A Writer's Block Breaker: 30 Songs For 30 Chapters

As most of you know, I'm slightly obsessed with books on the writing craft. And a few weeks ago, I was poking around in Barnes and Noble (as you do) and picked up the book Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers  (Edited by Laurie Lawson) to flip through.

Now, I write romance, so you may be wondering what would make me pick up a book about speculative fiction, but I like to expand my horizons. And there are things to be learned from other genres. Plus, I love horror and may one day pen something with some scary stuff.

Anyway, this book is filled with short essays (1-2 pages) on different topics: World Building, Plotting, Creativity, etc. and at the end of each essay are writing exercises. (Hence the title Now Write!)

And I've only read a handful of them thus far, but it's turned out to be a great book already. And one of the exercises I read last night got me moving in all kinds of creative directions. This exercise was by Diego Valenzuela in an essay titled "The Constant Writer: How To Plot An Entire Story In Minutes and Never Run Out of Ideas"

I won't go into the whole essay because you should buy the book. But the exercise he suggests is so much fun and oddly effective at sparking ideas. So here it is:

Put your playlist on shuffle. Write the numbers 1-30 for your 30 chapters and then label each chapter with the song title that comes up. Then use those titles to help plot/spark ideas for your story.

I read it and was like--sounds interesting but how could that work? So, of course, I tried it.

Here's what I got with my own playlist:

Pretty cool, yeah? Especially that near the "black moment" time in a book I have Live and Let Die, Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone, and Walk Away. And then the last chapter is a song about goodbyes. 

But these are my songs that I'm already familiar with, so I decided to try a variation. I put on Spotify's Coffee House station and did the first 30 songs of that. And look, I ended up with a road trip book! And I kind of got a story idea from it. How awesome is that?

Then I was chatting with my friend Julie Cross and she did it. And when I looked at her list, I thought--hey she has a sci-fi space novel! Daylight, Extraordinary, Come Fly With Me, Defying Gravity, Radioactive, 93 Million Miles...


So yeah, you've just lost the next hour of your life because I bet you can't resist. ;-)  If you do one, feel free to post it in the comments. I love seeing other people's lists.

The Faster I Write, the Better the Book?

Sign at the New York Public Library (my pic)So a while back I talked about being a Slow Writer Reformed. After being a slow writer for years, I had a deadline that ended up being crazy tight because my editor and I changed the concept of the book at the last minute (a few times). Well, it resulted in me writing 97k in 55 working days and revising in 5 days. So basically, 60 days from start to finish (minus weekends since I don't work on weekends.) It was definitely a revelation to me that I could write that fast. But there was one LOOMING question. Was it any good? 

When you write that quickly under that intense of a deadline, you can't stop and think or analyze. You lose perspective and can't really tell if something rocks or sucks. You're too close. (And it's not like I had time to send it to beta readers to get feedback before I sent it to my editor.) So I was happy that I'd accomplished the goal of writing faster. But I was scared that the whole thing was a pile of crap and that my editor would hate it or require a total rewrite.

Well, this past week I went to NYC to meet with my editor and guess what? She loved CAUGHT UP IN YOU and said it was her favorite thing I've ever written. AND, get this, no big edits--she didn't even send it back to me, just sent it straight to copyedits (which for those of you who don't know, the copy editor is the person who doesn't change content but checks for grammar, spelling, and logic mistakes.) SO, the fastest book I've ever written and the one I was most insecure about turns out to be her favorite. (!!!)

And to give you an idea of what a crazed, fugue state I wrote it in, when my editor told me her favorite scene of the book, I couldn't even remember what scene that was, lol. I had to look it up later and was like--oh yeah, I DID write a scene with a such and such. o.0  Seriously.

And this isn't a one time occurence. Previous to this, I talked about losing perspective because with FALL INTO YOU (the book that's out now), a couple of major revisions had to be made on that book in a very short amount of time. It made me super insecure about the book because I had to just fix it ASAP and didn't have time to think over the changes. But then it came out and got the highest rating you can get in Romantic Times magazine (higher than my previous two books) AND it's by far, gotten the strongest response/reviews from readers--many declaring it their favorite of the series.

