Sunday, January 26, 2014

Writer's Toolbox #5. Research and reference: the world beyond Google.

This week I'm doing my usual number at Anne R. Allen's blog. Whether you're a writer, a student, a teacher, an executive in need of some data or just an info junkie (like me), I've pulled together a hot list of reference resources that go beyond the usual suspects.

From a dictionary on steroids to James Bond's girls, from Middle Earth to Modern Art, you'll find it here. And did I mention they're 99.9 % FREE?

See you at Anne's!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

6 Writing Dragons: How To Slay Them...and Get Where You Want To Be in 2014

I originally wrote this post for my wonderful blog partner, Anne R. Allen. She did a superb job of editing and improving.  We're writers and this is how we roll—

Why Tough (Self-) Love (and Some Dragon-Slaying) Will Get You Where You Want To Be Next Year

The reasons (excuses?) for not writing/not getting your book finished often come down to six usual suspects:

1) The Procrastination Dragon

As if you don’t know what I’m talking about. ;-) But, just in case you only recently landed on Planet Earth, here’s a short list:
  • You’re tweeting instead of writing.
  • You’re surfing the web instead of writing.
  • You’re making coffee instead of writing. 
  • You’re answering emails instead of writing.
  • You’re cleaning the bathroom instead of writing.
  • You’re organizing your spices instead of writing.

Bottom line: You’re doing anything and everything you can think of exceptwrite.

2) The Interruption Dragon
  • The phone.
  • The kids.
  • The dog. 
  • The cat.
  • Your husband/wife/significant other.
  • The Amazon drone delivering 3 pairs of gym socks you ordered half an hour ago.
  • You lose your train of thought. If you were in the zone, you’re now out of the zone. If you weren’t in the zone, you’re now out in Siberia.
How can you be expected to write if you’re being interrupted all the time?

3) The What-Happens-Next? Dragon

Your MC is on the top branch of a burning tree and the bad guys are down below. With guns, knives, IEDs, RPGs, snarling tigers. machetes and blowtorches.
  • So now what happens?
  • What does the MC do?
  • What do the bad guys do?
  • What does his/her husband/wife, cubicle mate, best friend, bridge partner, girl friend/boy friend, Pilates teacher, dog walker, nutty neighbor, favorite TV comedian or movie star do?
  • Who says what? And to whom?
You mean you don't know? Don't even have a clue?

4) The Fear and Loathing Dragon 

  • You forgot why you’re writing the damn book and you hate every word anyway because you’re a no-talent nobody.
  • You can’t figure out whether it’s a comedy, a thriller, urban fantasy, horror or romance. 
  • You can’t remember why you started the stupid thing in the first place. 
  • You have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you got from there to here.

Excessive, much?

Not really.

Writers, like everyone else, have mood swings. Not enough for clinical intervention but enough to—at least temporarily—undermine confidence and forward progress.

5)  The "Dream Big" Dragon

You’re writing the Great American/Latvian/Cambodian novel. It’s so wonderful you’ll reach millions and millions of readers everywhere.

An invitation to the White House, to a billionaire’s yacht, to a fabulous mansion on a private island in the Caribbean is in the mail. Beautiful, brilliant people are lined up, just waiting to experience the exquisite pleasure of your company.

And, while you’ve unleashed your imagination about the rewards about to come pouring down on you, please, definitely do not forget the prizes:

  • The NBA (Not the one that’s played by tattooed seven feet tall men aka hoops. The other one.). 
  • The Booker. 
  • The Legion of Honor. 
  • The Nobel. 
  • The Pulitzer.

The list is endless.

Which leads us to—

6) The Perfection Dragon 

Every word chiseled in marble. Every syllable a treasure for the millennia. So, of course, it has to be perfect. That’s why you have that infallible misery-maker, your own personal internal critic, to tap you on the shoulder and remind you of every terrible thing anyone ever said about you, your crappy taste in clothes and your rotten books.

  • You’re so terrible, even your dog hates you.
  • You write. And rewrite.
  • Consider and reconsider.
  • Contemplate and then contemplate some more.
  • You hit the delete button. Then the undo. You open the sentence-in-question in two documents and review them side by side. Still can’t decide which one is better so you write a third version.
  • Which just adds to the confusion and misery as you scratch your chin and tear your hair (at the same time if at all possible because—don’t forget!—we’re going for perfection here) and try to decide whether or not afourth version is called for.

Getting to the point: 

Here is where tough love comes in because, believe it or not, every item on this gruesome list is identical. Each one, no matter the superficial differences, is a self-inflicted wound.

That’s right: you caused your own suffering.

It’s your fault.

You did it to yourself.

You’re the dragon.

Once you truly understand that you are the cause of your dilemmas and frustrations, you are halfway to conquering them.

