Writing Through Writer’s Block

As my twitter followers will know, this July I was convinced to take part in Camp NaNoWriMo (perhaps against my better judgment). An offshoot of the original National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Camp NaNoWriMo aims to keep people writing through the summer by having two “sessions” (one in April, one in July) where “campers” can set word count goals they want to complete by the end of the month (unlike the 50,000 word goal of NaNoWriMo, campers can set goals anywhere from a few hundred words to over 100,000 for the month of April or July).

Having hit a snag on the third book of a trilogy I’ve been writing, I was convinced to join Camp this year–after all, that’s what NaNoWriMo is about, giving a hard deadline as motivation to actually get some writing done. Figuring I could at least do 1,000 words a day, I set my word count goal at 31,000 for the month and started away.

As always, the month started out well. Freshly motivated, I had a number of productive days that put me a good week ahead of schedule. Newly confident, I even upped my goal to the standard 50,000. I churned out a few more scenes, full steam ahead…and then hit a writer’s block. Hard. I had some vague idea of where I wanted the story to go from where I was, but how to keep going came up at a blank. A couple of days staring at a blinking cursor, and all of a sudden I was dropping behind rather drastically. Either I’d have to write or drop out all together.

And so I set out to vanquish what my twitter follower and fellow Camper, Leigh (@spionchen), cleverly referred to as the Block-ness monster–which, as any writer will probably know, is easier said than done.

As with everything in writing, different things work for different people when it comes to how we get words down on the page. Some people even find it better to wait out a writer’s block until they’re inspired again. For those looking to blast their way through, however, here are a few tips:

1. Set a hard deadline. Some people thrive under pressure, some people don’t. If you’re the type who was never able to get a paper done in school until that due date was looming up ahead, think about setting a hard deadline. The lucky out there might have a publisher breathing down their necks for a manuscript (“We contracted you for a series! Where’s book three??”) but even you who don’t have a contract forcing you to write, you can still motivate yourself with deadlines. You can take part in a program like NaNoWriMo, can join a writing group/have a writing partner to whom you feel accountable, or even just set a goal yourself (assuming you’re able to keep yourself motivated with just that circle on the calendar). Would I have gotten through my writer’s block without Camp NaNoWriMo? At some point, yes. Would it have been this week? Probably not.

2. Avoid distractions. Some people write best with music playing, some in a coffee shop, some in complete silence. Finding what works best for you really comes down to trial and error. The important thing is to figure out what does and doesn’t allow you to write. Can you have a TV on in the background? Or do you start watching that instead of writing? Does having a wifi connection help with your research? Or does it mean you’re spending your “writing time” on Facebook or blogging (Man, if I could count the 600 words so far for Camp…) There are programs, such as Scrivener or Dark Room that provide “full screen” word processing (so you don’t see all the other tabs and applications you might rather be playing with) if you find yourself distracted on a computer, or it might just be as simple as putting on noise-cancelling headphones with some Vivaldi if that is what helps you focus. The main thing is to be aware and figure out what is distracting you from actually writing.

3. Bribe yourself. I’ve heard it said, “It works for kids, why wouldn’t it work for you?” Just like getting a child to sit still with the promise of a toy later on, rewards work really well when you’re in a slump and can’t seem to reach a goal (especially when you’re working on self-imposed deadlines). Some writers do this with the basics (Once I hit 20,000 I can eat/sleep/perform some other basic function required to stay alive), some writers bribe with food (500 more words and I get that piece of chocolate cake in the fridge), some writers bribe with things (If I finish this chapter tonight, I’ll buy myself that new pen I really wanted…) Whatever works for you, setting a reward can help give you that last little nudge you need to keep going.

