Fried Brain, Over Easy

It goes without saying that notable—especially if they’re traumatic—events derail a writing routine. Real life drama always trumps the stuff I’m making up, and the tapped-out, fried-brain feeling I’m left with just isn’t conducive to submerging myself in the fictional dream. I’ve usually given myself a get-out-of-writing-free pass at these times.

There are, however, more minor brain fryers that tend to distract me maybe too much. In retrospect, they’re easy to put in perspective. But sometimes we live in the moment. Here, in no particular order then, are some of the idiosyncratic things that can throw me off track…just temporarily. What are yours? The weird and the commonplace are equally welcome. We’re a judgment free zone here at Write Despite.

A really lousy day at work

Maybe I dropped the ball. Maybe no one will pass me the ball. Maybe the office jerk ratio has grown too skewed. Whichever, this kind of stuff can get to me…if the circumstances and my frame of mind are conducive.

Dental work

Tinkering with teeth provides discomfort and, for me, a little reminder of my own mortality all in one package deal! Fun.

Worrying about my kid (when I don’t need to)

Nothing trumps the kid. Let’s just put it right out there. Never is a minor issue blown further out of proportion than when it relates to the kiddo.

Total brain overload

After focusing very intently for an extended period on whatever task or issue is before me, my brain is now toast. Intellectual engagement of any sort is finished for the day. As a colleague recently put it, I’ve maxed out my “cognitive bandwidth.” It’s time for a nice Lifetime television fix.


Getting From A to B

Lots of comments on Write Despite lately about the peril of the early process, about how difficult it is to get a project off the ground without falling into despair. Let me add my voice and suggestions to the fray—for what they’re worth.

At this early stage in the new novel process, I’m struggling to silence my internal editor (IE.) You know the IE. It’s that needling, little voice that delights in pointing out what ISN’T working in your manuscript.

This is not the time for criticism. I first need to get my arms around what IS working. And it doesn’t take long, when I’m feeling my way into a new project, to realize that structure is central. It’s not an easy concept to wrap your mind around because structure is so complex and works on so many different levels. Here’s a blog post I recently stumbled upon that spells out the basics pretty succinctly:

Outlining is one thing that helps me map out a long project. I tend to do two types of outlines. One is the overall, broadly sketched arc of the narrative with the beginning, the middle and the end marked, as well as the major plot points and scenes that occur in each section and drive the narrative engine forward. The overall is something that I fill in slowly as the pieces of the storyline fall into place and the book progresses.

The other type of outline is nothing more than a hastily assembled sketch or list of essential points I want to cover in a given chapter or chapters. It’s a micro-outline that gets me from scene to scene and then from chapter to chapter, connecting the dots as I go.

At the end, I stand back and see if I’m getting from beginning to middle to end in a compelling way. That’s when the rewriting starts, and the IE gets to speak up. She always has a lot to say, but you know what? It’s not all bad, and you can’t ask anymore than that of a first draft.

— Karen


File it Away



So I have to tell you I nearly gave up this whole book this weekend.

I was hating it. Hating all my stupid characters with their whiny voices and nondescript little screwed up lives. And hating that I’ve committed a whole year to writing about them and thinking it’s just not going to happen.

So not a good way to start.

I grumbled about all this to Spock on date night on Friday. And I told him to come up with an idea for a superfantastic, kickass book. And pronto.

He said he’d get back to me.

And here’s the thing. He did. And it is a superfantastic, kickass book idea. No kidding. He’s an engineer and not supposed to be able to come up with grand fiction ideas. I don’t know that he’s even read any fiction other than The Godfather, which he likes to quote at random. (“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again!”)

But with Spock’s blessed backup idea waiting in the file folders of my little pea brain, I was able to actually relax a bit and take a second look at this hot mess of a novel I’ve started.

I decided I like the first section. So I went back to it. I started expanding it, exploring where it can go, and taking my time with this one character instead of the other four I’d planned on. I may just give the whole book to this one stinking character and give up the shifting POV plan. I may just set the whole thing on the moon. I mean, that’s why they call it a first draft, right?

And with that little hurdle jumped, I’m back in the game, folks. At least for now. Take that, Writer’s Block.

