Category Archives: Writer Talk

Be the Best Writer’s Block Buster – 6 Foolproof Strategies to Keep Writing

Visions of drill-sergeants march through my head and I laugh at them. What do they know about writing? Well, okay, sometimes you just have to push. There is a place for brute force in writing, but why go there when you can hack whatever blocks you in so many more pleasant ways?

First things first: Yes, I am a firm believer in the idea that there is no such thing as Writer’s Block, very much like there is no teacher’s block, no fireman’s or secretary’s block. We really need to stop mystifying ourselves. However. And that is a big one, so it gets its own sentence. However, there are pretty powerful blocking factors that occur so often that bets are, you have to deal with at least two of them if you want to finish writing anything.

 

So here are the 6 most common blocks to bust:

 

1. The Problem: Lack of Motivation.

A little obvious, sure, but a lot of the time the reason you are not writing is very simply because you don’t want to. Think about it: writing for many of us is somewhere in the nebulous area between a job and a hobby. It can feel a bit like doing your homework back in school: a lot of work every day with only a bare glimpse of the benefit at the end of a very long tunnel. But this time you are not in school: you’re an adult and you have a day job (or kids, or you’re not an adult and actually have school on top of everything). Nobody is after you like a hawk denying you video games or the Wi-Fi password until you’re done.

The Drill-Sergeant would say:

Write Anyway. Push through until your fingers bleed, you lazy mo-fo!

I would say: Be your own Cheerleader!

The reason you don’t want to write is because in your head, you turned it into work/homework/chores. This happens so easily because we’re humans and we’re idiots that way, but there are ways around it. One literally is to ruthlessly hype yourself up to write. Make a habit of thinking about your story while you do your actual work and your actual chores. Envision the awesome scenes you get to write that day, how well they well integrate and push your plot ahead. Think of the characters that you love and ask them how they feel about yesterday’s scene and how you can make them happy today.
And it may seem silly but it’s crucial in terms of brain chemistry: smile while you do it! Even if you don’t feel like smiling at first, smile anyway. It’ll become more natural as your scenes unfold in front of your mind’s eye.

 

2. The Problem: Lack of Routine

There are still writers who contest the importance of a daily writing routine in writerly success (and lets define success as finishing novels). For most of us, though, especially those of us who do not want to spend a year or two on the first draft of one medium-sized book alone, I’d seriously recommend establishing one.

A routine, after it is established, is basically a habit. When it’s a habit, you don’t have to make the conscious decision to write every day, you just take it for granted that you will. And that makes it so much harder to just skip the day. And then the next one. And the next. Imagine you were handling school or your day job like it wasn’t a habit: you’d have to convince yourself to get up and work every single morning, instead of just sighing and getting it done. Be honest, how often would you just stay in bed?

The Drill-Sergeant would say:

Get up an hour earlier, shut your door and write. No kids, pets or coffee allowed until you’re done. Now get down in that mud!

I would say: Designers, make it work!

If you can get up an hour earlier, that can actually be a great plan, especially if your afternoons and evenings are filled with children or other distractions. Personally, I can’t get up earlier than I already do (3:30 am. Oh, yes. I work weird hours), and in any case I’m not a morning person. But I still have a routine.

Routines don’t have to be tied to a particular place or time. I’d love, for example, to have a special little room for writing, which I only enter to write and which has a computer without internet connection. But I can’t afford that. If you can: that would probably help.

But in all seriousness, a routine is just a conscious habit of something you do for an hour every day. Because of my strange hours, I tend to do it when I feel most awake – or alternatively before I go to bed.

Crucial: Track your word count. And if you want, also track the time you spent. I use this spreadsheet and an app called Toggl (but mostly because I am curious about how much time I actually spent writing per week/per book etc.). In a way using these things can be an extra hassle, but there is no better way to keep yourself accountable if you have trouble with the actually-every-day part of the routine.

(And yes, you can take days off. Last months, I took 5 days off: 2 because I was seriously ill, 2 because a big translation project had destroyed my brain and 1 because I was lazy. Seriously. Don’t take off more than a day a week and aim for less.)

 

3. The Problem: Lack of a Support System

Most writers are at least a little bit introverted, but being a writer all by yourself is really hard. You have your family, who are somehow simultaneously really proud of your achievements and highly skeptical of your career prospects. And then there are you friends who don’t get it, when you want a whole weekend to yourself, just so you can totally immerse yourself in your story.

There is always the one friend or family member who loves to talk to you about your writing because they have an opinion on everything and always think they are giving you such… great advise. Or they constantly ask how many copies you are selling or whether it’s profitable yet. And let’s not forget the beautiful geniuses who love to tell you that they are totally gonna write a book one day, too. Cause it’s just that easy.

I love my friends and family (okay most of my friends and family), but I really don’t want to talk to them about writing. But I do need to talk to someone. Especially at the beginning while your ego is fragile and you need someone else along for the ride to keep you going. Why do you think AA members have sponsors? Why Weight Watchers meet in groups?

The Drill-Sergeant would say:

Um. What’s your problem, punk? You have me?