We are not in “it-hurts-so-good-don’t-stop” mode here. We are in destructive, self-defeating territory, a lethal terrain in which you will never get your book written, much less edited, revised, proof read and published. 

Which is actually the good news and the point of this post. Since whatever is going wrong is something you are doing to yourself, you are the one who can undo the damage.

Let’s slay them one by one:

1) Procrastination 

Are you an adult? Or a kid who doesn’t want to go to school because there’s a history test today and you haven’t done your homework? The real answer is—or should be—that you’re a professional and professionals get the job done.

  • You shut down the internet.
  • You let the soap film remain on shower curtain. Until later. Afteryou’ve done the day’s work.
  • So the oregano is next to the thyme, not next to the pepper where it belongs? BFD.
  • You’re the boss of you. You’re a grown up. You do not give in to your self-defeating tendencies. You go back to your desk and get back to work. If you can’t do that, then you have to wonder how committed you are to your work.

Are you serious? Or are you just fooling around—and fooling yourself in the process?

2) Interruptions
  • Turn off the damn phone.
  • Close the door.
  • Put up a “do not disturb” sign.
  • Make a deal: Trade a hour of uninterrupted work for an hour of errands/child care/chores: you’ll walk the dog (the one who hates you)/do the grocery shopping/take the kid to soccer practice in exchange.
  • If your family doesn’t respect your work, doesn’t that mean you have somehow given them the signal that it’s OK to barge in and interrupt you with whatever?

Nora Roberts famously said that she will allow interruptions only in the case of blood and/or fire. NR is as professional as it gets. Isn’t her no-nonsense attitude something to emulate?

3) The What-Happens-Next? Syndrome

You’re stuck and then what? You got yourself into this pickle and it’s up to you to get yourself out.

Here is where experience is crucial. Every writer, no exceptions that I’ve ever known of or heard of, faces the blank wall, the blank screen, the blank brain. Every writer has been there before and every writer has escaped because, if they hadn’t, no book would ever have been finished.

What you need to do is develop a backlog of techniques that will get the work moving again.
  • Brainstorm with a trusted friend.
  • Go to your junk file. By that I mean drafts you wrote but junked. Never delete unused paragraphs or scenes, just put them in a junk file. When you’re stuck, open the file. You may well find just the right route forward in something you once rejected.
  • Make a list. Steven Sondheim spoke of making a list of all the words that might apply to the song he was writing. That list, SS said, revealed hidden connections he hadn’t seen before. There’s no reasons that approach can’t work for a writer.
  • Have a glass of wine. I am not talking about getting rip-roaring drunk. I am talking about having a glass of wine with dinner. The combination of a small amount of alcohol, a relaxed mood and diverting conversation can spring open a door that has been stubbornly closed.
  • Go for a walk. Take a shower. Weed the garden. Very often just getting away from your desk and engaging is a different activity is enough to break the block.
  • Face up to your own tics and twitches. For me, it’s beginnings. When I’m stuck, I go back and reread. Almost invariably, the hang up is somewhere in the beginning: either I’ve told too much or not enough. 

After I figure out the problem and make the necessary edits, I can go forward again. Once you see a pattern to your own bad habits, you will be able to develop coping techniques you can turn to again and again. 

4) Fear and loathing 

Happens to everyone. I’m not joking, either.

In fact, fear and loathing are so predictable that I and many other writers have come to see F & L as a normal part of the process.

  • Going back to your original outline can help. So can reading over your notes and research.
  • Having someone else read your manuscript and report back can also help.
  • Maybe it’s not as mind-blowingly vile as you think.
  • Maybe it is, and you have to rewrite/revise.
  • F&L is why god created beta readers, crit groups, and editors.
  • Patience, perspective, persistence, and, if necessary, a pair of outside eyes are called for.

5) Dream big, dreamer 

Dreams, even big dreams are OK and, for many, come with the territory.

They can motivate but if they lead to paralysis, you will need to ask yourself why you are allowing a dream to interfere with the necessary real-life work required to make the dream come true. Only you will be able to answer that question but unless you can look at yourself with an unflinching eye, no dream can come true.

6) Perfection 

Doesn’t exist. Everyone knows it. So why do some writers torment themselves trying to achieve something no one—not Einstein, not Picasso, not Shakespeare—ever achieved?

If you are in that group or even if you have tendencies in that direction, try a dose of reality.

Go to the Amazon page of any famous writer and check out the one-star reviews. They’re guaranteed to be there even for famous and successful writers.
  • John Grisham, The Racketeer: “this book stinks”
  • Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch: “a meandering mess”
  • Stephen King, Doctor Sleep: “one-dimensional, amateurish”

Need I go on?

So you still think you’re going to write the perfect book? ;-)

Bottom line: more times you rescue yourself from perfectionism, procrastination, a block, unrealistic dreams, the more you will become a professional, dragon-slaying writer and the closer you will be to where you want to go.