March 29th, 2017
There’s that moment when you open a new document and it’s just so blank. I hate a blank page. It turns me into Jack Nicholson in The Shining. People have different opinions, and there’s always that writer friend who just loves to start a new story. They make noises about it, sniff the blank page and roll their eyes back in their heads with pleasure. They feel joy. Seriously, I’m not making this up. They will tell you they are full of anticipation and talk about the new story with this sense of freedom and energy that is a pure mystery to me. They like it. Which basically is a sure sign of psychopathy or something, in my opinion. They actually enjoy the lack of restrictions. I have a suspicion these are the same people who like to do things like jump out of planes or sing karaoke.
A couple of weeks ago, I turned in a full draft of a novel I’ve been working on for five years and now I’m waiting for my agent’s feedback. What to do after my mind has been busy weaving this one story for so long? What to do while I wait on the verdict from my no-nonsense agent? Well, every writer knows the answer. You write the next thing. And don’t get me wrong, I have a little stash of next things I’ve been looking forward to getting started on, so this should be easy, right? Fun? But the reality looks a little different for me. Here’s how it’s been going.
I cleaned out my desk.
I moved my desk.
I cleaned off my inspiration board.
I made Pinterest boards.
I printed pictures and pinned them to the new inspiration board.
I took pictures of my new inspiration board and new desk space and posted them to Instagram.
I made an Excel document for my new something-like-an-outline.
And then, I wrote a full two chapters!! Success, right? Take THAT, blank page!
Then, I started to stress. The writing stalled. I started obsessing over that other manuscript that I’d sent off to my agent, thinking she was probably smoking a metaphorical cigarette and trying to figure out how to tell me the work was a complete waste. I started having nightmares. Anxiety dreams where my teeth fell out. So, I decided to stop thinking about my work and start thinking about other people’s work. I offered to Beta read for a couple of extremely talented author friends and suddenly, I realized three thousand mistakes in the manuscript that is already gone, gone, gone! I also decided the new ideas and chapters I’d scribbled out were all flawed and flat and without promise at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me!
If you’re thinking right about now that I’m one of those whiny, published authors who really ought to just go eat worms, I agree with you. Because really to be published at all in this lifetime is sort of a miracle – at least I think so. I am being whiny. But it’s not my fault! I am normally a very rational person. I’m a hard worker. I’m organized and pragmatic. I celebrate creativity and take my rest and daydream when I feel compelled and I don’t even sweat it like it’s wasted time. I am balanced, damn it. It’s that blank page! Want to know why? Because it’s NOT A PAGE!
It’s a mirror.
I’m not going to tell you to make friends with your blank page. I think it’s like jumping out of planes or karaoke – you can’t force yourself to enjoy it. But I will tell you that the blank page will bring out the truth of you, one way or another. For me, it exposes that I am an anxious writer. I expect a lot of myself and facing the unwritten words that could make or break my future as an author can really unravel my sanity. What I’m learning is that although the mirror of the blank page may reflect the truth, it can’t make me see it. I see what I want to see, like we all do. So, I decided this week to work on my perspective, to stop comparing myself and my stories, to quit making up doomsday scenarios in my head, to read something for pleasure, and to remember why I sent that manuscript off to my agent in the first place: because I love that book and I know some reader, some place, will, too.
If you’re facing the blank page, try looking a little deeper and more honestly, beyond the pale glare until you can see what’s truly being reflected back. And then, don’t be afraid to see what’s got you hating that starting place. You might be surprised. You don’t have to leap. You don’t have to sing one note. Take it from me – and Jack, the dull boy – you just have to get past yourself to the story.
How about you? Do you actually like beginnings? Any tips for those who don’t?
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Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.
Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.
She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.
March 27th, 2017
Turning Whine Into Gold
Every now and then, a bit of life wisdom hits you and takes seed. That’s how I felt a decade ago, when author Regina McBride and I were talking about the disadvantages of the writer’s life being conducted at home. “Home” to the majority of people is the place where you go to unwind after a long day of salaried or clock-punched work. So when those people notice that you are always home, they immediately assume you’ve had more than your fair share of couch-flopped soap opera watching.
Enter the expectations of extended family members, others in the neighborhood—even your spouse and children—who believe that in comparison to them, you clearly do not have enough activity to fill your days. After all, they are busy out in the world, while you are at home letting your imagination wander. Regina said she was constantly entertaining requests to watch other kids, to volunteer at school or sports teams or Scouts, to run errands for elders, teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, write newsletter copy or speeches for nonprofits (since writing comes to you so easily anyway).
If we said yes to all such requests, we couldn’t possibly achieve our writing goals. We have to believe that these goals are not frivolous, that they are worthy of our protection. So it’s handy to have a comeback tucked in your back pocket. Regina’s impressed me. She would tell them:
“I’m going to pass that opportunity on to someone else. Writing is the way I hope to make a difference. I am already doing my part.”
