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Rewriting Southern Traditions

Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap

LAKE HARTWELL, SOUTH CAROLINA

By Beth Gilstrap

 

It’s past lunch hour and Grandmother is still wearing her

housecoat. Tings and sprays bounce from the stovetop. A

glimmer of steam gathers on her upper lip, not sweat, mind

you—not sweat. The peonies on the fabric are wide and

heavy pink, like they’d fall over if they were out in the

side garden as they always are during late April. But we are

in July and July is sweet and frayed, the grass only green

down on the banks of the lake. Me and Juna played chicken

on rafts all morning. Our suits still damp when we put

them on, hers only halfway up as we ran out the door, letting

it slam too hard, hearing Grandmother say, “Watch my

nerves. For Lord’s sake. My nerves.” By the time we come in,

we were striped, our torsos a wormy kind of white, our fingertips

wrinkled, begging for fried squash and okra Grandmother

had in heaps by this point, for smushed-up peaches

meant for the ice cream churn, for teeth-cracking chunks of

rock salt, the wayward bit of a watermelon seed, you know,

that stringy bit you can’t get down no matter how hard you

try so you wind up spitting the seeds on Grandmother’s

floor even though you wasn’t supposed to be eating them in

the house cause y’all know better, cause she done told you

twice to get your butts outside. And once you’re outside,

the menfolk stand in a circle around their cache, taking

stock of M-80s and bottle rockets and whirling spiders and

whistling dixies, which was basically the same, but hateful,

so hateful you could feel it blow your cousin’s pinky off

even though some grown-up yelled “fire in the hole” and

dumbass stood there in a sulphur fog like it was all happening

to someone else and next year when you and Juna went

in at lunch you were practically teenagers and ate rolled-up

honey ham cigars and Chicken in a Biskit Crackers—those

buttery rectangles with a chemical chicken flavor—instead

of spitting seeds on the floor cause now y’all were good girls,

making sure to let Grandmother lie down awhile and have

herself a little peace in the back room with the big box fan

and a single bed and her thin, yellow sheets.


ABOUT BETH: Beth Gilstrap is the author of the Deadheading & Other Stories, Winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize due out October 5, 2021 and available for preorder now. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Wigleaf, The Minnesota Review, New Flash Fiction Review, and the Best Microfiction Anthology, among others. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house.


LEAN INTO LYRICAL TRADITIONS WITH BETH: Join Beth for a reading and book discussion of Deadheading and Other Stories on October 20, at 6 PM for our next Wednesdays@Lit. And join Beth for Uneasy Women: Writing Feminist Southern Gothic Fiction on October 21st. In this workshop, you’ll examine writing traditions, how they’ve changed, and how we might craft them for 21st Century readers by examining excerpts from contemporary female authors including: Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and Dorothy Allison. We will examine how they subvert traditional gender roles, how they give agency to characters (often deemed outsiders) who have traditionally been victims of the American capitalist patriarchy. More information is here.

Five Steps Every Author Needs to Take Before Finishing a Manuscript

Kathy IzardIn 2016, after six years of writing, I finally finished my first manuscript. I truly believed that writing a book was the most difficult part of becoming an author. No one told me selling a book is tougher than writing one.

It is almost as if I believed, “If I write it, they will come.” Jane Austen didn’t use Instagram or Facebook or an author’s website. Harper Lee didn’t do podcasts much less interviews. Couldn’t I just be an introverted literary hermit and sell books? Unfortunately, not in today’s world.

Author Joanne Kraft said, “Not all marketing people are writers, but all writers must learn to be marketers.”

The average self-published manuscript only sells around 250 copies over the lifetime of the book. Even a traditionally published book only sells an average of 3,000 copies because publishers rely on the authors to do their own marketing. If you have written a book proposal, you know that the majority of that document describes how you, the author, will market your book.

