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Brain on fire

Pic of woman with ideas around her headMy brain is on fire.

In a good way.

I’m not officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m still writing as much as possible. One of the benefits of working on my book every day is something I’ve noticed during NaNo in years past: The more I write, the more ideas come to me at all times of the day. Last night I even had a dream that rehashed the scene I was working on, something that rarely happens to me.

I love this state.

The joy, this constant flow of ideas, is how I felt when I first started writing nearly six(!) years ago. I thought about my characters while walking the dog, jogging, driving, shopping, eating, sleeping, cooking… At any time, I might get hit with the solution to a troubling scene, an idea for how to make the stakes higher or deepen the emotional impact, or a great twist.

Sadly, this phenomenon also works in reverse. Worse, I’ve tested the theory several times. 😉 The less I write, the less motivation I have to write, the more time passes between great ideas and thoughts of my story, and so I write even less. I sit down and stare at the page with no idea where to go next.

That loss of excitement and flow is the reason I signed up for NaNo the second time (and 3rd, 4th, 5th). To remind myself that consistency was the key to getting my writerly brain back, banishing the infernal internal editor who blocks me, and rediscovering the joy of telling stories.

It also reminds me that I can write way more words than I think I can.

When it comes down to it—like with anything—the key (for me, anyway) is to keep working at it. When it’s a slog, I brainstorm, free write, or reread parts of the story that I’ve forgotten. I do research or write backstory scenes to get to know my characters better. Anything to keep my head in the game.

Anything to keep my brain on fire.

How to lose your muse in 10 days

Did your muse go on vacation?

Did your muse go on vacation?

1. Don’t write regularly.

2. See #1.

Seriously, that’s it. In my experience, your muse doesn’t show up for work unless you do.

All the other stuff about setting aside the time, figuring out your goals, avoiding distractions…those are just tactics for getting your body in front of the keyboard. To write regularly.

Only you can decide what “regularly” means. For me, it's almost every day. I try to write every weekday and at least review or do something with my story on one day over the weekend.

When I’m struggling with my manuscript, a bit of time away from it can be good, but if I spend days thinking and plotting and agonizing over it, I usually get zip. If I’m writing almost every day, I get into that zone where everything I do brings me ideas. Driving, sleeping, running, walking the dog, watching a movie.

If I’m stuck, I make a note of what’s bothering me and keep writing. I have to stay immersed in the world of those characters if I want them to talk to me.

Something about my current manuscript wasn’t working for me this week, so I revisited the characters’ GMC, did a quick pass of early revisions to align the story with my new understanding of the characters, and started toying with the next scene.

I still felt blocked, but I have (finally) learned to trust that staying in it—keeping my momentum—is the only way I’ll ever get the book written.

And this morning—unfortunately at 4 a.m., but I’ll take it—I was rewarded. I woke with not just one, but four ideas for how to strengthen the story. And I understand why I was blocked: I wasn’t being true to the characters and how they’d react in the situation I have them. (Which, I’ve found, is almost always the problem.)

Your muse wants to work on your story, but if she senses that you’re not committed, she’ll take a vacay to warmer climes.

The only way to get her back is to write.

No rules, just write!

Ignore the rules?

When I started writing, three years—oh my God, three years—ago, I didn’t know anything. I had a story I wanted to tell, and I enjoyed sitting at the computer every day banging it out.

Ignorance is bliss.

I’ve learned a lot since then. Some of it’s been really useful stuff. POV, setting, hooks, active language, effective dialogue, pacing, conflict. Critique partners, agents, editors, and contest judges have provided excellent feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

They have also—for better or worse—passed along the “rules” of romance writing. Some good, others not so much, though all generally well-meaning. And every one of these is broken—and done well—in many of the bestselling books out there.

  • The hero and heroine should meet in the first few pages.
  • Once the H/H are together, they need to stay together as much as possible for the rest of the book.
  • Keep the timespan of the story short for better pacing.
  • No prologues.
  • No head hopping in the same scene.
  • Write mainly from the heroine’s point of view.
  • Don’t let the H/H have sex too soon.

I’ve had editors and agents say things like, “The Caribbean? Oh, well, readers prefer books that are set in the U.S.” Or, “Military suspense is good as long as it’s not too involved in military day-to-day stuff.”

I need that thing Dumbledore has—a pensieve—where he can pull memories out of his head so he doesn’t have to deal with them. Something insidious happens as you learn “the rules”.

Like the child whose purple trees and orange grass slowly begin to conform as she progresses through school until she can’t conjure fantastical art anymore, a writer is in danger of losing the creative spark if she lets all those notions of what will and won’t work bog her down before she’s even started.

