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Category: Writers

For Writers — When I'm Stuck— part 2

The Power of Handwriting.

A lot of people find it surprising that I often write by hand. The thing is, typing doesn’t come naturally to me — oh, I can type pretty fast, though not with conventional typing techniques. I never learned typing at school —  I attended an academic high school where things like cooking and typing and woodwork and sewing weren’t taught. A mistake, I think, as all of those things are useful for life, not just for work. But computers weren’t a standard household object back then, and typing was thought to be a skill only needed by girls who wanted to be secretaries. (!)

So my typing is fast, but not accurate, and as I’m a good speller, it bugs me when I make a typo and I have to go back and fix it as soon as I spot it, which stops the flow.

So I will often pick up a pen and write by hand. I call it my “scribble” but the truth is, when I write by hand whatever scene I’m working on or struggling with comes to me much easier than sitting and staring at a computer screen.

Partly it’s because I tell myself that when I’m writing by hand, it’s very much a rough draft, and doesn’t matter, whereas on the computer my subconscious expects me to make it perfect — and there’s nothing like perfectionism to block a writer. So I tell myself that when I go to type up this scene, I’ll edit as I go.

But the truth is, the writing flows much better when I write by hand. So when I’m stuck, I’ll take myself off to my local library — no computer and my phone is turned off— and I make myself write at least three A4 pages before I can leave. 

I will also hand-write whole scenes or dialogue exchanges that come to me in the early morning or late at night as I’m drifting off to sleep. Usually these are scenes that I’m not up to in the story yet, and I don’t like to type them up because by the time I get to that point things might have changed and the scene won’t work then. But often they do, so it’s very much worth doing, because if I don’t write it down, I’ll probably forget it.

That semi-dream state between waking or sleeping can be most productive. Some of these have sparked whole books, and even a series. With my first book, Gallant Waif, the ballroom scene that comes close to the end of the book was the one that first came to me. It’s scribbled in a notebook somewhere. As is the scene where Gideon meets Prudence in The Perfect Rake, and the scene in The Autumn Bride where Abby meets Lady Beatrice. There are others, but I won’t bore you with an endless list.

There is Science Behind Handwriting
I’m not the only one who writes by hand. Quite a few famous writers are known to write by hand some or all of the time. There is science behind this — it’s not just an old-fashioned quirk of a lousy typist.

Writing by hand unleashes creativity not easily accessed in any other way. Brain activity studies have shown that neural activity in the brain of people writing by hand has a kind of meditative effect on them. Mindful writing rests the brain, potentially sparking creativity, and can activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, healing and working memory.

It certainly works for me. So, when I’m stuck, I start out by asking myself (in writing) questions about the scene just finished, or the character’s state of mind, of sometimes how I’m feeling about where I am. I answer the questions (also in writing.)

Quite often an answer about what a character’s thinking or worrying about will suddenly morph into a snippet of dialogue, and sometimes that will just flow out and before I know it I have a while scene. I said above that I will edit it when I type it up, but in fact, a lot of the time, especially if it just flowed out onto the page, it’s fine as it is. Those scenes I mentioned above are almost unchanged from their scribble version.

So if you get stuck, try taking yourself away from the computer, pick up a pen and try handwriting. You probably won’t always write deathless prose — sometimes it takes a while to get moving — but it might just surprise you.
Previous post about what to do when you’re stuck.

For writers — When You're Stuck

When I’m Stuck
I often get stuck when I’m writing a book. I’m not talking about writer’s block — that’s something quite different, more like stage fright or performance anxiety. (It’s funny how people feel free to mock the idea of writer’s block, but totally accept the notion of stage fright or performance anxiety, which in my view is exactly the same thing. But more of that in a future post.)

I’m talking about just being a bit stuck and not knowing how to go forward in the story. It’s a normal part of writing, especially if you’re a “pantser”. 

Reasons for being stuck are many and various. There are several approaches you can take. Here are some suggestions:

1) Go back and read over your last few scenes. 
Consider them in the light of your premise. Have you taken a wrong turn? Forced an action on your character that suits the plot but not the character? Or vice versa. Have you introduced a character or an action or situation that is now taking the plot in a different direction—and do you want to go in that direction or not?

The other day a brand new character popped up in my current wip (work in progress) and I wrote a few scenes with her in it. And then I stopped, full of doubt. Did I need this character for the plot? Not really. What did she add to the story? A small surprise and an unexpected bit of humor. But was her character necessary? Probably not. But her role was necessary — it was a matter of Regency-era manners. So I decided to bland her down and keep her in the background.

I was telling this to a writer friend, and she said “Nooooo, this is one of your classic minor characters and readers will enjoy her.” So now I’m having another think about her and her role, and whether I can let her be herself without hijacking the plot.

2) “Interview” your character(s). I often do this one. I look at the last couple of scenes and I ask the character concerned questions like:

a) What did you (the character) want at the start of the previous scenes?

b) What did you do just now? Why?

c) How do you feel about what just happened? 

d)  What do you want now? (Has that changed, or refined, or become more specific?)

e) What is your problem now? (ie How has the problem changed as a result of the action?)
     What are worrying about now? 

f) What are your options? — brainstorm them, and see if the character reacts to any in particular. That’ll be your subconscious throwing up suggestions.

I ask and answer these questions in my writing notebook, in handwriting — my “scribble” book — because quite often in the process of answering my questions, dialogue will start to happen, the character explaining in his/her voice, and before I know it, I have the beginning of a scene.
It might be  a dialogue exchange with another character or it might be internal dialogue — the character thinking to himself. But whatever, it usually throws up something I can work with.

