Tag Archives: writing

How to Avoid Avoidance Behavior


by Lillian Csernica on October 3, 2013

There’s a paradox that every writer experiences from time to time.  You really want to get that daily word count written, but the minute you sit down to go at it, your mind starts fighting itself.  Oh wait, gotta get those notes.  Need more coffee.  Did that e-mail reply come in yet?  Time to rotate the loads of laundry.  And there’s always the eternal lure of Spider Solitaire or Bejeweled.  Why does that wall of resistance pop up between you and your work?

Speaking for myself, I find it’s a combination of fear, fatigue, and inertia.

FEAR:  Every day I face the blank screen.  Every day I have to summon up more words to build on all the others I wrote yesterday.  Can I do it?  Do I have the words?  Do I have the right words?  Am I ever going to get all the way through to the end of this project and maybe see the day when other people buy it and read it and say good things about it?  This is an anxiety spiral.  It feeds on itself, pumping more and more adrenalin into the system.  It’s hard to concentrate when your heart is racing and your fight or flight response is making you climb your own mental walls.  Solution?  Get outside.  Walk it off.  Be mindful of the present moment.

FATIGUE:  Do you get enough sleep?  I know I don’t.  Is it quality sleep?  Mine frequently isn’t.  Good sleep hygiene is essential to the proper functioning of brain chemistry.  Believe me when I tell you proper brain chemistry is a happy thing.  Sleep also gives the subconscious time to sort through ideas.  You might wake up with the wonderful gift of What Happens Next.

INERTIA:  Remember Sisyphus, from Greek mythology?  He was condemned to push that boulder up that incline until he finally got it to stay at the top.  Every time he almost made it, something would happen to send the boulder rolling back down to the bottom again.  Writing is a lot like that.  You push that boulder up that hill and get your daily quota written.  Yay!  You’ve done it!  Wait a minute…  Oh no….  NO!   There goes the boulder.  Tomorrow you have to push that same boulder up that same hill again.  Sooner or later you will get that particular novel or story finished and off to market.  Trouble is, there’s another boulder waiting for you at the bottom of a new hill.

How can we train ourselves to withstand the self-defeating lure of avoidance behaviors?  Motivation.  Strong motivation is a powerful weapon against avoidance and procrastination.  Don’t take my word for it.  The key to motivation can be found in

The Long Answer:

You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.   — Woodrow Wilson
The Short Answer:
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.  —  Jack London
Motivation is a subject that deserves its own post, so let me get us back on track with curing avoidance behaviors.   I was in the audience for a panel discussion at a SF convention when a successful writer answered most of the questions that came up with one word: “Deadlines.”  That says a lot.  Accountability can force us to stop making the excuses that come so easily when we answer to no one but ourselves.  If there’s somebody else expecting us to deliver that thousand words, five thousand, one hundred thousand, that person will hold us accountable for our commitment.  Different switches get thrown inside our brains and suddenly we can shake off that lethargy and focus.

How can we manufacture such accountability, assuming we don’t already have editors tapping their fingers on contracts that bear both specific deadlines and our signatures?  People have diet buddies.  Exercise buddies.  Sponsors and tutors and study groups.  Find somebody you know who’s willing to trade accountability with you.  Agree on the amount of productivity.  Agree on the frequency of deadlines.  If possible, agree on some congenial meeting place like a bookstore or a coffeehouse.  Otherwise, meet up online via Skype or your webcam or whatever works.  If you know that by Thursday next your Writing Buddy is expecting to see the complete roughdraft of that new short story, you’ll be amazed at how your perspective and work ethic change.

 

Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.  —  Erma Bombeck
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Filed under Depression, fantasy, Fiction, Goals, Horror, Humor, romance, science fiction, Self-image, Uncategorized, Writing

The Top Five Writing Blogs I Read


by Lillian Csernica on July 24, 2013

 

Kristen Lamb’s Blog — Sharp, personable, meaningful, and informative.  Deserves the title Social Media Maven.

terribleminds: Chuck Wendig — Raunchy, hilarious, heartfelt, and streetwise.

