Anyone who’s attempted to write a novel–even if they’ve just managed through the planning stage–knows how challenging and often daunting the prospect can be. Precious few of us have unlimited time to sit back, drink coffee, and write (as Stephen King famously does, for instance) until you reach your daily 20 pages, or 10,000 words, or whatever.

Here’s a few suggestions that might help you out of the mire. I’m not an expert, but over the last decade or so I’ve figured out some tips that just might get you going in the right direction.

1.) Don’t listen to other writers’ processes. I’m not saying not to listen to me, exactly. I’m saying, don’t take a successful writer’s process as law. Everyone works differently, and at difference paces. Tolkien took decades to write the LoTR, and many popular authors seem to crap (for lack of a better term) out a book every month or so. Find your own pace, your own style. Learn when you write best, and under which circumstances. If you are busy, like me, you might want to use a calendar for a few weeks and mark down what days and when you were the most prolific.

2.) Avoid quicksand. There’s a reason writers write in drafts. Very few people–excluding, I’ve heard, Neil Gaiman–have to rewrite large parts of their books during the process. So when you’re writing your first version down, try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s way too easy to mistake the forest for the trees when you’re writing your first draft, and you can get hung up on the smallest stuff. If you’re like me you treat your first draft like an outline, and build from there. I’ve talked to plenty of writers who get stuck in this stage and never get out, and blame it on extraneous factors. But quite often, the mire of stalling in draft stage is self-inflicted quicksand.

3.) Don’t apologize. This happens quite often with fiction that skitters along the fantasy, science fiction, or steampunk flavor: writers feel like they have to apologize for their interests. This is deadly poison. The moment you start apologizing for what you like or what you like to write, you immediately discredit yourself to whoever it is your talking to, and to yourself. Writing takes confidence, and any crack can cause serious stress points in the whole structure.

4.) Get over the hard work factor. For the vast majority of writers out there, writing a novel is damn hard work. It’s harder, too, when you have a real job, a family, and a life outside. Making writing a priority is no small task. I’ve been setting word goals for myself. i.e.: no surfing the internet until I’ve hit another 1,000 words. And then, only for a few minutes. You can’t sit and say, “Ugh! This is so hard!” because you could be writing instead of complaining. If you’re dedicated to getting it finished, then you just have to do it. No publisher in their right minds will take an unfinished novel! We all have ideas, after all. It’s the work in between that distinguishes a novel from an idea.

5.) Keep finding inspiration. Whether it’s movies, music, other books, or pieces of art, we all have points of inspiration when it comes to writing. Don’t get so wrapped up in your book that you forget to absorb; be a sponge! Writing takes momentum, and it’s much easier to maintain it than to lose it and start from scratch again.

6.) Figure out why you write. Ask yourself the question, and examine the answer. Think about it. If the answer is acceptable for you, something you can live by, great. But if you’re not finding success writing, maybe your heart’s not in it for the right reasons.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by John KeatsCompulsion is described as:

the act of compelling; constraint; coercion.
the state or condition of being compelled.
Psychology. a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.

Writing is a strange habit, and certainly not one too many people engage in. There are lots of reasons for this. It is extremely time consuming; it requires focus, drive, and endless creativity; it is something done, with some exceptions, in near solitude.

And yes, it is, as Chaucer might say, “passing straunge.”

I have strange days when I open up Scrivener, and stare at the words–the words upon words–and can’t imagine where it all came from. I know, of course, that I’ve done it, that I’ve written the words and have told the story. But I can’t tell you where inspiration comes from, and I certainly can’t explain the magic formula involved when it actually goes right. Because, with writing–for me, at least–there is very little in the way of planning. Precious few are the days, hours, minutes, that I set aside for pure writing actually successful.

In spite of the loss of 10k words this week, the proof to me is that: hey, I wrote. I didn’t feel like I was, but I managed 10k in two weeks. 5k a week isn’t too shabby, that’s for sure, considering most of this “edit” has been a complete rewrite.

It’s rare that I go out of my way to share much of my writing. First of all, explaining fantasy novels–let alone steampunk fantasy novels–to anyone is trecherous territory. You either get it or you don’t.

