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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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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