Writer’s Survival Guide, Part I: Chant, Copy, and Paste Your Way into Confidence

Post Date: January 5th, 2012
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With the New Year barely launched, our heads full of well-intentioned resolutions, the biggest question is, How do we get ‘er started?

I’ve found and named three ways I stay focused. There are many others, because without a bank of strategies I’d never have made it through 20-some drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT in the last two years. I wouldn’t have believed I could do a third revision for my agent in six months, nor would I welcome more comments if she has them this month. I would have been too worried that writer’s block would plague me and prevent any kind of progress.

Here’s an annoying admission: I don’t let writer’s block get me. I despise my writing at times and think it’s going nowhere, but that’s different than actually stopping. Let me delve into why I keep plodding, because I’m not really sure of all the reasons aside from workaholicism, and hey, the teacher in me wants to understand why others do.

These tactics have kept me solid when I feel my edges blur and my will fade.

1. I chant my mantras. In secular speak, we’ll call this an oft-repeated phrase or a motivational pep line. But they’re best described as words to invoke when I feel fear. I wake up to fear at 4:00 AM; I feel fear when I’m considering an overhaul of my manuscript; I feel fear when embarking on a new idea for a book. I felt a ton of fear while querying of the I’m not worthy variety.

My mantras lean more to the Hindu version: a “word formula” with mystical resonance and sacred power, repeated during times of spiritual reflection. Some might view this to be a spell; some, a prayer; others, an incantation; I consider it all these things. While I won’t share mine, I will tell you it has a calming effect on this writer who has wee-hour or late-night freak-outs. The mantras have evolved into pithier phrases since 2009.

Recently at the Kennedy Center Awards, Yo Yo Ma confessed to being afraid much of the time. As the video montage shared his impressive accomplishments, I respected him all the more for sharing this truth about artistic success–that it is a product of moving through fear, self-loathing, and panic, constantly.

2. I copy and paste models of good writing into my manuscript. When I embark on a scene or section that feels out of my league, I grab something that seems far more professional and copy and paste it into the manuscript. For example, the other day I had to add a newspaper article to my novel, and though I’ve written some in my day, it isn’t my first-choice genre nor is it my area of expertise. This particular article had to be a report on a high school play. So I found a review of Shakespeare’s Henry V–done on trapezes, no less–and plunked it right inside my story so it was right in front of my eyes. A review is not a report, but seeing where the writer focused got my engines fired such that I could start typing my own lines. Maybe it’s like good company; you feel like this task is now do-able with this demonstration before you. Do as I do…it’s as if you’re watching a virtual mentor. The model coaches you along.

As an English teacher who’s forever preached academic honesty and campaigned against plagiarism, I must pause here to say, Don’t get tempted to borrow even two words in a row from another writer. Seriously. English teachers such as me still struggle to communicate the dos and don’ts of plagiarism, but this formula would serve us all well: when you have ten words you wish to paraphrase from another author, make sure five are brand new (your own words, synonyms) and every other word is be re-arranged in a new order. I even paraphrased the definition of mantra you see above, though the content comes from the Free Online Dictionary and most people would say, Copy away. I’m nerdy and precise like that. But it pays off when you’re writing. You build writing muscle–I can paraphrase in a heartbeat–because I have a word bank at the ready in my head. I’m constantly seeing new word combinations and syntax isn’t an issue when you’re writing all the time.

3. I act confident when I don’t feel confident. Though I haven’t quite graduated to the word “when” (as in, “When this novel is published”) and stay stuck on the ifs, I talk with authority about writing to my agent, to my writing group, to colleagues at work, and in my blog. I’m not an expert, but I’m a lifelong learner, and I’ve invested a lot of sweat in the manuscript and several others. I know my characters, what they would and would not do, so when we discuss these folks, it’s like gossiping about the neighbors, and I trust in my own knowledge enough to question other’s responses to my characters.

I’d say 90% of the time, I take my writing group’s or agent’s advice, but sometimes others will offer suggestions that just don’t fit. They’re good ideas, but they don’t suit your manuscript. Comments I’ve heard about my WIP include change the title, don’t have Wendy act in the play, don’t have this adult share personal information, don’t have this person die here; make Wendy happier earlier on, and so forth. All of these comments are 100% valid for the readers who were commenting; it’s what they want to see, and I harbor similarly strong opinions about every book I read. I’m not saying I won’t eventually implement some of them. But as long as I am working hard to learn and listen and address the spirit of the feedback (and sometimes that’s the challenge for all of us–giving or getting feedback that expresses the concepts, or spirit, of what changes must be made, rather than picayune fixes here or there), I’m headed the right direction.

When I’m telling a certain reader that I appreciate the feedback but I want to stick to my guns on this particular point, I do not feel I’m doing the right thing, necessarily, but I tell myself to trust in my gut even though I would rather make my reader happy. Good authors want the story to have an impact, so hearing that your audience isn’t quite moved the way you hoped is important feedback and a heckuva thing to disregard. That said, you have to trust that you see the whole landscape and trajectory of action, plus you know your characters’ back story, present story, future story–or you soon will. And you have to live with the changes, not the readers, in a way that is so personal that you must have confidence in yourself when you choose not to change the manuscript.

And from whence comes such confidence? Uh, see Tactic #1. Lather, rinse, repeat!

How’s your New Year kicked off? What tactics have kept you at the page? What’s your Survival Guide consist of?

Writing Prompts

  • Develop a mantra to keep you at the page. Create multiple mantras till you find the one that suits. Will yours be matter-of-fact (listen to your mother) or spiritual? Will it be like a Marine drill sergeant or Yoda? 
  • Which writers do you admire, so much so that you’ve either read one of their works multiple times or actually can recall passages by heart? Find an inspirational passage and keep a hard copy near your work space and also an online copy to move into your manuscript whenever you need it. This can be another kind of mantra.
  • When your writer’s block is so heavy you can barely lift hand to keyboard, surf online till you find a couple examples of great writing in your genre. Try Google Books, online booksellers, and other  sites that give you samples of writing. Start a library of Models to Emulate, at the ready when you return to the page tomorrow.
  • Rewrite a scene from your life–an incident you’ve survived–where you return to act confident when you did not feel like it. What’s your secret now?

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