June 26th, 2017

4 Times Inaction Can Help Your Writing Life

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

Our society as a whole, and publishing as a subculture, rewards action and achievement. The Holy Grail seems to be a book a year, and you can’t pull that off while sitting on your hands.

Yet I would maintain there are at least four times in your writing career when sitting on your hands might be the most effective strategy.

  1. When you are coming up with a new story.

One of my favorite definitions of story is, “internal conflict made external”: an author sets in motion a cast of characters that has been carefully orchestrated to bring to life principles that are at war within the protagonist. Your story will be more powerful—and I maintain, your book club discussions more interesting—if you are conflicted over these issues as well.

Identifying them might take some soul-searching, especially if you’re beyond your first two or three novels. What else do you care about? Why are you conflicted about it? If you’ve settled on a personal stance—say, you want to write about abortion and are pro-life—what are the ways in which you empathize with other points of view? What are the challenges in doing so?

What moves you to tears? What situations make you burning mad? What seems unfair? This wellspring of emotion can drive your novel, but it needs a quiet stage and an attentive audience to deliver its gifts.

  1. After you receive a tough critique.

Whether the criticism came from your mom, a critique partner, a developmental editor, a publishing professional, or a reviewer, a wound to the ego needs to heal just like any other wound. That takes rest, good nutrition, a break from additional stressors—and time.

As a developmental editor and author, I know from experience on both sides of the fence that the unwritten message we’ll see as “you’re an unworthy hack” will fade, and in time, the mist of negativity will settle out into what feels true, what was misunderstood, and what was informed by personal opinion.

You might be so desperate to hear a compliment that you phone a friend and tear the critique to pieces, writing it off entirely. That might feel good at first, but to do so is to miss an important opportunity.

Your inner Supreme Court will determine whether to capitalize on your reader’s perspective or gently set it aside, but can only do so when our inner lawyers stop prosecuting and defending, and you give the court enough quiet time to deliberate.

  1. When life throws you a curve ball.

Many authors have learned the hard way that they need to build some “s**t happens” time into their deadline-driven word count goals. You may have hunkered down in your writing cave with laser focus, all systems go, but that doesn’t mean life stops around you. Storms rage, bodies break down, lives end and begin, financial setbacks occur, mental health wobbles. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and surrender.

Now maybe you have a protective barrier in place, like a husband who will hold your mom’s hand while she’s dying and let you write. Personally, I think allowing this protection is to miss the point of our work entirely. Authors are revered for their ability to reflect upon and process the human condition in a way from which readers can benefit. That requires that we take the time to reflect and process.

  1. When you’re feeling whiny.

In her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson posits that every positive emotion is rooted in love, and every negative emotion is rooted in fear. I have yet to think of an example where this isn’t true.

If your loved ones get off on hearing you whine, have at it. But here’s another option: when you’re tempted to whine, take a few quiet moments to ask yourself what it is you’re really afraid of. Is it that you don’t feel equal to the task before you? That your loved ones will forget you as you pursue this time-gobbling, all-consuming goal? That your publisher will blow their promo budget on someone else’s title?

Those are just a few from my own life—go ahead and fill in your own questions. Giving our emotions due consideration will point us right towards what is important in our lives, and our readers depend upon the fruits of this contemplation. The quicker we can dig beneath the whine and uncover our real concerns, the faster we can get back to writing stories that matter.

How do moments of quiet contemplation fit into your writing life? Have you learned to allow it? Do you allow yourself the grace to call such contemplation “writing,” or is writing to you only word count?

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About Kathryn

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

25 comments to 4 Times Inaction Can Help Your Writing Life

  • Good advice, Kathryn. I’m a ‘gotta write every day’ writer. I get a bit freaked out, if I don’t. I’m trying to get better at this.

  • I’m so glad to read this. There are times I have to busy my hands in the dirt, digging and playing with plants, to give my mind a relaxed stretch of time to plot out the next move in my story. Thanks!

    • You have just described a time when you are writing without actually applying words to the page, Mary. Many writers love gardening and baking and all other manner of repetitive activities that allow the mind to rove. It’s good for your brain, your soul, your body, your creativity—and therefore, your writing. Carry on!

  • Kathryn, This: “I know from experience on both sides of the fence that the unwritten message we’ll see as “you’re an unworthy hack” will fade, and in time, the mist of negativity will settle out into what feels true, what was misunderstood, and what was informed by personal opinion.” It’s a writing skill that few of us truly realize we need when we’re starting out. But the learning curve and pain that goes along with it is real. Thanks for pointing that out. I don’t think we can hear it enough.

