The Only Cure for Writer’s Block? Writing.

August 26, 2013

When I teach writing, I always tell people that the only cure for writer’s block is writing.

Now it’s time for me to buck up and follow my own advice.

I’ve read all the Dark Crystal books I can get my hands on, cover-to-cover, poring over the pictures and taking notes. I have enough bare bones to begin writing my contest entry. There’s no more excuse now for putting it off. Except that I’m intimidated.

The world of the Dark Crystal is lush and complex and ancient and, above all, visually stunning. A world meant for the eyes to devour. And capturing that same sense of awe and beauty in writing will be difficult, so difficult that the task of transforming a blank computer screen into something similar seems almost impossible.

But starting a new project always feels impossible. And by not writing, I’m not using the part of my brain that knows how to make those connections, that can break through writer’s block. There are things that can happen in your mind when you write that just won’t happen when you’re just thinking. That’s why writing through writer’s block works. It gets your mind engaged in the right way again, and even if you have to write pages of crap, usually in the midst of it there’s an “aha!” moment that you never would have uncovered if you just tried to solve the issue while washing dishes or walking the dog, staying in your mind, not using the tools that you will need to break through this wall. You can’t nail a board back onto the deck by just thinking about a hammer, and you can’t break through writer’s block by just thinking about it, either.

Mondays are my blogging days, which give me a reprieve. And tomorrow I blog for Young Adult Catholics. But on Wednesday morning, my task is clear: I will be writing my outline for the Dark Crystal’s Authorquest. Here’s hoping that will help my story “crystalize” enough to write those crucial 10,000 words.


The Dark Crystal Authorquest and Writing on Assignment

July 29, 2013

A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed to put my Rapunzel novel on hold so that I could wrap up a few other fiction projects. The first was my Rumpled ebook. The second is entering a submission in The Dark Crystal Authorquest contest.

I found out about the Authorquest about a month ago. I saw The Dark Crystal once as a little girl, and again as a teen. I was always intrigued by the world and I loved the puppetry. When I watched it again after deciding to enter the contest, I realized I’ve been having dreams about the Mystics for years, but was unable to place where the images had come from. Now I know they must have lodged in my subconscious from my earlier viewings of The Dark Crystal. That gave me a sense of connection to the material that confirmed my decision to enter the contest.

I have three books about The Dark Crystal waiting for me at the library, and I’m hoping reading them will spark something. I’ve been making notes, watching the movie and all the commentary, reading everything on DarkCrystal.com. But still, a story hasn’t emerged for me.

I feel like I am absolutely qualified to write something of this nature. The Authorquest is searching for a young adult, fantasy series. I write fantasy. I write young adult. I’ve also written a lot of fan-fiction, so I understand working within someone else’s creation.

But as the days pass and I find myself no closer to an idea, my confidence wavers. I think, if I’m having this much trouble, there’s no way I could win the contest. But it’s not really about winning anymore. Now, it’s about proving to myself that I can do this. Although I write non-fiction on assignment frequently as a freelancer, I’ve only successfully written fiction on assignment once, when I wrote my short story “The Man in the Mirror” specifically for inclusion in Queer Dimensions. But the idea of writing fiction on assignment has always intrigued me, and I know other writers make their living doing this. Consider the ghost writers for the Animorphs series, the V.C. Andrews books that kept being published after she was long-dead, and the James Patterson writing factory.

I remember watching the special features on the JEM DVD collection (one of my favorite TV shows from my childhood), and hearing Christie Marx talk about how she was given the character designs for the JEM doll line and tasked to write a TV series about them. Some people think that this type of work is done “just for the money” or “just to sell the merchandise,” but I don’t agree. I fully believe that, even writing fiction on assignment, even when taking direction from someone else’s vision, you can fall in love with the story you’re writing. It can become just as precious as your totally original work. Erin Hunter (actually a pseudonym for a team of writers) was hired specifically to write a fantasy series about cats. The head writer, Victoria Holmes, doesn’t even like cats — but she is able to write dozens of books, which her readers adore, because she’s taken the cats’ storylines and made them her own, weaving her own personal experiences — such as health crises — into the Warriors plots. If a writer doesn’t come to cherish her fiction, I don’t think it will connect with readers the way that the Warriors series clearly has.

I know I can’t force creativity, but I need to keep showing up nonetheless. Reading, imagining, jotting down the bare wisps of ideas at the corners of my mind. I want to do this not to win the $10,000 or the publishing contract (although those things would be wonderful!) but to prove to myself that it’s something I can do.

I’ll let you know if I turn out to be right.


Tuscany Prize Winner – Free E-book!

March 11, 2013

Hey, folks! Do you remember many moons ago when I entered the Tuscany Press contest for Catholic fiction? Although my manuscript was retained (and later rejected) for their young adult fiction startup, I did not win any of the prizes. But now you can all check out who did! For tomorrow and Wednesday only (probably today and tomorrow by the time most of you read this, so let’s just say March 12 & 13 to make it less confusing), you can download the winning novella, The Book of Jotham, on Kindle for free. If you need to know more about the book then that it’s FREE, here’s a synopsis:

Jotham is a mentally challenged man-child who, like the other apostles, follows Jesus as Christ carries out his ministry and experiences death by crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Yet the other apostles—the dedicated Mary, Peter, Thomas, and the rest—while they care for Jotham and look out for him, don’t understand why Jesus loves him so. Thomas even says, after Jesus offers a parable, “I don’t see why all the pots can’t be strong and beautiful.”

