How To ReBoot

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you. — Anne Lamott.

By PJ Parrish

A wail of agony came from the man cave. Followed by a chain of profanities. It was only 3 o’clock but the thought crossed my mind that maybe I needed to serve the husband his gin and tonic a little early.

Five minutes later, he emerged from the cave red-faced angry. “I. Need. Some. Help.” It came out in a strangled whisper.

I set aside my laptop and followed him into the cave. He had been working for hours on a long free lance document and it had…just disappeared, he said.

“Did you save it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think so.”

I know from experience that he never saves anything. Except his old underwear and tax returns from the 1990s. “Well, let me take a look,” I said.

“Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”

Cut to the chase. I finally got him away from the computer and found the doc for him. He had saved it in the wrong place. This happens with his underwear occasionally. He assumed the helm and I started back out of the cave.

“Also, the printer’s broke,” he said. “It won’t printing anything.”

“Well, let me take a look.”

The printer was brand new, and because it is wireless, it sometimes just gets in a bad mood. I tried to print the doc. Nothing. I fiddled with the commands. Nada. I copied the doc and tried again. Just a blinking “error” message.  I turned the printer around and yanked out the cord.

“What are you doing?” the husband yelled.

I plugged the cord back in. The printer spit out the doc. I went to the kitchen and made myself a vodka tonic.

Sometimes you just gotta unplug.

I have writer’s block. It’s been going on, oh, maybe three weeks now. Actually, I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s an excuse. I just can’t seem to write anything worth saving. I know the idea for the story is good. But I am about 10K words in and I seem to have lost my way. So I unplugged.

I stopped writing. Instead, I’m playing pickleball every morning for two to three hours. I’m getting pretty good. I’ve taken up running again. I’m getting stronger. I’ve also been reading a lot. Right now, I’m lost in the stars of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel.  I loved her dystopic masterpiece Station Eleven, and this one’s equally enthralling. She’s a master storyteller, the pacing is breakneck and she breaks every rule in the book. She jumps back and forth in time. She switches points of view fearlessly. It’s fragmented, elegant and deeply moving.

Few writers bring out the envious in me. As a writer, I’m a fair juggler, and can keep four or five balls in the air. Mandel juggles flaming chain saws. And this virtuoso performance has left me even more paralyzed in my own work.

Don’t worry. I will finish The Glass Hotel soon, and I know that I will find my way out of my thicket and back onto my path.

I will plug back in.

I know this because I have also been re-reading a lot of Anne Lamott’s work. She’s my go-to cheerleader when I get a little low about writing. If you haven’t read her, please do. Start with Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life. Therein you’ll find great advice on everything from how to follow your outline to how not to worry about your crappy first drafts.

Looking for other things she had written, I found some of her essays. One was titled “Dust Jacket.” It was about reissuing her first not-very-successful book. This resonated with me because my sister and I are re-editing our book Dark of the Moon for self-publishing. It’s tough going because as our freshman effort, it has warts, stray chin hairs and occasional flashes of rosacea. Lamott made me feel so much better with this passage:

This book of mine, “Joe Jones,” is the street person of my books. It’s my raw, wolfy child…My great friend Jane Vandenburgh helped me edit it slightly — not with a fine-tooth comb, but with an afro pick, big spaces between the teeth so as not to tug too hard. I hadn’t read it in 17 years, and when I finally did, this winter, I could see why it had not done well. It wobbled and flopped, and didn’t fly in the upward trajectory that I had hoped, and certainly my readers and critics must have hoped. It’s in the present tense, which I don’t like, but I do love the characters. And I can see its part in my evolution as an artist: All of the elements of what were eventually going to lift me out of the swamp are there, beating against the walls of the cafe.

Don’t you love that? That in your early work (published or un), you can glimpse the writer that you will become. And she offered this, an encouragement, against all pressures of our business, to be the writer you need to be:

It’s like meeting the girl I was in high school or in my 20s, with all those affectations, those tics and vague accents, who knew more then than I ever would again; who tried to be like other young women, because everyone said to be — as e.e. cummings said, “Being nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight.”

But the passage I really liked was from her 1996 essay titled “How To Be A Writer.” This really hit me where I needed to be hit:

Here’s the best advice I can give you: go read the book of Ezekiel. Trust me on this. Read about him coming upon the dry bones of a people who had given up, who were lifeless, without hope; until, because of Ezekiel’s presence, breath came upon them, and they came back to life.

The message is, Have heart, don’t panic: spirit revives us. A people were made whole again by breath, by the breeze of attention being paid. That’s so incredible. Find a community of writers with whom you can belong, who will read your stuff and help you get better. Maybe you can encourage them to keep on writing, as they encourage you. And pay closer attention to life. Get your best work done every day. Be the breeze.

Peace out, TKZ friends. Thanks for being here to listen. Be the breeze.

Kick the Writing Blues to the Curb

by James Scott Bell

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?

Two Writing Mind Tricks to Get You Rolling

by James Scott Bell

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?