Internet access for whatever time you desire to set up — from as little as 15 minutes, all the way up to 8 hours.

During that time the program is deliberately unresponsive but if you’re really set on regaining your Internet access all you have to do is reboot your computer.  (Which is a little more involved than going into the other room to plug in the cord) If you stick with it, though, once the time you’ve set it for has elapsed, a little window appears announcing that your Freedom session has ended and giving you the option to start another, or quit the program.

I’ve been setting it for three hours every morning. It’s awesome. I love it!  So easy to use and along with turning off the phone ringers and answering machine sound, has created a little pocket of uninterrupted time I can actually work in.

Everyday last week I came into the office and worked a minimum of 4 hours.

That hasn’t happened in I don’t know how long.

The program’s downloadable online and costs $10. Takes almost no time to download and install. If you’re having trouble staying away from the Internet and want to check it out, click HERE.

Managing Your Environment

According to the book Overcoming Writing Blocks, the first area  for a blocked writer to deal with is managing her environment.

Creative concentration has the power to make your senses especially acute and abnormally sensitive to the slightest stimuli. When you’re concentrating successfully, this heightened attention enhances your thoughts and the words flow onto the page smoothly and powerfully. When you’re blocked, however, your attention perversely gravitates toward the slightest distraction in your environment…

…You feel victimized by your inattentiveness, because you find yourself guiltily inviting interruptions, knowing that they give you a welcome break from the frustration of being stuck.

I can attest to the truth of this observation!

Distracting elements of your writing environment can play right into the guilty inviting of interruptions. The OWB authors recommend, therefore, that you do as much as you can to eliminate them.

So, the first thing I did was to get rid of the distracting clutter, not just in my office but in the entire house.

For example, I keep my stamping supplies on a waist-high shelf in the bedroom, which I have to walk by every time I want to get something from the bedroom desk (for me, it’s pens mostly, but also sometimes my journal, or even something I left there earlier when I was eating breakfast — like a timer.) Walking past that shelf of supplies would far too often draw my eye to a card in progress or entice me to stop and flip through my  “for later” files…  the next thing  I knew, I’d be doing something with a card, when I was supposed to be writing.

So, operating on the premise of out of sight, out of mind,  I got a piece of fabric and covered the entire contents of the shelf. It’s done wonders.

I used the same principle with the guest bed in the office, which had all sorts of projects and things I planned to fix or get rid of, and piles of notes and articles to go through for potential blog posts, research tidbits, or stuff for future reference.  I put the projects and fix-it things into the closet, put the piles of papers into a folder unread, and shoved it into my file cabinet, tossed the catalogues and took the bags of cast-offs to Goodwill.  At last the bed was clear!

I recently got a new serger. This sat in its box by the wall near my desk, reminding me daily that I needed to get it out and use it, even as another voice warned it would take too long, I didn’t have time, it’s a new thing and I don’t know how to use it and you know how THAT always turns out…  Well I don’t need the guilt and mental arguments, so I covered it with another piece of fabric, and now I no longer even look at it.

Then I set to work clearing off my desk area, filing papers, throwing others away, and piling my scattering of notecards into their proper categories.

I’m trying to develop the habit of putting things away rather than leaving them out to “remind me” to do them later. Because sure as anything they’ll remind me in the middle of when I get to work on Sky.

Finally, I figured out how to silence the ringers on the phones, and have taken to turning them off for several hours in the morning, along with the volume on the answering machine. It can still take calls and record messages but I no longer have to listen to the entire sequence right in the middle of my writing time. I’m even covering the machine with a folded towel so I can’t see if there’s a message or not til it’s removed at the end of my writing stint. (Plus having the towel on it reminds me to turn it back up when I’m done.)

With that I’d pretty much taken care of many of the distractions that present themselves in my periphery. Only one remained, but it was the most insidious: the Internet.

Stay tuned for part 3…

The Winds Have Changed

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted regularly. In fact, except for last Friday’s post, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted at all. So much for all that Platform stuff from last summer about posting regularly and often…

I don’t know what happened. My desire to write just dribbled away… Other things claimed my time and attention. When I considered the book, the blog, even email, I was blank and utterly without motivation. First time in my life that I’ve felt like that.

