Drops of blood

On November 29, 2010 Bluekiwii wrote, …I always have the problem of actually starting to write. The story I want to write blanks from my mind, and I freeze before I’ve even begun to write a word. Or I’ll write something–realize it’s rubbish–and cross it out and begin again, and I’ll continue on this way through the story until I give it up halfway. Or I sit in front of the page thinking of ideas/possibilities and reject each one. Have you ever felt this way and what have you done to get rid of this feeling in order to write? How do you start the process of writing a story? Do you outline what you are doing first, a simple two-liner that will guide the plot? Do you plan each chapter? How do you visualize what you’re trying to write before you do it? Do you make a rough sketch of what your characters are like before fleshing them out in the story?
I love this quote by Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Years ago, before I became a writer, I painted, and my favorite medium was watercolor, which is not forgiving, because you can’t cover your mistakes. Some watercolorists outline in pencil so they know what they’re doing. Some paint so loosely that a mistake just becomes part of the artistry, which I admire the most. I did neither. I just expected myself to get it right, and I disappointed myself again and again. As soon as I started a new painting I’d be all over myself about how I was going to louse it up.

The quality of my painting became a measurement of my worth, not of my financial worth of course, but of whether I was worthy of respect, of being considered an artist, almost of living. There was much too much riding on the outcome every time I picked up a paintbrush. Eventually I stopped painting and started writing.

I didn’t come to writing with the same negativity, and I was lucky in the teachers and the books I found to help me learn. I talk about this in Writing Magic, and I’ve written about it on the blog now and then. The most helpful book I read back then, the most helpful in exactly this regard, which I’ve also mentioned before, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain (middle school and up) by Henriette Anne Klauser. Even today, when I’m particularly stuck, that’s the book I go to.

If I remember right, there’s an approach in another writing book, Bird by Bird (also middle school and up, I’d guess) by Anne Lamott, that might be helpful. It’s called “Short Assignments.” In short assignments the writer has to write, but for a limited time. Building on Lamott’s idea, Bluekiwii and anyone who feels like Bluekiwii, I’d recommend that you write for fifteen minutes and stop for a while. Don’t evaluate what you’ve written. Just leave it. Then write for another fifteen minutes, without evaluating your new work or what went before. Your job for now is to write without judgment.

I love the computer, because it’s the opposite of watercolor; it’s infinitely forgiving. You can make a million mistakes and a million fixes. Here’s something else to try: Write without crossing out. When you don’t like what went before, just hit Enter twice and write the sentences better or differently or even worse and keep going.

Or try this: When you think you wrote something awful, write the judgment and keep going, as in, Maxine and her brother Isaac left the apartment to buy a carton of milk. What tripe. Who cares? The elevator didn’t come for a full five minutes, so they took the stairs. What difference does that make? I should just cut it all. Maxine told her mother she didn’t want to go to the store. The store was boring. This is boring. I should shoot Maxine.

Keep going. Maybe it will turn out that the elevator was delayed because Maxine’s upstairs neighbor, the one who gives her piano lessons, had a heart attack, and he was being carried into the elevator on a stretcher. Or maybe there will be a unicorn in the store when Maxine and Isaac finally get there. Or you’ll find other characters that interest you more than the two of them.

At the end of every post I write, “Have fun, and save what you write!” I don’t mean you should save only the pieces you approve of. I mean, save it all. You may never look at your old efforts again, but someday you may want to. You may be curious about your progress or about what you were thinking in 2011. Your biographer may be interested in every word you ever wrote.

Recently I bought a book on writing mysteries because I’ve been having so much trouble with my second mystery novel. I hoped that book would give me a formula that I could follow, that I could dress up and disguise, which I would really be happy to do if it made writing easier. I gave up on the book, although some of it was interesting, but it didn’t give me the formula. Probably because there is none for me. My writing process is messy. I muddle along, and some books are harder than others, but eventually I find my way, or so far I have.

I don’t have much trouble starting a story. I spend a few weeks thinking about what I may want to do and writing notes, and then I’m off. No outline, but a rough idea of where I’m going, which may be entirely not where I go. I don’t plan each chapter, but I do have an idea of a scene before I write it, and I have an internal alarm that shrills when things are getting dull and I need to shake them up or throw in a surprise. As for my characters, I discover them as I write. When they feel blank I use the character questionnaire you can find in Writing Magic. The one thing I do do is visualize. I need to see my characters moving through a scene, to know where they are and what they’re seeing, hearing, touching, smelling.

This second mystery, which may or may not be called Beloved Elodie – I’ve now started it four times. The first time I wrote about 140 pages, but I forgot to put in any suspects. (!!!) So I started over with suspects but the same core mystery, which was too complicated and impossible to solve. I told my husband the story, and his eyes rolled back in his head, and I knew it wasn’t working, but I’d written about 260 pages and I’m not getting any younger. Then I made the mystery something that can be solved, but I was taking too long to get the problem going. Remember I mentioned that I was meeting with my new critique buddy? I’d given her the first thirty pages and she picked up on what was wrong immediately. This time, happily, I’d  written only about 45 pages. Now I think I’m on track until I get into trouble again.

