There are times, over the course of a long project, when you just don't want to show up. This is ironic, because as much as I'm tired and I don't want to write this blog post tonight, I've actually done quite a lot of writing this week.
Quite often, I get to the end of the week and the idea of trying to come up with something to put up on here is just too hard. This is why, quite often, I write what's at the top of my brain and allow that to be the whole of it.
I'm more thrilled by the idea of expending words on the Amnar story I've been writing this month than the meta-game of writing about it. And, I keep thinking to myself, what unique and salient perspective can I offer, when the world is packed full of courses, books, and YouTube videos, all better presented than I am, to tell you things better than I can tell them.
So, in lieu of that, I'll share some of the small facets and fears and daily struggles of writing.
First, how I get started.
Not in a big sense, as in "do you plot or pants your story?" but on a day-to-day basis. I used to find it much easier to write Amnar, but that's because I wasn't so packed up with judgments and insecurities as I am now.
I revel in procrastination now. Is that another video to watch? Could I be editing an academic paper? What about cooking, or reading, or just staring at the wall?
I have a couple of tools for kick-starting actual writing. The first is free-writing, a sort of journaling where I write about what's been bothering me. It slides into "And this is what I'm not sure about in Amnar right now...", and eventually I decide I want to get started.
When I've done a whole bunch of free-writing, or I'm bored of it, or want to try something else, I follow an exercise from Lucy van Smit's The Writer's Journal, called The Naming Game. The game works like this:
1. Set a timer for five minutes.
2. Look up and write what you see.
3. Stop when the timer goes off.
Smit's theory is that this is great for flexing writing muscles but also being present. Anxiety tends to make me rush through my days, to dissociate. Coming back to writing what I see in the room around me helps.
I've found ways to change this up if I want more to do.
1. Describe five things you see; four things you hear; three things you can touch; two you can smell; one you can taste.
2. Adding the "feeling" component of another of Smit's exercises into it. Instead of attempting to describe an item, I have to explore how I feel about, or how I react to it.
This exercise is a good way of building up a muscle Donald Maass mentions in Writing 21st Century Fiction. He makes the point that what makes really good description is not florid prose, because readers skip descriptions like that. What makes great description is the ability to make it personal and meaningful to the character responding to it.
Characters only take note of what they react to emotionally, like all people (I nearly wrote humans there, but I write fantasy, so I consider "people" to cover any kind of species that shows up in your work, including dragons, cats, or even pinecones, if your pinecones work that way).
Things, places, sounds, sights, smells, all trigger responses. It's those responses that make for truly powerful writing.
A further means of developing this exercise comes in the specific limitation of illness. Who knew crippling fatigue could be useful? Initially, I was frustrated that because I'm always in the same place when I write, I'm always describing the same things. Not much changes as I look over my laptop.
This has, on the other hand, forced me to get more creative about describing those things. I also have to notice how I respond to those things differently, how the light—and my emotion—paints them differently to my eyes on any given day.
This week I've also become obsessed with sentences. This will be a first draft—I'm not going to run from that confession, because I am too tired—so the sentences won't be the best I've ever written.
I go through phases with what about writing I'm most interested in, and right now, it's sentences. I've been listening to a lot of Welcome to Night Vale, and have now read the first two books. I'm in the process of reading Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson's You Feel It Just Below The Ribs, borne of another podcast from the Night Vale creative team.
Isn't "You feel it just below the ribs" a beautiful sentence, a beautiful way to describe an emotion? When I read them, certain writers make me want to try harder, to push for better sentences.
Night Vale has a very distinctive approach to prose, one that I particularly like. Take this description of the night sky: "Mostly void, partially stars". In the first novel, Fink and Cranor echo this with a description of a character's mental state: "Mostly void, partially thoughts."
Again, it's beautiful. Maybe not to everyone, but I like the way the phrasing veers from the overtly grandiose and poetic. It's common to think that the answer to making writing more effective and beautiful is to add more words. We all know what night looks like, so it isn't necessary to add any clichés to it. The choice of void highlights emptiness, while "partially" is just delightful because it's unexpected. Maybe I like "partially stars" because it's not obviously purple.
"Mostly void, partially thoughts" effectively describes the moments of living where I stare off into space. As somebody who has a tendency to drift into what I recently heard somebody describe as "planet autism", I can attest to the description of being mostly void, partially thoughts.
One of my goals in writing this time around is to catch myself before I fall into cliché, and to really consider how I describe things. Emotions, sensations, experiences. Some of my free-writing and other writing exercises are devoted to the experience of life as I'm living it, trying to stay present.
I was called out by an editor last year for describing a character as having a clenched jaw. "Very cliché," she said. I've thought about that since, and she's right. It's nothing like "you feel it just below the ribs". I find it hard to place sensations, but also suffer alexithymia. Sometimes I sense something but I have no idea what it is, or I'm not aware that I'm feeling something.
I wonder if I could use that to my advantage, though? It might be tempting to say that a character has a "gnawing hunger" (cliché), but what if there's a way to experience it differently. Turn it upside down. Or even have a character not notice the hunger at all.
Finally, starting tomorrow is Camp Nanowrimo. This is Nanowrimo Lite, for anybody who doesn't want to write 50k in a month. I'm going to be fighting monsters over on 4theWords, which I've found is my favourite way of defeating procrastination. Because if you've got monsters to defeat and quests to complete, writing is suddenly much easier.
And, as I write this, 4theWords has thrown confetti onto my page to tell me the special event area is open for me to explore. Good night, Amnar, good night.
Maass, D. (2012) Writing 21st Century Fiction. The Writer's Digest.
Matthewson, J and Cranor, J (2021) You Feel It Just Below The Ribs. Harper Perennial.
van Smit, L. (2022). A Writer's Journal Workbook. Bloomsbury.