The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

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A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

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1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Crush Your New Year’s Writing Goals

Every year, I make a list of New Year’s Goals. Yes, Goals. I don’t call them resolutions, because that just seems too concrete and causes too much pressure, setting me up for failure from the very start. Still, even then, some of my goals pan out . . . aaand some of them don’t. But I’ve started to notice a pattern throughout these successes and failures, and I thought I’d share some tips with you that I will be trying this year in the hopes of producing a higher success rate, especially when it comes to writing goals.

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1) Focus on small habits, not the ultimate result.

I think the biggest favor you can do for yourself is to NOT make your resolution the same as your end-game, like “write a novel,” for instance. A goal like that is too daunting, too big. It’s also too vague. There are so many steps involved in writing a novel, and so many life “things” that can get in the way. Instead, a better goal would be to “write every day.” Don’t set a word count. Don’t say you’re going to write 1000 words every day. That’s also setting yourself up for failure. There will be days where you are definitely NOT going to make your word count goal, and you need to make room for that.

In fact, even better, don’t even set your goal to write every day. Make it something more tangible. Just say you’ll work on your novel every day. That can include anything: research, pre-writing, outlining, revising. . . .  And that’s GOOD, because all of those steps are going to get you closer to achieving that end goal that I told you to ignore: to write a full-blown novel. In order to reach that end goal, you need a game plan, so it’s that game plan you need to focus on the most. If your main goal focuses on the process of achieving that end result, you will be much more likely to reach it.

 

2) Failure isn’t an excuse for giving up

No matter what you do, there are probably going to be days, weeks, even months, where you are unable to work on your goals. Everyone goes through periods when they find it difficult to write. You might call that failure. “My goal was to write every day, but I haven’t written for weeks, therefore I’ve failed, therefore I might as well quit.” No! No no no no no. Don’t quit. Just start a-new. Start where you left off. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. If you quit, then you’ve failed. But if you can accept that you’ve had a set-back and then pick yourself up and get back to work, you’ll know you have what it takes to succeed.

 

3) Flexibility is Key

Remember that a year is a long time. Things change. You change. The goals that you set in January may no longer apply in July. And that’s okay! I like to reassess my goals every few months to see what’s working, what’s not, and to think about what I need to do differently. It’s not failing or giving up if you decide that you need to take a different path. The point of a New Year’s goal is to improve yourself. Or to change yourself. Or to finally get the thing done that you’ve been wanting to get done. And in order to do any of those things without going crazy, you need to embrace flexibility. Go with the flow. If you don’t take a rigid stance, you’ll be more likely to succeed. At least, that’s my experience. Maybe it’s just because I tend to rebel against rules and rigidity. You may be different. But either way, you need to be willing to reassess and change if need be.

 

I hope these tips have helped. I will fully admit that I haven’t had a great track record for meeting the goals I’ve set each year, but a lot of that is because I haven’t followed my own advice. This year, I plan to. And I hope it helps you as well as me. Happy New Year, and good luck!

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

How to Write When You Just Don’t Wanna

Can we all just agree that the last two weeks have been the worst? I mean it. No matter what side of the political debate you fall on, the aftermath of this election has taken a toll on all of us.

I’m not here to get political, but I do want to address this toll and the effect it has had on our writing. Many—MANY—of my friends and colleagues have expressed how hard it has been for them to write lately. Many haven’t been able to write at all. I’ve seen several posts over social media bemoaning the looming end of NaNoWriMo and how behind everyone is because the election stress threw such a wrench in their ability to focus.

I’m one of them. At 22,000 words, I’m over 10k behind where I should be right now. I have massive amounts of writing to do if I’m going to hit 50k by the end of the month. I could just give up. I mean, it’s just an arbitrary contest. It’s not like my career is hinging on whether I can write 50k in 30 days. And everything else going on in the world right now feels much more important to me than finishing my draft.

Besides, I’ve failed NaNo before. Several times before. It’s not a big deal. But here’s the thing: at the beginning of this month, I made a promise to myself that I was going to REALLY DO THIS this time. I was going to finish this novel this month, come Hell or high water. Well . . . some might argue that Hell and high water are here, and now I’m struggling to keep my promise. I do still want to reach my goal, but when it comes to actually sitting down to write? I . . . don’t wanna.

I. Just. Don’t. Wanna. I mean, I do, logically. But I don’t have the mental energy for it. I’d rather take a nap, thank you very much, and hopefully not wake up until the year 2020 has come around.

Despite this, however, I’ve been managing to push myself through this writing slump, and so I thought I’d share some tips for how to get words down, even when you just don’t wanna.