Jotham may be different, but through him, we come to see Jesus and Jotham not just with our eyes, but also with our hearts.

You can bet I’ll be gettin’ one!

On the editing front, I am loving NaNoEdMo and immersing myself in Rapunzel without the stress of having to write it for the first time. But as is wont to happen in the course of revision, there are times when I have to write something totally new. This has been fun for me when it constitutes adding new content or significantly changing content in scenes I’ve already written, but today I had to write my first scene totally from scratch, and man did I balk! It’s still not finished, but it’s hard to go back to that “first-time-out” stage again, without the abandon of NaNoWriMo. My inner editor is here, guys, and you want me to write something new?

I didn’t finish the scene, but I’ve got a whole hour and a half for it tomorrow.


Ever This Day on Tuscany Press Prize Blog

August 10, 2012

An excerpt from my middle-grade/young adult novel, Ever This Day, is currently posted on the Tuscany Press Prize Blog. It received an encouraging response from the judge/reader. Stop by, check it out, and maybe even say something nice about it. 🙂 While you’re there, read some of the other submissions, too. There’s some beautiful writing, and it’s sort of thrilling to me that, even if it’s not immediately apparent, all of the stories have themes related to Catholicism. For me, it affirms the beautiful diversity that DOES still thrive within Catholicism, despite attempts to make it into a unilateral religion. And the blog proves that Catholic imaginations are rich indeed! (I could write a whole blog post about ways I think growing up Catholic fuels creative expression, but I think I’ll save that for another day.)

For today, I only want to briefly comment on the Tuscany Prize judging process. I’ll admit that I was quite surprised to learn that entries to the contest were going to be posted on a prize blog. I wondered about the intent — would reader responses play a part in the judges’ decisions? What about confidentiality or “blind” judging? Was it just a way to beef up blog content?

But now that the excerpts are posted, I can see the value in a judging process that involves sharing submissions. For one, it’s incredibly affirming as a participant to see that a judge actually read and thought about my manuscript. And I like the transparency of seeing “what I’m up against.” It humanizes the whole process. When I see the talent and creativity and love that have gone into each submission, I feel much less of a “me vs. them” mentality. I feel less suspicious of the judging process, less resentful of an eventual winner if it isn’t me. I can see that there are a lot of deserving stories, and I’m okay with that. And fostering this kind of open-heartedness in the midst of competition demonstrates that Tuscany Press is emerging as a publisher that may live the very best of Catholic virtue.


Write Like It’s Work

July 9, 2012

I’ve often heard the advice that you need to treat your writing like a “real job” even before you’re published. That means you show up on time. You don’t skip days. You prioritize it over TV, or doing the dishes, or playing with the cat. To take it a step further, maybe you don’t let yourself “off the hook” with anything less than what you’d feel comfortable telling a boss. “Sorry, I can’t come into work today because my dishes are dirty,” or “I’m not going to make it — my cat is being SO cute right now,” isn’t going to cut it.

I’ve taken this advice to heart for a good part of my writing life, which means I do try to work on my writing every day (but I allow my schedule to be flexible), and I take two days off a week (my boss isn’t a slavedriver), and I give myself a break when I’m sick, or vacationing, or grieving (although, in the latter case, writing might be the best thing to do.) But lately, I haven’t been just treating my writing “like” it’s work. It really has been work — with real deadlines, real audiences, real editors, real publications.

I feel as though I haven’t “written” in a while, but what that really means is that I haven’t worked on my “personal writing” (writing without a waiting audience) as much lately as I used to. I have this guilt monkey in my mind who nags, saying, You haven’t worked on your novella since Thursday! Stop slacking!

And I have to tell that monkey, I’m not slacking. I’m just reversing my focus.

For most of my writing life, I’ve been making resolutions that this year I’ll redirect all that energy I usually put into writing new stories into writing for a real audience. And yet, again and again I couldn’t resist the shininess of a new story, and I’d welcome it as a distraction from the much scarier task of marketing myself. At last, I’m finally making good on that resolution, and things are happening because of it. I’ve learned that the key is to have concrete, measurable goals, like:

  • a goal to start writing more for a real audience. I made this goal about five years ago, and as part of it, I made an effort to take opportunities for writing that might be a good fit for me, even if I wasn’t totally sure what those opportunities would entail. That’s how I ended up writing for, and eventually co-editing, the Young Adult Catholics blog — which, by the way, directly led to my current book project, Hungering and Thirsting for Justice (ACTA Publications). The writing for the blog was and is unpaid — but it’s for a real audience. And for many writers, communication is a far more enticing reward than money.
  • a goal to become published three times in one year — or, barring that, to submit six times in one year. That goal is what led to the publication of my short story, “The Man in the Mirror” in Queer Dimensions, as well as my article, “Kids Keep me Closeted” for the Bi-Women newsletter, and the upcoming publication of my essay, “Where I First Met God” in Unruly Catholic Women Writers Volume II (SUNY PRESS).
  • a goal to submit my young adult novel, Ever This Day, to one publisher/editor, agent, or contest a month. So far, I’ve missed one month–the month I got married. I hope to submit it twice some other month this year to make up for it. Currently, I’ve got it out to the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction; this month, I plan to submit it to the MsLexia award for unpublished women novelists.