Hunting Down Writing — Full of resources, such as this excellent challenge.

Broadside — Witty, thought-provoking, a valuable perspective on whatever topic she chooses.

Leanne Shirtliffe — Ironic Mom — Just too damn funny.  Whether or not you’re a mother, you will enjoy the author of “Don’t Lick the Minivan.”

Click those links!  You’ll be glad you did!

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Mood Swings


by Lillian Csernica on May 9, 2013

Over the years I’ve discovered that I write the best when I’m in either a really high mood, or the absolute abyss.  Am I bi-polar?  No.  Does my mood vary like this on a daily basis?  The short answer to that one is no.  Most of the time I’m chugging right along in that combination of happy about some things/worried about other things/gonna kick somebody’s ass about that one thing.  This means I’m thinking about too many different things at once, which makes it hard to get my energy together in that mental space called the “creative trance.”

Am I advocating jacking up your mood or getting really depressed?  Of course not.  For centuries writers have tried doing that by artificial means, and while some of them produced some lasting pieces of really memorable writing, many of them destroyed their talent, their minds, and their lives.

(Yes, there’s a fine line between creativity and mental imbalance.  Sometimes they go hand in hand.  We’ll talk about that another time.)

There are some things you can do to get yourself in the mood for writing that are not dangerous to your physical or mental well-being.  Music is the first example that springs to mind.  When I was writing my very first novel, a fantasy novel where I alternated chapters between the two main characters, during the writing of the one character’s chapters I blasted “The Best of Berlin” over and over again.  When I was writing a section of SHIP OF DREAMS where Alexandre contemplates all the losses in his back story that made him turn pirate, I kept playing U2’s “With or Without You.”  And for those days when I’m feeling sluggish and don’t want to apply myself, I crank up Pat Benatar and in minutes I’m so wired I can’t type fast enough.

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned chocolate.  Oh yeah.  Please see What Fuels My Writing for my thoughts on chocolate as the writer’s friend.

What does it for you?  What puts you in the mood to write the sad standing-by-the-casket scenes?  What gets you all happy and jazzed so you can write that intense chase scene?  What helps you shut out all the tedious little daily distractions so you can be fully present in your writing mind?  Think about it.  Keep a mood journal.  There’s nothing like tracking habitual data in an empirical format that will show you patterns you didn’t know existed.  This could help you pinpoint your best times of day, noise levels, quality of light, all these details.  Figure out the environmental factors that support your creativity and productivity so you can recreate them at will!

Wannabes think, “Oh, I have to be in the mood to create.”  Serious writers and artists figure out how to put themselves in that mood and make the most of it.

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Fear:My Friend and Enemy


by Lillian Csernica on May 7, 201327408-blogeverday

Day 7: The thing(s) you’re most afraid of

When I first started to sell my short stories, I sold mainly to horror markets.  Horror was big at the time, so there were quite a few magazines and anthologies.  I’ve been asked more than once why I wrote horror.  In my experience, there are three types of horror writers:

The people who write about the struggle between good and evil.

The people who are on the side of the monsters.

The people who write to kill their own monsters.

I fall into the third category.  I have very little control over my world and the conditions under which I live.  I can take some of those conditions and a few of the people, change them and reshape them, then pin them down on paper where I have all the control I need.  In my stories good triumphs over evil.  The monsters die.  It might not be a total victory for the protagonist, because if there’s one thing I believe in its the spectrum of human (and inhuman) behavior that lies between what I consider to be Good and Evil.

I had to give up writing horror because events started happening in my life that supplied me with way too much raw material.  I’m prone to nightmares anyway, have been since I was a child.  I could not commit myself to living with writing horror all the time, not when real life had become so difficult and tragic.  That’s when I switched to writing romance novels.  Nothing like exotic locations, a hot love story, and happy endings as an antidote for that lingering sense of being watched or the endless fear of the dark.

