Writing process: How to get unstuck and have spanking clean toilets too

I have a book manuscript that I’ve dabbled with on and off since 2005. I recently cleared out my creative space and once again opened up the box with everything related to this project: a folder bulging with first drafts and revised drafts, research books, notes, email print-outs, three or four different outlines, story ideas, suggestions, schedules.

So many false starts, hopes, plans, dreams. All incomplete. Where to begin??? Like so many times before, I slapped the lid back on the box and shoved it back in its corner under my desk, out of sight but never out of mind.  My sense of failure was palpable.

Why can’t I finish this damn thing? Was it time to give it up? Had the moment to tell this story passed? I continued to berate myself as I threw in another load of laundry then headed upstairs to make dinner and clean the bathrooms, which is way more fun than feeling like a failure. I might not be able to finish this story, but by golly, my toilets will sparkle and I’ll make the best damn Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff ever!

The thing is, every time I return to this project, I get stuck right here. It didn’t help that I had some chapters in one computer file, others on a USB stick, still more on a disk, and multiple print-outs of copies and versions of drafts. I am organized in every aspect of my life, what the hell happened here? How would I know what was what? Where to start?

And then, shortly after the family was full of stroganoff, the toilets were sparkling, kids were in bed, and I was just about to overindulge in chocolate, I had an epiphany:

I could start over.

I sat up straight on the couch and put my chocolate down. Who said I have to try to put the pieces together from the way I saw this story five years ago? I always knew what the problem was: my story needed a skeleton to hang on, but every time I went back to the pieces, I was forcing the pieces to fit a structure that wasn’t working. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result every time?

Yep, I’ve been driving myself crazy. But just like that, I gave myself permission to try a new structure. It seemed so simple, but I guess I had been so focused on making the square peg fit the round hole, I didn’t think to look for a new peg.

So, I’m starting fresh. I’m actually pretty excited about it, because I feel like I have a new skeleton that can work. I will pull details and scenes from the 200+ pages I’ve already written when and where it makes sense. That might sound depressing to some who aren’t used to the writing process, but sometimes you have to write a lot to find out what you have to say and the best way to say it.

If you’re stuck, consider clearing out your creative work space to make room for new ideas. Spend time in your creative space. Look at your old drafts. Don’t force  yourself to solve any problems. Try not to berate yourself. Read. Think. Ponder. Simmer. Just show up every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and see what happens.

As for my book, I don’t know if this new insight will solve everything. I hope I will finish this damn thing once and for all. Mostly, I feel pretty good. I’m trying. I’m writing again.

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The 8 most annoying Facebook personalities

Recently I took an informal survey of my Facebook friends to see what they thought were the best and worst things about Facebook. The stories and insights that emerged were fascinating, revealing and too good not to share. Today, we focus on the most annoying. (Of course we all know that WE don’t do these things, but we probably all have a few of them lurking in our friend list.)

Who, me?

The Instigator. This is the person who likes to stir up trouble by posting argumentative comments, strong political or religious opinions, or bashing people who annoy them. I once watched a couple break up via Facebook–complete with status updates ripping each other to pieces and giving everyone enough detail in the comments to know who cheated on who, who threw the plastic chair first, who had a drug problem, who needed to grow up and act their age – ?

It was like a soap opera that I couldn’t stop watching. Thankfully, they both deleted the majority of posts later that day and took it offline. Please, if you’re breaking up or pissed off at something someone else said, pick up the phone. Send an email. Write a letter. Don’t subject the rest of us to the bitterness.

Game Addict. The consensus was clear: NO MORE fish or mafia wars or Farkle scores or farm animal stories (unless they were funny and sarcastic).

Photo Upchucker. “Florence just uploaded 577 new photos of the kids’ clog dancing class!” I’m sorry, but I can’t even look at that many photos of my own kids let alone someone else’s, especially of clog dancing (no offense, clog dancers).

This is also the person who posts photo upchucks of you–tagged!–so that the lovely photo of you with three chins or a mouthful of food and one eye half-shut is right there, front and center, on your photo page.

The Drama Queen. Another day, another drama. You’ll see constant updates that are all about the drama at work, the drama at home, the drama with the kids. One wife posted that her young husband was going to the ER for what he thought was a heart attack. 28 comments and two hours later, turns out he had indigestion and everything was fine.

Later she posted that they went out for dinner and a movie–talk about anticlimactic. Maybe…hold off on the status update until you have more facts; if your husband is having a heart attack, why the hell are you on Facebook???

