May 17, 2016

What in the World is Writer’s Block?

Sleeping At WorkI recently heard experts talking about the difficulties in finishing creative projects. Basically they were discussing the effects of writer’s block. On the program, hosted by Studio 360, psychiatrists and psychologists and people who study the brain explored whether or not writer’s block is real.

. Either way, the term has been around long enough to have some merit. As I listened to the program, I wondered about my own creative process. Clearly, in the right conditions everything works. But, when conditions are not right, I cannot write.

All this depends of style.

It seems that when people go into the “zone” as it was described in the show, the judging parts of their brains shut down. In other words, the inner critic quiets and the voice of your mom telling you not to write about that person in the neighborhood or not to use that color paint disappears. During that time, the writer is free to explore and create without boundaries. I’ve known those episodes. Usually I describe them as allowing my characters to take over. It’s a wonderful, freeing feeling and one I want to repeat all the time.

What I also learned from this episode of Studio 360, is that the more you try to get in the zone, the less likely you will get there. In other words, when our judging, critical brain works harder to get us there, we can’t enter. The doors remained bolted. For some writers, turning on classical music helps. For others getting in a quiet spot with no distractions helps. For others leaving the project and taking a nice walk helps.

The point is that there really isn’t ‘writer’s block’ per se. Instead, creative people experience a freeing of their minds whereby they can soar. It’s an honor to get there. Runners, by the way, experience this when they get the runners high. It doesn’t happen on every run, but when it does, it’s beautiful.

My advice to writers, to runners and to other creative people, is keep working at it. But, don’t try and force it.

That’s why runners keep running.

What tricks do you use to enter the zone? Tell us about your experiences with writer’s block.


Are You a Split-Personality Writer?

I recently saw the movie The Lady in the Van with Maggie Smith. This is the story about a homeless woman who parks her van in Alan Bennett’s driveway for fifteen years. It is a true story. One aspect of the movie I found interesting was Mr. Bennett’s writing style. He played two roles: his writer self and his living self. The movie depicted those two personalities often at odds with each other.

As for me, the worlds and characters I create stay in my head all the time. Whether I’m writing or whether I’m grocery shopping or whether I’m feeding my cats. They are with me while I’m creating a story. They never leave me. Rather than splitting out into another person, we all become one big happy family.

They suggest ideas for the plot and they move the story along in ways they deem appropriate. I do not talk to myself as a separate, living person, different from my writing person.

I’m sure there are writers who do separate themselves from their characters and their writing personae. These writers would mimic the style of Alan Bennett in the movie. The writer in him accuses the living man, “You are good to her only because you want me to write about her.” That comment suggests a bit of guilt on the part of the writer. He saw in himself more than simply a kind man helping a homeless woman. He saw other motives for being kind to Mary Shepherd (The lady in the van). And he didn’t care of those motives. The separate writer self was his way of dealing with these mixed emotions.

Perhaps if I wrote things that disturbed me, I might need to separate myself as Bennett did. Perhaps…

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the movie. Here’s the official Trailer for The Lady in the Van.

Tips for Starting a New Novel

7b033ab7cd4f0b30d178fdfd27205bdcI recently started a new novel. I began with a germ of an idea and it has grown and emerged since. Because we all write in different ways, I thought I’d share some of my tips for starting a new novel and ask my writer friends to add a few of theirs. Working on a completed novel is a lot easier than starting from that first blank page. Yet the challenge and excitement of seeing a new creation come to life cannot be measured. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Here are some tips on how to start a new novel.

Allow the idea to grow and mature. If your idea were a seed, you’d plant it, water it, tend to it, but you wouldn’t push it or drown it. Give it time and space to grow.

I know when I get to a point in my writing where I feel bored or not sure where to go next, usually a new character jumps up. The fun about new characters is they bring a whole new perspective on the goings on. Allow those new characters to emerge and grow like the seed you planted.

Open it up, read what you wrote the day before and plow forward. If you think, well, I’ll skip today and do something else, like surf Facebook. That kind of thinking will leave the new project to die in your computer. Just a little attention every day will nurture your new project.

