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Beating the Block

author dellani oakes banner with conduct unbecoming from Christina

Writer’s Block!  These ominous words send shivers down the spine of any writer. Insidious, it strikes with no warning, clogging the brain, paralyzing fingers, bringing grown writers to their knees. There are many types of writer’s block, each with its own pernicious characteristics. Below, I have listed those which plague me the most often.

1) Mid-Line Crisis: This is less destructive than its brothers, but still annoying. This is the unfinished sentence, incomplete thought or dialogue left hanging. The tortured …. of the soul. Though frustrating, it is not insurmountable. Usually a little brainstorming, trial and error and copious use of the delete button get me past this tiresome creature.

2) Ex Thesaurus: Also known as “What Word”? This usually runs with mid-line crisis and is fairly easy to circumvent. A visit to Thesaurus.com or a quick flip through the desk copy of Roget’s can pull a writer past this hurdle.

3) Post Climactic Stress: Or “Where Do I Go From Here?” The hero has saved the day, villains vanquished, lovers unite, children dance around May Poles – celebration time! All right, where does the story go now? It’s not over, but it needs to be soon. However, these pesky little loose ends suddenly electrify, screaming “Solve Me!” What to do? Falling action after the climax isn’t always easy. The one question a writer fails to answer is the one readers will point to and say, “Hey! What about this?” To avoid the lynch mob, sometimes it’s better to eliminate a secondary thread unless it’s absolutely necessary to the plot. Otherwise, it’s a trip to blockage category # 4.

4) The Never Ending Story: As much as we might want our book never to end, it must. Sometimes though, we can’t seem to find a stopping place. The book goes on forever until we get fed up and stop writing, or force an ending. I have one book that is 873 double spaced, typed pages. Not only can I not find an end point, I can’t even read all the way through it without getting lost. The problem is too many sub-plots. (Hearken back to Post Climactic Stress.) Everything needs resolution, making the book go on forever. It will require a major re-write or splitting into multiple books. None of these minor blocks are as frustrating as the fifth category. It really needs no introduction because even the most prolific writers have, at one time or another, suffered from it.

5) The Full Monty: Like its name implies, this is full blown, frontal exposure writer’s block. Insurmountable, uncompromising, frustrating, infuriating, aggravating, annoying, constipating…. There are no words at our disposal formidable enough to fully describe this condition. Any writer who has never experienced Full Monty Writer’s Block obviously hasn’t written long enough. Suddenly, out of nowhere, completely by surprise it strikes! I equate it with being hit by a Volvo station wagon at 90 mph. Hm, can a Volvo go 90? Maybe an Escalade? In any case, WHAM! In the face, hard core, heavy metal writer’s block. There’s no way to avoid it. Once in awhile the Muse takes a coffee break and so must we. As frustrating as they are, embrace these blocks. They force us to leave the security and sanctity of our homes and participate in life for awhile. Use this time to observe others or engage them in conversation. Each encounter gives us a little more grist for our imagination mill.

 

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Research, A Writer’s Lifeline

I’ve got research on my mind because I’m writing a sequel to my historical romance, “Indian Summer”.  Although fairly conversant with the time period, new things pop up.  I needed a timeline for the battle I’m going to include in my story.  I could find a few basic facts, but it wasn’t until I came across a website that was of important dates in Georgia history, that I got what I needed.  Strange, since I’m writing something set in Florida.  However, since the attack was led by General Oglethorpe and his troops were stationed in Georgia at the time, I suppose it makes sense.
 
Another fact that presented itself (from the Georgia timeline) was the name of an obscure fort that was attacked prior to the siege of St. Augustine.  Fort Diego?  Where’s that?  Obviously, this led to more questions than I had answers for.  Initial web searches gave me a lot of information on Fort Diego in California (now San Diego), but didn’t help the Florida research at all.  I did a serach for ‘forts in Florida’ and got a list.  Eventually, with a bit of digging, I found it’s location – well, sort of.  It’s now a golf course, but at least I found it! 
 
Each little tidbit made me so proud, I had to read it all to my husband and eldest son this morning.  They were both interested, which was nice.  There’s nothing like sharing these little gems with someone who couldn’t care less.
 
