Writer Problems: Analysis Paralysis

Writing exists in different parts of my mind—the forefront or the back—and, every so often it drives me out of it. A good number of writers I know have said something similar in conversation. One of my biggest struggles is the “stuck place” that goes along with over-thinking everything: plot or flow, content or structure, word choices, word count, the number of adverbs! (Kidding about that last one.)

And I’m brought back to one consistent truth in the writer life: writers write. Sure, they read and research and doodle sometimes, too, but they invest time in writing. When the analysis overwhelms the process, paralysis sets in. I don’t really believe this is the same thing as writer’s block. Analysis paralysis is something a little different. While the block is a dry inkwell, the paralysis feels something like the inkwell vacillating between explosion and implosion. Suddenly, the words just won’t flow because my mind just won’t play nicely with whatever is on the page or trying to get there.

I have a love-hate thing with the fact that writing is a mental thing. The beauty is that writing allows the pictures, stories, or ideas floating in my head to be shared with people anywhere and any time. The agony is that my mind can have so many incomplete thoughts floating around, and I somehow feel each one should be examined for validity before it hits the page. (This is ridiculous!) What’s a writer to do when the analysis breaks the beautiful process?

Here are three ideas that may help you get past the paralysis in your process:

  1. Take a walk and have a little talk with yourself. A change of scenery may be helpful. You just may have to give yourself permission to write badly or explore an incomplete thought’s development without evaluation. Agree to just write without judgment when you sit down again, if you can.
  2. Try writing from stream of consciousness as an exercise on a regular basis. Timed free-writes can be helpful with practice. You’ll often find you can get more words on the page when you have a specific topic or project to work on when you’ve practiced writing whatever comes to mind. You might also be interested in something like the “Five-Minute Friday” Link Up. Each week a very large group of writers will tackle a five-minute write on a single word topic. Give that a shot!
  3. Try the 10,000-foot view if you have to. You can’t land in “Pantser Land” with writers who just discover the plot (twists and all)? Back out of the project with an open mind and try outlining several different options for your work. Choose the one you like best, or ask someone to help you choose. I like to ask friends for ideas on plot or content when it’s possible or they are willing.

I won’t overwhelm you with a ton of ideas, but there’s at least three you might try. I know I sometimes just need encouragement to push forward in a project, so my “bonus idea” is—find another writer to chat with. See if you can talk shop (or not), if you need it.

Keep on keepin’ on, writer tribe!

~J

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What Exactly is Failure?

Snowflakes and Superpowers

I guess I’m coming out of my hidey hole a little behind the headlines these days. There’s some buzz about an author who determined that two rejected novels equals failure. Of course, that would be painful! And I can empathize.

My thoughts? This is a sign of the times.

In our culture, we tell our kids they are special snowflakes in a gentle flurry. They are perfectly brilliant crystals drifting in November flurry. We grant them superpowers and tell them they can do anything. Parents want to give children the time to discover themselves and their abilities. “Talk all the time you need—or want,” we say. There’s no deadline to this discovery, of course.

Part of the above is true. We may be leaving out important details, though. I think reality may be closer to a snowflake in a blizzard. The struggle to succeed can feel more like being up against gale-force winds to the point of burnout. The “grit” part is missing from our narrative, and that’s surprising given the grassroots Americans who have worked so hard for generations.

The truth is each of us is a unique and powerful individual! Without work or a solid work ethic, it’s likely to be a hard road that may just be easier to walk away from. Writing is hard under some of the best conditions. Pour your sweat on the page or bleed all over it, and it’s personal. I get that. Maybe technical manual writers can say there’s no emotional investment in their writing, I don’t know. We write for personal reasons, and we offer something of ourselves in every sculpted sentence on the page.

But there’s something that’s not so personal. The reality is there are a myriad of writers composing works. We can respect that, but when we start writing, we speak into a very large body of water. All our thoughts may be excellent, but there is competition for the readers’ eyeballs (mainly getting in front of them) and their wallets, honestly. If I write well, that’s awesome, but that isn’t the end of the story. There are so many other parts.

I’m learning so much about the Millennial generation. As a Gen X-er, I’m curious about what’s up and coming in the culture, but I’m also aware of what’s common to humanity. Learning the hard truth about hard work—timeliness, deadlines, and being one of many in a very large pool—is part of life. And life is a tough teacher. Dismissing the “rules” doesn’t make the efforts for naught, but it sure reinforces that the efforts and opinions of everyone else are a factor. Where best-selling authors collected and practically honored the hundreds of rejection letters in their early writing years, we’re dejected and depressed in the single digits.

