I was saddened to learn of the death of distinguished Canadian children’s author Janet Lunn, who was a generous mentor who helped shape my early work during her term as Writer-in-Residence at Regina Public Library, 1982-83. During that time Janet read virtually all of my work, offering good advice and friendship, and was there in her office when I ran in to show her my first published book. Thanks, Janet, for all that you offered.
So you’re sitting there, staring at your screen. And it’s not happening. Ideas are soaring, ready to take shape. Words get jotted, but important links elude every attempt at capture. You want so badly to get it down, and after a while you feel like an idiot with so little in the way of tangible results.
Or another scenario: You’re sitting there, staring at your screen. A deadline is looming. It isn’t happening. Word by painful word you creep through a minefield. Knowing that it’s awful, paralytic caution stalls every aspect of your process. Your inner critic jeers: “You? A writer?”
Maybe there’s more than a little performance anxiety here. We “know intuitively” that “Other Writers Don’t Have to Struggle”, and we have a track record to uphold. We want to project a sense of proficiency and ease – an ambience of beauty, entertainment, or conviction that engages a reader. There’s that inescapable awareness of self embodied within our text, and text as representative of self. But already we’ve overstepped – how can there be readers if the writing doesn’t get finished?
We all know writing can be intense work, and that on occasion we must grind it out. Conscious of the 10% inspiration/90% perspiration formula, we force ourselves to “make” it happen. Given increased muscle tension and reduced circulation as we sit frozen at our keyboards, is it any surprise that we start feeling blocked?
So how do we avoid tying ourselves up in knots? How can we “help” it happen?
A clear understanding of our individual writing processes allows us build upon our strengths. Do you (e.g.):
- latch onto the energy of strong characters and images and follow where they lead? (the “pantser”)
- write quickly and produce a complete draft before revising? Donald Murray (The Writer, 1992) is an advocate: “I need to speed ahead of the censor and write so fast that my velocity causes the accidents of insight and language that make good writing.”
- write slowly, savouring words – their sounds and textures, as well as their meanings – in an attempt to paint a clear picture from the start?
Self-knowledge, including expectations of yourself and knowing what gives you feelings of accomplishment, allows you to expand your comfort zone and to wean yourself from unproductive habits. Awareness of your writing environment is important. Where, and when, do you work best? Our bodies are part of the equation too. (One word should suffice: “Exercise!”)
A playful attitude can bring spontaneity to our writing. The links between play and creativity are many. Play, according to Frost, is spontaneous, intrinsically motivated, process oriented, and fun (“Toward an integrated theory of play”, 1985). Play and fear cannot coexist. Work, in contrast, may be forced, extrinsically motivated, and goal oriented. Writing falls somewhere between the two. If payment and deadlines are involved, we’re working, while writing for personal pleasure is a form of play. In both instances we can enjoy the excitement of inspiration, exploration and discovery that accompany the crafting of something new. At times we slip into “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi), wholly immersed in what we’re doing and unaware of our surroundings. On these occasions we are “in the now”, a place the inner critic doesn’t go.
Many activities can empower our writing:
- Free-associate – free-write, draw pictures, diagrams and maps of your topic. This can be liberating, and may provide further inspiration or direction for your story, poem, essay or play. Each piece, with its unique energy, may “know” things that you, the writer, don’t fully comprehend. (I sometimes ask questions of my characters, and find their “replies” are insightful. A friend asks her story what it needs.)
- Morning pages and journal writing clear up mental and emotional clutter, opening more psychic space for creative work.
- Make places where you can jot down random ideas (e.g., notes on the fridge, notebook on the car seat).
- Pace yourself. Set a series of attainable deadlines. Isolate individual tasks; take quick action on the “small stuff”. Build in guilt-free rewards (e.g., a coffee break away from home; a social media break).
- Vary your routines. H.G. Wells’ suggestion has merit: “If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.”
- Cultivate time for silences.
- Envision your work as real.
- Focus on “doing” rather than “trying”.
And there are some things to avoid:
- Unnecessary compulsions (e.g., social media; email; computer games – which can be built in as mini-rewards, rather than allowing them to dominate.)
- Excessive self-editing – we need trust our instincts as to when our piece is finally ready, and then let it go!