What I would say: Go get a support System.

Yes, I am aware the problem description was leading up to that, but seriously. I was a floundering idiot with a far-off dream that I never even had the guts to try before I met my support system. Seriously. I have loved writing since I was a kid, but all I ever did was write fan fiction and later long rambling role-plays with friends. Every time I’d try to get my act together and write something real, I would immediately get intimidated by the whole thing and quit again usually about a chapter in. Then I met this beautiful tropical rainbow otter Lorrie (admittedly while playing role-play writing games with her) and she told me she’d written a novel. I read her manuscript and over the next few months listened to her tell me that she was writing a little most days, and before I knew it she had finished a second one.

That totally demystified writing to me. It made it seem totally possible and we’ve been supporting each other ever since. We are learning from each other, we make each other better. Every time one of us is down, the other helps her back up. Everybody needs someone like that. It’ll make you a way better, way more consistent writer to have someone who genuinely cares about you and your writing. Oh, and it totally helps if you feel just a tiiiny bit competitive – after all, if your writing buddy got their word-count in, so can you! Oh, but that’s where the competitive stuff should end. Always revel in each other’s successes as best you can.

How can you go about finding such a marvel? Writing boards are a good start? Nanowrimo always brings together a lot of writing enthusiasts. I met mine embarrassingly enough on rpg-directory. Just keep your eyes open and be nice to the people around you.

 

4. The Problem: You hate your writing

Now, if this is a general condition, there is not much I can say, except: put in the work or find a new hobby. Also: critically read as much good literature as you humanly can and I bet it’s not as bad as you think it is.

But what I am actually talking about here, is the momentary block that occurs when you know your last chapter/scene sucked and it feels like you building on shaky ground. I’m a perfectionist, so this is one of my major plagues. Even if I know for a fact that none of the desperately needed edits will affect the new chapter/scene I am currently trying so hard to get myself to write, it still feels like I am building on sand, on grimy, yucky toxic waste sand that makes me hate building.

The Drill-Sergeant would say:

Stop whining. Keep writing no matter what, just push through. You can always edit later.

What I say: Just fix it and be done with it. It won’t take that long

Seriously. Don’t believe all those people who say writing has to be one continuous flow of inspiration. If you don’t like the last scene, work on it until you like it. Not only will it save you work later on, it’ll also go with a big confidence boost and catapult you right back into the happy mind-frame you need for writing.

This is what I don’t understand about the whole “edit later” approach: Writing is supposed to be the fun part! And yet we are constantly told to rush through it as roughly and fast as we can,only to extend the not-so-fun part of editing. I don’t hate editing anymore, but if I have to choose between writing and editing, I’d choose writing every day. I don’t WANT to spend months editing when I can fix easy stuff in half-hour intervals between my regular writing schedule.

 

5. The Problem: You don’t actually know what to write

We don’t even have to go into a planner or pantser discussions here. Not knowing what to write actually affects both. And it’s not as obvious to discount as to say “no, no, here: this is what I want to write. I totally know, this isn’t why I’m blocked.” If you KNOW that you don’t know, it’s usually not a big problem – then you can just come up with something and bam! Unblocked.

Sometimes, however, I know exactly what I want to write in a chapter, how I want it to end. Maybe I envision the perfect cliffhanger and it all sounds perfect. And then I sit down and stare at the page and realize that either I have no idea how to get there, or that my naïve idea just doesn’t work on the page or I have to twist and force characters to make it work… and it all feels like a big clusterfuck of a hurdle that I just don’t even know how to begin untangling.

I don’t know what the Drill Sergeant would say.

Glare at you until you come up with a less existential problem, I suppose.

What I would say: Baby Steps

A lot of the time, you don’t actually realize this is the problem. You just feel blocked. So I think this tactic is worth trying anytime writing just feels impossible: Take a pen and paper and make really asininely specific notes. I often do these during lulls at work if I have to start a new chapter afterwards or don’t know how to finish a scene (once you internalize this issue, you usually know in advance when it is going to occur.) Here are some of mine. And yes that is how that notepad really looks like right now. I should invest in something a little sturdier if I am to carry it around everywhere.

Laila

Now, I know that for many people that would take the fun out writing, make writing feel like typing down ideas. But I have a different perspective on this. For me, by reducing the amount of multi-tasking you have to do, it makes writing a less brain-power consuming activity. And that way, all your attention can go to making pretty sentences and bring the scene to life in the best possible way without worrying about setting it up right in the first place.
If you get along fine without this, you’re golden. But if you often feel blocked, it might be worth a try. After all, you wouldn’t build a house all at once, either. First you lay a foundation, then a framework etc. Some things are easier to tackle if you separate them into smaller, more manageable chunks.

 

6.  The Problem: You can’t hack the plot

This is a really annoying one. It usually occurs somewhere past the middle. You are full of enthusiasm for having made it this far, you figure hey, it’s like hump-day: should be easy from here. Not.

