Are We Blocked or Afraid?



I’ve been wondering about this lately.  While writing this novel, I occasionally find myself unsure of how to proceed. There are kinks in the plot that need to be worked out.  Sometimes what I planned for my characters doesn’t work and I need to make a change.  Plot holes appear out of nowhere.  For example, at one point, my main character thinks someone may have broken into the house.  I had her going up to her bedroom and locking the door.

Dumb and unrealistic.

I had to add a scene in which she realizes she left her cell phone upstairs and flees to a neighbor’s house to call the police.

For several days, though, I left the problem unresolved.  It isn’t really that I wasn’t sure what to do but that I was afraid to do it.  Like the rest of you, I suffer occasionally from nagging doubts about my ability to pull this off.  It was silly, of course, and the scene I crafted turned out well.  The reader will know that the presence of an intruder can’t explain what’s been happening in the house because the police have ruled that out.  That helps to move the plot along.  I even got to know the neighbor a little better.  Maybe I can use that later in the story.

I’m guilty of going for days without adding to the story because I’m afraid to face it.  It’s too big and unwieldy.  I feel intimidated by it.  There are things I’ve left out that need to be added.  Character descriptions, for example.  Right now, the reader would have no idea what any of the characters looks like.  It’s had me slightly panicked, but I had an epiphany today.

I haven’t written the descriptions because I haven’t been able to see the characters.  And you know what?  It’s okay!  As I continue to write and spend time in the world I’m creating, the people and their surroundings are coming into focus.  I can get all of that nailed down in the next draft.  It doesn’t have to stop me from doing the first draft, which is about the plot.  I don’t have to become “blocked” over it.  Bake the cake, then add the icing.

I think this may be why there are so many characters in self-published novels that feel like they’re 2-dimensional people.  It’s as if the author felt they couldn’t proceed with the story until we knew what color nail polish the main character wore.  It feels forced.  If you’re stuck or bogged down because your characters and setting don’t feel detailed enough, let it slide for now.  The more you think about them and the more words you put into their mouths, the clearer their faces will be; and the rooms they sit in will become furnished.

My characters are finally starting to emerge from the mist and introduce themselves.  And I just realized that the living room couch in the main character’s house is a hideous shade of green.

For now.





The Paralysis of Waiting


I’m still some weeks away from learning whether or not the publisher will make an offer on my picture book manuscript.

Friday I had to vacuum the dust off the backpack containing my laptop and WIP.


I have the most miserable sense of being in author’s limbo.  It’s nothing like the limbo I was told about as a child, where babies go if they die before they’re christened.  It’s more like the lowest circle of hell.  A terrible place where images of success and failure alternately flash before my eyes–the dream realized vs. the dream dashed.

My sense of identity as a writer has grown stronger over the last couple of years.  It’s no longer simply what I want to be, it’s what I am.  Lately, I find myself slipping back into that insecure place where I’m waiting for a third party to nod in my direction and bestow upon me the coveted title of published author.  Something inside my brain is telling me I have no business sitting down to write before permission is granted.

I hate myself for allowing that to happen.

I have no excuses today.  The inbox for my day job is empty.  I already did the dishes.  I have forced myself into writer mode by dropping this little note of confession to you.  I’m going, at this very moment, to grab the backpack and see where I left off.

Join me.

It Doesn’t Have to be Real


I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.

The Suckiness of the Situation Notwithstanding…

…I did manage to make a small but important step forward in the story. I had an idea of how I wanted a piece of the mystery to look (no footprints where there should have been footprints), but until today I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. I think I have a solution, which should move the story forward a bit.

I hate being stuck on a small detail.

Well, I lost my best buddy last week (Gandalf the cat), my husband’s layoff continues, my son was injured at work and is still waiting for his worker’s compensation claim to go through, my primary transcription customer is a deadbeat, and our financial situation has gone from tough to crushing in the last two weeks, but the writing must go on.

Calm your brain for just a few minutes. Read a little bit about writing. Dabble. The muse will drop by, even if it doesn’t stay long.

