The Under Ground Writing Project

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Writer's Blah, Part 2

Posted by Ali on January 30, 2013 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Last week, I wrote about having trouble writing, (I forget, is that irony?). Jenny and John both had some answers for my question: How do you get over the blah?


Riffing on Jenny


Jenny had some good ideas, like setting arbitrary constraints for the story, writing out of order, and hopping between stories to focus on what was most interesting to me at the time.


Let's talk about the arbitrary constraints first. It may seem silly to mandate that one of your characters must be a gorilla and that each scene must end with someone saying, "banana." However, the nice thing about constraints is that it allows you to play. Since certain things are now set ahead of time, you have to be a bit more creative to make those things fit.


Writing out of order is an excellent piece of advice. When I was in college, I did this all the time. I'd start with a concept, paragraph, or quote that was fully formed in my head and, by starting where it was easy, I gained momentum/warmed up. Generally, that paragraph I started with led me to another idea, which reminded me of this other thought, and soon I had a few pages written.


When I was teaching freshman composition, I had conversation with a student that went something like this:


Student: Miss E. I'm stuck with this paper.

Me: What's giving you trouble?

Student: I can't figure out what I wan to say in my introduction.

Me: Do you know what you want to say in the rest of the paper?

Student: Yeah, but I just don't know how to start it.

Me: That's fine. Don't worry about the intro right now. Start in the middle. Come back to the intro later.

Student: I can do that?!


When I saw her the next time, I asked her if the new approach had helped. She was almost done with her rough draft. She was so surprised that you don't have to write the first things first that when I gave her permission to start wherever, it freed her up immensely.


I just fully realized, in writing this post, that this is something that is so clear and already something I do with non-fiction, but I rarely follow this advice with fiction. Oops.


Riffing on John


John also had some good ideas about getting back to the basics of story craft, focusing on a deadline, and sticking with one story at a time. Note how this last recommendation directly contradicts Jenny's.


Working on the basics is always a good idea, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro. As with athletes, surgeons, or anyone else, the goal of perfecting the basics isn't really to practice until you get it right, it's to practice until you can't get it wrong. I don't care who you are, if you can't make us feel invested in your main character(s), your story/novel is not a success, no matter how fancy your language or surprising your plot twists.


The back to basics advice was also the same thing I was telling myself. I was getting tied in knots about plot, so I took a step back and spent some time thinking about basic plot construction. People have to do stuff. And, when you're trying to decide what to make people do, an excellent place to start is by thinking about bad choices. This is the "What could go wrong?" question. Answering it is a good way to come up with an idea of how to worsen the conflict, give a character something they need to overcome, create motivation for an action, add a bit of liveliness, or simply figure out what happens next.


On the deadline note, John and the crew know me well enough to know that I'm stubborn and have a competitive streak. We have, from time to time, engaged in contests based on "Who can write the most words in the next two weeks?" This dynamic isn't what works best for everyone, but it is super productive for me. It's a clear, measurable goal. When I'm focused on a concrete deadline, it takes some of the pressure off of trying to make it perfect. If it has to be done tomorrow, it's more important for it to be done than perfect. There will be time to go back later and make it pretty.


So, what happened with my blah? On Sunday I walked into the meeting with copies of the completed story inspired by the Duchess of Bathory. John made some smart remark about how his submission was a page longer, but since our formatting was different, I pointed out that my submission has almost 1,000 more words, so if it's a contest, I win. Just saying.


But wait, there's more writer's blah to come! Tune in next week as I hash out some more strategies for getting past the wall and give you helpful links from around the web.

Writer's Blah

Posted by Ali on January 23, 2013 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (5)

In the past year or so, I've been focused on a lot of things - moving, a new job, non-fiction, revising a novel, etc. etc. What I have been slacking on is drafting brand new stuff, and especially short stories.


Recently, I've been trying to exercise those neglected muscles. My success has been less than overwhelming. I have realized that, thanks to neglect, I have fallen back to my pattern from when I first started playing around with this writing stuff. I figure out an idea I like, jot out the first few pages easily, then stall out. Part of me feels like all the practice, all the years I've spent figuring out how to see a project through to the end, has escaped me. It's like I've forgotten how a story works.


Needless to say, this frustration doesn't lend itself to motivation. Currently, I've got the following stories brewing/stalled:


Duchess of Bathory inspired story: 2.5 pages drafted. Stall = Overthinking the plot. How realistic would it be if the hero does that? Would it fit with the world-building I've developed, or would readers feel like it's a cheat?


Zombie story: 5+ pages drafted. Stall = The ending I want and the beginning I've got feel out of sync. How am I going to match them up? And/or should I abandon one to hold true to the other?


Girl with no face story: 0 pages drafted. Stall = I have a plot/conflict, but is that really the best pay off for the character concept? How do I write it without it feeling cheesy?


Transvestite prince story: 8 ish pages drafted. Stall = Okay, I'm having fun with the characters, but do I really have a conflict/plot here?


I'm working on some solutions to the blahs, and I'll write more about that later, but I'm hoping some of you might have some brilliant ideas on how to get over the sticking point. Also, I'm hoping y'all can give me something beyond, "Just write it out," because, while that is absolutely good advice, I think you guys might have some other, more creative, solutions.

Pen and Paper and Zombies

Posted by Ali on November 29, 2012 at 12:10 PM Comments comments (3)

The other day I decided to start working on a zombie story. I've been having a difficult time focusing on writing lately, so I was thinking of doing some out of the house pages. The thing I like about going to a coffee shop to write is that it removes me from distractions. But, I wasn't in the mood for coffee, so I decided to replicate the OOTH pages experience at home.

Step 1: Clear off kitchen table to elimiate clutter/distractions.

Step 2: Light a candle with a nice scent.

Step 3: Make a cup of tea.

Step 4: Turn on some music.

Step 5: Write long hand so I don't get tempted to check e-mail or browse the web.

I'm glad to report that my reproduced OOTH pages went well and I filled up a number of legal sized pages in one sitting. I'm about 2/3 through the draft so far and very gratified to see physical pages full of ink. Yes, the ink is red. It's a zombie story. It's appropriate.

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