Kick the Writing Blues to the Curb

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last month I wrote about the real effects to the brain from having to “slow think” through the current cultural miasma. Things like prolonged lockdowns, animalistic politics, and rampant lawlessness can lead to the blahs or the blues, with the consequent lack of enthusiasm for what we do—write.

Of course, writing resistance is nothing new. It can occur even in the best of times. Back when my career was getting off the ground I noticed something happening around the 1/3 mark of every manuscript. It was like hitting a wall. I’d realize I had a heckuva lot of book left to write. I’d freeze up at the thought. Did I have enough material? Was the premise solid enough? Were the characters sufficiently engaging?

To my relief, I found that other writers—even well-known ones—went through something similar. Their advice was pretty much the same, along the lines of “just keep writing.” Well, okay…but was that all?

There is a more strategic way to go about it. I hit on this recently after recalling something from Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. She talks about actual panic setting in when you’re trying to write a full-length novel. You come to a point where you feel like you’re “trying to scale a glacier.” As you’re slipping around, negative thoughts “arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer…” She starts to feel as if “the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable…”

It’s then that she takes a deep breath and looks a blank, one-inch picture frame on her desk, to remind her that

all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch….just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame…

The other day I came to my computer to work on my NIP (novella-in-progress) and got hit by the blahs. That semicircle of negativity Lamott describes was starting to form around my desk. I remembered the one-inch frame, and decided to make it even smaller. I determined that I would write just one line in the stalled scene, the next beat of action or dialogue. I also told myself that it would be enough for the day. Of course, that was a mental trick. I knew that if I wrote one beat I’d want to write another. And maybe another.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Soon I had 350 words done. Instead of keeping on, I took a break. I’d done a “Nifty 350” (which is how I like to start the day). I gave myself permission to stop. If I didn’t reach my quota on this day, no problem. I’m the boss. I can give myself a holiday.

But I found after awhile that I wanted to get back to the scene. When I did, I told myself to just write the next beat. Let the action unfold. And before I knew it I’d added another 250 words. This made me so happy I did take the rest of the day off. The boss was most accommodating.

So that’s my medicine for the writing blues. Just write that next beat. Let’s say you’re writing a scene where a cop is in a gunfight on the street. You know it’s a crucial scene. The anxiety begins to creep in. You’re not even sure how the scene will end. Write the next beat, and that’s all:

Harry wiped a bead of sweat from his eye.

Yes, the bad guys are out there, shooting at him. Don’t even think about them yet. Just write the next beat:

He blinked a couple of times to clear his vision.

What will be the next beat? Maybe firing shot…or maybe not. Maybe at this point you realize that going slo-mo is just right for this action scene (it often is). So for your next beat, you get inside Harry’s head.

What was it Donahue always drummed into him? “Ninety percent of a good shoot is vision. The other half is mental.”

And then it’s time for an action beat:

A brick exploded over his head.

What next? It’s up to you. By this time you’ll be feeling it again, getting into the flow. Stay with it for awhile. Bird by bird, word by word. Soon you’ll look up and have a Nifty 250. Maybe even 350.

Guess what? Do that consistently and in less than a year you’ll have a full-length book. That’s how you kick the blues to the curb.

Getting in your kicks lately?

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Don’t Stress Over Things You Can’t Control

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Epictetus

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and my mind is abuzz. It could be that the Boys in the Basement are hard at work, and making a lot of noise. It might be that extra bit of spicy tuna I chomped at dinner. Or perhaps something has intruded on my bio-rhythms, some idiotic remark I heard on a newscast, which is always a possibility when Congress is in session.

Regardless, I know myself well enough to know I’ll be up for about an hour.

So I’ll pad out to the family room and turn on the TV. At that hour there are lots of classic shows on. Which are the best shows (says this Boomer), e.g., Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason. Part of the fun is seeing young actors making their early appearances. Like Robert Redford as Mr. Death in a Twilight Zone. Or Ryan O’Neal as a murder suspect in Perry Mason.

Anyway, the other night I started watching a fave from my adolescence, Mannix. That PI show starring Mike Connors ran from 1967 to 1975. It had one of the great musical themes (via Lalo Schifrin). Connors was always solid, and the plots twisty and turny and fun.