Just writing the bare bones–plot does not create the world where your characters exist. Granted things have to happen, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. Mood, weather, place are almost as important as character.

In other words, make a note to yourself and then do the research later. Come back the next day and fill in what you’ve learned. If you stop and research the name of a place or the date something happened, you’ll lose your hold on your creative mind.

Don’t get wedded to anything you’ve written. Something else may emerge making what you wrote the day before irrelevant. Let go of the meaningless as new developments spring forth.

Once you start writing, you have something to build on. Go for it!

These are a few of my tips for starting to write a new novel. What are some of yours?

Check out the book trailer for The Clock Strikes Midnight, a book that won the Royal Palm Literary Award, first place in mainstream/literary fiction for 2015.


Tips on How Not to Let Others Squelch Your Creativity

Recently I heard someone say, “I tried to write a novel, but when my wife read it, she said…”

Quicker than my foot will squelch a bug. As artists, whether literary artists or visual artists, we must avoid allowing others to squelch our creativity. If we don’t, imagine how much would be lost. Imagine if someone had said to Steve Jobs, “Oh, you can’t have a phone without an on-off switch.” Imagine!

One real example happened when I was the squelcher. Years ago my husband considered trying his hand at art. He’d made some sketches on a pad. I looked at them and said, “Those are great trees.” He grimaced and replied, “Those aren’t trees. They are people.” He never picked up his artist pen again. Ugh!

Here are some tips to keep those squelchers away from you:

Do not show the early stages of a project to anyone else, even your spouse. You might say, but what if what I’m doing is totally crap and a waste of time. Who cares? Keep going. If you don’t want to keep going, then stop and do something else. But, if you do want to push ahead, keep your work to yourself until it’s finished.

If you’ve created something that’s never been created before, it’s no wonder people don’t get it. Here’s another example. Someone told me they were reading their mystery manuscript to their partner. When they got to Chapter 5, the partner said, “But you killed that character in Chapter 2.” Under normal circumstances the writer wouldn’t bring back a character they had killed off, but maybe this wasn’t a normal circumstance. Maybe this writer was creating a paranormal mystery or even a story where what we thought happened in Chapter 2 didn’t really happen.

Maybe you began by writing a romance, but something happens in the writing, something that changes the entire character of your book. Do you fight that or let it flow? I say let it flow. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

All artists struggle with not allowing others to squelch their creativity.  Visual artists never show the portrait to the person sitting for them until it’s finished. All that person would have to say is, “That doesn’t look anything like me.” Then, it’s all over. Keep your work to yourself until you are done and allow that creative self of yours to flourish!

Here’s my latest creative endeavor. Take a look at this book trail that showcases the e-Murderer

Tips Josephine Tey Teaches #Mystery Writers

She wrote in the 1930’s and 1950’s. Her books followed no set formula, and I’d say she might have been one of the first pantser writers. Those outliners who put us pantsers down might take a long look at a writer like Tey. Josephine_Tey_april_1934_6

While Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers stuck to tried and true formulas–dead bodies in the library and other successful plots–Tey deviated from the norm. She wrote stand-alone stories each with its own mystery. The rules of the time included 1) no divine revelation 2) no feminine intuition, accidental discoveries, unaccountable hunches and 3) no undeclared clues. Tey didn’t always abide by these rules.

She began writing plays and had a stage pen name as well as a novelist pen name. Her real name, Elizabeth MacKintosh, was unknown to most of her fans. She kept her personal life very private. When reading about her, I wondered if she might have been agoraphobic. Her reluctance to venture out, meet people and make friends was classic. Most of the people who knew her knew very little about her. One friend said, “She never spoke to me of her youth or her ambitions. It was hard to draw her out…”

Nonetheless she took up the pen and created stories that take us to wonderful places with interesting people.

You may find you like mysteries whose lack of formula creates even more suspense.


Conversations with Alice Walker

The great Pulitzer Prize winning author talked about herself, her writing and her passion. As the author of The Color Purple, she attracted people of all colors, sizes, shapes and backgrounds to hear her. In fact, the tickets sold out in the first twenty minutes. Seeing her was an amazing experience for me as a person and even more so for me as a writer.

