Time Traps and the Productive Writer

Time trap

Time traps is one of the biggest problems a writer today faces. I know this from experience. Once upon a time I called it procrastination, and as a journalist and then a freelancer I knew it well. I’d spend tons of time doing the laundry, twiddling my thumbs, walking the dog – anything to prevent me from starting my piece. Because I knew that I worked better under pressure, that my thoughts unfurled when my deadline approached.

As a novelist, however, I only have a self-imposed deadline. Now, unfortunately, procrastination has turned into time traps – time traps such as trolling Facebook, getting side-tracked on my daily dose of Trump nonsense, falling down the sinkhole of Google, and playing Words with Friends.

How to Sidestep Time Traps

Yes, it is possible. Going cold turkey and saying you won’t ever go on Facebook is the same as saying you’ll never touch another carb again. It’s just not sustainable. Instead, set aside a half hour to catch up on Facebook. Let’s face it – you don’t really have to ‘like’ and comment on every post you read, and if you’re like me – you don’t actually post a whole lot.

CNN and Trumpian Nonsense

Give yourself fifteen minutes to catch up on Trump’s latest nonsense. He’s not worth much more.

Google

Here, you need some self-restraint. It’s hard not to get distracted from the valid research you are doing. I find the best way to stop myself from going crazy on  links within links is to just not click on anything. Stay focused on the article you are reading and exercise control. You can do it.

Words with Friends

No words of advice here. As those of you I play with know, I have absolutely no self-control whatsoever. The physical game of Scrabble was a family favorite growing up, and Words with Friends is my comfort game. So – time trap or not – I don’t care.

What are your time traps, and how do you deal with them?

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Amazing Bookstores

Literary pilgrims – look for these amazing bookstores while you travel the globe. Thanks to the New York Times Dec. 7, 2016 travel issue for this post. I’ve cut and edited it for space.

Livraria Lello, Porto Portugal

The 110-year-old structure could easily be mistaken for a church. Topped with spires, the finely wrought Gothic-style facade opens onto a soaring space with columns, ornate medieval motifs and a dazzling stained-glass ceiling that hovers over the marquee attraction: a sinewy blood-red double staircase that coils like a strand of DNA.

According to bookshop lore, J. K. Rowling drew inspiration for her young-adult novels from the shop’s creaky interiors while teaching English in Porto in the early 1990s.  

— SETH SHERWOOD


 Credit: Zhongshuge Bookstore

Zhongshuge Bookstore

When you walk into the shop in Hangzhou, China, the books appear to reach impossible heights and stretch clear into the distance, an effect created by the perfect symmetry of the dark wooden shelves and the clever use of mirrors on the ceilings and walls. In an amphitheater-like room for readings and lectures, the impression is amplified by the reflection of the curved wall in the mirrored ceiling; it feels as if you are completely surrounded by a rainbow of book spines. In yet another room, the books are arranged on thin columns placed randomly around the room like trees in a forest, with benches interspersed for reading. Again, a mirrored ceiling makes the shelves appear as if they are not just trees, but towering redwoods.

— JUSTIN BERGMAN


Credit: Horacio Paone for The New York Times

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is one of Buenos Aires’ most remarkable landmarks, a sprawling space whose history mirrors the cultural development of Argentina. The grandeur of the former theater belies the rather prosaic merchandise provided by the bookshop chain that owns the current incarnation: The open interior is surrounded by tiers of balconies that, especially when lit in the evenings, make it easy to imagine the ballet and opera and tango performances of a century ago.

On the ground floor at the very back of the store is the stage, still bedecked with red curtains, and now supporting tables and chairs: This has become a cafe and a good place for foot-weary tourists to down an espresso. The books include works carried by chain bookstores (there’s a small English language section) but the music selection is excellent, a small reminder of the heritage of the Grand Splendid.

— NELL McSHANE WULFHART

Story Craft

Is there such a thing as story craft? You betcha. Doctors learn to diagnose and treat patients, lawyers master the rules of law, plumbers plumb and scientists tap the secrets of the universe. So why is it so difficult for aspiring writers to believe they should learn how to craft a story?