When we write, we seek illumination and ready access to craft – but sometimes all we have is a flashlight, or maybe a 40 watt bulb in a large room. It might even be a firefly darting above the grass, at dusk. When we trust ourselves, our writing also becomes an act of faith.
Copyright Alison Lohans
This article was published in FreeLance in 2006.
Coming February 18, offered through the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild –
I’ll be doing a workshop on “The Bare Necessities” of writing fiction.
For entry-level writers.
Happening right now – December 17 – at Victoria Square Mall: CANSCAIP-SK, a group of professional Regina children’s writers is having a book sale, until 5:30 p.m. (Come in through the Coliseum entrance.)
Participating writers include myself, Judith Silverthorne, Sharon Plumb, Marie Powell, and Warren James.
The photos here were taken during our set-up this morning.
I’ve recently finished revising my second previously-published book for re-release by a different publisher. The whole process – seeing my work through yet another lens, after having spent well over ten years working the book to a polished draft prior to submissions, and then going through it with the editor of the original publishing house – has been an eye-opening experience. During this time I’ve also seen good friends working hard at their own revisions in fervent hopes of their creative “child” finding its home in the publishing world.
How do we know when a book is finally “ready”? During this process with Timefall (which is the new title for the combined Collapse of the Veil and Crossings), I was shocked on more than a few occasions by things that had slipped past me during those ten-plus years of work, and had also slipped by the first editor. These different sets of eyes (I’s?) all come to a manuscript with subjective lenses, and these multiple perspectives quickly demonstrate the value of critiquing in a writers’ group. We all laugh when caught red-faced: “But isn’t it obvious? I can see it all in my head!”
I’d always figured I was reasonably good with characters, and their motivations and goals, so it was quite a surprise to see in the Track Changes margin: “Out of character”. Fortunately this mostly happened with the secondary characters. But it’s a clear reminder that ALL of our characters need to be in our story for specific reasons, each with their own agendas, and flaws, that drive the conflict arc of the character-driven novel. “Out of character!” was a useful reminder to examine what a character’s response would actually be, and how long that response would play out – and working out a more realistic response led me to subtle shifts that freshened the protagonist’s response as well.
And … responses? Oops! Character X said/did something. Why didn’t Character Y respond? Caught up in one character’s point of view, and with the scene goal in sight, umm…..maybe things got rushed ahead just a little too fast, without honouring the perspective of Character Y? Definitely worth thinking about…
The choreography within a scene, again in the Track Changes balloon: “And Tyler is where?” This round of re-revisions got me looking long and hard at the mother-instinct not only in my teen mom protagonist, but also in her mother. The baby is a pivotal character in the book, and needed to be accounted for in all the scenes where he is present. Oops…. And lo and behold, in a high drama scene where (this time around) I caught myself on two giant faux pas that the present (excellent) editor didn’t catch…whoa! There those Big Issues were, staring me in the face. By honouring each character’s integrity in the height of the emergency, the way unfolded to show both characters in realistic action together; this, in turn, also served to reinforce a tentative reconciliation. The shifts needed to play this out were amazingly simple to work in and, better yet, had all my characters accounted for. It is so easy for characters to fade out of a scene before they’ve actually exited. So this was another wake-up call: Characters are in a scene for a reason. If we’ve put them there, they need to have a tangible role to play whether it’s a speaking part or an action part. If they’re a secondary character, their presence has to have some kind of impact on what the protagonist is doing. And if the secondary characters happen to be more articulate/active than a more-reserved protagonist, our protagonist still must be truly “present” in a sensory and mental way, rather than simply to listen to what the other guys are all talking about.
When is a manuscript truly ready? Such a tough question! Sometimes deadlines will get us up and hopping, maybe with a hint of panic. If we stop and second-guess ourselves too many times, searching for the right word, the most evocative image, we can take the proverbial “forever” to get done – and too much of this can kill the spark that ignited earlier drafts. Yikes…we don’t want to do that! When considering this question nearly forty years ago I used certain criteria, and for the most part I still adhere to them: If it’s as good as I can possibly make it; if I still get excited (re)reading it (for the umpteenth time!) and can experience my narrative through the emotional lens of my protagonist and in a sensory way; if I’ve read chunks of it aloud to my computer monitor and the words sound pleasing and have a good feel on my tongue, then yes, maybe it’s okay to let it go. That is, of course, after careful scrutiny: Are the characters believable, and consistent? Is the plot believable, and the goal worthwhile? Is there strong enough motivation, with further conflict arising from the interplay of the characters’ diverse goals and motivations? Is there a satisfying resolution that resonates beyond “The End”? Yes? Then maybe it’s okay to hit send.