I get it. I’ve balked or chosen to walk from the hard stuff in life many times. I won’t lie. I preferred ease, comfort, praise, and success (in that order). But the good things, things worth , are rarely gifted to us. Instead, they are hard-fought battles more often than not. If it’s worth having, it’s worth fighting for, isn’t it?

God willing, I’ll persist in the writing challenge that lies before me. If I really have a story, a message, and an audience that needs to hear my voice in the conversation, I can’t balk or walk. It’s my raison d’etre. Dare I say, it’s my calling? I think so.

And that’s when I decide to answer the 5 W Questions of writing, the biggest being my “Why.” I wrote about that here.

Regarding the parting shot in the original article: I’m working on something, and I probably won’t be quiet about it. You see, my “why” flame is bigger than something a publisher, editor, or critic will snuff out. If my God leads me to it, He’ll lead me through it, no doubt.

Thanks for reading along. I love to share thoughts and kick them around with others. What do you think about this article that’s getting some attention? Have you responded to the post on your blog? Share below, of course!

~j

“Please, Fence Me In!”

Blog—picket fenceHave you read this yet? Jeff Goins has a way with words, and sometimes he grabs my attention with a topic that arrives right on time. I’ve been mulling a couple of the points from his post. I don’t disagree with the post. The truth is, I’m not thinking about marketing when I’m kicking around potential titles. I know some would say I should be more concerned about that, but I’m really thinking about a lovely white picket fence.

Sure. It’s all about marketing, and I get that. But it’s about content.

For me, the title is the neat, welcoming picket fence that defines my boundaries. When I’m drafting the gate is open to almost any and all words, but eventually some of those words are shown the sidewalk when I know which ideas, scenes, and sentences play nicely in the yard with the others.

But that fence. I guess I need a plat survey to know where the posts will go before I can seriously evaluate what stays or goes. It’s the granddaddy of all college term papers in my mind sometimes. Writing needs a raison d’être. I’m on the hunt for that.

The nugget I needed in Goins’ post was this: choose an argument.

We called this a thesis for college papers, but it never goes away in our writing. This argument is the work’s reason for being, the lifeblood of the work itself. To be honest, a storyline is a beautiful thing (especially in memoir), but I need to consider the why behind the story. Why tell it? Why should my reader invest time and emotional energy in the story? The tension in the argument makes all the difference, and it’s still there when the content is “just a chronological story.”

There’s a big idea out there somewhere. It may be entertainment, but I think there’s something deeper. Stories have purpose. They draw us in. They teach us. They engage us. They sit with us in a kind of conversation (usually while I sip mug after mug of java). And stories also have a life of their own, flowing at their pace and following their chosen path. The reader rides the current, and the current is the story. But that’s no excuse for words traipsing all over the page without restraint in my mind.

I have a favorite title in mind, and I haven’t been able to shake it. In a moment of brilliance—at least I hope it was!—I saw a connection between the main character’s name, her understanding of her identity, and a couple of different meanings of that name. We’ll see if White Wave Crashing remains when all is said and done. I definitely need to take a closer look at my work’s purpose, audience, and argument because these are posts or pickets in the fence that defines my book.

Goins makes a fantastic point about marketing. An author has one chance to grab the reader’s eyeballs in order to get their fingers leafing through the pages. He’s right about the marketing, and if I could see just a little further down the road—

What do you think?

Does the author let the work grow at its own pace? A sculptor might say the rock speaks, and he merely responds by removing whatever is not part of the piece it wants to be. Maybe authors are like that. Maybe I am a little like that, too—on a good day when I am not self-editing the self-edits or plotting every curve, rise, and fall in the WIP.

I say, “Fence me in, please!” I’ll be working on this in order to have a loose framework, but I don’t expect to write a final draft the first time through. This is a process. Even knowing what the book is not is a very good thing.

What has helped you in choosing an argument? Can you share an argument you used in a sentence or so? If you write memoir, how do you think this plays into that genre? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

~j

A Tree in a Forest…

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound?”