I am not a role model, but I could be someone to wallow with in the writing mud.

Here are some prompts:

•    If you’re too self-critical, try the suggestions above. Write in fifteen-minute stretches. Write without crossing anything out. Include your self put-downs in your writing. Read the chapter in Writing Magic called “Shut Up!” and read Writing on Both Sides of the Brain and Bird by Bird.

•    Write a list of ten story ideas. Pick the worst, stupidest one and write twenty minutes worth of notes on where you could go with it. If you get inspired, write the story.

•    Write about Maxine and Isaac and their trip to the store or about their refusal to go to the store. Make something unexpected happen. Then create another surprise. And another.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. It's always encouraging to hear that an established writer has some of the same struggles and still makes it through! 🙂 I think some of the best stories come from wallowing – formulas are faster but not as original.

    I find I write more freely with a pen and paper; it's harder to go back and correct mistakes but at the same time it feels less permanent. I know I can make it better when I go back and type it in.

  2. I will definitely have to try some of this, especially the writing-in-fifteen-minute-incrimints-thing. I have this terrible urge to edit everything I have written so far in my most recent project, and not move forward. I haven't even made it to the main conflict yet… well no matter. I promised myself I was going to write tonight, so write I shall. I am going to force myself for at least fifteen minutes to just sit down and write, I haven't done that in over a week…we'll see how it goes.
    I must applaud you on your perserverance, Ms. Levine, rewritting the beginning four times, I would have quit by now. I'm just that kind of person, if it doesn't work the first or second time, I just throw it out and move onto greener pastures. I think it's awesome that you care so much and try so hard, but I hope everything sorts out and that the fourth time will be the charm! By the way, when does "A Tale of Two Castles" come out? I really want to snag a copy when it does…
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine 🙂

  3. I have the exact same problem! All the time! I love thinking about my story and planning certain parts, but when it comes to writing, I'll sit down… turn on the computer… stare at the screen for a while… and not write. I have way too much trouble with beginnings. I know you're not supposed to worry too much because it'll change, but I can't start nowhere! So I'll try something, and it's way too boring, or something else that leaves a big gap for the second chapter, or something equally frustrating. I rewrite my beginnings twenty times before I actually move on, and by then I'm sick of the story. I try all these different methods, but I can't seem to find the right point in time of my story to begin. I try to start with action, but what if it isn't a very action-filled story? I'll start at the beginning of what I know, and then it's really really boring. It's so hard to figure out! I never know how to introduce characters, or show personalities in conversation, or what those conversations should be about, or what should happen next.

    That was a long rant.

    I will definitely try writing in short increments, although I'll probably end up with two sentences by the time I'm done. 🙂

  4. I fear I might have the opposite problem…I almost never edit! I just plow on through, except maybe for small edits where I go back and insert one scene, or change a few little things. But then I read through my Finished Works folder on a pretty ongoing basis, and whatever I see that I don't like, I clean it up. I always say I edit like a mountain stream, not like a rock tumbler. 😉

  5. oh man, oh man. It's because of wheel-spinning that I've been working on the same story for five years now. Over and over I'd start a draft, then hate it, then start again, then hate it, etc, etc. The only things in the whole story that have stayed the same in all this time are the names of the countries, the names and appearances of a few characters (but very few–not even the mains!), and the fact that the main girl starts on the west side of the map and spends most of the story on the east side! It's insane… first she was captured as a slave, then her uncle sold her, and now she's been accidentally teleported to an elite summer camp!
    Anyway, I suppose my point is that I got so sick of editing and re-editing just my ideas that I finally sat down two weeks ago and wrote out my entire draft in four days. It was only 101 pages long, mind you, but it still feels so incredibly good to have something down on paper, something I can work with! If you have a free weekend, a fairly solid idea of what happens (I made a chapter-by-chapter timeline), and deft fingers on a keyboard, I heartily advise just spitting the whole thing out. Of course, I guess this only works if you plan out what happens more often than you do the actual writing, like I do.

    anyway, I think it's time I stopped talking…(and started studying for my midterm tomorrow! :l )

  6. Just to let you know, thanks a lot for answering that question! I've wanted to get the book you mentioned (Writing on Both Sides of the Brain) but I couldn't find the book in any of the local libraries and I don't have money to spend to buy the book.

    So I'm really glad you posted this. It helped me more than you can know. After I read this, I tried right away to do some of your suggestions. I tried the prompt of listing 10 ideas, it somehow morphed into writing something for 25 minutes that I kind of like. And the best part is that i actually wrote without judging for awhile. . . Anyways, thanks alot for your suggestions! I determined I'm going to try all of them.

