Writer’s block

writer's block

It’s kind of funny. I never thought of published writers as being capable of suffering from something as mundane as writer’s block. Obviously, they’ve pumped out gazillions of words and keep doing so. They can’t possibly have those moments where they sit in front of their computer and nothing happens!

The truth is: It’s something all authors deal with. Those who publish many books during their career are just better at it than those who don’t. If you look online for solutions to writer’s block, you’ll find all kinds of advice, some useless, some interesting and, at times, some of it thoroughly distressing.

The tough love versions usually claim that you can’t afford writer’s block if you plan to make money with writing. Though I do subscribe to something along that line, I think it is a bit unforgiving…especially considering that writers form part of the artist community – a bunch of emotional weirdos who need to feel all the feelings.

The other end of the scale offers all kinds of soothing solutions. I often find them wishy washy and that they really just lead to distractions, that lead to more distractions, that lead to more distractions… You get the idea.

What I have to offer falls somewhere in the middle. To my mind, they are more practical and offer real solutions. In fact, I no longer feel like writer’s block is too much of an obstacle.

Solutions to writer’s block

  • Planning/developing your plot
    Planning/developing plot is a writing activity that is constructive and it often leads to the very solution you needed to get through the writing that caused the block in the first case. Look at where the story is going; what the characters and antagonists are doing; what the characters and antagonists want out of life/this adventure/this moment; what has happened and what it implies for the resolution of the story. You may discover that your main character actually wouldn’t be doing what they are doing or that the timeline is out of sync.
  • Writing on a different part/scene/chapter of your story
    I sometimes find that I don’t know how to move a scene forward or just don’t know how to get to a satisfying resolution. That is when I look around in my story for another scene or chapter that I already have ideas for. Maybe I use what I’m writing now, maybe I don’t. What I do often end up with is a piece of dialogue I really enjoy or I realise that there is foreshadowing that I’d like to edit into the beginning.
  • Write on a different story
    Some people call this chasing plot bunnies. I sometimes write on a different story just to get my brain juices flowing again. Having to deal with a different set of characters refreshes my creativity and I often find that it helps me get over the block.
  • Write through it
    Type whatever comes to mind. It’s going to feel terrible. What you are writing may be terrible. Writing through the writer’s block is not about pretty prose or creating a charming turn of phrase, it’s about discipline and maintaining momentum. It can be equated to breastfeeding through mastitis. You won’t want to do it. It will be unpleasant and downright painful. You may want to give up all the way through. But, if you stick with it, you will get to the other side and you will be stronger. In fact, I think this is the solution the tough love writers are actually suggesting.

Things that may feel like solutions but aren’t

  • Go make coffee.
    Unless you are thirsty or need caffeine, this will just send you to the bathroom more often.
  • Tidy your house/office/room/desk.
    It has been proven that tidying up makes it easier to think because of the symbolic cleansing of your mind. But this is time consuming and won’t get writing done.
  • Take a walk or exercise.
    Stick to a standard exercise schedule. Shoving it in because of writer’s block will just provide you with more distractions.
  • Take a bath.
    Hopefully you are a water-wise individual and you know that bathing more than once a day (especially if you lead a sedentary lifestyle) is wasteful.
  • Watch a movie.

These false solutions are like drugs. When you start out, they feel good and you want a hit only now and then but, soon, you end up doing it all the time. You start coming up with lists of excuses for not writing. You stop writing for weeks on end.

This post is based on my experience. I have tried all of these solutions, good and bad, and I hope that you benefit from what you read here.

Good luck!

Feel free to leave a comment!

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Implementing feedback

Implementing feedback is daunting. Because real feedback (at least, on your first few drafts) will probably require rewriting and some serious story editing. Unless your feedback was that polite drivel I mentioned before in my post about providing useful feedback, in that case, you may just have a few typo corrections to do.

And, here, I want to stop and make you really listen.

If a beta reader points out a problem, you can harp on about why it makes sense and isn’t wrong for three hours and it won’t make the problem go away UNTIL you make it clear in your story why it makes sense and isn’t wrong. I understand that you don’t want to spell out everything. It feels lame. I agree. But you CAN give hints and seemingly insignificant little indicators that later make the whole thing come together. It’s called foreshadowing.

Now, we can go on.

Characters

I can currently think of three main things that tend to come up – character growth, believability and relatability. Yes, yes, there are more. Please leave a comment.

Character growth

About half my writers got this one for feedback (and I was one of them!!! *gasp*): The protagonist shows no character growth. At the beginning, they had this and that opinion, then, things happened and they didn’t change their opinion. Soooo…what is the point of the story?