The main problem I have with research is that I have a tendency to get off subject really easily.  I have to force myself to focus and it’s not always easy.  I find some juicy tidbits which are fascinating, though unrelated to my subject.  I often am tempted to follow these leads. 
 
However odious you might find research, being accurate is so very necessary.  Even something not fully related with the story, like the Fort Diego problem, can be necessary background material that I, as the writer, need.

In the Midst of Madness

Finding time to write is something every author deals with. Some of us have more time to devote to it than others, but still find that life intrudes. I just spent the month of November taking the National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge. While it’s invigorating to test my writing abilities, it also tests my patience.

For those of you who have never heard of NaNoWriMo, I’ll explain. The participants make the personal commitment to write a 50,000 word novel beginning November 1st and ending November 30th at midnight. There are no money prizes, no one reads the novel but you, it doesn’t even have to be perfect, it just has to be done. For this, you get a caffeine addiction, sleep deprivation, frazzled nerves, numb fingers, a nifty little logo to put on your web site, a printable certificate and the satisfaction of knowing that despite everything, you persevered!

It’s amazing how quickly life intrudes when I set a goal like this for myself. Everyone in the household becomes “needy”, particularly my twelve year old son. Things he could do for himself suddenly take on far more importance, meaning that Mom has to get up and take care of it. The phone becomes my enemy. I can go for weeks at a time when the phone won’t ring, but once the November challenge begins, it rings all the time. I’m not being paranoid, I kept track! The week before NaNo began, I had a total of five phone calls in a week – one of which was for me. As of November 1st, I had at least that many a day – and most of them for me.

Meals are another thing that interfere. Deciding what to fix becomes a major decision that I usually leave to the last minute. Grocery shopping becomes a task that eats into my writing time, irritating me further. When I get home, the actual preparation is the most annoying because it’s accompanied by complaints about the meal.

NaNoWriMo is not the only time that these things are problematic, I simply use that as an example. During any given day, the precious moments I have to get the ideas out of my head and into written form, are limited. I don’t know about other authors, but my family fails to recognize that what I am doing is actually “work”. To them, it’s Mom sitting at the computer – again. Old hat, since ninety percent of my free time is at the computer. If I’m not writing, I’m reading what I wrote and editing it with a mixture of brutality and care. The words, “I’m working”, don’t make much of an impression on three hungry boys.

Somehow, in the midst of all this madness, I find enough time to get things done. The precious words get faithfully added to the text even as my eyes cross and my head hits the keyboard. Life, though it interferes, is what I draw from to fill my books with lively conversation, anecdotes and action. So, though I may resent the interruptions, I welcome them, because it shows me that I am a part of life, not set apart – and that is truly a writer’s richest resource.

Name That Character!

This post was inspired by a post on the Second Wind Word Press page, by Pat Bertram.  In it, she talks about how a character name shows a lot about the character.  I started this as a comment to her, but it got too long, so I moved it here.  Dellani

I believe a name tells a lot about a character.  One can be as obvious as “Young Goodman Brown” or as subtle as Duncan Chandler.  The reason I cite the latter as an example is because he is one of my characters whose name represents two distinct facets of his personality.  Duncan means “Dark Warrior”.  He is the son of the protagonist, himself a dark warrior (both in aspect and action).  Duncan is looked upon as a warrior, the next generation.  Chandler means “Light Bringer”.  The reason I chose this name is because he is also looked upon as the new hope, the one to fight the darkness and evil that threaten.

That got me interested in other names that I’ve used in the same series:

Matilda (Duncan’s mother) “Fierce in Battle”

Wilhelm (his father) “Determined Protector”

Marcus (his paternal uncle) “Of Mars – Warlike”

Rebbecca (Marc’s wife) “Enchantingly Beautiful”

Benjamin (his older brother) “Of the Right Hand”

Emmelia (Ben’s wife and Chairman of the Board of the Mining Guild) “Work”

Except for Duncan’s name, which I looked up and chose carefully, all these names were given by chance.  But looking at their personalities, the names fit them incredibly well.  Matilda, his mother, is a warrior and as fierce as her husband in a battle.  Wil protects his family, friends, and those who fight with him.  Marc is also a true warrior and his wife, Rebbecca, is beautiful.  Ben is his father’s right hand, his wife Emmelia is one of the hardest working women in the galaxy.