Writing is Writing is Writing

No, it’s not. There are many different kinds of writing forms, and just because you can write an essay or a technical document does not mean you know how to craft a story. When I was a reporter/journalist/freelance writer, my world revolved around making sure I had the facts down correctly. One of the first things we learned was the upside down pyramid where you cram in all the most interesting information about the subject you are reporting on. That’s because chances are the reader may never get beyond the headline and the first paragraph.

While you do use a similar technique in crafting a story, you only give away enough to hook the reader and reel them in.

Crafting a story means exposing yourself by allowing your imagination to run free. And that can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and open yourself up to ridicule. But it can also allow you to create an incredible world with characters that are so interesting, they fly off the page and become real. As Jim Butcher of The Dresden Files says “Writing is the original virtual reality.”

The Novelist’s Toolbox for Story Craft

1. It all begins with a workable idea. Ideas are cheap, and are everywhere. But your idea is just an extremely flimsy skeleton. The hard work is figuring out whether you have enough meat in that idea to cover those bones.

2. Structure and technique are necessary constructs that a novel must possess in order for the reader to not be confused about what’s happening. This includes choosing a point of view and deciding where to begin your novel. In media res which means ‘in the middle of action’ is the best way to begin. Capture and hook your reader.

3. Creating a plot (and sub-plots) that is cohesive, exciting and full of conflict for the protagonist. Throwing in a few red herrings helps, if you can carry it off. But most importantly, learning how to manipulate your reader’s emotions so he/she cares about the protagonist is one of the tenets of story craft. If you can get the reader to care, he/she will have no choice but to continue reading

4. Learn how to write engaging dialogue that furthers the plot, and has a specific purpose. Story dialogue, as I’m sure we all know by now, is not conversation. It should sound like a well-honed conversation, but devoid of all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and inane bits that conversation usually is jammed with. Dialogue is always there for a reason. Read it out loud so that you can ensure that it sounds realistic.

5. Think about a baseball player. They make it seem so easy to catch a flyball, or wham a home run. But that comes after hours upon hours of practice. Write, write and re-write until your story reads like it was so easy to write.

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What Motivates You to Write?

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What motivates you to write is such a fundamental question, but so many of us don’t know the answer. Or the answer is mixed up in a whole bunch of other ones so that the motivation gets diluted.

What Motivates You?

There are a heap of answers to this question, but I’ll list a few:

1) You want to make money, or make a living on your books. I’ve got news for you. You probably won’t, certainly not the oodles that Stephen King and J.K. Rowling make. A first contract is very humbling. So, if your plan is to make money – you really ought to think again. Your best bet is to retain your day job, and write when you have time. If you make it the best-seller list, you get your big chance to march into your boss’ office and tell him/her where to stuff it. And good for you.

2) Fame – again, I’ve got news for you. Same as above. Your chances of fame are possible, but not probable. Of course, you can always become a Stephanie Meyer or a Cassandra Clare, but sadly, the odds are against you. Yes, I know, I don’t sound very positive, but the truth is the truth.

3) Writing because you love it – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all, and that’s because you’ll be doing something you enjoy doing, and it will show. Jumping on to some successful genres or plot-type will not get you published, because the trend will probably be over by the time you actually get your novel ready to be submitted. Better to stick with what you know and love.

4) Writing because you’re addicted – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all. That’s because that ‘genre’ comes with ‘stick-to-it-iveness.’ You will discover a whole new world of critique partners and writer friends who enjoy the same things you do. And that camaraderie is hard to come by. I know I cherish it.

Motivation is important because it is so difficult to actually get published. There are so many gatekeepers to get through that it can be a disheartening procedure. I’m talking about traditional publishing of course. If you self-publish, then you bypass many of these hurdles. There are other hurdles, but that’s the subject of another post.

Why do you write? What motivates you?

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Honesty or Whitewash

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Honesty or whitewash – what’s your drug? My gang of writers know that I seem to be totally incapable of whitewashing anything. I really do feel whitewash is best left for picket fences and buildings in Greece. Knowing the truth about your writing can only help to get you closer to your goal of being published.

