I participate in several online writing groups as part of my desire to develop myself as both a writer and editor. The other day, a writer in one group said her editor told her it was okay not to start a new paragraph when introducing a new speaker. This was after she posted an excerpt of her writing and several …
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) came and went, and I did my best-ish—which is more than I can usually say, so LOUD NOISES! I’m a mediocre champion.
Did I write the full 50,000 words in a month? Please, fool. Don’t ask a woman her age or weight, and don’t ask a writer about her word count.
I did, however, finally start the book that has been baking in my skull for years, and I’ll take what I can get. Regardless of the number of words I actually slopped onto paper, NaNoWriMo wasn’t about how good those words were (thank the writing gods). Instead, NaNoWriMo was an education, schooling me hard about what it means to be a real writer—instead of just calling myself one. Here’s what I learned about being an actual, madcap, doing-it writer (without the booze but with the cat).
I usually sleep long, easy, and through anything, but even I suffered nights of wakefulness after writing. My mind…I don’t know, something happened to it when it was engaged in prose and story. There was nothing I could do to slow it from racing in wild, writerly circles long after I had set my alarm, and yes, my anxiety increased with my word count. (There’s nothing like a panic attack while you’re trying to sleep.) Also, counting sheep only adds them to your novel, so don’t.
When I finally fell asleep, there they were—my characters, my plot, my setting. Fortunately, being able to watch my book’s wildfire race down the hill or be locked in my book’s basement was helpful. Experiencing the world I was building via dreams became a tool, lending perspective, authenticity, and fresh ideas to the thing.
This is a concept I personally struggle with. I’ve been writing poetry for years, had my first poem published in 2013, and have had multiple piecing of writing published since. I’ve been a writer on this blog, as well as the managing editor, since its inception in 2012. I’ve been published in The Socialist before being asked to join the editorial board and becoming the managing editor for my political party’s magazine as well.
But when people ask me what I do, these are projects of passion in my mind. I don’t call myself a writer. Instead, I say I work at Cal Poly or that I’m a student. I say that poetry, writing, and editing are all hobbies.
I do them, I’m good at them, but because I’m not paid to do them, I don’t see myself as a writer first. I think part of my reluctance to call myself a writer does have to do with capitalistic ideals—you are your job, not your hobbies. When people ask what you do, after all, they want to assess your income and living.
That’s how it was when I was growing up. That’s how it was in movies. But times have changed, and I think my idea of when to call myself a writer should change too.
You’re not writing, but you know you should be. And the guilt is starting to eat at you. How do you overcome writer’s block? Here are a few tips.
1. Listen to music.
The general consensus is listening to music without lyrics is best, though something soft and poetic—The Shins, Iron & Wine, Regina Spektor—works for me too. When I’m in the right mood. Or maybe just a mood.
2. Talk to yourself out loud.
Or a friend (even an imaginary one) if it makes you feel less crazy. Turn on your voice recorder, let your mind wander. Later, listen to the recording. Follow the thread of your thoughts, and see if any of it inspires a piece.
3. Wash the dishes.
It’s the sort of mindless task that allows your mind to shut off, drifting into a meditation-like state. Keep a notebook nearby to jot down story ideas.
4. Pick a character and find out what they want.
Any character. From a story you’ve already written or one that’s yet to be realized. Now decide what their goals are—what their motivation is. Write it all down. Bullet points. Sentences. Nonsense. It doesn’t matter. You’re writing! Look at you.
5. Turn off your inner editor.
Seriously (we’ll probably add this to the list a few more times, slightly reworded, for good measure). Writing isn’t the time for perfectionism. Words. On the page. Remember: they don’t have to be good, they just have to be there.
Read, watch documentaries, and take notes. When one discovery carries you away, let it. But don’t forget to write it all down. Consider using a literary swipe file to organize your research.
To your idea. To yourself. Is it any good? It doesn’t matter! Write a shitty first draft. With placeholders and cliches and characters who are empty shells and settings that are bland and lifeless. Let your plot meander. Create the bones of your story. Then go back and give it meat and skin and bite. Refine it and add layers. Take your time. Take years if you need to. There is no deadline, no ticking clock. There’s you and your story. You’re the only one who can tell it.
Writing about sex is hard (no pun intended). While there are plenty of writers who have found their niche writing romance novels filled to the brim with sensual scenes, the majority of us do anything to avoid a sex scene. As my book editing professor has mentioned on more than one occasion, readers don’t need to be taken into the bedroom. In other words, describe your lovers ripping each other’s clothes off and passionately kissing, but let the reader’s imaginations fill in the rest.
But what if you don’t want to stop at the bedroom door? How do you write about sex without causing your reader to roll their eyes, skip ahead, or feel completely awkward (mostly for you). For one, understand that metaphors and sex work–up until a certain point, at which you lose readers. In Slate.com’s recent article “The Worst Sex Writing of the Year Features Statisticians, Superheroes, and Brie Cheese,” Amanda Hess gives readers one example of what she deems a “delusional” metaphor from Manil Suri’s The City of Devi:
We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.