What are the things that most frighten me?

Dying before I can find the right people to act as guardians for Michael and John.

Having a stroke or being diagnosed with a form of dementia that will rob me of my writing mind.

Being blinded, or going blind.

Never being free of some of the problems that keep me from achieving my full potential as a human being.

Great big bird-eating spiders

There are other things, but those are the major categories.  I fear loss.  I fear separation.  I fear endings and goodbyes.

 

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R is for Roughdraft


by Lillian Csernica on April 19, 2013

So you wanna write a novel. Fifty thousand to one hundred thousand words. Two hundred to four hundred pages. That’s a serious mental marathon. How do you train for it? How do you build up the stamina, the will power, the sheer endurance to live through every single day it’s going to take you to get to that final draft? That final, polished, perfect manuscript?

Don’t worry about it. Don’t even waste energy asking the questions.

The roughdraft is exactly that. The rough, messy, incomplete, scribbled-on first version of your story. This is where you let yourself go wild. Push it as hard and as far as you can. Throw in anything and everything that sounds good at the moment you’re writing. You’re riding that wild stallion called Creativity. Keep a light hand on the reins and just go where it takes you.

You’ve got the idea. You’ve got the plot, or at least part of it. You’ve got characters. Most of all, you’ve got the excitement. That’s where you start. Writing isn’t a linear process, not for most of the writers I know. You don’t just go from Page One straight through to The End.  Start where the passion is, where you see and feel and hear the story coming alive.

I once had a little note stuck to the side of my keyboard. On it I’d copied a quotation: “You have to write SOMETHING before you can write something GOOD.” Give yourself permission to be that kindergartener discovering fingerpaints. Feel free to color outside the lines. You’re creating something new!  That’s an organic process. Just like all the messes we made when we were little kids, we can go back and clean it up later, right?

Enjoy the ride. 

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C is for Consistency


by Lillian Csernica on April 3, 2013

C is for Consistency

Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, the time will come when you rewrite it. Editing a manuscript means making lot of little changes and a few rather large ones. This forces you to read through the story to make sure all those changes line up in correct order.

This is the essence of consistency.

I’ve watched “Moonstruck” so many times I finally caught the mathematical error in the script. There are three references to when Cher’s husband died. They don’t add up to a consistent time frame. It’s not pivotal to the story. Most viewers wouldn’t notice. And yet, now that I know, I haven’t watched the movie since.

Authors who write successful novel series have staff whose specific duties involve making sure the current book is consistent with all previous books. Charlaine Harris has someone do this for the Sookie Stackhouse books. That became very important after Hurricane Katrina hit and Ms. Harris had to address the consequences of all the damage Katrina did in Sookie’s fictional Louisiana.

Good readers pay attention. Good writers respect that.

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B is for Back Story


Cover of "Ship of Dreams (Leisure Histori...

Cover via Amazon

by Lillian Csernica on April 2, 2013

B is f or Back Story

The back story is everything that has happened to your main character leading up to the story you want to tell. Many writers believe that the more you know about your main character’s back story, the better you’ll be able to show him or her on the page. Spend all that time figuring out all those dozens of little details and you’ll come up with the one or two that make all the difference in the story.

Not necessary.

All you really need to know about your main character’s past is what affects him or her in the context of the story you’re telling right now.

In my historical romance novel SHIP OF DREAMS, all I had to know about my hero Alexandre de Marchant was that he blamed himself for the destruction of the French naval vessel he served aboard because he didn’t kill their incompetent commander when he had the chance. If he’d done so, the much more qualified officers would have defeated their English adversaries and Alexandre’s shipmates would still be alive. His guilt and the pathological hatred of all English sailors that arose from it made writing his actions and reactions much easier.

Speed counts for a lot in today’s marketplace. Yes, you need those telling details to bring your story to life, but if you get bogged down in those details and don’t finish your story, it may never get the chance to live.