That starts with understanding how to help readers find you and showing up in the world as the author you want to become. Before you even write that last perfect sentence, every writer needs to:

  • Invest in an Author Headshot—study the back cover of books you like to read and create a similar professional photo that makes you look approachable to your potential readers.
  • Write your Author Bio—create a summary of your professional qualifications or writing experience that let readers know why they can trust you as an author. Read author bios on your favorite genre and create in a similar style.
  • Buy your author domain name—get your name registered so you can create a simple website where readers can learn more about you.
  • Create an Author Landing page—sites such as Squarespace or Wix make it easy for you to use your domain name and have at least one page with your bio, headshot, and information about your writing or potential titles
  • Create one author social media channel (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) where you will begin engaging your potential readers. This should be separate from your personal accounts or turn your personal account into your author account to begin posting about subjects related to your genre.

With a professional-looking author presence, you will be ready for readers (and agents and publishers) to discover you even before your story is finished.

 


ABOUT KATHY: Kathy Izard is an award-winning author, speaker and changemaker. In the past five years, she has published four books three ways in two languages selling over 30,000 copies. Kathy believes we all have a story worth telling and loves helping writers find the courage to put their words in the world. Her new memoir The Last Ordinary Hour is available in paperback, Kindle and Audiobook. Learn more about Kathy: www.kathyizard.com


MASTER MARKETING WITH KATHY: Join Kathy for Marketing Your Book on October 16th, at 6pm (ET) online. Don’t wait until after your book is published to find your readers. Whether you are planning to self-publish or you already have a book contract, today’s authors need to know how to market their own books.  More information here.

That Fragile Moment

Ashley Memory

Ashley Memory

We are always at the beginning of things, in the fragile moment that holds the power of life….we are always at the morning of the world.

I often think of this quotation by the Chinese-born French writer François Cheng, but especially in the morning. This is indeed the most “fragile moment” for me as a writer. I love autumn because it means I can sleep with the windows open and wake up to the sounds of dawn: the cry of a blue jay or the jingle of our wind chimes.

This is the time when I feel most compelled to slip out of bed and into the pages of my journal. It’s paramount that I do so quietly, before waking the dogs and before the rituals of the day intrude, even breakfast.

Here, staring out the window at my desk, I can revel in the day’s first light, that gentle shaft of sunlight through the trees. Sometimes a deer will surprise me and we find ourselves staring at each other, transfixed, wondering who will look away first. When the window is open, I can hear the distant crow of roosters, even the salubrious moo of cows from miles away. This is when the gentle buzz of inspiration floods my senses.

This “fragile moment” is when I am able to conjure up the most creative metaphors for a poem or even finish a paragraph of prose that had troubled me the day before. New structures and themes for my work often reveal themselves now. I also am privy to a special kind of clarity that brings perspective. The work that is most pressing always emerges, and I gain the single-mindedness needed to finish it.

However, if just the tiniest sliver of the rest of the world emerges, say my husband J.P. rises and turns on the television or if a neighbor decides to roar down our common driveway, the spell is suddenly broken. Now I am lured too easily into other rituals, and my “fragile moment” slips away forever.

You may know this already, and you may be even more disciplined than me about seizing these precious nuggets of time, but if not, try it yourself. Climb out of bed early one day and ignore your normal to-do list. Go to your favorite writing perch, grab a notebook or your laptop, and let your imagination wander. You’ll be surprised at how much this “unstructured” time contributes to the larger plan. You may even experience a whisper of serenity, which will seep into the rest of your day, and make that to-do list of other tasks less daunting. Better yet, you may experience a creative rebirth and the power to begin again, every single day.


ABOUT ASHLEY: Ashley Memory’s fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, most recently in O’Henry, Gyroscope Review, and Mental Papercuts. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize twice. Her first poetry collection, Waiting for the Wood Thrush, is currently available from Finishing Line Press.


JOURNAL WITH ASHLEY: Join Ashley for Fueling the Fires: Journal as Inspiration on October 12th, via Zoom. In this class, we’ll discuss the many options available for journaling as well as techniques for transforming these scribbles into polished stories, essays, or poems. Time will be divided between teaching, looking at examples, discussion, writing in class, and sharing. More information is here.

Honoring the Craft

Amy PaturelBy Amy Paturel

You might have heard the platitude “those who can’t do, teach.” Obviously, I don’t agree with that theory. I’m a teacher. Plus, I have several friends and acquaintances who defy that logic. And yet, I also recognize that teaching makes doing a lot more challenging.

A former student, who is also a writer and professor, likens teaching to a “joyful bloodletting” whereby you insert an IV into your vein and suck all of the creativity out of your bloodstream.