Making concrete, measurable goals (I’m going to write five days a week, I’m going to submit six times a year) proved to be so much more successful than the more nebulous ones I used to make (I’m going to focus more on my writing, I’m going to submit my stuff more often.) These days, my writing time has been consumed by lining up reviewers and making final tweaks to Hungering (going to the typesetter as we speak), Unruly (manuscript due mid-September), and writing an article about being bisexual and Catholic for Dignity USA. After all those years of “acting as if” I was a real writer, I’m finally beginning to believe it.


Finish What You Start

August 8, 2011

On the Belbin Team Inventory, I score as the Finisher. This may be why I haven’t often fallen into the trap that snags many writers, of starting multiple projects but finishing none of them. That is, I haven’t fallen into that trap until … lately, when I’m in the middle of editing an anthology, writing a short story, submitting a novel, and still hoping to enter at least two contests, apply for a grant, and maybe write an essay or two.

So when I read these Six Tips for Finishing What You Start on Susan K. Perry’s blog (Susan is an author I “follow” on Goodreads), they resonated with me in a way they wouldn’t have in the past–especially tip number one, about keeping a schedule. I can definitely attest to the importance of keeping a schedule in finishing writing projects, and not sticking to this schedule has been my downfall in the past couple months. As a part-time freelancer, sometimes my schedule is too flexible for my own good. My writing time gets shifted around from day-to-day … and sometimes, it gets shifted right off the agenda. So here I am, once more making a renewed commitment to write first-thing in the morning, every morning. On days that I’m working from home, my day starts when I say it starts; and on days when I work at the library, I rarely have to be in before noon. So in theory, writing consistently first thing in the morning shouldn’t be hard. Except, it is hard.

It’s hard because writing at any time of day is hard. It’s hard because no one wants to start off their day doing something as grueling as writing can sometimes be. But for me, there’s something that’s even harder: writing at ANY other time of day.

When I don’t write first-thing in the morning, I have lots of excuses as to why: I needed to see if I had any assignments that were “on fire” and in need of immediate attention. I’m at a loss for inspiration and hoping that it will come to me throughout the day. But although waiting sometimes brings results, I honestly can’t feel good about my day until after I’ve worked on a writing project. So if I work on my writing first thing in the morning, I go into the rest of my day knowing that the hardest part is behind me–and feeling a weight lifted from my shoulders. And if that elusive inspiration really does strike as the day goes on, well, there’s no rule against writing twice in the same day, is there?

So now, I’m off to bed–I have to wake up early for writing tomorrow.


Snow Days and Writing

December 11, 2010

Snow days are so good for writing.

Being snowed in today reminded me of living in Duluth, and the time I was snowed in my apartment for two days in a row. My room-mate was in India, missing the only blizzard we got that year. I was working on the novel I jokingly called “Go to Hell” because it was a companion novel to one that had the word “Heaven” in the title, and because it gave me so much trouble while I was writing it. But there was something about those snow days that kept driving me to the computer again and again to get those scenes down.

Today I finally collected my 30+ poems from November, pulling them from my paperjournal, my Pictojournal, my Livejournal, and even my program for the Call to Action conference. Now I need to cull the collection down to 10 – 20 pages (currently it’s 36, but I won’t be sorry to see some of those poems go.) Here are a few that I feel more comfortable showing in the light of day now that they’ve gone through a first revision:

Tower

Did I ever tell you how happy I was in that tower?
From there I saw blue water stretch out forever—
I thought the silver moon on the black lake
Was the essence of joy.

From there I saw blue water stretch out forever—
And a narrow bed is never lonely under a full moon.
Was the essence of joy
Lining up my shoes perfectly at the door?

And a narrow bed is never lonely under a full moon,
And no one ever kicks my shoes across the floor.
Lining up my shoes perfectly at the door,
I rearranged the furniture to fill the empty places.

And no one ever kicks my shoes across the floor
When the hours stretch before me like the water below
I rearrange the furniture to fill the empty places,
And I don’t wait at windows for you anymore.

When the hours stretch before me like the water below,
I thought the silver moon on the black lake
And I don’t wait at windows for you anymore.
Did I ever tell you how happy I was in that tower?
– Nov 5, 2010

Disturb the Dandelions

Did you hear what I said
as you glanced up at TVs and waiters?
This conversation
has been choking my brain
like dandelions overrunning the lawn.
I watched them grow as I watched you shrink.

She accused me of pulling out my hair,
dropping it in the breeze like dandelion fluff
just so she could make all
those nights of crying make sense
as I kept my secrets in the room upstairs.
We can open the door to that room tonight,
even if it says
Do Not Disturb.
– Nov 30, 2010