There’s no doubt that craft is imperative. My early manuscripts pretty much suck from lack of good craft, but the story was exactly what I wanted it to be by the time I was done.

I don’t want to self-edit before I even start typing! I already have enough unconscious filters at play already.

So, I’m not entirely sure how to get back to writing the book for myself first and everyone else second. For now, I’m trying to ask myself, “If I wrote this the way I really wanted to—as if no one else would read it—what would happen?”

Any suggestions for how to toss the “rules” and just write?

Photo credit: DO NOT ENTER SIGN © Aaron Kohr | Dreamstime.com

Bubble brain

I think the human brain is fascinating. As a writer who wants plot ideas on demand, it can also be frustrating.

Recently I read an article that said our brains don't work as well under stress. (Duh, right?) We can't force the ideas, they're more likely to come when our conscious mind is occupied with other things. Like driving, showering, jogging, walking the dog.

My own–admittedly non-scientific–observation has borne this out. I can stare at the screen for hours and get zip, but tie on my running shoes and within minutes something's likely to bubble up. Good for my story and my hips!

But my brain sends up more than story ideas. While I was walking the dog today, the names of all the blooming flowers kept popping into my head as I glanced at them. I'm not much of a gardener or flower aficionado, but even the names of more obscure plants–that if you'd asked me outright I wouldn't have been able to conjure–bubbled to the surface like air under water.

Now if I could harness that ability, turn on the bubbles whenever I needed them, that would be like gold. I can only take so many showers, run so many miles, and drive around for so long before I have to get back in front of the keyboard and stare at the screen again.

Any thoughts on how to get the bubbles going?

Trolling history

Current events not enough to inspire your next story? How about trolling history? For example, the History Channel website lists the following interesting events for March 1st.

1961: President Kennedy establishes the Peace Corps

1932: The Lindbergh baby is kidnapped

1910: Trains are buried by an avalanche in Wellington, Washington

1692: The Salem Witch Hunt begins

1872: Yellowstone Park is established

1917: The Zimmerman Telegram (proposing an alliance between Germany-Mexico against the US) is published in US newspapers

Even if you don’t write historical settings, past events might spark a new idea. Play with it. Have fun!

Writing on the run

By nature, I'm stuck in a chair all day in front of the computer, or brainstorming on paper, but the irony is that some of my best ideas come while I'm in motion.

If I'm stuck on a scene, or struggling for new ideas, I've found the best way to open my brain is to go for a run. Other mindless activities work as well, but running is my personal favorite, and it has the added bonus of burning some calories.

I think part of the value is that while running, I can't focus too hard on anything. My mind wanders, and ideas flit in and out, but my subconscious mind is more active. I'm not “forcing it”.

The only drawback is capturing the ideas before they flit too far away. I use my handy iPhone recording feature, but I used to repeat the idea to myself all the way home, or try to spin it into something larger and harder to forget.

It works for me. What works for you?

An idea whose time has come

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of living.  ~Anais Nin

People often ask writers where their ideas come from. I even find myself wondering the same thing after I read a great book. The answers? Everywhere, nowhere, hard work.

We get them from things we see in our daily lives, that is, everywhere. Places we go, people we meet, new stories, and personal experiences all have the power to generate the seed of an idea. Many authors become intrigued by the “what if?” and pursue that until they have a story.

But, they can also come out of nowhere. For example, I often think of storyline bits, or plot ideas right after I wake up in the morning. I'm not actively trying to work on anything, it just comes. I keep a pen and paper by my bed for this reason, because if I don't write it down, I'll surely lose it.

Sometimes, a writer just has to work at it. There are all sorts of techniques for generating new ideas. I even wrote about one of Einstein's creativity methods for the Southern Magic blog a while back.

For me, often the key is to give myself permission to let the ideas flow. I sometimes have this sense that ideas are waiting for me if I would just stop whatever I'm doing and let them out. At those times, I sit down with plenty of paper, and start taking notes.

No matter how a writer generates ideas, the real trick is to put in the time, day after day, writing them down. Some will turn into a story, some won't, but all the best ideas in the world won't make you a writer if you don't put fingers to keyboard and write.

The Daily Squirrel: nose

Amelie stared at her nose in the mirror. The purple bruising had turned more green and yellow over the last few days, but at least the swelling had gone down. She touched it gently and winced. Stupid John and his flailing racquet. That ball had been hers. She knew one thing for sure: she was never going to play doubles tennis again.