In our last post we looked at how fast our favourite writing superheroes actually work. Do they get their work done in a few days? Does it take them months? Years? You can look all this up here: #PenPower Myth Debunk #2
This week’s post is yet another treat. It isn’t your usual Writing Rules post found on almost everyone’s blog.
I did ask our twelve writing superheroes: Are there any hard and fast rules you adhere to? But I also asked two follow-up questions to clarify: What do you do when the writing gets hard? Are there any tips and tricks you use to get yourself on track?
We’ve got a lot of really great and insightful responses! They are of course closely connected to each writer’s writing process and as usual each writer is different with their own tricks and guidelines that help them succeed. It may be to plan first. It may be to write at night only. But is there really THE ONE RULE every writer has to adhere to? It seems not.
In the stonemasonry world the rule might be something like this: Don’t hit the hammer on your foot. In the writing world you can do that! You can hit your characters with a hammer – and more! You can even use adverbs (in limited fashion).
Without further ado let’s see what our PenPower Twelve have to say about RULES and how they deal with writerly fears, stress, and other anxieties of difficult projects:
Do you have any hard and fast rules you adhere to? How do you stay on game mentally when you get worried? What tips and tricks do you use to stay on track?
MARTHA: I don’t really have any rules.
[Writing]’s not easy. I’m stressed most of the time and it’s often hard for me to concentrate. It helps to love the story you’re working on, but you can’t always count on that. The middle of the story, where everything has to start making sense and pulling together is the hardest, and that’s where a lot of new writers give up. You just have to keep slogging away on it. Usually if I can relax enough to get into re-reading and the draft, I can start sort of losing myself in the story and start producing new words. It’s an ongoing battle.
SUE: When you get writer’s block, it usually means nothing more than that you don’t know what to write: you aren’t sure how to start a piece, what to write as the next scene, how to solve a particular problem, etc. You solve writer’s block by figuring out what to write next. Some writers always know what to do, and others find themselves getting a bit lost from time to time. I’ve learned that when I’m having trouble writing, I need to make a plan so I know what to do, and the block evaporates.
I also keep a quote by Isak Dinsen on my bulletin board: “Write a little every day, without elation or despair.” I take that to mean that a good or bad writing day doesn’t define you as a good or bad writer. What matters is consistent effort. Every job has good and bad days, and a persistent trajectory leads to successful writing.
I’ve been working as a professional writer — that is, for pay — since 1971 when I was in high school. As a result, for me, writing is a way of life. It’s my job and I do it, whether the exact project I’m working on is easy or difficult or exciting or boring. All jobs have their good and bad parts, and that doesn’t worry me.
KAT: (again from an editor’s point of view and more specifically about slush pile reading!) [The author’s submission] must fit what I’m looking for the first time or not at all. I usually give authors the benefit of the doubt and read the first three paragraphs, but if it doesn’t hook me in that time, I give the piece a pass and move on to the next one.
I cannot stand blatant clichés. Stories that began with “You’ll never believe me” or “I’m not crazy” got an automatic rejection. Stories that brought gender issues or politics into the story got an automatic rejection. Modern politics has no place in my Lovecraft anthologies.
I love editing stories. I love helping authors to find their true voice and really make their stories shine. I’ve never had a moment where I felt worried or that the job was hard. It is true, there have been a few manuscripts where I knew I would have to be harsh and I didn’t know how the author would take it… but I just tell myself that this is part of the job. It’s up to the writer to consider my critique or not.
For Whispers, I did have a few authors who were not happy that their stories did not make the cut. And they voiced their displeasure in emails. That is fine. As long as they keep [it] civil. The few that did not just proved that I made the right choice in not working with them. And now I know that this isn’t a person I should work with in the future.
RICH: I am a control freak. Experience has taught me I get the best results from detailed planning and preparation. That might just mean thinking about something for a few days and letting it germinate, rather than making extensive notes, maps, writing histories, etc, but I still have to have most of the story already formulated before I begin.
IT’S ALWAYS HARD. Writing books is not easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it. But fear of failure and the need to pay your rent are great motivators.
I tend to look forward rather than back. If I find myself stressed or under pressure I always tell myself that the bad times will pass. They always have so far, so I guess that attitude works.
JOHN: I have to write fiction by hand and I prefer to use a legal pad.