My Online Group Experience

Recently, I met up with a couple of writers I had met. Our loose plan was to begin an online critiquing group since I wanted some input for my new story. I had taken a risk, and started a high fantasy story. It’s not my forte, but I thought I’d try something different. My usual style is contemporary fantasy. The online group started out well. They both hacked my story to bits … and they were absolutely right. It was a very early first draft, jammed full of cliches and completely pretentious. In other words – crap. And they were right.

I looked at my work, and realized that the essential bits were good, but everything else had to go. The upshot – I think my new version is working because now I’m writing my own story, not a cliched, watered down version of something else.

But the problem came with reciprocation. One writer accepted her critiques and moved on. The other tried to convince me that since she had worked in a children’s setting before, she knew better. Maybe she did. But having written for one age group does not mean you automatically know how to write for another age group. The bottom line is that if you ask for a critique, you should know how to accept honesty. If you want whitewash, well then – you should go to your mother or some other family member. Needless to say, that online group crumbled.

As writers, it behooves us to take into account what others we trust say about our work. Getting upset initially is natural. But once you get over it, honest comments can become a gift.

What do you prefer – honesty or whitewash?

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Dreams, Despair and Depression

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I call them the three D’s of a writer’s life – dreams, despair, and depression. First, you have a wonderful dream of writing a novel. Not just any novel – a bestseller. It will be top of the New York Times Bestselling list, will become a hit movie, and of course you will be the next J. K. Rowling aka the richest person in the world.

Hah. Reality sinks in when you start writing your magnificent opus. First draft, then tenth draft and one day you realize you are in total despair. Your characters hate you, and the feeling is reciprocal. You’ve gone through your manuscript so many times that you can’t see what the story is about any more.

That’s when depression sets in. You will never sell the stupid thing, no one will ever want to read it, and you are a total bust.

How to Help Yourself

Here are a couple of ways to help you hang on to your dream, to kick despair out of your life and to tell depression to take a hike – a really long one, far away from you.

Worm your way into a critiquing group. A good critiquing partner is worth his/her weight in not just gold – make that diamonds. He/she will quite often have far better insight into your own work than you do. It’s a weird phenomenon, but true.

The second way is to join a creative writing class or hire a creative writing coach. My gang of writers at Beyond-the-Lamppost have become sharks … and I love it. They’ve learned to glean not only the essential parts of each writer’s characters, plot and conflict, but they also offer suggestions on how to improve the work, cut out extraneous bits, and craft the work into something that stands out in quality and originality.

How do you deal with dreams, despair and depression when writing?

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Writing out of Sequence

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Does it matter if you are writing out of sequence? Not starting your novel at the beginning, progressing through the middle and finally to the conclusion? Do you jump around and write the scenes that excite and titillate you, make you feel alive and then try and rope the scenes together to make sense?

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not necessarily a good thing.

Advantages to Writing out of Sequence

Crafting those crucial scene allows you to capture your characters’ thoughts and emotions and allows your own thoughts and emotions to flow. When they do -hey, there’s no better time to hit those keys.

Allows you to stay energized and get the best parts of your story down. Why wait, when you can write? Go for it. It can help your story take shape, and/or set it on a path you didn’t think of before.

Skipping ahead allows you to fight writer’s block. Perhaps one character’s needs and actions are clearer than another’s.

Disadvantages to Writing out of Sequence

It makes it difficult to know where to slot your already-written scene in. The scene stands out like a giant thumb, and can drive you crazy trying to figure out how and where to stuff it into your novel.

If you have written all the juicy scenes, it can sap the strength out of your writing. Leaving only transitional scenes to write can be boring, and taxing.

It can be risky. You might not know what to do with the scene once it’s written – it may not fit into your overall plot.

If you are a pantser, this might hinder you since you don’t necessarily know where your plot is heading to.

How do you write – in sequence, or out of?