    You mentioned you gave up painting for writing. I hope you paint again someday. One of the things that has always kept with me is the idea that one should always have one thing we love and have fun doing besides our job. When we combine the two sometimes the job we use to find fun, can become grueling and stressful, especially if little voices criticize every stroke of the paintbrush. Now that painting isn't a job, maybe the stress of making it perfect would be gone. Perhaps it can become fun again? I know I love painting. I'm not terribly good at it, and I dont plan much either, I love seeing the colors mingle and take their own course, how the pressure you put on a brush can make a difference in its look on the page. . . Whether the painting turned out great or horrible, I would still feel happy because the process was really fun. Perhaps, if you want, this is something you can try. Just enjoying painting without thinking of how it should look. Your always helping everyone with your posts, so I want to help you a bit. 😀

    Now that I think about it, I should approach writing like painting. Sometimes I worry so much of the outcome, I forget to just have fun with it and not take it to seriously.

    Thanks again.

  7. I've finally learned to stop judging while I write, but I'm discovering that I have a bad habit of "stop writing" whenever I'm afraid I won't like what I'm going to write next.

    Ugh. Need to get over that and just spit out the words…

    Writing from scratch is so much harder for me than revising words that already exist!

  8. I just wanted to thank you for writing this, seeing as you covered the exact, same problem I was having with my own story. Writing blogs like this tend to be hit-and-miss for me, but yours is one of the ones I usually find helpful.

    I tried some of your tips earlier, and they're actually working so far, so thanks. I found writing the judgement particularly helpful since I can just spit out how bad I think what I just randomly wrote in is, and then go on with the story anyway(I have to keep reminding myself that it's just a 1st draft, so I can edit it later).

    I also like the 15-minute one, and while that seems to be helping me so far, it's too early after your post to say for sure. I also like the various comments on this page that mention just spitting out the entire first draft, since I really think I need to do that(I know quite a bit of what happens anyway since this thing is years old, but I've been too self-critical to write it).

  9. As someone in last week's posts commented, this blog really needs to stop reading my mind.=) here I was, wondering when and how I should start a new project, feeling so uninspired and tired everyday with school and homework. I haven't written for a while now, but after reading this, I"m itching to write, and this has given me nuff boost as to not feel bad about not having an ideas. Yep, we should all 'wing it'.=D

    Thank you for wonderful, wonderful post Mrs Levine. I'm going to sleep with a smile, after crafting a perfectly dull story out of the most riduculous story idea, as suggested in Prompt 1!All the best with figuring you plot soon too. Its nice to know authors stuggle too, but its even nicer to know having an idea eventually leads you somewhere with a story. All it seems to take is motivation.=)

    @Grace: Yup, waiting to order Tale of Two Castles too. I haven't been this excited for a book since Deathly Hallows!=D

  10. @ Grace and Mya – You got me wondering about Tale of Two Castles – B&N says May 10! There's no cover shown for the book, but the audiobook has a *great* cover; I hope the book is the same.

  11. @ Charlotte – big congradulations! That's one of the big things, I think, that makes the difference between a person who writes well and a person who's a published author: the published author finishes projects.
    Also, I'm completely in awe… 1 weekend?!? You should come by NaNoWriMo sometime and be an inspiration to the rest of us! 🙂

  12. Thanks for the interest in A TALE OF TWO CASTLES! Yes, it will go on sale on May 10th, and the cover is on my website, link above, not the final cover, but close. I love this cover, and blog input had a lot to do with it, so thanks again!

  13. A Tale of Two Castles is the reason I was asking about buying books on gailcarsonlevine.com. As soon as it's out, I'm snatching a copy for myself!

    Gail, please let us know if pre-ordering becomes available. I know that can help with a book's ranking.

  14. I really like your 'save what you wrote' advice. My solution to the cringe-worthy piece of writing that I have is that I've got it somewhere deep within the recesses of my Writing folder. Actually, most of my cringe-worthy piece of writing is Pre-NaNoWriMo…which is kinda weird, but true.

    And it was kind of wrong of me to assume, but I'm really surprised to hear that you (or for that matter, any author) could have trouble writing! A mistake on my part, but it makes great inspiration and motivation!

  15. @ April – Preorder is available on B&N.com. I don't know about Amazon. I've been trying to support B&N.com in support of them having brick-and-mortar stores but they're not making it easy; I've had several problems ordering on-line. But I keep trying!

    I didn't know that pre-ordering could help with ranking. It doesn't just spread out the stats instead of bunching them up at the release?

  16. @Rose- I've always had a hard time editing as well. Especially my longer projects. Whenever I try to edit one of my novels, I end up scrapping most of it more than once. The largest problem with scrapping it is that later on I'll come back and think that it was better the first time. It's a never ending cycle that drives me crazy!