Or so I thought.

Of course I’ve prayed about it. Repeatedly. What is wrong with me, Lord? Has the fire gone out? Am I not getting enough sleep, or just being undisciplined? Should I relax and trust You to move me when it’s time? Or is there something more I can do?

It’s been a very strange two and half months. No, it’s been longer than that, especially when I take my progress on Sky into account… which, until last week, was not much progress at all.

So, for a time now, I’ve been reading stuff — books, blogs, news — and making cards, and cleaning the house and working on long-put-off projects and dealing with Stuff… can’t clearly remember all of it. Church stuff, taxes, ailing relatives, shingles, stuff going wrong, breaking, getting lost… a leak in the water line from the main to the house…  not getting enough sleep, drinking too much caffeine (which means any caffeine at all), beset by the terrible distractibility I’ve written about in previous posts…

But then, at the beginning of May something happened.  I’d just finished and sent off the guest post I wrote for Seriously Write and “for some reason” says my journal entry, “I picked up Overcoming Writing Blocks.”

blocks

It’s on the shelf above my desk. I’ve had it for 30 years. I’ve read it and reread it and read it again. I’ve underlined passage after passage, starred portions in the margins… even blogged about here  and several other places…  In the past few months, while wondering if I was blocked I’d look at it on its shelf and think it would be no help. After all, I’d read it. Repeatedly. I already knew everything that was in it…

But on the first of May, for some reason I picked it up again, and was… SIGH… again “amazed to find,” in the section on Preparing to Write,  not only a description of what I’ve been enduring, but also some new and slightly different insights I’d not considered before.

One of the new and slightly different insights was this:

This is the training and gestation stage of any writing task. You know what you have to do and you must prepare yourself properly for it…you need to develop basic fitness habits that will get you in shape for prose composition.”

That’s true, I thought. If you just go out and try to start a daily running regimen, it’s not going to work. You have to work up to it, you develop some basic habits…

The precise description of what I’ve been going through recently, is exactly what I’ve gone through in the past, repeatedly, and you’d think that I’d remember that but for some reason… this time it all seemed New and Different and Far Harder and More Hopeless than ever before.

I believe the Bible when it says we have sick heads and deceitful hearts… How can I be so thick-headed?

Well, here’s the recap of the description of blocking at the preparing to write stage:

  • restless, anxious procrastination
  • can think of 1000 things you’d rather do
  • when you finally force yourself to sit down — dozens of extraneous but apparently urgent thoughts bubble up
  • when finally do get yourself to concentrate, all you get is dull blankness. There’s no excitement, no inspiration about the project. It leaves a flat, sour taste in your mouth.

YES! YES! YES! That is exactly how I felt! EXACTLY!

I thought this was all new. That I’d never experienced it before. At least “not like this”. Ha!  It was a great comfort to know it was not new, that I had experienced it and though I thought I already knew what was in this book and all the advice it had to give, maybe I should give it another look…

At least the Preparing to Write section, anyway. First up was”Managing your Environment.”  But I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Repost: Writing is Hard

I think this will be about the last repost from four years ago, but it so expresses how I’ve been feeling as I circle around my work, dreading jumping in to wrestle with it, that I want to share it again.

It is more taken from the book Overcoming Writing Blocks by Karin Mack & Eric Skjei. I adapted the following passages to fit my situation because it pretty well describes what writing is like for me and is another reminder of why I want to check email!

“You take some notes, make a list or two, then, if you’re not too blocked, you launch into spinning out a sequence of story events. But no sooner do you have an event or two in line, than you begin to see that your first considerations weren’t quite on target. This isn’t quite the way you wanted it to be. It’s not going to work because you see some other considerations that will alter it. Suddenly you are in the middle of the quest for the best possible events and ordering of those events. Or you look ahead and see a new line of conflict appearing that could reshape the story in a better way. You see how each added event, or character, or motivation, or world situation, like a stone tossed into a still pool, sends out ripple after ripple, each merging with and altering the others.