This particular night the episode was “Color Her Missing.” A PI friend of Mannix is murdered, and a big-time lawyer is a suspect. He has an alibi, but it’s hard to prove. So he asks Mannix to confirm it. And on we go.

As a former actor and student of the art, I always appreciate a good performance. And the guy who played the lawyer caught my eye. He was very good, very natural, and ruggedly handsome. He looked like a guy who should have had his own PI show, or been either a star or dependable character actor in the movies.

So I looked him up on IMDB. His name was Jason Evers. I’d never heard of him. But I’ve probably seen him a number of times, as he worked consistently in TV. He never made it in the movies, however, coming closest in the camp classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). [Side note. The decapitated head in that film was an actress named Virginia Leith. She was a knockout beauty and terrific actress, by way of her role in the neo-noir A Kiss Before Dying (1956). After I watched the film I wanted to know what became of her, as she was definitely star material. But she’s best known as that doggone head!]

Virginia Leith in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

Why do I mention this? Because not everyone who deserves to be a star becomes a star. Not every writer who is good enough to be on the A List makes it to the A List. There’s an element built into nature that leaves some things to pure chance.

The trick in life is not to stress about those things.

That is the essence of the Stoic philosophy. Epictetus put it best: “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You got that right, Epic. Most writers worry about every single aspect of every single book release. Will it sell? Will it be seen in bookstores? Will the critics/reviewers hate it? Will it land on a major bestseller list? Will I get that literary award I’m lusting after? Does Oprah have my phone number?

None of these things can you control.

Thus, the writer determines to do everything within his power: bookmarks, swag, panels, bookstore signings, blog tour, Facebook ads, Amazon ads, Bookbub ads, tweets, ’grams, howling at the moon—all the while stressing over the results.

But when the dust settles down, down to the lower depths of the Amazon rankings, what then? If the author has too much emotional investment in great expectations, he will suffer needless inner turmoil. It can hamper or even end a writing career. Many a writer has called it quits after a third or fourth book got remaindered within a month and the publisher did not offer another contract.

To repeat: Not everyone who should be a star becomes a star.

Not every writer who should be on the A List makes it to the A List.

But anyone who keeps writing is a writer. And that very act—the writing, falling deeply into a scene, getting into “the zone”—turns out to be the only real antidote for writerly anxiety.

So put this on a sign or sticky note on your desk:

What’s your stress assessment? Do you worry too much about things outside your control?

If you need help with the mental game of writing, let me suggest this book.

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What Bryan Cranston Can Teach Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve always liked the actor Bryan Cranston. He was my favorite secondary character on Seinfeld, playing WASP dentist Tim Whatley, who converts to Judaism so he can claim the rich history of Jewish jokes. (When Jerry objects, he is accused of being an anti-dentite.)

Cranston made regular TV appearances throughout the 90s, and spent seven seasons as the goofy father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. Then came his signature role as Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in Breaking Bad. Quite a jump for an actor known mostly for light comedy! But he was perfect casting in this binge-worthy descent into the heart of darkness.

On a recent long drive I listened to Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts. Read by the author, it’s an enjoyable account of Cranston’s rise as an actor. What’s clear from the book is that he takes his craft seriously. That’s why he went from bit-part support to respected lead—evidenced by four Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Tony (for playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway), and an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

What made the book all the more interesting for me is that he and I are about the same age and grew up in the same place—the west San Fernando Valley. He went to Canoga Park High School; I went to nearby Taft. I was a young, struggling actor at the same time he was. We may even have crossed paths in Los Angeles at an audition for a commercial or TV show.

I really connected to that part of the book where Cranston describes the cold chill of auditions. How well I remember walking into waiting rooms with twenty other guys my age and look. Everybody sizing each other up. Then going into a room with a camera and a panel of unsmiling casting folk and reading the lines I’d been given. When I was finished, someone would say, “We’ll let you know.” I’d walk out, past the other actors, all trying to read my face as I attempted to hide what I was thinking: I blew it! Why did I say the line that way? I bet that meathead with the perfect chin gets it! What teeth whitener does he use?

Cranston covered this process with good humor and insight. But at one time the attendant anxieties were starting to debilitate him. So his wife, as a gift, purchased sessions with a life coach, who …

… suggested that I focus on process rather than on outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something.

I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to focus on character. My job was to be interesting. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.