The truth is, though, whether or not the novels, the stories, the poems ever see the light of day, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t stop writing, I can’t stop playing pretend. Because, really, that’s what it is. In fact, I can trace it back: I started writing novels when I stopped playing pretend with my little sister. We had an incredible world, she and I, filled with the kind of magic and mystique that only little girls can muster in the closeness and imaginative golden years of youth.

But, like Susan Pevensie, I suppose, I had to grow up. I was twelve and, at least according to me, much too old to be pretending to be someone I was not. Yet, the imagining didn’t cease. I wrote alone for a while, then brought my sister on board, and later wrote with my friend. Then when I was 15, I started the long dark years of teenaged angst, and didn’t write much (other than music, that is). And even in undergraduate school, I didn’t write much. This was mostly due to a rather stifling relationship that honestly didn’t leave any room for me. The stuff I did write was for workshops in my writing courses, and certainly not for me. I never could let go in those classes.

It took graduate school for me to revisit the book I’d started rather haphazardly when I was 18. That novel is finished, per se, but it still is lacking. I’ve probably been through it five times and I seriously doubt it can be resurrected. It’s a good story, but it’s so young. As I wrote it I could feel my writing improve, I could tell I was getting better; it’s hard to keep consistent when you’re growing that much.

Now, life is no less difficult–but it is different, in many ways. The Aldersgate is more than just my novel in progress; it was, you see, my way out of a very dark place, in the aftermath of postpartum depression. It brought me hope that I could write again, that I could create, and that there was light somewhere, even if it felt very distant. Slowly but surely, the world of the novel was revealed, in snippets, in voices, in conversations. It was as if after the suffering, the terror of nearly losing my son after he was born (and, I’m told, nearly dying myself bringing him into the world), I was given a gift.

I often say that Emry, the Bard, is the closest to me in the story. And at first, I thought it was because he was musical, and often clumsy, slightly foppish, and certainly a romantic at heart (curse me, but I am). But as I continue to write him, and to explore his growth in my novel, I realize that we share something else in common: suffering. We’ve been places that we can’t explain to people, even if we tried. And in spite of it all, we risk that suffering again because we love–not just our work and our calling, but our friends, too.

All that said, I’m feeling rather reflective since the Great Hard-Drive Explosion of 2008. Every now and again I feel as if I walk into another chapter of my own life; the light is different, the stars have moved, and there’s a new song to be sung.

So, with that, I suppose it’s time to move on along.

O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads, and smile;
Lift up your heads, sweet Spirits, heavily,
And make a pale light in your cypress glooms,
Tinting with silver wan your marble tombs.— Keats, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”

DeLaveaux StreetlampMy time of day is the dark time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone.

When the smell of the rainwashed pavement
Comes up clean, and fresh, and cold
And the streetlamp light
Fills the gutter with gold

That’s my time of day
My time of day

That’s from “Guys and Dolls” which, as strange as it may seem to you, is probably my favorite musical on the face of the planet. I’m sure there’s no real correlation between a 40’s era musical and my current novel, but “My Time of Day” has always been my favorite song in the whole show. And Sky Masterson is well… dreeeeaaamy.

It’s Saturday, and I’ve been running around most of the day after my nearly two-year old, who is cutting his 2 year molars and simultaneously going through his Terrible Twos. Weekends are an oddity for me because, as my husband was mentioning earlier in the day, they aren’t “off” time as they once used to be. Before the kiddo, we really relaxed on weekends. Heck, I remember entire weekends we did nothing but play World of Warcraft. Like for 10 hours a day. Not that I want to ever do that again, exactly! But, suffice it to say, that sort of reckless leisure is no longer an option.

I’ve tried to maintain a good weekend writing schedule, but it’s nearly impossible. I find the most prolific time to write tends to be late in the day, the weekday. Post-10pm, usually. I don’t know what it is exactly about that time of day that speaks to me, or what. Sometimes I’m surprised I can even form a coherent sentence–but nearly every time I read back what I wrote, it’s volumes better than I thought it was, and better than what I put down during the day before.

Not sure if some of us are “evening” writers, and others aren’t. I was born in the evening, so maybe that makes sense. My son was born at almost 11pm, so he’s that way, too. Thankfully, however, he is sleeping at the moment and not awake writing stories.