For instance, I just grabbed an old scribble book at random and this is what I wrote after Flynn and Daisy’s first kiss (The Summer Bride). As you can see, it’s nothing fancy — just clarifying where Flynn’s head is now. I also did Daisy’s reaction to the same kiss, and what follows is the beginning of part of her backstory. (See below)

3) Force yourself to push on.  
I take myself to the local library with pen and  my “scribble” notebook and I force myself to push on. My rule is that I can’t leave until I have 3 handwritten A4 pages. 

Often I will start this process by interviewing my character (see #2, above) but I can’t count that as “writing” so I keep asking and answering questions until something loosens and I’ve started a scene. And have 3 pages. Sometimes that’s like pulling teeth, other times it’s a like a freed log-jam and I write heaps.  (You can also see why it’s called a scribble book. My writing isn’t neat.)

4) A man with a gun?
If you’re really stuck and can’t see where to go next, consider Raymond Chandler, famous hard-boiled crime writer, who said whenever he was stuck he had a man burst into the room brandishing a gun. Of course you don’t need a man with a gun — it can be a new opponent, a complication, a surprise that gives the story a new twist. This is where brainstorming comes in. 

The point is to find a way to unsettle your character, and give him/her a new set of problems to deal with. In romance this is harder than in crime or urban fantasy or suspense — where the man with the gun has all kinds of parallels, but if you think hard about what will unsettle your main character(s) most, I’m sure you’ll come up with something good.

5) When you’re brainstorming, force yourself to list at least 10-15 possibilities, and don’t discard ones that at first glance look silly or crazy. The first few will be the more obvious options, but the further down the list you get, the less used ideas, the crazier ones can sometimes spark an idea (or a version of it) that you can use, and you’ll be off and writing.

6) Maybe your story doesn’t have enough substance?
You might decide/realize that your story does not have enough substance, and you’re facing the possibility of having to add in more “same old” scenes just to make the word count. Padding? Don’t do it!

Try going deeper — deeper into the character’s backstory, deeper into the problems they’re facing, or exploring the theme of your story in a deeper way.

You don’t have a theme? Start thinking about it. Most good books have some sort of underlying theme. Stephen King said his theme doesn’t emerge in his consciousness until he’s finished the first draft. Then as he’s editing the book, he strengthens the theme. For me I’m usually somewhere near the end of the book, and I’ll suddenly realize — “Oh, this book is about trust,” or “This is about forgiveness” or whatever.
(Theme is on my list of future posts.)

If your story is still a bit thin, consider the possibility of weaving in another story — a subplot — that enhances or contrasts with your main story. TV series do this a lot — they have the main A story, but they also have a B story, a C story and sometimes more. (Another on the list of future posts.)

7) Try writing your back cover blurb, or even a short synopsis. I know, I can hear you groan, but there’s nothing like trying to boil down your story into half a dozen pithy sentences to help you clarify what your book is really about.

I have usually finished a book and it’s off with my editor before I have to try to come up with a back cover blurb. My editor, my agent and I then work on it and as they highlight and discuss different aspects that they consider important, it’s  sometimes a revelation to me. I come away from those sessions resolving to write a back cover blurb when I’m about half way through the book . . . but I usually forget. (Makes note to self — write a back cover blurb now!)

8) Refresh your brain. 
Take a walk, a shower, go for a swim, do some housework or gardening — or sleep — and let your subconscious mull over your problem. Often focusing on something else will help free up the solution that’s lurking in your brain.

I hope this post helps you if and when you get stuck.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Or make suggestions for future posts.

Added note: I was just referred by Catherine Bilson (On the Romance Australia FB group page)  to this post by M/M writer KJ Charles, talking about what she did when she got stuck.
You might like to compare. She goes into a bit more detail than I did, but it’s interesting to see that it’s normal to get stuck. And that you can work your way out of it.

Cover Magic

The Christmas Bride is up for preorder!

At least it’s up on amazon and pending on some other e-book sites (Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play) and it should be ready on all platforms by launch day, which is the 9th November. (Fingers crossed.)

It’s been a fascinating journey, this self-publishing, and I’m learning so much along the way. For instance, when I was thinking about the cover, I knew I wanted something a bit Christmassy (which is tricky for the Regency-era, as Christmas trees etc weren’t in until the Victoria era) so I knew it would mainly be greenery and red berries. And snow.

I also wanted the image to fit in with the Chance Sisters covers, as the novella is part of the same series. I trawled through a lot of cover image sites and finally I found this image (on the left), which had the simplicity I wanted and a dress that looked like a real Regency-era dress, and I loved the lushness of the red velvet spencer.

And I know some people don’t like headless covers, but I do, because I hardly ever see a face on a cover that is anything like the hero or heroine I’ve imagined. So this way, we can each imagine our own heroine. What do you think? Are you in the headless or full-face camp?

So I bought it, and then sent it to a cover designer — who transformed it from a nice picture of a girl in a red spencer, and a green leafy background (not so likely in winter), to a lovely snowy Christmassy scene with a smatter of red berries. All we fiddled with after the first draft was the lettering of my name — making the edging a bit darker. And as you can no doubt tell, I love it to bits.

I’ll write some more about the self-publishing process and the things I’ve learned next time. And of course, I’ll tell you more about the story.  Feel free to ask me any questions.