Whether you never had a clear idea of how to wrap the plot up to begin with, or whether you had one that just doesn’t seem to work out as you planned it anymore, this is the place where you are most likely to get stuck. And not only does this make the rest of the book appear annoyingly nebulous, it usually makes you question everything you have written leading up to it, as well. After all, if the plot doesn’t work out, isn’t that because you didn’t set it up right? Tears and a dramatic loss of motivation are the result and often enough, your brain just shuts down and refuses to deal.

The Drill-Sergeant would say:

Stop whining. Keep writing no matter what, just push through. You can always edit later.

What I say: Fix it now. Figure it out.

It’s hard to criticize that approach, mostly because it seems to have a lot of devoted contesters. But it just doesn’t work for me. I refuse to push through something I don’t believe in. That makes writing depressing and heartbreaking and all I can think about is all the work I will have to put into rewrites and whether the chapter I am painfully forcing myself to write right now will be one of those I’ll axe in a few months.

I have actually let books rest for a couple of weeks while working on something else for this reason alone, although I don’t necessarily endorse this approach. (If you do follow it: make sure you actually work on something else in the meantime. Keep your brain active on writing matters, at least).

But the truth is, this one is gonna take some time. There’s no easy fix. If you want, start by reading what you already have and hopefully (usually) it’s much better than the nightmare you built up in your head. Then sit down and brainstorm. I like pen and paper – I also like mind-maps, and notes. I like to write down the different plot lines or character lines next to each other, to see how they interlink and how to fix whatever is not working for me.

Often it already helps to clearly formulate the problem. Problems are so much easier to solve once you name them precisely. Not: My plot sucks. Try: It makes no sense that the detective would continue to go after the murderer after losing his job. Or a current problem I am mulling over right now: Once the MC has solved her issues with the Fae, she can’t just walk back into her father’s castle and talk her way out of being away for a year and casually liberate her father from his tyrannical former advisor. That’s boring and too easy. Something more exciting has to happen.

Try radical thinking, try flipping all the rules of your story upside down, and investigate the motivation of your characters, re-read your favorite books. Whatever works.

And I don’t start writing again until I figure it out. Usually it doesn’t require nearly as much cutting and rewriting as I imagined and I’m back on the horse in less than a week!

 

Now, in all fairness, there is one problem for which I haven’t quite figured out a foolproof solution. But I’m going to tell you how I got through it anyway.

 

7: The Problem: The world sucks and everything is hopeless.

To be fair, this is not so much a writer’s block as an everything block. That’s what depression does. But it’s particularly nasty for all the things you need for writing: courage, creativity, self-love, confidence, hope.

I hardly wrote a word for 6 months last year because the world sucked and everything was hopeless. Now, I was recovering from a major depressive episode at the time and was working on getting my life back on track, so it wasn’t really time wasted, because I have a great job now and I’m feeling much better. But the truth is, the writing lapse came from a totally different stupid reasons and I just didn’t have the emotional resources at the time to recover from it faster.

We released a book – After Life Lessons – and the reception wasn’t quite what I had hoped. And here’s the thing. It wasn’t that a lot of people didn’t like it. That hurts, sure, but that’s not a real problem, even to someone like me, who tends to hear criticism 10 times louder than the praise of all the kind and lovely reviews I’ve gotten.

The problem lay in what they wrote. A lot of people pretty much hated exactly the things I love about the book. They complained that there wasn’t enough zombie action, which was exactly our intention – to take the zombie genre and cross it with some deeper, more emotional topics that we find far more interesting. Or they called the female protagonist names, called her bitchy and selfish. And we were so proud of the three-dimensional woman we’d created and it made the prospect of writing women’s characters for other women just such a sucky, limiting and unappealing prospect for a while.

That was tough. All the books I have penned so far have room for improvement. Of course they do. I am not a master writer. I think I’m pretty good and getting better every day. It doesn’t bother me when people point out my flaws. I probably know them already and am way harsher on myself than they could ever be.

But to bash what I love? That hurt. And it still does, when readers so eloquently point out to me that they don’t get me and I don’t get them. It shattered my belief that I would ever write something a lot of people would like, because apparently, I just love what people hate. How do you fix that? How won’t that problem just get worse and worse the more I write and find my voice as a writer?

The Solution, I think…

…is time and a mixture of all the different strategies outlined above. I worked on going easier on myself and part of that was to just give writing a rest for a while, to concentrate on editing and publishing and letting things rest. Hell, I tried meditating and other self-improvement stuff. It meant many long talking sessions with my writing buddy, a lot of reading of famous books that also had tons of reviews that just didn’t get what I loved about them.

And most of all, it took getting over that hurt and remembering all the things I loved about writing. It took healing and getting to a better head-space so that I would listen to myself and my friends again.

And you know what? That’s okay, too. No, there’s no such thing Writer’s Block. But we are all human beings and sometimes we don’t function the way we would like to. Sometimes we are not productive super machines, but that happens in every human endeavor.

So let’s be good to ourselves, try our best and silence that nagging feeling that it’s never good enough. We can all find it in ourselves to follow our passion, even through the bumps and chasms in the road.