It’s currently 9:33pm, and I was trying to write just now. But it’s not quite happening yet. Deep breaths, Natania. It’ll come.

Uranie and CalliopeWhere does inspiration occur? How does it find us? Where, and when, are we most likely to encounter it?

If there’s anything I’ve learned, the Muses are fickle creatures indeed. But instead of despairing, there are quite a few measures you can take to wiggle your way out of the dark crevices of writer’s block. At least, I’ve found some of these methods useful:

5.) Listen to the Music. This is #5, but it’s usually my first line of defense. As a musician myself, this specifically refers to the listening, and not the making aspect. I like to craft writing playlists, and these typically run toward the Classical side (I’m also horrendously addicted to WCPE). However, instrumental and operatic melodies aren’t always the best to jog the proverbial jammed gear of creativity. I like to try and delve through music I haven’t heard of in a while, like what I might have listened to in high school (lots of Beatles, Moxy Fruvous, and TMBG). Or, I can branch out into something completely new–after resisting for almost a decade, I ended up obsessed with Coldplay’s XY a few months ago.

4.) Get the heck outside. This may seem quite obvious, but one of the most sources of my writer’s block comes from the stasis achieved by staring at my Own Two Walls too long. Lack of sunlight (and consequent Vitamin D), exercise, and oxygen, are never a good combination. Hikes tend to work for me; if you’ve read a bit here at all, you’ll know I’m a bit of a tree fiend. I get rather giddy staring in to the limbs of trees, especially this time of year, and back-to-basics nature-gazing is always a good place to plant the seeds of a story (no pun intended).

3.) Try a graphic novel. While no means a comic book aficionado–I leave that distinction to my husband–I’ve been helped out of a sorry writer’s block mood more than once by a graphic novel or two. Neil Gaiman is always a good place to start, in my opinion, since his Sandman comics are such a sophisticated combination of mythology, legend, and pop culture. There’s something very stimulating about reading pictures and words simultaneously that can often jog the creative spaces left in the brain.

2.) Meditate. This doesn’t have to be a spiritual thing if you don’t want it to be, of course. I wouldn’t want to push religion on anyone. But the act of meditation, of emptying oneself, might seem a little counter intuitive at first. I mean, how can not thinking help you think? Strangely enough, it does, at least for me. Taking time to calm myself and to open my mind to the images and emotions necessary to write a novel is something that meditation often ushers in rather well. I’ve experienced some of the most vivid ideas after or during meditation (and yoga, too).

1.) Talk it out. Go back and read what you’ve written (if you’ve got anything) and do it aloud. Record it, if you can. Listen to the natural cadence of the language, to the sound of the sentences working together. But most importantly, try to listen to it freely–i.e. try to detach yourself from the telling. So many of us get uselessly wrapped up in our tales, and mistake the forest for the trees. A distance from that can let us experience the magic of narrative in a whole new way. Not to mention, it helps you get a better idea of your characters to hear them speak for once!

Hopefully these suggestions are helpful for you. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for finding A Way Out. I know there are some things I have tried that typically end in lots of lost time (cruising Wikipedia, for example). Sometimes, you have to find your own way through…

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.

— Truman Capote

Yesterday was not a prolific day. As I was free of the wee one, I had planned to spend the evening writing, plotting, scheming, and steaming. But this was not to be. Somewhere between work and when I left work (i.e. stood up from my desk in the home office and declared “IT IS DONE!”) something simply snapped, and all creativity went away as quickly as water down an in-flight toilet.

So, I decided to wrangle myself and read Chapter Two into the microphone. However, GarageBand decided to have a complete and utter meltdown, and I was left with two hours of work down the same proverbial airline toilet.

Still, I couldn’t just let it go. I couldn’t say to myself: “Natania, today is not a writing day, no matter how much you want it to be.” No, I am painfully stubborn. So after dinner I went upstairs, after taking a lovely walk through town with my husband, and tried my hand at the next chapter.

Alas, this was a bad idea. I wrote, I deleted. I wrote… yes, I deleted some more. Finally, I went downstairs and subjected myself to the worst of the worst: reality TV.

