Category Archives: Revising and rewriting

Writer’s Block: Three Strategies to Beat It

The Complete Writer

Section IX: Creative Strategies

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Writer’s Block: Three Strategies to Beat It

Back in the day when I was a working journalist, various writers’ conferences would invite me to speak. Invariably, aspiring freelance writers would ask that classic question: How do you cope with writer’s block?

Well, I didn’t: reporting on assignment is not an activity that elicits writer’s block. A reporter an artiste does not make. The collected flip answers lacked something in the helpful department:

  • Visualize your byline on a paycheck’s Pay to the Order of line.
  • Imagine your editor’s response when you call to say you’ll be late on deadline.
  • Write a letter to your mom describing all the things you learned on assignment. The story will write itself after that.
  • Go play with the cat.
  • Pour yourself a (glass of wine, cup of coffee, can of soda).
  • Go for a walk.
  • Quit with the drama already and get down to work!

Fiction, however, is one heckuva lot harder to write than nonfiction. So much so, in fact, that you really do reach impasses where you know what you want to say (you think) and you imagine you know what your characters are going to do and you can envision the time and the place and the action but it just won’t come out in words!

Nothing makes coping with this phenomenon easy, but a few strategies have come to hand. Try this one, for example:

§

Enter your notes, no matter how fragmentary, at the bottom of a chapter or scene. Use these notes as cues to help jump-start the narrative and keep it rolling around.

§

In this problematic scene, Lhored Brez of Grisham Lekvel (he’s roughly equivalent to an Anglo-Saxon king) visits the widow and two sister wives of one of his followers (Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos), murdered while catting around the trading center of the known world. Bett Kubnath of Cham Fos is a potentate in her own right. Her son Lenn is a chip off his father’s block, not an altogether flattering comparison. The action is seen through the eyes of Hapa Cottrite, a kind of public intellectual who has been sent into exile among the backward peoples of the north.

Draft

She nodded patiently. “Let’s sit down.” She waved us all toward the fine leather and wool chairs and benches that populated the hall. Lhored was directed into a comfortable armchair and I was seated nearby. The three women pulled up smaller chairs to make a conversation circle around Lhored, the two mayrs, and me. Food and drink appeared, borne by two [women who look working class] and a young boy, and we were all served, the solid stoneware dishes a luxury after our weeks of eating off tin plates.

“You’ve heard the news we bring,” Lhored began.

“Yes. We heard before Mak’s men reached Rittamun. One of the outlying herdsmen brought word a couple of days ago.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She let this rest briefly. “They say he didn’t die in battle. Can you . . . will you tell us how this happened?”

Lhored looked pained. This, he had said more than once, was the conversation he dreaded, and here it was upon him. “Bett,” he said, “we don’t really know.”

Notes at the end of the file:

What is going on here? What is Hapa observing? Move forward into some other part of this chapter and then come back here. This piece is going nowhere!

Lhored is about to speak when Lenn shows up. Lenn is surly, aggressive, and obnoxious. He demands to know what happened to Mitch. What was he doing out there alone? Then he demands to know why they let him go out alone and D says he tried to go along and was rejected & the others say that’s so. They work their way around to saying HC was sent as a gift from the seeyo; they’d prob’ly better tell them about the elaborate funeral and the loot first.]

 All right. Let’s try that. It’s better than working, anyway. I guess.

Next draft

The front door opened, letting in a beam of light and the shadow of someone passing through the vestibule. A tall, slender young man, still beardless, entered the hall. Dressed in work clothes and boots, he pulled off a pair of riding gloves and offered a hand to Lhored, who, with Mak and Jode, stood to greet him.

”Grisham Lekvel,” he said, accepting a firm squeeze on the shoulder from the brez. “And gentlemen: thank you for coming. Mother,” he addressed the kubnath, who remained seated, “sorry I’m late. We were working the stallion up on the other side of Nole’s Butte. I came as soon as Wood let us know you were on the way up the road.”

”It’s good to see you, Lenn,” Lhored replied. “And good you were able to be here.”