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How to Make Writing Progress Every Day


by Lillian Csernica on March 28, 2013

As the mother of two special needs teenage boys, there are many days when I am just not in the mood to write.  I’m too tired, I’m too stressed, I’ve had to be out at appointments or making phone calls or sorting out scheduling problems with the nurses and aides.  All I want to do is flop down on the couch with a bag of microwave popcorn and let my higher brain functions take a vacation while I watch some trashy action movie on Netflix.

That doesn’t get the day’s writing done.

How do I get myself to churn out the day’s writing regardless of mental fatigue, emotional turbulence, and family demands?  I keep two lists:  Process Goals and Productivity Goals.

Process Goal: This is an activity that will contribute to the overall completion of a particular writing project.  I have a new short story underway.  I brainstorm more plot complications to see if I can raise the stakes and make the story more exciting with greater suspense.

Productivity Goal:  This is the write-the-actual-words goal.  A thousand a day?  Two thousand?  If I want to get a five thousand word short story written in first draft form in one week’s time, then I have to hit my target of a thousand words per day.  If I write more, great!

There is always something I can accomplish, no matter what my frame of mind might be.  If I want to be successful as a writer, both on the personal and the professional levels, then I have to get the story or novel written, clean it up, and get it out to market.  If I keep my sights set on today, I won’t feel so overwhelmed.  Today plus today plus today adds up.  A thousand words per day five days a week for twenty weeks or five months equals one hundred thousand words, which is a four hundred page novel.

Keeping those lists of Process goals and Productivity goals is my way of making sure that no matter what kind of mood I’m in, there will be something I can muster up the motivation to accomplish.  Once I’ve overcome the inertia of not being “in the mood,” I can build some momentum and get the work done.

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Whose Story Is It, Anyway?


Courtroom

by Lillian Csernica on March 24, 2013

Back in high school, I was on the Speech and Debate Team. We had an opportunity to compete in the Mock Trial. That’s exactly what it was, a mock trial held in a real courtroom before a judge. The teams who participated in the competition were given packets that included information on the plaintiff, the defendant, the scene of the event under dispute, statements from both plaintiff and defendant and the police officers called to the scene. Mind you, those people were all made up, strictly fictional. The only real people were those of us competing, the judges, our coaches and the lawyers who volunteered to help us understand courtroom procedure and etiquette, such as how and when to make an objection.

I learned a very important lesson from the lawyer who helped train my team: “There are always two sides to every story.”

When I set out to write a story, I have to know whose story it is. From what point of view (POV) should I tell the story? In romance novels, it’s customary to write from both the hero’s and the heroine‘s POVs so the reader can enjoy the full development of the emotional connection between them. It’s also possible to have multiple POVs beyond just the main characters. In my current novel, I pop in on the bad guy every now and then and let the reader see how his evil plans are progressing as he continues to search for the heroine so he can capture her and give her to a powerful ally. That led me to start adding in scenes where the major rival of the bad guy hears about his search, so the rival decides to send his spies out and see if the rival can take advantage of the situation to thwart the bad guy. That makes four POVs! A multiple POV novel is a lot like a cake. You have to know how to add in the ingredients at the right time and in the right amounts. Then you turn up the heat! If all goes well, you get a very satisfying treat.

Layer cake

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? There’s another question that brings it all down to the bottom line: “Who has the most to lose?”

I once wrote a short story from the POV of the heroine. I was sure she was the one who would lose everything if the bad guys won. As I developed the plot and its complications, I realized the hero was the one in a much worse position because he would very likely end up dead. What did that mean in terms of POV? It meant I had to rewrite the story from word one according to the hero’s POV. The story is now much more intense and dramatic.

Everyone involved in the main event of the story, major characters, minor characters, spear carriers and passers-by in the background, all have a story to tell. They each have their own POV. They each have something to gain and something to lose. I try to keep this in mind when I’m out where I can eavesdrop on other people. (Yes, it’s a terrible habit. Call it an occupational hazard.) Everybody has a story, probably several. I never know where I’m going to find that sudden spark that fires up the engines in my Idea Factory.