I can promise you, every reader likes a different kind of story. But we all feel cheated if the protagonist doesn’t discover something that changes them or their life. Does he discover something about himself? Does she learn something that changes how she treats someone else? Does he find out everything he believed was a lie? Does she finally find it within herself to forgive her parents for divorcing each other? We need some catharsis!

Believability

When your beta readers tell you that a character is not believable because they don’t act the way a real person does in the given situation, it is not just a comment. It’s an obstacle to reading your story.

There’s no glossing over a problem like this. It needs to be addressed by taking the character and defining his or her:

  • personality
  • motivation
  • history
  • frame of reference
  • sense of morality and
  • more.

Then, you go to every single appearance, action, dialogue or thought by this character and make sure that it makes sense considering who this character is and what they’ve been through.

If you think this is a waste of time, be prepared to lose half your audience. Not half their attention. You’re losing half the people who will ever bother to read your stories.

Relatability

If your beta reader tells you that they couldn’t get into the story because they couldn’t identify with any of the characters, you need to ask why. What made the protagonist or supporting characters so off-putting?

The biggest problem here is that relatability is extremely subjective. And, no, you can’t please everyone. But I can tell you this: If more than one of your beta readers have brought this up, you need to do something about it.

Things that put readers off:

  • Cruelty and/or being abusive – to others, ESPECIALLY children and animals
  • Rape
  • There are more, I’m sure. Please leave a few comments.

These are gold for making a hateable antagonist. They are contraindicated for protagonists.

It takes an extremely skilled writer to make a protagonist guilty of these things relatable. So far, I have not come across one.

People want to identify with at least one of your main or supporting characters. If they don’t identify with anyone, they won’t read.

Plot holes

It seems like a no brainer but, trust me, plot holes happen to everyone. If you wrote them, chances are that you won’t be able to spot them. When someone points it out, you may even want to say something stupid, like: “Is it really that bad? Can’t I just leave it like that? Who will notice that, anyway?”

Buck up.

Take that plot hole and kill it. If your beta reader found it, some hateful troll on the Internet will too. And that troll will show the whole world that they found it. Rather fix every plot hole beta readers find and give that troll less to embarrass you with.

No story hook or a weak ending

There are two spots in your story where people form lasting opinions: At the beginning and at the end.

Bad first impressions can stop the reader from reading your story past the first page. You need something tantalising. Narrative summary (descriptive paragraphs) is not tantalising. You need something immediate – dialogue or in-the-moment action. If you don’t know how to come up with something tantalising, ASK your beta reader what would have appealed more to them.

The end should also be satisfying. It needs to answer questions raised during the story. It needs to show that your protagonist has grown. It needs to show that the crisis has been resolved OR resolved enough until the sequel can address it more thoroughly.

More than one of my writers for Phoenix Fire ended their story too late. How does this happen? If you start adding more and more to your story after the crisis. That’s how. Keep it concise. If you suddenly need to add two more chapters because of something that came up after the story hit 75%, you are probably adding an unnecessary side quest. Kill it. Your story needs to end strong.

Again, if you don’t know where that is: ASK someone you trust, AKA your beta reader. If they don’t give you a solution that appeals to you, ask someone else until they give you something you can use or you hit an ah-hah! moment.

Stilted or unnatural speech

This isn’t quite as big a sin as the stuff above but it can make your story really hard to read. If your reader is expecting good writing, this will put them right off.

Soliloquies

If your characters tend to talk for more than 4 lines at a time, they are essentially giving a speech every time they open their mouths. People don’t talk like that unless they’re being interviewed or addressing a large congregation of people.

Sit down and listen to people talking. Write down everything they say, from full sentences to false starts to wordless utterances. They give away a lot about what they are thinking through non-verbal cues (body language, harrumphing, coughing, facial expressions etc.). Their word choice might reveal enough to put you under a pretty specific impression of their intentions.

Jargon

These are topic-specific terms or – if my jargon is leaving you blank – fancy words. If your beta reader says they couldn’t keep track of all the story-specific words, you may be overdoing it.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. For instance, unless the animal they are riding is an insect-like creature or an antelope with the feet of a bear, I’m sure “horse” will do. We already have words for ‘day’ and ‘night’. If you start calling them ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in your book, you’re just setting yourself up for awkward prose.

Sci-fi settinge lend themselves to all kinds of futuristic tech. Yes, this stuff should have names but, if you make the names obscure (e.g. “OrgonnnonXII” for an AI bot that has a green stripe on its torso) and difficult to pronounce or remember (e.g. “Xhi-BVotholYn” or something similarly obscure), your are hampering your own story.

If you need to differentiate between two cultures and you want them to use different words for the same concept, make the words familiar-sounding enough that your reader doesn’t feel brain whiplash every time they come across it. “Ch’kta, o bishni” is a lot harder to remember than “G’day, mate” or “Greetings, my good sir”. If it is actually important to the plot that you have this kind of unmistakable phrase, then, use it. But if you have five of these crucial phrases in one story…I don’t think you understand what “important to the plot” means.