He gestured as though he was about to introduce me to the young new kubna, obviously Mitchel of Cham Fos’s son, but Lenn interrupted.

”Lhored,” he said, “let’s get down to business. What the hell happened to my father?”

Meji gasped softly. The other two widows glanced at Lhored expectantly. Jode and Mak looked on, stolid as ever.

If Lhored was annoyed or otherwise perturbed, he didn’t let it show. “He was murdered,” he said.

”Yeah, so we’re told. How did that happen? And who did it?”

”He died on a street in Lek Doe. Apparently the killer was a thief that jumped him.”

”That doesn’t make any sense. My father would take out anyone who tried to bring him down.”

”He probably didn’t see the guy come up on him. It was stone dark that night.”

”Night?”

”Mm hm. We think it was pretty late. He’d been out on the town. And he was in a lane where all the shops were closed.”

”Come on, man! What the hell was he doing out in the middle of the night, on some godforsaken back street in Lek Doe where nothing was going on?” Behind him, Bett sent Lhored a narrow-eyed [CAUTIONARY? GIMLET? PIERCING? SHARP???] look and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, no.

”We don’t know, Lenn. He must have gotten turned around and lost his way.”

”How the devil could something like that happen? Who was with him?”

”No one.”

”No one? What was he doing out there?”

Lhored regarded Lenn while he let this set for a second or two. “He was celebrating, lad. Far as we can tell, he’d just come from a saloon.”

Salon was more like it, I thought. Liana’s place did let the liquor flow, so one could call it a bar. Sort of.

“Celebrating? If he was partying, why wasn’t anybody with him?”

Notes at the end of the file

At least we’ve got some conflict going on, between the chief warlord and the surly young son of the deceased potentate, heir to his father’s rank.

We haven’t gotten around to the delicate matter of why Mitchel refused to take anyone with him when he went out for a night on the town—he was haunting his favorite houses of ill repute—nor have we explained the potentially explosive matter of why Hapa Cottrite is present: he was sent by the town’s governing councilors as a kind of “gift” to express their regret at the loss of a powerful and dangerous warlord, their hidden motive being to exile a troublemaker to the farthest of all possible boondocks. But at least we have something in glowing little computer characters.

§

Remember that gold is a soft metal. Your golden words are malleable—NOT graven in granite!

§

Regard what you’ve written as draft at all times. Never stop revising. And be aware that it’s a lot easier to revise and rework than it is to choke out brand-new creative content. Just get it down on paper. Or on disk. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Not the first time around, not the second time around, not the third time around.

Knowing that you can always jimmy the copy, add to the copy, cut the copy, totally change the copy makes it a lot easier to get something out.

Just write it, and don’t worry if it isn’t perfect.

Chapter 1, take 1

It should feel good, Kay thought. Watching this happen should feel good. He ought to feel back-slapping, hollering, falling-down-drunk happy, or at least for God’s sake like raising a swig of whiskey to the moment.

He and his cousin, Mitch–Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos–stood atop a promontory, just a low butte, actually, about a hundred feet tall, and surveyed the battle’s aftermath. Fallon, still clad in his leather chest armor, saw them climbing up here. He followed and joined them a few minutes after they stopped at the bluff’s edge. When he reached the two, he shook Kay’s hand, punched Mitch on the shoulder, congratulated them on a fine day’s work.

And the men had done a day’s work. Together the three looked out over the scene. Hengliss allies–Okan and A’oan marching under the Okan brez, Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel–had taken the town in three weeks flat. It was an incredible feat.

Roksan, the principal city of their principal enemy, should have been impregnable. But they had shown it was not. Now the men, scruffy irregulars, most of them, pressed into duty by the obligations of their betters and not because they knew much about soldiering, spread over the plain before the burning town’s gate. No one down there seemed to suffer any qualms. Their noise reached the hilltop as unruly hubbub like a huge outdoor party gone too far in drink. Men laughed and shouted, a few surviving women squealed as the boys had their fun with them, horses and wagons rattled around. Guys compared plunder, traded booty–some had set up open-air markets to trade or sell the loot they’d carried from the city before the heat pushed them out.