Wordcount-Binging and the Quest for Flow

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged in writer circles anymore – see what I did there? – that bringing as many words as possible onto the page in each sitting is the key to writerly success. Espoused everywhere you look, from the ever-popular Nanowrimo to blogs, podcasts and self-help books for writers, the basic idea seems to be that finishing a book is hard, and the easiest way to get through it, is to do it as fast and painlessly as possible. Get the words out there, vomit them onto your text processor, and most importantly: don’t think about it at all. That’s the way to Flow. Flow, that magical word that has been making the rounds for a while, state of infinite creative potential when the mind is linked-up, perfectly aligned to spill out your inner genius.

I don’t know how ADD we have become as a culture that we think it necessary to explain and mystify the benefits inherent in a state of enduring and enjoyable concentration, but that’s all it seems to be. Despite being often compared to a runner’s high, that feeling athletes seem to get when the rush of endorphins from physical exertion overpowers pain and exhaustion, there isn’t actually any link between the two. I shouldn’t have to point out that one includes the exercise induced rush of hormones and the other, well, doesn’t.

Now, I am the last person to diss Flow. Flow is amazing. I just seriously question whether Flow really has anything to do with the word-vomit we are often called upon to expel into our manuscripts. To clarify: we are supposed to just write down whatever comes to mind without caring about spelling, phrasing, the beauty of words, sentence and melody or even the appropriate wording of dialogue. Least of all should we think about theme or repeating topics, motifs and metaphors. The resulting text might require more editing (according to some sources up to several times the amount it took to write), but that’s supposedly worth it, because the important thing is to get it out of your head as soon as possible.

Now, I am the last one to complain about our generation’s obsession with speed, but… really? I am not in the position to judge other writers and what they enjoy about writing – but while I agree wholeheartedly that prolonged periods of concentration and the efforts to increase your writing output in an effort to keep the story alive and active in your head – I can’t abide by the dogmatic nature of the rest of it.

First of all: As a translator, I achieve Flow all the time.
This is relevant here, because you cannot stop thinking, evaluating and constantly assessing the whole picture while you translate. Now, according to Flow-espousers, this should prevent Flow. My inner critic is on 100% of the time, I constantly check terminology, look up words, compare them to earlier usage within the text, make sure this is the best way I could possibly express any given sentiment etc. And still I achieve Flow.

In fact, I achieve Flow faster and easier than I do in writing. That’s not because I enjoy translating more. I don’t. But I believe simply because translating is a more immersive activity, just BECAUSE you have to concentrate so hard on so many things at once. You can’t help it. In writing, it’s easier to waver a bit, not to be fully invested in the task at hand.

Secondly: I simply cannot enjoy shoddy worksmanship, no matter how many times I tell myself that I will edit it later. For me, writing is primarily a set of skills, not some magical spring inside of me that produces the clearest water if I just let it run free. I enjoy finding just the right words to unlock just the right feeling while I write. That’s what makes it fun for me. Finding out just how a character would say something is so integral to the character development, I can’t imagine leaving that until the very end. And yes, I love theme. Sure, some emerge later on, but I start every book with certain themes and motifs, and yeah, I do keep them in mind while I write.

After all: Finishing a book isn’t actually that difficult.
It is when you do it for the first time, because if you’re like me and most other people, you are constantly plagued by worrying if you can actually do it, if it’s worth all this misery when it sucks so much anyway, and why in the world you would do this to yourself to begin with. But once you have finished that first book, it’s just as difficult as any long-term task you choose to engage in and that has to compete for your attention with your Netflix account, with sleep and friends, and the normal fluctuations in creative self-confidence.

It’s definitely not difficult enough to warrant this desperate close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England approach. Besides, if you’re anything like me, this is exactly the approach that will mess most with your self-confidence.

I’m the kind of person who has to read back a few paragraphs in the morning when I start writing. And there is NOTHING that will kill my motivation faster than seeing how bad my own writing was the day before. I need to see something that at least resembles the standard I want to see in novels or else I’m hanging in my chair, close to tears about my lack of talent, faster than you can say Flow. And bam, the creative confidence cycle has hit rock bottom again.

Instead, I could write a just a little bit more slowly (I still tend to reach at least 1000k in an hour), but write deliberately, thoughtfully and with intention. That way I actually enjoy what I’m doing while I do it, and when I reach back the next morning, I am full of motivation for the next stretch.

And yes, I see no reason whatsoever why writing the book faster only then to take longer on editing is in any way a win for me at the bottom line. I enjoy writing a lot more than editing. So how stupid would I have to be to rush through the thing I enjoy only to pile up more work for me in the area I enjoy less? Not to mention that editing gets exponentially more painful the messier the first draft is to begin with.

The only thing that matters in the end is that we, each of us, finds the writing process that we find enjoyable.  But concentration and thoughtful writing doesn’t have to be anathema to Flow and good, speedy writing.

It’s Not All About Plot!

Every second genre book, it seems, features these descriptions somewhere in its product description: they are fast-paced, action-packed, and plot-driven. Short, dramatic sentences underline the idea.