4. Jump around. Whether or not this one works really varies from person to person. Some people need to write chronologically for their stories to make sense. Others, however, might find it helpful to write the scenes that excite them and then go back to fill in all the middle parts. As long as you can force yourself to go back and do the middle parts later, jumping around to the scenes you like can at least get you back into the flow of writing. Just make sure you keep track of the scenes you have already written so you can fit them together later. Some writing programs such as previously mentioned Scrivener and yWriter offer platforms which allow writers to write scenes in separate chunks and then rearrange them once all the scene are written (the more advanced version of index cards and a bulletin board) but it is also possible to do so with just a word processor if you don’t want to buy/download a special program (personally, I open two documents, one the actual manuscript, one for scenes, and then title each scene I will put in later in the second document [KYLE MEETS JOHN, JOHN AND MARY FIGHT ABOUT KYLE, etc.] As long as they are all clearly titled, it’s possible to fit them together into the first document with just a little more effort).

5. Just start writing. And when all else fails, there’s always just writing until it starts to make sense. Perhaps more a pantser thing than a plotter, this is finally what got me past my two-day writer’s block for Camp NaNoWriMo. Not finding anywhere to jump to, not able to bribe myself, as un-distracted as I was likely to get, the NaNo deadline at least motivated me to try putting words to paper–any words. While the first few hundred words were still like pulling teeth, and I’ll likely cut most of what turned into a rambling monologue by the main character about all the bad things that had happened to her, it at least got me into the flow of writing. I topped out the day at 2,000 words (400 more than needed to stay on par with a 50,000 word goal daily) and even losing those words later, I at least ended up writing a scene that not only actually could fit with the plot, but one that got me back on track for the scene after that, and the next after that. First drafts are meant to be sloppy (it’s why you don’t write something and go straight to publishing). Even if you end up writing drivel, at least you have written something, and that’s the first step to get past your writer’s block. As us tweeting campers will say #fixitlater.

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Why You Need to Pay Your Ghostwriter

Nearly happy fourth of July to all my readers out there who celebrate it (I’ll do my best to get a post up tomorrow as well as I have the day off).

Now, as most of the people who read this (I believe) are writers themselves, this might not be relevant. I’ll do my best to write something more interesting for you very soon. For those who have ideas, but don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got what it takes to write a story, this might be a little more enlightening.

As it will say at the end of this post, my top suggestion is just to try. Your first novel might suck, it very likely will suck. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, my first novel was awful. Writing is a skill. Some people are naturally better at it right off the bat than others, but you will get better when you actually sit down and force yourself to practice. You can always edit that novel within an inch of its life once you’ve finished. You can join writing groups, hire and editor, completely rewrite, it’s just important to actually start putting words down on paper.

That said, if you are still convinced that you have a story that needs to be written, but you aren’t the one to write it, it’s always possible to hire a ghostwriter.

Right off the bat, I’m a little conflicted about ghostwriting. On one side, it pays well, being a ghostwriter. I’ve done some work as one (generally for non-fiction) and I can’t say I don’t like getting a paycheck. Hiring a ghost writer for a work of fiction, however, doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps your idea might turn into a best seller, but between paying a ghostwriter and getting the book edited, finding an agent, finding a publisher, and getting your book out there, it will be a while before you make your money back. If you ever do.

Of course, some people think they can get around that little problem by offering their ghostwriter a percentage of their sales. Often I come across these sorts of ads on Craigslist. Earlier, I touched on the idea of why you definitely shouldn’t look for an agent on Craigslist, today I’m going to answer this ad (edited [some] for punctuation/grammar):

“I have writers block, and I believe that the reason is because I am not a writer, but i have a good, actually a few good ideas (stories) and I believe they are good, and the people that I have shared the stories with believe so too. My problem is that I can tell you the whole story with details, but when it comes down to writing it I just don’t know where or how to begin. So here is the catch, I don’t have much money. How about if we in fill some paperwork before I share my stories, then I relate them to you… If you want to venture with me on this, then you will have 50% of whatever the book makes of it… If you are looking to get paid along the way while we write the manuscript then don’t reply to this ad .