My readers will probably never know the meanings behind the names, nor why I find them significant, but I found it an interesting way of fleshing them out.

I Did It Again!

This November gave me another opportunity to sharpen my writing skills by participating in the National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge.  Those who participate agree to write a complete novel, 50,000 words or more, in the month of November.  For more details, look at www.nanowritmo.org

Sounds easy?  Think again.  Finding the time to write each day is harder than it seems.  Life interrupts and writing has to wait.  Whether it’s a job, kids, meals, bathroom breaks or spousal demands, life will always intrude.

Last year, a friend of mine told me about NaNoWriMo and I thought it would be fun to participate.  I signed up for free and on November first, I started to write.  I hammered away at the keys wondering if there was any way I could finish.  I did it and wrote over 65,000 words.  This year, I finished a little earlier than I did last year, and I hit the 88,000 word mark!  Not bad, considering how many times I went back and cut the manuscript because the story was going in the wrong direction. 

As always, it’s a lot of fun.  If you have ever considered writing a novel but didn’t think you had what it takes to do it, try NaNoWriMo and see if you do.  It costs you nothing, winning is easy and you get to put a fun graphic on your blog. 

Fun NaNo graphic for your blog

Fun NaNo graphic for your blog

Creating a Character Sketch

Writers new and old sometimes have trouble finding a place to start. We are full of all kinds of ideas, and jot them down in an effort to keep track of them. Getting these ideas into a cohesive whole can be trying. As an A.P. English teacher, I had to take high school students into the unstable world of creative writing. It was a scarey trip for all of us! I used several exercises both for these journeys and for less creative projects.

One thing I had them do was a character sketch. Sometimes the character was from a book we were reading, others were character types I gave them and they had to write a description. I do not claim to be an expert at anything but my own little world, but I have found a few ways to get fourteen through seventeen year olds to write. I’ve incorporated the same exercises for myself, so I know they work for adults as well.

Pick a character you want to develop but are having trouble getting hold of:

Start by giving him or her a name.

Decide on his age.

Hair color. (Include facial hair)

Eye color.

Skin type and color.

What he wears.

What he carries.

His voice and manner of speaking.

Does he have pets? Do animals even like him?

Does he live alone? Where does he live?

Is he healthy?

Is he a good person or an evil one?

Does he like people or does he shun their society?

How does he travel?

Habits

Example:

Tom the Magician -all right it’s not very creative, but he’s got a name! None of this is written in stone. A better name can be given to him later.

Age: He is ancient.

Hair color: His hair is pure white and he has a long white beard.

Eyes: His eyes are piercing blue.

Skin type & color: His skin is pale and like parchment.

Clothing: He wears a black woolen robe that is in tatters.

What he carries: He carries a gnarled staff.

Voice: His voice is a deep baritone. He tends to stutter.

Does he have pets: He has an old Greyhound and an Irish Wolfhound who share his cave.

Does he have family: He has no family.

Where does he live: In a cave in the mountains.

Health: He doesn’t take care of himself and tends to cough a lot.

Good or Evil: He’s a good man, but not a terribly good magician. He has a bad memory and makes mistakes in his spells.

How does he travel: He doesn’t travel because he’s made himself so unpopular with his botched spells that he doesn’t dare go far from home.

Habits: having been alone so long, he talks to himself.

Once you have gotten the sketchy details you can flesh him out and think about where he is, what he’s doing, where he’s going, who he’s with. Do a basic Who, What, When, Why, How like a journalist, only you don’t use journalistic jargon. Read through your character sketch and make changes until you are satisfied with it. This process can be done for any character you create.

One thing I always keep in mind, my characters have an existence of their own. They make their own decisions, go their own way, and do what they want. Remain flexible, today’s villain may be tomorrow’s hero!

Breaking the Writer’s Block

Three o’clock in the morning, and I’ve been staring at the monitor for hours, unable to get anything coherent written. Banging my head on the desk doesn’t help, although it does dislodge a stack of papers exposing a CD I’ve been missing for months. I pop the CD into the player and wait for inspiration. And wait. And wait.