Nobody is safe. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Death lurks around every corner. She must solve the riddle or pay with her life. Your basic summer block buster description. Only… I kind of despise summer block busters.

Now, obviously, I recognize the value of a well-structured plot. I even get the action elements and the driving suspense, especially in Dan-Brown-style thrillers. That’s part of the deal. I just don’t understand why all so many others genres are this quick to adopt the strategy. Are readers really looking for a breathless thrill-ride when they pick up a fantasy or sci-fi novel, or even more puzzlingly, when trying to decide on their next YA or general fiction read?

Some definitely do. But there’s also a valuable and vocal part of the reading community who don’t. Personally, I almost always forgo books advertised this way, and when I stumble onto one that follows this principle without making it quite so plain in the description, I tend to end up disappointed. It’s just not what I am looking for in my reading experience.

Cassandra Clare’s books, for example, always strike me as too plot-heavy. And she is by far not the only one in the YA/Paranormal/Fantasy/UF etc. community. I actually think she creates great characters and hints at really interestingly interwoven relationships, but whenever we get a little more into those, another plot point crops it short and sends the reader careening into another plot complication that doesn’t ultimately change the outcome at all.

Plot, after all, is only one ingredient in the whole book recipe. It may feature more prominently in thrillers and mysteries, but each genre mixes the available components a little differently and I, for one, think we should continue to celebrate that. There is world-building, to name just one, which may just be a subtle after-taste in contemporary romance, women’s fiction or many general fiction stories, but it can be deciding factor in Sci-fi/fantasy novels. Harry Potter, for example, isn’t perfect in all respects for me, but the world-building alone is so uniquely imaginative, quirkily adorable and well-crafted throughout, that I will never say a word against the series and probably love it for the rest of my life. Another great example for this would be Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

My personal favorite is character development though, and with it the development of different relationships as well (including, but definitely not limited to romantic ones). The moment plot concerns are starting to override character developments, my reading enjoyment starts to slump drastically and if the trend continues throughout the book, it will leave me feeling unsatisfied and a little empty. Like fast food, maybe, except who am I kidding Fast Food is awesome. (Can you all tell I’m sitting at work and haven’t had breakfast yet?)

In my Lakeside series, the first installment By the Light of the Moon is definitely the plot heavier one, whereas the sequel A Taste of Winter focusses more on character development. That’s why I think the latter is a lot better, but I also know that not everybody feels that way. Some readers liked the increased plot density of the first book, and to be honest, as a book of mine, it probably had ample character development too and maybe I overdid it a little bit in the sequel, indulged in what I like to read and write best.

I like plot. I’m a plotter myself. It is important to me to figure out what will happen throughout the book and which plot twists can best lead characters and readers to both the final climax and a satisfying ending. But I also balk at creating unnecessary twists just so that every chapter ends in cliff-hanger, to send characters and readers on wild goose chases only to come up empty and be pretty much in the same position they were three chapters ago. I’ll always rather spend those chapters on getting to know the characters and how they feel about it all, how the plot events changed their world and how they accommodate and react. Some of my favorite scenes in A Taste of Winter are the ones that show Owain dealing with the prejudice faced by his kind, and his determination to overcome it, for example, or Moira finally growing up and coming into her own strength in the relationship.

But those scenes slow down the reading experience, I’m told by countless how-to guides to writing. They put the brakes on that non-stopping thrill-ride, while the characters enjoy the landscape, go for a drink in a road-side café or park in a lonely alley for a clandestine blow-job. I get that.

But then, I’ve always been a friend of landscapes, road-side cafés or clandestine blowjobs, myself. I care more about having a good time getting to my destination, than to get there as fast as possible.

Now I want to know about you, though! How do you feel about the plot/character development proportion in novels?

Cover Art Adventures

As a writer, we’re supposed to hate and eschew clichés like vampires do garlic and crosses. They should make us shrivel and cringe, and sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t and we reach right into that trow of overused phrases and sprinkle them around our prose, anyway.

Here’s one that I hate and that makes me cringe: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Now, as a cliché (i.e. we’re not actually talking about books but about people) it doesn’t work because we all USE our “cover” to send messages. That’s why goths dress the way they do, and punks and why business-people wear all the same boring suits :) . I’ve grown up a fat chick with a pretty face, and like everybody else, of course,  I’ve always been aware of being judged by my looks, but just as aware of the messages my choices in clothes and make-up etc. send to people. That’s why we wear clothes. And even if we don’t care (and quite often I don’t, I just dress in what’s comfortable) that still sends a message that we’re the kind of people who don’t effing care what we look like when we go to the grocery store.

So I reject the cliché. Don’t be a superficial asshole, but also stop pretending like how we dress, what we say, how we act in public says NOTHING about us as people. Of course it says stuff about me. Not everything, by far. And most people may be inept at reading all those signals correctly, who knows, but there’s a correlation between a person and their “cover”.

I also reject the premise: There is also a correlation between a book and its cover. And it’s intricate and fascinating and it’s something to love and explore rather than just put off as superficial, image obsessed internet culture.