Some points to start:

1) “My friends think my story/story idea is good” is always a bad way of judging your writing/ideas. Non-writers/people not in publishing don’t generally know what sells/how original/good something is. My friends loved my first novel. Actual writers would rip it completely to shreds.
2) I’m not sure writer’s block describes not starting a story. I’ve always heard it meaning you’ve hit a point where you can’t continue writing a story. Anyone who has thoughts about how we should use that term, I’m happy to hear it.

Anyway, my response:

Hi,

I don’t generally email people looking for a ghostwriter on commission, but as a writer/editor, I wanted to take the chance to explain a couple of things about the publishing world before you get started. You can feel free to ignore them or use them, it is up to you.

1) Ideas don’t sell books. Ideas are easy, and there are few original ideas out there. Tell someone who reads a lot/sees a lot of movies your idea, and they will most likely have something that sounds similar (It’s so common I wrote a blog post about it. You can also see many new writers complaining about this fact if you go to a writer’s board such as the NaNoWriMo forums [nanowrimo.org]).

2) As ideas don’t sell books, it’s the writing’s that important. Writing the book  is the actual work. If someone weren’t paying me as a ghostwriter, I would maybe give them 5% for an idea. More than likely, they would just end up in the acknowledgements. I’m a writer, I can come up with my own ideas. Most of us have more than a few bouncing around in our own heads. Those who don’t can go look at writing prompts and figure something out without help. There are even entire story plots up for grabs places such as this for free. There is very little reason to fork over 50% of your profits to someone just to ghostwrite for them.

3) As that it’s the writing that’s important, you’re more than likely not going to make any money if you don’t get a good writer. More so, you more than likely aren’t going to find a good writer if you don’t pay them. Professionals don’t work on commission because we know that novels are hard to sell. Just because you have a book doesn’t mean that publishers are ever going to look at it. Having a good writer means you’re more likely to make it through the first cut, but part of getting published is really luck. A publisher has to be A) looking to fill a spot in their publishing line up B) Like the idea C) Like the writing D) Think they can make money off of it. They will also take a large cut. You will likely make 10-30% royalties off the book (depending on the publisher, that’s an estimate). So if your book is selling for $7.99, you are getting probably at most a couple of dollars each copy sold, if you’re then sharing that 50-50, each of you is getting about $1 a book sold. You likely won’t sell enough to make any sort of money off them unless you’re lucky again there/have a publisher who is willing to market the heck out of your book.

4) The only sure way of getting published is self-publishing or a vanity press. Of course, those royalties are based on actually getting published. You may never find a publisher, even with a great idea. In that case, to get the book even available for sale, you’re going to have to self publish or go through a vanity publisher. Self-publishing is a hard road, you probably won’t make a lot unless you have a lot of time to spend promoting it, especially because a lot of places you generally can rely on for some free publicity (like many book reviewers) won’t look at self-published books (as a reviewer, I understand that on some level. You can get really burned by self-published people who think their books are much better than they really are). If you go through a vanity publisher, you’re going to spend thousands out of pocket to get your book published and are truly not likely to make that money back.

Long story short, you aren’t likely to get a good ghostwriter on commission, meaning it’s unlikely your book will sell well, meaning neither of you are going to make money more than likely, if someone is willing to give you a cut for just the idea (I won’t say it’s completely impossible, just unlikely, as anything is possible, but it would be a 1 in 100 [if that] chance in my opinion). Either try writing yourself, then go to a writing group and work on it until it’s polished, offer to pay a ghostwriter, or write it and then hire an editor to polish it for you (again, not on commission, professionals who know what they’re doing won’t work on it for the same reasons listed above making any editing help much less helpful). That’s my advice at least. 

As I said above, you can take that advice or leave it. Just wanted to share.

Good luck,
Jessica


Related Articles: “Craigslist Agents” , Self, Vanity, Traditional Publishing , How to Get Published

Crises of Confidence

Summer is coming up, and that means the release for my novel this summer (The Bleeding Crowd) is coming up fast. It also means that right now I have a giant file of edits from my editor sitting in my inbox to go over that I may or may not be avoiding at the moment…

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I am not appreciative for the edits. Even as an editor myself, I am very aware that there are things in my own writing that slip past me that I would catch on the other side of things (the danger of being too close to your own writing). I am in fact very grateful to have someone going over my stories before they’re out there for the whole world to see.