I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but Hess’ astute observation, “Congratulations–you fucked,” pretty much sums it up. When metaphors are too complex, they seem unrealistic. For most of us, sex doesn’t equate to feeling like a superhero diving through atomic nuclei and causing statisticians to rejoice. Hess also offers other examples of “bad” sex writing.
It happens to us all – we’re in the middle of a piece of work and it is just inspired. Everything flows. The words fit perfectly. The idea is seamless and flows like the Nile forming an oasis in a desert of blank pages.
And then the phone rights. Or you get an email alert that snaps you out of the zone. Maybe someone knocks on the door. Whatever happens and then the zone is gone.
Writing all of a sudden becomes like pulling teeth – painful and extraordinarily uninspired. Things on the page that were once beautiful now turn to pure dung and nothing you do seems to redeem the words on the page or match the perfection of what came before.
I do advocate having a set time to write and minimizing interruptions during these writing periods, but that doesn’t mean that an inspired state of mind doesn’t help with the workflow, and when that streak is gone, it can seem impossible to begin to write again.
These three tips help me get back into the flow of writing once I’ve lost it, and hopefully they’ll help you too.
In the summer of 2012 I traveled to China. It was a great experience, and I was super busy all the time. I never found time to write or keep a journal, but my roommate for the trip did. I’m fairly sad that I didn’t set aside the time to do the same thing.
What really impressed me about her journal was that it had writing prompts for her to respond to for each day she was gone. Her friends and family had gotten together and had come up with the writing prompts for her. They then wrote the prompts within a notebook and told her to not look ahead and to just fill in the page for the day’s writing prompt.
Besides being a totally awesome gift idea for friends or family that are traveling abroad, this is also a great tool for a writer. I have my memories (and a crap ton of pictures on my Facebook) of the trip, but I don’t have my emotional responses or thoughts documented from my time over there. (more…)
It’s no secret that I have an interest in politics. I also have a passion for writing. These two realms of my personality are not mutually exclusive; indeed, writing and politics often come together – from speeches written to address the public to the slew of emails politicians send out come election time. One doesn’t need to have a career in political writing to combine these two interests, though.
As a writer, you can put those skills to use to support your own causes and interests in writing for change – or writing letters to elected officials to express your point of view on a specific issues. This can be a letter supporting some current course of action, against a course of action, in response to a law that has already passed or to an upcoming bill that is coming up for vote on the floor before your local, state, or federal representative.
Omar Ahmad, former mayor of San Carlos, gave a riveting TED Talk on the effectiveness of letter writing as a form of political action and feedback directly from the people to the politician.
“What actually works, and the answer is actually strange: it’s a letter. We live in a digital world but we’re fairly analog creatures.”
Ahmad, in his talk, offers some great tips when it comes to writing for change, and I wanted to highlight and give a summary those points here:
Last week, I attended AWP in Seattle with other students in my program and fellow contributor, Tiffany Shelton. For those of you who haven’t heard of AWP, it’s a conference and bookfair held in a different city each year and hosted by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Both AWP and Write to Publish took place in February, and both conferences have set me on a roll. Recently, I’ve been writing anywhere from five hundred to a thousand words or more a night—and because I just told you, reader, I feel a certain obligation to keep up this stamina.
Because I’ve already written about how inspiring writing conferences can be, I won’t linger on the subject too long. Just go to one, if you can. They’re terrifying and uplifting; you leave feeling you have the permission to write, to struggle, and to succeed. And they make you realize that “success” doesn’t look the same for every writer—and that’s okay.
At AWP, I went to several panels, but this post will focus on a panel titled “I’m Just Not That Into You: Unsympathetic Characters in Fiction.” Author Irinia Reyn moderated the panel, which consisted of authors Hannah Tinti, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Maud Newton, and agent Ryan Harbage.
I attended this panel, because as both a reader and writer I have come to the realization that I am drawn to characters who others may deem unsympathetic. Irinia began by asking the panelists what they mean when they say a character is unsympathetic. Responses varied from “They appeal to our dark side” to “They are the characters I want to read about.” One panelist—and this stuck with me—said that sometimes unsympathetic characters are just people “put in a difficult situation who have to make a controversial choice.” Are unsympathetic characters the same as unlikeable characters? No. That was the response from the majority of the panelists. There’s no writer’s handbook that says your readers must like character a, b, and c. As one panelist said, “It’s good when someone has a reaction.”
Normally, I’m not one to start an online debate with another blog, but while scrolling through Tumblr a few days ago, I came across this post.
I immediately shared the post with the other contributors here at the blog, and we, along with many other Tumblr users, had a wide range of thoughts regarding this piece of advice.
Before I begin, I think it’s only fair to say that there were also many Tumblr users who shared their support of The Writers Helpers, the Tumblr blog which handed out this advice. According to these users, the account admins were not being racist, but simply honest.
In case you were wondering, I fundamentally disagree with the original advice offered by The Writers Helpers. Do I think that the admins of this blog (or “S,” the specific admin who responded to the question) are racist? No. I do not. However, the statement—the advice itself—advises writers to treat their own characters’ races as unequal.