So what I'm coming to realize about my process is that my internal editor is a dangerous bitch. When I write slower, I over analyze, I overthink, and I suck out some of the magic of the creativity. When I don't have a choice but to keep writing, writing, writing, and not look back, then something wonderful happens and my right brain truly takes over. (And for the record, at the time, it doesn't *feel* like that. Even when I'm writing fast, it's always hard work. Rarely do words just fly from my fingertips with abandon. It's a very deliberate process of "must hit xxxx word count today" but it cuts out my inclination to go back and rework previous stuff to death. I have to keep moving forward to hit that daily number.)

Now, this doesn't mean that I'm going to wait until a deadline is close to start working (let's not talk crazy), but I am going to give myself my own self-imposed tighter deadline so that I work faster. And I'm going to stop worrying about if I don't feel super-confident about a book before sending it to my editor. I almost never feel confident about a book, and that's okay. I'm going to embrace that writer insecurity. It seems to mean that I've pushed myself and the story to a good (and maybe out of my comfort zone) place. It means I've taken risks. They might not always work--and that's what editors are for--but it's easier to dial back after the fact than it is to add.

So does this mean that writing faster is BETTER? For me, maybe. However, everyone's writing process is different. Some people write super fast but then have a mess on their hands and edits are overwhelming. Let's face it, most NaNoWriMo novels are not ready for primetime for a long while, if ever. Some people write slower and need that time to get the story the way they want it. If it's your first or second novel you've ever written, I can almost guarantee that a quickly written book is not ready. I know I needed my time with Crash Into You to get it right. But as you write more, you learn more and get better at craft. (Caught Up In You is the 8th book I've written.)

And most of all, realize that your current process isn't sacred or set in stone. Be open to trying new schedules or methods. If you had asked me two years ago, I would've said I was a slow writer who needed a minimum of 6 months to write a book (and that'd be pushing it.) I'd tell you that I was a pantser who could never do any pre-planning. I'd tell you I couldn't write a synopsis before writing a book. Now I'm writing 3-4 books a year, and though I'm still a pantser, I now pre-plan using the Save the Cat Beat Sheet and the Michael Hauge character profiles, which has been a tremendous help. And I write synopses to sell my books before they books are written (and kind of like writing them now).

Always, always be open to trying things a new way. If you write slowly and want to see if you can write faster, give yourself a do-or-die deadline, no cheating, and hold yourself to a daily word count. Train up like I talked about in the previous post. And don't let writer insecurity or that relentless internal editor stop you from writing. Just keep going. If you have a mess at the end, so be it--you can fix it in revisions. But maybe pushing yourself past your normal limits will inspire that one, shining scene that never would've come to you if you'd been painstakingly looking back at previous chapters deciding if her dress should be red or purple.

Anyone else discover interesting things about their own process? Do you feel like you're stuck being a "slow writer"? 

5 Muse Abusers: How To Protect Your Creative Flow

Photo by CortneeB (click pic for link)

So January was one of the most exciting months I've ever had because my debut came out. Having a dream come true is pretty surreal. But January also turned out to be a tough month because beyond going through the  The 5 Emotional Stages of a Book Launch , I found myself with writer's block.

Now, many will say writer's block doesn't exist. It's just fear or your subconscious telling you that you've made a wrong turn. Yes, maybe. Any mine was probably a little of both, but that didn't make it any less real, lol. I have a book due in March and literally had a month where I didn't move forward more than one chapter--scary stuff.

Thankfully, *knocks on wood* I've seemed to moved past it over the last week and a half. I'm getting about 1k a day in, which is not going to break any speed records, but is steadily moving forward. I'm a little past 50k with the goal of a 90k-100k book by the end of March.

But anyway, this has me looking back at January and wondering what went wrong. Why did I get so blocked? One of the reasons is because I'd hit the middle and I tend to get stuck at the halfway point in every book, but what made this block so long?

And I realized I pretty much beat the ever-loving crap out of my muse in January. Our creativity is a lovely, strange thing filled with ideas as fragile as soap bubbles. We have to guard it, feed it, and cultivate it if we want it to continue to serve us. 