A brown and gray pillar twisted upward toward white clouds that galloped before a chasing wind, and Kay knew the smart breeze would keep those fires going until they had done their job. The place would burn to the ground before they smoldered out. The flames would leave a pile of ashes, maybe a few blackened rafters, charred bricks. And scorched bones.

Fal, wiry and saturnine, his dark beard and mustache trimmed as if to cut down wind resistance, offered his boda to the two older men. They accepted the liquor cheerfully. The drink passed between them while they gazed at the scene below.

“Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Mitchel remarked.

“Oh, yeah,” Kay said. “That it is.”

“Must do your heart good.”

“You bet.”

“How long has it been for you?” Fal asked.

“Twenty-eight years,” Kay replied.

This actually was not the first but  the third or fourth time I’d tried to craft this opening scene in Kaybrel’s point of view. Hated it the first time; still wasn’t thrilling me. So I tried a new tack.

Chapter 1, take 10 or 12:

Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells rarely gave himself over to speculation. If on this good day you had asked him how the Hengliss tribes came to see themselves as one being, a living organism whose limbs and body and soul formed a single piece—or even if they did—he would have laughed. He would direct your attention to the pillar of smoke twisting skyward where Roksan burned, and he would turn your question obliquely around. He would ask you, then, had they not, the bands of Okan and A’o fighting as one under the Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, had they not done a fine thing?

He passed the lambskin flask that was making the rounds among several companions to Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek. Bova, a chunky flaxen-bearded northerner whose heft made Fal’s long, wiry frame look slight by comparison, lifted the boda in a friendly salute, swigged its unrefined contents as though he were taking a deep drink of water, and passed it to Kristof Mayr of Oshin.

“That was one hot maneuver you two pulled inside them gates,” Robin Mayr of O’a remarked to Fal. A slender, muscular young man with a smooth chestnut-colored beard, he accepted the boda from Kristof and lifted it vaguely in Fal’s direction.

“Mostly Kay’s idea,” Fal said. He shrugged as though he’d had little to do with the swath they’d ripped through the defenders in the long chaos after the Hengliss had breached the enemy city’s entrance.

“Bull!” said Jag Bova. “He couldn’t have done it by himself. And I’ll tell you—when he takes them kind of ideas into his head, I’m sure as hell glad I’m not the one who has to fight on his flank.”

Fallon laughed with the others. But he was glad, too, that it wasn’t Bova. He wouldn’t have traded his place at Kay’s side for any honor the brez could dream up.

“He had his reasons for going after the bastards like that,” Kristof remarked.

“Must have felt damned good,” Robin added. “If it’d been me, I’d have tried to squash every cockroach I could catch.”

“Yeah. Well, we just about did that,” Fal said. “Not too many of ’em left in there.”

Even where they were standing, a mile away, heat from the fires burning the sacked Espanyo city reached them. It took the chill off the cool air that drifted down the distant snow-covered Achpie and Serra peaks flanking the wide bottomland along the Wakeen Ribba.

“Ain’t none of ’em gonna crawl out of that place no more, no how,” Robin agreed. He passed the drink back to Rozebek.

Bova raised the flask to that, and they all murmured their appreciation of Robin’s whiskey-laced profundity.

“There goes your kubna with his cousin now,” said Bova. “Looks like they want to get a view of the doings.”

By “your kubna” he meant Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, the man to whom Fal, Robin, and Kristof owed their first loyalty. The cowndee of Rozebek belonged to the house of Puns, and Jag Bova served its kubna, Rikad of Puns.

They watched Kaybrel and Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos stride through the festive troops gathered on the plain before the burning city. Kay was carrying his leather helmet in one hand, his silver-streaked hair flowing loose around his shoulders. To Fal’s eye, he looked tired, but the others didn’t see that. The two kubnas cleared the mob and headed toward a low butte that rose above what had a few hours earlier been a battlefield. They disappeared around the side of the promontory, seeking the gentle rise up the hill’s backside.

“How long has it been for him?” Robin asked.