[Stress and worry] happens all the time to me. I don’t think there’s a single work of fiction I’ve written that hasn’t, at some point towards the end, made me feel deeply nauseated, as if it’s terrible and I can’t complete it and I don’t know why I even bother. I’ve learned, though, to recognize this as part of my process, and to accept that this usually means I’m doing what I should be doing.
ANNA: I’ve learnt that in my case it’s best to let go of some level of control, because that’s when I do my best work. The broad framework of the piece – the setting, the characters, and the main elements of the plot – will stay roughly the same, but the emphasis can shift quite dramatically when I find what it is I’m actually trying to say within that framework.
This is also important when it comes to editing. An artist acquaintance of mine told me she couldn’t believe I would consent to be edited as that is muddying my artistic vision and did I not care about my work that I would let someone just come along and interfere? And … that made me really angry. If she was painting an abstract piece and Jackson Pollock came along (yes, I know he’s dead) and said, have you thought about adding a bit of red, would she really turn down that piece of advice? At the very least, she’d stand back and examine her creation and picture it with red in it. It’s the same with editing. [You] have to give your professional editors’ advice serious consideration.
[I] think the most important thing I try to remember is that I’m worried because I love the story. I love the characters and the themes I’m trying to explore. Because of that, because I want to do justice to the characters and their adventures, I worry about falling short. And in a way that’s healthy. If I didn’t care about the book, that would come through in sloppy plotting and inadequate writing. So a certain level of worry – of wanting to get it right – is probably natural.
But yes, that worry can escalate. For me it usually happens when I get bogged in a section and I can’t find my way forward. And THAT usually happens because that section is wrong. For whatever reason, it’s not working. It may be that I thought I needed it in, but I don’t, or that I thought I wanted to explore a certain theme, but actually my subconscious is slowing down my forward momentum because it wants to analyse something else.
When that happens, I’ll try and push forward regardless. My brain works in a strange way and very often I’ll have to write the plot wrong in order to work out what I should be writing. It can be really time-consuming and every book I’ve written so far has an accompanying file called cut-scenes, and each one is filled with anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 words that I wrote that didn’t make it into the book – and that’s BEFORE an editor gets their hands on it.
CAITLIN: [The one rule might be not to overthink things.] The limited time I have on weekdays [due to my day job] is actually helpful. I don’t have time to overthink. I show up, draft according to my outline/notes/feeling of what needs to happen next, then put the computer away for later.
For editing, I make checklists encompassing the very large and very tiny edits. For very large edits, I’ll break those down into individual steps. Then, if I have a deadline, I’ll chunk up my checklist into daily to-dos; if I don’t have a deadline, I’ll start with the small stuff first, and it’ll usually organically snowball into the larger changes.
The biggest tool I have [against stress] is outlining and taking walks. I’ll outline as a way to solve problems, whether it’s how to restructure half of a book or how to get from scene A to scene C efficiently and interestingly. I’ll write out specific problems or gaps, note down what the solutions to those have to accomplish, and then just play with it. It’s not necessarily a fun process (often it’s terrifying and I end up convinced I’m a fraud), but eventually I come out the other side with a game plan. The game plan is the most important thing. If I can see the step by step of how to get from where I am to the next bit, I can put my head down and do the work.
Timers help, too, on a more directly practical note. If I’m anxious and spiraling, that usually means I’m avoiding doing the work. So I’ll set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes. I have to focus on writing for that time period, and then I’m free to stop if I’m still feeling miserable. Half the time I immediately feel better once I’m back in the draft. The other half of the time, I start actually grappling with whatever problem is distressing me, and then I won’t stop until it’s solved. Either way, those ten or fifteen minutes get me back on track.
EOWYN: I tell myself I have to write 500 words a day, and I set a timer to write for 20 or 25 minutes, then a five minute break to throw some laundry in the washer or feed the chickens, then it’s back to the computer.
[W]hen I’m actually putting in the time and actively working on a piece, I’m rarely worried or stressed. It’s when I step away from the writing, either because of other demands on my time or laziness, that I start to have doubts and worries. But I know the solution — get back to work. There are times, though, even when I’m working actively that I feel stuck or stagnant, like I’m bored with what I’m doing, and then I’ll go back to the books that have most inspired me, and I’ll try writing exercises designed to mix things up a bit, and I’ll seek out new ideas and art work in all forms. As I do this, I’m reminded that this is where the joy is — in the work, in connecting ideas and learning and stretching myself in new directions. The writing and the editing is the fun part, and if I wasn’t mostly enjoying it, I’d find a new occupation.
