Wednesday, March 9, 2016

 Why Writers Need To Goof Off And Space Out

“Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth,observed philosopher-pugilist, Mike Tyson.

Not just boxers, Mike. Ditto for writers.

Whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you start out with some kind of plan. That plan might be a theme, an idea, a concept, an image, a main character, a villain, a plot or plot twist, a setting, an outline or beat sheet. Then you begin to write and at some point you realize you’re on the receiving end of a punch in the mouth, because—

  • The book about which you had such dazzling fantasies is a disorganized mess.
  • Your brilliant insights are drowning in a sea of ugly clutter.
  • The first chapter is a dingy cellar dweller.
  • The inciting incident is fat, flabby and forgettable (even by you).
  • Those annoying dust bunnies lurking around the corners of the plot/theme/outline are triggering an allergy attack.
  • The plot is MIA somewhere in the jungles of remotest Borneo.
  • The characters have all the verve and come-hither appeal of your ex’s sweaty socks the dog just unearthed from under the bed.
  • The verbs are passive, the nouns meh and the adjectives are rusting in the front yard.
  • You’d rather wait for your cable company to show up than drag yourself to your computer and face the beast.

So then what? How do you punch back and rediscover the joy of writing?

The first thing to understand is that creative work by definition is “disorganized and non-linear” and that the writer’s job is to make order out of chaos—a process that happens in the conscious and the subconscious. Both must be given time—and the proper conditions—to perform at their peak.

The second thing is to remind yourself that, despite your fits of insecurity and self-doubt, you’re a creative person. Research in cognitive psychology and the personal experiences of other highly creative people point the way to some of most effective, time-tested behaviors that will help tame the process and allow you to experience the joy of writing.

Goof off. Seriously. When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap. Or a shower. Try that new recipe you’ve been thinking about. Build a model airplane. Weed the garden. Go to a party, an art gallery, a museum. Watch a movie, catch up with the news, phone a friend. Go to a concert or the ballet or a baseball game.

Or, God forbid, do the dishes, take out the garbage or get out the vacuum cleaner because when, you’re feeling uninspired, housework is more appealing than writing. At least for a while.

The reason is that sometimes you get ahead of yourself and need a little time (aka “goofing off”) to catch up. A Stanford psychologist explains why spacing out is good for you and your work and suggests three ways to disengage.

Bottom line: when you’re feeling stuck/blah/blocked/burned out, get away from your desk. Stop beating up on yourself and go do something else. I’ve told my DH at least a million times that a body in motion is a mind in motion. (Who says living with a writer isn’t one thrill after another?)

Best of all? Take a walk. A Stanford study shows that walking improve creativity.

Don’t forget: Albert Einstein was known for the theory of relativity—and for taking walks around the Princeton campus.

Change speeds. If you write on a computer, switch to a pad and pen. Slowing down can make a difference and there seems to be a more direct connection to the brain when writing by hand than via a keyboard.

Blogger and short story writer, Lee Bourke, tells why creative writing is better with a pen.

According to psychologists, writing by hand can make you smarter.

Caffeine. A Starbucks run provides the kick start magic for many and it’s no surprise that writers plant themselves at a coffee shop with their laptops or notebooks—the kinds with keyboards or the old fashioned pen and paper variety.

Balzac was known to indulge in fifty cups a day but new research questions the effect of caffeine on creativity. Another approach disagrees and points out that caffeine is effective if you use it correctly.

For me, a cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling, Assam, Keemun or Green Jasmine does the job. However, it might not be the mild dose of caffeine that helps. Instead, leaving my desk, going into the kitchen, warming the teapot, boiling the water, measuring the tea, and waiting for it to brew breaks the hyper-focused oh-shit-now-what?-cycle and allows the idea I need to bubble up from my subconscious.

Brainstorming. Turning to a reliable brainstorming partner, a parent, sibling, cubicle mate can rescue you from a glitch. In my case, my DH (lucky man). Very often, it’s not what he says. It’s what I say. Turns out I had the solution all along; I just didn’t know it until I started talking about my current problem/dilemma.

Other brainstorming techniques include mind mapping, listing, and cubing. Those approaches and others are described in a Writing Center article. If one technique doesn’t work, try another. And the another until you get where you want to be.

Want to write a book in thirty days? Here’s a guide to brainstorming methods that will get you going and keep you on track.

Wanna really go for it? Influential English author, Michael Moorcock, explains how to write a book in three days.

To help you get started (or keep you going), here’s a list of 24 of the best, most popular brainstorming and mind mapping apps.

Read. Science shows that extensive practice in reading or writing is related to high creative performance. Duh. So read widely and often.

  • The sports pages because sports writers are great at describing  action. Good verbs and lots of drama—doping! gambling! violence on the field and off! heroes and villains!—on the sports page.
  • Fashion magazines, style blogs and catalogs are filled with detailed descriptions of clothing that will give you loads of ideas about describing your characters’ wardrobes.
  • Beauty and grooming sites focus on hair, makeup and all the other details of personal grooming and presentation that will sharpen your perspective—and vocabulary—when it comes to describing appearance.
  • The business pages are a great source of ideas for occupations and careers, and are brimming with stories of failure and success that make great drama for fiction. The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Billions are examples that will inspire you.
  • The tabs are an endless wellspring of secrets, sex and scandal, luridly written and lasciviously described. From Dallas to Scandal, Valley Of The Dolls To Fifty Shades Of Grey, the sordid doings of the rich and famous never go out of style.
  • Filmed documentaries, special-interest magazines or blogs on a vast range of subjects—urban hydrology, big wave surfing, Elvis costumes, arctic biology—can jar you out of your impasse and give you ideas for new and different kinds of characters and settings.

Nail The Blurb. Sometimes I get lost in the trees and need to step back and see the forest again. You, too? Writing the blurb is a way to regain the perspective you’ve (temporarily) lost. Besides, after your cover, blurbs are the second most important selling tool you have for your book.

Here’s advice on how to write a brilliant blurb and the difference between a blurb and a synopsis.

Joanna Penn reminds us that a blurb is basically a sales pitch and offers advice about how to make your blurb shine—and sell.

I’m a long time cover copy writer, so here’s my take on how to write a killer blurb.

Indulge. Booze, wine, chocolate have been tried and found guilty of putting that inner scold/second-guesser in its place and unleashing the imagination. Just don’t get so loaded you can’t read your notes the next day or so fat you can’t waddle to your computer. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Go back to work and give it another try. It’s gonna be fun. Really. After all, Albert Einstein, who figured out the inner secrets of the universe, also figured out the inner secrets of creativity: “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”


Note from Ruth: This post originally appeared on the blog I share with the wondrous Anne R. Allen. For more of our wit and wisdom, be sure to check out Anne's blog. This week Anne explains why “SHOW DON’T TELL” CAN BE TERRIBLE ADVICE FOR NEW WRITERS


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  1. Ruth - Your timing is perfect! I feel as if you wrote this just for me. Brainstorming and Nailing the Blurb have both worked for me in the past. Now I'm trying Goofing Off, Reading and a bit of Indulging. Now I need to start drinking coffee, so I can cross Caffeine off the list, too. Thanks so much for this fabulous post!

    1. Becke — Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. I hope more than my timing is perfect. I hope some of the suggestions will get you going again! :-)