But maybe a book is never truly finished. For once it’s out there in the world, it will be re-created every time a reader plunges into our story – through yet another set of eyes.
Today I’ll be at Save On Foods (South Albert Street) between 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. to display & sign books for young people – which unfortunately are NOT available in Chapters. Something like 15 different titles will be available, from both Canadian and New Zealand publishers.
If you’re considering giving books as Christmas gifts and want to support local Regina artists, why not stop by to chat and have a look? 🙂
Thanks to the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild and Byrna Barclay for pioneering this opportunity for Saskatchewan authors!
Enter to win one of five signed copies of Don’t Think Twice!
Don’t Think Twice is a coming-of-age novel set in two different decades: first, during the Vietnam War years when seventeen-year-old Jan in small-town California is trying to come to grips with who she is, and questions of loyalty when her own pacifistic beliefs conflict with the U.S. “Establishment” of the late 1960s;
and second, thirty years later in Canada, as she frantically tries to reach out to, and find, her runaway daughter by narrating the account of her own teen rebellion when she fell in love with the two brothers who’d moved in next door, and gained the courage to make a new start in Canada.
This second edition was released in 2009. The first edition (1997) was among the finalists for the 1998 Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award, and for the 1997 Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award. It also received a starred “Our Choice” rating from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and was placed on the Resource Links “Best of 1998” list.
Check out Goodreads for more details!
With CJTR Regina Community Radio host Jeanne Alexander following an interview this morning regarding this weekend’s CANSCAIP Prairie Horizons Conference – where I’m doing a Saturday presentation comparing writing Young Adult realistic fiction vs fantasy. The interview also gave some coverage to No Place for Kids, which appears in today’s QC “Read My Book!” section. This interview was live, so too late to catch it now….
Regina and Lumsden area people, you are invited to a free event at the 2015 CANSCAIP Prairie Horizons conference! Children’s author Frieda Wishinsky will give a keynote address called “Writing About…Just About Everything” and Ted Staunton will perform. Saturday September 19, 7 pm at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre, Lumsden. Spread the word!
I’m really enjoying the 2015 When Words Collide conference in Calgary, here with friends/colleagues Sharon Plumb Hamilton, Judith Silverthorne, Pat Miller-Schroeder, Marie Powell, Paula Jane Remlinger, Barbara Tomporowski, Edward Willett (& family) and many others.
There are 650 people at this year’s gala conference that honours and addresses many genres of writing – in my case, young adult, but also speculative fiction, mystery, romance, and others. It’s my second time (after coming first in 2012 to launch my 25th book Crossings) and, as before, I’m finding it an invigorating, inspiring time. Faith Hunter’s workshop on the importance of the first five pages of a novel started it off in a great flourish – honestly the best workshop I’ve attended in something like 40 years. She really delivers the material in a concrete, friendly, hands-on manner, and now I’m looking forward to reading some of her paranormal books.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit in on “An Hour with Diana Gabaldon” where she read from her current work-in-progress as well as describing her working methods, and her involvement with the TV series Outlander.
I enjoyed a panel on book promotion put on by three romance writers including C.J. Carmichael. All had very interesting and useful advice on websites, Facebook promotion, and author newsletters – all of which will easily transpose to our Children’s Writers’ Round Robin, and to SK-CANSCAIP.
It’s also wonderful to hear from (other) long-time career writers who feel some of the same confusions that result from being in this business over the long haul, with an ever-changing market that can sometimes feel daunting.
I enjoyed sitting on two YA panels yesterday: “How to Avoid Cliches in YA Writing” and “Keeping It Real in YA”. The latter panel particularly was invigorating.
Congratulations to friend Marie Powell who held her new book HAWK in hand for the first time yesterday, after many years of work. I really look forward to reading it!
Today will bring another inspiring palette of author presentations. I’ll try to post photos.