This is not characteristic of my process. My close friends will tell you I’m typically a very optimistic person. Usually, when the creativity runs dry (or Aelfric, my muse, is out somewhere on a mead binge) I simply let it be. I do something else: write a song, play guitar, paint a picture, do some knitting.

I guess yesterday the weight of novel writing just got to me. I stared at the binder in Scrivener, and felt the immense pressure of the 15 chapters I’ve (mostly) edited, and the 15-20 to come looming over me. I felt like Damocles, sword hovering inches from the top of my head, swinging ever so slightly on the taut hair holding it there. And for that moment, that scary moment, it was too much.

I realize this all sounds very wussy. And that’s fine, maybe I am a wuss. I can own up to it. I suppose it’s like cold feet before getting married; I’m trying to commit myself to this (case in point, the words you a reading upon this page in particular). But I also want to be honest with myself.

Eventually, I just went to bed. And really, that’s it. I woke up this morning, refreshed. Sometime around midday I came up with a plan. I rented three movies (Unforgiven, the Golden Compass, and Steamboy) for dinner, and cooked a “cowboy” dinner–ribs, beans, and corn. I must say the ribs were fantastic. I haven’t seen the movies yet, but I’m hoping they do the trick.

But, today, I won’t try and write. Because, sometimes, I think it’s okay just to wait for it. Whatever “it” is–I don’t know. I’ll keep you posted.

Natania’s (Hopefully) Inspiring Cowboy Pork Ribs

Prepare ribs with a rub consisting of:

1 tsp paprika

4 tbsp brown sugar or sugar in the raw

1 tsp smoked salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

Preheat your grill to its highest setting, and once it’s warm, put the ribs on. Then, turn the temperature all the way down. Cook until the meat is tender, and you can separate the ribs from the bone easily.

Meanwhile prepare BBQ sauce: 1/4 cup ketchup, 3-4 tbsp smoked chipotle Tabasco sauce, 2 tbsp mustard, 2 tbsp maple syrup.

When the ribs are ready, dip in the sauce or toss in the sauce (depending on how saucy you are!)

Growing up sucks. Though there’s a great many things I don’t want back from my childhood (scrunchies, side-ponytails, school lunches, windshield wiper glasses), there are some compromises I’ve made since then I wish could have gone down a little differently.

When you’re a kid, you really, truly believe you’re special. Yes, I know this sounds completely hokey. But I remember very vividly, sometime about the age of eight or so, thinking to myself: “I am special.” And Special had none of the connotation you might be thinking (or are pretending you aren’t thinking… yeah, I bet she’s special..). Special was akin to magic. Purposeful. Important. Worthwhile. Unique!

Then, you grow up. You go to Junior High and are trampled in the halls. Your classmates start taking drugs, and you get the nagging feeling that… I’m not special. I’m downright odd. I don’t fit in! This is terrible! What am I doing here?! Someone LET ME OUT!

Uh, I mean. That’s normal, right?

Well, before the horror of high school, I held on to that feeling of specialness. I reveled it in, and it made me happy. Not haughty, just… well, a bit like no matter where I went, the sun was shining, yeah?

When you grow up, it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed by everything from gas prices to politics to the human condition to the fact that your neighbor brings their dog all the way to the poop hut and then lets the dog crap on the ground literally inches away from an appropriate dumping spot AND plastic bags!

And this is not good for the creative process. Like today. I can’t tell you what bee is in my bonnet, but it’s enough that I opened up Scrivener, looked at the pages, and just wanted to bash my head on the keyboard. 14 chapters of an original 30 edited, and I’m still nowhere near satisfied. If it’s not good enough for me, will it be good enough for anyone? Am I being too hard on myself?

I think this is a little more angsty sounding than I initially intended it to be. But the writing process, as any writer knows, is work. It’s even more work, when you have to squeeze it in every chance you get. And who knows if the muse will be with you? My muse, whom I lovingly named Aelfric in college (he’s an Anglo-Saxon, for some odd reason) is fickle and, I suspect, a drunk.

That said, one should never give up. I like to visit George R. R. Martin’s not-a-blog on occasion because, well, he’s successful, but he still gets frustrated.

Maybe we’re still special, just… not the way we once imagined.