“Precious story patterns shift, disintegrate, then reform into something quite new and different, but still composed of the same basic elements. So you realign your thinking, and your writing, and you start over. (Or, if the critical feeling gets too strong, and you begin to feel that what’s coming together in a storyline isn’t quite right enough or good enough, you falter and stop dead in your tracks.) The chase can be exhilarating or stupefying, but it’s never easy.

“Zigzagging like this from creation to criticism and back again is often extremely frustrating, especially if you magnify it by feeling guilty about not being able to put together a story line in a short order of time. Those who aren’t used to the process (and even those who are) often find themselves terribly beaten down by the feeling that they’re wandering aimlessly around, getting nowhere. A deceptively small internal voice . . . keeps wondering why you seem so ambivalent and indecisive. “Don’t you know what you think?” it whispers. “C’mon, just get it out. Stop being so indecisive! Maybe you can’t do this after all. The other two worked, but this is just too complicated, too complex. You’ve bitten off way more than you can chew!”

“This experience of constantly discovering new possibilities, alternate ways to proceed, fresh ways to restructure and recast what you’ve devised, rich as it may sound, can induce confusion, fear, and eventually, blocking of the writer’s decision-making faculties. This is especially true because there’s never enough time to thoroughly explore all the possible permutations of the work. Deadlines are nipping at the writer’s heels. She can’t afford to indulge in endless speculation and experimentation. Decisions must be made, and they must be made now. So there can arise a paralyzing conflict between the need to understand the alternatives and the equally powerful need to bring the task to an end.

“It takes energy and self-control to do all this. You have to be able to concentrate, to form your thoughts, to pick those that are central to the topic, and reject those that aren’t. You have to be able to articulate them, to name them with sufficient accuracy and lucidity that someone else will know what you’re talking about. There’s no easy way to do this.”

Indeed.

Another Block-Breaking Quote

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have rediscovered one of my most helpful writing books over the weekend, Overcoming Writing Blocks through which I did quite a bit of dancing. Another highlighted section that leaped out at me was the following:

“… it is important to recognize that no creative process ever flows smoothly from beginning to end. There is always much backtracking and jumping ahead along the way. In fact, this pattern is not only normal for the writer, it is also an effective way of unblocking.

Ease in writing comes from flexibility and trust in yourself, which comes from learning to tolerate a certain amount of chaos. It’s entirely natural to feel confused and intimidated when you face any new writing task…

…It is also inevitable that you’ll begin with words that will need revision. And it’s equally certain that you will find yourself resisting going back to change the text once you’ve managed to pull it all together into a complete draft.

Because writing is such an experimental process, it may help you to think of it as a spiral rather than a straight line. As though the writer were climbing a spiral staircase, he ascends by circling round and round, rising just a bit higher with each circuit, but constantly passing over the same ground, touching on the same basic topics, ideas, images and phrases, in search of their truest expression.”

This is kind of what I’m been struggling toward for awhile now… being flexible, trusting my gift and my Lord and  learning to tolerate the chaos and uncertainty!

Today I moved into Chapter Two, to page 6, but as it is cobbled, chaotic and provisional, it will need a bit of work.

Back to Overcoming Writing Blocks

  Over four years ago, on my old blog on Blogger (Writing from the Edge), back when I was starting into The Enclave, I put up a series of posts taken from the material in the book, Overcoming Writing Blocks by Karin Mack and Eric Skjei. I’ve owned it for over 30 years and it is thoroughly marked up, passages underlined, highlighted, circled, starred… It’s no longer in print, and when I went to look on Amazon — where it’s available used for about $6 —  I found it had only one sorry review by someone who obviously did not need the book as much as I do.

I say do, because yesterday I was moved to pluck it off my shelf again and look through it. I’d say this one book has served me more than all the rest of the writing books I have combined. It reminded me of so many things I thought I already knew. Well, yeah, I did know, but as with the word of God, I wasn’t using the things that I knew. (Which is why repetition is so important!)