Idea Factory

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No Pain, No Gain


by Lillian Csernica on March 21, 2013

For a long time I had a wrong equation in my head.  I thought my time was very limited.  I’m so busy with all the tasks involved in taking care of both my sons that it’s very difficult to find the time to write.  Writing a novel is a serious commitment.  I’ve heard it compared to marriage.  Once you set out to write a novel, you’d better go into it realizing you’re going to be living with this project day in and day out for months, possibly years.  I’m here to tell you that’s absolutely true.  What’s painful is watching the days slip by one by one without any writing getting done.  Days filled up with doctor appointments or IEP meetings or meetings with the caseworker or filling prescriptions or all the ordinary household errands that can add up into hours away from my keyboard and my writing.  See, the equation I had made was very simple.  I could be a mother or I could be a writer.  I couldn’t do both, at least not at the same time.  If I was spending time on mothering, that meant I couldn’t spend it on writing.  If I was busy writing, that meant time taken away from my sons.  Either way, what came out on the other side of the equals sign was guilt and frustration.  No matter what I did, how hard I tried, I couldn’t win.

This was not good for my mental or physical health.  In fact, it was very very bad for me.  In addition to all the other difficult factors in my life, I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder.  Now let me be clear: I am low serotonin.  I’ve had a problem in my brain chemistry since long before my sons came along, so I don’t want anybody to think I’m drawing any kind of link between the boys and their problems and me being depressed.  I could go down the whole list of my symptoms of clinical depression and how I’m an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  Yes, I was in pain.  A lot of pain, and that pain kept sucking up all the energy I had for any creative efforts.

And then a very wise LCSW I know gave me the new equation that set me free: “If your pain is stopping you from writing, maybe you need to make room in your writing for your pain.”

Wow.  Scary thought!  Writers are often told, “Write what you know!”  I write fantasy, horror, historical romance, some science fiction.  I write ESCAPIST literature.  I write to get away from the pain I live with, just like I read to get away from the pain I live with.  Makes sense, right?  So why in the name of all that’s logical would I want to start writing about my pain?  If I combine a quick list of What I Know with a quick list of What Really Hurts  this is what I’d get:

1) Every day both of my sons struggle through their hours at school.

2) From 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. my house is full of noise and people and more activity than I can tolerate, even though I’m grateful for Michael‘s R.N.s and John’s aides.

3) My father died a month before Michael was born, and a year after I had a miscarriage and lost my first son James, so Daddy never got to see any of his grandsons.

4) I’ve reached the age where I don’t go to weddings and baby showers anymore.  I treasure my friends’ birthdays because I’ve already been to too many funerals.

5) I think about all the other things I could be doing, traveling and teaching and going on writers’ retreats and meeting all kinds of fascinating people.  Having conversations that don’t center around medications and diagnoses and problems with the Special Education Department and how many diapers my 16 year old son has had changed that day.

Henry James said fiction is about “The human heart in conflict with itself.”  As a writer it is my business to create people on paper and give them both internal and external conflicts.  The idea of giving my fictional people my own pain to cope with in the course of the story is a frightening and intimidating thought.  Dorothy Parker said, “Never never dip your quill/In ink that rushes from your heart.”  I’ve begun a story about a woman living with the agonies of PTSD in the wake of losing her first baby to miscarriage.  I’ve been crying when I’ve been writing it and I’ve been crying when I’ve read parts of it to my writing class.  It hurts like hell, but it’s real and it’s believable and it’s some of the most honest writing I’ve ever done.  I want to keep improving my work, to polish my writing style and create better plots and make my characters live and breathe.  If tapping into the vast reservoir of pain inside me can help me do that, then it’s time to commit the emotional alchemy that will turn this poisonous lead into curative gold.

Other writers have been where I’m going.  Historian and author Anita Brookner said, “You never know what you will learn until you start writing.  Then you discover truths you never knew existed. ”  According to Francis Bacon, my bags are already packed:  “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”

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