If an author crafted thoughtful paragraphs and no one’s eyes found the web page to take them in…

The writer’s creativity flows directly from the heart. Many of us hold a fragile heart gently in cupped hands, timidly presented for others to see. Does that resonate with you?

Today I fought the urge to peek at the blog stats, and I’ll do the same on many other days. The days I peek, I usually have one of two responses:

“Oh my words! People know I exist! I’ve been found—and read!”

“Oh. My. Words. They’re falling somewhere in a forest silently, I guess.”

In the emotional roller coaster response to blog metrics, I learned one thing: I didn’t fall in love with writing because people read what I’d written. (Though it felt good to be read and discuss what was turning over in my heart and mind with others, if I’m honest.) I loved writing because of the precious process and it’s longevity. The written word is a beautiful thing—a gift, really.

The process of writing, for me, is the expression of my heart and thoughts about everyday life and the familiar people, places, and things in it. It’s remembering what was, identifying what is, and pondering what will be…or pretending what could be. The writing process is ordering moments for myself and my own sanity. It’s crafting a story for others, hoping to connect to an other person in another time or place through characters, events, and well-written turns of phrases. It’s sharing “the real Jen” with others and finding other authentic writers out in the big, wide world.

Writing is both solitary and relational at the same time.

Spoken words are puffs of air briefly and vibrantly alive in front of an audience. But each breath carries a new sentence, and with that, the old one fades away, almost forgotten. Our technology captures so much of the spoken word. There’s an app for that. (Dozens of them!) That’s where the spoken word lives beyond the puffs of air, the breath every syllable rode on. I’m thankful I can find things in the “spoken word forest” that I missed or revisit spoken moments I loved. But conversations have to be captured in my forgetful gray matter. That’s unfortunate.

Ah! But the written word…

The longevity of the written word is amazing. We can read the thoughts of people we’ve never met. Their hearts are scrawled on pages, and our hearts are knit with theirs. Thoughts are captured, and we learn, understand, and grow. It’s fantastic! Ancient texts, great classic literature, my contemporary in another city. I know that person existed because I’ve read their words. Wisdom. Truth. Intriguing stories. The reality of everyday life. It’s as if the words continue to live, and the heart behind them continues to beat (even if it’s long gone).

So here, in this little-known corner of the Blogosphere—my words wait. And they breathe the moment they are found as if they fell to the page a second before. A connection between us is created, and it’s like you know me.

And if you comment below, it’s like I know you!

~j

Character Sketches: Stranger Things

I’ve been thinking about writing interesting characters with depth, the kind that draw a reader into the story. There’s something in the details. There are precious details that shouldn’t be overlooked, and then there are the things that tell too much. Yeah, I’m probably guilty of “TMI” more often than not. If nothing is left to the imagination, there’s not much left for the reader to do than scan the words on the page. There’s no engagement there.

So, I made up a little exercise. I’ll nonchalantly take in the scenes around me (and the people in them). Each person I see is now a character, but there are rules—

  1. The person must be a complete stranger.
  2. Jot notes on the physical appearance (physique, posture, clothing, movement).
  3. Include notes on the person’s presence in the place (sound, language, gestures).
  4. Imagine the internal workings of the mind (choices, values, self-esteem).
  5. Quick “day in the life” sketch of the stranger.

I wonder how this kind of exercise will change my writing skill. It might be helpful, but I’ll let you know. I think the benefit is having a jotted list first and selecting from that. Rather than starting with a written piece, I can whittle down what I really need: a basic description and puzzle pieces for a story line, dialogue, and character interaction in relationship to others.

If you’ve done an exercise of this nature, how did it develop your skill in the craft?

What kinds of information would useful in an exercise like this to develop characters?

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you feel like sharing below.

Thanks for reading along!

~j

What Do You Want in 2017?

Ally Bishop at Upgrade Your Story offered a brilliant challenge to writers in 2017, and I took time to noodle it and respond. If you’re a writer who doesn’t get excited about New Year’s resolutions (short-lived or beaten into submission for months on end) this idea may be encouraging. Take a peek at the question:

What do you personally want out of your writing this year? This is just for you. It’s not word count, a finished manuscript, or sales. What do you want from the craft?

As a writer, I want to craft authentic, believable characters on the page, the kind that draw readers in and captivate them for a while. A story can be plot-driven, but there’s no substitute for meaningful characters we fall in love with, cry with, or want to support and protect in light of the events or other characters in the story. A character whose temptations and choices make a reader say out loud “No-o-o-o, you don’t want to do that!” or “Yes-s-s-s! I’m so proud of you!” really works on the page and has the potential to make a difference in the reader’s life.

