The Writer and–Ooh, Shiny!

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I was going to title this post the Agony of Choice, but let’s be real. No one wants to talk about agony, right?  And we are all familiar with “Squirrel Syndrome.”

Sometimes a shiny is just a shiny. It attracts our attention and we wander after it as happily as a child chases a butterfly. However, we are soon back with our project, the shiny object now a mere smile on our lips as we forge ahead on our original track. To carry the analogy further, most of us know that catching those butterflies can damage them, so we have learned to wait patiently for them to land on their own.

Sometimes, though, the shiny (or squirrel, depending on your preference) is a mask. It’s not just when we can’t decide between existing options . . . this character or that plot, this project or that. Those moment s of indecisiveness are hard enough when the choices are clear-cut. It’s when we have too many really good ideas worth pursuing to settle on any of them. It’s like being in a field filled with butterflies, mesmerized and still, as they flutter, land on us, flutter again. It’s a beautiful place to be, but man is it hard to pick a favorite, you know?

When so many ideas have so much potential, it feels so impossible to pick just one. So we stand there in the agony of choice.

It’s all well and good when the options are butterflies, beautiful to watch. But, on occasion, those pretty wings turn into a cage (or worse, hail or stinging rain) and we become trapped, frozen,   That’s the agony. That’s the pain of indecision.

If you have ended up there simply because you are afraid you’ll lose all the other ideas if you choose one, there’s good news. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” The writer is never short of ideas. They come from everywhere. They land like fairy dust on the pillow, the breakfast table, the conference room. All we have to do is sweep them up. Only the new writers are worried about lack of ideas or losing those they have captured. More ideas will come to us than any of us could write in a lifetime. Grasping this truth leaves us free to pursue one idea, knowing dozens are lining up for our attention later.

If you ended up there due to fear (fear of producing, fear of judgment, fear of choosing), there’s also good news. Either your drive to write will overcome fear long enough for you to get started (and begin negotiations with that fear) or that fear will distract you from writing all together. Either way, you’ll move beyond this point.

The true agony, for me, comes when I’ve developed a couple of ideas enough to see where they are headed and what their potential is. I like them all, the characters are active, the plots creep into my dreams. I would count it a great success if I only had one, or a great one and a good one. The choice is easier then, of course. Once in a while I have even managed to combine two of them into a stronger story. My painful indecision comes when two or three are actively campaigning for my attention.

I think it’s helpful for writers to have a clear idea of their goals at moments like this. If you plan to write only historical romance, or to focus on science fiction, it’s simpler to eliminate all the good ideas that don’t fit. If you are publishing your work, continuing your series probably carries more weight than writing a stand-alone novel. Knowing your goals gives you something by which to judge each idea and concept.

To make the process easier, I’ve developed a list of questions to answer when I am stuck in the agony of choice. I’ll draw columns for each idea and use the questions as rows. My goal is to find out which story has the most meaning for me personally, (which is usually directly correlated to how much it make me uncomfortable), and which seems to have the most “juice.” Some ideas look fantastic when first developed, but not all of them have the juice to carry a full novel.

Every writer develops their own list of questions. I’m sharing a few of mine in case you need a starting point.

  • Which of these stories am I dreaming about?
  • Which of these stories pops into my head most often?
  • Which of these stories feel like they can wait?
  • Which of these stories brings emotions to the surface?
  • Which of these main characters is most/least like me?
  • What is the Truth for each of these stories/characters?
  • Which of these stories or characters makes me most uncomfortable?
  • Which character makes the most profound change in their arc?

You get the idea. I use about 16 questions on average. Generally speaking, it’s worked for me to go through a process like this. What’s most telling (and kind of maddening, in a good way) is when I write a lot about one idea and feel it’s the best option only to throw it all out the window and run after the other idea full speed. I don’t think I’d have found the hidden commitment for it if I hadn’t put it through the process.

Squirrel Syndrome gets us all at one time or another. The Agony of Choice will, too. In both cases, however, we can take control.


How have you resolved your Agony of Choice? If prone to Squirrel Syndrome, how often do you let it pull you off course?

 

 

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Stay Limber

Yolen Quote TSM

Just like athletes, musicians, and performers, writing improves with practice. Often, writing improves ONLY with practice. Are you practicing? Are you cultivating a writing practice? If so, you have seen for yourself how keeping your writing muscle limber has improved your prose.

Take Responsibility for Your Writing Life

Well. I’m a little red-faced today. The crime scene series will continue. As soon as I find it. Don’t worry, I have backups of backups. I just transferred everything to a new computer this week and apparently missed a few files. Embarrassing! And entirely my fault.

But it got me to thinking.

I like excuses. They seem to provide lubricant for slipping out of situations in which I am at fault. However, I try hard not to make excuses because, really, who cares? They don’t change the failure, right? They can’t undo a missing post, a lost opportunity, or a broken promise. Excuses might appease and reduce the fallout, but doesn’t let us own our mistakes and face them.

For that, we need to take responsibility.

As writers, aren’t excuses just easier?

  • I was too busy to write today.
  • The boss needed me so I couldn’t write.
  • The kids are sick so I was too tired to write.
  • I just wasn’t feeling it today. Maybe tomorrow.

Who are we appeasing? Ourselves, of course. We don’t want to acknowledge our failure or our lack of commitment. It’s easier to excuse ourselves to ourselves than admit we blew it.

What would it look like if we take responsibility instead?