    • It hurts for sure, Densie. But we storytellers are in for the whole wild ride, right? Because when we are beaten down we know that the climactic fight will follow. Only then is our problem-solving on high alert, our creativity in gear, and our determination unflagging. If it were easy to write a great story, not a one of us would be attracted to it.

      So after the emotional reaction has registered, allow that love of the chase back into your heart, and let the interrupted storytelling resume.

      After working on The Art of Falling for eight years, learning the craft I’d need to tell this story, I heard back from an editor two things: that I should either make the father more important or remove him, and that I needed to put my main character’s issues with food “on the page.”

      For the first time, I felt unequal to telling the story. I sulked for a few days while my back burner thinking did its thing. I finally concluded that this story was purely from my imagination, and if anyone was equal to it, I was. On a whim, I googled “father’s role in daughter’s eating disorder.” I got one result.

      Who ever gets one result on Google? But out was a paper out of Tulane University titled just that, and gave me the seed I needed to solve both problems. Enter the agent, the publisher, and my debut.

      You are equal to every story you want to tell. Hang in there!

  • I love ‘inner supreme court’ – I’m going to reconvene mine. I think I forgot they were in there somewhere. I stew much too long on words, assuming I know the meaning behind them when maybe I don’t. I must admit though, in nearly every negative (and positive!) review, I can find some shard of legitimacy.

    I’ve recently been learning the hard way that I need plenty of ‘s— happens time’ in my life. One thing I’ve always done, though, is take ‘vacation time’ from writing to catch up on my real life. It’s coming up this week! I will can blueberry syrup and play with puppies and read at least one of the more than 200 books in my TBR pile. I will NOT look at a manuscript. By the time my vacation is over I’ll be chomping at the bit to get back at it.

    I appreciated the love/fear question, too. Something to ponder while lounging in my hammock next week. Always enjoy your posts. Thanks for the reminders!

    • Hi Cara! Enjoy your vacation, and I hope it restores you! It certainly is hard to keep up with everything while you’re writing a novel, as it’s so all-consuming. A break is good for your creative spirit as well as the general sanitation of your household, lol.

      I’m glad I could remind you about your inner supreme court. We need to keep genre expectations and commercial viability in mind, yes, but ultimately, that court is the only guardian between you and “selling out.” May their wisdom guide you.

  • Lanny Larcinese

    While rejection can splinter the ego, each splinter is kindling for story, e.g. “I am not worthy;” “My effort is for naught;” “I have put so much into this:” and king of them all: “Nobody loves me.” Faulkner said the novelist’s work should be “the human heart in conflict with itself.” When I think of that, I always wonder why anybody needs writing prompts.

  • Great advice Kathryn. Love this quote: “This wellspring of emotion can drive your novel, but it needs a quiet stage and an attentive audience to deliver its gifts.”

  • Thank you for the much needed reminders.

  • Thanks for this. I’m switching genres and my daily word counts have suffered as I stumble through the dark trying to tell a different kind of story. Some days I get no writing done and other days I’m writing 500 instead of 1,000 or more. I find I need to reflect and process the scenes I’m writing. Thanks for letting me know that it’s “okay” not to always be cranking out hundreds or thousands of words every day.

    • Taking some time to experiment, journal, and think things through can save you time in the long run. Word count goals work when you’re ready to go-go-go, but until then, they can be deleterious. Whatever systems you use, make sure they’re working FOR you. And when needed, take time to reassess. Good luck with the new genre Debbie!

  • Kathryn: You make such refreshing points. As one ages and searches the gray matter for inspiration and lively, yet realistic, characters, it can become such a jumble. Much like the dreaded “Extreme Hoarders” so aptly described by Susan Perabo “Creating fully developed fictional characters (that are not secretly you.)” Thanks for the reminder to just sit and think and “sit on your hands.”

  • Excellent points here. I agree with them all. And yes, I try to meditate first thing every morning before I write. Helps clear the brain. And I try try to not feel guilty if I’m not working on the computer. The fun thing for me is that I teach creative writing classes, and my students rev up my creativity.!

    • Oh I bet teaching those classes has goosed you right along. I don’t think any of us years for more reasons to be at the keyboard. And the meditation definitely helps to calm the crowd noise so you can hear the one true voice that needs to arise.

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    Now I have to start over, but it’s good.

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  • Fae Rowen

    Thank you, Kathryn! I beat myself up for not writing during the four times you mentioned. What wonderful validation that I’ve been doing the right thing for myself-and my writing.

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