The Hypochondriac. It’s one thing to have a casual acquaintance who is a hypochondriac. It’s quite another to be Facebook friends with him or her and bear witness to every bee sting, garden injury, torn ligament, achy toenail and virus to end all viruses–all in one week. I’m sorry, but if you start sounding like one of my elderly aunts grousing about your aches and pains, I’m gonna have to hide your achy breaky arse.

The Narcissist. If you never comment on anyone else’s posts, never join the conversation unless it’s about you, and only post things about yourself, hello Narcissist!. If you’re an ER doc or attorney or president of a company and just decided to run for mayor of your town, hey, that’s great, but posts like, “Just saved another life today!” or “The limo was late, AGAIN” or “I hate when the maid makes my bed wrong!” tend to alienate us regular people. What fun is it comment on THAT (unless you know them well enough to make fun of them).

The Facebook-aholic: You know who you are. You post more than 6 times a day–interesting links, funny videos, photos, status update quips, quotes, you name it, you post it. Some of it is interesting, but after a while, people start wondering if you have a life.

The Hypochondriac Narcissist with Photo Upchuck Tendencies: Enough said.

Next time, I’ll share the positive aspects of Facebook from my independent survey. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite Facebook personalities, good or bad.

How to use friends and family in your fiction without pissing them off

One of the most frequently asked questions students ask in my fiction writing classes is, “How do I write about my life–my friends and family–without pissing them off?” Let’s be honest, the usual fiction disclaimer, All characters are a figment of the author’s imagination, any resemblance to real people living or dead is blah blah blah, just doesn’t cut it.

Everything is food for our fiction, including people we know. The good news is, much of real life is fairly boring; fiction spices it up. So here are 6 things you must do if you want to use people around you for, ahem, inspiration:

1. Ditch the guilt. You have to be willing to take risks on the page. Guilt will hold you back and stop you from digging into the deep stuff where the real stories are. Let it go.

2. Change names and details. The sooner you change Aunt Mabel the crazy quilter into Joey the crazy biscuit maker, you free yourself–and your character–to be who he/she really is. If you’re writing about a friend who picks their teeth with a toothpick when nervous, think of another odd habit that “your character” has. That’s our job, to make shit up, so be creative.

3. Change your mind. Stop thinking of the friend or family member and start thinking of the character with a life, feelings, hang-ups, shortcomings and bad habits of his or her own. When you are fully immersed in your characters, they will become more real to you than the people who sparked your idea for them in the first place.

4. Air out the story. Choose a few select folks to read a draft as soon as possible–preferably not the people you are writing about. If you can read it aloud in front of an audience, even better.You’ll know you have some rewriting to do and where.

5. Don’t remove; rewrite. Writers reflect what they see, but that doesn’t mean we have to expose the people we care about to humiliation or shame. Only you can decide if a line has been crossed. Before you delete, rewrite. That’s what revision is for–shaping raw emotions like humiliation and shame into good fiction.

6. Check your motives. Are you writing for yourself or for your audience? Are you writing to hurt someone else or to work through your own hurt? Words are powerful. Use them wisely.

Now, quit worrying and start writing!

Be your own muse: one secret to being more productive in your creative work

In my MFA program, there was one phrase that came up over and over: “Go with whatever is most taking your attention right now.” This was usually said in a serious Obi Wan Kenobe-voice to us just before we began an in-class writing assignment or when being coached through an impromptu verbal narrative in front of the class.

At first, it’s strange to be told this let alone think this way. But the up side to this creative directive was that it helped me generate lots of story starts and ideas. My brain never shuts up so there is ALWAYS something taking my attention.

The challenge became, how do I tune out the other distractions and focus on the one, most pressing scene or moment that was most strongly taking my attention right NOW? This directive helped me train my brain to focus with laser precision on the moment or scene that I needed to tell right now.

While having many story starts and ideas is great, the down side was that I rarely finished any of my story starts because something else is ALWAYS taking my attention. How to finish a piece of writing…that’s the bane of my existence when it comes to my own personal creative work and another blog post for another day.

As a writer and someone who always has multiple projects going on at once both at home and at work, I’ve found that going with what takes my attention helps me instinctively, intuitively juggle my priorities better. It’s an exercise in active listening. I ask myself (either in my journal or literally), what is taking my attention right now? And then I listen to what my mind says, what it pushes forth. It requires patience. It requires quiet. It requires honesty.

The payoff is that the priority or project I need to focus on first or that I am most enthusiastic about at that moment bubbles up, drowning out everything else. I am much more productive this way. As a professional writer, my ability to juggle many different projects hinges upon my ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between clients, dipping in and out of different brands, voices and subject matters. I work faster when I focus on the project that I am most excited about at the moment–the one most strongly taking my attention.