I also have to tell you about a great little tool called Dropbox. Do you ever find yourself at a different computer with time on your hands, wishing you had your writing-in-progress with you so you could work on your stuff? Well, just save it onto Dropbox. It’s a free service that lets you store and even share your documents in that lovely “magic cloud” thing. You can even put photos on there. Check it out at:

And with that, I’ll sign off and hope for the best for tonight’s 20-minute session. (Otherwise, Spock’s file folder awaits.) Hope you’re all ENJOYING your projects, and that the work is going great for you!


When Time is Not on Your Side

There are days when the world simply conspires against this writing habit, when I get zero keyboard time alone at my desk. That’s when a pen and some paper (or a laptop) and some really efficient time management come into play. If I can’t set time aside for writing, I can usually steal it in small increments throughout the day. Now, I’m not fussy about location. Years in the news business trained me to write anywhere, with almost anything going on in the background. Here are some hidden writing opportunities I’ve exploited:

  • When the baby or toddler is napping. A no-brainer
  • Lunch hour at work
  • The weekly grocery store run, whip out the pad and pen for 15-20 minutes in the car, alone, before heading into the store.
  • Traveling — trains and planes work, as do their respective waiting terminals. Buses could, too, if you’re not prone to motion sickness when reading
  • Waiting rooms — doctors, dentists, auto mechanics all offer valuable “down time” that can be put to good use

And then there’s always this to remember, and to take some consolation in: Time spent thinking about your project, mulling over the plot points that just aren’t jelling or the minor character who isn’t living up to his potential, is time spent on your writing. No sincere effort is ever wasted.

What little tips and tricks help you squeeze writing into the day? Share and inspire, or at least make us laugh.

— Karen

Two Weeks In

Two weeks, 30 pages.

We’re in this for real now, people.

Just to clarify, I have not cheated. I have not skimped. I have not even cried real tears yet. Although there was that one day I got really cranky, but I think that was when the toilet broke. Or was it when our town was well into Day 3 of the fog that has enveloped us like a big…giant…fog-like thing? Seriously, hanging in this part of Virginia lately feels a little like living in Forks, Washington. (Twilight, ok? Yes, I’m referencing Twilight, even though I’m more of a True Blood fan.) You drive around in your big old minivan at night and I swear you expect a vampire to jump out in front of you at any second. It’s been that gloomy, and cold, and just plain creepy.

Anyway, like I say, I’ve been faithful to this challenge. Even though it’s kicking my ass. But I do have 30 pages. Did I mention that? And I do feel like I’m doing something, even if it’s all convoluted and crazy and going in many very strange directions.

My problem with this one is structure. I have five different characters speaking in this book, and I’ve never done that before. I’ve always been too lazy to try to imagine different points of view, and now I see why. It’s like writing a whole bunch of different short stories. And it is HARD.

So the other day I just sat back and thought, what could help? What could guide me? What could give me some basic tips here?

And then it hit me. A BOOK.

Yeah, a real, live, published piece of fiction that actually works.

So I found one on my trusty bookshelf—one that uses multiple voices to tell a story. And I started reading. Not to steal ideas, of course, but to learn something, to absorb the nuances and the rhythm of each character and how the author made them each completely distinctive, and how the events in their lives overlapped and wound apart, and came together again.

It helped. So I guess that’s my message this week. Dust off the books if you feel the need, go back to the basics. Unclog the toilet. Find your way through the fog.

Just do the work. It should, with any luck, all come together in the end, right?

So how goes it for you guys? How far in are you? What’s been hard? How’s the weather your way?

Write well, my friends. Only 50 weeks (or however many YOU have left) to go.


Soul, Sister

So, I’m thinking a lot about “voice” these days. With the first draft of the two opening chapters of my new tome almost finished, I’m paying a lot of attention to what the writing sounds like, to what kind of world I’m inviting a reader to enter.

For me, voice—that sustainable tone and mood set by the subtle interplay of language and observation—is what makes a story. I’m a pretty charitable reader of other people’s work. I forgive the occasional narrative line bumbles and rough spots, if I feel like I’m reading something that is compelling and authentic, and it’s showing me something new about the world.

Errors and bumbles can always be fixed, and, hey, nothing’s perfect. But voice is different. I think of voice as the “soul” of a story. And without a soul, what have you got? Just a lot of noise.

Let me give a shout-out here to novelist and super-blogger Amy Sue Nathan whose forthcoming debut novel, The Glass Wives, will be published by St. Martin’s Griffin in May 2013. Amy kindly allowed us to post as guest bloggers on her terrific site, Women’s Fiction Writers. We’ve connected with a whole new bunch of cool writers as a result.