I love good covers. And I love the process, too. After writing, it’s kind of the funnest part of this whole publishing deal, and I have to admit, the fact that I get to design my own covers and work with artists and do all of that, is one of the biggest incentives for self-publishing for me. Because yeah, I don’t like that lack of control, leaving the public, outward representation of my work to people who aren’t me. I LOVE doing them, love the process of creating a cover that is not only pleasing to the eye, but also represents the content, the genre, the target audience, and yeah, your own brand. That’s fascinating stuff.

When By the Light of the Moon was first published, I did have some impact (i.e. I was asked to describe a few possibilities and I had the opportunity to suggest small alterations), but I was never happy the cover. I always felt slightly weird asking people to read my book, almost like I had to say “I know, I know what it looks like, but please…? Could you do that thing that I don’t believe in and reject, where you don’t judge the book by its cover?” And that’s an uncomfortable position to stand and to market yourself and your book from.

The re-release cover of By the Light of the Moon is different. I can fully stand behind it and say “I love this cover.” That doesn’t mean everybody will, or that it will connect with anyone who chances upon it, but I love it. I can stand with both feet on the ground, shoulders back, chin held high and promote it.
It took ages to get there, though (which is e.g. what a good cover says. It says that the publisher or author believes in the book enough to spend ages, or a lot of money working it out). I think I have at least 10 different cover mock-ups for By the Light of the Moon on my computer. And I don’t mean evolving ones (then we get into the hundreds), but complete separate ideas from completely different source images. In the end, the only one I sort of liked would have relied on a very expensive photograph and I just didn’t (and don’t) have 500 bucks to blow on a cover. So I went back to the drawing board and changed my tack. It’s fantasy, after all, maybe photography is the wrong way to go.

Landscape without Owain-wolfy.

Landscape without Owain-wolfy.

Now, I am very lucky to have grown up in a family of artists and so I could go to my grandmother (whom I chose because I thought her personal style resonated most with my writing and my ideas for a cover, and I still hope I didn’t somehow insult my grandfather by not asking him). And we talked a LOT. I told her about the book, about my ideas. She talked about painting proportions and constraints and in the end, she painted something that I liked, but that I also didn’t know how to use. It was a little too colorful, with too much going on and at first I completely despaired of ever getting this right.
In the end, and after soooo many attempts, I found a way to limit the color and the busyness of the painting (if you want to compare, I took out most of the reddish/purple hues from the dress, the sky etc. and pumped up the real red in her hair; I got rid of her hands and the shore at the bottom of the painting and yeah, in the end, I added a tree that wasn’t there for color contrast balance).

Roswit Balke, my grandmother, working on my beautiful cover.

Roswit Balke, my beautiful grandmother, working on my cover.

This time around, and for Lakeside #2, I could take all those experiences on board and give my grandmother a much better idea of what I needed. And I think it shows. I was there yesterday to look at the progress, and we sat together, talking, looking at pictures of wolves and drew one into different copies of the same painting. It was a lot of fun, but I look at the unfinished work, and I can already see, that i will have to work a LOT less hard to make this a cover. It’s basically already one, and all I have to do is add the title.

I write a lot about how writing is learning. Every day. But this stuff is as well, and I’m really grateful and appreciative of the lessons I am given and allowed to learn on this journey.

Owain-Wolfy is stalking the forest, making his way into the picture.

Owain-Wolfy is stalking the forest, making his way into the picture.

For me, getting really involved with my covers, is almost an extended part of the writing process. It allows me to translate the written word into a visual impression, it makes me think about what my books are, what they represent and how I want them to be seen and i love that part.

It doesn’t always work – i.e. for After Life Lessons, we chose a very calm and thoughtful cover because we did want people to judge the book by it. And still we get a lot feedback about the gory action-ridden zombie bonanza they expected (and didn’t find inside this very calm cover). But that’s all part of the learning process. And it’s all good. It’s all part of the fun.

 

PS: Just putting it out there. I am open to advising authors about covers or helping them realize their dream visual representation. So if you’re still looking for a cover artist and like my stuff, why not send me a quick email at laila@lailablake.com.

Let’s talk about love. Insta-love.

Almost all my characters suffer from what I understand is a fatal flaw in romance novels.

Almost all my characters have a tragic slant towards insta-love.

Now, I don’t actually write romance, as far as I would define it, although Driftwood Deeds
comes pretty close. I think, I write novels with love stories in their side or main plots, usually some kind of genre cross-over, because that’s what makes me happy. But there is still that romantic connection, the nod to everybody who does like to read about love. Like me, like you – like almost everybody it seems, considering that even very male-oriented staples usually feature some kind of love story, love interest or love-related motivation. And why wouldn’t it?
medium_2834306912After (and often enough before) the basic necessities for survival are satisfied, love seems to be one of the forces in our lives that creates the most change, the most flux, drama, happiness, anxiety and contentment, all at once. It’s a literary gold mine. What would 1984 be without the strange, crooked love story between Winston and Juliet? Or even Fight Club, without Marla Singer? It surprised me at the time when I read that Chuck Palahniuk categorized his novel as a love story. It made a crazy amount of sense, when I read it again.

