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Category: writing advice

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.

For Writers — Microtension

I’ve decided to start a thread on this blog for writers. I used to write a monthly craft-of-writing article for the Romance Writers of Australia magazine, but after five years I stepped down. But I enjoy pondering aspects of writing craft, and find I miss it. So rather than go back, I’ve decided to pop an occasional writing post onto my blog, and have it open to anyone who’s interested. I’m really just musing about various aspects of the writing craft, rather than creating instructional posts. But if you’re not interested, just skip them — I’ll still be writing more personal posts and posts about my books as usual.

I’m also planning to put those previous writing articles up on my website to add to the others on my “about writing” page

So here’s the first of my dedicated craft-of-writing blog posts. It came to me when I was going through a small scene I’d written the day before and was thinking it felt a bit flat. And then I realized why . . .

Tension and Micro-tension

Many years ago I was in a masterclass for writers conducted by literary agent and writing guru, Donald Maass. 

We were asked to bring a finished novel in manuscript form — the idea was that the participants had to have finished a novel, that this was an editing/rewriting class rather than a class for beginner writers. My manuscript was only three-quarters finished, but I’d had a number of books published by then.

I brought my stack of printed off pages  (hole-punched and tied with a shoelace if I recall correctly). I was worried I might drop it and pages would go everywhere, even though they were numbered.

I learned a heap in that workshop — if ever you get a chance to do a workshop with Donald Maas take it. (See below for an on-line opportunity.)

One of the things he taught in that workshop was the importance of micro-tension.

In his own words micro-tension is “the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the (overall) story, but in the next few seconds.

It’s not the kind of tension that comes from the high stakes story, or the circumstances of a scene, it comes from emotions — conflicting emotions.

One of the various exercises he gave us in that workshop seemed incredibly simple: he got us to open to a random page, and “make it worse” — i.e. find a way to increase the tension on that particular page.

At first it felt impossible — I’d worked hard on those scenes — but then I saw a way of doing it, and then I was crossing out bits and writing in new bits, and getting a whole other layer of tension into that page and that scene.

We did that exercise a few times on different pages, and I was amazed at what a difference it made. Scenes that had one main purpose, through just a few small changes, gained more complexity and intrigue. And added tension. 

I wish now I’d kept that printed off manuscript with all the scribbles I made over it as a result of that masterclass, but I didn’t. The final book was called The Stolen Princess and it was the winner of Romance Writer of Australia’s Romantic Book of the Year.

In the scene that I reworked the other day, the hero was investigating the heroine’s background. In the first draft, that was all he did — ask a few questions and get some answers. Simple and straightforward.  In terms of the plot, it did the job it needed to do. But when I revised it, by going deeper into his character and adding in a few sentences here and there to increase microtension, I was able to show that he had mixed feelings about what he was doing. And that by the end of the (very short) scene he had the answers to his questions, but also a few more questions, and his feelings were even more mixed. 

There are several Donald Maass workshops recorded on line that you can purchase to watch. Also more here. (For the record, I have no connection with Donald Maass or the organizers of these sessions.)

And that coffee cup above? That was the trademark saying of the late Emma Darcy and, way back when, Trish Morey had it printed on a mug for a conference she was organizing. I still treasure it. It’s a great reminder.

Do you mind me including craft-of-writing posts in this blog, or would you prefer I put them elsewhere. Let me know.