I’ve moved this blog to The Write Place and I’d love you to pop over and see what I’m up to there.
When an idea has been living in your head for a long time and you sit down to write it, but find you can’t, don’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that you’re suffering from writer’s block.
What may be holding you back from writing might well be fear. But fear of another kind. Fear that you won’t get it right. Fear that you haven’t quite got character X’s arc down pat, or fear that your sentences won’t be as crisp on paper as they are in your head. Welcome to analysis paralysis. It’s a curse and it’s a significant reason why so many writers don’t pick up their pens or don’t finish their stories.
It’s a good idea to let the little fish of story ideas swim about in your head for a while so that they grow into bigger fish from complimentary ideas that come from rumination. But you don’t want to overthink the story ideas to such a degree that you’ve overfed them into monsters before you even get writing.
Writing is an organic process, don’t kill that little fish by over-feeding it. As soon that small fish starts swimming about in the sea of your mind, start writing. Let it swim where it will, don’t try to direct it. Think balance. Think a little bit of structure and a little bit of spontaneity, you might give the fish a tank and a few toy castles to swim through, but you can not determine whether it will suck on the sides of the tank for a week or if it will dive in and out of the bits of seaweed. Likewise, let your story grow organically.
Often when we overthink a story, it doesn’t grow into our idea of what we thought it was going to be. While it’s all good and well to know your genre, have a strong cast of characters, and an exciting plot, don’t over-plan. Sure, you want to know where you’re going, but be open to surprise. A surprise in the writer will stimulate a surprise in the reader. Readers are smart and they don’t like predictability. If they wanted predictability they’d be doing maths. They’re reading because they want to be taken on an adventure. If you don’t go on an adventure, how can you expect them to enjoy the ride.
Some writers report that they knew the beginning and the ending of their stories and the middle just happened. Other writers get heart palpitations at the very idea of not being in full control. These are the control freaks and they suffer the most from analysis paralysis. Of course you can plot out every single scene of your story, but if you don’t allow for the creative inputs that come during writing, you’re going to short change not only your readers, but yourself as a writer. Don’t be a slave to your story, instead, think of writing as taking your story’s hand and walking along the road together to discover where it is that you want to go. There is nothing more stifled or strangled than a story that’s forced in a certain direction.
There’s no place for the analytical mind in the drafting experience. In those early drafts where you just want to get the story down, it doesn’t matter if you have lapses, inconsistencies, crappy grammar, or two characters with similar names. Just allow your thoughts to put themselves on the page. Once you’ve got down a basic draft, the revision can begin, and that’s when you get to invite your analytical mind to the process. Revision is where you can deepen characters, tighten the plot, and correct your abhorrent spelling mistakes.
How can you force your analytical brain to take a step back during the creative process? If analysis paralysis stymies you during the pre-writing phase, stop trying to get it all write. Make notes of your ideas, it doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, don’t judge them, just get them down. Research if you must, but avoid becoming so overwhelmed by information that it smothers your idea. Research shouldn’t be evident in your story, it should inform your story.
Most people claim to suffer from analysis paralysis once they start writing and get frustrated that they’re not getting all the stuff into the story, or that as soon as they put down a word they start judging themselves. Try these remedies. If you type your draft on a computer then set the font to no colour and just allow yourself to write whatever comes. Not being able to see what you’ve written allows your brain to face a blank welcoming page instead of a critical one staring back at you with errors. If you write long-hand, tuck a piece of carbon paper between two sheets and write your story with a pen that’s run out of ink so that you can’t see what you’re writing. Afterwards, when you’ve got the whole story down you can go back and revise on the carbon copy. By freeing your mind from judgement you can allow your creative mind free reign, and let your story find its natural form, and avoid analysis paralysis.
I own about 300 books on writing, including the much-touted “On Writing” by Stephen King, but “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long is the single book that belongs on every writer’s bookshelf. While Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, and Julia Cameron talk about the head-stuff of writing, Priscilla Long talks about the actual nuts and bolts that are required in a writer’s toolbox. There are no gimmicks in her book either. This is a practical text-book, if you will, about how to become a craftsman. After all, that’s what a writer should aim to be – a craftsman. It’s suitable for the novice writer and the advanced writer because the skills that Long suggests writers need are applicable at whatever stage a writer happens to be at.
Long discusses the importance of reading, and while all readers read, virtuoso writers re-read. Long guides readers through reading to develop craft. It is only when we learn to dismantle great stories that we find the tools that will develop our own stories. Long’s style is accessible and the advice she offers is practical and enormously helpful.