However, that doesn’t make it much easier to open that file and look at your baby all marked up. I’ve talked before about how to best take a critique, and I’ve been through enough to do pretty well on the not taking edits personally front, but that doesn’t always stop another relatively common writer experience, the crisis of confidence.

Now, getting edits/critiques back are a prime time for them to happen, but crises of confidence can come up at any point in the writing process. Perhaps you’re reading your first edit from an editor, perhaps you’re looking over your first draft, perhaps you’re even still in the middle of writing, I think most writers are at least acquainted with that lingering feeling you get as you’re going along and suddenly think, “Man, I’m really not good at this whole writing thing, am I?”

We all go through it, and in the worst cases, it sometimes stops us from writing a story we otherwise were really excited to tell. Afterall, just look at what you wrote. It sucks. Obviously the entire story would suck if you kept writing. What’s the point? Or if you already finished it, look how awful it is in general. Wouldn’t it just be better to forget it somewhere in your room/on your desk/in your computer’s hard drive forever?

Of course there are going to be some stories you give up on/forget about. I have a good share of half-completed story ideas (ranging anywhere from just started to half a book) that I may never get back to. I have at least two earlier novels that I finished but just don’t find it worth the time to actually do anything with them since the seem so bad to me. It’s ok if you run out of steam every once in a while, or just wrote something for the hell of it and now want to forget about it completely. It only becomes a problem if these crises keep you from writing all together.

In many ways, this is the problem NaNoWriMo was created to battle. By forcing a hard deadline (that includes writing nearly 2,000 words a day) participants are forced to “ignore their inner editors” and get the words down on paper, for better or worse. People tend to have their own opinions on the quantity vs. quality debate there, but it’s not a bad solution, in my opinion, when it comes to trying to fight a crisis of confidence. If it’s possible for you to simply ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you your book sucks and keep writing one way or another, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done sometimes. And so, some tips for getting past the “I’m an awful writer” blues, at all stages of writing:

First things first, you’re your own toughest critic. When you’re having a crisis of confidence, 99 times out of 100, you’re likely going to be harder on yourself than any one else reading your writing. Where you wouldn’t be so hard on someone else you were critiquing (“There’s some telling here, can you try to show?”) you’re probably going to tear into yourself (“what is with all this telling. Your writing is awful. Why do you even try?”) Ignore the urge to give into self-flagellation, and, no matter where you are in the writing/editing process, leave yourself a note and keep working.

While Still Writing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while in the middle of a work-in-progress)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck. Ok, maybe suck is a little harsh, and I’m sure there are some Mozart writers out there (the ones who have stories that come out nearly perfectly first go around) but having problems in your first draft doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer. Maybe the dialogue between your two characters sounds awful right now, but that’s all right, it’s a first draft. As long as you have the basic Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C stuff down, it’s fine. No one is going to be judging your writing skills off of an un-edited first draft. You shouldn’t either.

2. You can always edit later. Here’s the “locking up your inner editor” thing you see so often on the NaNoWriMo forums. The important part when in the writing stages of your Work in Progress (WIP) is to actually write. Maybe you aren’t a quantity over quality person, that’s ok. You don’t have to word vomit (write everything that passes through your head in one go just to get it on the page) as some WriMos are famous for, you just have to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Write as quickly or as slowly as you want, just don’t obsess about one sentence that is giving you problems. Get is good enough for a first draft, and then leave yourself a note to come back to it when you’ve moved on to editing. Don’t rush yourself if you’re not that type of writer, but don’t throw your entire story off the rails just because you’re beating yourself up about one line that just sounds wrong.