She was the eighth of eight children. Her early life was far from enlightened. But she said, “The Walkers were known for reading.” Imagine that! My guess is she had a lot more encouragement from her family and teachers than one might imagine in this impoverished community. After she graduated from high school, she won a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta. Then she went to Sarah Lawrence where she studied English and poetry. She left her small town of Eatonton and never returned. Her life has taken her around the globe.

To say she’s amazing is to diminish her presence.220px-Alice_Walker

One story she told struck me as a writer. She said while in college she felt shy about her writing. She’d written a book of poems that she had not shown anyone. Too embarrassed to give them to her teacher, she slid them under the door to the teacher’s office. The teacher was so struck by her talent, that she immediately sent the poems to the New Yorker Magazine. Even though the New Yorker turned them down (how foolish!), the fact that her teacher acknowledged her talent meant a lot to the budding poet. It gave her the confidence to move forward and to become the writer she is today.

That story stuck with me for several reasons. single response from a teacher can have lasting effects, good and bad. In Alice Walker’s case it was a momentous event in her writing journey. The rejection from the New Yorker didn’t discourage the young writer. Instead, she considered it an honor to be considered for that prestigious magazine.

We as writers, as mentors, as teachers must watch the feedback we give those who respect us. We must also not allow the rejections we will inevitably encounter discourage; instead, they must encourage us to become better.

Here are some memorable quotes from Alice Walker’s presentation:

Reading is the door to the you that you will become.

On dying: Going through that final door must be the greatest adventure yet.

There is something to be said for being the flower that you are.

If we don’t recognize ourselves as earthlings, we will remain divided.

Protect your mind from other people’s garbage (on television).

If you swallow one lie, you’ll have indigestion for the rest of your life.

What writers or teachers have inspired you?

What Does A Writer’s Day Look Like?

BloggingThe image of a writer getting up in the morning with a cup of coffee and spending the early hours at his or her computer is what most of us imagine. We see Jane Austen at her desk in the vicarage with an ink pen and paper while watching the sun rise from her two-story window. We might imagine Charles Dickens in a gloomy study with candlelight and a glass of sherry. He has his pen in hand and it about to finish a scene.

Or, maybe it’s Stephen King you envision at his laptop, tapping away scene after scene as their flow from his creative mind?

They have different stimuli that enable them to put the words on paper. Some write outlines; others write in circles; others simple sit down and let it flow. For me, I like to write in the morning, but not too early. When I first wake up, my mind is lazy. It’s not ready for the somersault of writing. I need thirty-minutes to an hour . After that, I’m ready to roll. With the coffee drunk and the computer warmed up, my work begins. Sometimes, I’ll take an exercise class before I write. That really wakes me up and gets the old adrenaline going. Either way, once I begin, I can go on for 30 to 40 minutes without interruption. And, then I’m done. I can’t write for 4-6 hours a day. Some writers can, but not me.

When I finish the creative spurt, I can work on editing or writing blog posts or creating tweets.

I must be awake, alert, ready with all functions going. I take off for a short period of time. Then, I’m done. That’s basically what my writer’s day looks like.

Tips for Coming Up with a Title for Your Book

ClutterDuring a number of interviews, I’ve been asked how I came up with the title of The Clock Strikes Midnight. As I work on my new book, I wonder about this question. Actually I wonder about the bigger question.

I can share a little about how I’ve come up with titles. My guess is the authors out there have different stories. First, most of us begin with an idea and a working title. Being a pantster writer (a writer who doesn’t use an outline. See this blog post on that topic), my idea changes as I write.

With The Clock Strikes Midnight, the story began in one direction and then I turned it upside down. In the beginning the working title was “Drawn Curtains.” That made sense to start with, but later it didn’t.

With The e-Murderer the original working title was The Internet Murderer. Again, I had an idea but the title was clearly not catchy enough and really didn’t snag the essence of the story.

My new work has a working title, 5 Cans of Crazy. I loved that statement when I heard it, but now that I’m over 200 pages into the writing of the book, I’m realizing that title may not work.

So, what are my tips:

1) Begin with a working title but don’t get too attached to it.

2) Once the book is finished, let it rest and allow your mind to play with the story.