This helps me get down to business quickly and manage my time so much more efficiently. But this doesn’t just pertain to writing. It pertains to life.

Don’t wait for the muse to find you. Try it now.
Ask yourself, what is taking my attention right now? Then listen to what your intuition says. At first, this may be uncomfortable. Your brain might get snarky and say stuff like, “Piles of laundry! Bills! The bathtub grout is moldy!” Let the snark come out, then push it aside. Listen again.

In the beginning, this may feel like listening for a pin to drop in a crowded football stadium. Wait for it. Eventually you will push everything else aside and focus your mind’s eye on one thing, the important thing, that you need to get to right now. You will hear the pin drop. You will see it. Write it. Paint it. Design it. You will work despite the laundry, the bills, the grout.

Be your own muse. Go with what’s taking your attention right now.

The day the webmaster died: 9 crazy deadline personalities

I’ve seen a lot of crazy in my 20+ years in the marketing biz as a creative professional. But when a conversation begins, “Hello, our webmaster died,” you know you’re looking at a whole different level of crazy. Here’s how it went down, according to my design friend Susan:

“True story 1:30pm yesterday, a client I haven’t heard from in months calls up out of the blue and says, ‘Our webmaster died last year. How much would it cost to take down our site, create a new one and add e-commerce before our event in 10 days?’ I ask, what’s your budget? The client replies, ‘We don’t have one but we need to spend as little as possible.’ “

No matter how much you love your work, we could all do without the deadline nightmares. While there  are those tough people are very good at saying no to unreasonable requests, many of us are afraid to say no lest we be labeled “uncooperative.” Frankly, nowadays it feels a little nuts to say no, no matter how crazy the deadline.

I have compiled this list of the worst deadline personalities because, as much as we may like our clients or colleagues, they drive us insane by the insanity of their deadlines. Whether you freelance or work full-time, you’ll recognize them–hopefully they are not you.

The Five O’Clock Shadow. This client or colleague waits until 4:58 sharp, right as you’re packing up to leave, to call or stop by and “give you a heads up” on a new project or the revisions you’ve been waiting for all day long.

The Bait and Switch. This project starts out small, quick or easy and before you know it, it evolves into a full-blown campaign with multiple components, themes, versions, viral videos, t-shirts and billboards. which means you would have approached it completely differently from the start. And it’s all still due tomorrow. This can also happen when the two-week due date flies out the window when you get the call, “We need it tomorrow.”

The Bargain Hunter. Budgets are tight these days, but these folks have come to think of creative work as “Let’s Make a Deal.” Your estimate is merely a starting point in the negotiation. Others think you are trying to rip them off. No matter what you charge, it’s always too much.

The UnderEstimator. To these folks, your job doesn’t require time, effort or expertise–perhaps you could be replaced by an intern or a monkey. Or they don’t quite understand what is entailed to execute a particular creative project. So they see nothing wrong with asking you to complete a six-week project in six days. When you explain exactly what is entailed in the scope, they are genuinely shocked–then they blink and say, “So, tomorrow then?”

The DIY. The do-it-yourselfer is convinced that they don’t need to pay someone to do something they can do themselves. These folks have not come to appreciate that while yes, everyone can use photoshop, not everyone is a graphic designer. Or that just because you can write doesn’t mean you can write a compelling sales pitch.

The Fiddler. They can’t leave well enough alone. They fiddle with the colors. Question the shape of the text box. Pick and fuss at the logo until it looks like a cat ate it and coughed it up as a hairball. They are endless “tweakers” of copy, changing words and phrases here and there, and there, and here, then making wholesale paragraph changes, or worse, rewriting everything on the final review, until suddenly you realize you are on Round 18 of revisions and you only budgeted for three.

The Spontaneous Genius. These are the creative sparks that pop up the day before an event or meeting that was humming along UNTIL…someone has an absolutely brilliant idea that, in normal people time, would require a team, equipment and a class or two. Instead, all you get is a “go for it!”, a mad search of how-to videos on YouTube and one all-nighter. When the clock is ticking and you hear things like, “Hey, I know!” or “Here’s an idea!”, RUN. You’re about to be hit with spontaneous genius.

The Mystery Meat Special. The conversation goes something like this: “We need something designed, we don’t have the details yet, but how fast can you get it done and how much will it cost?” Huh???