That quote saved me numerous times while powering up my writing career. Practice it. We need an answer at the ready because to stumble is to pick up your neighbor’s dry cleaning.
I am not suggesting that writers are lazy or insensitive to the needs of others. It’s quite the opposite. We feel the need deeply, and we always think we can do more. Since we’re highly capable, we know we can affect change. Where does our obligation to do so end?
A thin line exists between extreme capability and madness. Many bright, sensitive multi-talents end up imploding their psyches and surrendering potential author careers to a bloated sense of civic imperative. A successful author platform can help us impact change by bestowing greater power, but our work is so time-consuming that we must choose carefully how best to wield it. Even writers who lollygag at home all day, it turns out, need nourishing food. Sleep at night. A break from 24/7 responsibility—and another title, lest they be forgotten.
I’m revisiting this topic after reading the following quote from Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a lobbying organization founded by a group of Catholic sisters. Simply put, the woman does a lot, but writes:
“All of creation is one body. I’m only just a little piece of it. But the freedom of knowing that means I just have to do my part. I don’t know how to communicate how freeing that is.”
That nugget came to me in the middle of my own personal March Madness—a term I’ve co-opted that has nothing to do with basketball. My 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule was jammed to the max—and then, into my inbox, dropped the ten, 10-page manuscripts I forgot I’d said I’d critique for a contest. I had two weeks to turn them around.
While my alumni magazine assures me that most of those in my year are enjoying retirement, I accept that many writers have similar schedules. It’s all important work. Worthy work. But where does it end?
Think about that today, as you race through your busy life. We can conceive it all. We can feel it all. But maybe we don’t have to do it all.
Maybe being a storyteller is our part. Maybe it’s enough.
What are the misperceptions you’ve encountered about your writing life? What additional activities have you deemed “worth it,” and otherwise, how do you guard your writing time? All great comebacks welcome!
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Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.
March 24th, 2017
Ever wished you could have a do-over?
Join the club. We’re all members—including your characters.
Our longing to rewind time can range from the frivolous (I may have once backed my car into something incredibly loud right in front of a guy I had a crush on—and the loud thing may have been a “Watch Children” sign) to the torturous (if only, if only, if only you’d asked if your neighbor kept guns in the house before letting your child go over to play).
Highly motivated characters are often driven by an intense yearning or longing—this is paramount in the teachings of David Corbett, one of my favorite writers on the subject of character (who wrote the fine book The Art of Character, and who I made quick work of adding to our stable of contributing editors at Writer’s Digest). Corbett delves into thoughtful detail to show that such longings, to minor degrees or major extremes, can define who our characters are, motivate what they do (or don’t do), and make them more relatable to the reader.
As I make my own way as a novelist, in part because of the sorts of stories that have called me to write them, I’ve discovered that when it comes to yearning, the desire for a do-over is tops among the most agonizing, unshakeable, and all too familiar.
We might sometimes get second chances, but an actual do-over is simply not possible—unless, in your story world, it is: Behold, the success of the Back to the Future franchise and some of my favorite fantastical novels, including Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. In those cases, the do-over is the story, and that’s exactly what draws us in.
For characters who do not have access to a DeLorean, this type of yearning comes in two flavors:
- Things they wish had happened differently.
- Things they wish they could do differently.
(As with soft serve, you can also serve up do-overs in swirl.)
The key difference here relates to the level of control the character had over the outcome. Cursing the fact that the universe did not smile upon you is a different thing from holding oneself responsible for disaster: a mistake, a bad decision, an err in judgment, a thoughtless word.
Getting Caught in a Storm
Countless stories are fueled by characters who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Two If By Sea, the protagonist has, by a freakish stroke of luck (if you could call it that), survived a tsunami that washed away his family. He wishes he hadn’t been staying at that seaside resort on that night, wishes they’d been with him when he happened up to higher ground, wishes anything about that day had transpired differently, but it’s no use wishing. He cannot go back; he has to find a forward.
This kind of longing need not drive your entire plot, or even your protagonist. A backstory along these lines can add complexity to any subplot or character. And you can exploit it to your story’s advantage.
What might happen if you:
- Brought someone back from the “dead” (Harlan Coben has used this in multiple thrillers, most recently Fool Me Once).
- Bring in a ghost (Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light does this literally—complete with an old house, secret passages, and family secrets).
- Gave him another shot at something he thought he missed out on (this one factors into my own novel Almost Missed You—and its title).
Beating Yourself Up
Ah, but it was your character’s fault. Or at least, it feels that way. Will she ever forgive herself?
If your plot needs a twist or a character needs dimension, consider these possibilities for the backstory or the present action:
- An accident. The most heartrending example of this I’ve read recently is from Lisa Duffy’s gorgeous The Salt House, out this June, where a mother holds herself responsible for the choking hazard that found its way into her infant’s crib.