And this wasn’t some semantic sleight-of-hand, it wasn’t some subtle form of barter or gamesmanship. There was to be no predicting or manipulating, no thinking of the outcome. Outcome was irrelevant. I couldn’t afford any longer to approach my work as a means to an end.

Once I made the switch, I was no longer a supplicant. I had power in any room I walked into. Which meant I could relax. I was free.

That, it seems to me, is perfect advice for a writer, too. Get rid of expectations! You can’t control outcome, only process. Keep your focus on the page in front of you. Connect with your characters. Tackle the challenges.

You’re not here to get something, you’re here to give something—entertainment value to a reader.

When your book comes out, as far as you are able (you’re human, after all) nix any expected outcome. Keep working on your next book and developing more projects. Sure, you go through the marketing routine and learn what you can. But don’t obsess about rankings and reviews. Forget the awards and the honors, which you can’t buy.

Just love your craft, the way Bryan Cranston loves his.

Then you will no longer be a supplicant. You will have power on the page. You’ll be free.

Where are you in the expectations game?

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Two Writing Mind Tricks to Get You Rolling

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

You know me. I’m a quota guy. I call that the best writing advice I ever got. It’s the reason I can look back over 25 years and see all these books lined up.

I write 6,000 words a week. I divide that into six days so I can take one day (usually Sunday) off. If I miss a day for some reason, I make up the deficit on the other days. Since 2000 I’ve kept a record of my daily, weekly, and yearly word count on a spreadsheet.

Every now and then I’ll have a week where I do very little writing, if any. I highlight those weeks on the spreadsheet and note the reason. One time it was pneumonia. Another time it was a week-long conference. Most recently it was a trip to Ireland with my wife and daughter. I give myself a pass in these instances.

Aren’t I nice?

Most days, however, I try to write first or second thing in the morning. If I can hammer out a “Nifty 350” or a “Furious 500,” the rest of the writing day is so much easier. Some days the words flow. Other days writing feels like trying to jog in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits.

You all know what I mean.

After 25 years of this, I dare say I’m familiar with just about every mental condition of the writing life.

So today I want to talk about two mind tricks that will help you get going on days when those snow shoes are attached.

  1. Fifteen Minutes

In the current (October, 2017) Writer’s Digest, David Corbett interviews Michael Connelly. At the end he asked Connelly for his best advice for aspiring writers. Connelly said:

I’d pass along what I learned from Harry Crews, who was my creative writing teacher at the University of Florida. He said if you want to be a writer you have to write every day, even it’s only for 15 minutes. It was the “15 minutes” that hit home. You have to keep the story fresh in your mind; you can’t let it slip away.

A few days ago I was avoiding the blank screen. I remembered the Connelly quote. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “At 11 a.m., I will give fifteen minutes to writing.” That felt doable. It wasn’t a heavy burden.

So at 11:00 I sat down and started typing. I noticed it wasn’t long before I was into the story again. When I next looked at the clock it was 11:25 and I’d typed 654 words.

  1. The One-Inch Frame

This idea comes from Anne Lamott and her book on writing, Bird by Bird. She writes about having an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

This has worked for me, too. If I bring my focus down to just one thing, and forget about the big picture that is an entire novel, it feels easier to accomplish. Invariably, after I fill that frame, I want to keep going. So I’ll write to another one-inch frame. After that I’m usually off to the races and the words flow again.

As Yogi Berra once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” The same goes for writing, especially if it’s something you want to do long term. That’s why I wrote a whole book on the mental game of writing.

Next time you’re stuck because you just don’t feel like clacking the keyboard, give yourself fifteen minutes or a one-inch frame. You can do that much, and you’ll probably end up doing much more.

So what about you? What tricks do you use to get yourself going when the going gets tough?

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Let it Bite, Then Start to Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Matt Ryan

By now you all know that Super Bowl LI (that’s 51 for you scoring at home) was one of the most thrilling football games of all time. Down by 25 points in the third quarter to the Atlanta Falcons, the New England Patriots somehow managed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, pushed the game into overtime, then won by scoring a sudden-death touchdown.

There were many spectacular highlights, most notably an impossible catch made by Patriot receiver Julian Edelman. With under three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Patriots QB Tom Brady threw a ball that was tipped into the air. There were three Falcons in position to pick it off. The ball almost hit the ground, but the diving Edelman reached for it with his right hand. The ball then bounced off the foot of a grounded Falcon and was, for

The Julian Edelman catch

But the key sequence of the entire game revolved around two huge mistakes by the Falcons.