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Instinctive Writing

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Instinctive writing is like breathing. You do it naturally. If you pretend you are Robertson Davies (who I loathe) and try to write in his literary style (I call it dull and boring) you will fail. Similarly, if you mimic the high fantasy style of Georges R. R. Martin, you are dooming yourself to failure. That’s because you are not using your instinctual way of writing.

Talk to Your Readers

When I started this latest novel, I wanted to write high fantasy. It’s not an instinctive way of writing for me. And what I found was, while the nub of the story was exactly what I wanted – the style sucked … big time. I was copying someone else’s style, and of course, it didn”t work. Only when I used my instinctive style (which is more conversational, and in the contemporary/urban genre) did my story start to pop, and work.

Can Instinctive Writing be Taught?

Yes, I think so. If a writer is struggling and his/her prose sounds stilted – STOP writing immediately. Get a recorder, or your phone and tape what you want to say. Better still, tape yourself telling someone else your story. Chances are the words will flow because you’re allowing your instinctual self to take over. Not thinking about words, and phrases, and sentences – just the story. You can fix the flow later. What you want is the raw emotion and power that flows out of you.

I’ve said this so often I’m sick of hearing it from myself – but, GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel a character must say or do something even though it’s not in your plot outline – go with it.

Write the Clichés

Sounds like crazy advice, but this is your first draft and if the cliches allow you to show what your character feels or does – go with it. You can fix up the clichés later.

Stop Line Editing

You can do this later. Instinctive Writing means go with the flow. No over-analyzing and over-thinking. Let your gut take over.

 

 

The Saggy Middle Blues

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Boo hoo – You’ve reached that awful part – the saggy middle of a story where your initial excitement has faded, and the horrible thought that you may actually not have enough material to go on shoves its nasty head at you. And there’s a heck of a long way to go before you can type in those two final words – The End. What to do?

Kill Someone

Not literally – just in your book, silly. Killing someone off always causes chaos, especially if it is someone the reader thought was important. That will wake them up, and you too. Figuring out how to continue will wake you up from the saggy middle blues.

Introduce a New Character

There is no law that says you have to introduce all your characters up front. Let this new and (maybe) creepy character bring some angst and fear to the rest of the cast. Someone that can cause chaos and rev everyone up – including you.

Write Out of Sequence

Fire out a scene that you know you want to write – perhaps a sexy love scene, or a devastating death, or maybe even the climax of the novel. The excitement of writing something fresh and powerful will stab you with zeal to continue your story. Perhaps you’ll start seeing the characters in a different light, or track possibilities that you didn’t think of before.

Character Reversal

One of the best ways to throw your reader off the scent of whatever your writing about is to have the ‘friend’ be actually the ‘opponent’. Take this opportunity to start sowing seeds of doubt.

What do you do to prop up your saggy middle … of the story – that is!

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Trusting Your Gut Instinct

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Trusting your gut instinct is not as easy as it sounds. Years ago, when I first immigrated to Canada I worked as a secretary in a big paper company, right in the center of Montreal in the wonderful old SunLife Building. It was a great introduction to Canada, but I hated working as a secretary especially when I got promoted to be the Big Boss’ secretary. That meant I had to make him his daily cup of soup in addition to my other work. Grr, I absolutely detested it.

My Trigger for Change

But one day I visited a school friend of mine who worked at the World Bank in Washington. It was great fun until she made me cry. Yep, she got under my skin and made me feel awful because she made me realize one important thing (which I didn’t want to hear at that time) – I was in a job I hated and which did not suit me and … I could do so much better.

Once I got over my crying jag, I realized she was right. That’s when my gut instinct kicked in. I marched into my boss’ office (I wish I could say I told him where to stuff his cup of soup, but I didn’t) and quit to go back to university and get my Bachelor’s in Journalism.

That was the beginning of my belief in gut instinct. Whenever I’ve used it, it’s never let me down. When I’ve sat there analyzing my actions and decisions, I fall flat. My decision to become a writing coach was based on expertise – yes, but it was also based on my gut instinct that I could do the job. I had the qualifications, the knowhow and the temperament but most of all – my gut instinct told me I would be good at it. And it was right.

What does your gut instinct tell you?

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