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!