But there are parts of this writer life that can stomp on that lovely, fragile thing and drain it. And launching a book happens to involve a lot of these. 

So what are the muse abusers and what can you do about them?

1. Negative feedback 

This one is a catch-22 because we need feedback and solid critiques to grow as writers. We need other eyes to give us unbiased opinions. However, that negativity can also stifle our creativity. It pushes in those ugly things like self-doubt and insecurity. Maybe I can't write. Maybe I should give up now. This is unfixable. I'm a hack.

What to do: Get yourself critique partners that know how to give constructive feedback. Not just--I hate this or this totally doesn't work--but people who have the ability to tell you why it doesn't work (i.e. your character is not sympathetic or this creates a plot hole.) If you're in a group where people get mean or sarcastic, leave it. That's not helpful. And if you're published, stop reading the bad reviews. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way last month. When you read reviews like "at least she can spell" (yeah, that was one of mine), your muse pretty much flips you off and tells you it refuses to work in a hostile work environment.


2. Sucking your muse dry

We're supposed to blog and tweet and write guest posts and newsletter articles and and and... Well, all those things take some level of creativity. Now, I've been writing a blog post every weekday for almost three years. That hasn't hurt my muse because it sort of acts like my "morning pages" where I get the brain in gear. BUT, last month when I kept up my normal blogging plus added 1-2 guests posts daily Well, that drained me. I'd finish the second or third blog post that day then open my WIP and stare. I'd used all my words and energy already on something else.

What to do: Find the balance that works for you. If blogging daily effects your writing, cut back. Do Anne R. Allen's once-a-week slow blogging. Writing has to come first. And if you're releasing a book, plan ahead for your blog tour. Stockpile guests posts when you're not actively drafting a project. 


3. Scaring the life out of your muse

Putting pressure on your creativity can work in one of two ways. Some people thrive on that pressure--a tight deadline gets their juices flowing. Others (like me), it works the opposite. Here's my brain: Oh shit, this book is due in two months and if I can't write such and such words each day, I'm going to FAIL. And what if this book isn't as good as the others? And what if I let those people who love this character down with his story? And what if this is the first time I can't finish a book? *taps forehead* Yep, it's a scary place in there. Needless to say, all those thoughts left my muse cowering in a corner.

What to do: Be aware of the pressures, then ignore them. Pretend like you're writing for fun only. Worrying isn't going to get anything accomplished; it will just make things worse. And remember that you will hate every book you write at some point. In every book you'll think--this isn't good enough, this is never going to work, I hate these characters and this was a stupid idea. It will pass.


4. Trying to please everyone

I'm a people pleaser by nature. I want everyone to like me even when I know that's not a realistic goal. And that sentiment applies to my books. But if I try to hold in my head "I hope my agent, editor, every reader on the planet loves this", I only overwhelm myself and my muse. Look at reviews on any book and you'll see opposing viewpoints. I've gotten everything from "this is so mild it shouldn't be called erotic" to "this is the hottest book I've ever read." Luckily most reviews fall on the latter, but it just shows that everyone is coming at your book with a different pespective.

What to do: Write for YOU first. Draft the story that you want to read. These are your characters in a world you created. What do you want to see happen next? Worry about your editor and your ideal reader when you're revising.


5. Starving your muse

Sometimes we get so focused on getting the writing done, that we forget to feed our creativity. We expect the well to keep producing without us replenishing it. And I know I'm guilty of this. I get obsessed with "working" and I feel like I don't deserve a break because I have so much to do.

What to do: Take time out to refill the well. Read for pleasure. Take a walk. Go somewhere other than your laptop. People watch. See a movie. Play with your kids. Take a few hours with the sole purpose of getting nothing accomplished. Inspiration doesn't take kindly to demands, let it out to play sometimes.


Now we'll see if I'm able to take my advice the next time around, lol. 

So how about you? Have you experienced writer's block? Has your muse ever flipped you off and taken a vacation to Aruba? What do you do to nurture your creativity?