THORAIYA: Write in the morning, in silence, on a computer with no internet connection.
I like the three-sentences trick where you make yourself get started on the day’s words by telling yourself you’re only going to write three sentences. It almost always turns into more. With Titan’s Forest, when I got stuck, a walk through a real rainforest inevitably got the creative juices flowing. Remind yourself of what you loved about the ide before you started writing it!
ADRIAN: [Ideally] I have a good idea where I’m going before I set out.
I am generally fairly resilient when it comes to just sitting down and getting on with it. There is usually a stretch in the mid-section of a full-length book where it all feels like slogging uphill in the mud, but I’m a creature of habit, and I’ve written enough that I know it’s a part of the process (brought on, I suspect, by the middle being the part of the book I think through least, when planning). I actually get most stressed when I’m between projects or haven’t been able to get any writing done, including any protracted periods of editing and the like. My mind needs to create.
YOON: I need time to compost ideas and get a sense of the big picture. My outlines are fairly telegraphic notes divided up by chapter, and occasionally I’ll also take notes on worldbuilding or characters along the way so I don’t mess up consistency, but I do most of my cleanup in revisions.
One of the things I’m best at is “butt in chair”–just showing up, sitting down, and getting the work done. I definitely have days when I wonder if any of this is worth it, but I also really hate the thought of messing up a deadline. I’m stubborn if nothing else.
TIM: [I don’t really have any rules] since I believe all that matters is making the story work using whatever tools seem best for the job, but there are guidelines and best practices that I’ve found work well for me, personally. If I’m going to be writing for more than an hour, I try do it at a desk instead of on a couch or chair with a laptop, as otherwise I’ll mess up my wrists. I try not to stop writing at the end of a chapter because it’s hard to psychologically get going again from a break point; I try to stop in the midst of a scene, or at least jot a note about the next thing that happens.
I usually write books in order, because I get myself through the hard or complicated parts with the promise of getting to write that fun cool scene I know is coming up; if I wrote all the fun scenes first, they’d be less of a treat and make the hard parts harder. If I’m having a tough time getting started, I use the pomodoro method: set a 25 minute timer and sit there and stare at the page and don’t let myself do anything but write. Then a five-minute break to walk around (usually eager to get back to writing by then), then another 25 minutes, repeat as necessary. I try to write short stories over one or two days because I find they have a more consistent tone and pacing that way. These are all just my personal preferences. All that matters is what ends up on the page. How it gets there varies wildly from author to author
If I’m on a deadline though, eh, I just get on with it anyway. Writing isn’t magic; it’s just work. (Sometimes it feels like magic, but succeeding at anything challenging can feel that way.) Inspiration is nice! But when inspiration fails, fall back on craft, and type the words. If they come out lumpy and bad, you can always fix them later.
And… CUT! (This isn’t to cut off Tim. It’s to make sure there’s a visible division between Tim’s last comment and the start of my conclusion.)
All the important parts have been covered by our writing superheroes:
Writing isn’t magic. It’s just work. (Thanks Tim!). IT’S ALWAYS HARD (Thanks Rich!). It’s butt-in-chair and get it done.
Writing exercises and side projects can help take a more distant view and return to seeing the forest rather than the individual (sometimes ghastly first-draft) tree. You can always go back and edit later.
You have to be ruthless (like Kat) culling those stories that don’t fit your edited volume (and in writing: Those characters that don’t fit the story. Those scenes that don’t fit the plot. Those themes that popped up because you had a horrible day but aren’t actually what your story is about.). And you have to have a thick skin if you’re going to do anything at all. A lot of people will be displeased by what you write/edit/paint/your hairdo. That doesn’t mean you should stop looking like Elvis Presley met a unicorn! (Or that you should stop writing because your inner editor thinks you suck.)
In the vein of rules and therefore: control we will spend next week looking at another really juicy subject: How much control do our favourite authors need to write? Where does the subconscious come into (planning/writing of) the story? This one’s always been on my mind – We’ve already seen it’s pointless to force it when the words just aren’t there or when you’re stuck. There is a point where you need to step back from the work and do something else – So how much control should we exert on our characters and plot? How long should we try to push that triangular block into the square hole?
Let’s hear from our PenPower Twelve next week!