And today, as I went looking for those old posts mentioned above, I found one that I literally could have written yesterday, just change the names of the books involved. Sky is the “other novel” mentioned below that I began to develop after Steve rejected Black Box (now known as The Enclave) in its infancy.

Thus, I thought it might be interesting to repost it here:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Getting Started Again

Yesterday I started out with high hopes for getting in some good work on Black Box. I had my morning chores done quickly, I didn’t have to go anywhere, I knew that I would have the whole day to devote to working on this book and I intended to use it to full advantage. After all the interruptions and delays and so forth that I’d encountered since my official beginning of the book, now, finally I was set to go.

Or so I thought. I started developing this book years ago, after I’d written Arena but before it sold — during the year and a half that Steve Laube held it, waiting for the right moment to approach the editorial board. He’d said in a seminar at Mt. Hermon that if what you want to write is “C,” but the market is at “A,” you should write “B,” that is, something that incorporates elements of the marketable A, but also the passion of your C.

So, operating on the premise that Arena might not sell, I wanted to develop a book that might be more palatable and yet also be a bridge to Arena. So I came up with Black Box — an alternate world story set in our own world, but still almost as strange as Arena. I think I worked about 10 months on it before Arena sold. After the sale, Steve wanted to know what I was working on for a follow up but when I ran a brief summary of Box by him he nixxed it in about five minutes (literally).

I figured the Lord wanted me to go in another direction so I dropped it and started developing another novel. After that I went back to Eidon and then the Legends of the Guardian-King series. A year ago January (2006) I knew I had to present something new to Bethany House and took up Box again. But this time I had no time to spare, because every day devoted to that was another day away from Return of the Guardian King. I had to take the notes I had and come up with a story synopsis that made sense and was interesting and that’s what I did. I also, at what I believe was the Lord’s nudging, added a new and unexpected element to the story.

It sold, amazingly, but I was deep into RotGK by then and didn’t give it a thought until well… this last month. March 1 I began ferreting out all my old files and notes from their various hiding places, collected them into my office and was completely overwhelmed. I have tentative plot lines, lists of possible events, index cards of notes on background issues, setting details, details of character, more possible events, research snippets, incidents or scenes, writings about where I’m going with the story, what kinds of things I might want to do… stacks and piles and folders.

Plus I have about 8 1/2 chapters written, some of which I like and some of which I don’t. And over the course of this very distracted month, every time I came in to wrestle with the alligator, I found myself wanting to read email, or staring out the window, or …

Well, here’s a quote from Overcoming Writing Blocks that describes it quite well:

“The paramount symptom of blocking at this first stage is restless, anxious procrastination. You can think of a thousand things you’d rather be doing than sitting at your desk pushing your pen, and when you do finally force yourself to sit down, dozens of extraneous but apparently urgent thoughts bubble up, as your recalcitrant mind ingeniously struggles to distract itself from the task at hand. Then, when you do finally manage to focus your attention on the job, all you get is a dull blankness, or nothing but the most obvious banal truisms. There’s no excitement, no inspiration about the whole project; it leaves a flat sour taste in your mouth.”

 I had forgotten about this. It is right on. Yesterday, when I had all those hours to really get working on the book, sometime in mid-afternoon I picked up the Robin Hobb book I’d started a couple of weeks ago (Fool’s Errand — it was lying enticingly on the dining room table) just to finish the chapter I was in the middle of… and read almost straight through until midnight (minus time to make dinner and watch 24).

Arg. Not at all part of my plan. When I woke up this morning, I refused to let myself go on the usual guilt trip, realizing instead that this was a familiar pattern. That it wasn’t just lack of self-discipline, but that something else was going on. The work I had before me was hard, and the strategies I was using to tackle it were not working. I needed more. And so… back to Overcoming Writing Blocks. Check back tomorrow for the rest of the story…”

For now, back to September 2011 where today, thanks to the help I got from OWB, I reached the end of Chapter 1.  Tomorrow I start chapter 2.

I think.


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