It was the fourth quarter. Atlanta was ahead 28-20 with 3:56 left. They had the ball at New England’s 23-yard-line, which was well within field goal range. All they had to do was get the 3 points and the game would be out of reach for the Pats.

But then … disaster. Falcon QB Matt Ryan, the league’s Most Valuable Player, dropped back to pass. Patriot’s defensive end Trey Flowers broke through the blocking and pulled Ryan down for a 12-yard sack!

Uh-oh. Well, the Falcons were still barely within field goal range. But on the very next play, Falcons lineman Jake Matthews was called for holding. That lost the Falcons another five yards, and no chance at a field goal. After an incomplete pass by Ryan, the ball ended up back in Tom Brady’s hands, and the rest is Super Bowl history.

Oh my.

Monday morning QBs across the nation were saying things like, “Matt Ryan just cannot take that sack!” They posited that he should have thrown the ball away. To be fair, after watching the replay several times, I don’t think Ryan had that chance. Trey Flowers simply made a huge, game-changing play.

And yet, that’s the way it is in the NFL. The quarterback gets most of the praise when a team wins … and most of the blame when it loses.

But to lose in such a spectacular fashion, on the world’s biggest stage, has got to be a gut punch like no other. In the locker room after the game a subdued Ryan could only mouth the expected words.

“That’s a tough loss,” Ryan said. “Obviously, very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done. It’s hard to find words tonight.”

So much changed because of that one sack and one penalty. Tom Brady went from being “in the conversation” about the best QB of all time, to the undisputed holder of that title.

And Ryan, who had been brilliant in the regular season, could have put himself on a track to the Hall of Fame. Instead, has to hear from all the naysayers that his mistake cost the Falcons a championship and that he “chokes” in the big games.

All elite athletes know the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the sting of abusive criticism.

It’s what they do about it that makes champions.

I know Matt Ryan doesn’t have any quit in him, nor does the Falcons talented young coach, Dan Quinn. They will be back. All the way to the Super Bowl? I would not bet against it.

But let’s talk about you, writer. There are so many ways you can feel defeated.

  • You’ve just started. You love to write. You’ve poured your heart into your first novel. Every day you wrote was a high. The story flowed out effortlessly! Now you show it to a trusted friend, someone who knows good writing. And you get back the words, “This just doesn’t work.” (Been there.)
  • You’ve studied and practiced and written three or four more novels. It’s taken you a couple of years to feel like you’ve got a handle on things. Your beta readers, and a freelance editor, tell you this one’s ready. You query agents … for a year and a half … with no takers.
  • Your book gets accepted by a small publisher. Not one of the Bigs, but hey! It’s a traditional publisher, after all. They’ll do the cover, the layout, the marketing! Then the book comes out and lays a soft-boiled egg.
  • You’re a midlist writer, one who had a three-book contract with one of the Bigs. You even got invited to BookExpo to sign your first book, which got a great review from Publishers Weekly. But when it didn’t sell enough copies to satisfy the bean counters, your next two books were brought out with virtually no support. The publisher did not offer you another contract.
  • The book of your heart, the one you’ve labored over for a year or more, off-brand, gets the green light from your publisher but the red light from critics, and dies on the vine.
  • Your agent stops returning your phone calls.
  • You self-publish your first novel, and you know darn well it’s good. You do everything the indie gurus tell you to do to get the word out. You try every promo trick in the book. After a year you have three reviews on Amazon and a rank in seven figures.

All of the above has happened countless times. Something like it has happened, or will happen, to you. So how do you handle the agony of defeat?

Let it bite, then start to write.

Meaning:

Let the defeat hurt for a time … an hour … if you must, a day where you eat nothing but ice cream … but no more! Get back to your keyboard! When you are concentrating on the page in front of you, you are not thinking of the bad thing. When you finish writing, and the bad thing tries to come back to bite you again, the feeling won’t be as strong as it was. If the bad thing persists, rush right back to your typer––pen and paper works, too––and start writing immediately! See first if you can use your emotion to intensify a scene in your WIP. But anything else will do, too … a journal entry, a first line out of the blue, a jingle for toothpaste, a poem, a rant, flash fiction. Just get the words down without too much thought. You can think later.  “Write like there’s no tomorrow. Edit tomorrow.” Repeat as needed. 