The Happiness Question

“In happiness you must create.”

from For Writer’s Only, by Sophy Burnham

Writing is easiest for me during those times when I’m not faced with a major personal crisis. The “write-no-matter-what” crowd always made me feel guilty about putting my pen down when my emotions were pulled elsewhere by financial worries, illness, or family problems. I’m not talking about the everyday stuff. We all have that. I’m talking about the gut-wrenching stuff that keeps you awake at night and invades what little sleep you get. I’ve had a lot of that over the last few years. But there have been periods of relative calm that have allowed me to unhook the logical half of my brain and get some writing done. Sometimes that has meant letting go of my grasp on someone else’s problem and realizing it isn’t mine to solve. As a mother, that’s a tough thing to do.

Happiness is something that always seems to be off in the distance, something just out of reach. Maybe happiness isn’t the right word. Peace. Calm. During those times, as Ms. Burnham says, we create. We write, paint, and dance. It isn’t just that the process is easier then; it’s necessary. Singing a happy song when you’re down is the psychological equivalent of whistling past a graveyard. It lacks authenticity.  When we’re sad, if we sing at all, we sing the blues. But good news or a beautiful day demands creative outlet, like those moments when you can feel God standing next to you and all you can do is worship.

In the dark, icy grasp of winter, in the midst of troubles present and those looming on the horizon, happiness and creativity behave as fugitives. Weary of the chase, we drop our weapons for a while. Spring will come and fresh tracks will appear in the wet earth. Happiness will grow careless about its disguise and we will pick up the trail once again.

What’s Wrong With My Brain?

OK, time to break down and admit it. If I could quit the day job and write full time, I’d never write again.

I had a three-day weekend. I had plans to spend it writing. My intentions were good. I had a plan.

I failed.

Each time I sat down with a piece of paper in front of me, my brain locked up. If I put the paper away and just let myself think about the story, my mind wandered.

As a kid in school, I never freaked out about writing a report. But I never actually put pen to paper until a day or two before it was due. I spent time thinking about what I wanted to say and the ideas were almost fully formed by the time I sat down to write.

It’s not that I lack discipline. I homeschooled two children and I work from home. That takes a lot of self-discipline. I have to have my butt in the chair by a certain time and stick with it for the entire day. I ignore phone calls from friends. I don’t answer the door. I’m very good at sticking with the task at hand.

But give me a couple of days of free time to do nothing but write, and I just can’t do it.

If I limit myself to a certain amount of time on certain days, I’m much more creative. And oddly enough, I often find myself working out a story problem while I’m working the day job!

What is wrong with my brain?

Writing Amidst the Misery

Ever have one of those weeks that are so miserable, so fraught with mind-numbing catastrophe, that you start to look back over your life and wonder where you went wrong? Where, exactly, did I turn left instead of right? Which decision in my past brought me to this point in time, with these people, and in these circumstances?

I find myself dealing, simultaneously, with serious illnesses in family and friends, a sick cat, unemployment, financial difficulties, and the newly-discovered betrayal of someone I trusted.

That’s a lot of crap to be juggling.

Now, we could say that the positive approach would be to see it all as grist for the creative mill. What am I, the main character here, feeling? What does the room look like? How do I eventually figure it all out?

I imagine that might work well for someone writing novels; but I write picture books. Picture books are supposed to be fun and never sad. Sad picture books may win artsy-fartsy awards, but kids don’t read them twice. I refuse to make a child associate sadness with books. That would be akin to advocating the wholesale slaughter of baby seals, complete with graphic illustrations.

So what do I do with this mess that is clogging my creative arteries with anger, resentment, worry, and overall I-really-hate-my-life angst?

Good question.

I don’t write well when I’m upset. My focus is on my problems and not my work. Hell, even the day job is suffering. My go-to when I’m stuck is to read about writing. Somehow, it’s easier for me to rekindle the desire to write than it is for me to think creatively when I’m standing in the middle of an emotional tornado. It’s that desire to write, to succeed, that gets my brain thinking in picture book terms again.

The common advice writers hear is that we should just write through the pain, even if it’s bad writing. I see that as a waste of time and (perhaps coining a new phrase here) muse abuse. Sometimes you just have to take that step back and catch your breath. Revisit what makes you love writing. Let your mind settle down, work on the personal problems at hand, and trust God.

I’ll write again. So will you.