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1) Allow yourself a few day’s break

This seems counter-intuitive. “Wait, so in order to get yourself to write, you . . . didn’t write?” Yup, I didn’t write. I gave my brain and emotions some time to try and work themselves out, with the promise that after a certain amount of time, even if I still didn’t feel like I was in a place where I could write, I would try to write anyway. That day came, and I turned off all social media, and told myself I couldn’t get back on until I’d written 4k. And amazingly, I wrote 4k. I’m still not sure how, but I did. And you probably can too if you really set your mind to it. But first allow yourself that break.

2) Break it down into small chunks of time

Not words. Time. You’ll probably surprise yourself by how much you’ll get written in that small amount of time. One thing I’ve done on days when I’m especially having trouble focusing, is I’ve set my alarm to go off once every hour. When it goes off, I drop whatever I’m doing (or not doing, as the case has been lately) and write for five minutes. If I hit flow, I’ll keep going. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s like a little shove on the back of the sled to get you to the start of the slope. Once you’re there, your sled will tip, and gravity will carry you the rest of the way down.

3) Multitask

I’ve become quite the fan of writing via dictation, and the bulk of my NaNo draft has actually been written via this method while I’m doing other boring tasks, such as folding laundry, picking up clutter, and waiting in the carpool lane to pick up the kids from school. Somehow, for me, I’ve been finding it easier to break through the I-don’t-wannas this way. It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t tried it yet, I recommend you do.

4) Find a second creative outlet

Set aside some time every day to work on something else creative and/or relaxing that has nothing to do with your draft. Adult coloring books are great for this. Also crafts, such as knitting, crochet, or other needlework—basically anything that relaxes you but also stimulates the creative side of your brain. Sometimes when I do this, I’ll find my mind wandering off to work on my story without me, solving plot problems, coming up with new characters, all while in a nice, relaxed, state of mind rather than while stressing out over a blank page.

5) Don’t panic

If none of this works for you, and you just can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up about it. Stress is a nasty beast that sometimes takes longer to defeat than we would like. Allow yourself the extra time you need. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, go to bed at a decent hour, and take lots of bubble baths. Your ability to write has not left you forever. It will come back when it’s ready.

I do hope these strategies help you as much as they’ve been helping me. I will point out that they don’t work one-hundred percent of the time. Some days I just have to throw in the towel and admit that writing isn’t going to happen. But even if it works only a third of the time, that’s better than not at all. Also, if you have any tips of your own, please do share them in the comments. I’d love to give them a try.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got (…it might not be what you think it is!)


In writing, as in any profession, there’s a lot of advice to take in. “Show, don’t tell.” “Use adverbs sparingly.” “Write what you know.” A writer at any stage can find advice on everything from craft to platform-building to marketing to how to tackle a query letter—and nearly all of that advice is extremely helpful.

But gather close, my fellow writers, because today I’m going to tell you about the hands-down most helpful piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten… and it probably isn’t going to be what you think.
In the summer of 2014, I was getting serious about pursuing publication. I’d been writing off and on my whole life, and had recently completed and polished my third novel. After years of not feeling like I was ready to wade into the daunting world of publishing, I’d decided it was time to go out and chase my dream down. And so I did: I signed up for a writing conference and live-pitched my book to an agent. I queried a handful of other agents and spent my days dreaming about how much they’d surely love my book. And when none of those agents uttered a word that wasn’t “no,” I stumbled across the world of online writing contests and entered Brenda Drake’s fabulous Pitch Wars, hoping that I’d win a coveted mentorship and be able to take my writing to the next level.
In the two weeks that passed between the Pitch Wars entrance period and the decision day, I knew with increasing certainty that I wasn’t going to make it in. None of the mentors I’d submitted to had requested any further materials from me, and none of the hints they were Tweeting about their favorite manuscripts lined up with mine. Sure enough, when the list of mentor picks went up, my name wasn’t on it. In the days that followed, I received kind rejection e-mails from three of the mentors I’d submitted to, all of them confirming the feeling that had been growing in my gut: My precious book, the one that my critique partners had declared “beautiful!” and “Newbery-worthy!”, was probably not going to have a chance of standing out in its highly oversaturated market.
Like any good protagonist, all of this plunged me into a bit of a Dark Night of the Soul. I traded anguished e-mails with my best friend and critique partner, agonizing over the fact that I’d never make it as a “real” writer, that I’d never be able to move beyond writing pretty words (my specialty!) to creating something truly meaningful that people couldn’t put down. I lived in fear that I would never figure out the secrets of a compelling plot—that I’d be consigned to nature-observation blog posts and lyrical but slow historical novels for the rest of forever.
During that time, I wasn’t on Twitter much. Seeing all of my newly-made Twitter friends rejoicing in the start of their Pitch Wars experience was just too hard. But on occasion, I’d get on and read the advice the mentors were tweeting for those of us who didn’t get in. And one tweet—a bit of advice from the lovely writer Bethany Smith and retweeted by a Pitch Wars mentor—particularly made an impression on me. 