- What’s been said. Forget sticks and stones—words hurt, and you can’t take them back. What does this character wish he had kept to himself? The reprimand that sent the rebellious teen packing? The new product idea that his rival stole? The affair his spouse had been trying to ignore? The drunken text? The angry email?
- The wrong choice. What does your character wish she’d said “yes” to? What does she wish she’d turned down?
- A roadblock. What if your character still thought she could fix things, but you snatch the opportunity away?
Remember: Chocolate and vanilla can be deliciously intertwined. Two out of three of these ideas factor into Almost Missed You, which is all about fate, and choices—and my next novel plays with some from Column A and some from Column B too.
Do it now: Ask your characters what they’d do over if they could.
How might they surprise you?
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Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press releases on March 28, and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.
She loves connecting with fellow writers (and readers) at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor and on Twitter @jessicastrawser.
March 20th, 2017
Aimie K. Runyan
I just started writing a new book—well, two of them, but that’s a story for another time. Yesterday I sat in front of my screen for hours and ended up with fewer than 600 words to show for it. It seemed like every bit of volunteer work, every mundane administrative task I had to do was calling my name. That’s not me. I’m the writer who can blissfully ignore e-mails and let the dishes pile up in the sink. My writing time is sacred.
But as I sat at the keyboard, frustrated beyond measure, I realized this phenomenon wasn’t new for me. When I began my last book, Daughters of the Night Sky, I experienced the same phenomenon. It took hours to eke out a few hundred words and I would end my writing session drained and cranky instead of the satisfying fatigue of having “left it all on the field” …or computer hard drive, I guess. With Night Sky, I actually slumped into a depression for a few weeks. I had attributed it to other stressors in my life, which were certainly part of it, but this time around it’s clear that the only thing dragging me down was starting a new project. I had thought I’d done everything I needed to do to be successful:
- I had clear goals for the scenes and the chapter
- I had a grasp on my themes, the voice I want to convey
- I know my main characters well enough to get in their heads
- There was enough left unknown for me to have the thrill of discovery.
For me, this should have been enough. Your mileage may vary, of course, but these are typically the only things I need to stave off writer’s block.
The problem? This wasn’t writer’s block. Not the kind I typically waltz around in the murky middle when I’m not sure if the project is living up to my expectations or I don’t know that my plan for the book is on course. This is full on failure to launch. And the good news, is that I had an epiphany. I have a really bad case of nerves when I start a project I care deeply about. It’s likely why it took me ten years to start writing my debut Promised to the Crown in earnest.
Starting a new book is like the first mile of a marathon or the first hundred feet when you’re climbing Everest. If you think about all the toil that lies ahead, it’s very hard to be excited about the journey ahead. Especially if you’ve written a novel before, you know that there are drafts and drafts in your future. Then edits. Then beta reads. Then more edits. All before your agent and editors get to look at it. But the key to all of this? That’s not the problem for today.
Today all you have to do is get words on the damn page. Shovel sand in the box so you can get to building your castles down the line. I realized that I was letting myself get overwhelmed by the prospect of the task ahead of me. What’s more I was putting sub-conscious pressure on myself to make the first draft of this book as good as the polished draft of my last. If I had a boss come up to me with those unreasonable expectations, I’d get HR to intervene. Since I’m self-employed, I have to do something even harder: learn to live with my own foibles.
But now I’m aware of my fault, and as the saying goes, knowledge is power. I’m taking some proactive steps to help get my WIP—and my head—into fighting shape.
- I acknowledge that the blank page is daunting. By admitting this, and understanding this truth, I can move past it.
- I spend extra time getting to know my characters. Sketching them out, studying their personalities and motivations, can help bring the words out onto the page.
- Freewriting before a session helps gets the juices flowing. I set a timer for fifteen minutes and just write whatever comes into my head—generally pertaining to the characters or the story. It’s a great tool for opening the word gates because the pressure of making the words publication-worthy isn’t there.
- I adjust expectations. It will take several sessions to be able to hit my usual productivity. If I don’t obsess over the word count for a few days, it will happen faster.
- Just keep typing. Soon enough, I’ll get more invested in the story and it will all come together.
So far, it’s helping to get the words on the page and I’m sure I’ll add more tricks if future projects prove daunting (I take solace that this hasn’t been the case for every book!).
What tips do you have for getting over the “New Book Blues”?
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Aimie K. Runyan is s an author of historical fiction that celebrates history’s unsung heroines. Her first two novels, PROMISED TO THE CROWN and DUTY TO THE CROWN (Kensington), explore the lives of the early female settlers in Louis XIVs Quebec. Her forthcoming novel. DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY (Lake Union, November ’17) follows the Night Witches, the fierce all-female regiment of combat pilots who flew for Russia in the Second World War. She is active as an educator and a speaker for the writing community and beyond. Aimie lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and (usually) darling children.