  • I chose to spend my time elsewhere.
  • I elected to focus on something else.
  • I decided not to write while the kids napped.
  • I didn’t care enough to sit down and start.

It might sound a little harsh, but it’s honest, right? And it also requires us to own up to our choices rather than hide behind circumstances or other people.

Life does sometimes get in the way. That’s just a fact. But taking responsibility rather than making excuses gives a much better picture of our writing life and a much better gauge of our resistance.

Do you make excuses for not writing? I still do, even as I want to take responsibility instead. How do you feel after you tell yourself an excuse? A little relieved? A little dirty? I do, and ashamed besides.

How does it feel different to take responsibility? For me it feels a bit grim, but also honest, like a hard look in the mirror. Sometimes it’s clear there wasn’t much I could do. Most of the time, what’s clear is that I was lazy, uncommitted, or scared. Then I get a little mad. Taking responsibility has gotten me back out of bed to do my daily writing because I don’t want to see myself as a person who can’t fulfill her commitments.

For the next week or two, listen to what you tell yourself. Examine the excuses and rephrase them as taking responsibility.  If you need help, call your accountability partner (or get one). Holding myself accountable to another person who wouldn’t accept  excuses was how I began to understand the whole subject in the first place.

If you struggle to get your writing done, ditch the excuses, take responsibility, and get a little mad.

 


Which positive outcomes might we find by moving from excuses to responsibility?

What’s the Difference Between a Creative (Writing) Practice and Doing Creative Work?

Cultivate your creativityA writing practice (or creative practice of any sort–I use the words interchangeably) involves intentionally setting aside regular time—a routine—for creative work. Forming the habit of showing up takes away the idea that one must feel ready to create or “be in the mood.”

Isn’t it better to be in the mood?

Plenty of writers, especially early on, feel they must be in the mood or have the urge before they can sit down and write. While that’s nice to have, it’s not necessary. Writing isn’t just an art, it’s a craft, and craftsmen work at their craft regularly. Creative work is fostered by routine (and often results in inspiration or the right mood). No more asking yourself “should I write today?” If you set aside the time, you write. It may not be stellar work, but that will come.

A creative practice is like meditation or exercise. There’s resistance. There’s the excuse of no time. But regular routine breaks down the resistance until your practice is just an ingrained part of your life. Your mind and body learn to switch gears more readily as well.

Can I only write when scheduled?

We may write outside of our scheduled time as well, and that’s fine. The creative work happens both inside and outside of routine, but the busier your life is, the more a routine will help you to get words on the page.

Think of a writing practice as “showing up” to do the work. Think of it as a mindful way to honor your creative side and your desire to write. Self-care. Personal development. It is all of these things.

Where did this idea come from?

I was first exposed to the idea of a writing practice by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones. The principles were restated and reinforced by Julia Cameron in The Right to Write. Since then, I’ve run across the term in every art form as well as yoga, prayer, exercise, and more.  One explanation I heard was “a practice is intention.” And that’s also true. If you are interested in creating a writing life for yourself, I recommend both of these books along with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

For many of us, writing is a lifestyle as much as a calling or passion. We didn’t get there overnight. We created a writing practice and stuck with it. We became practitioners.

So how do I develop a writing practice?

  • Write routinely. I’m a proponent of daily writing, but everyone is different. Whether it’s Sunday afternoon, fifteen minutes before work, or thirty minutes after the kids are in bed, make it regular and stick with it. (And start on time. The dishes and other things will wait.)
  • If you aren’t working on a project, use a writing prompt, write an essay, do a character sketch. Use various writing exercises if you like, from timed writing to stream-of-consciousness writing.
  • Tell yourself that you are worth it until you believe it. Honoring your creative drive is healthy, not selfish.
  • Get an accountability partner. Tell a trusted friend what you are doing and ask them to both encourage you and check in to see how you are doing with your practice.
  • If you naturally rebel against structure, keep your routine fluid. Perhaps set a quota to meet on a weekly basis or plan thirty minutes sometime before bed. It’s less ideal but I have confidence you will grow into a routine that suits you.

Why do I need a creative practice?

The moodiest, unhappiest people I’ve ever met were artists of one sort or another who were not making time for their art. I was this person for half a year. Creativity is an integral part of who we are. Ignoring it is akin to depriving our senses.  If you are already creating regularly, that’s great! Keep it up. If you aren’t, develop your own practice. If you need help, let me know and I will come alongside you until you are under way.


Do you cultivate a writing practice? If so, how has it helped you creatively? If not, can you see yourself starting one?

Writing A Novel is Like…

Writing is like . . .

Baking from a recipe in which the measurements and ingredients come only one at a time and you don’t know what you’re making.

Being lost; you’re not sure where you are but you know you’ll find your way home eventually.

A scavenger hunt. Just follow the clues.

Sinking into a bathtub with frequent temperature changes in the water.

The weather, with all its daily and seasonal changes.

Driving a bit fast on a dark, twisty road. With no headlights.

Writing a Novel is LikePutting together a big puzzle with no picture to guide you.

Having someone else feed you each bite of your favorite meal.

Stringing beads blindfolded and not seeing what you created until after you’re done.

A long conversation with a total stranger.

Waiting in line for hours for a ten-minute ride on an awesome roller coaster.

Waiting in the wings for your first public performance.

Navigating with a map full of holes.

The best sunrise after the longest night.


 

What is writing like for you?