3. Jump to a different scene. All right, disclaimer, this one doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people (myself included) write best chronologically. If I don’t write A to B to C, I have a hard time getting everything to line up at the end with the missing scenes. If you have a strong outline, however, or are just fine with writing scenes in varying orders, jumping to some place later in the book can be a good way to get you out of our funk. So what if the entire beginning seems to be a boring info dump? Look at how exciting the climax is. You can always fix things up when you’re feeling better about your writing as a whole.

4. Take a short break. Emphasis on the word short. You don’t want to lose your momentum, but don’t force yourself if you’re in the grandmother of all slumps. Stop trying to force the writing, and perhaps do something more productive than staring at a blank page/computer screen. Do a character drawing, try to plot out how the Main Character’s house looks, or read another book that might inspire you. Just don’t let “not today” turn into “not this week” turn into “not this month” turn into “I once tried writing a novel…”

While self-editing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while attempting to edit/rewrite a draft)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck, second drafts can too. Again, you don’t have to aim for perfection straight out of the gate. If you aren’t a Mozart writer, and don’t have divinely inspired words on the page, expect for there to be multiple rounds of edits before you have something you’ll even remotely think of showing to other people. Just because something seems badnow doesn’t mean you won’t make it great once you’ve finished edits.

2. You don’t have to keep all of it. Is it really just that first scene that isn’t working for you? You can always rework it, rewrite it, or cut it all together. Just because it ended up on the page in your rough draft doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the story for all eternity. Speaking as someone who can word vomit during NaNoWriMo, an entire character from 2010’s novel found themselves cut before the book was even shown to someone else. She just wasn’t working, and wasn’t important enough to save, sadly.

3. See if someone else can give you some pointers. If you get the general feeling that your story is awful, but have no idea how to fix it (and you’re brave enough to let someone else take a look) it can be very helpful to have someone give you some suggestions to help fix things (that will likely be less harsh than your inner critics suggestions of “you suck” and “why do you even try”). One caveat, however: Try to find someone who is also a writer, and editor, or at least a very avid reader. Writers and editors will probably be better at telling you the exact points you can focus on perfecting where casual readers (friends/family/etc.) are more likely to give you less helpful comments such as “I liked it” or “It was ok”.

#3 Tip: If you’re shy about sharing a rough draft that’s probably in pretty, well, rough shape, try finding an online critique forum (such as the NaNoWriMo one here) rather than talking to someone in person. It’s sometimes easier to send a story (or even just a scene from a story) off to another faceless writer than to go up to someone you know in person.

After a critique/edit (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while reading over someone elses edits to your work)

1. Nobody’s perfect. Even if you’ve edited your story thirty times yourself, there are still going to be problems you’ve missed (see the whole being too close to your work comment above). Expect for a sea of red (or at least a lot of comments) to come back on any story. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer, it means the editor/critic had different thoughts about some scenes. In fact, if your critic/editor is any good, you’ll actually hope for a lot of comments/suggestions. Creative writing, like any art, is subjective. The comments are just ways you’ll be able to see what people with other writing styles prefer, and you can decide if they help make your writing better or if they’re just something to think about. A good editor will market everything they think so you can decide what you think is best, not because they’re telling you you’re a bad writer.

2. It’s just one more chance to make your writing even better. Until the second your book is on the shelves and you can’t get them back, you constantly have chances to make your writing better. Perhaps you’re still beating yourself up about how awful one scene is, especially now that your critic/editor has agreed how awful it is. But you have the story back, you can make it better. And now you have someone to work with to make it better. I promise, not all is lost.

And, for my final general tip: Cut yourself some slack. Some people might naturally seem to be better authors than others, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never live up to that. Even the best author out there didn’t pop out into the world as a brilliant writer (they at least would have to learn to write first after all), and even then, they had editors, and publishers, and a whole team of people behind them to make their writing sparkle just that much more. You will grow as an author, you will get better with edits, it isn’t fair to yourself to try to measure your WIP against someone else. Give yourself a break, and just write. Enjoy.