While it isn’t quite that intense for me, I’m also not teaching full time (though it feels like full time!). What I have noticed since the coronavirus pandemic began, and I started feeling pulled to reach more students, is that I have to be more intentional about my craft. I have to make it a priority not only to read my students’ work, but also to tackle my own. What that requires, of course, is discipline — something I’ve been sorely lacking!

Here’s the thing: For weeks, I had been writing an essay my mind, and occasionally in my journal. A piece that required me to only sit in front of a computer and think thoughtfully for a chunk of time. The problem was, with three kids, a husband, four jobs, and two ongoing workshops, well, I didn’t have a chunk of time!

So, I decided to approach my essay writing like any other assignment (to a degree). The key prop: A timer! But I’m jumping ahead. Allow me to back up and walk you through my process step by step.

  1. Be spontaneous. Don’t wait for the right time, or the best time, or the time when you have uninterrupted time. Just sit down with a pad of paper, or pull up a blank document, and go for it. You’ll hear people tell you to block out time in your calendar or make an appointment with yourself. If that works for you, GO FOR IT! If not, be spontaneous about it. Me? I wrote at the picnic table while my kids rode their bikes around me. I recorded notes on my phone will driving to the grocery store. I worked within the confines of my reality.
  2. Use a timer. If I could offer only one suggestion to alleviate writer’s block, it would be: Get yourself a timer. Theo Pauline Nestor addresses this in her book, Writing is My Drink (highly recommend, by the way). I’ve heard the same advice delivered on several writer’s podcasts (The Beautiful Writer’s Podcast frequently addresses this idea, but I can’t recall the specific episodes). The Cliff’s Notes: Set a timer for 15 minutes, or even 5, and put pen to paper. If you really want to get into the weeds on this, read “Working it Out.”
  3. Make a plan. I don’t mean plot out how you’re going to find the time, energy, enthusiasm, fill-in-the-blank, to write the essay, but make a plan to get the thing done. And come up with a really cool reward when you knock it out of the park.
  4. Build in accountability. Sometimes just telling someone you plan to write a story about X, Y, Z builds in a certain level of accountability. It could be a friend, a partner, a fellow writer. It doesn’t matter who it is, but it helps if the person will say, “hey, how’s that story coming along?”
  5. Be prepared to go off course. Starting an essay comes with its own set of risks. If you’re anything like me, once you really dig in, you can’t let go. I become like a dog with a meaty bone. I sink my teeth in, and I can’t release. So, yes, I started that essay, but then I became obsessed. I thought about it day and night, trying to figure out the crux of the story, word smithing paragraphs while I was half asleep, and jotting down notes at every opportunity. Despite a full workload, two contract positions with daily deliverables, and several students who want and deserve timely feedback, all I really wanted to do was write the damn story — and make it sing. Turns out, I’m well on my way.

This blog was originally published on July 7, 2020, at amypaturel.com


ABOUT AMY: Amy Paturel has been crafting essays for more than two decades and teaching personal essay writing for more than 15 years. Her personal and reported essays frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Discover, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and more. Two of her pieces were featured in Newsweek’s “My Turn” column, and she garnered two “honorable mention” awards in ASJA’s personal essay category (2009 and 2011).


CRAFT A BETTER ESSAY WITH AMY: Join Amy for a Charlotte Lit month long Studio Writing the Personal Essay beginning October 24th, online. This personal essay writing intensive will guide you through generating interesting essay ideas to a salable piece. More information here.

Nervous

Judy Goldman

“Whenever something good happens to you regarding your writing, you just get nervous,” my daughter tells me. She’s talking about when I’m on my way to publication, when I get a positive review, when I win a prize.

What’s also true is that when something bad happens to me regarding my writing (publication impossible, bad review, no prize), I get nervous.

Rejection makes me nervous because it confirms what I often believe to be true about myself.  Acceptance also makes me nervous because I’m convinced some major rejection is next.

For years, I’ve told students in my workshops they need to possess both arrogance and insecurity to be a writer.  Arrogance enables you to think that what you write might matter to somebody else.  Insecurity forces you to keep going back to your work to revise, to strive to make it better.