Brain Freeze. Whether you’ve had the project for 5 days or 5 minutes, sometimes your brain just…dies. Every idea you manage to come up with sucks and you start to wonder if it’s time to consider a career change. Ditch digger and Walmart Greeter comes to mind. This can happen because of any of the crazy deadline personalities above, but sometimes it just happens for no damn good reason. That’s when you call a trusted cohort and vent until you are laughing again and then the idea comes and you are relieved because you still have “it.” Until the next brain freeze.

Go ahead. Vent. What’s your worst deadline horror story?

When you hate writing (but you have to do it anyway)

I hate monkeys. No offense to monkeys or monkey enthusiasts. They seem so smart yet unpredictable and mean. Once a monkey tried to pee on my kids and I through the zoo cage. When I have a bad dream, monkeys are always there, lurking, biting or chasing me.

I am telling you this now because whenever someone says to me, “You’re a writer? *shudder* I hate writing!” It’s hard to fathom anyone hating something I love so much. Then I think  of monkeys and I understand. People fear writing almost as much as they fear doing their own electric work on their homes. You could die by touching the wrong color wire. No one is going to die by writing the wrong word, but you’re just as vulnerable. Will it hurt? Will people laugh (when you’re not trying to be funny)? Does it say what you want it to say? Will you sound like an idiot? Are you an idiot?

Here are five ways to less your writing anxiety and hopefully hate writing a little less:

#1 First drafts are like first loves. Remember your first romance, when you’re intoxicated by the possibilities? First drafts can be like that–you’re excited about the idea, you see the potential, it seems absolutely perfect–until you pick up your pen and start to write. Don’t let that stop you! Let the words pour out. Turn off your censor. Let it rip. See where it takes you. You and I both know that somewhere down the line, your head will need to step in and help your heart sort it all out. But not here, not in the first draft. OK?

#2 Revision is like plucking weeds. I used to think that anything I wrote was perfect the first time I wrote it, exactly as I wrote it. But seven years of MFA training taught me that the first draft is simply planting the seed. Revision is growing that first draft by watering it with a strong editor’s eye, plucking out the dead spots, spraying for bugs that eat at the heart of the story and fertilizing what’s left until it’s the envy of all your neighbors/readers/other writers.

#3 Writing is yoga for your brain. It lets your mind breathe. It makes your brain more flexible. It keeps your linguistic muscles limber. A little writing a few days a week in or outside the office can help you feel more comfortable in your skin, especially when you have to write. If you only write once a quarter, of course you’ll feel rusty, hesitant and uncertain. The sound of your own voice on the page will be like hearing your voice on a recording–weird, unnatural and not at all what you thought it sounded like. It would be like jumping into an advanced yoga class when you’ve been a coach potato your whole life. So practice once in a while, even if it’s just a Facebook status update (it counts).

#4 Feedback is like foreplay. Too much, too soon and your mojo is out the window. Not enough and you’re left unfulfilled and pissed off. Good feedback starts small–you share your work when you’re ready with a small, trusted group. If they don’t laugh at the right spots–or the wrong ones–or if they fall asleep in the middle, then see #2. Revise. Try again. When it works, your audience will laugh, cry, nod their heads voraciously or gasp in surprise, you’ll get off on getting the reactions you wanted. Soon you’ll come to love how the right feedback pushes your work forward, inspires new ideas and honey, you’ll want more more more.

#5 There are worse things than writing. Speaking of getting the reactions you wanted, my friend Kim recently told me about a zoo that had an “issue” with monkeys throwing their poo at visitors. No sh*t! The over-reactions of patrons made the monkeys throw more poo. Eventually the zoo hired actors to stand in front of the monkey cages and not react when they got smacked by monkey poo. Soon the monkeys got bored and stopped flinging their poo. What’s a little writing compared to a sh*tty job like that?

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Everything I need to know I learned on Google: Confessions of a Google addict

When I needed to learn the best way to videotape an informal interview, I Googled it. When a relative was diagnosed with cancer, I Googled it. When I needed to learn more about using social media marketing for b2b marketing, I Googled it. How to take great photos? Launch a blog? Get my kids to make their beds? Googled it. Nike might want you to  “Just do it” but why bother when you can “Just Google it”?

I was starting to feel as if there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do, learn or become an expert at in minutes–or at least the first few highly ranked articles in Google search. Whether I needed a recipe to whip up a tantalizing blog post or a succulent pork roast, I had every resource, every answer right at my fingertips. It was intoxicating. I was drunk with power and knowledge. I was addicted to Google.

And then my power went out. Literally–no electricity. For three days.

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