So this insta-love business. I understand why it’s a somewhat hated trope. It smacks a little bit of neglect, of giving your characters something good too easily. And maybe that’s true. Sometimes. But avoiding insta-love completely, would also remove my personal experience of love from my writing. And I don’t want to do that. I want my writing to be real, and honest. Not so personal that you can read some of my stories and feel like I just put my life’s story on your shoulders, but personal enough to transport truth.
For me, love was always quick. And it takes a while to understand that my personal experience is not everybody else’s. So for a long time, the idea of insta-love baffled me. Do we really need reasons for falling in love? Do we need conflict and emotional back and forth? It’s never been that way for me – the reasons and the drama came later.

I’ve read a lot about introverts and emphatic and sensitive people recently, ostensibly in order to put a nicer spin on a lot of my character traits, redefining them for myself as assets. But I came across something interesting, which was that highly sensitive people often report falling in love really fast and head-over-heels intensely. Maybe because there is something about our nervous systems that is easy overwhelmed in general (loud parties, a problem, that news report about the suffering after an earthquake) and of course love can be the most overwhelming of all.

Maybe it’s the romance novel expectation: when the plot is the love story, why throw the prize away a few pages after they meet? I understand that rationally, but in every other way I find that hugely problematic.
For one thing, why is that the prize? Surely the prize is actually being with that person, and realizing you can actually make it work.

It also bothers me, when (usually) the girl doesn’t like him at first, thinks he’s a bit brutish or arrogant or stupid or whatever, and then we spend a novel reading about how she was wrong and he got her anyway. Why do we insist on telling women not to trust their instincts? Instincts are good! We should foster them, try to divide them from our prejudices, hone them and allow them to influence our decisions.
Another way love is oven deferred in books, is due to pride. And again, I understand about not giving away the prize and all, but I actually like reading about people who are open and generous about their feelings. Who don’t hold onto them like little old misers with their pennies. Who are open to falling in love, even if it hurts; who laugh, even at slightly stupid jokes; who cry when something is sad rather than refusing to feel. Why do we so often look down on people who feel.

So you fall for someone and the worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t work out, you get rejected, you find out he isn’t really that great… yeah, that stuff hurts. And we can learn to deal with that. Especially when we are open about that pain, too.

BTLOTM -- color240x360In By the Light of the Moon, Moira and Owain, once they find a connection, fall in love hard and fast. And I never considered that this might be insta-love. Especially because she is a 19-year-old who’s never been in love before. Isn’t that how we fall in love for the first time? Hard and fast, without reason or pride, absolutely at the mercy of this avalanche of hormones and joy and panic that spreads through our bodies at the sight of his smile, at the feel of his first touch?

I still fall in love like that.

I’m a grown-up now, so I know not to say it. I know that I can only say I am in love with someone when I am ready to make a commitment and, better yet, when they have said it first so I know they are ready for a commitment – but all that is just my head talking, my cultural programming, the knowledge of acceptable word usage. So I use different words, but the feeling is still there.
The truth is there isn’t one way to love, or one definition. Love can be all sort of things, and go through all sorts of phases – but that first flutter, the overwhelming feeling that this person could be someone incredible, why is that so underrated anymore?

Of course it’s not as stable, it’s not a promise, it’s not a guarantee, but isn’t that beauty in it? Isn’t that something that can grow? And isn’t the growth an interesting story, too?
I love Pride & Prejudice, but I still want to shake Lizzie and Darcy because they are wasting so much precious time, so many moments together. They even manage to almost destroy the sweet insta-love between Jane and Bingly with their pride and rationality. And I want to shake them for that, too.

And yeah, I hate insta-love too when it’s about superficial stuff. When love comes from the way someone wears their hair, or the cocky smile on his face. But that’s not all we perceive. I think after even evening together, we can see so much in a person. In their opinions, their jokes, their reactions, the little nuances in their voice, especially in their voice.
I think we should pat ourselves and our characters on the back and trust a little more, give some weight to first impressions and instincts, to sudden rushes of feeling.

Sure, they’ll lead us astray sometimes. But that’s no reason to stop feeling.

photo credit: Brandon Christopher Warren and mohammadali via photopin cc

Strong Female Leads don’t Cry… or something.

Writing for women is tricky. I don’t want to take away from writing for men or writing for all genders, but in the perfidiousness of patriarchy, we  women seem locked eternally in the act of policing each other and that does add an extra component.

We do this constantly, almost without realizing it. We police ourselves – our bodies, our eating habits, our emotional expression, our sexual experience; and then we do it to the women around us. We write blogs that call for J.K. Rowling to stop writing, stop clogging up the market — while we leave the men and their bulky bibliographies alone. We say this one is too fat, and that one looks too anorexic; this one seeks too much attention and that one just shuts herself in – how can she ever hope to find a man?; this one is a prude and that one’s a slut. Of course all it means, is that the woman polices herself differently than we police ourselves, she has sex differently, cares for her body differently, engages with men or other women differently than we would (or can) – than we have internalized as the right way to behave. And we forget how many strings bind us, how deeply we have permitted ourselves to be locked in the simple struggle of being ourselves.

