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?

 

 

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?

The Writer’s Google Search History

http://www.flickr.com/photos/86979666@N00/7623744452/Here’s a new twist on an old feature here at The Sarcastic Muse: Inquiring Minds. This time, I want to know.

We writers joke about our Google searches. Though someone in a secret bunker somewhere might raise an eyebrow at some romance genre searches, it’s the thriller and international crime writers that interest me most. My inquiry has several parts.

First, do you think the government is actively watching based on keywords, times visited, or length of time spent on sites for some optics? How active are they? What lands a person on the proverbial watch list?

Second, is anyone actually worried that a government employee might see their search history? (I worry more about my family as I’ve been researching the psychology of killers for years.)

And third, which is probably the heart of my question, do the alphabet agencies care about name, ethnicity, or other profiling data? If my parents immigrated from Serbia or my dad still writes to his cousins in North Korea, Afghanistan, or <insert geopolitical hot spot here>, or my brother took a new name when he converted to Islam, does that make the watchers watch more closely? What about ex-pats living in hot spots around the world? An average middle-class person who doesn’t hold a passport probably doesn’t worry too much.

But what about the rest of the world? Terrorism in all forms has become an increasing part of our lives, and, by extension, our fiction. Whether we need to know the blast radius of a pipe bomb, the epidemiology of an anthrax outbreak, what the FBI play book says about dealing with militia groups, etc, writers turn to Google. How concerned are writers in general? How concerned are writers with even casual ties to people or places the government is watching for?

This inquiring mind wants to know.


Comments are open to everyone. We can’t learn if we don’t ask.

 

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?