But what role does nervousness play?  And what is the key to getting rid of that nervousness or, at least, tone it down a notch?  How do you become a person who approaches writing with a sense of calm?

Be a dead writer?

Maybe.

But if you’re reading this, you’re alive, and we need to work with that.  Is there some trade secret all the successful writers know?

Ann Enright, an Irish writer, says, “Writing is mostly a case of mood management.”

So how do you manage your mood?

Well, this is what not managing your mood looks like:

  1. Praise paralyzes you.  You think, surely they’re just trying to make you feel good.  Or maybe the praise is sincere, but they don’t know good writing, so you can’t trust them.  Or maybe they know good writing and meant what they said, but you know all that could change in an instant.
  2. You know you’ll never get it right.  It’s the contrast between the image in your mind of the work you want to create vs. what actually ends up on paper.  How they rarely match.  If only readers could see inside your head, they’d know what a fabulous writer you are.
  3. You’re so afraid of failure, you don’t take risks.  Your inner critic is forever blowing the whistle.   Maybe you stop yourself before you even begin, before you take the risk of writing at all.
  4. What’s the use? is your mantra.

And what is really excellent mood management?

Persisting.  Persevering.  Without discouragement or bravado.  With curiosity.  With wide-eyed wonder.  With the attitude that anything can happen — and so what? Regardless, you’re right there, at your sturdy little desk, pecking away.  The writer, Fred Leebron, once said to me: “It’s a war of attrition.  Don’t attrish.”

So, it turns out the key to continuing to write even while riddled with nerves is to continue writing even while riddled with nerves.  It’s the trade secret every successful writer knows.  It’s also the problem every successful writer struggles with.


ABOUT JUDY: Judy Goldman is the author of seven books – three memoirs, two novels, and two collections of poetry.  Her new memoir, Child, will be published May 2022. Her recent memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) was named one of the best books of 2019 by Real Simple magazine and received a starred review from Library Journal.

Her first memoir, Losing My Sister, was a finalist for both SIBA’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the year.  She received the Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award and the Mary Ruffin Poole First Fiction Award, as well as the three prizes awarded for a poetry book by a North Carolinian and Silverfish Review Press’s Gerald Cable Prize.  She received the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters, the Fortner Writer and Community Award for “outstanding generosity to other writers and the larger community,” the Irene Blair Honeycutt Lifetime Achievement Award from Central Piedmont Community College, and the Beverly D. Clark Author Award from Queens University.

Her work has appeared in USA Today, Washington Post, Charlotte Observer, Real Simple, LitHub, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

It’s ALL in the Details

Megan Rich

As writers, we often think about writing “universally” — whether that means connecting to universal human themes or attempting to reach the largest possible audience. In this, we sometimes fall into the trap of generalities, thinking that we need to speak to those themes directly or that we need to remain more objectively distant to increase our reach. But when reading, I’m often most struck by minute details– be it a beautiful concrete image, a punchy line of dialogue, or a character trait that feels both idiosyncratic and real. Could it be that the more specific we are, the more universal we are, too?

Our everyday experience, though sometimes monotonous or repetitive, is full of rich, specific detail. Be it the sound of cereal hitting the bottom of our morning bowl or the strange, muffled cry of a siren passing our car, specificity is the norm, not the exception. As a teacher, I often come across passages in burgeoning writer’s work that seem to replace those details with grand statements, often meant to create deep emotional experiences for their readers. The truth is, these generalities leave me feeling far less than a concrete detail might. Don’t tell me your character felt saddened by the sight of a long-lost friend; instead, let me see what he sees in her face, right there in front of him. Let me remember what she once looked like under the strange transformation of that face he hasn’t seen in so long. By embodying the concrete fact of her features, we will better feel his sadness in those changes because we, too, will have experienced this many times, perhaps even in the mirror, ourselves. The best writing will never have to tell us how a character feels, but will describe the people, places, and objects so vividly that we’ll know. It’ll be as if we walked into a dinner party and read the room ourselves– intuitively, based only on what we sense.

Just like in real life, we don’t usually go around asking or telling people how we feel, but rather, we see it in an expression, feel it in a movement, or hear it in the phrase a person chooses to say in a certain moment. These are the details that clue us into what’s really happening, under the surface, and at their best, a writer should show us the most telling details in every scene.


ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.


DIVE INTO THE DETAILS WITH MEGAN: Join Meg for the The Art of Detail, a 4-week studio immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.

Paper Love

Dear Writer,

I’m writing to you from my well-worn sofa (where else?) a year to the day when our Lost Year began. Or do I mean Loss Year? So often these days, words elude me.

Outside it’s spring again, which I forget until I stare out the window and find sunny forsythia and daffodils and dogwoods bumpy with buds. A year ago, the rapturous blooms and birdsong clashed with wailing sirens, empty streets and skies, masked breath, families grieving through screens. Lovely turned to lonely.

I hope you’ve been writing. This last year (let’s be real: the last five), I’ve found it hard to devote myself to the page because I was afraid if I looked away from the world, it might disappear. Or I would. It’s as if I fell into a hole, and all I could do was stare up and wait for the pinpoint of light to widen and show me the way out. Or maybe it’s that the rage and sorrow tore a hole in me. I can feel it expand and contract, like a pupil, or an aperture, or the phases of the moon.

I have found some solace these months, as I know many others have, through writing letters. As in the old-timey, pen-and-ink, stamped-and-mailed kind. I wrote to friends from the solitude of my back porch and got back radiant, hilarious epistles on handmade cards, festooned in the margins and smudged by palms. I touched the ink, the paper grains where their fingers had been. Contact.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I also have been reading a lot of epistolary fiction—Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ “Belles Lettres,” Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, parts of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Last Thing We Need,” Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Yasunari Kawabata’s “Canaries.” I can’t get enough these naked exchanges, how the narrator seems to vanish and we slip through the seams, suddenly in the characters’ most intimate realms, where they confide, confess, dodge, plead, snipe, yearn. What a wondrous sleight of hand: I’m convinced I’m reading letters when in fact these are smuggled stories, lies that tell the truth. As Griffin tells Sabine, “How strange to have a paper love.”

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

By the time you read this, dear Writer, the trees and bushes will be in mad bloom, transforming into new states of being. It occurs to me as I write this, reaching out to you across the void, that I wish the same for us.

Not hole. Hope.

Yours,
Bryn

 


LEARN THE ART OF THE EPISTOLARY FORM: Fiction writers have had a long and lovely affair with the epistolary form, a.k.a. stories and novels in which documents as varied as letters, diaries, emails, news clippings, transcripts, texts, posts, or tweets govern the narrative or parts of it. Whether written from a single point of view or as an exchange among characters, the letter form can create a brilliant sense of intimacy, voice, and realism. The trick: we’re not actually writing a letter but a story, so we have to find sneaky methods for characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, and movement. Together we’ll read and discuss some contemporary epistolary examples and then explore letters in our own work through brief prompts and take-home exercises. More info

ABOUT BRYN: Bryn Chancellor is the author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Bringing Words to Life

Angelo Geterby Angelo Geter

This past year has taught us all that our boundaries and limits can be tested in the most unexpected moments. We were all living our normal lives a year ago until the pandemic ravaged the lives that we had become accustomed to. We couldn’t go outside and socialize, had to cancel a plethora of events. We were even restricted from doing things as simple as a hug or physical embrace. This caused us to pause and adapt to this new way of life.

In the midst of these difficult times though, we found our strength. We discovered a new skills, perfected an old recipe, started writing a book, attended webinars, and read books. We learned something new about ourselves and added attributes to who we are, rather than sit idly by and let things happen to us. For that alone, we also deserve to celebrate.

The poem below highlights this and asks you to celebrate your successes even in the midst of trials. You deserve it!

Cry Yourself a Freedom Song 

On the days when waking up
feels more burden than blessing,
heartache than healing,
when your sanity is trapped
in a gas chamber of doubt
suffocating the air of hope,

Depression tap dances on the riot in your throat,
fear plays a sonata
in the key of disbelief,
the sheet music in your tongue
fades from neglect,
eyes form tombstones
that only see death.

Remember,
there is gospel in your grief.
Every tear is a prayer.
So cry yourself a freedom song.
Sing a spiritual to the cadence
of your weeps.

Let amens trickle down your cheek.
Make hallelujahs
in the luggage under your eyes,
and breathe like being alive
is the sweetest melody you could ever sing.


