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Turning the Tables on a Bad Writing Day

Boardwalk

By Juliette Fay

You can tell when it’s stacking up to be a bad writing day.

You look at the list of non-writing stuff that needs to get done, throw up your hands and think, No possible way.

Or the thought of whatever project you’re working on ignites that gnawing insecure feeling that hisses, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. TURN BACK NOW.

Or you’re in a foul mood, perhaps after a miserable morning with kids who do not feel like going to school, or making their lunches or picking up the wet bathing suit they left in the hallway last night. Parent-child skirmishes ensue: “That’s not my bathing suit – Yes, it is, it’s your favorite – I’ll get it later – Please get it now before it goes brown with mildew and stinks up the place – Don’t freak out! – I’m not freaking out! – Yes, you are! You always freak out about little stuff! – Well, now I’m freaking out about how disrespectful you’re being!”

(Please tell me I’m not the only one who has these brain-singeing early morning conversations with offspring.)

On the days when, for whatever reason, you’ve determined that All is for Naught, here are some suggestions that are guaranteed to get you back on track.

Open the file. The babiest of baby steps, true. But just do it. Then walk away if you need to, but if it sits there waiting for you like a sad puppy with a leash in its mouth, silently begging for you to take it out for a puppy tinkle, you’ll feel that much more inclined to wander back to it.

Lay off the Joe, Joe.  Yes, okay, coffee is “writer’s little helper,” and it’s tempting to think another cup or six will sling you by your jangled nerves toward productive land. A little extra can be good, but too much and you may find your characters are suddenly threatening one another in all-caps.

Get out. Are you sick of hearing exercise is the solution to everything? Yeah, me too. However, even a quick spin around the block can get the blood oxygenated and the synapses firing and other science-y stuff like that. (Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer not a doctor!) Here’s the twist: go alone and go gadget-less. Let your thoughts flow unimpeded by any input other than the sight of falling leaves and your neighbors’ garbage cans.

Write somewhere strange. And I don’t mean Starbucks. The end of a dock, the lobby of a museum, a friend’s kitchen table (ask first, though, because being there when they wake up in the morning is intrusive and weird). Change of venue can spark new and unusual ideas.

Be the ball, Danny. Get in your character’s head. If your protag likes to cook, pick a recipe he would like and make it for dinner. Ruminate on what he’s thinking as he prepares it. If you’ve got a character who clog dances or paints on velvet, do those things as him or her. For bonus points, do it in costume.

Set a timer—egg, hourglass, mental or otherwise. Start with 20 minutes, park yourself in front of that file you opened (see above), and write just one really crappy paragraph. Giving yourself a time limit and permission to be mediocre can stifle the internal critic and get the gears whirring. At a minimum, you’ve got one more paragraph than you had before. Yeah, it’s crappy but you can fix it later.

Reward/Punish Yourself “If I write X number of words, I get to fly to Luxembourg for dinner. If not, I have to clean the bathroom in my senior prom dress, film it and send the video to my high school boyfriend under the caption I Really Miss You.” You get the idea. Be creative.

Self Shaming. Okay so this suggestion is probably not endorsed by the American Psychological Association, but let’s get serious here. You say you can’t write because you have so much to do or your insecurities are getting the best of you—or because (melodramatic sigh) you’re not in the mood? Well, boo freakin’ hoo. Not all obstacles are minor, but here in the First World, many of them are. So get your whiny hiney in that chair and produce some verbiage, you big baby.

What are your favorite ways to turn a bad writing day around?

(Originally published October 10, 2013)

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On Setting

The set of “Lost” via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

By Kathy Crowley

A few weeks ago I signed up for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). This could be seen as the desperate impulse of a middle-aged person to keep pace with The New. On the other hand, this class is part of a series put together by the University of Iowa on writing, it’s free, and you don’t even have to do the homework.

I’ve enjoyed the lectures thus far and one in particular was especially helpful — a short talk by novelist Susanna Daniel on setting. The gist of it: Setting is not only as important and powerful as plot and character but also dynamically entwined with both.

Let me start by confessing that I was among those who viewed setting as backdrop — necessary but not much of an independent force. The vegetables, not the meat. Listening to Susanna Daniel, though, I began to realize how much I’ve undervalued (and underused) setting.

So I come to you now as a changed writer, convinced setting is something that can both push the plot (think of the room in Emma Donoghue’s Room, the Mississippi in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the thousand acres in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres) and inform the reader about the psychology of the characters by telling us what they see and how they see it. I think of Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat” – the sea may change little, but the way the characters experience it changes quite a bit. Crane uses these varying perceptions to illuminate evolving states of mind. Susanna Daniel uses the example of the Pitons in Robert Stone’s story, “Under the Pitons.” The peaks appear five times in the story, each time described differently, each time informing the reader about the characters’ changing mindset.

So, not to drag this out, here are my zeal-of-the-convert take-aways:

  1. Setting must help locate the reader – in space and time.  Ok, you knew this, but:
  1. The author’s rendering should also tell us something about the characters and/or the plot, otherwise it’s a missed opportunity. As Dorothy Allison puts it: “If you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious—then I’m a little bit frustrated with you…I want a story that’s happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who is telling me the story.”
  2. The setting the writer creates is someone’s vision. A character or a narrator has made choices about what the reader will see and how s/he will see it. Fictional setting doesn’t exist in any objective sense. Anne Enright: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world.”  Think about the opinion you’re offering and make it support other aspects of the story.
  3. Recognize that setting is intimately and dynamically involved with both characters and plot.  The setting can change, the way the characters view the setting can change, and the setting can influence the plot.

Any thoughts or ideas on the best use of setting?

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