“You must stay drunk on writing,” sayeth the Great Bradbury, “so reality cannot destroy you.”

So what did Matt Ryan have to say the day after the game? He took to Instagram:

“We came up short last night and my heart hurts for you Atlanta. Hats off to New England they played a heck of a game. We will adapt, we will over come, we will #RiseUp again.”

The same for you, writer. You will adapt. You will overcome.

You will rise up again.

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The Three Stooges of Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

healthywealthyNo, that’s not a typo. I’m not talking about the three “stages” of writing. I’m talking about the Moe, Larry and Curly inside your head.

You know what I mean. You’re writing along, and then, all of a sudden, slap … poke … bam … woob woob woob! You’ve got a whole lot of Stooge noise going on.

So I thought it best to isolate these boys and deal with them once and for all, lest our writing time become a comedy of errors.

Moe is Perfectionism

Ah, Moe. He thinks he’s the boss. And he backs it up with violence. The two-finger eye poke, the basic slap, and any tool he can lay his hands on. And he’s always angry about something.

So you may be writing or editing, and suddenly you’re smacked with, That’s no good. And neither am I! Who am I kidding, trying to be a writer? 

Or you’ve finished a novel, you’ve done the very best you can, and the next step is submission. But then you get your eyes poked by your inner Moe. You knucklehead! This isn’t nearly good enough! Submit it, and you’ll get turned down and never get another shot! 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of constructive questioning. But that’s far from the ham-fisted Moe! You’ve got to stop that Stooge in his tracks How? I suggest you do it physically (that, after all, is the Stooge style). Slap your cheek (gently!) and say, Stop it! All you can do is all you can do. And all you can do is enough!

Don’t laugh. This is a little trick that actually works. You can interrupt destructive thoughts with a physical move, then replace the thought with a better one, or with some positive action. When I was just starting out I’d sometimes get a Moe in my head, and he was vicious. So one day I slapped myself and, out loud, quoted Cher from Moonstruck: “Snap out of it!”

And then immediately went back to my writing.

Do this and at the very least you’ll be getting more words down on the page. That’s a lot better than letting Moe rule your roost.

Larry is Befuddlement

Poor Larry. He smarter than Curly but dumber than Moe, and is always caught somewhere in the middle. He spends most of his time confused. He can’t do a thing with his hair. When Moe slaps him, he usually has no idea why.

Ever feel like Larry about the publishing business? Should I go for an agent? How do I query an agent? How many agents can I query at once? Should I self-publish? How do I do that and get discovered? Will it hurt my chances of getting a traditional contract someday?

And then one day you’re slapped, and you don’t know why. Why didn’t they like my novel? Why didn’t it meet their needs? Is that just a phrase or does it mean I stink?

Your inner Larry needs get some education. Make a list of the areas you’re confused about. Write them down. Define them. And then you can make a plan to study each area.

Because I was once told I couldn’t learn to write fiction, and then went out and learned, I strongly believe that anything you need to learn to move forward in your career you can learn. The information is out there.

You don’t have to live with Larry in your head.

Curly is Emotion

We love Curly. Maybe that’s because he’s the Stooge who is most like us. He does things out of raw emotion and frequently ends up getting hurt. We’ve all been there.

But remember, Curly is resilient. My favorite Stooge moment is always when Moe clobbers Curly with some nasty weapon, like a pickax. Curly hollers, “OH OH OH OH!” then he quietly goes, “Look.” And the weapon itself is in worse shape than his head. That pickax is folded up like an accordion.

This writing life will hit you over the head. Rejections, bad reviews, unfair reviews, reviews with spoilers … lots of frustration! Sometimes you just want to lie on the ground and run around in a circle, Curly-style.

So realize this: it’s okay to let out an Oh! Oh! Oh! when you get hit.

And when something good happens, to shout out a full-throated Nyuck! Nyuck! Nyuck!

But never stay there. Let something hurt for half an hour, and rejoice over good news for a day.

But then get back to your keyboard!

If you do that, I guarantee you won’t get a pie in the face. You will get better as a writer.

What about you? Is there a Stooge who overstays his welcome in your writer’s mind? What do you do with him?

How Make Living Writer-printed version***

And if you need further Stooge alleviation, please see my book The Mental Game of Writing

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