Real people have real, felt impact on others’ lives. For better or worse, lives are changed by relationships. (I want to write about that!) The characters on the page interact with one another, with me (the writer), and the reader. There’s powerful potential right there! But life isn’t scripted, and it’s not narrated as like some play-by-play scrawled on the page. A reader needs enough detail to construct a sensible scene, and their grey matter takes it from there.

One skill I’d love to master is telling a good story with these kinds of characters but giving just the right amount of detail. In the name of “clarity” I spell everything out. (I can almost hear myself say it—“No reader is going to misunderstand me!” ) Goodness! Readers are ever more clever than I give them credit for. If I tell them everything—which requires more words than a reader could possibly want to invest in—I’ll just end up boring them to death.

Now, all that up there is awesome, but there’s one little monkey wrench in the whole thing. My WIP is a memoir. So, the another part of this craft “focus” for 2017 is connected to embracing reality (I’m writing a familiar character, me!), finding the significance in the story (Why should a reader invest their time, mind, and heart in this?), and exploring the purpose of the story (A story has powerful potential, and I want to unleash that!).

I try to guard against the ugly places a memoir can go. This isn’t the time to craft cathartic “yack” on the page. But I don’t want to ignore the significant people, events, and experience that could benefit others. As I think about it, this is the time to explore the potential in my story and discover its shape, size, and weight.

Ally suggested writing vignettes to process pieces of story (changing the POV from my own to someone else’s), and I think that might be the perfect solution to some of the memoir mayhem. I tried it once and liked it—the difference between I and she was stark and wonderful. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Let’s see where the rabbit runs in 2017…

Thanks for reading along! If you’re planning writing goals for this year, I’d love to see what you’re thinking about. Let me know where you’re sharing them so I can take a little look-see.

~j

Remembering with Purpose

Do you wonder how a collection of my memories could be useful in your life? I’ve walked circles around that question and come to a sweet pause—the path diverges right there. I’ve gawked at the train wrecks in my storyline, captivated by the damage and long-term consequences. That never led to healing, transformation, or victory. The myopic perspective emptied the story of any sweetness, light, or power.

Story is powerful. We can experience refreshing, exhilaration, and even healing when we take time to read about others’ victories and deep soul transformation. How much greater the impact when the story reveals the presence of the Lover and Rescuer of the soul through the highs and lows! During the good, bad, and desperate moments in our lives it takes special eyes to see Him. (He is there, I promise.)

For me, to lean in or not to lean in; that’s the question!

Today I’m thinking about my story in a little coffee shop in Iowa. (I love to write in little, caffeinated hidey-holes.) The opportunity to share the beautiful plot twist written into my story by the Author of faith sprawls in front of me, and I’m taking it.

When I sat with little vignettes and tried to capture them, the purpose emerged from the shadows. I remembered details, but I took extra time to find three things: the power in the memory, the plans of the Enemy, and the presence of Jesus. These three pieces are important to the transformation that follows. They are also common elements in every story. Mine. Yours. Everyone’s.

Then I began to think about two questions that have the ability to shift perspective on nearly any life story.

What do I believe about God based on what has happened to me?
What is true about God based on what is written in Scripture?

Something settled in my soul in those two questions. I almost heard and felt Kachunk! in my spirit. These questions begged to be answered, and I understood why. My perspective about God is critical. It’s only in relationship to Him that I can understand some of the story details, events, and characters. I may never understand the hows and whys in my story in this life, but I have no hope of a healthy viewpoint or healing without God.

I hope you’ll have keener insight into your own story after reading White Wave Crashing. When my eyes took in the scenes of my life at a glance, I overlooked the presence of Jesus. I was angry He overlooked the indelible ink falling to the pages of my life. Was He invisible? Unconcerned? (The answer is, “No!” but it took time to discover that.) I hope you find that to be true as well. He loves us. Deeply. And He wants to sit with us in the exuberant joy, the deep sorrow, and the painful grief.

When you begin to remember, I hope you’ll find healing for your soul, too. There is victory over the enemy of our souls when we step forward and tell of the things God has done.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on remembering…and its purposeful place. Share below or at my  Author Page.

Blessings!

~j