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By that time, in the summer of 2014, I was not—and did not consider myself—a beginner writer. I’d been writing with varying levels of seriousness for almost a decade, and I’d been throwing myself into publication-related prep for the past two years. 
But in many ways, I was still a fledgling, just barely beginning to understand how to navigate the world beyond my own Word document. And in even more ways, I had fallen into the trap of imagining myself a “wunderkind”—a pretty natural fallout of having grown up surrounded by praise for my writing from teachers, friends, and critique partners. 
And, hard as it was to swallow, Bethany’s advice was exactly what I most needed. I needed that wake-up call—a reminder that, while I had studied hard and gotten skilled at some aspects of writing (lyrical language chief among them), I still had an enormous amount to learn (plots, for instance!). 
And as the weeks passed after the Pitch Wars mentor picks went up and I wasn’t one of them, I did my best to follow Bethany’s example, and I went to work. I turned to revising another novel, a strange little book that had a lot of my heart and soul in it, and the next year when I began querying that one, I started getting agent requests right off the bat. Ultimately, that novel got me into Pitch Wars the next year, and the things that I learned while revising that book for Pitch Wars were transformative for me. That novel didn’t get me an agent—during Pitch Wars or after it—but it did help me learn skills that I was able to apply in working on my next book, and that book was the one my fabulous agent signed me with.
In the two years that have passed since that watershed moment, a lot has changed. I have an agent now, and, in a funny twist of fate, I myself am a Pitch Wars mentor for 2016. But even now, I think about that tweet. Because while I’ve improved in many ways, I still have a lot of weaknesses, and I no longer consider myself a prodigy. Instead, I try to focus both on how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go, balancing my acquired strengths with the things I still need to learn. Because, I now realize, every writer, no matter where she is in her writing journey, has something to learn.

 

And that’s advice worth following.

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Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. She writes middle grade and young adult magical realism in addition to the occasional poem or creative non-fiction essay. She is represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown LTD. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

The Meaning of Hard Work

When I was about twelve years old, my school held a culture fair. Every student had to choose a topic and put together a display to show what we’d learned. We set up tables in the gym so people could walk around and admire our work.

My topic was the Trail of Tears.  I got a B+. I remember feeling slighted because in my mind I had worked extra hard on that project. But looking back, all I did was trace a map, surround it with rickrack, and paste a few sidebars on the display board to take up space. In contrast, another girl in my grade made a gorgeous model of a Japanese garden complete with a water feature and hundreds of hand-glued pebbles for a walkway. We were in awe, and not a little jealous, whispering that her parents must have done the project for her.

I knew her all through high school, and I feel pretty confident saying that she did the project on her own. She consistently earned top grades, played sports and the clarinet, and was well-liked and kind to everyone. From a young age she understood the concept of hard work and the importance of integrity, and it showed.

I tell this story because it took me a few more decades to truly learn how to work hard for something. Having a goal I felt passionate about made the difference. I desperately wanted to be published, but I severely underestimated what it would take to get there. Over the next several years I learned a ton of valuable lessons, including:

  • Rejection and/or failure is a part of the process that never really goes away.
  • Learn what you can from each failure and then find a way to move past it.
  • Accept constructive criticism gracefully.
  • Even when shortcuts seem like a good idea, they aren’t.
  • There is no such thing as fair, and nobody owes me a thing.
  • Waiting is the one constant in publishing, and time will pass even more slowly if I’m not actively writing something new while I wait.
  • Confidence and perseverance are good things, but without a consistent effort to hone my craft, they aren’t much help.
  • A little kindness goes a long way.
  • Revise. Revise, revise, revise. Then revise some more.
  • Read as much as possible.
  • People who love books are, more often than not, wise, wonderful, and worth getting to know. 

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Maybe you’ve learned some memorable lessons of your own during your writing journey. We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Now that my first novel is out in the world, I’m discovering a whole new set of lessons that need learning. But it’s not a problem. Just give me a couple more decades, and I’ll be good to go.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.