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How to Write When You Just Don’t Feel Like Writing

Hope Daylight Savings hasn’t screwed anyone up too much for those in places that observe it (like DC sadly…) So, for while all of us in a sleep-lacking daze, today’s post on how to write even when we may not feel like it.

For the most part, I am pretty lucky when it comes to avoiding writer’s block. I have enough ideas in my head at any one point I can jump back and forth between works when I get stuck on one or another. What does hit me, however, are times when I just don’t feel like writing. Now, these generally coincide with times I really don’t feel like doing anything, but working a full-time job along with freelancing and attempting to have a social life doesn’t leave me with a lot of time to both be able to not do anything for long stretches and be able to get some writing done (maybe when I’m a best-selling author with a 7-book deal, but for now…)

And so, that leads to a sad fact: Write even when you don’t feel like writing, or don’t write at all. Since I don’t see the latter as much of an option, that means I have to find ways to write even when I don’t feel like it.

Some of you might be lucky and have time so that you only have to write when inspiration takes you (as I used to be back as a student a while underemployed), but for the rest who are trying to juggle work, school, a family, loved ones, friends, sports, hobbies, and everything else you might have to do in your already busy life, here are some of my tips to getting past that “I just don’t wanna” feeling:

1. Work on something else. This is my big one. Even if you don’t have multiple novels going at once, it’s possible to get past a block on one story by working on something completely different for at least a little bit. You can start a piece of flash fiction, which is easily completed in one sitting. You can toy around with an idea you had a while ago (just put some characters down and see where it goes for a couple of pages). You can even write a “fan” fic of your own larger novel. Always want your characters to go to Italy but there’s no way that would work in your story? Send them now and chalk that writing up to character building.

2. Word Sprints. What is a word sprint, you ask? Obviously you’ve never been on the NaNoWriMo Forums. Word sprints are timed writing exercises where you do your best to write anything and everything you can think of in 1, 5, 10… minutes. You try to reach personal goals (100 words in 2 minutes) or can add a little more motivation by finding someone to race against (in person or online) or using a program like “Write or Die” where, depending what setting you put it on, after a certain time frame (5, 10, 20 seconds) of not writing, the program will have a pop up reminding you to keep writing, set off a rather unpleasant siren that won’t stop until you keep writing, or (on kamikaze mode) begin un-typing everything you’ve written.

3. Do something “avant garde”. Generally write in third person past tense? Write in first person present. Have a character pop up that has medium awareness or breaks the fourth wall. Throw yourself into the story. You might end up deleting the entire section, but that’s fine. Not everything you write has to be perfect and make it into the final (or even second) draft. It can give you a jump-start to get you back into writing in general just because it’s so different from what you’re used to.

4. Reward System. Ok, maybe you don’t want to eat a cookie for every word you write (unless you’re also working on being a competitive eater, because then, hey, two birds with one stone) but it’s sometimes possible to tempt yourself into writing the same way you bribe a kid into eating his/her vegetables. Really want some chocolate? You get some if you write 1,000 words. Thinking about getting yourself a new DVD? 2,000 words and it’s yours. It can even be something as simple as telling yourself you’ll let yourself sleep in Saturday morning an extra hour if you just get a chapter done.

5. Switch up how you write. For me, I tend to type a lot of what I write, just since it’s simpler come editing time, but there is definitely something to be said for handwriting when I’m in a slump. It also means it’s possible to write in bed while completely lying down (hard to type when on your side since you only have one hand). Bonus: It keeps me from getting bored and ending up on Facebook or reading Cracked.com.

6. Don’t Stress. The most important (and perhaps hardest) of the “get past a slump” tips. The more you stress about not wanting to write, the harder it’s going to be for you to write. If you feel like you’re forcing yourself, either your writing is going to sound, well, forced, or you’re not going to be able to write at all. Sometimes you just won’t be able to motivate yourself to write. It isn’t that big of a problem as long as it’s not every time you sit down. Take a coffee/hot chocolate/beverage of your choice break, watch a TV show, calm down and come back to writing later.