So please check out Women’s Fiction Writers and pick up The Glass Wives this spring. Keep the good vibes going round.

— Karen


Feeling the love–or not

If you’re a writer, you’ve been there. You’ve got a story to tell. You’re full of ideas on how to tell it. Interesting characters and scenes have been unfolding–just not today. I once read an interview with a highly regarded novelist who admitted that she, in fact, did not write every day. The reason being she didn’t have something to say every day. Yeah.
There are days when what I write is bad, forced and uninspired, and you can almost hear my teeth gritting as I try to engage my brain. It happens. Other days the process is almost effortless. Those are the magic days. Most of the time my efforts fall somewhere in between. And that’s okay. I’ve come to learn that even on crappy days, time logged on my writing is valuable. Thinking about the story, thinking about the characters, even if I can’t string a sentence together, is valuable. I hit on things, realize things on those slow days that help feed what I write the next day and the day after. Sound familiar to anyone?
So take it easy on yourself on the crappy days. Just keep showing up. Writing is a job. We’re not all at our best every day on the job. But we keep showing up. We keep trying. And in the end we get paid.


Yesterday I nearly blew it. After a day of tearing down my pitiful decorations and packing them up in my moldy old boxes, I completely forgot about my 20 minutes. Just as hubby and I were settling in at 11 pm for our nightly Lost episode (Carla, too funny that you’re watching it too!), I suddenly yelled out an expletive and slapped my forehead.

Hubby sighed, hit pause. “Go write,” he grumbled. So I did. And I got in the 20, but it was unimaginative and rushed.

(BTW, I loathe the word “hubby” but have not yet come up with a clever pseudonym for my spouse. Drawing on his stoic tendencies, his superfluous intelligence, his disregard of all that is “illogical,” I think I will now refer to him as Mr. Spock.)

What happened with the writing the day before, though, was noteworthy. I had an idea for a character and a situation, but not much more than that. I plunged in anyway, and after a few lines, this person emerged, fully formed. I heard her voice, I saw her kitchen and the food she was making, I watched as she moved around and related to others and faltered and struggled and told her story.

I LOVE it when that happens. It’s rare for me, but it usually ends up being my best stuff. Once it occurred with a short story I wrote in a mere two hours (for me that’s like lightning fast), and it ended up being one of the few pieces I’ve published. Call it inspiration, muse, whatever. When it happens, I go with it—let it completely take over the writing. Because I know I can always change it up later, although that hasn’t happened yet. When characters come to life on the page and dictate their own scenes, I figure it’s because they know best.

What do you think? Has this ever happened to you?

Quieting the Mind

Carving out time–actual minutes and hours–to write is really only half the battle when it comes to establishing a regular writing routine. At least for me. Tuning into the writing means checking my “lifely” concerns at the door. The stuff of my real life buzzed all around my brain today: the two big pieces I’m writing at work; my son’s first day back at preschool after the break (I forgot his backpack); the new kitchen counters we’re installing; the cat’s vet appointment; the outrageous price of gas at the pump this morning.

When I sat down to write, I took three deep breaths and pushed all the noise out of my mind. I switched frequencies to the page before me and all that it had to teach. After I hit “save,” I returned to the world, calmer and more centered. Not a bad habit to get into.


Not So Lost?

So today I got my best gift ever—an extra day off from work! And of course I used it to write like my hair was on fire and completed 25 full pages of my new book. And I already have an agent. And…uh…it’s soon to be published…by Knopf.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

In reality, I wrote for 45 minutes and completed two whole pages. But I did feel excitement instead of the dread I was feeling yesterday when I had this awful sensation that this book is garbage but this writing challenge we’ve created here is now going to force me to stick it out anyway. I calmed myself by watching an episode of Lost (this is how behind my husband and I are in our TV viewing) and then reminding myself that this challenge is about the work itself, not so much the final project. And while next January 1, 2014 I’d love to say, “Look how much of this book I wrote!” I may only get to say, “Hey, look at this half a book I wrote and then these two short stories I wrote, and this essay I finally finished and…”

You get the idea. We stick with what works, and if it doesn’t work, no harm no foul. Just keep plugging away, people! We’ll get something out of it.

By the way, I found the iPod around midnight last night. It was balanced precariously on top of my exercise ball in the basement.

I have no idea.