In A Song of Ice and Fire (AKA A Game of Thrones), we come across “Valar morghulis” – “all men must die”. Why isn’t this too difficult? Because we come across only three important High Valyrian terms (“Valar morghulis”, “Valar dohaeris” and “dracarys”) across all of the books (each of them well over 500 pages).

Awkward or stilted speech

Unless the character who’s talking is identified by his awkward phrasing, you should use normal sentences, normal speech, normal words. As much as Shakespeare is praised for his clever play on words, normal people don’t talk like that. People who use flowery speech tend to be the butt of jokes because other people think it’s ridiculous to talk like that.

Overuse of names

“Hi, James!” Basil said.
“Basil! Good to see you!” James replied.
“How are you doing, James old pal?”
“Well, as always, Basil. Why did you say my name again?”
“I don’t know, James. It just keeps coming out of my mouth.”
“Basil, I’m scared. It feels like someone is forcing me to say your name.”

Catch my drift? People use terms of endearment like “dear” and “pal” and “sweetie” when they talk to each other…if they refer to each other while talking at all.

“Hi!”
“Basil! Good to see you.” James smiled.
“How are you doing, old pal?”
“Well, as always. How’s your wife?”

See, no more creepy, weird overuse of names.

***

There are so many things feedback can point out, I simply don’t have the energy to cover all of it. I welcome comments to fill out the list and advice.

If you take home nothing else from this post, remember this: Implementing helpful feedback takes real effort. If you put on “track changes” (it’s a review function in Microsoft Word) while you do story editing, it’s going to look like a bloodbath. Don’t let that scare you. Making mistakes does not make you a bad writer. Refusing to correct mistakes beta readers point out because you don’t feel like it does, though. As does pretending to correct mistakes by changing two words that have nothing to do with the problem.

You can do this. Just take it one sentence at a time.

Getting feedback

getting feedback

Ah, feedback. A two-sided sword in a writer’s existence. Without it, most stories are utter drivel.

I can already see you getting ready to object. Simmer down, there, bucko. If you have a look at any good book, you will see that the writers tend to thank a list of people, including their editor(s). You know why? Because these people spotted the plot holes and poor character development and niggly details that threatened to sink the story before it even hit the shelves.

As a writer, you overlook your own mistakes. You get caught up in your story and the feeling you want to create. You don’t read what is written anymore. You’re just too close to it. You need a pair of fresh eyes, uninfluenced by hours, days, months, years of planning and changes and rewrites and new ideas. And, of course, someone who’s willing to upset you when they find problems. This person is called a beta reader.

If you have been following my most recent posts (about Phoenix Fire, blurbs, beta reading and feedback), you are well aware that I am now dealing with writers who have received feedback from my collection of beta readers. Similarly, you then also know how touchy our species is about getting feedback, good or bad. A few years back, I wrote a post called Reality Check. If you need insight into what it feels like to get feedback as a newbie, that would be a good place to start.

As one of the aforementioned beta readers, I have been subjected to cruel and unusual torture. Giant blocks of descriptive summary. Characters that give speeches in stead of talking like normal people. The worst grammar I have seen in ten years. “Stories” that read like dry historical accounts. And, of course, the incestuous couple finding themselves.

Call me petty but I am so over being nice to inexperienced writers who believe they are next in line for a Pulitzer. If anyone comes back to me with complaints about cruel and hurtful feedback, I will respond n the wise words of Dr Beverly Hofstadter (Leonard’s mother in The Big Bang Theory): “Buck up.” If they are affronted by my advice. I will follow it up with Beverly’s amended “Buck up, sissy pants.”

Gearing up for 2017

At ICON 2016 in Johannesburg (organised by GeekXP), I ran into a whole bunch of my good old wargaming friends. What an absolute pleasure after having been stuck with my two rugrats for, what felt like, forever. We roamed the stalls and had our books signed by Raymond E. Feist (who is, by the way, a truly humble man and an absolute pleasure to talk to).

Daniël, who had served with me on the Tuks Wargaming Council in 2005, was bubbling with praise for Brandon Sanderson (author of the Mistborn series), talking about his lectures and the idea of having a writing circle of authors who write roughly the same number of words per day/week/month. I really hadn’t seen him this excited since 2008, when the MEAD Legends LARP started up (my friends decided this kind of thing needed to happen in South Africa’s northern parts too).

That afternoon (it was Friday, 24 June), Daniël, Hendrik and I stood in the convention parking lot and founded our (hitherto unnamed) writing circle. It’s a moment that has been graven onto my memory banks, despite looking like nothing special to the bored car guards standing a few metres away.