LEARN THE ART OF SPOKEN WORD: Angelo Geter leads a two-part class introducing participants to the art of spoken word poetry. Spoken Word 101: Brining Words to Life, begins April 20, 2021. Students will examine spoken word work to demonstrate how literary devices employed in traditional poetry are expanded in this genre. Participants will be guided through several prompts and exercises to help develop techniques and skills to craft original work. In the second part of the course, participants will perform their spoken word pieces and receive critiques from the instructor and other participants. Join us to bring your words to life, from the page to the stage. More info

Angelo ‘Eyeambic’ Geter is a dynamic poet, spoken word artist and motivational speaker whose unique work educates, entertains and inspires. He blends his pieces with commentary, stories and personal narratives that transcend a traditional lecture or performance.  He currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Rock Hill, SC, and a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Geter is also a 2019 All-America city winner, 2018 National Poetry Slam champion, Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam finalist, Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam finalist and has performed and competed in several venues across the country. His work has appeared on All Def Poetry, Charleston Currents, and the Academy of American Poets “Poem a Day” series.

Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Immutable Laws of Writing #2: An object in motion stays in motion

An object in motion stays in motion (and an object at rest stays at rest).

Sir Isaac Newton said this first, and not about writing. Still, writing is a natural act, possibly a force of nature, and is just as subject to physics as everything else. Applied to your writing, the “object” in question is the work you are producing. (Be it understood that we’re not talking here about writing as the mere act of putting words on paper; rather, we’re talking about writing that is becoming a finished work.) Applied to a work in progress, then: your writing both requires and benefits from momentum. Let’s break out those two key bits.

Requires momentum. Any piece of writing of any substantive length—short story, novella, novel, screenplay, stage play, epic poem, etc.—cannot continue forward unless you work on it regularly. Long works have many threads and themes, schemes and schemas, and other moving parts that need to be fresh in mind while writing. This is not to say you can’t take a break from a work; breaks can be good for your writing. But just try to finish a novel that you write in fits and starts, or even one that you write regularly but overly-spaced, such as writing it only on the weekends. It’s hard enough without adding that complexity.

Benefits from momentum. When you are working on a project regularly and with momentum on your side, your writing is likely to be more efficient and perhaps also better. Consider: the longer it has been since you last worked on your project, the longer it will take to: a) bring all the components back into your head; b) have a good sense of what to write next; and c) maintain all the voices: yours, and those of your characters. When your work has momentum, you slip easily between characters, you have your story threads and themes in mind, you know what has and has not transpired, and you know—this is important—what to write next.

Robert Heinlein provided these and some other rules of writing. The emphases are his:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.

My Immutable Law of Writing #1 (“the words aren’t going to write themselves”) echoes RH’s first rule. My second supports his second: if you mean to finish, you must finish. And you do this by respecting (or, if you prefer, taking advantage of) the laws of physics.

Here are three pieces of practical advice for keeping momentum.

1. Write something you love. 

Don’t select a writing project because you think it’s trendy or easy to get published or will make you tons of cash. Write a story that you truly want to tell. That love will feed your momentum. You will write because you have to see how it comes out. (This will also sustain you later when you are in the eighth round of revisions and you hate the book more than you have ever hated anything.)

2. Make the forces (even the negative ones) work for you.

Fully expressed, Newton’s First Law is: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” (italics mine).* There are throughout your non-writing world “unbalanced forces” that conspire against you and your writing, even if (usually) unintentionally, almost all of which come down to commitments that require your time: jobs, partners, children, sleep, lawns that insist on growing, and so on. How might you make these forces work in support of your writing?

Perhaps: Use lawn mowing time as thinking time, for working out plot points and other story details; car pool to work so that you can write while someone else drives; enlist your family members as co-conspirators, to help by doing research or editing; establish family creative time: while you write, others practice their instruments, or blog, or fold origami, or what have you; get up 30 minutes earlier (you won’t miss it) and write 500 words while there are no distractions; or quit something that you’ve been meaning to quit, something that takes up your time, transferring that time to your writing.

3. Allow your self occasional breaks from the project. 

Short ones. Take Sunday off, maybe, but then back to it on Monday. Can’t fight physics, might as well make it work on your behalf.

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http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law