    I love the first prompt idea here– to choose the stupidest story idea. It sounds like a lot of fun, and I guess that you never know; that 'stupid story' might turn into something great!

  17. This is such a great post! The Gene Fowler quote in the question feels so true too. I struggled with trying to finish stories for a long time, and I think I've learned that I'm better suited to poetry and short stories than to novels. I also love the idea of saving everything. I don't remember whether or not it was from the chapter you suggested, but I also remember loving the advice to write something, even just your thoughts, to get the process started. Thank you as always for excellent advice!

  18. This reminds me of some advice in one of my favorite books on writing, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. She has a chapter titled "Be Careless, Reckless–Be a Lion–Be a Pirate–When You Write." Her advice is to be free and bold when you write, instead of agonizing over every sentence.

    One suggestion she had was to try to write a story that was as bad and dull as possible…she found it gave her writing students the courage to go ahead, and no one ever succeeded at writing a story that was really dull all through–which gave them more courage to go forward.

    I was in a writing class once where we did a bad writing exercise, and people produced some of the funniest pieces of writing I've ever heard!

  19. Lots of times, I have to stop myself from editing too much while still writing the story, but I also do what Rose does- I edit it gradually, then overhaul it at the end.
    However, I find that if a scene is really not working, I need to go back and completely overhaul it. Often this actually saves my story from getting duller… and dulller… and, well, generally leading me into a major writer's block. I still take Mrs. Levine's advice, though, and save the other section, just in case! 😀
    (I have no idea how helpful that was, but there you go.)

  20. I know that this may sound very strange, but I think that the best inspiration for a beginning is listening to 'Bishop Allen' while reading through an old journal.
    And also, I think that you shouldn't write if you don't enjoy it. A good inspiration book for me is Laurence Housman's 'Turn Again Tales'. It is a collection of fairy tales, but not your average ones. The first publishing was in 1930, and I believe my copy might be from then, but I'm not quite sure because the publishing date isn't actually in the book! Oh well.
    Ms. Levine, I'm glad to know that you used to paint! I love art and always have.

  21. @Erin Edwards

    The day a book becomes available, all the pre-orders are shipped. The bigger the number of books sold to consumers (vs. bookstores), the higher the rank of the book. So, that helps the book climb the best sellers lists, which ultimately introduces the book to more people (who then buy the book and again boost the rank).

    There are exceptions, but most of the top best-sellers get there thanks to pre-orders and purchases made the day of release. Then they stay on the list because people see it there and buy a copy for themselves ("It's on the best-seller list, so it must be good").

    @Gail, I'll be pre-ordering my copy today!

  22. @April-Wow! I didn't know that! Cool!
    Again, this will sound weird, but I recommend the book 'The Crafter's Devotional; 365 days of tips, tricks and techniques for unlocking the creative spirit by Barbara R. Call. In the book, she says '[When journaling] JUST WRITE. Don't judge your reread your writing at first. The goal is to let yourself go and get comfortable with recording whatever it is that you want to keep track of, from happy moments to sad ones, and everything in between.' She also includes a quote from Frances Burney (1752-1840);'How truly does this journal contain my real and undisguised thoughts-I always write it according to the humor I am in, and if a stranger was to think it worth reading, how capricious-insolent and whimsical I must appear!-one moment flighty and half mad,-the next sad and melancholy. No matter! Its truth and simplicity are its sole recommendations.' The book also devotes every Monday to jounaling! Call also says;'[When choosing a first journal]Choose the book that you're drawn to instinctively, whether it's a miniature notepad or a leather-bound book.'

  23. At least, that's my understanding based on some research I've done! Gail, if you're on friendly terms with someone in your publisher's sales department, you might want to double-check this info.

    Now, Amazon's ranking is a totally different beast. So please don't apply what I've said to their ranking. Their's depends on how many books you sell that day, compared to how many others sell that day. You can be #75 today and #580 tomorrow (and vice versa), simply because some blog wrote a review which temporarily spiked someone else's (or your) book sales. It's very relative.

    Amazon's ranking also includes ebook sales, which follows a completely different sales trend than traditional books. Paper sells big at first, but then trickles off. eBooks tend to follow a bell curve (and sometimes multiple bell curves that stop and begin at a slightly higher level than the previous curve—like a snake going up a set of stairs).

  24. Ms. Levine, this is off-topic, but will you be coming to Calgary anytime soon? I would just love to meet you. I recently took out 'The Wish' from my local library (Louise Riley) to find that you had autographed it! I was really surprised. Also, it had a note from you in it. Huh.

  25. It's oh-so-encouraging to hear that you wrote so much and then started over twice. I've just read over my NaNoWriMo novel and realized the absolutely abrupt changes it needs to get the plot going (it's a fantasy mystery). THANKS!

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