“What? Since Moor Lek fell?” Fallon read meaning into Robin’s question. “I think he said . . . no, it was the kubnath who said that. Maire said it was twenty-eight years ago this spring.”

“Twenty-eight years! She wasn’t even born then, eh?”

“Neither were the rest of us,” Fal replied, and what he said applied to everyone there but Jag Bova, the only man among them to have reached his early thirties.

Sometimes if you can’t move forward with the new writing, going back and revising material you already have will help. Notice how radically different Take 2 is from the first effort: a different character’s point of view, an entirely different set of characters with the protagonist taken off center stage, facts presented in a slightly different context through the mouths of different characters, and a different kind of characterization of a central figure.

Every time you rewrite a scene from beginning to end, it improves. Often, even very small changes—a turn of phrase here, a gesture there, a detail or a word choice—have a large effect.

You may never use this evolving material. Or you may use some of it, whole cloth or much massaged. Whatever becomes of the drafts, it will give you some insight into what’s going on with your writing, and that may be all you need to put your Jeep back in gear.

[1] https://writersresidence.com/blog/2009/12/02/samples-of-query-letters-that-work/

[2] “The Good Order: Routine, Creativity, and President Obama’s U.N. Speech,” The New York Times, September 25, 2014.

[3] https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/FAQ_Sept_2012.pdf

The Complete Writer: Revising with Reader Feedback

The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 9
Revising with Reader Feedback

Many professional and would-be professional authors work with a beta reader: a nonprofessional reader who agrees to review and comment on a work, for little or no pay. Ideally, the beta reader should represent a fairly typical member of the work’s audience: she or he should share cultural values, interests, and socioeconomic status with the kind of people who could be expected to read the story or book.

One advantage of using a beta-reader or friend—as opposed to an editor or a teacher—is that you can control the amount of feedback you get and when you get it. If you have plenty of time and you have the temperament for it, recruiting someone to read and comment on your work early on can be very useful; it also provides you with comments during several stages of the process, as you work through your thinking on a subject.

You don’t have to restrict yourself to one reader—Peter Elbow recommends two or even three people. It’s important to bear in mind, though, that you may have to coach your reader by asking very specific questions, and sometimes by interrupting him or her at set points in the reading and asking for certain responses as they proceed. This is time-consuming.

Who can these readers be? Some people would never allow their spouses to read their work; others would never let anyone other than a spouse read an early draft.

A writer’s workshop can be a source of beta readers—people who are committed to writing have enough interest in the process to enjoy reading and replying to you.

If you take writing courses, classmates may be helpful, since they allegedly understand an assignment; if you find willing readers in a college course, make friends now and don’t lose track of these folks! Adult children, if they’re far enough beyond adolescence to see you as a human being, may be helpful. And you might consider trusted friends, co-workers, or brothers and sisters, assuming the subject doesn’t treat certain issues in a way that might blindside or hurt them.

Parents are a lot like spouses—too close to you, and you have to keep on living with them.

Whomever you select, the advantage of talking the story over with someone else is that it gives you an opportunity to re-envision the subject and its treatment in a new light—to see it through someone else’s eyes.

Your needs, your temperament, and the time available to you determine how much feedback you will seek:

Minimal feedback: At the very least, get some help in eliminating errors in grammar and usage from a final draft that needs to be very polished.

A little feedback: You don’t have much time, or for whatever reason you don’t need a thorough critique You ask the reader to look for spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and for any awkward or unclear sentences. Though you don’t want to involve yourself in ornate discussions, you’d like to know if there are any places where you sound like an idiot. You get one round of feedback at the end, and that’s it. In spite of this determination, you can still benefit:

This kind of feedback can help you revise clumsy language or language, restructure ideas, clarify or explain points; change tone of voice; insert transitions or introductions to help retain the reader’s attention.

Medium feedback: You don’t want to rethink your whole position, but you’re willing to consider major revisions of structure and strategy. You take the opportunity to understand what is confusing or bothersome to a reader and revise accordingly.

Lots of feedback: Everything is open for discussion, from start to finish.