The importance of grammar is given an ample amount of attention. Sentence types are elucidated upon to improve a writer’s range of skill in sentence structure. The importance of metaphor and simile are explained. Long has a knack of making the reader want to immediately pick up a pen and start practicing. Which brings me to practice.
Long promotes writing practice, after all, writers write, and Long suggests keeping a writing practice notebook where all that practice takes place. That’s nothing new, you say. You’re right, it isn’t new. Dorothea Brande promoted practice pages/morning pages in the 1930s, long before Julia Cameron came along with The Artist’s Way. What is new, is that Long doesn’t want the writing practice sessions to stay in the notebook, she wants them to be purposeful at the outset, and then for them to be transcribed into the appropriate project at the end of the writing session. Long encourages writers not only to write, but to write with the intention of publication, and her proposed strategy elevates the practice of writing practice.
The Writer’s Portable Mentor is one of those books you won’t take off your desk. When you’re stuck, you’ll return to it again and again to seek out one of Long’s practical suggestions to assist you. If you read only one book on writing craft, this should be it.
Contests are a fabulous way to announce your presence on the local writing scene. If you are placed in a contest, it helps you to establish a writing cv or bio that many publications require and it also boosts your confidence. Not having a publishing record can be intimidating for beginner writers, but don’t allow yourself to be disheartened. A story well told will be enjoyed by an editor or contest reader.
WHICH ONE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
It is important to be selective about which contests you enter. Without diligent research you could end up sending entries that don’t comply with the rules. If a publication says they only want fiction entries, then that is all they want. They will summarily reject poetry and non-fiction entries, no matter how brilliant they might be. A recent local contest received hundreds of entries, but about a hundred of them were rejected because the entrants did not comply with the rules. If a rule states that you have to be a citizen of Burramunga to enter, then that’s the rule, don’t waste your time or the contest organisers’ time by submitting anything to them.
If you’re serious about entering contests then you need to establish which ones are suitable for the genre that you write in. Good resources can be found in comprehensive listings in publications like The Writer’s Yearbook and Writer’s Market UK available at good bookstores, and obviously, the internet. Many writing sites have a listing of writing contests.
The best way to ensure that you enter the competitions that you are able to comply with, is to have a Contest Plan. In November/December every year, I spend about a week researching contests online and in the Writer’s Yearbook and Writer’s Market. I make a list of those I want to enter by listing them according to the earliest closing date. I cut and paste the submission rules of each into a Word document entitled Contests 2009. At the beginning of every month I see what’s coming up, trying to read three months in advance. If I feel that there is a contest I want to enter then I print that contest’s details and put it into the plastic folder. Date order is essential because at a glance I am able to see what’s coming up. Being forewarned, so to speak, gives me time to consider what story I would like to write, it also gives me a chance to check through unpublished work for a suitable story. This list is invaluable and can be added to throughout the year if new contests appear. It also provides a template for the following year.
KEEP A SEPARATE FOLDER
I have a plastic see through box where I keep all research material, contest rules and drafts of competition entries, this cuts out the confusion of having to remember where I have filed an article or an idea.
JOT DOWN IDEAS
In the plastic folder I keep a notebook for ideas that I want to jot down. An idea don’t remember itself, if you don’t write it down, consider that idea a cigarette that you enjoyed, but once it’s gone up in smoke, you can’t reclaim it. If all your ideas and rules and research are centrally located you won’t waste time.
If you’re going to be a serious contest entrant then you need to keep track of which submissions you’ve made to which publications. Many contests do not accept simultaneous submissions, i.e. it’s not protocol to send the same entry to several competitions at the same time. Knowing where your stories are is essential. A good idea is to download manuscript management software. The best tracker that I’ve found is SAMM which is completely free and downloadable at this link. It’s fabulous because you can customise it according to your needs and it’s unobtrusive. You can enter all your manuscripts, you can enter markets and market types. It’s a no-fuss application that will alert you with follow-ups if you so require.
Before you send your entry, make a checklist from the rules sheet. Have you double-spaced your entry? Must you include your name on the manuscript or mustn’t you? Have you included your contact details? It is so easy to avoid silly mistakes by using a checklist, but remember to be flexible because different contests have different criteria, some want three copies of an entry and others require only a single copy. Some contests allow email entries, others do not. Make it your business to establish the rules for your checklist.