Nothing! Screaming in frustration, I shut down the computer, throw a temper tantrum and cry. I’ve got it for sure, Writer’s Block. We all go through it. The nightmare, the bane of a writer’s existence, the dreaded words echo through my brain like a trailer for a bad “B” movie. Sometimes, if it’s bad enough or late enough, the words dance in a circle like “Ring Around the Rosie” mocking me with their mere presence. They laugh and point their fingers, making me sink deeper into my depression.

Writer’s Block is normal. Though frustrating, at times infuriating, it is a fact of a writer’s life. Sometimes you just ain’t got it! I find this is especially true if I’ve just finished a book or am trying to finish one. Somehow, the last few pages of resolution don’t want to be typed. Like pulling hen’s teeth, (an expression which here means something which is completely impossible), I try to get the words to flow, but the dam is firmly in place. Nothing goes anywhere. It’s constipation of the brain.

I have a science fiction series I’ve been writing the last three years. I’ve completed five of the books, but book six is giving me fits! I have sub-plots that need resolution. I have major plots that need extension. I have characters who need something to do and others who are embroiled in turmoil up to their eyebrows. They are all sitting and waiting for me and I can’t help them.

Banging my head doesn’t help, screaming and crying do no good whatever. Eating a candy bar, though tasty, serves no purpose except to put a few pounds on my hips. So what do I do? Every writer you talk to will tell you something different. All I know about is what works for me.

First, I take a break from writing. I read a good book, watch a few movies, participate in mindless video games and otherwise do things to distract myself.

Next, after an unspecified period, ranging from hours to weeks, I sit down and try to write something. ANYTHING! It doesn’t have to be connected with the book, usually it’s better if it’s not. Long or short, good or bad, I write. Sometimes just embarking on the composition process is enough to break the block.

Doing short writing exercises can help. When I taught high school English, one thing I had the students do as a class writing project, was write thank you notes for ridiculous gifts. Each student chose a gift at random drawing a slip from jar.

 

The rules for this exercise are as follows:

1. Must be sincere.
2. Mention the gift in the first paragraph.
3. Site at least two uses for the gift (or plans of where to put it if it’s decorative).
4. Must be at least three paragraphs of two or more sentences each.

Suggested gifts:

Umbrella holder made from an elephant’s leg.
Bookends decorated with miniature loaves of bread & shocks of wheat.
An incredibly fuzzy pair of house slippers.
A really ugly sweater.
Something impossible to identify.
A painting with dogs playing poker. (I know, some people think this is cute.)
Clothing that is too small (too large, hideous color, wrong gender, etc.)
Music CD that is of a type you abhor.
A movie you hated and never wanted to think of again.

(The list can go on forever. Don’t only use my list, make your own. Sometimes just generating a list helps get past that pesky creative blockage.)

Sample note:

Dear Aunt Fanny,
Thank you so much for the really interesting gift you sent! I can’t imagine what I’ve done without it all these years. It will add a great deal to my decor. I can’t wait to find a place for it in the living room.
I showed your gift to my friends and they were speechless. What an unusual gift! They wanted to know where on earth you found it, several of them would like one for themselves.
Again, thank you so much for your incredibly amazing gift! I shall treasure it always and remember you every time I look at it.
Your Loving Niece

There is no set cure for writer’s block. Sometimes the creative well simply runs dry. The key is to accept it and try to move on.  This is only one solution.  

Another idea is to take five words at random.  Either generate them yourself or use a word search or crossword puzzle to help you.  After choosing the words, try to put them all in a sentence.  Use whatever other words you need to complete it, they need not be the only words you use. 

For example, the words are lanky, study, fashion, romance, clock.  Below is the sentence I wrote using these five words:

The lanky college student could not decide if she should study fashion design or romance writing, so she took up clock repair instead.

Or this one.  The words were elevate, nude, collapse, candy, hatrack.

Candy, the nude model, had to elevate the hatrack so it wouldn’t collapse.

The more disconnected the words, the more interesting the sentences.  The sentences don’t have to make sense, but the words do have to be used properly.  You can change them slightly by adding prefixes or suffixes, but the nature of the word should stay the same.

Whatever you do, keep at it until the creativity returns.  It will come back when you least expect it.  Try not to fret, because stress encourages writing deamons, helping them latch on.  Relax, listen to some good music and remember – you can do it!