Decide how much of this process you want to buy into.

Working with a reader who is a friend and not, like a teacher or editor, an imagined “adversary,” can build confidence and clarity, and help you cut through the abstraction.

Elbow describes two kinds of reader feedback: what he calls “criterion-based” and “reader-based.” Let’s review the high points of these

Criterion-based response

This is the schoolmarm stuff: basic qualities of content, organization, language, and usage. Solicit comments in these four basic categories:

  1. The content of the writing: Ask the reader about quality of the ideas, the perceptions, and the point of view. Is your basic idea or insight valid? Do you support your point by logical reasoning and valid argument? Does the reader feel your support includes evidence and examples, and are you’re really making good points ?
  2. The organization. Ask about the work’s unity, whether the parts are arranged in a coherent or logical way, whether the beginning, middle, and end hold together, and whether paragraphs seem coherent and logical.
  3. Effectiveness of the language: Ask whether the sentences are clear and readable, and whether the word usage seems correct. Does it sound like correct English?
  4. The correctness and appropriateness of the usage: How are the grammar, usage, spelling, typing, and style?

Reader-based response

In Elbow’s world, eliciting a response to writing boils down to three basic questions designed to test how your words affect the person who reads them:

  • What happened to you, moment by moment, as you were reading the writing?
  • Summarize the writing: what does it say or what happened in it?
  • Make some images for the writing and the transaction it creates with readers.

It’s important to know what is going on inside the reader’s mind and heart. Some people have enough insight to recognize and articulate their reactions as they read a work. But many people find it difficult to describe what’s going on in their minds as they’re reading.

So, you need to elicit these reactions by careful questioning. To find out what was happening to the reader, ask him or her to read just a couple of paragraphs. Elbow posits these questions:

  • What was happening as you read the opening passages?
  • What words struck you most?
  • What impression did you get of the writer?

Have the person continue reading, maybe marking the manuscript with notes or lines. Half or three-quarters of the way through the piece, ask again what is happening with the reader, with questions like these:

  • Please narrate your response to everything in detail, even if it seems irrelevant.
  • Has your attitude has changed since you began reading—for example, were with the writer at the start and now opposed? Why?
  • Please point out passages that you liked and ones you didn’t understand or resisted.
  • What do you think will happen next?

After the reader has finished the document, again ask what is happening:

  • What is your reaction?
  • What seems the most important thing about the piece?
  • How would you describe the ending—is it abrupt, warm? unnoticeable? other?
  • What aspects of the reader does the piece bring out—a contemplative side? curiosity? helpfulness? other?

Finally, ask the person to reflect on the piece and talk about its implications. If you can, get the person to read it again and report the differences between what happens on the second and the first reading.

Ask the person to give a very quick, informal summary, and then to summarize what she thinks the writer is trying to say but not quite succeeding. A reader’s summary of the writing gives you a lot of insight into how well your meaning is understood.

A third useful exercise is to ask the reader to devise some images for the writing and for the way it affects him or her. Don’t push the person too hard to explain or interpret the imagery; take it instead as a clue to the direction and effect of the writing.

A variety of questions can elicit this kind of response. Ask the person what other writing it reminds you of—what forms of writing: film? departmental memo? journal entry? love letter? Ask the person how someone else might respond to it—how would his mother like it, or some mutual acquaintance. How does the person view the relationship between writer and reader—familiar? distant? reading from a stage? shaking his fist? Is the writing trying to do something to the reader, like beat her over the head or trick her or make her like the writer? Ask the reader to describe the tone or voice—is it intimate, shouting, jokey, tense, other? Try asking the person to describe the writing in terms of other media—does the camera move in, fade back, create foreground or background, other? Draw a picture of what you see or think.

Working with a beta reader has a number of advantages:

  1. Because you have to give the reader time to think about the copy, it forces you to start on the work well in advance of the deadline.
  2. It makes you slow down and think about your work carefully before you consider it “finished.”
  3. It lets you see how well your message is understood by a real reader.
  4. It allows you to think of your work as open to change.
  5. It gives you new insights.