3) Think about the major theme or thread running through your story.

4) Allow your creative juices to flow. Don’t force it but mull over it. I have never been successful at writing down a bunch of ideas or brainstorming by myself. I’m great at brainstorming in groups. But, alone, I’m no good. It’s best for me to allow my subconscious to play with the thoughts.

5) When it comes, and it will come, grab it.

How did you go about finding the perfect title?

Why This Writer Likes Snow Days

IMG_9677Recently the East coast has been plummeted with snow and ice. Living in Georgia, I have not escaped the ravages of winter. Although we don’t get the snow that our Northern friends experience, we get lots of ice and with ice trees come tumbling down. Last week most of our community lost power for at least two days and the temperatures dropped to the single digits. So, why does this writer like snow days?

I don’t go running out in the morning for one thing or another because all the doors are shut tight with “closed” signs affixed.

 The quiet of a snowfall offer wonderful opportunities to think, to create and to plan my next story.

Without the Internet to distract me, (many times everything goes out) I work away on my word processing and never even turn on Facebook or Twitter.

 I can catch up on my much needed reading time.

These are a few reasons why this writer likes snow days. What about you? Do you love them or hate them?

As for me, I’m going back to my hot chocolate and fire and contemplate the plot for my next Jenna Scali mystery…



November is National Novel Writing Month–Tips to Meet the Challenge

autumn_sceneAs we enter the month of November (good grief, already 10 days gone), I know most of you are thinking about what to serve for Thanksgiving dinner or what to buy for Aunt Mary on Black Monday. Right? Me, I’m thinking about writing novels.

That gives the writers out there to get moving and start writing. Why November you might ask. The best reason is that the winter is just beginning. We are hunkering down and preparing for the cold (the days are shorter–more nighttime). All that spells less time outside and more time at the computer. It’s a great chance to jump-start your creative project. Here are some ways for you to meet the November novel writing challenge.

Publish your Word Count

 That makes you and your writing accountable to everyone. It also stimulates those of us who haven’t completed our word count to get busy.

Set a Writing Time Each Day

Don’t rely on simply saying, I’ll write a couple of hours a day. As a coach, I help my clients identify times for writing. So, I might ask them, when are you going to write? Then, how long? Once you have that set, put it on your calendar. Nope, you cannot set meetings or go to lunch with friends during that time. Consider it an appointment.

Stock the Fridge

I don’t mean stock it with your favorite chocolate delight. I mean put quick snacks in the fridge. If you’re like me, as you write, you get up, stretch and wander into the kitchen. Be sure once you get in there, you find a banana or some grapes or a healthy protein bar. Time your visits to the kitchen. Make sure you are not there more than a typical 15 minute work break!

Build in Walks

Walking is a great way to clear out the cobwebs.. Even though the weather is getting colder in November, the afternoons are still wonderful for walking. If you happen to have a trusty dog, he will appreciate the opportunity to go with you. Enjoy the beautiful, crisp fall air and the color. Be sure to leave your iPod at home. The walk is for thinking, creating…

Reward Yourself

Don’t forget to tweet your accomplishment, but you also want to treat yourself. So think of it as a tweet and treat. You might reward yourself with a few minutes to stretch out and read your current favorite novel. Or you could take your kid to the movies or out for a romp in the yard.

Find some Writing Buddies

Pump each other up. If you’re having a bad day, contact your buddy. If something great happens in your writing, let your buddy know. These buddies will be your support network throughout the writing process.

Plan Your Writing for after November

November will come to an end. After that, you want to keep the momentum, but you also want to take a break. Be careful to plan your time. Take a break from writing for one week. Then, go back to it, perhaps not every day, but 2-3 times a week. If you put your writing aside for too long, you know what happens, don’t you? What tips do you have for meeting the November National Novel Writing challenge? BTW, there is a National November Novel Writing organization. You can link with them to find buddies to keep yourself motivated. Check it out. Meantime, my new novel, The Clock Strikes Midnight, will be released in November. How perfect is that? Join us for the special Facebook Launch Party on 11/25 from 3-5. (So long as you are not writing your own novel). JoanFBPartyImage