Since then, we have met two times *cough cough*…but it has made a massive difference to my writing drive.

It led to a long-time friend of mine sending another writer my way and, after a bit of an unpromising start (where I was dreading having to help an aspiring writer through the discovery that they had much to learn), she has changed my writing (style/planning/drive) drastically. At this stage, I can hardly fall asleep at night because my brain is buzzing with ideas and thoughts on how to edit my one flagging story. It feels like rain has fallen on the drought of my writing mind and all forms of new life is springing up faster than I can keep up with.

I can’t wait for the next post I want to write about my epiphany about “show don’t tell”. *bounces around with energy*

 

And this silence, Natalie?

I am sure you have noticed that I haven’t been blogging. I’ve noticed too. 😦

No, I haven’t quit chasing my dream. It’s just been put on hold by life. No, not the usual drivel about being busy or having to take a job and having no time. Something that will sound even more mundane. I’ve been occupied every moment of the day with my super curious toddler. What about when she sleeps, you ask? Well, I’ve been passing out every moment she does. I’m pregnant again and her new brother/sister (we don’t know yet) is putting me through my paces again. Exhaustion, nausea (mostly just feeling queasy all day and night), abdominal discomfort. Fun! *cough cough*

My plans:

  1. Send my eldest to kindergarten as of next year (then, she’s two).
  2. Use the last three months before the new baby arrives going through the submissions I got for Flight of the Phoenix (anthology of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories by South African authors) and hopefully get the thing ready for publishing. This time Amazon! And, I will do my best to launch a second website – Sies! (it’s Afrikaans and roughly translates to an exclamation meaning both “Yuck!” and “Goodness!”). It’s about the unromantic side of pregnancy. All the yucky squishy things you don’t get told about before you get pregnant.
  3. Raise my second child while writing short stories when I can.
  4. 2017 (holy moly, that’s a long way off!) will see me diving into writing with a vengeance. I already have four books in mind right off the bat.

I am very serious about writing and living my dream. I will not give it up. But I am realistic and my children are a priority to me. So, please hold on.

*thick Terminator accent* “I’ll be baaaack!”

STORM Experiences – Opportunities

During my university days, I became a doer. If I wanted something done, I did it. The result was often less romantic than it had been in my head, but people looked up to me because I didn’t just wait for others to do it or for some magical fairy to make it happen without anyone putting in effort.

With my writing career it was different, though. I was convinced that I had to write a manuscript and submit it to an agent who would help me convince a publisher to put it out there. But, as the years went by, I grew despondent. I couldn’t seem to finish my manuscript. Friends and family didn’t see writing as a viable career option. And all I ever read about getting published was how writers got rejected ridiculous amounts of times.

When Linzé Brandon invited me to participate, I heard: Natalie, I want a story written by you and I want to help you make a lifelong dream come true. I couldn’t believe that it could be that easy. That I could become a doer again. That I could take the reigns like that.

And automatically, with that, I already knew that I had to put in everything to make it happen, to make it mean anything. If I simply submitted a story and waited for the book to arrive, it would have been a cheap meaningless experience. How can I expect people to take me seriously if I don’t put in every effort to make it as awesome as I can possibly manage?

When Linzé started talking about blog posts and a presence on Facebook, I felt like such a fool for never realising that I could totally do all those things. Who says I need somebody else or some company to do it for me? They’d want a whole lot of money to do that anyway.

I have very little time every day to write (babies are a full-time job, yo). Especially because I use the same time to cook food, spend time with hubby and actually relax at all. But, damnit. I want my name on a book. I want my name on the “Legends of fantasy” list. And who will put it there if I don’t make it happen?

So, there you have it. I’m a writer and I will indie publish to get my foot in the Legend Door. I’m not waiting for the world to give me what I’m owed. I’m doing this thing!

STORM Experiences – Learning

When I started out writing for STORM I was rather self assured of my writing skills. I was sure that I could write up something that would blast my fellow contributors away. It took quite a bit to bring me back down to a position of humility.

But, back to today’s story… I asked a fellow writer, Richard, to help met out with a bit of beta reading… And did he beta read. My oh my. He came back with criticism of 8 pages on a short story of just over 9000 words. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

Now, usually when you get feedback on a story, you have to steel yourself. You have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that they are not criticising you, they are criticising your work. (Fat lot of calming down that does. :P)

Richard’s feedback was thorough; it was honest; heck, it was a good read…. But most importantly, it was edifying and positive.  I’m not sure how he did it, but after reading his feedback, I wanted to know more. I wanted to talk to him and find out what he could teach me, what we could figure out together.

If all beta readers could help writers like Richard did, I think more people would make it through the editing/rewriting stage. I really hope that I can provide the same kind of feedback to other writers who ask me to beta read in the future.