IMG_6989smallI don’t think men do that. Not like this, not many of them, anyway. Lily Myers in her poem “Shrinking Woman” said something that stuck with me. To her brother, she says “We come from difference, Jonas, you learned to grow out, and I learned to grow in.” We filter, we listen, we modify ourselves and analyze because we were taught to do so from birth. Even my mother – a liberal, a hippie, a stout feminist who struggled all her life because she raised us as a single parent – admitted to me once, after I pressed that she treated us differently. That while she made my brother coffee when he was sleepy, and cut him up vegetables so he’d have something healthy with his pizza, while she left him alone to study (because it’s more important and he was busy), I was expected to eschew pizza altogether (and received sighs and looks when I didn’t), to cook healthy, to be part of the household, to do the dishes and mind her feelings. All of those are good things – but there was no proportion: my brother got so little of these admonitions and I got all the rest. And I don’t blame my mother for this. She only learned from my grandmother, who still does the same to every woman around her. I listen to her talk, and every single one has something wrong with her – from her sister, to my mother, to me, to her neighbor – of my brother she only speaks kindly, tolerantly. And how could she not? My brother is wonderful, he’s the best man I know (and he took all these pictures of me) — but she doesn’t know him at all.

Every single friend of mine has a mother who policed her food, her weight, her sexual identity, the volume of her voice – or any of a million things that we now police in ourselves, the women around us, probably our daughters one day and definitely, definitely the fictional women we read about. And here we are at the reason why writing for women is tricky.

Fictional women have to be just flawed enough not to strike us as too unrealistic, as so much better than us that it becomes uncomfortable – but they also can’t be too flawed or our teachings kick in. She has to be “strong” but not arrogant; she has to be able to accommodate our own ego without leaving us behind.

In what I’ve read and what seems to be well received – this leaves us with two basic archetypes. One is the “least offensive woman possible”. She’s the girl with very little character of her own and  who every reader can project herself into – the Bella Swans, basically. As far as I can tell – and have seen expressed in this way a lot – she is just necessary to play out the fantasy of the perfect guy, but she should be almost negligible in her effect. It’s all about him, the less the reader has to think about her, be confronted with her the better. She can be seen, but not heard, basically.

IMG_7112smallThe other archetype is the “strong female lead”, the fighter chick, the one who won’t cry a tear over some idiot, who knows how to play with her sexuality to get what she wants or eschews it altogether. These girls are tough, confident, sometimes even brash and they yeah, they kick ass.

I like a girl who can kick ass!

But we also ended up, yet again, in a strange position where we constantly pit these two against each other, and that ended us up at a very strange idea of what strength looks like in women, and reversely what weakness is.

In an author group I attend, someone recently proudly reported that she realized how much her character cried in the novel and promptly fixed it all as to not make her look so weak. Another large sheet comparing all the recent YA heroines with each other, marked almost all of them as having “poor self-esteem”.  Talking about feelings, having feelings and expressing those is becoming whiny and annoying and that makes me uncomfortable.

We live in a world in which guys are under this strain all their lives. To show emotion, they learn this from their fathers (and if they have better fathers than that, they learn it hard at school), is to be a girl, a sissy, a momma’s boy. And so they shut it down. We are faced with a generation of men who have no idea what they are feeling, because they were bullied into shutting it down. Men who can rape unconscious girls not because they are cruel, but because they have been taught that compassion and pity and kindness and sweetness is an unacceptable trait in their social circle.

And I don’t want that for women, and I certainly don’t want it for female leads.

That’s not what strength is.

 

I think I’m a pretty strong woman. I have ambitions and I work for them. I stared at a razor IMG_7125smallblade and stepped off the ledge and got help instead because of the people I love. I do things that scare me every day, I am loyal to my friends. I have convictions and I stand up for them.

But I also cry all the time – from a public service announcement about equality, to a movie, to just because I got a bad review or because I’m scared of the future. I have panic attacks and anxiety; I overanalyze everything I do and everything anyone says to me. I secretly think I am terribly ugly and nobody could ever love me.

And I am still not weak. I can be strong and cry. I can be strong and be afraid. I can be strong and quaver at the thought of my crush seeing me naked for the first time. Strength is not the denial of negative, hurtful or worrying emotions. Strength is to go on in spite of them, accepting them and limiting their power.

Strength is to stick up for friends even if that scares you, even if you could never do that for yourself. Strength is to have convictions and to stick to them — but strength is also to alter them when you grow older and learn new things. Strength is to say you were wrong and that you’re sorry, more sorry than you could ever say. And strength is to love and to trust and to be alive and open and vulnerable every day. Strength is to let people in and to show yourself to them, for who you really are.

That’s the kind of characters I want to read about.  Strong women who cry.